Legal and political institutions are, finally, on the surface of human life. They do not reach into and transform the human heart. Indeed, they cannot. Only the gospel, which exists in a kingdom beyond the harsh rudiments of the law, can bring an authentically new life.
At the same time, as citizens who must live in this world, the law summons us to champion the rights of people against all those who destroy or degrade them. This vital message, brought to the fore by the death of George Floyd, has been almost obliterated by the lawless injustices rampaging in our streets.
To begin, I am not going to quote Scripture. But I am going to quote a fellow American whose name is enshrined in one of our eastern states. William Penn wrote;
That government is free to the people under it, where the laws rule and the people are a party to those laws; and all the rest is tyranny, oligarchy and confusion.”
Now to Scripture. That sage king, Solomon, said pretty much the same thing as recorded in Proverbs; “Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint; but he that keeps the law, happy is he.”
Human life is governed by all manner of laws, all evolved by custom and imposed by the collective will of society, all designed to establish a more just society, however defined. But the multiplicity of laws does not trend toward a law-abiding spirit. This is a well-established fact of history. Napoleon, on the eve of the coup that made him the First Consul of France, complained that France, with an overabundance of laws, was a lawless nation. The more laws you have peering into the society, the more lawlessness they expose. St. Paul had something to say about this in his letter to the Romans. “When the law came in, sin increased.”
In the greater sphere of social life the lawlessness we are seeing in these days is not emerging from any high-minded concern for social justice but from fundamental presumptions in the hearts and minds of individuals that regard the restraints imposed by the law as non-binding on the conscience. The unwritten constitution of the self, its appetites, desires and interests claim a higher authority and for this usurping of the proper role of legal obligation in and for society there is no legitimate excuse.
Perhaps part of what we are seeing is the result of the rampant individualism that has been the by-product of our democratic institutions, and the incessant clamoring for rights with virtually no discussion of obligations. We may also be seeing something else. Our increasingly fast-paced, complex and fragmented civilization may be putting too great a strain on our ability to actually be the ‘free people’ our legal framework envisions.
The vision that is set before a free people is the law; in our case enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. I am writing this as a pastor of the church but this is not a gospel issue. It is a law issue. And as such, it is useful to ask, as citizens who live under the law, what sorts of categories might we apply to a free people who are measured under the law? And when we answer such a questions directly, we find we are in uncomfortable territory. For what life under law is meant to produce are character, virtue, honor, morality, and the aspiration toward the highest and the best.
It is a blind error to think that human progress is making any headway if these qualities are not held in concert and in high esteem along with technical innovation. Our television screens in recent days have been filled with images of lawless citizens, utterly contemptuous of their fellow citizens, making use of the greatest communications devices and networks in human history to coordinate wide-spread efforts to degrade and destroy. That is shameful enough. But what is really on display here are individuals, persons whose lives lack character, a moral baseline, a sense of virtue or healthy self-respect. Persons who collaborate in the injustices we see playing out on the streets are as serious a threat to our common life as any we can more easily name.
Finally, the launch of the Space X rocket this past Saturday is a sign that that vision which compels people to work cooperatively and well as a free people under the law remains with the American people. This is not the ultimate hope of the gospel but it is a penultimate sign that meaningful cooperation toward the common good is possible for us.
In such an hour as this, when the mad frenzy of a sinful world would lead us down the dark alley of selfishness, hatred, bitterness and resentment, we can be thankful for these of our fellow-citizens whose endeavors to trend toward ever-higher achievements are an example of those who have not lost faith in what we might yet accomplish, together, as a free people in the pursuit of those things that build up and do not tear down.
“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”