Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Laws or men?

"A nation of laws, not men"
"Question authority."

Which of these ideas do you prefer?

The first, or something like it, is inscribed in marble on the front of the criminal court building in New Orleans. I had problems with it 60 years ago riding my bike in the street in front of it. I still have problems with it:

Who wrote the laws?
Who enforces the laws?

When do you break the law?
When do you feel you must break the law?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the top spiritual leaders of Germany during the Second World War, was executed in 1945 for implication in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. (In spirit he broke not only the German law, but the Quaker law of non-violence.)

If you were in a similar position, would you do what he did?

Our laws are selectively enforced, and in fact we have a social compact to break certain laws and generally do that with impunity.

Laws, not men? No law is any better than the man who wrote it. Good men make good laws; corrupt men make (and selectively enforce) laws for their own benefit.

I can only conclude that the Christian conscience directs us to uphold the law until or unless it becomes an intolerable oppression.


Marjorie said...

I would not do what Bonhoeffer did but only because I am a coward. He did more than the Pope.

I admire all those on the underground railroad who helped slaves escape.

I wonder if I'd have the courage to do what is right, in circumstances as dangerous as those where getting caught means getting killed.

So far, I have been lucky not to be presented with such a choice.

Larry said...

Aren't we all lucky in that respect, Marjorie. I often wonder how and why we got it so good, and what it means in the big picture.

kiznath said...

"Question authority." It seems like that phrase carries with it some sort of negative connotation - like some question just for the sake of questioning. But I don't see questioning authority as something bad, in fact, asking questions is the best way to learn.

It's not that I can think of many laws we currently have to actually question. But as a Christian, I feel called to question, if only to understand better. Isn't that what Jesus did?

Larry said...

"Question authority" was a motto of the sixties generation. They questioned many establishment ways. You could say that all (or most) prophecy could be considered as questioning authority. Jesus did it radically: particularly he questioned the spiritual authority of the Pharisees and priests and brought about an entirely new order.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same, so people ever since have faced the necessity to do it again. Look at St. Francis, Luther, Fox, Wesley, and innumerable others; they questioned the established ways and established new ways, which in turn need questioning eventually.

The sixties way came to a screaming halt when recession set in ca 1972. It was followed by a backlash in which young people became very conformed, especially to the economic climate which the sixties had condemned.

We all live in a culture where you can go along with 'fallen' ways, or you can question them.

If you do it as radically as Jesus did, you will wind up like he did.

Jon said...

Good points, Larry. A person can be merciful, but a law cannot. I suppose the intention was fairness and impartiality, but I could entertain myself for hours messing around with that slogan!

I can just picture a future where the nation is long gone, all life vanished, nuclear holocaust or ice age, whatever, but HEY! at least the laws are in place! FRIMMIN!

I love question authority. I'd go along with the Christian principle of conforming with the law as long as it's non-oppressive, except for going 10 mph over the speed limit! There, your social compact injunction rules!