What’s more important, laws or people? Well, people, of course (see the post on Personalism, if I ever get around to finishing and posting it), but much of the time we like to use laws as a way to insulate ourselves from dealing directly with people. (A moment for full disclosure: If you hear or read words like those you’ve just read, they are likely to come from someone who has been the defendant in a divorce suit. For instance, me. I would like to think I would have come up with whatever insights may be on this page without that experience, now thankfully fairly long past, but I can hardly ignore the nature of the community of those who say such things.) If a lawyer ever tells you to deal directly with someone, then hug that lawyer and then either
- stick with him or her because you’ve found an unusual lawyer, or
- flee because you’ve found an unusual lawyer.
Generally the main use of lawyers seems to be to prevent us from dealing directly with each other when we run into conflicts. They exist, that is, to stunt our growth.
Of course, stunting our relational growth is just what we want to do. And the help provided by lawyers is reinforced by the near-impossibility of anyone refusing their services. For instance, you might (alluding here to a celebrated case of a few years back) tell McDonald’s that they make their coffee too hot and that you were injured thereby, appealing to the burger corporation for conscientious change and for assistance in dealing with your injuries. But it is a good guess that you might not get a satisfactory response because McDonald’s deals with such things through lawyers. In other words, for mature direct conversation, it takes two to tango, thus stymying any attempts on your part to go lawyerless.
Now, leaving aside sarcasm, here is G. K. Chesterton, speaking through the mouth of a fictional judge on the meaninglessness of law before living humanity:
[I]t gradually dawned on me that in my work, as it was, I was not touching even the fringe of justice. I was seated in the seat of the mighty, I was robed in scarlet and ermine; nevertheless, I held a small and lowly and futile post. I had to go by a mean rule as much as a postman, and my red and gold was worth no more than his. Daily there passed before me taut and passionate problems, the stringency of which I had to pretend to relieve by silly imprisonments or silly damages, while I knew all the time, by the light of my living common sense, that they would have been far better relieved by a kiss or a thrashing, or a few words of explanation, or a duel, or a tour in the West Highlands.
The judge finds that he is limited to doing things — imposing sentences — that have nothing to do with life.
Again Chesterton, on what laws do:
“If you let loose a law, it will do as a dog does. It will obey its own nature, not yours.”
So perhaps we should not speak of what we can accomplish by making laws but of what we hope for for ourselves and the neighbors we love. Or of what we will attempt to bring about by some means other than legislation. It can be quite idealistic to expect good to come from vague laws. We thus forget that sin takes advantage of any law.
All this makes its final move from annoying to disastrous by way of the infection of normal human discourse with legalism. In other words, we talk the way lawyers want us to talk and therefore think in such a way as to need them. It’s not all their fault: we watch TV shows that seem carefully crafted to increase our paranoia (see my “Guns” post), broken up by commercials that do the same. It has become trite to caution against good Samaritanism because of lawsuits or the supposed victim by the roadside being a trap for unwary real victims because that’s what happens on TV. That it also happens in real life is at least partly because of our TV-guided thinking.
I have alluded above to Romans 7:8 and 11 (“sin takes advantage of any law”) and to the general idea of what Paul was up against with “legalism” (not the right word for Paul’s situation, but it’s handy here). So am I talking about “legalism” as related to our laws and lawyers or as related to whatever Paul said about what importance Jewish laws and lawyers have or don’t have for Christians? Both. And I want to stick with that “both-and” and make it “all three” by including our daily theoretically non-lawyer-involved discourse as I proceed to say something about justification (see “Justification 2”).
I split this up into “Justification 1” and “Justification 2,” but they need to travel together because any day I can quote both G. K. Chesterton and William Stringfellow (in number “2”) is a good day. Throw in Jacques Ellul (also “2”), and I’m nearing bliss. Just picturing Chesterton and Stringfellow side-by-side is fun. And they were as totally unlike in writing style as in physique. But they are, in fact, alongside each other in my small bookcase of really important authors, or would be if Chesterton were not more conveniently resident at Gutenberg. Because he is and because I have a Kindle, my references to his writings have no page numbers.
- “But it gradually dawned on me…”: G. K. Chesterton, The Club of Queer Trades (New York: Harper, 1905), chapter 6, “The Eccentric Seclusion of the Old Lady,” words of the character Basil Grant.
- “If you let loose a law…”: G. K. Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils (New York: Cassell, 1922), Part I, chapter 2, “The First Obstacles.”