I AM THE LAW
Some of you may remember Sly Stallone’s version of Judge Dredd, where he plays a character in a dystopian future. In that world, “Judges” attempt to control crime by embodying “judge, jury, and executioner.” Hence the memorable line from the movie in response to a criminal: “I am the law.” This absolutist approach to the law works for Judge Dredd – until he is framed by an evil Judge. The tables are turned and Judge Dredd becomes the target of the law he sought to uphold. The absolutist approach works … until it doesn’t.
SCOPE OF THE LAW
Laws are important and necessary for a number of reasons. Yet, as Judge Dredd shows, an absolutist approach to law works until it doesn’t. It’s very easy to abuse the law. For people of faith, it’s easy to confuse the law as being synonymous with God.
In the Old Testament, there are actually two types of law are (1) casuistic, or case, law, which contains a conditional statement and a type of punishment for violation. Case law is situational and changes with context. Case law answers questions like “What is the punishment for someone punches your camel?” OR “What kind of work can I do or not do on the Sabbath?” (2) apodictic law is a regulation or foundation for human life in the form of the Divine Command that reveals God’s character and purposes. The Ten Commandments … and Jesus’ succinct summary “Love God & love neighbor” are examples. It’s BIBLICALLY FAITHFUL (and important) to know the difference between these two types of law.
ILLEGAL & IMMORAL
In society, most of the laws that we talk about are case laws. People decided what laws apply to what situations. Many of these laws change over time. They aren’t absolute. That can be a good thing! For example, we used to have laws that considered African-Americans 3/5th of a person. Women weren’t able to vote. Elementary aged children used to work in dangerous factories. These laws were IMMORAL even though they were perfectly LEGAL. Some laws are immoral, like the old Jim Crow laws of the South. Sometimes things that are illegal are actually morally good (like hiding Jews from Nazis). Legal does not necessarily mean moral. Illegal does not necessarily mean immoral.
Sometimes people in society and people of faith default to “but it’s the law” as their position. This approach is called legalism. Legalism begins with a respect for order, law, and justice, but ends up making “law” the highest good. Jesus addressed this problem in the New Testament. He regularly broke Jewish case law, instead choosing to fulfill the True Law (love). The law of love (God & neighbor) is why Jesus broke the law and why he told his followers “Your righteousness needs to EXCEED that of the scribes and Pharisees.” In biblical faith – people are always, always, always more important than case laws.
Loving God & loving your neighbor as yourself IS the greatest good. We must be careful to not make human case-law the highest good. It is sometimes a delicate (and complicated) dance to be people of faith in ANY society, where laws sometimes contradict the faith or even run counter to simple human dignity. What we CANNOT DO is default to a position of legalism as the greatest good. Defaulting to “it’s the law” is contrary to the way Jesus lived. That position is a cop-out, an abdication of our ability and purpose as human beings or people of faith. That attitude is foreign to the Law of Love, which is by nature concerned and compassionate. People always matter MOST if you’re following Jesus. Our righteousness and justice must exceed legalism.
Do you afford “case law” too high a place in your life or understanding of society? Is your approach to life more legalistic than loving? Are you following Jesus (or at least the law of love) in your attitude and approach to our world?