Summary: Righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees isn't about behavior: it's about bone-deep transformation.
We’ve been shocked and horrified once again this week at the shooting of children by children, from Santee CA to next door in Pennsylvania. And the commentators and pundits are asking once again what kinds of laws we should pass to keep this from happening. Most are honest enough to admit that something is wrong with our culture. But nobody is quite sure what it is, except that there’s too much violence on TV and parents aren’t home enough. But we can’t pass laws about that, heaven forbid that we should interfere with first
amendment rights, or any of the other rights we’ve come to take for granted. So the argument goes back once again to what kind of laws we should pass. Of course, none of the gun control laws currently on the books - or even being debated in Congress - would have done any good in this case. So we find ourselves watching this teenager, whose friends describe him as “just an ordinary kid, a nice kid”, sitting in a courtroom with his lawyers about to be tried “as an adult” and facing a lifetime in prison. Like the 14-year-old in Broward County FL, who just got life for killing a 6-year old two years ago, practicing wrestling moves he’d seen on TV.
We’ve passed laws requiring children to be treated as adults because we didn’t know what to do with the increase in violent crime among our youth. We’ve passed laws requiring mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offenses because we’re losing the war on drugs. We have a higher percentage of people in prison than any other country in the world... because we don’t know what else to do with the disintegration of our society except pass more laws. We have more laws and more lawyers than we know what to do with... and yet sin continues to abound. Are we missing something?
You may remember that a couple of weeks ago the Presbytery voted against Amendment O, which would have prohibited Presbyterian pastors to perform same-sex unions. The day after that, I went’ to my regular monthly meeting of the Church and Society committee, with some trepidation, I must confess, because I’m the token conservative and frankly I didn’t want to get into another fruitless debate. I was, believe it or not, talked out. But we did discuss it, quite reasonably I thought, but during the discussion the chair said something really surprised me: he said “Conservatives seem to think that passing a law is the solution to everything.”
The reason I was surprised is that most of the laws out there are the result of people thinking that government is the solution to all social ills, from the major to the trivial: from racism to fanny-slapping, everything is covered under some law or another. And in the denomination, liberals wrote the provisions governing the
number of racial-ethnic minorities on every committee, and well, I could go on for hours. So why aren’t we all getting along?
Believe it or not, I came up with an answer. It might even be THE answer.
All the laws we pass don’t create a civil or just society because we no longer have a common idea of what a civil and just society should look like.
We live - we must live - in a society ordered by law. None of us want to live in a lawless environment... Sometimes those laws are frustrating and inconvenient. Be honest, now... have you ever run a red light at 2:00 in the morning when there was nothing coming from any direction? But on the other hand, if you’ve ever driven in Rome - or Istanbul or Djakarta which are even worse - you start being grateful for the traffic rules here at home.
Think about what kind of society one without laws would be like. It would be a society with no authority outside of the individual. Judges 21:25 describes such a situation: "In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes." When there is no objective authority or law, each individual must
develop his or her own law. The problem you have, of course, is that someone may decide that it is right to steal your possessions and kill you. Who is to say he is wrong, if there is no objective law?
We aren’t there yet, but that is where the idea that there is no absolute truth ultimately leads. This point of view is known as relativism. Taken to its extreme and ultimate conclusion, relativism permits everyone to do what is right in their own eyes. It was Oliver Wendell Holmes that first made popular the idea that there is no such thing as “natural law”, that is laws that are inherent in the nature of the created world. He believed that laws are only a merely a codification of political policies judged to be socially and economically advantageous... it is a tool for social engineering, at best.