The Law isn’t saving us.
Once again, as so often in the past, I found myself this morning praying the psalms, in this case, Psalm 5 (ICEL translation):
Hear my words, my groans,
my cries for help,
O God, my king.
I pray to you, Lord,
my prayer rises with the sun.
At dawn I plead my case and wait.
I plead my case and wait. I can do nothing right now. I just have to wait for the Lord to act.
You never welcome evil, God,
never let it stay.
You hate arrogance
and abhor scoundrels,
you detest violence
and destroy the traitor.
When I prayed the verse, “you hate arrogance,” I thought of Donald Trump.
Then, verse 4:
In the face of my enemies
clear the way,
bring me your justice.
Once again I am waiting for the Lord to act. The Lord will bring justice.
Their charges are groundless,
they breathe destruction;
their tongues are smooth,
their throat an open grave.
I am reading a biography of Ulysses Grant. Recently I was reading how vigilante groups in Mississippi in the 1870s were systematically re-enslaving their former slaves, by roaming the countryside, killing Blacks, and terrorizing any Black person who dared to try to vote. Grant saw the entire effort of the Civil War, with all of its bloodshed and horror, going for nothing. Slavery was being re-imposed. He was powerless, because northern political sentiment had turned against any further effort to use force to insure the rights of former slaves in the South.
God, pronounce them guilty,
catch them in their own plots,
expel them for their sins;
they have betrayed you.
A plea to God to act. “Expel them”--expel them from what? Presumably from the Jewish community. The psalmist is praying about evil within his or her own people. It is neighbors who are sinning.
But let those who trust you
be glad and celebrate forever.
Protect those who love your name,
then they will delight in you.
For you bless the just, O God,
your grace surrounds them like a shield.
Grace was not surrounding the former slaves in Mississippi like a shield. Should they have revolted with violence? The story of the civil war in Syria shows what can happen when violent revolution fails. The psalmist is praying from a position of helplessness. Only God can remedy the situation.
My entire life has been dedicated to building a society where, to use one slogan, it will “be easier for people to be good.” Functionalist sociology imagined a society where the “structures” of a society would function as smoothly as a machine or a healthy organism.
But “structures” are laws. The vision promised that the right system of laws would produce the good society.
What has happened instead is that the effort to construct the perfect system of laws has imprisoned us. Every time we turn around there is a new law restricting what we used to do. We spend a lot of our resources defending ourselves against the possibility of lawsuits. Think of what schools spend for security against “active shooters.” The law is really hog-tying us into a prison of our own making.
This is what Paul was arguing against when he said that the Law kills.
We need to accept the reality that our neighbors--and that means the people “like us”--are as sinful as we are, and they can do bad things to us. The effort to restrict them by law is only making us less free. We would be better off accepting the existence of evil in ourselves and our loved ones, and ask the Lord to help us overcome the evil. The Gospel would say that the only way to overcome evil is by uniting ourselves to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Things are even worse when we decide that the evils we suffer are caused by people not like us--by immigrants, or minorities. Then we set ourselves up for war. We are already far along that path. The money we spend on dealing with active shooters is nothing compared to the money we spend on a nuclear arsenal that we will never be able to use, against potential enemies that we are creating by our own foolish policies.
Law is not saving us.