The Creator having impressed His image upon mankind, justice is oftentimes taught not in ways conventional and scholastic, but according to manners mysterious and ethereal. The other day, for instance, I had a dream in which I befriended a hamster. He lived beside my childhood home, and I would spend my time going over to visit him, chatting for short bits of time, and carrying him around in my hand. But there came a moment in the dream at which a third party entered. A kitten, leering out of childlike inquisitiveness, pounced onto the scene, and before I had a good chance to assess the situation, I found him leaping toward my friend with mischievous intent.
In a split second, the dream had gone sour: a literal knee-jerk reaction acquainted the kitten with my foot, and the force of the blow sent him flying toward a car, which his head struck with a fateful thud. And as I looked at the kitten, I could see the life leaking from his eyes, a dead stare peering at me from a tiny furry face, the weight of the moment transforming my joy into a tragedy which I couldn’t shake upon waking.
This dream, of course, isn’t so fantastical as I would prefer. Even without hamsters and kittens, there’s often a danger in goodness that cannot be denied in the everyday circumstance, a pain borne from triumph, and a tragedy upon justice. There’s a woman I know who understands this pain well, who weeps when I read the Laws of God (Exodus 20-23), in recognition of what we could have been, but every day choose not to be. She doesn’t see the conquering of the barbarian by Law, the establishment of order over evil, like that tiny Genoan republic which placed the word LIBERTAS over the public jail, in remembrance that liberty is the subjugation of tyrants individual and corporate. Rather, she sees violence upon violence, blood shed unnecessarily, the penalty of law a bitter salve which cannot piece together the shards of an already broken humanity. It was easy at first to dismiss her tears as weakness, an inability to understand and cherish the practical outworking of divine justice. But now I know she weeps because she’s far less removed from the glory we were intended to have, but have thwarted upon our most every action. It is I who have forgotten the Garden of Eden.
To add confusion to misery, the painful process of justice isn’t even simple. At times it abandons liberty for security; in others, security is exchanged for liberty. There are times in which it requires acceptance; others in which it necessitates division. In certain circumstances, it calls for mercy; in others, the sword. In some, charity; in others, frugality. In short, there’s always a price to pay for goodness, a decision to be made, pregnant with adversity, which strikes the untrained eye with an appearance of virtue sacrificed, when in fact true goodness requires that every virtue simply stand in formation. As the sagacious Mr. Chesterton once said, a decision is the conscious choice to not do everything else.
It’s easy to see where this kind of thinking leads. Every action has a reaction. Every good journey is a path untaken. Deconstruct society from divine Law, and you’re left in a world where every action stings and every justice is an injustice. The man who spends his money on his family is starving children in Africa; the couple who spend their time watching the sunset is neglectful in finding and sheltering the homeless before cold sets in.
If this is the case with simple decisions, then it can’t be any less serious when legal justice is concerned. When we tell a woman to keep her marital vows, she may never find the man who would treat her best. When we kill a murderer, we could be terminating the next Billy Graham. When we don’t provide universal health care, the sick will go bankrupt. And when we declare ourselves to have a certain national identity, we necessarily imply that certain kinds of men are simply undesirable. In short, people without universal standards always have a complaint; they are the eternally dissatisfied. For whatever the decision, there is always a benefit, and always something lost. Every move, every law, every creed has a price.
The question, then, if men are ever to be just, is whether we have a right to act or have law at all. For if every law has some unfavorable consequence for someone, surely there must be someone who can be held accountable for that consequence. This is, in essence, the very nature of public justice: proper accountability for wrongdoings and, occasionally, for undue sufferings.
Who is it, then, who may be held accountable? Whose law-related sufferings must be addressed, and whose must be ignored? It’s easy to say that power lies in the hands of the people, that they have a right to determine which path they take; it’s popular, in fact, and I doubt any man will suffer persecution for saying so. But if men have total liberty from a divine standard, then it’s only fair to say that all are guilty.
And this brings me to a very important point. I have heard many Christians say, with a self-righteous and ignorant indignation, that God’s Law is an anachronism, something which lost all relevance upon Christ’s death, as though Jesus arrived to make all order sinful and all standards offensive (something which, I suppose, is a standard in itself). But Mosaic Law is something much more than that. It is a declaration that should man champion the prescribed boundaries of real justice, he is acquitted of all negative results therefrom. It in essence declares that God Himself prefers the negative effects of one system to the negative of another, and instead of chaining men, it liberates them to a world in which political innovation is a playground, the gates of which no tyrant and his well-meaning associates may enter. It hands man the keys to the automobile of civilization, requiring only that he drive within the painted lines and paved streets. When God commanded justice to the widow, he did not mean our way; He meant His, and He gave legal directions for how to do it fairly. Christ did not come so that we could so carelessly abandon His justice. He came so that we could personify it, and be excused of every other false definition (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
But with this understanding comes a warning. Just as following the Laws of God liberates men from indirect accountability, so disobedience requires their guilt. A society refuses to defend chastity and marriage; it is then responsible for every abandoned child. A people refuse to provide sustenance for their desperate poor; they are then responsible for everyone who within their borders starves to death. A nation does not respect Biblically-approved methods of taxation, and transfers wealth to layabouts; it is then responsible for state thievery, and the suffering resulting from economic collapse. A commonwealth does not execute the murderer and the rapist; they are then responsible for blood spilt, and women violated (Deut 21:1-9). A society gives license to the usurer; they are responsible for the strangling of a debt-ridden poor (Deut 23:19). It may be said that men are judged according to their own sins: this much is true. But sometimes sin is nothing more than an approval of evils, consent and protection given to the divinely forbidden injustices and evils of others. In essence, there are sins corporate as well as personal; the corporate sins are merely personal wrongs defended publicly.
If this is so, then how exactly does Divine Law leave humanity? In a word, free. We have responsibilities ordered in heavenly hierarchy; beyond these, we are led individually. Jesus’ own sinless life was a testament that man need not champion every cause, nor heal every sickness, nor end all poverty; that man may rest, that he may head into the mountains to commune with his Father instead of preaching to the lost, that he may spend money on banquets and accept gifts. And concerning the forceful address of evils, when the kitten unjustly strikes, because we understand heaven’s perspective on self-defense, responsibility for all negative repercussions are his, not ours. When the hamster cries for help, we rush to his defense: we crush injustice at the source. We speak softly and carry a big stick; we love all men, and tolerate no evils; we land the chaplain on Normandy’s beaches, and bring the Gospel to the gallows. For Zion doesn’t consist in permission of evil. It results from the presence of God, and the triumph of good over corruption. Government, as Thomas Paine remarked, may be the badge of lost innocence, but it is not in itself backward; it simply reasserts a collective desire toward humanity’s restoration. The question is whether or not we choose to restore, or whether we mangle further; whether we walk back home, or whether we walk further away. And if we are Christ’s, is the way not plain?
It’s time we consider the words of the Apostle Paul, that all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for instruction and reproof (2 Tim 3:16). It’s time we consider the words of Jesus, that if loving one’s neighbor is the sum of the Law, then the sum of the Law — of God’s justice, of equality, of duties and rights entirely unalienable — is loving one’s neighbor (Matt 22:34-40). Yes, salvation itself is attained not by works, but by faith alone in Christ alone (Isaiah 45:22); but salvation is so much more than a superstitious pledge: it’s a lifelong transformation, a pathway set by the Almighty, a series of good works prepared in advance for believers to do (Ephesians 2:8-9). We must not ignore the half of Jesus’ sentence with which we feel uncomfortable: there is a narrow gate, but there’s also a narrow way (Matthew 7:13-14).
This being understood, let us bring Law into discussion: let us reason with one another, let us work together as members of a heavenly nation, to see what we can learn from God’s personal mandates. Both sides, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, will find plenty acceptable, and perhaps even more offensive. But if we simply refuse to discuss the heavenly standard, can we be said to live faithfully? What reason asserts, the Holy Spirit forcefully proclaims — man must not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.