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Posts Tagged ‘Law’

In the past couple weeks, two very momentous happenings took place.

Pope_Francis_in_March_2013First, Pope Francis released his first encyclical, “Lumen Fidei” (“The Light of Faith”).  This was an encyclical begun by his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, to which he added some of his own personal touches.  For those who are interested in reading, a link to the full text will be provided at the bottom.

Zimmerman,_George_-_Seminole_County_MugSecond, America got the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, who was arrested in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last year.  Much to the dismay of many, he was found not guilty.

I can’t, of course, say for sure if it is providential that the release of “Lumen Fidei” and the Zimmerman verdict coincided.  But I do have some thoughts.

First of all, as far as the verdict is concerned, we must remember something crucially important about the justice system: Guilt must be established beyond all reasonable doubt.

Such guilt was not established in the case of George Zimmerman.  There was simply not sufficient evidence that he racially profiled Trayvon Martin or that what happened was cold-blooded murder as opposed to self-defense.

But we may ask, what if Zimmerman actually is guilty?  What if, in spite of all the evidence we have available, what happened was murder, and Zimmerman got away with it?

This, I think, is one of the many areas where being a person of faith provides great assurance.  If human institutions of justice fail, those without faith are left with little or no hope; but those of us who believe can afford to take heart:

Is not [recompense] preserved in my treasury, sealed up in my storehouse, against the day of vengeance and requital, against the time they lose their footing? (Deut. 32: 34-35)

God is a God of justice.  No crime is ever left unpunished.  Even if a person is ultimately redeemed in Christ, restitution for all wrongs must still be made.

Here, we can bring “Lumen Fidei” into the discussion.  In this great document, we are given a proper understanding of what faith is.  Contrary to what some would say, faith is neither the rejection of thought or reason in favor of blind adherence to an unproven principle nor indifference to the realities of the world and present circumstances on the grounds that “God will make it all better.”

Faith, says Pope Francis, is about learning to look at life, the world, and oneself from a whole new perspective.  Being drawn into a personal relationship with a personal, omnipotent, all-knowing and all-loving God, history and everyday life take on a whole new light.  The horizons of existence expand beyond what we could possibly have imagined.

More specifically, we come to share in the perspective of God Himself in the “shared knowledge which is the knowledge proper to love” (quoted from the encyclical).

Trayvon_Martin_shooting_protest_2012_Shankbone_11It is just this sort of faith perspective that allows for hope and tranquility even in tragic and troubled situations.

We have, I think, seen something of this Christian perspective in Trayvon Martin’s parents, who have urged their supporters not to give into violence regardless of the verdict.  Moreover, Trayvon’s mother publicly made it clear that though the verdict was disappointing to her, her faith in God has not been shaken.

I think perhaps the Pope and the Martins would have a lot to talk about at lunch sometime.

Lumen Fidei Full Text:
http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20130629_enciclica-lumen-fidei_en.html

Photos from Wikipedia

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Les-miserables-movie-poster1Note: You do not need to have seen “Les Misérables” in order to appreciate this post.  It is simply a reflection on one of the film’s themes and contains no spoilers.

So we close the curtain on Jean Valjean and Fantine.  Now that we have a bit of a break, we can get down to a bare bones question: Which is harder, Law or Grace?

(As long as we remember that Grace and the Law are not opposed, as well as the difference between the Law’s proper place and its abuse, I think the following points are valid)

Grace is less scrupulous than the Law.  The ancient Jews had a daunting number of commandments in the Torah, and each had to be observed with exactness.  And lest you think to yourself, “Hey, you’re gonna miss something here and there — it’s understandable,” understand that the whole Law is, in fact, one “piece.”

That’s not to say that all failures to observe the Law necessarily carry equal weight — but when the Law becomes the end-all-and-be-all of our spiritual lives, it can get overwhelming.

Grace takes account of human weakness and can even work with human failures.

But in another sense, Grace is much harder.  While perhaps emphasis on Law can be content with mere outward observance, Grace demands an overhaul of the heart.  In response to Grace, we are now responsible not only for performing the right action, but also for developing the right motives.

Colm Wilkinson 2That is why the Bishop’s forgiveness of and charity towards Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables” is such a great illustration of “turning the other cheek,” which Christ prescribes in Luke’s Gospel.

“Turning the other cheek” does not mean being a doormat, nor does it mean excusing, minimizing, or ignoring the wrongs committed by another.  Rather, it is a method of nonviolent confrontation — it causes no harm, but it lets the other see the wrongness of his/her ways.

After the episode with the Bishop, Vajean cannot comfortably return to his former course of action (which we may suppose to be a life of vengeance against the society that has disenfranchised him).  He has been confronted with something bigger than himself, something that compels him to go out of himself.

That something is Grace, pure and simple.

Top photo from Wikipedia; photo of the Bishop obtained through a Google image search

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TheatreIf it helps you, picture a bunch of stage hands switching things around in the dark.

From the counterproductivity of legalism we turn to an important question: How can we come to the defense of the sinner while at the same time condemning the sin?  The same question can be rephrased in reverse order: How can we express disapproval of the sin while behaving compassionately toward the sinner?

I think the answer lies in an understanding of what sin is and does.  Sin is like a prison.  It lures us with trappings of pleasure or satisfaction, and then when it gets a hold of us it binds us as with chains.

Jesus says as much:

Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. (John 8:34)

Sin makes us less human.  It may feel good for a time — just as using drugs and alcohol is pleasurable to the addict or alcoholic — but ultimately it harms the very heart of the person who commits it.

anne-hathaway-les-miserablesWhile we do see something of this in Jean Valjean’s case, we see it more explicitly in the character of Fantine (Anne Hathaway).  She has been forced into prostitution in order to feed her child, and when she sings her song of lamentation, “I Dreamed a Dream,” it is perhaps the most moving and tragic scene in the film.

And how do people from the upper tiers of the social hierarchy and servants of the law treat her?  With pure contempt.

Javert 2In fact, at one point Javert almost has her arrested for striking a “gentleman” (an act of self-defense).  The idea that her action might have been justified, that perhaps the man she struck had been posing a threat to her, never occurs to him.  He knows nothing about her — only that she is a prostitute, and therefore not to be trusted.  In all likelihood, she was born bad.

To the extent that the law puts people down and obscures their dignity, it becomes a servant of sin rather than a safeguard against it (remember, the degradation of the human person is sin’s purpose and effect).  When we look down on people self-righteously, when we jump too quickly to judgment, what we end up doing is maintaining them in their sins (“They’ll never change”).

Don’t get me wrong — law is necessary and good.  Society’s judgments on legitimate wrongs are likewise good.  But in the words of Pope John Paul II,

Forgiveness … seeks to reintegrate individuals and groups into society, and countries into the community of nations.  No punishment should suppress the inalienable dignity of those who have committed evil.  The door to repentance and rehabilitation must always remain open.*

No such “door” is open to Fantine, and so she loses faith in a benevolent God.

Jackman_HathawayAt this point, Valjean intervenes.  Having reformed his life and worked his way up to the position of mayor of the town in which Fantine lives, he discovers her in the gutter and lifts her out.

Caught_in_Adultery

One cannot help but be reminded of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.  As this woman is faced with the prospect of being stoned to death, Jesus says this to her captors:

Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. (John 8:7)

Not to be redundant, but I do need to return to Blessed John Paul II, who comments on this passage in his Apostolic Letter “Mulieris Dignitatem”:

In the end Jesus says to her: “Do not sin again“, but first he evokes an awareness of sin in the men who accuse her (…) Jesus seems to say to the accusers: Is not this woman, for all her sin, above all a confirmation of your own transgressions, of your “male” injustice, your misdeeds? (italics his)

This seems to apply in Fantine’s case as well.  After all, for all Javert’s zeal for the enforcement of the law, does he ever give any hint of concern for the social conditions that contribute to the sins of folks living in the dregs of society? (It is worth noting that there is a reprise of “Look Down” in the mouths of peasants at one point in the film)

Unfortunately, Fantine dies shortly after Valjean’s intervention.  A life of abject poverty and prostitution has taken its toll on her.  But she dies knowing that she is loved, and therefore her hope in the triumph of truth, goodness, and beauty — and, we may suppose, God — is restored.

Cosette

She is also happy because she knows her daughter, Cosette, will be well cared for.  Valjean promises to see to that — in fact, he takes Cosette in and raises her himself.

Colm Wilkinson 2

Here, we see Valjean extending the “economy” of grace.  Having been shown mercy by the kindly old Bishop, he is inspired to live a life of grace, extending that mercy to others.

That’s the thing about the life of grace, which comes to us through Jesus Christ: It is a gift that is increased by being shared, the treasure that grows to the extent that it is given away.

What motivates this sort of “pay-it-forward” attitude for the Christian?  Gratitude, certainly.  But also, it gets us less focused on ourselves.  It neither permits us to indulge in sin nor maintains us in our guilt, but frees us to actualize our true selves.  And as I’ve said before, all human beings are made in the image of the Triune God, and so we only truly find ourselves when we make of our very selves a sincere gift to others.

Both sin and the pharisaical abuse of the law (itself a sin) get in the way of this.

*From the book “Go in Peace”

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Having commented on various films from the past year, I could not rest easy if I didn’t cover Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the musical “Les Misérables.”

As you can probably tell from the title of this post, my commentary will be divied up into segments that resemble the playbill of a theatrical performance.  For today, we will delay our dive right into the movie for a prelude in which we immerse ourselves in one of the story’s major themes — or differently put, into some of its defining “music.”

The theme in question is the relationship between law and grace — particularly from a Biblical perspective.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther, the founding father of the Protestant Reformation, famously held that the Law and Grace were opposed.

Observance of the Law, in Luther’s mind, was somehow inherently slavish.  Grace and faith alone were the substance of the Christian life.  The purpose of the Law was simply to convince human beings of their own helplessness, of their total inability to save themselves.

And in this state of abject self-abasement, we are ready to receive the free grace of God.

A Catholic would agree and disagree.

On the one hand, we would agree wholeheartedly that the Law of itself cannot save.  It is like an X-ray in Israel’s (and human) history, showing to man the deep sickness of his sin.  It goes without saying that the X-ray and the cure are not the same thing.

But to say that this is the only purpose the Law could possibly serve is a bit short-sighted.  Yes, there are a great many aspects of the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament that were abolished with the coming of Christ, Who is the perfect fulfillment of the Law.  But the Divine Law, the Natural Law — which is, in fact, inscribed onto every human heart, even if it is obscured by sin — does not lose its value with the coming of Grace.  In fact, I think we could probably say that in a sense, the Law is a grace.

What Christianity is all about is not primarily rules and regulations, but a relationship:

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. (Matthew 22: 37-40)

However, the Law, rather than being a stricture, is the structuring logic of the relationship.  All stable families, for example, have ground rules, boundaries, and expectations, all of which are usually codified in a way that resembles “the Law.”

Romantic relationships are governed by a similar logic.  Typically, each partner expects the other to remain faithful to the other, to the exclusion of any other romantic relationships.  Both partners are at the same time expected to respect one another as unique persons, and to be willing to make compromises for the good of the other.

Baseball

Let’s turn to another scenario. Imagine a group of kids playing baseball.  Imagine putting them in the midst of about 40 acres of land and giving them a bat, a ball, and some gloves.  Then imagine telling them: “Okay, now just do whatever you want.”

I don’t know much about baseball, but I don’t think I need to in order to say that this just ain’t gonna work.

The fact is, kids who intend to play a game of baseball are going to want rules.  They want someone to lay out the physical boundaries of the playing field.  They want to know what makes for an “in” and what makes for an “out.”

They want, to sum up these points and everything else that could be said, to know how to win the game and how to lose it.  Otherwise, all the excitement goes out of the game.

I have written all of this not merely to give a full scale defense of the Law, but more specifically to show that the Law is the recipe for humankind at its best.  Many cultures throughout the centuries have expressed belief in a universal law that governs all things (some of the ancient Chinese, for example, spoke of the Tao).  To the extent that you were in conformity with this law, you were happy and virtuous … or, as contemporary writer and motivational speaker Matthew Kelly would say, “the best-version-of-yourself.”

Precisely because the Law is such a good thing in and of itself, its abuse is a tremendous evil. To the extent that it is used to put people down, to cripple them, to “freeze them up” with burdens they cannot bear, the Law has been hijacked and robbed of its true purpose.

We can prevent this by realizing that the Law — along with all laws, in the last analysis — is a means to an end, and that this end is nothing other than God, Who is love itself (1 John 4:8).  That is why, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, all human laws must be tempered with some sort of compassion, with what we might call a human element.

Otherwise, law defeats its own purpose.

That said, we can take a proper look at Grace.  Because of Original Sin, our hearts are not right; therefore, we cannot obey the Law as we ought, because our hearts are out of sync with the Law’s very purpose (that is why we sometimes use laws, which are derived from the Law, to oppress rather than to build up).  And if that’s the case, it only makes sense that we cannot turn to the Law for salvation.

Jesus Christ

In Christ Jesus, God, Who is infinitely, unconditionally loving and merciful, reaches down to us in friendship and offers redemption.  More than that, He offers us a share in His own Divine Life.  Undeserved, unearned, and totally gratuitous, it comes to us straight from eternity — the gift of Divine Grace.

With Grace comes a superabundance of aid by which we can, however imperfectly and however gradually, live by the Law given us by our loving Creator.  As long as we are doing the best we can and continually to striving for perfection, the Grace of God will be with us the whole way.  And if we fall, He is always ready to pick us back up.

On that concluding “note,” the Overture ends, and the curtain opens…

Photos from Wikipedia

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