Law and Morality, part 3

One of the functions of the Old Testament Law (the Pentateuch) is to help us to recognize our own shortcomings as well as to acknowledge God’s transcendence.  The coming of Christ is the fulfillment of the Law, in that through this message of grace, we can know God who has rescued us from our shortcomings through His immanence.  Through these specific revelations, we have a clear view of these concepts of sin, grace, transcendence and immanence.

In general revelation, the laws described in Romans 1 aid us in realizing our shortcomings as well.  Even if we do not acknowledge in a Law Giver, even when we have usurped His position as law givers, we fail to live up to the standards that we have set for ourselves.  We have set up for others a target of moral standard that we ourselves fail to live up to.  Justice Holmes was correct to view law through the lens of a bad men; he failed to realize however that we are all bad.  Even in general revelation, we can have some sense of our fallenness, of our sins.

But this general revelation can only tell us when we are bad.  It can’t make bad people good.  We may have a sense of our sins, but have a harder time understanding grace.  Take for example the famous Regina v. Dudley and Stephens case.  Four people are stranded on a yacht.  All of them are slowly dying of starvation and dehydration.  Two of them decide to kill the weak boy to eat his body and drink his blood.  The law can condemn us for cannibalism even done out of necessity.  Its requirements are too high, for it asks us to die of starvation rather than to kill a dying boy for food.

The requirements of the law are unattainably high.  We attempt to lower it, justifying our actions with ideas of utility; we excuse our crimes with ideas of decrease mental capacity and deliriums caused by the beating sun upon our burnt brains.  And yet the requirement of grace is even higher.  It is inconceivably higher, for we cannot think of it on our own.  It is supernaturally higher for it does not make sense to us.  For grace urges us to give up our lives for others, to be the sacrificial lamb for the utility of others, to use whatever intellectual capacities we have left to forgive others.  And though the requirements of grace is even higher, grace also speaks a better word, that all these requirements have been fulfilled already on our behalf, that we are only called to live a life of grace, because we already are a beneficiaries of this amazing grace.

The paradox of the Gospel, is that in demonstrating this transcendent nature of God’s grace, it also shows us that He is near us.

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Accession and Salvation

A man cut down a tree that doesn’t belong to him, and makes a barrel with it.  Who owns the barrel? The man who made it or the man who owned the tree?

In property law, principle of accession refers to doctrines that share this common feature: an owner gains possession of an unclaimed resource because he already owns some other resource that has a prominent relationship to it.  The doctrine of accession refers to a narrower set of this principle: in the abstract of the hypothetical above, one owns a resource, which another uses to create an object.  Assuming that every man owns his own labor, whose ‘property right’ is more prominent? If the original resource is “prominent” and the labor is “insignificant,” then the final object belongs to the original owner.  If the labor is “prominent” and the original object is “insignificant,” then the final object belongs to the laborer.  (paraphrased from Property: Principles and Policies, p.170, Merrill, Smith, 2007)  This doctrine makes intuitive sense.  And in the hypothetical given at the beginning, the barrel is presumably worth a lot more than the tree.  Hence, the laborer owns the barrel (with the laborer paying the owner some restitution for the value of the tree).

What about our souls?  Apart from God, as sinners, we are of very little value.  Our souls may be eternal, but there is very little that is beautiful about them.  We are indeed created in the image of God, and in a fallen world, we are more precious than any other thing, but relative to the unfallen state, we are ultimately of little worth.  Then what of the labor than is expended to save us?  When Christ came down to earth and died for our sins, what infinite price has he had to pay!  How great is the worth of his blood that was spilled for us!  So then, if we compare this vast disparity in value of our sinful state to that of the labor that Christ has expended to transform us, is there any doubt as to who owns us?  It is Christ!  He has paid the greatest price for worthless sinners such as us.

Another way to look at this doctrine is by the degree of transformation of the object.  When there is an extensive transformation in which the original object loses its qualities and gains new ones, the laborer has a better claim of ownership than the original owner.  For example, when wheat is transformed to beer, that degree of transformation is more extensive when wood is made into a chair.

What about us?  From these old, wretched, sinful creatures, God calls us holy.  God calls us his children, heirs.  Imagine!  The Creator of the universe calling us his children? How extensive is this transformation!  How radical, how unthinkably new and different and of a whole different quality!  It is like dry bones coming to life.  Therefore, is there any doubt who we belong to?  It is Christ!  He has completely transformed us from worthless sinners to children of God.

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One Reaps, Another Sows

One branch of law that I’m learning about is called unjust enrichment.  This is when someone has benefited from others’ work without being justly compensated for it.  The natural law forbids taking without asking; it is manifestly unjust when one reaps and another sows.  Simple enough.

But isn’t every sin in a way a sort of an unjust enrichment?  When we steal, we are benefiting from another person’s labor.  When we lie or slander, we attempt to gain kind of advantage at the expense of another person’s reputation.  When we lust, we gain temporary pleasure at the expense to ourselves and those around us (for we wont be able to love others properly).  Even suicide is unjust enrichment for you are depriving the world of yourself.  If every human life has a spark of the divine, then you are unjustly taking away what you have had no part in creating.

What is worse, are we not accusing God of being unjustly enriched by what we do?  Jesus tells a parable about the parable of the servants who have been given bags of gold.  (Matthew 25:14) The last servant accuses God of harvesting where he has not scattered seed, of being unjust.  We see the evils of this world and claim that God cannot be just or that he is evil or impotent.  We see the accomplishments of our hands and claim that we alone deserve the credit.  We build the ivory tower that reaches to the heavens and marvel at our ingenuity.  Then we refuse to acknowledge God for we claim that it would be unjust of him to claim our work.  Even as Christians we think that we ourselves have effectuated our own repentance; we cling on to the last remnants of our works to pride ourselves in.

But the reality is that we all are benefiting from other people’s work.  This much is evident in the material sense.  From computers, clothes, food, inventions, ideas, words, and everything around us – we did not contribute at all to the creation and refinement of these things and yet daily we are being accommodated and nourished and enlivened by them.

What of the spiritual realities?  What does the Cross have to do with sin?  If sin really is “unjust enrichment,” the Cross reverses it into “just enrichment” by satisfying the requirements of the law.  If sin really is “taking without asking,” the Cross nullifies sin by “giving without being asked.”  The Cross destroys the power of sin and its effects by getting at the very heart of it.

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The Value of News

What makes a news story valuable?  In International News Service v. Associated Press, a case involving two competing news agencies, Supreme Court wrote that “[t]he peculiar value of news is in the spreading of it while it is fresh; and it is evident that a valuable property interest in the news, as news, cannot be maintained by keeping it secret.”  In other words, news is valuable when it is fresh and when it is shared.  Of course, the substance of the news itself also determines how valuable it is.

What then makes the Good News, the Gospel, valuable?  Is the Good News still fresh, still relevant after almost 2000 years?  Surely it cannot be news, especially in a country like United States, where there are churches in every block and Christian radio stations all through the airwaves.  But the Gospel is still as fresh today as it was when Christ first proclaimed it to his disciples that Easter morning.  It is fresh because it is radically different from everything else we are taught and even as Christians revert back into.  The world, schools, jobs, even ourselves and our Tiger moms, tell us that we are loved if we achieve something.  At best we are loved if we don’t screw up too bad.  But the Gospel tells us otherwise, that we are loved no matter what, and that because of this love we can finally begin to love others and love God.  The Good News is fresh and refreshing because of its substance; it is unique in its message because it was paid for by Christ who died to make all things new.

In addition, news is only valuable when it is shared.  Obviously it must be shared by those who have it to those who do not.  As soon as we stop sharing with others, it ceases becoming news; it just becomes some facts on a history books.  Again, the very substance of the Gospel compels us to share it.  I read a quote recently from D.A. Carson about the context of the Great Commission.  “Therefore, go and make disciples.”  Right before that Jesus says “All authority in heaven and on earth have been given to me.”  The basis of evangelism is that Christ has overcome death, has resurrected, and is in power and is sending us.

Don’t let your familiarity with the Gospel dull you into valuing it any less.  Instead, make it the supreme treasure of your life, as you live as a new creature, with a constant natural outpouring of this fragrance of the Gospel.

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Morality and Law, part 2

Okay, I’ve calmed down. The last post was a polemic that was unnecessarily too hostile considering that it’s going out to the public space.  Just to clarify what I’m not saying:

1) I’m not suggesting that law and morality is or should be the same.

I am not suggesting we should live in a theocracy.  That is not the Christian perspective.  Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, or else he would have ordered his disciples to fight for him when he was being led away to be crucified.

This is what I am saying. I understand that law cannot follow morality perfectly.  This would be infeasible to implement.  First there’s the epistemological problem: how do we know for certain that someone has committed the crime?  For law to punish the right guy to the right extent, society would need to possess omniscience.  But we have this idea of burden of proof precisely because we do not posses it.

Second there’s the problem of enforcement.  How would a society punish those who are rich and powerful enough to live above the law?  Moreover, the “law of the land” applies to one particular nation and not others; there are physical boundaries of where a jurisdiction applies.  These limits to law’s power illustrate the fact that society would need to possess omnipotence for its laws to correspond to morality.

But when I say that morality is different from law, I do not mean that they are different things entirely.  They are both prescriptions to how one ought to live in context of others.  Law can be viewed as demanding a lower standard than morality, what a Holme’s bad man would do.  Law does not require a duty to rescue, just a duty to easy rescue (in some jurisdictions anyway).  Subjective morality can analogously be viewed as demanding a lower standard than objective morality.  (Note: I use the words “subjective” and “objective” not in the legal sense of a specific person or a reasonable person, but in that it’s different between cultures or the same in all cultures).

2) I am not saying that courts should justify every legal case with “BECAUSE IT’S JUST WRONG.”

This would be horrible.  Because every man is fallen, sinful, and limited, they would not have the authority to utter these words to every case.  What I am saying is, no matter which other justification you use for statutory interpretation, you are always at the end of it using some form a morality, that “It is better/good to do it this way and worse/bad to not do it this way,” and that it is moral to use such a prescription on how one ought to act when judging others.

Again, morality and law are different, but not different things entirely.  They are intertwined intimately, and morality is even the basis of law.  For statutes of larceny, there are requirements of mens rea, the idea that it is unjust to punish those who didn’t know what they were doing.  Hardships of punishment, interests of the public, intent of the drafters, are all held in the balance of justice.  Fairness demands her to be blind.  If she was not, it would be morally wrong.

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Morality and Law

Warning. This is a rant.

What is the purpose of the judicial system?  What is the purpose of law?  The general consensus among law students seems to be that while there are many different purposes, upholding moral values is not one of them, or at least not one of the primary purposes.  But does this really make sense?  Is it even sensible to talk about law outside the scope of morality?

In pluralistic, western societies, people generally seem to accept moral subjectivism; that is, they reject the view that there are objective moral values that transcends any and all human communities.  But I believe this viewpoint is untenable, and just a product of soft-thinking and ignorance dressed up as tolerance and understanding for other cultures.  Some things really are wrong and some things really are right.  In the name of not offending people who we don’t actually understand, in that humanity-centered Descartian view, people, and by extension, societies can do no wrong.  Sin is abolished as mere unfortunate circumstances.  Human responsibility is done away with in the name of autonomy.  Because we are unwilling to admit the faults of our own culture, we lose the authority to criticize other cultures.  Without accepting the presupposition of Original Sin, we are powerless to think critically about what is really wrong with the human condition and instead tread waters around the flotsam and jetsam of wrecked ideas.  In reality, moral subjectivism does not hold up to even a moment of careful scrutiny.

Ask yourself: are there really nothing that is really wrong in every human society?  Just because we are afraid of criticizing other cultures (which is a result of obstinate reluctance to admit our own sinfulness), we dare not say that their beliefs can be objectively wrong. Today we talked about statutory rape in class.  So there is nothing morally wrong with raping a 10 year old girl?  If your mind is convoluted enough to answer that in some societies that might be okay and that therefore it is not wrong for them, just lower the number.  Is it not objectively wrong to rape a 9 year old? An 8 year old?  I hope there was no society that thought this was okay.  However, if there is/was, then I hope you can say that such a society has immoral rules of social conduct.

What about the less extreme moral laws?  Don’t each cultures have different ones?  I believe that is a misunderstanding of what moral laws actually represent.  In one culture, you may be required to take off your hat in a place of worship.  In another culture, you may be required to sit on your hat instead.  In the two cases, the specific manifestation of the moral values maybe different; but the general mores of showing respect to people or in places where respect is due, is the same.  And this approach applies to all kinds of different mores be they honor, love, justice, and etc.

But even without this presupposition of moral objectivism, even if one believes in moral subjectivism, I find it irrational to believe that morality can never be a rationale or a basis for law.  Yes, morality and law are distinct.  However, this does not necessarily mean that they are mutually exclusive.  In fact, without a sense of morality, law would never have developed in the first place.  This is evident even in other fundamental pillars of law, like unjust enrichment and torts.  “Eye for an eye” is not an ancient, barbaric code for savages; it is the reason we require gross negligence in criminal cases; it is the reason we prevent punitive damages in most contracts; it is the reason we enforce property rights.  We bring up utility and policy argument and use them as substitutes for moral arguments and fail to see that there are moral components to them as well.  We argue that the Model Penal Code has a strict liability for statutory rape of 10 year olds because they do not have intellectual capacity to make their own decisions.  In other words, in the interest of autonomy, we want to respect their decisions only if they are capable of making them.  In other words, it is ‘wrong’ to make decisions for those who can’t make them.  We tried to escape the morality, but there it is. No matter which rationale you run to, some things are wrong, and some things are right.

Furthermore, even if we deny the moral basis of our rationales, we cannot escape the moral component of obedience to laws of the society.  It is generally held to be morally right to obey the laws of the land. Give unto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s.  If the laws are unjust, then it is morally wrong to obey them or to stand by passively.  Moral reformers of the past two centuries, those who have abolished slavery and segregation, have improved the laws of the land precisely because they believed that some things really are wrong and some things really are right.  And they thought that it was wrong to not change immoral laws.

Finally, we may fool ourselves into believing that we have no more use for morality since we are such enlightened beings.  What rubbish.  We forcibly thrust away our sense of justice that is innately written on every person, and let our societies be ruled by those who are swayed by their whims.  Oh what Brave New World will we be heading into if we continue on this path!  What will become of humanity when we lose our hearts, when we become Men Without Chests!

To recover from such foolishness, we must come back to the Gospel, or at least to the Bad News.  Without an acknowledgments of our sinfulness, then all meaning and reason slowly degenerates into a void.

Okay. End of rant.

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Good Samaritan Laws and the Unraveling of the Curse

The term Good Samaritan comes from one of Jesus’s parables.  A traveler is beaten and robbed, left to die on the side of the road.  The “righteous” people of that time, the pharisees, the teachers of the law, see but ignore the poor fellow.  A Samaritan sees the man, has mercy on him, and takes care of this total stranger.

Here, in United States, most states do not have Good Samaritan laws that require bystanders to aid those who are in physical danger or are being victimized.  The states that do have Good Samaritan laws only require that the bystander help only if it does not cause great harm to himself, and violations of such laws only result in minor fines.  This is because we as a society value our autonomy.  We are all about our rights, including the right to our right not to do anything.

What does the Gospel say?  The parable was given in answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”  That question was asked in response to the summation of all laws by Jesus into two laws: love God and love your neighbor.  Our neighbor, then, is anyone we see who is in need while we are on our journey.  We are to help even though it may cost us greatly.  We are to lay down our rights to autonomy.

The bystanders in such situations are faced with a “choice of nightmares.”  If they help, they face the risk of retaliation by the assailant, ridicule from other bystanders, or mistaken as the cause of the crime.  Yet Jesus tells us all these things do not matter.  This Samaritan had a lot to lose.  This road between Jerusalem and Jericho was “conducive for ambushing,” as Dr. King recounts in his “I’ve Been to the Mounaintop” speech.  This Samaritan was already being ridiculed and shunned by others because of his ethnicity.  And yet he helped.  Our “rights” are no so important as love.

And that is the Gospel, that Jesus laid down his rights.  And that is why He is the key to unraveling, this undoing of the curse that we call sin.  In Genesis 4 we see how Cain asks God “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Through the parable Jesus answers, “Yes, you are.”  The separation of God to man was restored by the cross.  And when that happened, the separation of man to man was also finally restored.

And when we have this bigger picture in view, we can have the power and the right motivation to love our neighbors.  Loved people can love others.  The law can’t force us to love others, because the law tells us that we are only loved if we keep it.  But we can’t keep the law; we always break it.  Only the Gospel can change us to love others, because it tells us that we are already loved not because we keep the law but because Christ has kept the law for us and has bore our punishment.

Since we are loved, let us love.  Since He has laid down his rights, let us lay down our rights.

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