A Law for All Seasons

From the screenplay of A Man for all Seasonssirthomamore

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

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Thomas More was martyred by Henry VIII in England for his refusal to approve of the king’s adulterous marriage to Anne Boleyn. Like St. John the Baptist, he preferred God’s law to man’s. He died as a lawyer and a prophet. It is a lesson worth considering. The lesson is the role of law in the world.

In the Genesis account of the Expulsion from the Garden, Adam and Eve are thrust into the world. They had been naked, but we are told that God made them “garments of skin.” That phrase has a rich life in the thought of the Fathers over the centuries. It came to stand for God’s provision for our lives in our fallen state. The garments of skin are not a description of what is perfect, but of what is useful and necessary to preserve our lives.

Among the most common forms of the “garments of skin” are the mores, customs and laws of a people. None of these things can be treated as absolutes, or as perquisites for the return of Paradise. Traffic laws are not made for Paradise, but without them highways become the most dangerous places in the world.

Historically, the break-down of law is the hallmark of civilizational collapse. Apart from law, violence reigns and only the strong prevail. The upholding of law is not at all the same thing as justice itself, but without law justice becomes scarce indeed. The New Testament points to the primary role of law in a culture:

…the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane… (1Ti 1:9)

Everyone falls into such a description at some point. The law is not given in order to make people righteous – that is the work of God. The law is given to restrain the wicked.

Frequently in modern culture, the ideology of modernism itself has perverted the law. The modern project has as its goal the creation of a better world and better people. Everything is done, finally, in the name of a secular utopia, and this changes the very nature of law.

In CS Lewis’ fantasy novel, That Hideous Strength, he describes a town that has been given over to an organized social experiment, an image of modernity run amok. The language of sociology replaces the language of law. It is not enough to make people observe the law – the powers that be want to make the people into something different. To be incarcerated under such a regime does not serve the purpose of “doing your time.” Incarceration becomes therapeutic, such that an individual can be held indefinitely, or at least until he or she has “changed.” Of course, Lewis reveals all of this to be a demonic conspiracy.

We hear echoes of this in the Marxist-spawned movements of political correctness. The nature of the rules shifts from protection of law to efforts to make people think differently. The intrusion of law into the very hearts and minds of a nation is, indeed, demonic.

Our own utopian improvement efforts are easily perverted, and always in the name of a laudable outcome. The expulsion of Adam and Eve did not come with the exhortation to expand paradise to the entire world. It came, instead, with prohibitions against our turning the world into a living hell.

The cultural habits of progress and utility are heady stuff. Most people have been so immersed in the mists of modern delusion that they believe that progress towards paradise is both possible and essential. Our conversations and arguments constantly turn on questions of outcomes and results. How is it that, with all the resources of modernity, America has succeeded in creating one of the largest prison populations ever known? Utility has been a demonstrable failure.

But this does not mean that we can live without the law. Indeed, the Antichrist in the New Testament is described as “the lawless one” (2 Th. 8). This characterization belongs to a very interesting point in the Apostolic preaching. A common part of the Apostolic deposit includes a description of the corruption found in the “last days.”

But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: for men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! (2Ti 3:1-5)

And,

But you, beloved, remember the words which were spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ: how they told you that there would be mockers in the last time who would walk according to their own ungodly lusts. these are sensual persons, who cause divisions, not having the Spirit. (Jude 1:17-19)

This thread runs throughout the New Testament, from the preaching of Christ Himself to virtually all the Apostolic writings. The Christian reading of history is that it will end in lawlessness, a breakdown in the fundamental structures of society as well as the corruption of individuals. It is the picture of a very dangerous period.

And this takes us back to Thomas More who says, “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?”

As we pray for nations and states, and what often seems like the perversion of law, we must not pray for the abolition of law. There is a temptation even for the righteous to “just get things done.” The Apostolic teaching does not direct our attention at a danger from the Left or from the Right, but to the direction of lawlessness. And it is clear from the words in Scripture, that the primary manifestation of lawlessness is to be found within individuals themselves.

Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one. (Col 4:5-6)

And may He preserve our hearts from lawlessness.

21 comments:

  1. I think the mirror of our society is found in the medical establishment. Whereas the Hippocratic Oath firmly states, “first, do no harm”, current medical practice more and more embraces death in place of life. It all reflects the same evil mindset, unfortunately.

    Many thanks for these thoughts, Father!

  2. This article is causing me to ponder the direction we see our leadership taking us in as those in power seem to walk over the law “to get things done.” Thank you Father for provoking my grey cells.

  3. Nicholas,
    We do well to ponder it. Anytime long-standing custom and law is overthrown, much less with a new one being set in its place, lawlessness is increased. There are many laws that people have proper disregard for: abortion, same-sex “unions,” even the tax-code. The Supreme Court (or the ruling 5) jettisoned any pretense of constitutional law this past summer. It is dangerous.

  4. Father, I was particularly thinking of the President’s threatened veto of any bill that restricts Planned (Banned) Parenthood in any way. From the spread of the vote for both bills he is referencing it is obvious that the majority in Congress are having issues with the conduct of Planned Parenthood. It seems just like more of the same imperious behavior by one man who is “doing what is right in his own eyes” despite the Law of God or the other Laws and Statutes that protect life. I must admit, I always enjoyed gridlock in Washington. Then, truly, the government could do no harm.

  5. Sir Thomas Moore has been a personal hero of mine since I was a young teen! He stood against the ill winds that blew and remained faithful to his conscience and his Lord to the very end. May we all have that same resolve.

  6. It seems that about the only thing we can get Washington to do is agree to bomb someone – a lot. We are witnessing the slow collapse of the American Empire. As Empire’s go, it’s been very short – starting, at most, in 1918 (though the Monroe Doctrine was an assertion of Empire in the previous century). The “Pax Americana” has been the Bellum Americanum since about 1965 or so. The project to “export democracy” is among the worst things ever undertaken as foreign policy. To take a political theory as the cause of war is little different than spreading revolution. That revolution is at present being married (sic) to a radical social program that seeks to remake the world in a very post-modern image. I shudder.

    This is not intended as a political critique. There are serious theological concerns to be understood, as noted in the article.

  7. Father, I share your concerns about this very issue. Our disregard for our own law and faith has affected our foreign policy especially in the last 25 years. We certainly now have very bloody hands, for in these years we have been knocking down the strong men we put in power to run the alleged democracies we set up. We even have a hand in the conflict in the Ukraine having bankrolled the revolt that removed the Pro Russian previous ruler. We smashed Libya and are trying to smash Syria. I am not sure who should be more afraid of our government, us or foreigners.

  8. Yes, it is very alarming that the media is become a propaganda wing for the government. We seem to be bent on forcing the world to accept our way as the only way and if a countries leadership has a separate opinion on an issue we label them as enemies. Our media and politicians have so polarized the nation that we cannot even have civil discussions on differences to work out issues. All attempts at dialogue just become Ad Hominem attacks.

  9. I’ve never forgotten this memorable movie. I bought what I thought was the soundtrack for the movie only to discover that the LP was the entire script; there was in fact little music in the entire movie. Stuck as I was in Ft. Riley, KS with nothing to do while I waited to be sent to Vietnam, I played the LP over and over until I had the entire script memorized. The very dialogue you quoted was one of the most compelling of them all. Years later, as the move to accept abortion as justifiable spread through the land, I recalled that dialogue and, paired with G.K. Chesterton’s caution that the devil was not only a liar but, more especially a traitor who is more dangerous to his friends than to his enemies, I found myself falling into an abiding sense of panic and foreboding. What, I wondered, have we done? Having cut down the laws of God, where would we as a people hide when the devil (whose existence we have been taught to deny) turns on us?
    In this same vein, those who promote the equally delusional and cynical campaign of the evil “death with dignity” agenda, whose actual intent is to rid the world of undesirables, the weak, aged, and unproductive, will be horrified when The Liar turns it on them!
    After the passage of Obergefell a Baptist pastor tweeted the most pertinent caution of them all. He said the government had just promised something it could not deliver; that the churches must now prepare for the coming disillusionment. May that disillusionment begin, before it’s too late for the victims of these lies to turn away and instead turn to Christ through His Bride who is the only Ark of Salvation.
    Fear delusion. Fear it in yourself first, then others. Pray for everybody!

  10. Hello Fa. Stephen,

    Although your overall point is excellent, Marxists weren’t the ones advocating for the war on drugs that has filled our prisons. You imply that and it distracts from your very important point.

    I’m the goofy woman who recognized you on Market Square the other day. Keep writing! Even liberals love you!

  11. Law is designed to punish and restrain the wicked. It has become a tool to attack virtue and reward sinfulness. The nihilist hammer to keep “the herd” in line so the elite may amass power and party.

  12. Gregory,
    Well said. The modernist agenda in which the laws of God are set aside in the name of some brave new world has as its weakness attempts to abolish nature. But nature is not a concept – it is a reality. We could try to abolish gravity, but we would still fall down. The danger is that without God’s law, written into nature itself, upholding the law of the land, the only thing to move such an agenda forward is sheer force and violence. Our local college campus caused a small furor when its “office of diversity” put out guidelines for new pronouns. This is Tennessee. It was roundly rebuked in public, but the University only responded mildly and the office continues with its agenda. They fear the reputation of the University would suffer if it seemed to be resisting the efforts of PC. When you have to legislate language to make what is not true seem true, you reveal that your agenda is bankrupt.

    If these are not the very last days, they at least rhyme with them. We must pray for everyone, and repent on behalf of all and for all.

  13. Kathy,
    Reading back over the article, I do not think that I implied Marxists as advocating the drug wars. I linked them with the movement of political correctness. The games with language manipulation and regulation is almost their invention. I studied with Marxists as Duke.

    The drug wars have been a deeply failed attempt of the Modern Project, similar to Prohibition. Prohibition primarily succeeded in providing massive financing for organized crime, which had been rather petty prior to the bonanza that Prohibition brought about. We still live with the legacy of that. But the Drug War and much of its ill-thought legislation has been disastrous beyond description. It often is ignored because its about “those people.” American prisons are among the most dangerous places in the world, and a sheer terror, while the population moans about prisoners watching TV all day. They should make a single visit.

    The difficulty with the Drug Wars is that they have changed the culture. What was a minor problem in the 60’s, has become a vast segment of the population. Entire genres of music and fashion have been spawned by it. We found a way to institutionalize evil. That is something that is very hard to dismantle.

  14. Father Stephen ,

    ‘Redeeming the time’, I have been running into this phrase a lot lately, in Ephesians and Colossians, it keeps rumbling in my mind. Can you help me with this? How do I ‘redeem the time’?

  15. Gregory,

    Your concerns about the world going to hell in a handbasket are well-founded. I know you didn’t phrase it like that and I may very well be projecting some of my own fears, but your words (and the respect I have for your growing list of insightful comments) made me search my heart “for the hope that lies within me”. Having given these caveats, I want to add something…

    Though the world’s end will be horrific because it will be about destruction and defaming, that is only part of it. Something else which is more primary and essential will be going on: a great revealing of the truth. More and more the veil will be lifted. Both Heaven and Hell will come to be revealed for what they are. As Fr. Stephen said…

    “…nature is not a concept – it is a reality. We could try to abolish gravity, but we would still fall down.”

    Reality will become more evident, but this is a good thing because it will become more and more evident that what is truly real is God, love, goodness, beauty, etc. It is during times like the 1930s depression or the 911 catastrophe or concentration camps that the clouds of this world temporarily part and we see what is left – and what is left is good. In fact evil never actually existed in the first place.

    Most of the time our fears about the end of the world are not based on the concern that “Thy will be done” but rather that my will won’t be done and the semi-comfortable life I’ve built for myself out of sand won’t remain. But the tide IS coming. The world WILL end – and our sand castle along with it. Our salvation lies not in being prayed up but in being willing to lay down our will completely and taking up whatever cross He would give us.

    This is the path of salvation and there is no other. Talking more to my own anxieties than anyone else, drewster

  16. Barbara,
    It means to act wisely, making use of every opportunity for doing good. In contemporary parlance I would say, “Don’t fritter away your time doing things that have little value in the Kingdom of God”

  17. I don’t know if it’s the end of THE world, but am becoming more certain that it is the end of A world; and for those having to live through such a thing, that may be a distinction without much of a difference.

    In an increasingly lawlwess world, simply doing ‘the next right thing’, becomes more and more dangerous and more and more noble. Thank you all on this site for your fidelity. Glory to God for All Things.

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