A few weeks ago, Rod Dreher posted a clip of Thomas More being willing to give the devil “the benefit of law.” This was offered in the context of the Kim Davis uproar, about which a great deal of unhelpful nonsense continues to be thought and written. Pope Francis recently weighed in with his view that liberty of conscience is a human right, which of course, it is. But that remains entirely beside the point.
Our task is not to figure out an arrangement whereby righteous persons can work in wicked public offices without getting sullied. The task is to prevent our public offices from becoming wicked. Should those offices, which represent us all, operate in defiance of the holy law of God?
Private persons should not be coerced into approval of what they know to be sin — that is where liberty of conscience applies. Assuming that something can be sinful without being criminal, a free citizen should have the right to disassociate himself from it, to not approve of it. But the public magistrate does not have liberty of conscience in this same way. The magistrate is God’s deacon, God’s servant, and is solemnly charged by God to reward the righteous and punish the wrong-doer (Rom. 13:1-4). This cannot be confounded with rewarding the wicked and punishing the righteous. That would be to frame mischief with a law (Ps. 94:20). And when the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do (Ps. 11:3)?
But with all that said, I agree with More’s point profoundly. You do not waive the law in order to get at the devil, for when you have done so, you find that you have no way to stand when he turns on you. More is talking about the importance of the rule of law, even when you desire to prosecute the devil.
But this is quite different than standing by silently as you give the devil leave to write the laws, and to amend the laws as he pleases. I am with More if we are talking about honoring man-made laws, even if the defendant is the devil himself. But suppose the devil is the prosecutor. Now what?
Thomas More was talking about men who wanted to dispense with the rules of justice in order to achieve their idea of a “higher justice.” If the culprit is known by us to be guilty, then why bother with trials and evidence? Why bother with hearing from both sides? We already are convinced in our own minds of the answer, and so let us proceed directly to the sentencing. This is the demented logic of lynch mobs, a subject I flatter myself as knowing something about.
There I was, I will tell my great-grandchildren, sitting on skittish horse, hands behind my back, rope around my neck, and a learned academic voice called out from the crowd, “Ya! What does someone like you know about Girard?”
If there is one thing that Christians need to learn more about in this “click to convict” era, it is the importance of due process, presumption of innocence, hearing both sides argued, and so on. Those interested can learn more about it in A Justice Primer, a book I wrote together with Randy Booth.
Here is Andrew Sandlin’s blurb for the book, on our understanding of justice:
“Liberals love to prattle about “social justice” while conservatives often marginalize “justice” and prioritize love. Both are wrong. Liberal justice is usually injustice, parading as sentimental moralism, and contrary to much conservative belief, justice is an exhibition of love. In this book, two seasoned, Bible-believing pastors delineate the Bible’s frequent and wide-ranging teaching on justice and show how it is to be achieved in both church and culture, from blogs to juries. It is a welcome antidote to the pervasively sentimentalist — and unjust — moralisms of our time.”
And, with More, I would want to follow all these principles though the indicted man were the devil himself. But if the devil is the prosecutor, and has swathed himself in a multitude of wicked laws, you can be assured that none of them will protect anyone’s rights. The devil is an accuser, and he detests anything that might slow his accusations down.
So what I outlined above — presumption of innocence, due process, and others like them, like the right to face your accuser — are what More would call man-made laws. But they are man-made methods for implementing biblical principles. They are instituted in a fallen world, which means that they might have the result of allowing a very guilty person to get off. But better that, More argues, than to insist on hanging a guilty man, but at the expense of mowing down all the laws which protect a hundred innocent men.
So we must never mow down the law to get at the devil. But not everything that is called a law is in fact a law in this older sense. Our current “law” allows for the dismemberment of little children, and that by the million. Our law does prohibit selling the pieces of these children, requiring instead that the children be thrown in a dumpster. Let us call it a dignity dumpster. That kind of law is protecting no one. That kind of law is what 50 million of our people needed protection from. Moreover, when the law prohibiting the sale of baby parts is openly violated, our lawless rulers not only refuse to prosecute, they openly refuse to cease subsidizing the practice. So our laws on this subject are not laws which, if removed, would allow the devil to turn on us. These laws are the devil turning on us.
And the laws of matrimony are not currently being upheld by our rulers, and merely extended to people who happen to be a little more creative with their sex organs. No, the goal is the abolition of marriage. These laws are not mildly adjusted marriage laws. They are laws which will have the effect, in the very near future, of nullifying and/or outlawing marriage. These current laws are not standing between us and the devil. These laws are the devil.
So then, in answer to an inaccurate application of More’s principles to the resistance of lesser magistrates, we are not trying to mow down the law to get at the devil. The devil is mowing down the laws of many centuries in order to get at us.
And still the majority of Christians believe that they have a duty to stand by and watch it happen.