Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lex Lata (the law as it is)

The New Testament clearly teaches in many places that although Christians are now free in Christ we are to remain in subjection to ruling authorities. We are supposed to follow the law. By doing so we attempt to live peaceably within society and avoid having the name of Christ slandered because of our un-neighborly behavior. Unfortunately we have reached a point where this is almost impossible to do. You might think that I am planning to write about the immoral nature of many of our laws. I am not. As believers we are to submit even to unjust and unreasonable authority unless it directly contradicts the Word of God or is illegitimate on its own basis. I am referring instead to a legal problem that most Christians almost never think about.

Sir Thomas More illustrated what he thought would be the ideal society in his brilliant and thought provoking little book Utopia. Referring to the laws of the Utopian society he makes the following observation.

“They have but few laws, and such is their constitution that they need not many.  They very much condemn other nations whose laws, together with the commentaries on them, swell up to so many volumes; for they think it an unreasonable thing to oblige men to obey a body of laws that are both of such a bulk, and so dark as not to be read and understood by every one of the subjects. They have no lawyers among them, for they consider them as a sort of people whose profession it is to disguise matters and to wrest the laws, and, therefore, they think it is much better that every man should plead his own cause, and trust it to the judge, as in other places the client trusts it to a counselor; by this means they both cut off many delays and find out truth more certainly; for after the parties have laid open the merits of the cause, without those artifices which lawyers are apt to suggest, the judge examines the whole matter, and supports the simplicity of such well-meaning persons, whom otherwise crafty men would be sure to run down; and thus they avoid those evils which appear very remarkably among all those nations that labor under a vast load of laws.”

One does not have to wonder much what More would have thought of our current situation in the United States. Not only are there so many laws that it would be simply absurd to suggest that every person know them but the complexity is so great that there is not even a single individual person who could know them all. Perhaps there is good reason for some of this complexity and perhaps Thomas More’s thoughts were a bit too, well utopian. Nevertheless, there are profound implications of having such a complex interlinking of laws for us as Christians. As I said earlier, we are to follow the law but I doubt very much that we know very many people at all who are not in violation of some or other legal requirement.

You might think that I am exaggerating a bit but I doubt it. A few weeks ago Eric Felton wrote an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal called Are We All Online Criminals?. Felton points out some of the implications of just one law, namely the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. According to the U.S. Justice Department’s interpretation of this act it is actually illegal to violate the terms of a service agreement. Felton observes that each of us probably enter into more legal agreements in a year than our grandparents did in their entire lifetime. Because of the restrictive language that is in most of those service agreements (which virtually everyone ignores) there are a number of common behaviors that the Justice Department considers technically illegal and they are pushing for even more restrictive controls. For example, the article points out that providing inaccurate or misleading information to online dating and social networking sites is actually against the law. More surprisingly it is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to use the Google search engine! I wonder how many school teachers knowingly encourage their high school students to do illegal research? The list of similar violations could be virtually endless.

The Justice Department has responded by saying that they have no interest in going after people who commit these kinds of petty violations. Felton points out, however, that although they may choose not to they could. The potential threat to our freedom as Americans should be apparent enough. As Christians, however, does this kind of law place an impossible burden on us? Does Christ’s command that our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no” along with the other verses already mentioned mean that we have moral duty to read and understand all of the fine points of these service agreements? Is it a sin for a 17 year old to use Google or for someone to not give their correct birthday to a networking site in order to protect their privacy?

I do not have an easy answer but I think it is an interesting question. We tend to think of things like stem-cell research or human cloning when discussing the moral implications of newer technologies but there are all sorts of less obvious issues that we need to be thinking about as well. When I consider fallen mankind’s attempts at establishing fair and reasonable laws I want to say with all the more urgency… Lord Jesus Come Quickly! 

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