Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
– Romans 10:1-4
If you read the Christian biblical narrative, it’s easy to miss how weird it is that the scribes and Pharisees were the bad guys. Think about it: they fasted more, gave more, prayed more, sacrificed more than others did. They were diligent in creating laws that they felt reflected the commandments of God and scrupulous about observing them. They set high standards of behavior and did their best to ensure the community reached them, ruthlessly punishing those who stepped out of line. The scribes and Pharisees wanted nothing less than to use the law to bring their society into harmony with God’s will.
Doesn’t this goal sound familiar? It should: it continues to animate activists to this very day. How else to describe the impulse to ban abortion and resistance to the very concept of same-sex marriage? When pushed, many who espouse these views would tell you that the actions they are resisting “go against God.” And let us not neglect the liberal end of the spectrum: substitute “God’s will” with “truth” or “progress” and suddenly views supportive of – for instance – using the weight of the law to force religiously orthodox bakers to cater same-sex weddings become nearly inevitable.
It is an impulse intrinsic to the spirit of the political activist to use the law as the primary tool in aligning the world with his personal conception of moral order. And laws do have a role in restraining the worst impulses of the human heart by promising punishment for certain acts or, occasionally, omissions. But the political activist sees potential beyond the minimal standards of fairness and decency: he sees in the law the pathway to a new world order, a bridge to a future of harmony and justice and righteousness.
And yet when has the law ever accomplished such a lofty goal? The law desegregated America’s schools over half a century ago, but public schools are less racially diverse today than they were when Brown v. Board of Education ended official school segregation. The law criminalizes sexual harassment and assault, yet sexual violence remains a threat for a disturbing number of children and adults of both sexes, as the horrifying proliferation of MeToo hashtags demonstrates. Laws against murder are perhaps the most ancient and widespread, yet mass killings, gangland massacres and even police shootings persist.
The sad fact is that even the most just laws cannot make a just society unless the people love justice. Even the most protective laws will fail to protect unless the people see the vulnerable as objects of care rather than targets for predation. Even the most righteous laws will fall short unless the people hunger and thirst for righteousness. If the people are wicked, the law can punish and, hopefully, deter – but the law cannot transform. Its only power is coercion, its only persuasion the threat of violence.
Does that mean we should give up on seeking just laws? Of course not! But if what we want is not just an orderly society but a flourishing one – where God is revered, families are strong, human life is cherished, the natural creation is protected, and justice and mercy share a place of honor – the law won’t get us there.
What will? Love, which is the mark of the true follower of Christ. I’m not talking about a weak, wishy-washy love that puts up with anything, but a love too strong to abandon a friend and too pure to be silent in the face of sin. This is the difference between our current practice of either cutting off or silently accommodating people we think are wrong and the assertive, godly approach of using loving, authentic relationships to share the good news of God’s truth and love. To paraphrase my dear friend Brandon Zicha, if we would truly see America become a Christian nation, we must put our highest efforts into honoring God’s Word in our hearts rather inscribing it in our laws.
You show that you are a letter of Christ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
– 2 Corinthians 3:3-6