If you haven’t watched A Man for All Seasons in a while, now might just be a good time. It’s a story about what happens when you don’t want to keep inconvenient rules—a story very much for our times. Might be helpful for all of us who follow Jesus (Don’t gossip. Don’t have sex outside of marriage. Give sacrificially. Show hospitality.), with a specific application for President Obama, Texas Governor Rick Perry and the Ferguson protesters.
The film should be a great conversation starter, especially when the House of Representatives just filed suit against President Obama for delaying requirements of the Affordable Care law until after this fall’s election. When Texas Governor Rick Perry was just indicted for attempting to coerce a drunk but locally elected official to step down. And when the protestors in Ferguson want the governor to coerce the District Attorney to recuse himself from the Michael Brown shooting case because of his ties to law enforcement, not to mention their desire that the Grand Jury process should be scrapped because of its secrecy. In the Best Picture Oscar-winning movie King Henry VIII wants to unload his son-barren wife because he has his eye on the young, fertile Ann Boleyn. The problem is…the church and state forbid divorce because of Jesus’ teaching. When the rules stand in the way of our own desires how should we respond?
In the true-to-history movie Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor to England’s King Henry VIII, found himself in increasing trouble with the king. The King demanded his support for his divorce from Queen Catherine, his brother’s widow. Henry tries to use that relationship to excuse his divorce: “It was a sin. God's punished me. I have no son. Son after son she's borne me – all dead at birth or dead within the month. Never saw the hand of God so clear in anything. It's my bounden duty to put away the Queen and all the popes back to Peter shall not come between me and my duty! How is it that you cannot see? Everyone else does.”*
But More refuses to take the oath to support the King’s divorce and his break with the Pope. He knows that under the law, silence is taken as consent. (As in, I see you dealing drugs and say nothing to the police. Legally I could be prosecuted for withholding evidence.) When an adversary threatens More the following conversation unfolds (same conversation as on the video):
Meg (More’s daughter): Father, that man's bad.
More: There's no law against that.
Will Roper (Meg’s suitor): There is: God's law.
More: Then God can arrest him.
More’s wife: And while you talk, he’s gone!
More: And go he should, if he were the devil himself, until he broke the law.
Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
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!
More is counting on the law’s interpretation of silence to protect him. And it does for years…until his adversary, accepting a bribe of political office, lies under oath about him. More is quickly convicted of treason and sentenced to execution.
In a fallen world people lie under oath. Laws may indeed be unjust. Prosecutors may indeed have vested interests. Political office holders may indeed use their office to reward their friends and attack their enemies.
But I’m thinking the greater danger is to cut down and flatten the laws…and our respect for the law. Our laws provide a great safety net, a shield of protection that I know I take for granted. Increasingly we live in a world where those sworn to uphold the law are flattening it…
…by delaying requirements
…by not defending the laws when they are challenged
…by using it to pressure legally elected officials to step aside**
And I wonder why they feel at such liberty to “cut great roads through the law”? Maybe because increasingly our laws are cut loose from God’s law? Sir Thomas More would not sign the oath because the law requiring him to do so violated God’s law. After his conviction he finally attacked the law that required his oath: “The indictment is grounded in an act of Parliament which is directly repugnant to the law of God, and his Holy Church, the Supreme Government of which no temporal person may by any law presume to take upon him.”
Once our laws are cut loose from the anchor of God’s laws then the only democratic basis that remains is majority vote. But the majority can get it so wrong. It was a majority vote that sustained slavery for far too long and was only overturned by a bloody civil war.
So how should we respond when the laws thwart our own desires?
First, make sure that our own desires are in line with God’s laws. It is hard when sometimes his rules feel so inconvenient. But God’s laws offer the best protection for our joy and against the devil’s rampage of chaos and destruction. We do not want to be caught in open field, having flattened God’s laws in our own life, when he turns round and sets his sights on us. When we are partnering with God to do his redemptive work in this world we know what it feel what it’s like to be targets of his wrath. But we are not exposed to it like we are when we have cut through God’s protective laws. Then…there truly is no place to hide. If we are estranged from God He stands ready and willing to reconcile and forgive, if only we turn from our road-cutting ways. Then the way is open to hide ourselves in his Rock of protection.
Second, if the laws are unjust, or the office-holders are unjustly applying the law, raise your voices in protest. This is a democracy of “We the People.” But be careful what you wish for. To the protesters in Ferguson: Without a Grand Jury a prosecutor can arrest any suspect he chooses. The Grand Jury process was instituted to be a check on the DA’s abuse of power. In Saint Louis the prosecutor always must submit to the Grand Jury process when the accusation is homicide. If you seek to flatten the laws for Grand Juries you may find yourself in an open field with a devil of a prosecutor.
Third, if we find ourselves caught between obeying God’s law on the one hand and man’s unjust law on the other, then we have two options: work to change the law. Just as the Greene family did to exempt Hobby Lobby from the law requiring they fund abortion-inducing contraceptives in their employee’s health care plan. The Supreme Court ruled in their favor.
Or like the apostles and Sir Thomas More, if we cannot escape the unjust law we can defy it and put ourselves in God’s hands. “Acts 4:19-20 But Peter and John answered [the Pharisees who charged them “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus”], "Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard."
And as More said at his execution, “I die his Majesty's good servant but God's first.”
(* We now know that Henry’s sons were hemophiliacs who died from uncontrolled bleeding. We also know that the gene for hemophilia is carried on the Y chromosome. So it was Henry’s genetic fault he had no sons. But God used even that to put Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, on the throne. She steered England to be Protestant and stopped the torture and murder of Protestants like Bible translator William Tyndale, a practice the loyal Catholic Sir Thomas More had supported.)
(** While Gov. Perry has been indicted of this he has not been convicted. He legally used a line item veto to deny funding to the drunk official. But the official headed a task force that was investigating a cancer advocacy group that he favored. Was he using the power of his office to coerce a locally elected official to step down? It’s messy and we have not seen the evidence. However, if we share Perry’s Christian conservative values we need to be careful when a public official is indicted of breaking the law. George Soros has funded the group that brought the charge, which imho makes the allegations terribly suspect. But the Bexar county prosecutor, a Republican appointee, was able to convince 9 of 12 Grand Jury members that the case has merit and should go to trial.)
Are you concerned about how laws are getting flattened? By others? By ourselves?