What would you say if I told you that being a law abiding citizen can be one of the most despicable and horrible things a person could be. Would you call me a radical? Would you call me an insurrectionist? Revolutionary? Well, if you and I lived in Germany in the 1940’s it would simply be decent to not be a law abiding citizen. Law is a peculiar thing. It is drafted by those in power and may be bended and shaped by the capricious will of those who wield institutional authority. We say that we believe in “the rule of law”. But I ask the question, who rules over the law?
Today the world found out that the Obama Administration has sanctioned the assassination of American citizens suspected of terrorist connections and plots by unmanned drones. Today I listened to the news as one representative of the government said that this was lawful. And it made me think about something very important. Something that Howard Zinn does a far better job expounding in his Reader. I am speaking of the difference between law and justice. And the choice each of us must make in regards to them. What will we hold in the ascendency? When push comes to shove which of these two will influence our actions and course in life? Sometimes laws are just and it is right to obey. But other times law and justice clash and we are left to answer the words of the old labor song, “Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on.”
In Germany in the 1940’s it was legal to turn in Jews and murder them. It was illegal to hide them or protect them. Hitler came to power legally. He came to power through popular elections. But the laws he enacted, and the administration he set up, was nothing less than the archfoe of justice. To choose justice over the law during such a time was costly. You very well could be put to death. To be a law abiding citizen, to take the road of less resistance, would have meant an utter rejection of justice. Luckily, we do not yet face such dire circumstances in this country. But when a nation turns its own military on its citizens ominous times very well may be approaching.
Howard Zinn uses the wonderful illustration of the moving train and coins that ingenious phrase, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” We live on a moving train. Our nation, our communities, our government, are all going in a certain direction. The overarching goal of the state is to make us obedient, patriotic, law-abiding citizens. And if it is unable to illicit such strong feelings then it would simply have us remain “neutral”; to take no stand one way or another; to be content with beer and cable tv. Why? Because neutrality is an illusion. In the words of the Canadian Rock band Rush, if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice. The only right and just course is that of resistance. You and I must resist the path that is being taken. We must jump the train of law and take the train of justice which at this time is moving in a totally opposite direction.
In all spheres of life we must move against the current. When faced with unjust laws that may not hurt us, but hurt our sister or brother, we must choose justice. In the economic realm and on the job we must choose justice. In the political arena we must choose justice and resist allegiance to the entrenched powers who dictate “law”. In the spiritual realm we must resist passive obedience to the beast who looks like the Lamb but speaks with the tongue of the Dragon. The spiritual beast who tempts us to passive obedience to the state and to an exploitative economic system. We must resist this present evil age and proclaim and live out a new way.
The old prophet Amos told God’s people that he was sick of their worship services. Tired of their hymns and emotional songs of praise. Their patiotism and religious observances were vanity. Instead, God called for justice to roll down like a flood. God called on his people to resist the popular trends of their day and to return to justice. Not even strict, legalistic observance of the law was enough. No. Only justice would do. But if we choose justice we put ourselves in danger of having our hearts pierced along with the oppressed and marginalized. But if we choose such a path we may comfort ourselves with the fact that we are in good company. The Nazarene said, “Blessed are you when you are persecuted for justice’ sake. For that’s how the prophets were treated.” And of course, we will find ouselves in the company of the Master Himself.
Check out Howard Zinn’s page: http://www.howardzinn.org/zinn/