Laws and the Law

The individuality of the spiritual person is not opposed to the loving community of persons; each can, essentially, be itself only through the other.

                                                                                    --Karl Rahner            


The more deeply I enter into community with others, the more I become myself, as Karl Rahner notes in the citation above.

The line cited comes from The Christian Commitment, a book Rahner published only a few years prior to the Second Vatican Council, where Rahner's theology played an important and formative role. Rahner makes the observation above in the context of discussing what he sees as the problem of conflict arising between "the spiritual person" in that person's unique and irreplaceable "individuality" on the one hand, and the "institutional and legally organized Church" on the other.

For Rahner himself, of course, "the Church" means first, last, and above all the Roman Catholic Church, with its entire governing hierarchy and its full body of dogma, doctrine, and ritual. But the conflict he addresses is hardly confined to that particular denomination of Christianity. Nor is it confined to the organized, "institutional" religion of Christianity as a whole--nor even to what we call "religion" at all. Rather, it is a conflict that can and does arise whenever institutionalization as such occurs in any sphere of human life whatever, from religion to politics to the economy to sexuality to eating and toilet practices.

What is more, Rahner's analysis of the roots of that conflict are also applicable across the board. To use his own formulation in terms of "the Church," he takes careful note that the problem, the conflict, at issue arises when, as it were, the proper order of priorities is not maintained. It arises, specifically, when it is forgotten that "the institutional Church," in common with all  institutions of whatever sort for whatever part of human life together, is ultimately there for the sake of the fulfillment of the uniquely individual, singular members of that Church.

Churchgoers are not there for the sake of the Church; the Church is there for the sake of the churchgoers. As Rahner writes: "the fulfillment [of those individual members who are the Church] is in fact what the Church is there to serve, in relation to which she, as a social, external, and legal institution, is the lower and hence the subordinate thing."

Exactly the same holds for any and every institution whatever. Any institution is there for the sake of those it is supposed to serve; they are not there for the institution's sake. When that is forgotten, good becomes evil.

That applies to the institutions we call "laws" no less than it does to Rahner's own Roman Catholic Church: Laws are there to serve us, not we to serve them.

Karl Rahner

Karl Rahner

*     *     *

Death is in "living" by the Law, which constitutes me as separate, isolates me in my own judgment and justification, and confirms my isolation by giving me a "standard" with which to judge and reject others.

                                                                                    --Thomas Merton 

To "live by the Law" is to subordinate ourselves to that which by nature is subordinate to us, the community of all the unique, irreplaceable individuals we all are. It is to distort the Law, which is meant to serve life itself, into something that serves death instead.

For example: "To serve and protect," is a common motto for police departments, often to be seen on the sides of police cars throughout the United States. Unfortunately, however, a twisting and denaturing often occurs whereby what the police serve is no more than the dominant coercive forces that rule the society, which all too often turn out to be racist, misogynist, homophobic, or in some other way exclusionary, rather than communal. And what such distortedly, perversely instituted police actually protect is nothing other than the privilege of those who exercise such exclusionary force. To put the two together, although the police may indeed "serve and protect," as their favored slogan has it, what they serve is power and what they protect is privilege. 

What we might call our public, collectively dominant way of thinking--a way of thinking that has itself been imposed upon us by the dominant coercive forces in service to themselves--long ago became conditioned to accepting such distortions of sense. In fact, our collective public thought has become distorted to such an extent that the very thought that the purpose of the Law and legal institutions is not to confine us but to free us strikes us as an altogether un-thinkable thought--sheer non-sense. 

It is just such an unthinkable thought, however, that such figures as Karl Rahner, from whom I took the epigraph for the first section of this post, or Thomas Merton, from whom I took the one for this second section, give us to think. It is, indeed, a thought that we are all called to think, not only today but also yesterday and tomorrow. We are always called upon to think that unthinkable thought, whenever we are given to think at all about ourselves. We are all always so called to think, in both the "distributive" sense of that term, whereby it means each and every single, unique one of us, and its "collective" sense, meaning the full community of all such singular ones together.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Christian, heard the call so to think, and answered it with his whole life when the assassin's bullet took that life in Memphis, Tennessee, in the spring of 1968. It is the call to resist the laws in the name of the Law itself, that very Law the whole sense of which is lost if we forget that it is given us for our sake, one and all, and begin to think that we are bound by it even when it forgets itself, and what it's for.

Around the same time Dr. King was assassinated, a number of Buddhist monks immolated themselves in the streets of Saigon in protest against the war the United States—and the South Vietnamese government the United States founded and maintained—were conducting against the Vietnamese people. Twenty years before that, Mohandas K. Gandhi, a Hindu, taught us the same lesson. It is the same lesson, to return to Christianity, that Christ taught us on the Cross, just as it a lesson taught by untold other teachers of all the world's other religious and spiritual traditions besides Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. That lesson is that in the very name of the Law, which is given only for the sake of life, we are sometimes called upon to sacrifice our very lives in protest against laws that falsely claim to embody the Law.

When the laws forget themselves and the Law they are there to serve, we are all obligated to break those laws to remind one another of the truth. It is love itself that demands it!

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law (Rembrandt 1659)

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law (Rembrandt 1659)