When I was a child I was taught that laws were meant to be kept and respected. “Why?”, I asked. “Because they are the Law,” was the answer. By definition, then, laws were those human inventions that must be respected and followed by the sheer fact of their existence.
Somehow, that explanation sufficed for a time. But it sufficed because I was ten years old, a white kid growing up in Northern California in the Sixties, without any clear picture of how good I had it. My times were about to become tumultuous, and a few years later, when I was in high school, that explanation, that Law was sovereign just because, was blown open by a quiet American history teacher who engaged our teenage minds at the ground level.
“Have you ever wondered,” he mused one day in class, “why no black people live in Napa? Why the nearest place you will find blacks owning or renting homes is Vallejo, and beyond that, Oakland?” No, we admitted, we had not. “Do you know what redlining is?” he asked. Not a clue, we said.
He explained to us how redlining was the practice, by banks and other lending institutions, of drawing a line around neighborhoods that wanted to exclude certain people from buying there, people who might lower property values by their presence. Such was the practice in Napa at the time, and as such it came as a shock to us.
There was more: he explained how segregation was legal, how blacks in parts of the country were not allowed to eat, drink, sleep, learn, live, or have their being in proximity to whites, and that this was the result of laws intended to literally keep blacks in their place. Some laws are designed to hurt and destroy, he said, and he implored us to think critically about such laws.
Then there was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who, in his “I Have a Dream” speech and his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” further showed us that “legal” doesn’t necessarily mean “ethical,” and that laws—whatever their origin and intent— should be held up to the light to see if there be any light in them.
All this came as a revelation to us ninth-graders living up on a beautiful mountain above the Napa Valley in the mid-Sixties, while the world swirled and tossed just down the road. It was a valuable and precious education, one that marked me for the rest of my life, and instilled in me a longing for the justice that “rolls down like waters.”
Ethics, said Lord Moulton, “is obedience to the unenforceable.” It does not have the coercive power of law, relying as it does on the will and the discipline of those who long for justice and who understand the power of mercy. We expect our legislators to write good laws and abide by them, but we hope they will aspire to the higher standard of ethics. It is part of the bond of person to person and of the maintenance of community.
We are now faced with a president who derides the customs of ethics and whose advisors cynically put forward ‘alternate facts’ in the face of reality. We are told that we shouldn’t take it so personally—after all it’s just business. Under the cover of security, patriotism, and freedom we are sold laws that destroy the many for the benefit of the few. Whether it be laws that tear apart families or deny entrance to this country to those who have been granted it, or laws that make it legal to deny access to the Internet for those who can’t afford it, or the lifting of laws that make predatory business practices illegal, or laws that make it legal to discriminate against others in the name of religion, they are laws that give the Law a bad name and appeal to the basest of human weaknesses.
“It is a hard task to be good,” said Aristotle, for “in every case it is a task to find the median”, the ground of virtue (between the extremes). But that is what we are called to do as humans, according to Aristotle and a host of others through the millennia, and that is what we are called to do as people of faith, according to virtually every religion in history.
Virtue, advised Aristotle, is a matter of practice, of making habitual the finding of the middle between the extremes of human characteristics. It’s best to start practicing when young, said Aristotle, because it’s awfully hard to develop virtuous habits after a lifetime of ricocheting between the extremes. That’s where education comes in, he thought, and that’s why I am grateful for my history teacher and many others, who persuaded us to question the disparity between bad laws and ethics. My teacher let us know that it was our right and our duty to call out such laws and to live into better ethics.
“All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? . . .
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.” (T. S. Eliot, Journey of the Magi)