A while ago I read a book by the historian Niall Ferguson. It was based on his BBC lectures, and had the ominous title, The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die. One of the chapters, one of the talks is called ‘The Landscape of Law’. In it, he describes the genius of the English common law system.
After considering some basic principles of what he means to have a society based on the rule of law, he gets to the particularity of the English system, which we by and large inherited. Ferguson says that the special genius of the common law approach is deciding cases by analogy. Law develops on a case-by-case basis. Yes, there is legislation, but to the extent that that can be avoided, the preference is to leave the ordering of the lives of the citizens to themselves.
This approach presupposes common sense. It presupposes common values. It presupposes a sense of the common good; and, indeed, good faith towards one’s neighbour. As a consequence, the hope is that, for the most part, people will resolve disagreements themselves, having regard both to the law of the land and the general drift of things. Courts will be only needed if this fails, and the law the will only be extended or crystallised if absolutely necessary. This is very like what we find in the book of Exodus. This is very like what we find in the Catholic social justice principle of subsidiarity.
However, as I mentioned, all of this presupposes a common life. It presupposes citizens who see each other as equally involved in society, equally entitled to flourish, equally entitled to the benefits that flow from civil harmony, and therefore also equally responsible for that harmony. Ferguson notes that when this civic order and perspective begins to breakdown, then there is the tendency to try legislate it into existence. However, this seems to perpetuate, even accelerate the problem, simply because trying to legislate good citizens into existence is like trying to lift oneself up by one’s bootstraps. It relies on what it is trying to bring about. To legislate good citizens you first need citizens who will obey the law.
And the more you legislate, the more complicated life becomes, the more onerous being law-abiding is, the greater the temptation to begin to pick and choose which laws I follow. The greater the number of law there are on the books, the less people begin to pay attention. Indeed, over legislating can both infantilise a population and encourage excessive legalism; that is, morality begins to be defined by the law, and people begin to jettison a sense of right and wrong, preferring to abdicate personal accountability to our politicians.
All this is by way of introduction to our gospel today.
It seems in our passage today that Jesus is reducing the whole law down to a few basic principles. It may seem therefore that he is perhaps watering down one’s sense of obligation. Around 600 laws to about 2. But this is only the case if we don’t understand how legal systems work. Or, from another perspective, this is only the case if we ourselves have reduced our sense of responsibility to a legalistic one. If we have refused to develop our own moral compass to conform with God’s law.
These two commandments then are the very structure and blood of life. The first commandment coordinates our lives. We are orientated towards God. God is what demands our attention. God is where we should direct our focus. In fact, God is the centre of worship that defines our common humanity. At base, our thanksgiving is what defines our solidarity.
The second commandment follows from the first. Given we have the same origin, given we have the same goal, given we have the same mode of making our way from beginning to end, namely, obedience to the Word of God, given all this, then we should recognise in each other the love that holds us all in being, and impels us forward.
St Paul says that laws are for those that need them. He is gesturing to this higher law. The law of common worship. The law of mutual care. The law of self-sacrifice for the good of the other. This is the washing of the feet, the making of oneself into food for my neighbour. The laying down of my life for the life of the world. This is the law, the life of the Trinity. As Dante wrote, this is the real law of the stars.
Let’s pray then in our Mass today that we can know this foundational law. May we understand more clearly the true basis of a just society and the recognition of each one of us as in the image of God. Let’s pray that we recognise this all the better to witness to it.