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Sermons on National Subjects, 26 - THE VALUE OF LAW

By Charles Kingsley

      Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God. The powers that be are ordained of God.--ROMANS xiii. 1.

      What is the difference between a civilised man and a savage? You will say: A civilised man can read and write; he has books and education; he knows how to make numberless things which makes his life comfortable to him. He can get wealth, and build great towns, sink mines, sail the sea in ships, spread himself over the face of the earth, or bring home all its treasures, while the savages remain poor, and naked, and miserable, and ignorant, fixed to the land in which they chance to have been born.

      True: but we must go a little deeper still. Why does the savage remain poor and wretched, while the civilised people become richer and more prosperous? Why, for instance, do the poor savage gipsies never grow more comfortable or wiser--each generation of them remaining just as low as their forefathers were, or, indeed, getting lower and fewer? for the gipsies, like all savages, are becoming fewer and fewer year by year, while, on the other hand, we English increase in numbers, and in wealth, and knowledge; and fresh inventions are found out year by year, which give fresh employment and make life more safe and more pleasant.

      This is the reason: That the English have laws and obey them, and the gipsies have none. This is the whole secret. This is why savages remain poor and miserable, that each man does what he likes without law. This is why civilised nations like England thrive and prosper, because they have laws and obey them, and every man does not do what he likes, but what the law likes. Laws are made not for the good of one person here, or the other person there, but for the good of all; and, therefore, the very notion of a civilised country is, a country in which people cannot do what they like with their own, as the savages do. "Not do what he likes with his own?" Certainly not; no one can or does. If you have property, you cannot spend it all as you like. You have to pay a part of it to the government, that is, into the common stock, for the common good, in the shape of rates and taxes, before you can spend any of it on yourself. If you take wages, you cannot spend them all upon yourself and do what you like with them. If you do not support your wife and family out of them, the law will punish you. You cannot do what you like with your own gun, for you may not shoot your neighbour's cattle or game with it. You cannot do what you like with your own hands, for the law forbids you to steal with them. You cannot do what you like with your own feet, for the law will punish you for trespassing on your neighbour's ground without his leave. In short, you can only do with your own what will not hurt your neighbour, in such matters as the law can take care of. And more, in any great necessity the law may actually hurt you for the good of the nation at large. The law may compel you to sell your land, to your own injury, if it is wanted for a railroad. The law may compel you, as it did fifty years ago, to serve as a soldier in the militia, to your own injury, if there is a fear of foreign invasion; so that the law is above each and all of us. Our own wills are not our masters. No man is his own master. The law is the master of each and all of us, and if we will not obey it willingly, it can make us obey unwillingly.

      Can make us? Ay, but ought it to make us? Is it right that the law should over-ride our own free wills, and prevent our doing what we like with our own?

      It is right--absolutely right. St. Paul tells us what gives law this authority: "There is no power but of God. The powers that be are ordained of God." And he tells us also why this authority is given to the law. "Rulers," he says, "are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of those who administer the law? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise from them, for they are God's ministers to thee for good."

      For good, you see. For the good of mankind it was, that God put into their hearts and reasons, that notion of making laws, and appointing kings and magistrates to see that those laws are obeyed. For our good. For without law no man's life, or family, or property would be safe. Every man's private selfishness, and greediness, and anger, would struggle without check to have its way, and there would be no bar or curb to keep each and every man from injuring each and every man else; so the strong would devour the weak, and then tear each other in pieces afterwards. So it is among the savages. They have little or no property, for they have no laws to protect property; and therefore every man expects his neighbour to steal from him, and finds it his shortest plan to steal from his neighbour, instead of settling down to sow corn which he will have no chance of eating, or build houses which may be taken from him at night by some more strong and cunning savage. There is no law among savages to protect women and children against the men, and therefore the women are treated worse than beasts, and the children murdered to save the trouble of rearing them. Every man's hand is against his neighbour. No one feels himself safe, and therefore no one thinks it worth while to lay up for the morrow. No one expects justice and mercy to be done to him, and therefore no one thinks it worth while to do justice and mercy to others. And thus they live in continual fear and quarrelling, feeding like wild animals on game or roots, often, when they have bad luck in their hunting, on offal which our dogs would refuse, and dwindle away and become fewer and wretcheder year by year; in this way do the savages in New South Wales live to this day, for want of law.

      It is for our good, then, that God has put into the heart of man to make laws, and to obey them as sacred and divine things. For our good, in order to save us from sinking down into the same state of poverty and misery in which the savages are. For our good, because we are fallen creatures, with selfish and corrupt wills, continually apt to break loose, and please ourselves at the expense of our neighbours. For our good, because, however fallen we are, we are still brothers, members of God's family, bound to each other by duty and relationship, if not by love.

      Just as in a family, if parents, brothers, and sisters will not do their duty to each other lovingly and of their free will, the law interferes, and the custom of the country interferes, and the opinion of neighbours interferes, and says: "You may not love your parents: but you have no right to leave them to starve." "You may not love your brothers: but if you try to injure and slander them, you are doing an unnatural and hateful thing, abhorred by God and man, and you must expect us to treat you accordingly, as a wild beast who does not feel the common laws of nature and right and wrong." So with the law of the land. The law is meant to remind us more or less that we are brothers, members of one body; that we owe a duty to each other; that we are all equal in God's sight, who is no respecter of persons, or of rank, or of riches, any more than the law is when it punishes the greatest nobleman as severely as the poorest labourer. The law is meant to remind us that God is just; that when we injure each other, we sin against God; that God's rule and law is, that each transgression should receive its just reward, and that, therefore, because man is made in the likeness of God, man is bound, as far as he can, to visit every offence with due and proportionate punishment. And the law punishes, as St. Paul says, in God's name, and for God's sake. The magistrate is a witness for God's righteous government of the world, the minister of God's vengeance against evil-doers, to remind all continually that evil-doing has no place, and cannot prosper, and must not be allowed, upon this God's earth whereon we live.

      But what if the laws are unfair, and punish only some sorts of evil- doers and not others? What if they are like spiders' webs, which catch the little flies, and let the great wasps break through? What if they punish poor and weak offenders, and let the rich and powerful sinners escape? "Obey them still," says St. Paul. In his time and country the laws were as unfair in that way as laws ever were, and yet he tells Christians to obey them for conscience's sake. Thank God that they do punish weak offenders. Pray God that the time may come when they may be strong enough to punish great offenders also. But, in the meantime, see that they have not to punish you. As far as the laws go, they are right and good. As far as they keep down any sort of wrong-doing whatsoever, they are God's ordinances, and you must obey them for God's sake.

      But what if the laws are not only unfair and partial, but also unjust and wrong? Are we to obey them then? Obey them still, says St. Paul. Of course, if they command you to do a clearly wrong thing; if, for instance, the law commanded you to worship idols, or to commit adultery, there is no question then; such laws cannot be God's ordinance. The laws can only be God's ordinance as far as they agree with what we know of God's will written in our hearts, and written in His holy Bible. Then a man must resist the law to the death, if need be, as the old martyrs did, dying as witnesses for God's righteous and eternal law, against man's false and unrighteous law. It is a very difficult thing, no doubt, to tell where to draw the line in such matters. But we, thank God, here in England now, have no need to puzzle our heads with such questions. Every man's conscience is free here, and he has full liberty to worship God as he thinks best, provided that by so doing he does not interfere with his neighbour's character, or property, or comfort. There is no single law in England now, that I know of, which a man has any need to refuse to obey, let his conscience be as tender as it may. And as for laws which we think hurtful to the country, or hurtful to any particular class in the country, our thinking them hurtful is no reason that we should not obey them. As long as they are law, they are God's ordinance, and we have no right to break them. They may be useful after all. Or even if they are hurtful in some way, still God may be bringing good out of them in some other way, of which we little dream, as He has often done out of laws and customs which seem at first sight most foolish and hurtful, and yet which He endured and winked at, for the sake of bringing good out of evil. At all events, whatsoever laws are here in England, are made by the men whom we English have chosen, as the men most fit and wise to make them, and we are bound to abide by them. If Parliament is not wise enough to make perfectly good laws, that is no one's fault but our own; for if we were wise, we should choose wise law-makers, and we must be filled with the fruit of our own devices. As long as these laws have been made and passed, by Commons, Lords, and Queen, according to the ancient forms and constitution which God has taught our forefathers from time to time for more than a thousand years, and which have had God's blessing and favour on them, and made us, from the least of all nations, the greatest nation on the earth; in short, as long as those laws are made according to law, so long we are bound to believe them to be God's ordinance, and obey them. But understand; that is no reason why we should not try to get them improved; for when they are changed and done away according to the same law which made them, that will be a sign that they are God's ordinances no longer; that God thinks we have no more need for them, and does not require us to keep them. But as long as any law is what St. Paul calls "the powers that be," obeyed it must be, not only for wrath, but for conscience's sake.

      That is a very important part of the matter. Obey the law, St. Paul says, not only for wrath, that is, not only for fear of punishment, but for conscience's sake. Even if you do not expect to be punished; even if you think no one will ever find out that you have broken the law, remember it is God's ordinance. He sees you. Do not hurt your own conscience, and deaden your own sense of right and wrong, by breaking the least or the most unjust law in the slightest point.

      For instance: some people think the income-tax is very unfair; and therefore they think there is no harm in cheating the revenue a little, by making out their income less than it is. Others, again, think the laws against smuggling unjust and harsh; and therefore they see no harm in trying to avoid paying duty on goods which they bring home, whenever they have an opportunity, or buying cheap goods, which they must know from their price are smuggled. Others, again, think the game laws are unfair, and therefore see no harm in going out shooting on their own lands without a licence; while many see no harm, or say they see no harm, in poaching on other people's grounds, and killing game contrary to law wherever they can. That it is wrong to break the law in these two first cases, you all know in your own hearts. On the matter of poaching, some of you, I know, have many very mistaken notions. But, my friends, I ask you only to look at the sin and misery which poaching causes, if you want to see that those who break the law do indeed break the ordinance of God, and that God's laws avenge themselves. Look at the idleness, the untidiness, the deceit, the bad company, the drunkenness, the misery and sin, to man, woman, and child, which that same poaching brings about, and then see how one little sin brings on many great ones; how a man, by despising the authority of law, and fancying that he does no harm in disobeying the laws, from his own fancy about poaching being no harm, falls into temptation and a snare, and pierces himself through with many sorrows. My young friends, believe my words. Avoid poaching, even once in a way. The beginning of sin is like the letting out of water; no one can tell where it will stop. He who breaks the law in little things will be tempted to go on and break it in greater and greater things. He who begins by breaking man's law, which is the pattern of God's law, will be tempted to go on and break God's law also. Is it not so? There is no use telling me, "The game is no one's; there is no harm in taking it." Light words of that kind will not do to answer God with. You know there is harm in taking it; for you know, as well as I do, that you cannot go after game without neglecting your work to get it; or without going to the worst of public-houses, among the worst of company, to sell it. You know, as well as I do, that hand in hand with poaching go lying, and idling, and sneaking, and fear, and boasting, and swearing, and drinking, and the company of bad men and bad women. And then you say there is no harm in poaching. Do you suppose that I do not know, as well as any one of you here, what goes to the snaring of a hare, and the selling of a hare, and the spending of the ill-got price of a hare? My dear young men, I know that poaching, like many other sins, is tempting: but God has told us to flee from temptation--to resist the devil, and he will flee from us. If we are to give up ourselves without a struggle to every pleasant thing which tempts us, we shall soon be at the devil's door. We were sent into the world to fight against temptation and to conquer it. We were sent into the world to do what God likes, not what we like; and therefore we were sent into the world to obey the laws of the land wherein we live, be they better or worse; because if we break one law because we don't like it, our neighbour may break another because he don't like that, and so forth; till there is neither law, nor peace, nor safety, but every man doing what is right in his own eyes, which is sure to end by every man's doing what is right in the devil's eyes. We were sent into the world to live as brothers, under laws which make us give up our own wills and selfish lusts for the common good. And if we find it difficult to keep the laws, if we are tempted to break the laws, God has promised His Spirit to those who ask Him. God has promised His Spirit to us. If we pray for that Spirit night and morning, He will make it easy for us to keep the laws. He will make us what our Lord was before us, humble, patient, loving, manful and strong enough to restrain our fancies and appetites, and to give up our wills for the good of our neighbours, anxious and careful to avoid all appearance of evil, trusting that because God is just, and God is King, all laws which are not wicked are His ordinance, and therefore being obedient to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake, even as Jesus Christ Himself was, who, though He was Lord of all, paid taxes and tribute money to the Roman government, like the rest of the Jews, and kept the law of Moses perfectly, and was baptised with John's baptism, to show that in all just and reasonable things we are to obey the laws and customs of our forefathers, in the country to which it has pleased the Lord that we should belong.

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