Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Alluring Pull of Legalism

Christianity is a religion of freedom. We are no longer ruled by a legalistic code, but instead ruled by a higher law, the law of love. This is the lighter yoke that Jesus invites us to embrace. Despite this, it seems that we are all too willing to return to the indiscriminate cycle of karmic consequence. This is by no means a new phenomenon. In Galatians 4:9, we observe St Paul expressing exasperation at the Galatians for returning back to the self-imposed shackles of legalism:

Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved again?


And yet the Galatians seemed to be quite willing to return to slavery after having their taste of freedom and this is true of Christians even today. No matter how much we might talk about grace prevailing over law, it is all too easy for us to slip back into our old legalistic habits. But why is this? Yesterday, I read a passage from the inimitable Victor Hugo that I found particularly illuminating:

His supreme anguish was the loss of certainty. He felt that he had been uprooted. The code was no longer anything more than a stump in his hand. He had to deal with scruples of an unknown species. There had taken place within him a sentimental revelation entirely distinct from legal affirmation, his only standard of measurement hitherto. To remain in his former uprightness did not suffice. A whole order of unexpected facts had cropped up and subjugated him. A whole new world was dawning on his soul: kindness accepted and repaid, devotion, mercy, indulgence, violences committed by pity on austerity, respect for persons, no more definitive condemnation, no more conviction, the possibility of a tear in the eye of the law, no one knows what justice according to God, running in inverse sense to justice according to men. He perceived amid the shadows the terrible rising of an unknown moral sun; it horrified and dazzled him. An owl forced to the gaze of an eagle.(Les Miserables, Volume 5, Book 4)


For the inspector Javert, the quintessential legalist, the law affirmed his identity in several respects:

Firstly, Javert identifies so strongly with the law because it has been the guiding principle of his life; his reason for being. It is all he knows. It is not surprising in this respect that we would embrace legalism, considering that we are brought up in a performance orientated culture, where one's value as a person is intrinsically connected to their level of achievement.

Secondly, Javert knew where he stood with the law. Black was black and white was white. Self-reflection and soul searching was not necessary for Javert because he held an immutable code that could effectively prescribe the behaviour required from him. Seeing this characteristic in Christians today, Peter Cameron remarked:

It's a hard thing, this being a Christian, this doing without the external props. And we're constantly trying to supply external props, whether in more precise statements of belief or more detailed instructions on how the Christian should behave. ... People generally want to be told what to do and believe, and they think that our unwillingness to do so results from confusion and lack of faith.


Thirdly, because Javert understood his world in such a black and white manner, he was able to construct categories which separated people into clear cut castes. To be a convict was to permanently be identified as a bad person, whereas he was a respectable and respected detective. These categories started to shatter when the fugitive Jean Valjean treats Javert with mercy. That a convict could act with kindness was previously unthinkable for Javert and this event causes him to lose his sense of equilibrium.

Fourthly, as an officer of the law, Javert believed himself to be a good and honourable person. Once Javert realises that perhaps there is a higher law he has been neglecting, he starts to realise that the standards he has been applying have been useless and the self-assurance he had about his character begins to disintegrate. Interestingly, in Phillipians 3:4-9, St Paul echoes this idea and suggests a better way:

If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.


Paradoxically, Jesus' lighter yoke proves to be more difficult in some ways than legalism. While legalism merely demands assent from our body, Jesus' lighter yoke requires us to love God from our heart and soul, as well as our mind. With our heart and soul we must serve God and others out of a spirit of love, rather than out of a begrudging sense of obligation - mere observance of the rules will not be sufficient and at times may even be antithetical to truly loving our neighbour. With our mind, we will wrestle with God about what we need to do to show this love for God and for others. Without reference to a legalistic code, this requires a commitment towards soul searching and communion with God. And because we can always be more loving, we must continue to scale Mount Olympus, knowing all too well that we have yet to reach the summit.

1 comment:

CraigS said...

Some very good thoughts there David. I enjoyed your analysis of Javert.