I think Chesterton is on to something profound when he says that when you abandon the big laws, you don’t get freedom and you don’t even get anarchy: you get the small laws.
In other words, the paradoxical effect of attempting to be lawless is to become more and ever more legalistic, to parse words ever more finely, to look for every loophole, excuse, technicality, and microscopic nuance in order to try to show why what you are doing is not really against the law that haunts our hearts.
We see it in the kid who carefully tells his Mom, “Yes, I had a piece of cake” while neglecting to mention that the piece consisted of three quarters of the cake. We see it in the memorable words—almost the only memorable words—of a recent President, who pondered what the exact, precise, fine-tuned meaning of the word “is” is. We see it in the closely-parsed attempts of people who attempt to find excuses when it comes to their preferred evils; whether it be abortion on the Left or torture on the Right.
The excuses are psychologically necessary because something in our hearts tells us there’s something wrong with beating, drowning, and hanging a defenseless (and sometimes innocent) man. When that man dies of injuries inflicted by interrogators as some prisoners in our charge have done, we have to rename what we did “enhanced interrogation” in order to avoid looking ourselves in the eye. When we willingly endorse a system that leaves a baby to gasp out her last breaths on a sterile tabletop, we can’t endure having to look at that. So to distract ourselves, we embark on a prolonged search for exact, super-precise legalities that will place a cushiony barrier between our conscience and the crime.
“Does waterboarding rise to the level of torture?” ask ostensibly Christian pundits, oblivious to the fact that we hanged the Imperial Japanese for it and doubly oblivious to the fact that present Christian defenders of torture are using precisely the microscopically parsed language the Clintonoids deployed eight years ago to avoid impeachment.
“Exactly when does a fetus become a baby?” Nancy Pelosi trots out all her best lawyerly skills to enlist the Church Fathers in splitting ultra-fine hairs about precisely, technically when a child is being torn to pieces and burnt alive and when it’s just a piece of meat.
What all this lawyerly electron microscopy overlooks is that such attempts to tiptoe right up to grave evil are themselves wicked.
Don’t believe it? What would you think of a friend (let’s call him “Bill Clinton”) who is constantly emailing you to ask just how far he can go with the hot secretary without it actually crossing the line into, you know, “adultery” (he always puts the word in scare quotes, as though there isn’t really such a thing and he’s certainly not guilty of it). He continues:
“After all, not all touching is necessarily sexual in nature. And besides, her husband is really a jerk. And just because you kiss somebody doesn’t necessarily mean you mean it in that way. Why, St. Paul says to greet the brethren with a holy kiss! So you could say that I’m just obeying God. And she’s so lonely and frightened right now. I feel like I’m her only friend. And let’s not forget King David. He was a friend to Abigail when her foolish husband acted like a brute and he was rewarded by God for it. And another thing, just how much clothing is “too little” clothing for us to wear around each other? That’s so vague! I mean, you can go to the beach and see lots of people with a lot less on! And has the Church ever dogmatically defined how many centimeters you actually have to penetrate in the act of sex before it’s technically called ‘adultery’? I’m just asking for clarity here!”
No. The last thing such a Clintonian line of questioning seeks is clarity. These questions—like the vast majority of “What is torture? What is a baby?” questions—are asked, not to find things out, but to keep from finding things out. The goal of this rhetoric is to create a haze of fog that shrouds the intrinsically immoral act from view.
Happily, however, there is a remedy for all this tergiversation. The straightest, truest highway out of the morass of intellectual darkness caused by the sinful attempt to ask “How much sin can we get away with?” is this: “How do we act virtuously?”
The moment we go from framing the question in terms of trying to bargain our way out of damnation and instead frame it in terms of seeking virtue, all the fog disappears. We no longer have to wonder just how close we can tiptoe up to adultery without committing it. We don’t have to endure puzzlement about how near to hypothermia we can push our victim without it being torture. We don’t have to microscopically parse the question “How near to personhood should our victim be before its wrong to burn them alive or tear them apart in their mother’s womb?”
When you are trying to be virtuous and not merely trying to get away with something, you don’t do that kind of stuff. The whole discussion begins on a different footing. You ask things like “How can I love, honor, and cherish my wife and avoid the near occasion of sin?” You seek to interrogate prisoners in a framework of humane treatment and discover that people more readily divulge accurate information to people they trust than to people they hate and fear. You find that people who retain their dignity as human beings are more likely to be accurate than people who have been pushed past the brink of madness by cruelty. You seek to care for women and their children without making it a kill-or-be-killed scenario.
You trust, in short, that Jesus knows what he’s talking about when he tells us “Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you as well.”