U.S. Air Force photo by Carol Lawrence [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Copyright 2016 Robert Osburn

 A version of this essay was first delivered before a group of international students at the University of Minnesota in 2011. 

When I took my first drivers license exam, I learned about the laws regulating driving in most American states.  I read them on paper and I read them on a computer screen.  I passed a test that proved I knew these laws. So, did this make me a law-abiding driver?

I must acknowledge the truth: I am not always a law-abiding driver, even though I should be.

But, there are occasions when I do become a law-abiding driver.  I’ve noticed that when these particular occasions arise, all the cars ahead of me suddenly hit their brakes: It looks like Christmas with all those red lights lit up.

Do you know when I and my fellow drivers become very law-abiding?  It is when I see a traffic policeman who is there to enforce the driving laws.

Truth is, I do obey the traffic laws most of the time when the policeman is not there, but not always.  Why? Is there a difference between written laws and the man who enforces them?  Why isn’t the written law sufficient to command my obedience, and why does a person command my obedience in a way that written laws don’t?

In 1644, Samuel Rutherford, an English lawyer, wrote something that can help us think about this.  He said that for many millennia the king, or the emperor (the strongman), was the law.  But, wrote Rutherford, there is a way to make law the king.  He used two Latin words to show this distinction: rex and lex.  Think about how changing the order of the words makes all the difference: lex rex (law is king) vs. rex lex (the king is law).  Rex lex, the rule of the king, is personal, but, unfortunately, it is often subjective and arbitrary.  In other words, if the king makes the law, then he can change the law when he wants to.

By contrast, lex rex, the rule of law, is impersonal, which is a weakness. Its strength, however, is that it is written, and thus not easily changed.  It is also the objective product of careful policy debate and discussion.

So what does this have to do with driving cars and obeying traffic policemen?  The way an academic would pose the question is this: “Is the rule of law both necessary and sufficient in order to promote a society of law-abiding citizens?”

Think about that question for a minute, because most Western governments, including the USA, actively promote the rule of law, often as a key step towards democracy and freedom.  I question that assumption. Is the rule of law both necessary and sufficient to make a truly democratic society?  I believe the answer is “No,” but why?  Let me answer the question with three points.

First, I obey the policeman, or the king, more readily than the written law because as a human being I am wired for relationship.  From the very beginning of time, humans were and are deeply concerned for relationships.  Those of Asian background work very hard to save face (their own and others), not just because it is the way of Confucius, but because they are social beings who are somehow connected to each other as persons.  Jesus said that the essence of the law, at its very core, is love for God and love for neighbor (Matthew 22:35-39).  Christians believe that we are created in the image of a God who is three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who have loved each other eternally.   Relationship is what we are.  Relationship motivates us more than abstractions.

Yes, it’s true that we fear the consequences of being caught disobeying the law, but at its core, we care about other human beings, even if we only care what they think of us.   Law is compelling when it is personal, more than when it is an abstraction.  I obey the policeman because he is a person, and I owe something to persons that I don’t owe to abstractions.

But this leads to a problem and to my second point: Because humans are sinful, the rule of the leader can be and often is very abusive and arbitrary. A deeply-embedded Asian idea is that the leader is virtuous and benevolent, but this has been contradicted time and again in practice with disastrous results (all around the world).  One need only think of China’s cultural revolution in order to think of a ruler who abused his rule and made law very arbitrary.

Yes, the policeman is constrained by laws, but in most countries of the world he is not constrained, and so he demands bribes.  Thus, we have a terrible problem.  Rulers and policemen are often themselves very bad.

This brings me to a third point: The rule of law, however, also has real limitations.  We tend not to obey it as readily as we do a person.  It is also a blunt instrument that does not take account of human need.  Jesus himself attacked the bluntness of the law in Matthew 12.  There is something inside us that makes us prone to disobey the law.  Being abstract instead of personal, law doesn’t command our obedience, a point made by Paul, a founder of Christianity, in Romans 7.

So, we have a dilemma: We respond better to the rule of leaders who are prone to great abuses and injustice, but our desire is for the fair and impartial benefits of abstract law, which we are far less prone to naturally obey. Is it possible to combine the fairness and objectivity of the rule of law with the compelling desire to obey a ruler?

There is only one solution to our problem: We need to be in relationship with a perfect leader in order for us to value and commit ourselves to the abstract rule of law.  He should be one who compels obedience by his genuine benevolence and virtue.  He should resist arbitrary or abusive uses of law.  This kind of person fulfills a dream that is especially strong in Confucian societies that have suffered from so many emperors claiming to be sons of heaven but who often behave more like warlords.

If we have followed one who is absolutely perfect, then we will obey him and will be willing to be self-governed, even to the point of obeying abstract law.  Christians have come to understand through several thousand years of experience that Jesus Christ fulfills this need in profound ways.  Jesus said He came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (to embody it).  Thus, I am not surprised that the most law-abiding societies throughout the world tend to be societies with an historic Christian foundation, and that is because at one time these societies believed that we must accept the love of Jesus (which is personal) and thus become willing to obey the written law (which is abstract and impersonal).

It is this remarkable offer to begin a relationship with God through Jesus Christ that has always motivated followers of Christ to be law-abiding truth-tellers. Bottom line: I should obey the law, whether or not the traffic policeman sees me.