GK Chesterton once observed that “When you break the big laws you do not get freedom. You do not even get anarchy. You get small laws.” (Daily News, July 29, 1905).
Yes, small laws, lots of small laws. Trifling and irritating small laws that regulate every human interaction and transaction. It is death by a thousand cuts. And thus, when we as a society set aside the bigger picture of, say, respecting life, of mutual respect and consideration for the common good, we get ten thousand laws.
As of 2012 there were just over 160,000 pages of law and rules from the feds alone in the Federal Code and elsewhere. States and localities have likely doubled that. Even legal specialists can’t keep up. The tax code is incomprehensible, even the Secretary of the Treasury cannot file an accurate return. The nanny State only adds to the problem: enter Mayor Bloomberg, and his “law” forbidding the sale of soft drinks larger than 16 oz.
But the bottom line is, if we neglect the bigger laws; if we neglect the biblical moral vision that insists on moderation, condemns greed and excess, prescribes sexual responsibility, faithfulness to commitments made, truthfulness, respect for the goods of another, obedience to lawful authority, and commands a reverential acknowledgement of God, and a holy fear for the consequences of unrepented moral turpitude; if we neglect that, this is what you get: a huge legal code regulating marriage, divorce, property rights, child support, alimony, child protection, family violence, “hate” speech, noise ordinances, public drunkenness, debt management, bankruptcy, liability, and on and on….
Frankly, an out of control Federal Legislature reflects our more personal and local tendency to be out of control and on moral vacation. Ignoring the big picture and the moral vision that used to be given us by the Scriptures, natural law, common sense and mutual respect, has now given way to an endless proliferation of small laws that regulate even when you can run your lawn mower.
I also want to note a couple of what I would call corollaries to Chesterton’s insight.
First, in failing to fear the Lord we seem to fear everything else. In our culture, fear is an industry. We are to fear crime, fear for every possible health issue, we fear infertility AND pregnancy, we fear economic setbacks, climate change, and even ordinary weather and storms. We fear asteroids and any number of other disaster scenarios. We fear asbestos and all sorts of other environmental threats. We fear that the “other party” will utterly end life in America as we know it if their candidate wins…., and on an on it goes.
Today there was an absurd illustration of the fear mongering here on the East Coast. This morning my clock radio came on with urgent news of a line of thunder storms coming in from the West. We were told to be afraid, to be VERY afraid. We were told, there could actually be high winds, hail, and heavy rain! Maybe even a tornado. Now of course such storms are a regular feature on the East Coast in Summer, and happen even dozens of times in the course of June, July and August. And yes, even occasionally a tornado is in the mix.
But honestly the absurdity of listening to a reporter telling us how to hunker down in our bathtub or other interior room was too much, and was topped only by the announcement of the Federal Government that workers could stay home and telecommute due to the coming thunderstorms.
Yes, that is right, the Federal Government advised workers to stay home because of thunderstorms. And by the way, it did rain, and we did survive. There were a few downed trees, and scattered power outages. Someone saw a twister north of DC too. Welcome to summer in Washington.
How have we come to the point that we can be baited to fear about ordinary weather? Actually it is not hard. Just abandon a proper and holy fear of God, and pretty soon you fear everyone and everything else.
It is a corollary to Chesterton’s remark on Law above: Stop obeying big laws and you get lots of little laws. The corollary is, Stop fearing God, and you start fearing everything else.
I would like to recall that God has a better plan. In effect he counsels that we develop a Holy Fear of Him, and then we don’t need to fear anyone or anything else. The Apostles, when told to fear what the temple leaders could do to them responded respectfully, “We must obey God rather than men.” Life gets a lot simpler when we report to one ultimate authority.
And Holy Fear leads to trust, and trust abates a lot of lesser fears. When my focus is on God and the good things waiting for me in heaven, I am less fearful of property loss, whether or not I get the promotion, less fearful of health and even death. I fear and trust the Lord. Whatever happens, God wills it and will see me through it. All things work together for good to those that Love and trust the Lord and are called according to his purposes.”
While the believer is not called to fool-hardy actions, neither is fear easily incited in him or her. The fear of the Lord ushers in a serenity that is not easily disturbed by the threats of human beings or by silly fears incited by a media trying to sell ads and to rivet us to the TV in fear.
Thus, fear the Lord and other fears largely diminish and go away. But fail to fear the Lord and the result is not no fear, it is ten thousand little fears and vulnerability to endless manipulation through fear.
And Second and related corollary is related to our obsession with physical health. The modern secular world celebrates a kind of “liberation” from: concerns about the soul, a sense of guilt, and concerns for the effects of sin and so forth.
But what happens when the soul is neglected is not a liberation from concerns, guilt or the effects of sin at all. Rather, to neglect the bigger and lasting concern about the soul, is to receive ten thousand concerns about the body: This causes cancer, that makes you fat, this has cholesterol, watch your pressure, don’t eat salt, drink more water, eat more fiber, exercise! And even the normal effects of aging are to be feared: hot flashes, “Low-T” gray hair… And even normal functions such as fertility are feared and must be medicated away. Pregnancy is treated as a potentially deadly condition. Women must be sterilized, others rush to remove their breasts, BEFORE cancer ever touches them.
Gad zooks! We have never lived so long and been so healthy, and yet, we have never been so anxious about our health. Never mind that our body is going to decline and die anyway no matter what we do.
There is a proper love and concern we should have for our body, this is part of a well-ordered self love. But when we do not integrate and balance our love for our body with our love for our soul, things go out of order and, as experience shows, we do not have less concerns but more. And those concerns are ultimately futile, for the body will die anyway.
Thus the corollary to Chesterton’s rule is When you set aside the most critical concerns necessary for the soul, you do not get fewer concerns. You get lots of small concerns that pile up unreasonably. You do not get less guilt, you get more of it wherein the list of bad or forbidden foods grows ever longer, as does the list of duties regarding exercise, dietary supplements, medicines and so forth. There are not less dos and don’ts, there are far more.
Yes, welcome to the modern world of “out of wack” and out of balance notions. When you break the big laws you do not get freedom. You do not even get anarchy. You get small laws.” It is death by a thousand cuts.
This video reminds that it is better to have a salutary fear of death and judgment than most of the stuff we get worked up about: