Living with Law—Now and Forever
THERE are extremists who have adopted a negative and destructive attitude toward law in some countries. Nevertheless, though legal systems have many weaknesses, fair-minded people recognize the benefits that even these imperfect systems bring to the nations. The law and the courts certainly provide a means for correcting many injustices. Serious and conscientious judges have offered much wisdom and discernment in resolving legal problems.
Even the Bible recognizes the right of nations to make and enforce laws for the good of the people.
“Good behaviour is not afraid of magistrates; only criminals have anything to fear . . . The state is there to serve God for your benefit. If you break the law, however, you may well have fear.”—Rom. 13:3, 4, The Jerusalem Bible.
Accordingly, good citizens appreciate the contribution that law makes to public welfare. They do what they can to assist police, judges and other conscientious officials to maintain law and order, thereby contributing to an orderly society.
Staying Out of Court
Another contribution that citizens can make is in the matter of resolving disputes and problems where possible without burdening the legal system. In fact, many disputes could be avoided in the first place merely by making a written record of agreements. It is too easy for conversations to be forgotten or misunderstood. A memorandum of agreement need not be a complicated contract drawn up by a lawyer. The house owner can simply write the other party, for example, a painter (or, a carpenter, a mechanic, a plumber) stating: “This is to confirm our conversation of last Thursday in which you agreed to paint my house with two coats of white latex paint and the trim with green. You are to supply the paint of good quality. The work is to be completed before the end of July 1979, for the sum of $750.00 payable on completion.” A simple note of this kind would prevent much needless and unhappy contention.
But when problems do arise, many people in developed nations, and the United States in particular, seem to think that going to court is the best solution. “Can it actually be good for a society to be quick to quarrel in court?” asks Columbia University law professor Maurice Rosenberg. “Americans increasingly define as legal problems many forms of hurts and distresses they once would have accepted as endemic to an imperfect world.”
There are many problems that the law simply cannot rectify. A court may order a man to give money for the support of his family, but it cannot force him to keep working so he has money. The law cannot force either a man or a woman to show to their children the love, kindness and warmth that make a happy and balanced home. These essentially human areas of responsibility can be covered only by willing individuals themselves.
Why call in lawyers and judges to decide questions that sensible people should be deciding for themselves? By going to law, people often evade their own basic human responsibility to be fair, reasonable and kind to their fellowman. (Matt. 22:39) When this happens it can truly be said: “As the laws multiply, so also does the civilization decay.”
“Many lawyers nostalgically recall the days when a person could informally work out his problems with his neighbor and his corner retailer,” observes a New York Times analysis of the problem. Efforts along this line are being made in some jurisdictions by using impartial mediators rather than the courts to resolve many disputes.
In such cases the mediator listens to both sides and tries to work out an agreement with which they both can live. If they fail to reach an accord in this way, then often it is agreed beforehand that the arbitrator will devise a settlement that he feels is just, and this becomes binding. “The basic idea is ageold.” says The Wall Street Journal. “Primitive societies have long relied on local officials or even family members to resolve problems between individuals.”
Recourse to law, then, should be taken only when all avenues of reasonable negotiation and accommodation have failed. In such circumstances, if the case is a serious matter, with a good chance of success, a person may decide to use the courts.
Even after a lawsuit has started, however, it is good to listen to reasonable offers of settlement. Prominent American lawyer-writer Louis Nizer has put it succinctly: “There is a time to settle and a time to fight, and sound judgment in making the choice is an invaluable attribute of an adviser.”
Similarly, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ gave some practical legal advice, setting forth principles that have much merit even today:
“Be about settling matters quickly with the one complaining against you at law . . . if a person wants to go to court with you and get possession of your inner garment, let your outer garment also go to him.”—Matt. 5:25, 40.
A settlement requires reasonableness on both sides. Seldom in any lawsuit can it be said that there is 100-percent right on one side and zero percent on the other.
Disputes Within the Christian Congregation
Recognizing that some disputes would be found even among believers within the Christian congregation, the Bible kindly, but realistically, gave guidelines for ending contention.
Jesus showed how consultation, first privately, and next with the cooperation of other witnesses to the facts, can be effective in settling disputes. (See Matthew 18:15-17.) This procedure is most practical. Thoughtful and practical lawyers will acknowledge this. Both parties are thus brought into a position to consider openly the facts of the case. If mutual acknowledgment of the facts cannot thus be achieved, then, within the Christian congregation, a judicial committee made up of elders can handle the matter.
This was similar to the village courts of ancient Israel. A quick, practical system of justice was administered locally by nonprofessionals, the experienced and wise older men in the community. They were ready to decide the disputed question and this without expecting a percentage of the proceeds of the case, as is the custom of many professionals in modern times.—Ex. 18:13-26.
Should Christian disputes today carry over into the secular courts? The apostle Paul emphasized the need of the Christian community to settle its own internal disputes: “If one of your number has a dispute with another, has he the face to take it to pagan law-courts instead of to the community of God’s people? . . . Can it be that there is not a single wise man among you able to give a decision in a brother-Christian’s cause? Must brother go to law with brother—and before unbelievers? Indeed, you already fall below your standard in going to law with one another at all. Why not rather suffer injury? Why not rather let yourself be robbed?”—1 Cor. 6:1-7, The New English Bible.
Of course, this is not to say that all court procedures between fellow Christians are ruled out. If, for example, obtaining compensation from an insurance company, the probating of a will or some other circumstance required court action, there may be no discredit to the Christian congregation, since there is no actual contention between Christian brothers in such instances. But for handling most differences between Christians, men well grounded in Biblical principles are available in the congregations. They are even now helping many to resolve such matters without the public notice and consequent reproach of court action. In some cases Christian love may even move one to “suffer injury” rather than harm the good name of the congregation before those outside.
When True Justice Prevails
In today’s world, human imperfection looms large in both the systems of justice and the persons using them. But this will not always be so. Mankind’s Creator has promised soon to remedy the present failure of governments to provide true justice for all their peoples. Under God’s kingdom, perfect justice will be possible because its administration will no longer be in the hands of mere humans.
Lawyers and human legal systems will be a thing of the past. Instead, with superhuman insight, God’s chosen judge, Jesus Christ, “will not judge by any mere appearance to his eyes, nor reprove simply according to the thing heard by his ears. And with righteousness he must judge the lowly ones.”—Isa. 11:3, 4.
Mankind will not miss the legal profession and its imperfect attempts to get justice. They will rejoice in the exercise of true justice forever. “His royal power will continue to grow; his kingdom will always be at peace. He will rule . . . basing his power on right and justice from now until the end of time.”—Isa. 9:7, Today’s English Version.
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“Can it actually be good for a society to be quick to quarrel in court?”—Columbia Law Professor Maurice Rosenberg
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“Can it be that there is not a single wise man among you able to give a decision in a brother-Christian’s cause?”—1 Cor. 6:5, The New English Bible.