By John Rieping | Published 8 March 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
Earlier this week, an Internet meme amused me.
In its first of two panels, the image showed the faces of the characters of the classic movie "Star Wars" -- robot C-3PO, Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi, and young Luke Skywalker -- as they stared ahead. Below them was the film quote, "You'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."
The second panel showed the characters from behind, but the panorama before them was not Mos Eisley space port on the planet of Tatooine. Instead it showed the U.S. Congress in session.
I shared it online with a friend, who commented she was coming to agree with its sentiments more and more. Dangerously, her words made me reflect, and I realized I could not embrace the meme's cynicism.
Power may indeed tend to corrupt, as British historian Lord Acton proposed in 1887, but that doesn't necessarily mean that all politicians are dishonest and unjust.
A long time ago in our very own galaxy, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) considered political theory to be a branch of the philosophy of ethics. By ethics, humanity aspires to happiness by a life of virtue, he taught, and by politics we cultivate virtue in a people so it may be happy.
Such thinking is not so distant from us. After all, some of our laws clearly exist to discourage and punish behavior our U.S. society views as bad, whether it be voyeurism or bribery. When our morality shifts, the laws of our democracy often belatedly follow, and sometimes the other way around.
Late in February, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder reminded me anew of the connection between politics and ethics with his justification for President Barack Obama and himself refusing to uphold laws they consider wrong. Elsewhere, more than a handful of state attorneys general, fellow Democrats, have also abandoned their similar sworn duty.
In the latter cases, the issue revolves around constitutional amendments or laws limiting the definition of marriage to one man and one woman.
Attorneys general must resolve, Holder said, "not merely to use our legal system to settle disputes and punish those who have done wrong, but to answer the kinds of fundamental questions -- about fairness and equality -- that have always determined who we are and who we aspire to be, both as a nation and as a people."
In short, Holder, Obama and others are following their consciences, like many brave souls in history have also done in the face of what they see as unfair laws.
It is an unexpected stance from members of an administration that on Feb. 18, 2011, rescinded many existing conscience protections for medical workers, who previously were allowed to refuse to offer services that violated their morals or religious beliefs.
No longer would federal law allow pharmacists to say no to prescriptions for abortifacient drugs, a doctor to decline to treat a lesbian for infertility, or an ambulance driver to reject taking a woman to an abortion.
While the U.S. president and attorneys general follow their hearts, the unelected citizen has been told that the law trumps their convictions.
The award-winning play and movie "A Man for All Seasons" dramatizes the true tale of Sir Thomas More, the high-ranking chancellor of England during the 16th-century reign of King Henry VIII. Ultimately More would be executed rather than deny his conscience and accept the king's claim to be the spiritual head of Christianity in England.
In the drama, More's future son-in-law, Will Roper, urges him to detain a man openly willing to betray More for profit, but he will not: "Go he should if he were the Devil himself until he broke the law!"
This outrages Roper, who thinks laws should be ignored when dealing with evil people.
More replies with equal passion: "What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ... And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you -- where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's, and if you cut them down -- and you're just the man to do it -- do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!"
Whether in theater or history, More embodies the paradox of deep respect for both law and conscience. May God raise up more such politicians.