Monday, March 30, 2020

A study in legalistic righteousness

By 'legalistic righteousness' I mean the attempt to establish a righteous status by keeping the rules.  The classic Biblical example is of course the New Testament perspective on first century Jews: they pursued the law of God as if it depended on works, rather than by faith.  But there are secular examples of legalistic righteousness as well; any attempt to secure 'righteousness' - right-ness - in the sight of others or of oneself by maintaining a standard of behaviour falls into the category.

The last week has provided a case study in legalistic righteousness.  Since HMG introduced stringent regulations restricting movement and interaction, many people (including, alas, many police forces) seem to have reacted with a classic case of legalism.  There are three particular traits I've observed which I think are characteristic:

1. Legalistic righteousness delights in policing other people's compliance.  Whether it's posting angry notes on the windscreens of cars which are suspected of carrying people on unnecessary trips, or calling the police to report your neighbour going for a second walk of the day, checking up on what others are doing is the first sign of legalistic righteousness.  The comparison game allows us to say we're doing okay by the rules, because we're doing better than the guy across the street.  I've seen posts by people excusing their minor infractions by reference to other people's major ones.  Legalism has to look down on others, and so it has to keep an eye on others to find their faults.

2. Legalistic righteousness consistently goes beyond what is written.  How long can your one daily exercise trip be?  People (and, once again, over-zealous police forces) have been keen to enforce a one hour limit, despite this not appearing at all in the legislation.  Fencing the regulations around with more regulations is a classic move of legalism, which delights to create additional layers of rules - both so that I can establish more righteousness, and so that I can find more ways to find fault with others (see above).

3. Legalistic righteousness uses shame as a weapon.  Why not take photographs of those people you see breaking the rules and post them online?  Why not Tweet out drone footage of people walking where you feel they shouldn't be walking (as the police, once again, have been doing)?  Shame is the classic weapon of the legalist, who aims to keep people in line out of fear that their unrighteousness will be exposed.  Those caught up in a legalistic system, which seems to be most of us, are typically afflicted with our own shame - and we like to bring others into the same net.

The legalism which we see around us at this difficult moment for society seems to me to shed a great deal of light on our legalistic approach to God.  We want to be able to stand before God on the basis of our own righteousness, established by our own efforts, our own law-keeping.  Under it all is a vision of law as a barrier against danger, rather than law as a blueprint for a beautiful and loving life.

Once again, trying times have exposed what lies in our hearts.  And it ain't pretty.

No comments:

Post a Comment