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How Safe Is The Law?
Any Law Is Both A Shield And A Sword, And Therefore Dangerous
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.
No one who follows the news can doubt but that the ongoing war between Israel and the Hamas Islamic terrorist group has generated passionate debate in favor of both sides of the conflict. A recent article on mySubstack about possible Israeli war crimes produced considerable heated discussion and even a few unfortunate moments of hatred.
Yet often on both sides a question gets overlooked: are we judging both Israel and Hamas by the same standard, and by the same law?
If we are not judging them by the same standard and the same law, why not? If not, how is our discrimination justified?
It was not lost on me that many well-meaning people would rationalize and justify Israeli attacks without pausing to consider the possibility that Israel may in some instances go too far. There was an argument to be made that in the case of the Jabalya air strikes, Israel did go too far, and crossed that blurry line from war tragedy to war crime—an argument that discomfited a few of my readers.
At the same time, many who are quite condemnatory of Israel go to great lengths to justify the actions of Hamas. They see the casualties coming out of Gaza and they are quite properly horrified by the death and destruction. They seek someone to blame for the deaths and they light upon Israel. Having chosen to condemn Israel, they then proceed to avoid condemning Hamas, as if declaring the guilt of the one exonerates the other.
But is this really so?
Would it not be more proper to say that, in order to count Israel’s actions as war crimes, Hamas’ actions must also be called war crimes? That in order to condemn the one we must also condemn the other? Or that if we exonerate the one we exonerate the other?
If we recoil in horror at the images coming out of Jabalya, should we also not recoil in horror at the images of slaughter at Kibbutz Be’eri and Kibbutz Kfar Aza?
If we seek to apply the rules of war, such as the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, to Israel, should we not also apply it with equal vigor to Hamas?
If we say the laws of war must be obeyed, are we not violating the laws of war if we condemn Israel and excuse Hamas, or even if we excuse Israel and condemn Hamas?
As we are taught in James, if we swear fealty to the law, and then break any part of the law, we invite the full vengeance and fury of the law down upon us. If we declare the law must be obeyed, and then transgress even a single part of that law, have we not already condemned ourselves?
In Shakespeare’s Henry V, in Act 2, scene 2, when three of the King’s advisors are found to have betrayed him, Henry confronts them moments after they advise against Henry being merciful to a man who said or did something against the King earlier, only to have them throw themselves upon the very mercy they argued against. Henry’s response was unsurprising:
The mercy that was quick in us but late
By your own counsel is suppressed and killed.
You must not dare, for shame, to talk of mercy,
For your own reasons turn into your bosoms
As dogs upon their masters, worrying you.
Having argued against mercy, the three traitors found there was no mercy for them. Having argued the law, when found to have broken that law, they were condemned by the full weight of that law.
Before confronting the three traitors, King Henry even points out this danger of such fidelity to the law:
If little faults proceeding on distemper
Shall not be winked at, how shall we stretch our eye
When capital crimes, chewed, swallowed, and
Appear before us?
In the present conflict between Israel and Hamas, if we fault and condemn Israel for failing to be perfect in obeisance to the Geneva Conventions, upon what logic can we excuse Hamas for failing in that same obeisance? Or if we fault and condemn Hamas for failing to be in perfect obeisance to those same Geneva Conventions, upon what logic can we excuse Israel for filing in that same obeisance?
If we say Hamas has violated article 51 of the Additional Protocol 1 to the Geneva Conventions, must we not also call out Israel when we say Israel has violated article 48?
Or, closer to home, if we fault people for saying things which are bigoted and prejudicial, must we not fault everyone who says things which are bigoted and prejudicial? And are we not ourselves faulted if we say things which are bigoted and prejudicial?
Or if we fault someone for drunkenness, but then indulge in gluttony, are we not to be faulted for that failing as well?
If we wish to be forgiven for our gluttony, are we not then obligated to forgive others for their drunkenness?
In Matthew, 7:1-2, Jesus taught that we should refrain from judgement, lest we invite judgement upon ourselves.
Does it not therefore follow that we should be cautious in what level of rigor we demand of others before the law, knowing that we will be held to exactly that same level of rigor?
Whether we are speaking of the laws of war, the laws of Man, or even of God’s Law, if we are honest with ourselves we must admit that we will at times fall short of what all of these laws require. As the Apostle Paul points out in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. None of us are perfect in our obeisance to any law. Therefore none of us are in position to demand perfect obeisance from anyone else to any law.
Does this mean we cannot hold anyone to account for anything? I do not believe that to be the case. Rather, we must always apply mercy and forgiveness first and foremost when we hold people to account for what they have done.
We need not overlook, and we should not pretend that consequence does not follow upon any action, but we should be mindful that if we presume to say that by the law we are justified, then it will be by that law we shall be condemned. That which we claim as our shield can easily become the sword pointed at our heart.
Whenever we argue what the law—any law—says about another’s actions, we do well to remember that same law also has much to say about our own. We do well also to remember that same law may not always say good things about our own actions.
Beware of the law. If you seek its justification, you invite its condemnation.
Whether we are talking Israel and Hamas, the police and criminals, or simply ourselves and our neighbors, this will always be the order of things.
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