welcome to the wild, wild west
Our state, New Mexico, is famous for--among other things--being the resting place of Billy The Kid. His legend represents a time our culture remembers as "wild," by which we usually mean lawless. The spacious freedom of the new American Republic combined with the spacious lands discovered through westward expansion to tempt people to think there was a similar spaciousness in moral standards. Far from established structures of law and order, it is no surprise that many people challenged the common sense of right and wrong in order to make fortunes for themselves.
In our own time, recent trends resurrect that sense that our American society is quickly losing the rule of law. In various ways, it is evident that too many people feel free to decide right and wrong for themselves, which often ends up injuring the rights and property of others. The riots in Charlottesville, VA just a couple of weeks ago are a case-in-point. This very week, while Hurricane Harvey ravages most of the population of south and east Texas, some lawless people literally took aim at firefighters who were trying to rescue people from the floods. Apparently, they preferred to protect their ability to loot the property of others rather than allow authorities to rescue people from danger. Of course, we can also talk about the relentless efforts on college campuses by some groups to prevent their opponents from speaking.
We could talk about the cities and states that refuse to enforce immigration laws, dubbing themselves "sanctuaries" for people in violation of immigration law. We could also discuss how normal it has become for politicians to break promises made to voters during their campaigns--very recently, Republican senators failed to repeal and replace "Obamacare," which was a promise that had a lot to do with their election to the congress. We could also talk about the trend of lawlessness in movies and television through which viewers fantasize about possible worlds we could live in. For example, Batman, in recent Hollywood productions, is identified as "The Dark Knight." That phrase implies the "situation ethics" axiom that sometimes a person must do evil in order to accomplish a "greater good."
Such lawlessness, of course, is not new to human history. It long precedes the infamously wild American West. It goes all the way back to the beginning of humankind. It is a tendency of the human condition to want to be able to "get away with it." "It" is whatever we have decided we want to do.
This tendency to lawlessness has always made it necessary to have law enforcement structures for societies. In the American West, this was the function of the Cavalry and of local sheriffs and judges. In early Israelite history recorded in the Bible, the people God had chosen as His own began to rebel against Him. This is expressed in one place as, "In those days, there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes," (Judges 17:6 ESV). This always led to terrible times for the Israelites, from which God would rescue them from time to time. God always hoped that they would learn their lesson and stop rebelling against what they knew was right.
Disciples of Jesus (that is, followers of Jesus, learning to be like him) resist this lawless trend primarily by being good, and faithfully doing what is right. This is especially powerful when those who observe our behavior know that we forfeit some advantage or profit by choosing to do the right thing. We could make the sale if we left out negative information, or skewed other information in order to maximize the appeal of what we are offering. But that is lying, and lying is not right. We are like every other person, and we get frustrated and angry about injustices in our society today. But Jesus teaches us to know the difference between hating evil and hating the evildoer. It is good to hate evil, and to work against evil by doing good. But it is always wrong to hate the person doing the evil. Rather, Jesus teaches us to love those who are our enemies, to desire what is good for them, and to work for that.
In the midst of a new wild, lawless America, our part as followers of Jesus is to stay within the bounds Jesus has set for that "narrow" path to our destination. He Himself has promised to help us, if we only let Him (read Matthew 11:28-30).
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Nathan Wheeler, PhD, is the Preacher for the Eastside Church of Christ in Farming-ton, NM.