By Law


I’ve been thinking about by-laws. I know that’s dangerous, the thinking part, not the by-laws part. I’ve been thinking about what it means to have by-laws, whether or not they are necessary, and what are the consequences or promises.

I have often thought that the law against murder has not keep me from murdering. A sobering thought, it’s not the law, or even the consequences, that keeps me from murdering. It is simply the understanding I have to be in God’s will. Now, some will say that this is only true because of God’s Ten Commandments, (they are laws, it’s not the Ten Suggestions). I don’t exactly agree with this idea but more on that later.

The term by-law is really the phrase “by law”, implying a code, or standard, of human interaction. The earliest, and in some ways the best example, is the Code of Hammerabi. Hammerabi was the sixth king of the First Babylonian Dynasty, roughly 600 years before Moses and the Ten Commandments.

The British Museum has on display a stele, or stone slab, that is inscribed with the Code of the King. There were probably multiple copies placed on the roads into the kingdom. The thought behind this is that newcomers did not have to rely on gossip or shopkeepers innuendos, but that the Law of the King was written in stone and published on the roadside. A foreign trader could be guaranteed the rights that were spelled out, and the consequences or breaking of the law as well. Hammerabi wrote 282 laws on the stone. Certainly more than Moses, but far less than the current Federal Law.

Placing the codes on the highway was brilliant. What trader would come into a country when the King’s Law was oral and changeable. It would be more like “Simon Says”, going one way for a time, then going the complete opposite. This does not generally lead to a profit, or a sane way of living. It’s good to be King, but even a king needs to live under rule.

Going back to the statement that I do not murder, because the law says that I can’t, the sad truth is that the law exists because there are people who need the law to control their actions.

A few years ago there was a news story about gunfire and a murder on a freeway in Oakland. It appeared to be an example of typical road rage. The police did capture the shooter, and took his statement. It wasn’t about road rage, the victim didn’t cut off the shooter, or do anything beyond simply being in the way. It turns out the shooter had to go to the bathroom and the victim was going too slow, blocking the exit he wanted to take, so he shot him in the head.

Here was an example of a person who broke the law, because in his mind, his need was greater than the consequences. I don’t know, perhaps he actually thought the jury would understand the pressing need to go when you have to go. I am strangely comforted that while standing in the line at fast food, that the individual behind me does not shoot me in the head, because if he did, he would certainly be closer to his food. Of course there always the chance that he could be really really hungry, Laws are necessary, because for some people, if there weren’t a law, then they would do the unthinkable.

I just had a conversation about the social agreement that people enter into while in a parking lot, trying to find a slot. There is no law proscribed, but there are “social rules”. What about those who chose not to follow them? What about the guy that cuts in front of you to take the slot you were waiting for? Can you then argue with them, stating your right? They respond that you have no right, you don’t own the lot, the space is not assigned to you, there is no law broken. Trying to argue about this is silly because they made the decision to cut in front of you without considering your position.

It could be said that shaming the person might be a proper response. But I think the person that does this, has already considered the consequence of being shamed, and he is willing to take that on. Trying to modify the actions of everybody in all cases is nearly impossible because in every case there are people willing to “break” the law, regardless of circumstance.

So why have codes, laws, or by-laws? Well, obviously there are some people that need to have the law, and the consequence, or they will act on their own. Having the law is a good thing in these cases. There still will be people that are willing to break the law, so it is not perfect. But I think maybe the most important thing is that the stated law tells you about the character of the country, or the state, or the organization. Having a written law tells people about the expectations they should have, the promises and the consequences of the interaction, you are known by the statements you make.

I’m proud of our country because of the constitution, I’m proud of the college where I worked, because of the catalog and mission statement. By-laws are announcements of a standard, a guarantee of an action. Organizations, clubs, and church’s have by-laws. It tells about the very nature of the organization. If they are written too general then they are pointless. Written too specific then they are restrictive and legalistic. Hard to find the balanced middle.

The real question is why don’t we have published individual by-laws? Statements made that promise, or guarantee an action. I will be a faithful husband or friend. I will tell the truth in love. I will be a help, not a hinderance. I suppose the words in this blog can be a personal by-law. I stand by them, I stand behind them. Hmm.

About the ten commandments, I follow them not because they were written in stone. I believe they were written in the hearts of believers long before. Abraham didn’t have the law. Moses didn’t have the law, he wrote most of it, but he followed it long before. The law is not for law breakers, the law is to inspire the reader, to give confidence, to be a balm in time of trouble. That actually the best use of the law, to stand up on shifting ground. To boldly state what is true in times of trouble. IMHO