History will be made today when Donald Trump appears in the Manhattan Criminal Courts Building to face criminal charges. Since no former president has ever been charged with a crime, there is no rulebook for booking the defendant. He will be placed under arrest and informed of the charges against him, but he will reportedly not be put in handcuffs, placed in a jail cell, or subjected to a mug shot. He will then return to Florida, where he will deliver remarks tonight.
Yesterday I focused on reasons the indictment of Donald Trump is so dangerous for America. Today, let’s consider reasons today’s events are so encouraging for our nation. As with my comments yesterday, today’s article will not take partisan political positions. Rather, we’ll consider foundational cultural issues that transcend even the history that will be made later today.
When “social peace is impossible”
In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant was arrested for speeding on his horse-drawn carriage in Washington, DC. He ultimately paid a $20 bond, though he did not appear in court. The arresting officer told the president, “You are the chief of the nation, and I am nothing but a policeman, but duty is duty, sir, and I will have to place you under arrest.”
President Grant’s arrest and today’s events illustrate John Adams’ assertion that America is a “government of laws, and not of men.”
This is the way democracy (the “rule of the people”) is supposed to work. For example, Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spent more than a year in prison for bribery, fraud, and other crimes; its incumbent prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is currently on trial for similar charges. Other democratically elected leaders who have been convicted in recent years include former Presidents Jacques Chirac (embezzlement) and Nicolas Sarkozy (influence peddling) in France, former President Park Geun-hye (corruption) in South Korea, and former President Chen Shui-bian (bribery) in Taiwan.
The less you agree with either Mr. Trump or the prosecutor, the more you should support the rule of law. If you believe the former president to be guilty, you should want the law to punish him. If you believe he is innocent, you should want the law to protect him.
Legal expert David French reminds us: “The rule of law depends on both substance and process, just laws and just processes, and respect for the law depends on peacefully complying with the legal process even when you’re utterly convinced the underlying legal charge is wrong.”
He adds: “In the absence of that understanding, social peace is impossible.”
“The great political lubricant of a free society.”
Laws are foundationally vital to a thriving democracy. However, they are not enough for a democracy to thrive.
Dispatch correspondent Kevin Williamson articulates this point well: “It is impossible to maintain a free society without civic virtue,” which he defines as “putting the good of the republic and the institutions with which we may be entrusted over our own individual interests.” He explains that such virtue is vital because “free societies run on trust,” which he calls “the great political lubricant of a free society” (his italics).
We need this “political lubricant” because we are fallen people living in fallen bodies in a fallen world. In Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage, Anne Lamott cites Marcus Aurelius’ observation that “we are little souls carrying around corpses.” However, we are also bearers of the imago Dei, made by God and beloved by him.
Lamott captures this duality by citing her pastor’s description of our lives as “dual citizenship”: “We have the human passport with all our biographical details and neuroses engraved on it, and the heavenly one, as children of the divine.”
Our problem comes when we try to solve human problems using the “human passport” rather than turning to the “heavenly” grace and power afforded us in Christ. Lamott: “I once read a report that when asked, people guessed they had eighty percent control of their days—schedules, delays, changes, meetings, traffic, reception, et cetera, but that in reality, it was only three to seven percent. Yet most of my life force goes into trying to self-will life and me into cooperating with how I think things should be.”
The ethic that enables a democracy to thrive
On Tuesday of Holy Week, Jesus was tested with the question, “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36). He famously replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment” (vv. 37–38).
But our King did not stop there: “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (vv. 39–40).
Note the order: when we love God holistically and passionately, we can and will love our neighbor holistically and selflessly.
Loving our neighbor as ourselves is the ethic that enables a democracy to thrive. We cannot make enough laws and hire enough police officers to force all 331 million Americans to treat each other well. But when we love God, we will love everyone he loves—and he loves everyone. We will be a nation not just of laws but of love.
“Glad and generous hearts”
You might be thinking that such a society is impossible, but that is not true.
When the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42), the horizontal result of their vertical commitments was transformative: they lived “with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (vv. 46–47).
This was the first spiritual awakening in Christian history. It started when Christians lived by loving God and loving people. Because human nature does not change, what worked in their fallen culture will still work in ours.
Today’s events in New York City demonstrate that we are a nation of laws.
What will you do to help us be a nation of love?
NOTE: Our ministry publishes First15, a daily devotional intended to lead you into a transforming daily experience with God. I have written the devotionals for this Holy Week and hope you will find them helpful as you walk with Christ during this week that changed the world.