The Law of Liberty

A boat in need of being made whole. Photo (c) Katherine Brown

‘So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.’

James 2:12; excerpt from James 2:1-17, lectionary epistle for Sunday Sept. 5, 2021.

James 2:12 catches me in particular this week and only partly because some lectionaries omit vv. 11-13 from the formal reading. Whenever verses are cut like this, I wonder whether they’re trimmed to avoid too long a reading or too difficult a point. I’ve enough of a contrarian streak to resist the lectionary’s limit. More than that, though, verse 12 catches me because of its phrasing: ‘So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.’

‘The law of liberty’ sounds an oxymoron when compared to the way in which ‘liberty’ is usually construed these days. News reports and social media quote or proclaim ‘liberty’ as the nation’s primary value, seeming to define it as freedom to do or to refrain from doing as each individual chooses. Yet if ‘liberty’ is the freedom to do what you will without constraint, then how can it be a ‘law’? Even if ‘law’ is interpreted as making ‘liberty’ the absolute value, that by which all of us are bound, there remains a tension in the idea of being bound to unrestraint. Besides that, James explains that the ‘law of liberty’ is that by which we are ‘judged.’ If liberty is the freedom to do what you will, without constraint, then how can it be a ‘law’ whose keeping (or lack) is judged? Judged by whom? Who has the right?

The rhetoric around masks and vaccination grows only more vituperative. The fervor is surely a measure of the stress weighing on us all. Both sides cry ‘liberty’ but neither defines it the same way. For one group, liberty means not being required to act; any imposition of responsibility is resisted: each should ‘do the good in his own eyes’ (the context of Judges 21:25 shows the lack of approbation of this view). Others point out that doing nothing in the context of disease (viral or otherwise) is not a neutral action, and argue that liberty means not being required to bear the negative consequences of others’ choices.

James seems to understand ‘liberty’ differently. It’s not ‘individual,’ not ‘personal’ (the adjectives which modify, if implicitly, ‘liberty’ in current rhetoric). James knows ‘liberty’ in the context of ‘law.’ The ‘law of liberty’ is ‘the perfect law,’ the mirror that tells us who and whose we are — if only we look into it (James 1:25)! It is the royal summons (James 2:8) to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev. 19:18), so that they and we together are caught up in the connected web which is kingdom living.

‘For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it,’ James writes (2:10), and having already called partiality a violation (2:9), goes on to talk of murder and of adultery (2:11) as if to make excruciatingly plain that the law is not a list from which we pick and choose. It is a whole, with its own integrity.

The royal law of liberty is perfect, complete, full, indivisible. Because we are partial, we come to know it partially, in bits and pieces and numbered lists, and we each keep the part of it that we touch. I’m not meant to hold the whole world in my hands but I am meant to keep the whole law for that part of the world which I do hold, and to learn thereby that my touch is not the limit of my reach. My speech and my silence, my actions and my inactions, all affect others. Theirs affect me. Whether we seek to live in a ‘more perfect union’ or the kingdom of God’s will done ‘on earth as in heaven’ (Matt 6:10), we are bound to one another. The perfect law is the liberty to work out life together, not to freedom to think [prefer?] death (James 2:17).

‘So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.’

One thought on “The Law of Liberty

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s