QUESTION: So this is a theoretical question from my recent read of Robin Hood… I know technically he is stealing and breaking a core commandment, but he is also seeking after justice, trying to right the wrongs of another sort of thief, one which abuses those who are powerless to defend. We have in D&D the concept of alignment. How one views laws of the land or society – from “lawful” to neutral to “chaotic”. And also how one views the “laws” of life… Good, neutral, evil. Robin Hood is the typical Chaotic Good archetype, seeing the laws of their present governments as corrupt and living by a higher law. But what does God say about this? Thoughts?
RESPONSE: I tend to look at core moral principles as inviolable, regardless of context, because from a Christian point of view, these laws are the very things that define goodness being derived from God’s own nature. Therefore they are always right, even if it turns out wrong, and their neglect is always wrong, even if it turns out right.
I think Paul agrees with this when he responds to slanderers who accuse him of preaching lawlessness so that God gets more glory. He resists this “bad can lead to good” accusation by saying,
Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just! Romans 3:8
In other words, it is never right to say or do something evil, that good may result. Ends do not justify the means. I know there’s lots of talk about situational ethics, and plenty of moral thought experiments where the ends seem to justify the means. But the beauty of tying ethics to God is that there we find bedrock principles from which there can be no “progression”; no context, no subjective narrative, no relativity, just goodness.
Now, you mention the laws of the land, which can fit into different boxes. I fundamentally agree with this kind of evaluation. There are laws above our laws. Martin Luther King, who advocated civil disobedience, once said,
“One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’” – MLK
He’s exactly right. So the laws I’m thinking of are those just laws, whose justification lies in the very nature of God which is fair, benevolent and just. About these laws, I think of them very much like I think about the truth and the beauty of math. The right formula is elegant and symmetrical and simple, but its beauty is not soft, not squishy, it’s not indulgent of any imperfection, diminution, or flexibility.
Robin Hood’s stealing, which violates as you said, a “core commandment” or as MLK put it, a “just law”, only seems justifiable to us in a world marked by total brokenness. So it can seem expedient that wrongs chase other wrongs to mitigate them or reverse them. The problem with RH is the same problem that occurs every time we attempt to right a wrong, but we find the thing standing in our way is a moral principle. That problem is our own hubris.
I would point out that the justification for Robin Hood is built on a presumption which his advocates rarely acknowledge: we presume to be sufficient judges of the ends, and also sufficiently in control that we know when to violate a transcendent moral principle and when not to. I mean here principles such as right to life, equality, fairness, truthfulness, respect, human rights. We imagine that we know when and exactly how much we may violate these, in order to bring in a “greater good”. This seems to me, to be God’s territory alone.
And surprisingly, God does what he asks us to do, for he has bound himself to himself, even if some more expedient course seems fairer/better. Scripture says:
“If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” 2 Timothy 2:13.
What a fascinating way for Paul to put it! He cannot disown himself. Put the two words together and you’ll see how stunning this language is. “God” + “cannot”. Unlike our Muslim friends, there are many things Christians believe God CANNOT do. And apparently, among these is the disowning of himself. What does this mean?
God, Paul says, cannot separate himself from his own good character, as if it was a mere expedient that he made outside himself, which he can manipulate, alter or ignore at will, like the physical laws of the universe. The irony about laws is that we cannot break physical laws but we can break moral laws. God is the opposite, God can break physical laws (we call this the miraculous) but he cannot break moral laws which are lodged intrinsically within himself.
Christians envision a Judge of the Universe who is perfect, precisely because that’s who he IS, not merely what he chooses to do most of the time or promote in us. Thus, he is bound in some sense, to himself. He cannot himself do evil, that good may result . Because that would mean disowning himself. This “inability” in God, includes being bound to the good moral principles by which he made us. He is bound by himself into a covenant of non-coercion with us, because the love at the heart of himself and our purpose to love him back demands freedom.
So we see in God the unwillingness – the inability even – to violate the good principle of our free will, even if such violations would achieve the end of all human suffering. All God has to do is snap his fingers like Thanos and make the world good again, or go away altogether. But he will not, because he cannot! Not because he lacks the power, but because the Judge running things won’t violate goodness (himself) in order to do good!
Yet we act as if we have more knowledge or control than God when we act like Robin Hood. Take affirmative action. I think it was judge Roberts who said, “finally the only way to stop treating people differently because of race, is to stop treating people differently because of race.” Just one example where we’ve found this to be true: you don’t fix wrongs with other (well motivated) wrongs. In fact, we make things worse.
This is true in banking, where all the rules that were gamely fixed by smart men prior to the collapse of 2008 – men who just about brought the world system to its knees – were all rules first designed to solve some perceived Injustice. They were rules like those allowing (demanding!) people with crappy credit to get mortgages. Those rules were all about “giving” to the poor; ostensibly to help others and do good, by violating some principle of goodness, like truthfulness in reporting income or credit score or the value of MBS.
Then, as we all saw, in a terrible reversal of Robin Hood, our violations of truth and fairness in the name of good, wound up stealing from the poor and giving to the rich.
Same thing for the oligarchic powers who at the same time declared, “we must violate the principles of the free market to save the free market.” If some core moral principle lies beneath free markets (and I believe one does), then this was wrong even if it “turned out right” – and some might quibble that the world system being “saved” means things turned out right. Delayed an inevitable and horrible day of reckoning may be be much closer to the truth, and kicking this can down the road for our children or grandchildren to eventually deal with, exposes us as reprobates, not Robin Hoods.
Isn’t Eden our best example? “Eat the forbidden fruit, get your eyes opened, know Good from Evil” – which had to be a good thing, right?? Isn’t knowledge always progress? No!! Not if it’s gotten the wrong way. Isn’t more equity always right? No!! Not if it’s gotten the wrong way.
Isn’t this also what the last century of socialist experiments taught us? Take over the means of production by any means possible – Robin Hood writ large, encoded into political philosophy – to get us some more equality!! 100 years later, 100 million dead and counting.
OR, we could do what we can lawfully to bring more equity, while humbly submitting to that transcendent goodness behind: “thou shalt not steal.” (Exodus 20:15) And trust God with what results.