A Higher Law

“In Germany, under the law, everything is prohibited, except that which is permitted. In France, under the law, everything is permitted, except that which is prohibited. In the Soviet Union, everything is prohibited, including that which is permitted. And in Italy, everything is permitted, especially that which is prohibited.”

     It may be because I’m Italian that I’m drawn to the above quote attributed to attorney and former chairman of the Federal Communication Commission, Newton Minow. Unlike his assessment of the legal systems of other countries, Italy’s approach to the law is one that posits a healthy regard for disregard; if its parameters are too confining, we may have not only the freedom, but the responsibility to do that which the law prohibits.

     We all live “under the law” to some degree. We are all subject to limitations that require that we take others into account as we go about our lives. Laws are good, they are necessary if we are to have a society that “works,” they are meant to enhance our lives individually and collectively. But when we live only according to the “letter of the law,” if we never allow ourselves to “step to the beat of a different drummer,” our souls can become inhibited by what is prohibited, and we may become less rather than more alive.

    Some of the greatest figures in history were free spirited when it came to the law; they gave themselves permission to act in ways that were prohibited. Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Dorothy Day among so many others, all responded to the needs of those they served by doing what was prohibited when a greater good was called for. They were not scofflaws; rather, they were being true to a “higher law,” that of love, the inner imperative of their hearts – and of ours.

     In less dramatic ways than those just mentioned, we are invited to make daily decisions in our interactions with one another. Do we do only what is permitted, only what is conventionally acceptable, only what fits within the confines of the culture? Or do we dare to give ourselves permission to do what is prohibited, to live above rather than under the law; that is to “walk the extra mile,” to be foolishly, prodigally, lavishly loving when doing less is all that is expected or considered sufficient?

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