“IT’S THE LAW OF THE LAND”: UNDERSTANDING LAW AND GOSPEL July 9, 2019 by Brandi Hebert
Earlier this month at a speaking engagement sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke regarding the Hyde Amendment stating, "I do not think it is good public policy, and I wish we never had a Hyde Amendment, but it is the law of the land right now," I was struck by her use of the phrase, “the law of the land” as a seeming justification for an amendment that many believe to be unjust. In her response I sensed a blasé acknowledgement of a law many regard as discriminatory including Representative Ayanna Pressley, Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden who have spoken publicly about their concerns about the Hyde Amendment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not the only Congressional leader to have utilized this phrase when speaking about complicated and potentially unjust laws. Former House Speaker, Paul Ryan, speaking to the press in 2017 after a vote to reform the 2010 Affordable Care Act was cancelled, stated, “Obamacare is the law of the land”. Whether or not you believe that the Hyde Amendment or the Affordable Care Act are unconstitutional, the Constitution being the “supreme law of the land” against which all laws are judged, it appears that this phrase is thrown out as a default by Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle when unable or unwilling to reform complicated and discriminatory laws. Indeed, both the Hyde Amendment and the Affordable Care Act could potentially be deemed economically discriminatory depending on your point of view.What is perhaps most interesting about Congressional leaders use of this phrase lies in its origins. “Law of the land” was first written in the Magna Carta, a historic document challenging oppressive authority. The Magna Carta was the result of 13th century primarily elite landowners protests against unfair taxation by the ruling English monarchy. While the results of the Magna Carta were unable to prevent civil war and did not represent the poor and disenfranchised, it was a significant step forward towards democracy. Therefore, when Congressional leaders utilize the phrase “law of the land” as a limp defense of laws currently on the books, it is a veiled reference to that law’s injustice, the law of the land being akin to the law of the unjust 13th century kingdom and a quietist admission of Congress’ failure or lackadaisical ineptitude to right the wrong. In this, where can we find grace? The foundation of the Lutheran confessions of faith to which I profess is grounded in an understanding of the tension between law and gospel. The gospel, which means “good news” is God’s grace, God’s unmerited favor for God’s creation rooted in confession and forgiveness of all sin. This is what Lutheran Christians mean by the word ‘justification’. Sin is the “missing of the mark”, something to which we can all profess guilt. Imagine that you start your day, strapping on your quiver of arrows and grabbing your bow before heading out the door. Every decision you make through out the day is an arrow shot from your quiver. No one hits dead on the mark every time. Often our arrows fly amiss. Sometimes they land without harming others. Other times they unintentionally hurt others. And, yet, other times our decisions intentionally cause harm and damage. The Lutheran understanding of grace is that we are all forgiven for those errant arrows because our God is a God who desires to be in relationship with humanity and recognizes that we can’t always get it right. Grace is what we extend to ourselves and others in Spirit-filled relationship when we fail. However, it is important to admit one’s failures boldly in order to lean into the Spirit’s grace and move forward. 15th century church reformer, Martin Luther, is often mis-quoted as writing, “Sin boldly”. More accurately, in a letter to his close colleague, Philip Melanchthon, Luther wrote, “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [or sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death and the world.” As Associate Professor of Historical Theology, Ryan Reeves notes Luther was not advocating scattering massive numbers of flying arrows foolishly, but confessing one’s failures boldly and relying on God’s grace to move forward intentionally towards justice. Reeve writes, “the Law shows us our inability to contribute anything to justification.” The law of the land reveals its limitations time and time again, however we move forward ‘bending the arc towards justice’ by first boldly admitting our failure and complicity in injustice and leaning into Divine grace that enlightens our path and restores all relationships. The challenges we face as a country living into restorative justice for all are many. However, we arise to those challenges again and again living deeper into understandings of law’s limitations and God’s unlimited grace through honest exchange of confession and forgiveness. It is the opinion of this author that it would behoove our political leaders to embrace grace, profess their failures boldly to achieve perfect and restorative justice through the law and draw citizens together in grace filled solidarity to continue to labor towards justice’s attainment. It is this work itself that is never ending and it is the cost of true Christian discipleship. The law of the land is never settled and this pithy catch-all phrase is unhelpfully concealing the law’s inherent injustice and limitation. How do you understand mercy and grace in your life and through the lens of your own religious tradition? How do you apply those understandings practically engaging in civic dialogue and advocacy?