Above the law?

When you think of the phrase “above the law,” who or what comes to mind? How about the word “arrogant”? The two are related. Arrogance isn’t just egotism, but the presumption of superiority and the rights and privileges that go along with it. And sometimes, that means acting as if one is exempt from rules that supposedly apply to everyone else.

Unfortunately, we see this even in the church, particularly when narcissistic leaders are in charge. They don’t see themselves as inappropriately arrogating power to themselves; they see that power as God-given. They are the ones whom God has ordained to lead; they are the ones to whom God has spoken; they are the ones who impose God’s plan and are therefore entitled to righteously mow down the opposition.

But I don’t want us to make the mistake of thinking that this is only about a handful of leaders with grandiose or delusional personality traits. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is the exaggeration of the more normal tendencies toward self-centeredness and self-protection that we all share. We all want to feel good about ourselves, to believe the best about ourselves. But the less secure we feel in that need, the more likely we are to defend our belief in our goodness and rightness by insisting that others are bad and wrong.

James wants believers to recognize the way everyday narcissism plays out in the church, fueling conflict and bad behavior. Specifically, he wants people to recognize how their desire for status is encouraging arrogant and unloving speech. Without even knowing it, they are putting themselves above the law:

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another speaks evil against the law and judges the law, but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. (James 4:11, NRSVUE)

Though the wording is repetitive, notice the progression of James’ logic. If you speak against your brothers and sisters, the ones we are commanded by Jesus to love (John 13:34-35), that is tantamount to speaking against the law of love itself (James 2:8; Lev 19:18; Matt 22:39). Speaking against the law presumes your superiority to it — whether you know it or not, you have made yourself a judge of the law. And if you’re judging the law you’re not doing the law but are instead, ironically, breaking it.

I’m reminded here of the rich Old Testament tradition of God as the one and only righteous judge. Psalm 75 is a case in point. Through the psalmist, God declares, “At the set time that I appoint, I will judge with equity” (vs. 2). God commands the wicked not to be arrogant or exalt themselves (vs. 4), for as the psalmist insists, “it is God [and only God] who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another” (vs. 7).

James seems to draw on that tradition as he continues:

There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:12)

(In my imagination, I hear an R & B soundtrack in the background…it’s Jean Knight, 1971: Mr. Big Stuff–who do you think you are?)

When conflict erupts, our normal narcissism is part of the mix, and can easily spiral out of control. James, of course, is completely uninterested in psychiatric diagnoses. Instead, he wants us to recognize the inherent arrogance of the way we judge and speak against each other. We may feel completely justified in our judgment. But James reminds us that God alone is the judge: to judge each other is to assume God’s place and even put ourselves above the law.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we just let everybody say whatever they want and shut up about it, to avoid passing judgment. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, that won’t work. Even if you don’t say anything judgmental, you’ll probably be thinking judgmental thoughts. And since no one can hear (well, okay, God does, but do we actually take that seriously?), our thoughts may be even more unloving than our words would have been!

But I think it’s possible for us to make a legitimate distinction between being judgmental and exercising wise judgment. And for that, we’ll need another post.