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Column: Believing in the moral law

Column: Believing in the moral law

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John Donald O'Shea

John Donald O'Shea is a retired circuit court judge and a columnist for The Dispatch-Argus.

Bill O'Reilly has written of the recent murder of George Floyd and the riots that have followed:

"There is only one real solution to deprivation, crime, and helplessness and that is to teach the children well .... "If a child cannot read, write cursive, do math, speak properly, and does not understand that skills have to be developed so honest money can be earned, that child will likely become an impoverished adult without much hope."

I don't disagree with O'Reilly. But he stops short of pointing out an even more fundamental problem. America was built on two fundamental moral values: "Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself."

There was a time when the Jewish people were wandering in the desert. Perhaps they were really marking time, building strength until they were strong enough to emerge from the desert to conquer the "promised land." But Moses realized that a nation had to be more than an assemblage of tribes or a horde. If the Jewish people were to be a nation, they had to have a national identity and unity. They had to have laws. If the new nation was to be peaceful and secure it could not countenance people murdering each other, stealing their neighbor's belongings, or men seducing other men's wives. Therefore, he gave his people the Ten Commandments — which have been condensed into loving God and neighbor.

To bind the people of the twelve Jewish tribes into a one nation, and avoid religious controversies, the First Commandment specified that one God would be worshiped. To provide order within families, another required children to honor and obey their parents. To eliminate inter-family feuds and revenge killings, the commandments made murder, theft and adultery crimes against the people of the nation rather than merely against individuals.

Once criminalized, the whole people punished offenders, eliminating the need for revenge and private feuds. But as important as the commandments were as "laws," they were even more important because they were "God-given" moral rules. They drew a bright line between right and wrong. As such, they established a national morality. In short, the commandments created both God-given legal and moral codes.

But even more importantly, for over 2,000 years ordinary Western men (not all of them) have lived with a belief that if the law did not punish the wrongdoer, God would.

Whether you believe that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments or not, no society can have peace and security unless its people believe divine justice will prevail when human justice fails.

You can't "love your neighbor as you love yourself," or "do unto him as you would have him do unto you," if you kill him, steal from him or burn down his house.

If you justify doing harm to a person who has never harmed you, you accept the proposition that the end you choose justifies the means you employ. But what happens when your neighbor chooses to destroy you to achieve his ends?

The purpose of the criminal law is to outlaw revenge. Or do two wrongs make a right? If A murders B, and B's brother C murders A, why can't A's sister D, murder C? Do we need generational feuds?

The point I am trying to make, and the point O'Reilly didn't make, is that to have peace and security, the young and old of society must believe in a God-given moral law. We must live by a consensus that certain acts are good and other acts are God-proscribed, and God-punished.

There was a time when schools (other than parochial schools) taught this morality. But once you bar God from the schools, the morality taught there loses its God-given underpinning. That then can come only from churches or parents.

But what if children don't go to church? What if their mothers are little more than children themselves, and their fathers are nowhere to be found? Who then teaches traditional moral values? Certainly not the street gangs, where the rules are "survival of the fittest" and "might makes right."

So who's left? Hollywood? The tabloids? Rioters?

Nobody who loves his neighbor as he loves himself or practices the "Golden Rule," does violence to or steals from his neighbor, or destroys his neighbor's property. The criminal laws are only needed to deal with people who chose not to love neighbor as self.

If you believe that God punishes wrongdoers even if the law fails to do so, you won't accept as your morality, "the ends justify the means," "might makes right," or "good is whatever I decide is good." You won't risk violating the law, calculating that you will not be dragged into court.

When a critical mass of citizens comes to scorn the belief that God punishes evildoers, we will only have enough police officers when we have a police state.

John Donald O'Shea is a retired circuit court judge and a regular columnist.

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