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When it comes to obeying the law, do you think of yourself as a conformer, a reformer or a rationalizer?
Not that any person is only one or the other, just like not many people are solely introverted or extroverted. Human beings are complex enough to contain parts of most labels.
To answer the question, I have components of all three behaviors, depending on what the situation is at any given moment. But as a student of religion, I believe Baha’u’llah when he said:
Religion is the greatest of all means for the establishment of order in the world and for the peaceful contentment of all that dwell therein. – World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 186.
Referring to the eclipse or corruption of religion, he wrote:
Should the lamp of religion be obscured, chaos and confusion will ensue, and the lights of fairness, of justice, of tranquility and peace cease to shine. – Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 125.
Believing that religion establishes order in the world means acting on my beliefs. I consciously try to reform myself, in other words. It goes with saying that reform means changing myself first and foremost, and I accept that it’s a process, like losing weight or quitting smoking.
All the prophets, saints and sages were reformers, from Confucius to Moses to Baha’u’llah, to Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in modern times. They established and exemplified moral codes for humanity, showing us how to behave toward each other. They reformed existing laws and gave us new ones. The ultimate laws—those codes of moral behavior brought to humanity by the prophets of God—gave us the basis for our sense of right and wrong, our morality, and ultimately our jurisprudence.
But I can’t reform laws all by myself. Democratic societies try to enforce the rule of law, and conformity is necessary to just laws. I am writing a book, in fact, on driving laws. They exist, are clear as day, yet most drivers—and I think most is 95% on some roads in many countries—do not strictly obey speed limit laws. How much more difficult to obey God’s laws, those moral rules of personal conduct!
And of course, in that example, rationalization takes over. Many people feel that breaking speed limit laws is acceptable, mainly “Because everybody else does it.” Yet, famously, we are each aware of the rhetorical exposé of such falsities when we ask our teenage children, “If Johnny jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge, does that mean you have to?”
In the rule of law, fear of consequences, or conscience, is the greatest motivator. That’s why we are exhorted to fear God, and to use that fear as a moral ruler. But let me ask you, if not enough people actually fear the consequences of breaking the law, or one feels entitled, what’s to stop illegal and hurtful behaviors?
That’s why Baha’u’llah taught us another important attribute of humans when he said:
The fear of God hath ever been a sure defense and a safe stronghold for all the peoples of the world. It is the chief cause of the protection of mankind, and the supreme instrument for its preservation. Indeed, there existeth in man a faculty which deterreth him from, and guardeth him against, whatever is unworthy and unseemly, and which is known as his sense of shame. This, however, is confined to but a few; all have not possessed, and do not possess, it. It is incumbent upon the kings and the spiritual leaders of the world to lay fast hold on religion, inasmuch as through it the fear of God is instilled… – Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 27.
I freely admit, when speeding past traffic while in the fast lane, I haven’t felt a large sense of fear, or shame, for breaking the law. But there are consequences, especially when I’ve been pulled over by a trooper. When that happens, embarrassment takes over, and a sense of stupidity prevails. I think we’ve all experienced those emotions.
So fear of consequences is a powerful motivator in humankind, probably as powerful as love itself. These two pillars of civilization—Love and Fear, or Reward and Punishment—mean there’s something to be said for conforming to just laws.