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Volume 7, Issue 6: Magistralis

Knowing Enough to Start a Country

Greg Dickison

"And you shall teach them the statutes and the laws, and show them the way in which they must walk and the work they must do." (Ex. 18:20).

Dvision of labor (and knowledge) is, to a certain extent, a good thing, as it makes us all more efficient. If I had to do everything myself, everything I did would suffer. I would be the proverbial Jack-of-all-trades and master of none.
But there are certain subjects about which we all should know something. Everyone should know how to read, write and cipher, and know how to study the Bible. We should also have a good working knowledge of our rights and responsibilities with regard to our neighbors; in short, a basic knowledge of the law. When this country was founded, such a knowledge was widespread; it was a key to the establishment of our form of civil government.
Law was the first subject the new nation of Israel was required to study. When the burden of judging the people of Israel became too great for Moses to handle by himself, his father-in-law, Jethro, made two suggestions: appoint more judges to share Moses' workload, and teach all the people the law, so that they would know "the way in which they must walk and the work they must do." (Ex. 18:20). The impetus for this command was Jethro's desire that Moses not wear himself out. (Ex. 18:17-18). Not only would a broad knowledge of the law lighten the workload of the judges, but it would have other benefits for the people as well.
Knowledge of the law keeps frivolous cases out of court. When the rules of law are fixed and immutable, as they were in Israel and in the common law of English and American history, disputing parties do not need to go to court to know the outcome of a case. The parties might dispute the facts, and the choice of the applicable rule might depend on which of the competing interpretations was true, but time would not be wasted by lawyers and judges arguing over innovative legal theories. A murderer was a murderer; it was irrelevant that he was abused as a child.
Knowledge of the law keeps society running smoothly. Everyone is conservative by nature; the Lord hard-wired us to travel in well-worn grooves. We operate according to custom and tradition, and we want to keep things just the way they are, thank you. He who tries to buck the trend will quickly find out that "that's not the way things are done around here." William Blackstone put it well: "As, therefore, every subject is interested in the preservation of the laws, it is incumbent upon every man to be acquainted with those at least, with which he is immediately concerned; lest he incur the censure, as well as the inconvenience, of living in a society without knowing the obligations it lays him under." 1
Knowledge of the law helps us protect our rights, and those of our families and others who are dependent on us. The civil law, especially biblical civil law, is the foundation of civil liberty. The message of Scripture is that God's law frees us from the tyranny of our sin. But law also frees us from the tyranny of other people's sin.
Blackstone said that the civil law is that "by which the meanest individual is protected from the insults and oppressions of the greatest." 2 Whether the "greatest" is a thug with a gun, a politically or financially powerful individual, or a government agent, the law, and a civil magistrate with the will and ability to enforce it, create a bulwark against their oppressions.
Knowledge of the legal limits of the sovereign also serve to protect us against his intrusions. The more people there are who know those limits, the less likely transgressions are to occur. If they do, they will be resisted. The federal government is being called on the carpet for what happened in Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, not just because they were legal travesties, but because everyone in the country knows why they were legal travesties.
Knowledge of the law makes us ready to protect the rights of others when we are called upon to serve as jurors. Juries have a tremendous responsibility. They decide not only the rights of the parties, but often their fates as well. A jury knowledgeable in the law is not likely to be persuaded by spurious arguments and appeals to emotion. The current system is rigged against a juror who knows anything about the law. Such a juror can't be snowed, and is likely to be excluded by the attorneys. Where legal knowledge is common, such discrimination cannot occur.
Knowledge of the law allows us to intelligently enter into public discourse on matters of public concern, and, if called, to serve as conscientious legislators. In the last article, knowledge of the law on the part of legislators was seen as necessary to prevent the confusion, inconsistency and redundancy of the legal code. When we as citizens also know the law, we are more able to lobby our representatives regarding a particular policy, more prepared to hold them accountable for their votes, and more ready to serve in civil government.
Gaining such knowledge does not require reading the statute books from cover to cover. Start with the Bible. Pay particular attention to Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, but don't neglect the entire Bible for explanations and applications of the Mosaic Code. Next, find a good edition of Blackstone's Commentaries , either at the library or through a used book dealer, and read it cover to cover (you can safely ignore the editorial footnotes). That's it. While this program will not qualify you for your state's bar exam, it will bring you up to par with the Founding Fathers.

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