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The Reign of Christ. Book Two. Chapter Fifty Six: The Tenth Law: on the Revision and Elaboration of Civil Laws

When Your Majesty has supported and strengthened wholesome industry for his people in the manner indicated, so that from childhood everyone will be educated and assigned to a definite task and function in life useful to the commonwealth, and everyone will be urged to do his duty perseveringly, efficiently, and energetically; and when he has also driven out and suppressed all intemperance, wickedness, and luxury, the next thing to do will be to clarify and strengthen those laws by which communication of obligations and exchange of goods are regulated among men. 

For everywhere I hear good men complain that the laws of this realm concerning property and its exchange, inheritances, and other kinds of civil commerce and contracts are very obscure and complicated, and so written in a certain obsolete language that they can be understood by no one who has not both learned that language and very studiously pursued an understanding of these laws; and hence it comes about that very many of those who in some way have come to know these laws and are counselors of law rather than of justice abuse these very laws as traps for men and nets for money. Since this disadvantage to the realm could not be tolerated, they say that that most excellent prince, Your Majesty’s father, was once so moved as to delegate certain men to correct and explain these laws. 

But since these designated reformers of laws, either terrified by the scope of the task or hindered and distracted by other affairs, have as yet brought forth no remedy for this evil, and it is said that the abuse and perversion of laws are daily becoming stronger, it will certainly be the duty of Your Majesty to elaborate quickly and firmly the means by which these laws may be clarified as correctly and plainly as possible and so defined in language as well as in method that, inasmuch as they ought to be observed by all the citizens, they can also be read and understood by all. Then all occasion for bewildering good and simple men and taking advantage of them will be taken away from disreputable lawyers and shysters. All men of wisdom agree on this, that no government can stand without laws which the citizens should accept and follow as the dictates and prescriptions of God. But what difference does it make whether no laws exist or those which do exist are unknown to the citizens? 

Therefore, for the restitution of the Kingdom of Christ among his subjects and for the procurement and the preservation of justice, peace, and the well-being of his subjects, Your Majesty will give his attention to the selection of most excellent men from the entire realm, men of piety toward God and country, who also have a knowledge of and desire for what is good and equitable; to these he will assign the task with all possible speed to define and explain all the laws which affect, influence, or oblige Your Majesty’s subjects, as regards the individual’s duties of justice to God, country, and neighbor and this with perspicuity, brevity, and orderliness so that they may not only be understood by all but also easily remembered and observed. 

In order that this may be brought about more conveniently, they should also be redacted, after the manner of the ancients, into certain brief epitomes and chants which may quickly be learned by growing children in their childhood instruction and chanted by all the people. For should not the diligence and zeal which the wise men of the pagans are known to have observed in order to improve citizenship, also be applied by Christian princes? 

Inasmuch as no sanction or constitution made for the regulation of men’s life and behavior can sustain the name of law unless it is derived from the principal law of God and received according to the mind of the provident ruler of all things, so also all the law of God and the entire teaching of the prophets depend on these two headings as our Savior Jesus Christ has affirmed: “Thou shalt love God Jehovah with thy whole heart, thy whole soul, and all thy strength, and thy neighbor as thyself” (Luke 10:27) certainly all laws, whether divinely handed down or issued by men, must be referred to these two headings. In all things whatsoever, therefore, which are known, commanded, or forbidden, all who give, revise, and institute laws must first of all see to it that only that is prescribed to men which is accommodated to a pure and sincere worship of God and a firm and dutiful love and beneficence toward one’s neighbor, and that whatever is contrary to these things is prohibited. 

Therefore, whatever Your Majesty will order concerning the teaching, strengthening, promotion, and protection of Christ’s true religion, about which we have previously advised, what is contained in the first table of the divine law will hold first place in the laws of his realm and will embrace all duties of piety as they are enjoined in the following four commandments (Ex. 20:2-10) : the one true God, as he has revealed himself in the Scriptures, must be heard and worshiped; all strange gods and cults not commended in the Holy Scriptures must be avoided and condemned; perjury and all abuse of the divine name must be abhorred, and therefore there must also be a most holy confession and celebration of that same name and the majesty of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the Sabbath must be kept holy, i.e., at every time, place, and service by which God wants the knowledge and worship of him to be observed by men and to be spread by the preaching and admonition of the gospel, the use of the sacraments, and the entire Christian discipline, with prayers, praise of God, and thanksgivings. 

There follow next the decrees and sanctions which are contained in the Fifth Commandment of the Decalogue, the commandment of obeying and honoring one’s parents and all who take the place of parents in the offices of teaching, admonishing, ruling, correcting, nourishing, safeguarding, and helping both in civil and ecclesiastical education and in the application of each person to his own task, about which we have spoken a little before. In this there is principally contained the essence of so-called distributive justice or what Plato calls political justice, according to which there is attributed to everyone the task, honor, and emolument which is due to him for the utility of the entire commonwealth in proportion to his nature, ability, virtue, and industry. For it is an iniquity to give equal preferment, dignity, and occupation to those who are disparate in ability and in the effort they make for the advantage of the commonwealth. 

Then in the third place there may follow laws to regulate the exchanges of goods and services of this life and voluntary and involuntary contracts. Here the highest rule is that everyone do to others as he would have them do to him (cf. Matt. 7:12), and this out of a sincere love. In the formulation, emendation, and elucidation of laws of this kind, one must take the greatest care to exclude from the commerce of the citizens all greed (i.e., excessive cupidity in seeking for oneself things, honors, or pleasures) and also all fraud and deceit. If such creeps in, it should receive the strictest attention and be gotten rid of. The citizens must be made to realize that that person ought not be tolerated, neither in the Church of Christ nor in any Christian commonwealth, who is found to prefer private to public advantage or to seek his own interests to the disadvantage of others, and who is not disposed to cultivate among his neighbors mutual benevolence and beneficence, trust, honesty, and appreciation. 

For whatever man has the will and desire to deceive, defraud, and harm his neighbors, although he may have the name and shape of a man, he is in nature and desire a savage beast, to whom nothing is lacking but the occasion for overthrowing not only private citizens but also the commonwealth itself. He will readily seize every opportunity to do so for he is a captive of Satan and subject to his deceitful lust which is in every way so ruinous for mankind. The Holy Spirit has borne witness to this when he affirmed that “he who hates his brother” (and he who knowingly and willingly harms someone hates him) “is a murderer” (I John 3:15). Therefore, in every condemnation of the godless, Scripture always takes special note of fraud, malice, and lying, and execrates them. 

And so in all laws it must first of all be required that all self-love and all greed be suppressed and that everyone embrace and help his neighbors and transact all things with them in the same good faith that everyone wishes others to have in entering into and making contracts with himself. These things, therefore, should be considered and regarded by the correctors of all laws which are promulgated for the observance of so-called commutative justice, by which men are made to acknowledge that they have been born not for themselves but for God, Church, country, and neighbor, and that they wickedly injure God and the commonwealth and deserve to be rejected from the human community if they should be discovered to have preferred in any matter their own good to the good of the commonwealth and their neighbor. This is part of the law of nature, not only of the gospel, which indeed all profess in Your Majesty’s realm.