Protection under the Law
I am on the edge of my seat. Paul is accused by the crowd, in the custody of Roman soldiers and there seems to be no opportunity that he might avoid the fate of being beaten to death while being "questioned" by his captors. He has been strapped to the ground, and the beating is about to commence. This, after he has made an impassioned defense of his actions and teachings to the crowd, speaking in Aramaic as well as communicating to the cohort in Latin and to his followers in Hebrew and Greek. It seems we are heading for yet another tragic martyrdom, like the ones experienced by Stephen and James. Paul is about to become another statistic in the continuing human drama of religious intolerance.
Then, he plays his political trump card. Bound over, literally, to death by "questioning" (read: beating), he asks why they would presume to break the Empire's laws by doing this to a Roman citizen. Immediately, the tenor changes. The soldiers around him step back and call for the officer. The officer inquires just what sort of citizen he is (it does matter, as there were "grades" of citizenship in those days). Paul is a citizen by birth, and with that he is entitled to certain rights...chief of which is that he can petition for trial in the face of what is effectively a summary execution. His last recourse is to appeal to what we would call nowadays "due process." Granted, this only improves his situation and not his chances. Trial in Rome will most likely mean death; but at least that would be by the sword or some other more humane action. In his citizenship, he is preserved from being crucified. At least, protection under the law means a small degree of comfort, if we can call it that.
Protection under the law: it is a term that for many means a sense of security and assurance that the State, or local Power is on our side and seeks to maintain order for the common good. Too often the reality of protection under the law really means a conditional relationship to the State based on determining factors like the color of our skin, our evident social class or other mitigating factors. In other words, human law works for us until it works against us.
I am not decrying the grace of being able to live in a republic that affords basic human rights as a matter of course. I m recognizing that societies do exist that do not offer that basic protection, and even work actively to subvert them. I also see how even the most sophisticated republic of the day in Paul's time, Rome, was a deeply flawed, human effort to create a system that emphasized justice over the impulses and whims of the powerful.
Still, it is a wild ride to see the events of today's readings in light of how we seek protection under the Law, be it civil or divine...and yet struggle with it when that Law fails to conform to our desires. Naaman braces under the direction to "go and bathe in the Jordan," a simple task that he seems to take as insult.
He is a powerful man, and so should he not at least be given a personal audience with the prophet...and an appropriately grand river to bathe in, in order to be healed from his leprosy? Yet, in that we learn that protection under God's Law is more about faith and submission to simple directives rather than indulgence in grand gestures.
My take-away for today is, I pray, eyes that remain open to seeing life lived under the protection of the law as an invitation to express mercy, seek justice and stand humbly before my creator and my neighbor. It is to remember that protection under the law means nothing until it is "equal" and all of us are welcomed to share in its privileges, be they human or divine.