National | Choice precedes reason every time

Issue: "Supreme Court dividing line," May 6, 2000

I saw all humanity refracted like a prism light into its several bands of righteousness last month at "Castle Park." I had come just to play, honest; and from a distance things held the promise of a simple, uncomplicated outing. One approaches the wooden ersatz kingdom from the crest of a hill, whence could be seen, excreting from every pore and orifice of the long hibernating beast, the heads and extremities of children weary, finally, of hand-held digital entertainment; the throbbing of new life. Ah, spring!

In truth I did not see it at first, the darker subtext. The children, having run ahead, had found the shallow end of the fence and vaulted over to join the happy throng. 'Twas then that I noticed the sifting of persons going on at the gate, which brought to mind the river where once many a fleeing Ephraimite had sealed his fate by his response to a test administered by the cunning Gileadites (Judges 12).

"PARK OPEN APRIL 15." There was no gainsaying what the sign said, which, in combination with a peremptory orange day-glo barricade, was weighty testimony. Arguing against it were the May-like climate on March 25th, and the de facto evidence of large numbers of children at play.

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I took my seat near the gate and watched: The majority who blithely stepped into the moral slip noose stopped, considered the prohibition, considered the weather, and lifted their little Johnnies and Janies over the lower banister at the "general store" end of the mock village. These are the "damn-the-torpedos-and-full-speed-ahead" types, I thought, the "sin boldly" men whom Martin Luther is said to have preferred to the self-deceived.

Then there were the "semi-righteous." They saw the same sign and day and crowd, and their consciences had words with them, I could read it in their faces; but they vacillated long enough to come up with half a dozen counter reasons; and "everybody else is doing it" carried the day.

A very small faction indeed, the "righteous," as I mentally dubbed them, read the sign, explained to their baffled toddlers that the park was evidently closed today, and turned 180 degrees, screaming kids flailing under the arm. I thought I admired that group-but I wasn't sure.

There is the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, I ruminated, continuing to exegete the sign as the sun sank in the sky. Doubtless the intention of the township fathers in fixing on April 15th was to find a terminus ad quem for snow and ice conditions that might issue in broken limbs ... and lawsuits. It was just your usual overprotective legality. Thus I reasoned the case. But of course I had four kids inside the fence.

For this is what I have perceived: that choice precedes reason every time. Give me a strong yearning for one or another thing and I will produce in no time flat a raft of justifications. Have you ever smuggled popcorn under your coat so as not to pay the theater's extortionist prices? How about buying bleachers tickets to a baseball game and then moving down near the first base line after the third inning? Have you ever endorsed your husband's check in a pinch? Are you using any computer programs you didn't pay for?

I wish some old-style KGB agent would walk up to me on the street and thrust a paper in my face and say, sign this affidavit saying you're a Communist. Then I'd know what to do. But these kinds of things never happen to me. Instead it's the ticket vendor at the train station who asks me how old my little girl is, and I say "6," and he looks at her and says "5" and hands me a discounted ticket.

But then you have my brother's brother-in-law in France, who, upon becoming a Christian, reasoned that he should pay all his taxes. Never mind that in France, at a tax rate of 47 percent, you can't pay all your taxes and survive in business-even the tax man would laugh at you. Sure enough, Pascal's restaurant went under ... and a few years later he's pastor of a church in Ales. What, pray tell, is the moral of that story?

A couple of Philadelphia natives are up for canonization these days, I read in the papers, but I'm afraid I won't be one of them. All I know is that in every ethical issue (playgrounds, popcorn, and rail tickets) there are really two issues: the presenting one and the Romans 14 one: For whoever believes it is sin, it is sin.


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