God’s Law vs. Caesar’s Law

We talked on Tuesday about law, but I want to dig a little deeper into the dichotomy between religious and judicial systems of law, and the blurred line between these systems and individual characters’ ethical codes. Skiffington, our dear sheriff, finds “solace…in separating God’s law from Caesar’s law” (43). In practice, this turns into a private-public life distinction, and Skiffington at first works simply to maintain social order, whether it means blocking the window so white women can’t see Moses naked (173), or appeasing Robbins and the other citizens in the sense that they’re his clients/constituents. Crucially, what he seeks is “solace,” though, not what’s right; by deferring to larger authorities, Skiffington absolves himself of responsibility, in a sense. This goes to crap, of course, in the last chapter, but that’s another topic.

Whereas for Skiffington the dynamic between religious and judicial law is a sort of internal struggle, the tension between these systems is externalized elsewhere. In particular, when Henry and Augustus fight after Henry tells Augustus about purchasing Moses, they embody each side of the argument. Augustus refers twice to God: he tells Henry “don’t go back to Egypt after God done took you outta there” (137), and he refers to “God’s earth” (137). In contrast, Hnery refers to the fact that he “ain’t broke no law” (138), and “ain’t done nothing I ain’t a right to” (138).

Augustus is appalled at Henry because of inability to empathize with the slave he purchased. Henry appeals to social order, and, crucially, the idea that “he ain’t doing nothing no white man wouldn’t do” (138). There’s so much to unpack here: judicial law as dehumanizing and religious law as humanizing; Henry’s quadruple negative and the way he’s trying to deny the social order he grew up in by succeeding within it, how for Skiffington dealing with this tension is a job and for Henry and Augustus, it’s their lived experience. There’s much (much much!) more work to do here, but I think it’s helpful to divide systems of law and ethics within the book to empathetic and religious vs. legal and societal.

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