“Cut the baby in half.” This statement, from 1 Kings 3, is often quoted to show the wisdom of King Solomon in determining which of two women was the real mother of the baby in question. Yet it also reveals how most people perceive the legal system: as a sub-zero sum game. Either one woman gets the baby, the other woman gets the baby, or, if there is “compromise,” each woman gets half but the baby is dead.
This is why compromise, accommodation, and surrender get a bad rap in our society. They imply weakness in a competitive world.
Our legal system is referred to as an “adversarial system,” conjuring up images of gladiators doing battle in a Roman arena. Ultimately, the judge will give a thumbs up or thumbs down. One party will win and the other will lose. So there are no compromises, just “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” The theory behind the system is that truth will emerge if each side tells its side of the story. Somehow a judge will be able to discern who is telling the truth and who is lying. And out of a complex provision of evidence, it will become clear what actually happened. But we all know that, in practice, this theory doesn’t always pan out.
This is why, as a lawyer but also as a Christian, I would argue that compromise outside the legal system is usually preferable to taking matters to court. There are, of course, exceptions, but people are often quick to run to lawyers and courts when they could discuss and come to a reasonable solution that everyone can live with. Yes, it involves compromise and even surrender, but those, it turns out, are the building blocks of a society.
Process Is Important
Consider a current example from my hometown: a six-year-old has anaphylactic allergies to milk and eggs and her mother wants the school to ban these from school lunches. As dairy products are considered essential to children’s health, the school is reluctant to ban them. You likely have an immediate response to this dilemma, usually based on your personal experience. But regardless of what you think should happen, what is the best process for resolving this dispute?
Process is important. Consider what would happen if the school decides to impose the ban requested by the mother. It is likely that parents of other children would be angry or defiant. They would either make irate phone calls to the principal, or simply ignore the ban and send their children with banned products. This could leave the school in the uncomfortable situation of policing every child’s lunch. Clearly, this process would not achieve the desired outcome without considerable effort on the part of the school.
A second option for resolution is to turn to an outside arbiter who has the power to impose a resolution that parents would be forced to respect. This is actually the current avenue being pursued by the mother. She did not get the resolution she wanted from the school so she has made a complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. Unfortunately for Mom, this is a rather slow process so she may have to wait some time before the issue is resolved. Even if she gets the outcome she wants, there is considerable risk that parents will not comply with the resolution.
What is needed here is a resolution that everyone can and will live with. This can only be achieved by involvement in the process for finding a solution. While this seems like a cumbersome process, getting everyone in a room and having a discussion, it is the one best suited to having a resolution that everyone will respect. In this situation, the mother does not want to be seen as “right” as much as she wants to protect her daughter’s life.
In our current society, people seem to be afraid of face-to-face dialogue and discussion. The media is only too eager to find someone who is offended or hurt by a particular outcome. Rather than that person engaging in the discussion and putting their concerns to the group, it is somehow easier to express offense to the media. In our example, even if a resolution is achieved in an open forum, there will always be someone who is unhappy with the result. And the media will seek that person out for the story.
In this example, however, every parent in the room will understand the pain of a mother who is afraid to send her child to school for fear of an anaphylactic episode that could end in death. Those who might be tempted to complain to the media will appear uncaring. But there may be workable resolutions short of banning dairy and eggs for the whole school.
Compromise As The Fruit Of Empathy
A real, open process is a messy business. It requires people to listen as well as talk. It requires empathy. And ultimately, it requires reconciliation and, yes, compromise. While the mother’s demands might initially seem unreasonable, her fear for her child is not. Once everyone grasps the reality, they are more willing to compromise what is best for them. This means that some might have to accommodate the child with allergies by surrendering or yielding their own preferences.
In the face of the challenges of actually listening and negotiating with others, many people in our society are quick to turn to legal mechanisms to solve disputes. They likely assume that these processes are objective or somehow less painful than dialogue and discussion. No one will have to appear weak by compromising or accommodating. No one will be seen to give up their own preferences or claims.
On the contrary, however, the adversarial system tends toward a winner-take-all approach. This simply raises the stakes for everyone. Someone (or many people) will be forced to surrender their preferences; it might be the parent and child with allergies or it might be all the other parents. An adversarial system encourages neither compromise nor reconciliation.
Christians have a special interest in dispute resolution that emphasizes reconciliation. We are to have a different view of justice than that of the rest of the world. Paul instructs Christians not to avail themselves of secular courts. “Why not rather be wronged?” he asks, almost shockingly. “Why not rather be cheated?” (1 Corinthians 6:7). And Paul is not only referring to cases when we are wronged by Christians that we are to accept injustice. As Jesus enjoined us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). What might be the implications of that when we have a dispute? Does it mean we should always cave, give in, accept injustice? Might it mean that sometimes? How can we know the difference?
Jesus, Our Compromise
The biblical witness suggests a principle that no doubt makes us uncomfortable: Christians are sometimes called to accept injustice when it is visited upon us.
In the Old Testament, God chose a people, the children of Abraham. He released them from the deep oppression of the Pharaoh and brought them out of Egypt. While God saw the Law as a gift to the people, they immediately and perpetually rebelled against this law. The Israelites voluntarily made a covenant to follow God but regularly disobeyed the commands that they had no part in developing.
Once God gave his people his law, he judged them by its standards. And they continually fell short. There are mechanisms for atonement— burnt offerings and sin offerings. But they were never really enough.
Enter Jesus, the Christ. He made permanent atonement. On the day when God judges everyone, Jesus provides an out of court settlement for those who claim it. Now that’s “compromise”; that’s “accommodation”; that’s “surrender.”
Jesus lived in a culture where the Law had become simply legalistic. Devotion became a matter of strict adherence to an abstract concept. Jesus, in contrast, focused on relationships, on the people the Law was made for. As he succinctly summarized it, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). It was more important to heal someone than to be concerned about what day it was and whether The Law allowed healings on that day of the week. It was more important to help someone left bleeding and naked by the side of the road than to worry about your own status or whether it would make you ceremonially unclean.
Our contemporary legal system rarely preserves relationships. Rather, it is like a nuclear bomb to relationships. Divorce is a legal mechanism to separate families. Going to court over a contract can end business relationships. Criminal courts can send an accused to jail, denying his ability to maintain most, if not all, of his relationships.
We have a deep human need for a sense of justice and rightness. We want to have our wrongs righted and those who wronged us punished. Indeed, Augustine stated, “Punishment is justice for the unjust.” But that simply does not hold up to how Jesus told Christians to live. We also have a deep human need for relationships, love, and forgiveness.
Christians are to forgive others, and give up our own rights in favour of others. Remember Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-42):
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.
When Not To Compromise
But does this mean that Christians are to simply be doormats? Not really. While some Christians have taken this to mean that we should never engage with the legal system, Paul used his understanding of the law to appeal to Caesar when he had been wrongly arrested and detained (Acts 25:11).
Christians also follow Jesus’s lead in standing against injustice. Early in Jesus’s ministry, he proclaimed that he came to “proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18).
It is about purpose and motivation and the hard work of discernment. If it is about seeking our own gain, we should give way. If it is about a higher good, we should still seek to reconcile. If it is about fundamental rights and beliefs, it is not wrong to use the legal system, even though we might also have to sometimes live with “being wronged” this side of heaven.
By way of example, Trinity Western University was refused accreditation of its education program in 1996 on the basis of the university’s community standards. The university took this to court to establish a religious freedom principle. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2001 that the university’s program should be accredited. The Court said, “Students attending TWU are free to adopt personal rules of conduct based on their religious beliefs provided they do not interfere with the rights of others. Their freedom of religion is not accommodated if the consequence of its exercise is the denial of the right of full participation in society.” The university is facing the same issue again as it seeks accreditation of a law school.
There are many alternative paths to resolving disputes that avoid a court process. In addition to the informal means of simply sitting down and talking face-to-face, there is mediation and arbitration. Even in the harshness of the criminal justice system, there are opportunities for restorative justice.
While Christians wish to uphold justice, that does not always mean engaging in the legal system to do so. Resolving disputes does not always mean engaging in the legal system. As Paul instructs in Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
Christians can and should be engaged in public dialogue, not just to state our case but also to listen to others. And we must not ignore that discomforting biblical question, sometimes we have to ask: “Why not rather be wronged?”
In the end, King Solomon did not cut the baby in half and neither should we. The real mother was willing to surrender her rights as a mother rather than have her baby die. Does that always work? No. But by being willing to surrender her rights, the mother had her child returned. Perhaps there is an important lesson here as we read Solomon alongside Saint Paul: that in our willingness to surrender, even to compromise, we might be surprised by the outcomes, especially since our hope is in the King of heaven and earth.