The rules of the game

Board games are often more fun than you think they'll be. Last weekend, with six of our eight kids home, somebody (and I don't remember who) pushed for a family game night. With eight people and markers for up to six players, Andrew and I each teamed up with one of the girls for a round of Spy Alley.

The game centers on keeping one's own identity secret, while figuring out the national affiliations of everyone else. It moves a bit slowly until one of the players overcomes his fear of death-by-incorrectly-guessing-an-opponent's-spy-identity. But once that ball starts rolling -- and players start to be eliminated -- the pace really picks up.

About 30 or 40 minutes into the game, one of our kids decided to stare down death and take matters into his own hands by asking all three of the players in the "spy alley" part of the board if they were German. The negative response was immediate and overwhelming. "You can't do that!" "That's against the rules!" "You can only guess one person," or "You can only guess one person at a time."

The rules, (which had been read aloud in their entirety before we began), were taken out of the box and consulted again. It quickly became clear that the rule in question wasn't clear at all. Applying it seemed to necessitate a judgment call.

The oldest child present asked for a ruling from the "consuls." (That would be the two of us parents, although I prefer the title "Augustus" or "Empress.") Andrew googled the game on his iPhone and discovered numerous resolutions to this very unclarity. Opinion on the internet was decidedly against allowing what Kyril was trying to do, simply because it would likely bring the game to a precipitous end. A few of us asked for the rule to be read again. One of our other kids actually sentence diagrammed the rule to determine what it really meant. (Only in our house! Then again, maybe not.)

We decided it was in the common interest to prohibit Kyril's attempt, and limit his guess to one and only one opponent. He was wrong, and was subsequently eliminated from the game. Before the next player's turn, we were sure to annotate the rules if not for posterity, at least for future play.

I might be overstating it just a bit, but I think it's important to follow the rules all the time and in everything. I think it's even more important to acknowledge that there are rules, not just for board games, but for every level of human activity. When things are ambiguous, and they frequently are, it is still critical to appeal to a standard other than someone's whim or preference, wealth or power.

There are legitimate arguments for being strict as there are for being lenient. But God's plan for salvation through the Incarnation of his son teaches us something about what God think about rules in general. He likes them, and he was willing to obey them himself. As Jesus said, "Do not think I have come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it." (Matt. 5:17) If the rules were good enough for Christ, they must be good enough for me. In short, my task is to become good enough for them.

When I see people protesting how others break the law or bend it, but show little or no regard for the law themselves, I can't support them. Civil disobedience involves breaking an unjust law. I do, and always will, support that. But what we've been seeing lately isn't civil disobedience. Why? Because we can't know that a law is unjust without appealing to a standard that is more compelling than that law itself is; that is, without appealing to a higher law.

While nobody can claim complete and unadulterated moral superiority, it's important to remember that without the rules, there is no game. Without law, and the rule of law, there is no civil society. And as St. Paul observed in his letter to the Romans, without the law, there can be no sin and no salvation.