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Legalism and Responsibility in the Light of a Tragedy

Legalism Revisited

Legalism is more than a list of do’s and don’ts. It’s a way of thinking.

Legalism assumes that rules and regulations – laws – can make all the difference in the world, alleviating the fear of what happens when people are accountable for themselves. It is commonly assumed that with more laws in place people will get into less trouble. The problem is that even if a man had a rule and regulation for every area of life, he would still be responsible for his own actions.

Therefore, when someone acts responsibly in an atmosphere of loose regulation, he not only shows maturity and wisdom, but lives can be saved. Sadly, legalism and a lack of personal responsibility are at the heart of today’s story.

A Horrible Tragedy

On October 17 a tragedy took place. It was the kind of tragedy that should pull at the heart strings of every human being. An Egyptian school bus carrying approximately 60 children was hit by a train. Most of the children, ages 4-8, and two adults were killed instantly.

News reports seem to have place the blame on many people, ranging from the sleeping crossing guard to the head of the railway. News agencies from around the world keep mentioning how poor the safety records are in Egypt, each pointing out the need for more laws and greater reform.

But what saddens me is that not one news story that I have read held the bus driver responsible. In my opinion, that is where the real responsibility lay.

Speaking from Experience

As a professional school bus driver I can testify that America has plenty of laws in place regarding school bus safety, especially regarding railway crossings. But no amount of laws can make a driver stop at every railroad crossing, look in both directions at least twice, and open both doors and windows to listen for any sound of an approaching train. Even with all the laws that are in place, there are still accidents. It is always, always the responsibility of the driver to watch for danger.

Even if everyone in the country of Egypt had neglected their duties, the driver of the doomed school bus should have never crossed those tracks, whether there were working signals, or not. Flashing lights and crossing arms fail. The bus driver should have never crossed a track without being positive a train was not approaching.

It is possible that the driver saw the train and assumed that it was a safe distance away. It is possible that, when he saw no crossing arms down, he assumed the train was going slowly, if not stopped. The laws may have permitted the driver to cross the tracks if he thought the train was a safe distance away. The problem is that the speed of an approaching train is nearly impossible to determine. If he saw the train, he should have never crossed the tracks.

A Better Law

In my opinion, the buck stops with the driver. He (or she) was the one ultimately responsible for the safety of his priceless cargo. He made the decision to unwisely cross the track, despite any law that may or may not have been in place, and he paid the price.

Legalism sets up laws for us to follow. It does it’s best to guard us against every foreseeable circumstance. But no law can replace responsibility. No law can guide us better than a pure conscience. No written law, however well-intentioned, can replace the law of God written on the heart transformed by the Spirit (Ps. 40:8; Jer. 31:33; Rom. 8:3-5).

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