The Chinese Chesterton’s Thoughts on the Influence of Christianity on Common Law

It’s been a long time since I shared thoughts here from my faithful departed friend named John C.H. Wu.

I won’t bore you to death with the details of his life, as I’ve already done that in numerous posts before. Remember when he likened Saint Thérèse of Lisieux as having the mind of Lao Tzu, with the heart of Confucius? He’s written some amazing stuff.

I keep teasing you with the fact that I’m reading Shusaku Endo’s novel, The Samurai. I still haven’t finished it, and I’m still not ready to post on it, but it has gotten me thinking once again of some of my favorite conversion stories. Stories from Asia. The conversion of John C.H. Wu ranks right up there as one of my all-time favorites, for sure.

I once called him a Chinese Legal Eagle, as he was a very accomplished lawyer and judge. In his first conversion to Christianity, he became a member of the Methodist Episcopal church while studying law at one of their missionary schools (Soochow University) near Shanghai. There is even a Tennessee connection, as that school was headed by one C. W. Rankin who hailed from my home state. Upon graduation from Soochow’s law school, John headed on to the University of Michigan Law School to further his studies. At Michigan, he knocked out his Juris Doctor degree in one year.

We were judges, once, and young…

Oops, I started boring you with John’s background. Sorry.

In his second Christian conversion, he swam the Tiber, see. Following being the Ambassador to the Holy See for the Nationalist Republic of China in 1947-49 (yes, mainland, pre-Communist, China had an ambassador to the Holy See long before the United States did [ahem, 1984] ), he escaped the destruction wrought by Mao’s armies and landed on his feet in the United States, as a professor of law at Seton Hall University.

Which is where he was when he wrote the book entitled Fountain of Justice: A Study in the Natural Law (Sheed & Ward, 1955). What follows is a passage from the eighteenth chapter, “The Fountainhead of Legal Wisdom,” in which John gives us a clinic on the depth and breadth of the impact Christianity has had on the development of law in England, and in the United States.

One of the greatest decisions in contemporary England was the “Snail’s Case” (Donoghue v. Stevenson. 1932. L.R., A.C. 562). The plaintiff, a poor woman, and a friend visited a cafe in Paisley, where her friend ordered for her a bottle of the ginger-beer. As she was drinking, a decomposed snail floated out with the ginger-beer. In consequence of her having drunk part of the contaminated contents of the bottle, she contracted a serious illness. She sued the manufacturer for damages. The lower courts dismissed her action on the ground that there was no privity between the manufacturer and the ultimate consumer. In the House of Lords, her appeal was upheld. What interests us here is the very practical application made by Lord Atkin of Christ’s teachings. “The rule,” he said, “that you are to love your neighbor, becomes in law, you must not injure your neighbor; and the lawyer’s question, Who is my neighbor? received a restricted reply. You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions, which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbor. Who, then, in law is my neighbor? The answer seems to be—persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts and omissions which are called in question.”

This is one of the best statements on the relation between natural law and human law. Natural law is the common fountain of ethics and jurisprudence. The functions of these latter are different. Each has its forte, and each its limits. The differences and interrelations between law and morals present a fascinating subject of study, but we shall not enter upon it here. All that I wish to say now is that if the law does not require everyone to act as the Good Samaritan, it is not because it is not sufficiently Christian to appreciate the beauty of moral goodness, but rather because it is aware of its own limits, and it has to take account of the frailties of human nature and the actual state of civilization. Jurisprudence would not be prudent if it tried to go beyond the limits of practicability. On the other hand, it would not be just if it did not perform its function as fully as it could within those limits. The end of the law is love, and no measure is set to the end, only to the means. In many matters, the law has to choose the lesser evil.

Oftentimes the legislator or the judge finds himself in the delicate position of that householder in the parable who had to refrain from action for fear that “perhaps while you are gathering the tares you will root up the wheat with them” (Matt.xiii. 29). Some weeds, however, are so poisonous that if you do not uproot them immediately the wheat itself will be infected. In such a case, a good judge would not hesitate to pluck them out carefully, so as not to injure the wheat.

Take, for instance, the “Spring-gun Case,” Bird v. Holbrook (Court of Common Pleas, 1828. 4 Bingham 628), where the defendant placed in his garden a spring-gun in order to catch anyone who should come to steal the flowers. The plaintiff, who entered the garden not for stealing, but to help a friend to recapture a pea-fowl which had flown into the garden, accidentally touched one of the wires attached to the spring-gun, which was thereby discharged, causing a severe wound in his knee.

Holding the action maintainable, Chief Justice Best said, “It has been argued that the law does not compel every line of conduct which humanity or religion may require; but there is no act which Christianity forbids, that the law will not reach: if it were otherwise, Christianity would not be, as it has always been held to be, part of the law of England. I am, therefore, clearly of opinion that he who sets spring-guns, without giving notice, is guilty of an inhuman act, and that, if injurious consequences ensue, he is liable to yield redress to the sufferer. But this case stands on grounds distinct from any that have preceded it. In general, spring-guns have been set for the purpose of deterring; the defendant placed his for the express purpose of doing injury; for, when called on to give notice, he said. If I give notice, I shall not catch him.’ He intended, therefore, that the gun should be discharged, and that contents should be lodged in the body of the victim, for he could not be caught in any other way.”

You will note that in such cases Christianity is introduced not as a supernatural religion, but as a vehicle of the precepts of natural law and justice.

Likewise, in the interesting “Queue Case,” Ho Ah Kow v. Nunan (Circuit Court, D. Calif., 1879, 5 Sawy. 552, 12 Fed. Cas. 253), where the sheriff, in obedience to an ordinance declared unconstitutional by the Court, cut off the queue of a Chinese, and was ordered to pay damages to the amount of ten thousand dollars. Justice Field, who was sitting as Circuit Judge, had this to say in the course of his splendid opinion: “The ordinance is known in the community as the ‘Queue Ordinance,’ being so designated from its purpose to reach the queues of the Chinese, and it is not enforced against any other persons. The reason advanced for its adoption, and now urged for its continuance, is, that only the dread of the loss of his queue will induce a Chinaman to pay his fine. That is to say, in order to enforce the payment of a line imposed upon him, it is necessary that torture should be superadded to imprisonment. Then, it is said, the Chinaman will not accept the alternative, which the law allows, of working out his fine by his imprisonment. Probably the bastinado, or the knout, or the thumbscrew, or the rack, would accomplish the same end; and no doubt the Chinaman would prefer either of these modes of torture to that which entails upon him disgrace among his countrymen and carries with it the constant dread of misfortune and suffering after death. It is not creditable to the humanity and civilization of our people, much less to their Christianity, that an ordinance of this character was possible.”

It is not possible to cite even a small fraction of the cases where the influence of Christianity reveals itself with sudden, blinding radiance. But the few instances I have given are representative.

Christ does not enter into the courtroom as the Lawgiver whose words are legally binding on the judges. No, His kingdom does not belong to this world. The common-law judges have quoted His words just as the judges of ancient China would quote the words of Confucius. But just as it is impossible to understand the old Chinese jurisprudence without a knowledge of Confucianism, so it is impossible to grasp the spirit of the common law without taking account of the permeating influence of Christianity.

That’s probably about all you have time for, right dear reader? For one sitting anyway. Good news! The rest of the book is available electronically courtesy of the good folks over at the HathiTrust’s digital collection.

Read more about John in the blog archives.

Pope Pius XII, the Ambassador, & family


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