Okay, so there’s this guy. Call him Henry, though that’s not his name. And he goes out west someplace, and founds a town. Builds it with his own two hands. Now, Henry’s got a whole lot of kids and grandkids and great-grandkids, all of whom he loves dearly, and in fact, he built the town for them to live in.
But at some point, he decides there need to be some laws, and since he built the town and sired all these kids, he’s the one to write the laws as well. Except that he wound up shooting for ideal rather than practical, so in addition to the practical stuff like no killing people and no littering, he’s also got stuff like no sniffling, no nose-picking, and no snoring. He knows full well that his kids are going to do that stuff, but he writes those laws anyway.
And as he looks out from his window, he sees his kids doing all those things he told them not to do, and never does anything. Until they reach a certain age, that is, at which point the kid is brought into the courthouse and Henry judges them. The good ones get to live in Henry’s house, and their reward for being good is that they get to actually see Henry, and tell him all day long how much they love him. The bad ones are taken out back and put in cages over a barbecue pit, where an acquaintance of Henry’s from way back when shits on their heads whenever he feels like it. Either way, anyone who enters the courthouse is never seen in town again.
And one day, some people are in court being tried for breaking the town laws, and it turns out that Henry has multiple personalities. And one of them, whom we’ll call Josh, comes to the fore and says, “Man, getting shat on over a barbecue pit sucks. I wish that wouldn’t happen to anyone ever again.” Now, the simple thing to do would be for Henry to stop sentencing people to the barbecue pit. Or be more lenient about it. Or abolish the laws that don’t matter, and that he knew people wouldn’t be able to obey.
But instead, as Josh, he goes out into the main street, and makes a nuisance of himself until the cops beat him up with clubs, and he has to leave town, bloody and bruised all over.
Three days later, he comes back, all better, and makes an announcement: “I’ve worked out a deal with the judge” (that is, himself). “Anyone who wants to can come be my servant, and do everything I tell them to do. If you do that, the judge [that is, Henry, that is, himself] promises to forgive all the times you broke his [that is, Henry’s, that is, his own] rules, and let you live in Henry’s [that is, Josh’s] house, and not have to be sent to the barbecue pit when it’s your time to go on trial.” And then he went back into Henry’s house, and never came out on the street again.
Now, not everyone was around to hear Josh’s offer, so the ones who were had to tell everyone else. And they were deathly afraid of the barbecue pit, especially since no one in town had been told about it until Josh came out that one time. And if anyone asked why Henry didn’t just stop sending people to the barbecue pit, or said surely Henry wouldn’t send a child to the barbecue pit just for sniffling, they’d say that the law was the law, and that justice demanded that the child be sent to the barbecue pit; and in fact that everyone deserved to be sent to the barbecue pit, because everyone had, at one time or another, broken one of those laws that Henry set up and knew that people wouldn’t be able to obey.
And they went on to tell everyone how wonderful Josh (that is, Henry) was for sparing them from suffering the punishment that Henry set up with his laws and his trial system and his one-time-only enforcement.
(Update, Jun. 12, 2006: Here’s more about the people who inspired this parable.)