Tuesday, July 07, 2015

The strength of Law

I mused below upon the nature of the relationship between Church and State. Of course, I will readily hold up my hands and categorically state that I am no expert on law, nor on politics. What does concern me at the moment is the relationship with the Church and the those who do not believe. We have to live together in some kind of mutual flourishing as the Church of England would have it, yet, the Christian cannot but hold the Law of God as being superior to any law passed by a secular authority. And that's the rub: the Church recognizes the higher moral law by which all laws are measured, yet an increasingly significant number of members of the State do not. Many non-Christians find their morality grounded in general principles such as "do as you would be done by" or "do anything that would maximize the happiness of everyone" or the Kantian Categorical Imperative, "act only according to that rule where, at the same time, you would want it to become a universal law."

While these are worthy maxims, they are not consistent, nor do they provide a universal framework for law and for morals. Kant's ideas are certainly very compelling, but considering that Adolf Eichmann claimed to live by Kantian duty shows how either how little it can be understood, or how much it fails to be truly moral.

The fact is that, if the State were to pass a law making breaking and entering legal, we would know that this was a bad law. One could apply the maxims above, by all of which that law would certainly fail. Yet a law allowing for assisted suicide would fail the Categorical Imperative but not the Utilitarian idea of maximizing happiness, or even the Golden Rule. That's when debate comes in and where those more learned than I in legal matters construct the law.

Yet, I firmly believe in the moral law that comes from God as overriding Human Reason itself. Some may tell me that this is just silly on the grounds that I base the framework of my understanding of what is right and wrong on that which could be arbitrary and capricious. My! how people love to accuse God of being capricious.

The strength of the law comes from its power and its authority. The two are very different concepts. The law can force me to act a certain way: I don't steal because if I did, I would end up in a system of sanctions of increasing unpleasantness which I don't want. That's the power of the law: obey or be punished. The authority of the law comes from how much I buy into it, and even take ownership of it. I don't steal because I believe that the law against stealing is in the best interests of the society in which I live. The same is also true of my belief in God. If I obey Him for fear of Hell, then that's because God has the power to cast me into Hell. If I obey Him because knowing Him is the best thing for the whole of Creation, then that's a sign of His authority. Notice that, as St Thomas Aquinas would have it, God is His own authority - being with Him is the reason that persuades us to obey Him.

Yet, the law only ever has power when the sanctions that it can impose are able to act as a deterrent. Most people would indeed balk at the conditions in prison, which is why prison must be an undesirable place to be if the law is to have power. However, this is what makes religious belief very dangerous in the eyes of the law, because where the law is contradicted by religion, the strength of belief will allow the believer to endure even the worst forms of civil sanction. After all, the first Christians chose agonising deaths rather than subscribing to laws which demand that they worship the Roman Emperor. Yet this goes for any religion, not just Christianity. It is quite understandable why the State fears religious believers when legal sanctions do not have effect. It's worth noting here that actually, since we're a long time dead and likely to suffer pain anyway, what is the real power of those sanctions? The secular law can only ever have a temporary hold on people.

Thus, the strength of the law that binds communities together with a freedom of religion must rest upon the authority of the law and not its power. Religious groups of all sorts must feel that they possess ownership of the secular law that governs the country in which they find themselves.

This is very hard for me to admit as a Christian, as I believe firmly that the law should be precisely the moral law of God. That's not the case, and I don't seem to be able to change it which means I must tolerate that which I do not have the power to change, nor do I have the authority. I can't change the fact that Sunday is no longer a day free from trading. I can't change the fact that casual sex is culturally acceptable. But then, given that I am a fallible human being, it's best that I do not have the power to change the law. As well intentioned as I might be, I know that I will be capricious and I will restrict the freedom of others to live their lives. I tolerate the law while it stands, but I criticize it and seek to work around it in ways that show that I am willing to comply with the authority lawfully set over me, yet still seeking to effect the change demanded by the Moral Law which stands above the law of the land.

We have here a bit of an impasse: the State's fear of religious believers' ability to control the law by preferring to endure sanctions in order to get their own way, the religious believers' fear that their moral concerns about the content of the law will be ignored. There is a lot of fear here, and that needs to be addressed and, where possible, dispelled. Institutions always seek to hold onto what authority they have and, when they are at risk of losing it, they exercise their acts of power in order to re-establish that authority.

The Church is rather unusual in that ultimately, she possesses no power at all of Herself. Excommunication means very little these days. Yet She possesses authority because what She has comes straight from God. Any power that She has accrued comes from people who subscribe to that authority. This means that Christians must hold fast to what they believe to be true and fight, not against men, but against what is truly Evil in order to convey the truth of salvation from that Evil. Evil is something that needs to be dug out, like a deep-rooted weed that keeps growing until it is finally pulled from the Earth. The Christian War is not against one solitary man, but certainly against Sin, Worldly Power and the Devil who inspires the others. It is against pernicious and deep-seated Evil that cloaks itself in the truth in order to set society against itself.

This calls for much thought and prayer. We Christians need to see where that Evil really lies and how it is infecting our society. This is a confusing and daunting task, and many people, Christian and non-Christian, will be deluded - and I include myself in that. This means that, when faced with an unjust law, we will need to think carefully and understand what that law is saying. Too often we react before thinking not really understanding the issue or the situation involved. Does the law really say that everyone MUST donate their organs when they die? Is it really true that the law is allowing dying people to be harvested for anything that can be donated to another?

The next time we are tempted to react to a news story about the law, we need to feel our anger rise, then we really do have to stop, count to ten, and then reread looking for actual facts and not speculations. We also need to see where that anger within us comes from and discover the motives that we have for feeling this way. Then we pray. Then we think, taking at least a week to mull things over. And then we seek our what the true Evil is, where the real lie is. And then we act around that lie. We Christians need to become expert fencers or surgeons, able to split a hair with a well-aimed flick of the wrist, rather than lumbering reactionaries trying to remove the speck in our brother's eye with a dirty great spear as well as forgetting the beam in our own eye.

This is how we can help dispel Society's fear that the Church wishes to bring down the law wholesale, when really we seek to sanctify humanity. Lawful authorities pass unjust laws, and Christians must be seen to respect that lawful authority when they challenge the unjust law. That authority is there to prevent different beliefs tearing human beings apart in a series of crusades, purges and jihads, but that selfsame authority is fallible, vulnerable and can be distracted. The more that Christians demonstrate rational and reasonable means to make their points, and have patience before the State concedes those points, then the more the moral authority of the Church will increase. With God all things are possible, yet His will be done.

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