During a radio broadcast on what we could do to stop, or at least slow, the spread of the coronavirus, I heard a medical scientist who suggested this: don’t shake hands, don’t hug, don’t kiss. So, should we now have rules, even a law, to stop us kissing, hugging, shaking hands? Even if we had, I suspect we’d still do these things, if we wanted to do so!
Recently also I read about a judgement made in court by Mr Justice Knowles who warned that Britain was in danger of slipping into an Orwellian society after Harry Miller was visited by police officers at work and was told that his tweets would be recorded as a “non-crime hate incident”. The judge ruled against Humberside Police saying that the tweets “were lawful and there was not the slightest risk that Mr Miller would commit a criminal offence by continuing to tweet.”
I refer to these two reports as an introduction to looking at the relationship of law with its sanctions, and of our own individual responsibility. I include also some quotes from the Bible about this relationship of an outward authority and of our inner personal commitment.
The first five books of the Bible are the same as the Jewish Torah, the Law, and they laid down the laws, rules and regulations to guide and guard relations with God and with other people. Near the end of the fifth book, Deuteronomy, is this challenge:
‘This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life .’
Deuteronomy 30: 19, 20 (NIV)
The Law as set out in the Torah provided all the legal requirements for the Hebrew / Jewish people about relating to God and with each other. Now the people are challenged to face up to the terms of the covenant and are being told to keep the Law, but the purpose is something deeper: ‘Now choose life …. Love the Lord your God…. For the Lord is your life.’
Psalm 119 points to the inter-relationship of external law and the inward dynamic of heart and mind. It’s the longest psalm, with 176 verses in 22 stanzas, the same number as there are letters in the Hebrew ‘alephbet’, equivalent of our alphabet. The poet managed to begin each successive stanza, and each verse in it, with the succeeding letter in the ‘alephbet’ ! In and through this clever artistry, in each stanza, the poet mentions various forms of the Torah – statutes, decrees, commands, precepts. But again and again the psalm points to a personal commitment to God and his ways as the purpose of these laws.
Jesus accepted the reality and necessity of law but taught that there is more to life than law. On one occasion when he was asked by an admiring Jewish leader what he thought was the most important commandment, Jesus answered by quoting two verses from two books in the Torah, Deuteronomy and Leviticus: ‘Love God’ and ‘Love your neighbour’ (Mark 12:28-34 – the Shema (‘Hear’) from Deuteronomy 6:4,5; and from Leviticus 19:18). Six hundred years earlier the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah had recognised the need for an inward personal dynamic when he said that God promised a new covenant: ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts’ (Jeremiah 31:33).
Jesus was well aware that there is a limit to what law can do in guiding our lives. Once, when he was teaching a large crowd of followers, he drew the contrast between ‘You have heard’….and ‘But I tell you.’ Each time, Jesus is referring to what the Jewish Law required and what he called for. The contrast Jesus draws is between an external authority on the one hand and, on the other, by what happens inside heart and mind. For example you can make laws against murder or adultery. But of what use would be a law against anger, or a law against lust (see Matthew 5: 21-37)? He also said: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’ (Matthew 5: 17).
We still need to have laws to guide and guard our common life if we aim to achieve, for instance,
‘a just economy that enables the flourishing of all life; a planet where the environment is renewed; a society where the poorest and most marginalised are at the centre; a society that welcomes the stranger; a world which actively works for peace; politics characterised by listening, kindness and truthfulness’.
Those six aims are quotes from the ‘Six Hopes’ of the Joint Public Issues Team, a valuable research and action group formed and supported jointly by the Methodist Church, the Baptist Union, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church. The ‘Six Hopes’ are included in the Winter issue of the Methodist Church magazine, ‘Connexion’, with the theme ‘Choices: choosing life’.
We have laws to guard individuals and groups from discrimination because of their ethnic origin, faith, gender, but sadly there are still too many instances of people suffering discrimination. We still need laws to guard and guide our common life, but along with such laws, we need the inner commitment of individuals both to promote them in the first place and to make sure that they are consistently put into effect. Such commitment, in various times and places, may also lead us actively to challenge and break laws that are seen as unjust.
A paragraph in the ticket of membership of the Methodist Church this year gives a fresh way of thinking about what it means to be committed to God as disciples of Jesus. ‘Let your whole way of life respond to God’s call: Letting LIFE grow in you every day – Nurturing LIFE in the Church – Bringing LIFE to the world.’
Such openness to new life provides the inner dynamic which can be expressed in positive ways not simply for our own good but for the good of others, a healing stream to flow into every aspect of our common life.