Monday, September 08, 2008

Is it right for those in government to enforce their religious beliefs and norms on their subjects?

This question is normally raised by secularists, or at least those who disagree with the religious beliefs of the government, but I of course being me, I want to answer it from a Christian perspective.

The question is related to the question of freedom of religion. People generally see that as a good thing, but personally I think it’s meaningless and impossible. The US constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, but this doesn’t seem to stop them passing laws against some religiously motivated practices, such as ritual sacrifice or abuse, 9/11, cannabis smoking, or proselytising in certain circumstances. You can get around some of this by redefining the freedom as not extending to things one person does to another, but that is effectively establishing a personalised approach to faith – something that is not entirely compatible with Christianity, let alone many other religions. Freedom of religion is meaningless unless it guarantees you freedom to break the law when your personal faith / morality / worldview demands it, and for that reason, I don’t think any country can or should attempt to guarantee it. The nature of democracy or government at all is effectively that it enforces laws on people whether they like them or not. Even if a democracy only enacts laws which the majority agree with (which in itself is blatantly not the case, and sometimes probably rightly so), it can still pass laws which a minority disagree with. That incidentally is one of the reasons why democracy as we understand it really doesn’t work in countries that are deeply divided on racial or religious lines … but I digress.

So there are times when the government does pass laws restricting people’s freedom, religious or otherwise, and rightly so. That being the case, and me being a Christian, should I support legislation which brings the laws of the land more in line with Christian principles?

There are people who would say I should. One of the arguments goes like this: in the Old Testament, the nation of Israel suffered or prospered according to the behaviour of its citizens, therefore by passing laws forcing to behave in a more Christian manner, we will experience God’s favour on our nation. I think that’s a fallacious and very dangerous argument. Israel in the Old Testament was God’s country, his chosen people. In new testament times, no nation can claim to be God’s country. (To say otherwise is idolatry). God’s people now are not a physical nation but a spiritual one, gathered together from every tribe and tongue and nation (Gal 3:28-29; Revelation 7:9 etc). In the New Testament model, we are not judged and treated as a nation, but as individuals (fulfilling the fantastic prophesy of Jeremiah 31:29-30).

So putting aside that argument, there’s the argument that people are better off following God’s rules for their life. That’s sort of true, but also a bit of a dubious argument; first, because people don’t always obey the laws, and making things illegal can cause problems in itself (for example, drug and alcohol prohibition laws payroll a lot of organized crime and are responsible for a lot of very disorganized crime).

And there’s a bigger issue here. What is the biggest sin a person can commit? Answer: to reject God – i.e., not be a Christian. (If you are a Christian and came up with a different answer, then think again). Should that be illegal? And would you really change anyone’s beliefs or faith if you did? I very much doubt it. And if it’s not worth legislating for that, why bother about lesser things?

There’s a good biblical precedent for this too: that the laws of a state should not necessarily be the same as God’s laws of right and wrong. In the Old Testament, the God-given law for the Jewish people permitted divorce. But this was not because God things divorce is acceptable, as Jesus makes clear (Mark 5:1-12). Rather it was because making divorce illegal would have caused social ills that far outweighed the benefit of the moral guidance such a law might have provided. Lets face it, whatever the law says, people don’t divorce without some kind of sin being involved. The laws of the land are not just about what is ethical; they are more about what is practical.

There is a strand of Christian teaching in the US in particular that runs pretty much contrary to everything I’m saying here. That’s kind of why I’m writing this, because I think those views are wrong and damaging. I was particularly prompted to write by the example of Sarah Palin and Bristol Palin, although not knowing much about either of them (who does?) I can’t comment on how much I agree or disagree with their views in particular. I was interested though in a comment on the news that Republican supporters (who, like all groups mentioned on the news, always think alike) say that Bristol’s pregnancy doesn’t reflect on her mom, but praise Sarah for teaching her daughter well enough that she’s getting married and not having an abortion. Well, you can’t have it both ways. I personally hope that the decisions are Bristol’s and not the result of parental pressure; in particular, I think that getting married because you are pregnant shows a lack of respect for marriage. Marriage is for life, not just for babies – but I digress again.

This strand of Christianity seems to see benefit in trying to persuade people who don’t believe in Jesus to behave as if they did. That for me is the worst thing about this teaching; because that is ultimately preaching a gospel of works, not of salvation by faith. It feeds the common misconception that the essence of Christianity is that if you do the right things, you will go to heaven, and if you don’t you won’t. This is the antithesis of true Christianity, which says that if you try to do the right things, you will fail, but if you do the wrong things, you can be forgiven through Jesus. Campaigning for stronger laws and vilifying those who break them is not Christian, it is anti-Christian. It’s worth remembering that the strongest criticism in the New Testament is aimed not at the pagans, but at Christians who are more interested in making and following rules than in spreading God’s forgiveness (Matthew 23; Galatians 5:12).

For those of you who are US citizens – bear that in mind as you vote on November 4th.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Beijing Olympics (2)

I mentioned previously that I felt some discomfort with China’s hosting of the Olympic Games in the light of their human rights record. It’s a complex issue, to be fair; I doubt any country can claim an unblemished record on human rights. Also, the things that bother me most about China may not be those that bother other people. But the point is there are a lot of reasons why people might be unhappy about China. As examples: the way it treats its workers; pollution; the one-child policy, or at least some of the issues of how that is implemented; the treatment of Tibet; the censorship of the press; and the harsh way the government deals with dissent.

Now with the Olympics being hosted in China, that naturally draws more media attention to the country, and therefore that’s a good time to bring some of these issues to the public attention. Certainly in the run up to the games, the Olympic torch relays were seen my many as an opportunity to create protests to draw attention to certain causes, and, whatever I might think of those causes, I have to say, good on them.

So one thing that really bothered me about the Olympics was the lack of any noticeable protests during the games themselves. Maybe this is just to do with its coverage on the BBC, but I suspect not. I’m sure there have been odd scuffles outside the events, but its easy for the Chinese government with its control of the media to stifle those. Things have probably changed in China since the 1989 Tienanmen Square outrage. But maybe not very much.

It would have course have been easy for the Chinese government to suppress (probably brutally) any protests happening during the Olympics. They probably did; I doubt we would have heard anything about it. But there is one place during the Olympic games where any protests would have been guaranteed to reach the eyes and ears of the world – and where I suspect even the Chinese government would have been powerless to torture or murder. On the podium.

After all, it’s been done before. In 1968, at the medal ceremony for the 200m, American Athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos and Australian Peter Norman made a protest about the treatment of blacks in the US.

There are those who feel that the Olympics is no place for this kind of protest. Sadly it seems that most sports are run by people like this. After the 1968 protest, all three athletes were effectively banned from the Olympics for life. How many Olympic associations would have supported an athlete involved in such a protest in 2008? And if they had, would they have risked the Chinese sending the entire team home? Maybe there were some who would have liked to protest but who felt that the human cost for them would have been too high. I have sympathy with them; you have to choose your battles. But I also feel that given everything that happens in China, then choosing to stand on a podium and not make a protest – and that is a choice – is to a small extent standing in complicity with the government that has used such bloody methods to stifle dissent and control its citizens.

I am in awe of everyone who won medals at the Olympics. But I also feel that each athlete who stood quietly on the podium is somehow less human as a result.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Beijing Olympics (1)

I really enjoyed watching the Olympics last month. I wasn't going to watch much of them because of the Chinese human rights thing - but that's another blog entry (if I finish it). But once I started I got hooked. I enjoy watching people who are the very best at what they do performing at the top of their ability.

I saw some fantastic performances, of course – anything with Michael Phelps or Chris Hoy, for example, and Rebecca Adlington’s two totally contrasting gold medals (the first, she won by inches having lead for maybe the last two of four hundred metres; the second, she annihilated the field and had time to turn around and look at the clock before anyone else had finished).

But it’s not all about the winners. Lots of people put in fantastic performances without getting that gold medal. Indeed, I’ve always felt that the purest form of contest is the contest against yourself. And often the hardest.

So my favourite performer of the Olympics this year was Cassie Patten. This is the young loudmouth who stood beside Rebecca Adlington during her interview after the 800m final (in which Patten finished 8th), put her arm around her, and said to the cameras “My best mate. Queen, if you’re watching – two gold medals – Dame Rebecca Adlington. Dame Rebecca Adlington.” (As the BBC commentators were quick to point out, it is more traditional to address the queen as “your majesty” – but less fun). And lest we think that she’s just a big mouth – as if reaching an Olympic final isn’t already an amazing feat – a few days later, this same Cassie Patten won a bronze medal with a fantastically brave performance in the 10k open water swim – a mindblowingly tough event. After which she was still talking. Words and deeds – respect.