12 October 2006

The limits of government

Yesterday on Radio 4’s PM programme, Phil Woolas (Minister of State for Community Cohesion) made the following statement: ‘Some faith-based organizations argue that religious law should take precedence over democratically elected law . . . That’s not something a democratic country, here or anywhere else in the world, can tolerate.’

The context of the interview was the British Government’s take on Islam, so I suppose he might have meant it simply as a veiled attack on Islam. However, if it genuinely represents the direction in which our political leaders are leaning, it has serious implications not merely for Islam but for people of all religious faiths.

Speaking as a Christian, I cannot accept this statement as it stands. The fact that our law makers are democratically elected does not give the laws they make the absolute status implied here. At best, members of Parliament are only human; they can be honestly mistaken, or they can be corrupt, prejudiced or even evil.

In direct contradiction of Phil Woolas, I would argue that for Christians God’s law must always take precedence over manmade laws. Granted part of God’s law is a proper respect for and obedience to lawful human authority, but that can only ever be a relative obedience.

If a democratically elected Parliament passes laws that are unjust by Christian standards or compromise the life of the Church in some way, those laws can have no authority over us. This is so because ultimately the authority of Parliament is lent to it by God and is conditional on its acting justly. Unjust laws can have no authority, because in legislating for injustice Parliament would have gone beyond its God-given bounds.

Faced with unjust or anti-Christian legislation, Christians have a duty not only to speak out in protest but to act against that legislation in any ways that are compatible with being a Christian.

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