Pandemic Letter 8 – Christianity and Law (03/07/2020)

When I was first admitted as a barrister, in 1984, most new lawyers took an oath on the Bible.  Today, only a minority do.  Most witnesses then also took an oath on the Bible.  Not so often these days.

Australia today is a much more diverse society than in the 1970’s and 1980’s-and it is right that the courts respect the different cultural and religious traditions of Australians – and that persons of diverse traditions are accepted and feel comfortable in what for many is an otherwise unfamiliar, trying, distressing, anxiety provoking situation, being in court, either as a party or as a witness.

The Bible has much to say about law.  There is a distinctive Biblical view about law but spelling it out in a few hundred words is no easy task.

God’s Word
From a Christian perspective the Bible is God’s word. Similarly, from a Jewish perspective, the Hebrew Bible is God’s word.  As Pope Francis said in his Apostolic Letter Aperuit Illis – Instituting the Sunday of the Word of God (2019), without the Lord who opens our minds to Scripture, it is impossible to understand the Scriptures. Christianity is not a “religion of the book”, but the religion of Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of the living God. 

Christians read the Old Testament in the light of Christ crucified and risen.  The New Testament is to be read in the light of the Old.  The Old Testament retains its intrinsic value as Revelation reaffirmed by Christ himself.  The New lies hidden the Old, and the Old is unveiled in the new. 

Although the Bible contains many books, many literary forms, many perspectives, one must have regard to the unity of Scripture, one must read Scripture within the living Tradition of the Church, one must read Scripture having regard to the internal coherence and consistency of Christian belief.  Hence taking a single text and “quoting” it, giving it a super-importance above the rest of Scripture, and in disregard of the Tradition of the Church, will lead to absurd consequences.  The Church rejects a ‘literalistic’ understanding of Scripture.

Library of Books
From a human perspective the Bible is not a book but a library of books written over a period of 1,000 years, reflecting much older oral traditions, and different cultures and historical situations, with particular books, and portions of books, reflecting different traditions, and composed at different times.

Readings and Re-Readings
The Bible contains readings and re-readings about law and justice, which continue today in dialogue about what the tradition means for contemporary society. Take, for instance, the American civil rights campaigner, Martin Luther King, whose thought is permeated by biblical perspectives. What would Martin Luther King have thought of protests which have occurred in recent weeks in cities in the United States, in Europe, in Australia?

Personalistic Perspective
As a way of thinking about what the Bible has to say about law, one might go to Genesis, which sees the human person as created in the image and likeness of God (Gn 1:27); the account of Cain and Abel containing the appalling question-Am I my brother’s keeper? (Gn 4:1-16); the Ten Commandments (Gn 20: 1-17; Dt 5:1-21) which enjoin respect for parents, for human life, for family relations, for property, for the reputation of others, not only in what one does, but in one’s thoughts and desires, respect for God and for his name, and the taking of time (the Sabbath) from day to day activities to remember God and his meaning for daily life.

Deepening Understanding
Jesus of Nazareth deepens the understanding of the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount (what is sometimes called the Magna Carta of Christian living) (Matthew 5:21-28).  So, Jesus says, in respect of the fifth commandment, Thou shalt not kill:

“Everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment, whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says ‘You fool’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22)

The Beatitudes, the nub of the Sermon on the Mount, include the following:

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall have their fill.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called the sons of God.”(Matthew 5:3-10)

Golden Rule
Our Lord sums up the Ten Commandments in the Golden Rule-do unto others as you would have done unto yourself, or love others as I have loved you (Matthew 7:12; John 13:34).  Jesus rejects a narrow legalism which emphasises the law but forgets the person for whom the law exists (Mt 15:1-9, 15-20; 23:13-32).  When St Mark recounts Jesus saying “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath”, he might have said “Law was made for man, not man for law.”(Mark 2:27).  If legislators were to remember law is for persons, not commercial interests, how very different the law would be! 

Natural Law
St Paul provides an explanation of ethics based on reason which echoes the thought of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, and which has given rise to the natural law tradition, an approach to thought about right and wrong, good and evil, which has philosophical protagonists in every age, and common-sense protagonists amongst plain people always and everywhere (Romans 2:14-16).

Karol Wojtyla
It is easy to understand how Karol Wojtyla/Pope St John Paul II’s philosophical personalism is an elaboration of the thought of the Galilean.  Wojtyla writes of the personalistic norm, in its negative aspect, that the person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and, as such, the means to an end. In its positive form the personalistic norm states that the person is a good toward which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.

Jesus urges forgiveness of injuries (Matthew 18:21-35; Luke 6:27-36); leadership as service(Matthew 20:24-28; John 13:1-20); the distinction between the duties owed to the state and the duties owed to God-give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s (Matthew 22:15-22); what are traditionally called the corporal works of mercy-to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to house the homeless, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to bury the dead (Matthew 25:31-46).  

The measure in which we obtain forgiveness is the measure we forgive others-forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us (Matthew 6:9-12). How often one sees persons who are obsessed with some wrong done to them, the solution being, not litigation, but forgiveness! 

When someone says to Jesus “Tell my brother to give me my share of my inheritance”, Jesus’ reply puts in issue the Supreme Court family provision list (Luke 12:13-15).  Jesus urges the settlement of disputes (Matthew:57-59).  He is sceptical of judges (Luke 18:2).

One’s neighbour in the parable of the Good Samaritan is every person with whom one comes in contact, however unpredictably-and the person who does good is not characterised by particular characteristics (Luke 10:25-37). Even Samaritans are capable of great generosity! Our Lord talks to the sick and disabled, to women, to foreigners, to social outcasts, to the agents of Roman imperialism-to all.  In the Book of Jonah, even the hated Assyrians repent! (Jonah 3).  David’s great grandmother is Ruth, a Moabite, from a group, traditional enemies of the Jews.   

One may refer to passages apparently inconsistent with biblical universalism.  The short answer is that the Bible is a dialogue between different perspectives.  Hence, the error of ignoring the dialogue by picking on a single text.  Moreover, the Bible is to be understood in the context of the Gospels.  The four Gospels enjoy a central place because Jesus is their centre. 

The Bible is not a textbook, not a philosophical treatise, not even a theological treatise-but it has insights for all times, all places, all people-for lawyers, for litigants, for legislators. If one wants a text which brings Catholic thought about doing together in a systematic fashion, go to Pope St John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor or to the Catechism of the Catholic Church or to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

Fair Hearing
Deuteronomy, contains seminal thoughts about legal practice and procedure:

“You must give your brother a fair hearing and see justice done between a man and his brother or the stranger who lives with him. You must be impartial in judgment and give an equal hearing to small and great alike. Do not be afraid of any man, for the judgment is God’s.” (Dt 1:16-17)

Judges “must administer impartial judgment to the people. You must not pervert the law; you must be impartial and take no bribes, for a bribe blinds wise men’s eyes and jeopardises the cause of the just. Strict justice must be your ideal.” (Dt 16:18-20).

Controversially in Australia today:

“A single witness cannot suffice to convict a man of a crime or offence of any kind; whatever the misdemeanour, the evidence of two witnesses or three is required to sustain the charge.” (Dt 19:15)

The account of the trial of Susanna is an early illustration of effective cross-examination (Daniel 13).  Our Lord’s admonition about settling of disputes should be inscribed in the mind of every lawyer (Matthew 5:25-26; Luke 12:57-59).

Social Justice
The obligation of social justice is apparent, particularly in the prophets:

“Listen to this, you who trample on the needy
and try to suppress the poor people of the country…
Then by lowering the bushel, raising the shekel,
by swindling and tampering with the scales,
we can buy up the poor for money,
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and get a price even for the sweepings of wheat.” (Amos 8:4-6.  See also Amos 4:13)

Rulers to Exercise Power with Justice
Rulers are reminded that power comes from God, and is to exercised justly, for the exercise of power will require an accounting to God (Wisdom 6:1-8):

“Hear therefore, ye kings, and understand: learn, ye that are judges of the ends of the earth. 
Give ear, you that rule the people, and that please yourselves in multitudes of nations: 
For power is given you by the Lord, and strength by the most High, who will examine your works, and search out your thoughts: 
Because being ministers of his kingdom, you have not judged rightly, nor kept the law of justice, nor walked according to the will of God. 
Horribly and speedily will he appear to you: for a most severe judgment shall be for them that bear rule. 
For to him that is little, mercy is granted: but the mighty shall be mightily tormented. 
For God will not except any man’s person, neither will he stand in awe of any man’s greatness: for he made the little and the great, and he hath equally care of all.”

There is a wisdom in the Bible of which we must be always reminded.  For law is an exercise of reason-and the Bible stands in the tradition which rejects the proposition that law is a mere exercise of will, of power.  Rather law is an exercise of reason for the common good which involves respect for each and every person.

Wisdom Tradition
The wisdom tradition in Scripture highlights this, enabling Solomon to decide the dispute between the two women as to the baby (1 Kings 3:16-28). Solomon rejects long life and riches and the lives of his enemies, opting for wisdom above all, as should we (1 Kings 3:4-15).  This wisdom tradition in Scripture expresses a certain scepticism at the decisions of earthly courts (Wisdom 7:19). Little wonder that Jesus of Nazareth (not unlike the Socrates) is condemned following both a religious trial and a civil trial. To Pilate’s dismissive question-“What is truth?”(Jn 18:38)-the Bible provides an answer in the Word of God.

So, perhaps, we should pause at the rush to cast aside the Bible as a source of inspiration for law, for lawyers, and for those whose lives are touched by law.

Michael McAuley