The headline did its job. It got my attention. It was an article on the competing issues that surround val-ues and laws in a democracy. Religions have points of views and practices that go with them. For good order, all societies do. So what happens when there is a clash between religion and the laws of the soci-ety in which the religious adherents live? Well, the new atheists seem to claim that societal laws would inexplicably give way to the religious view. Now in many places, it is no longer the case.
Denmark has recently announced that it is following Sweden and Norway in requiring animals to be stunned before slaughter. This requirement impacts the Jewish and Muslim slaughter of animals – whose regulations require the animal to be conscious – as part of the production of kosher and halal food. The religious responses have been varied but have the common theme that this new rule is a limitation on religious freedom and even a type of persecution (and historical allusions are never far away). What struck me was the direct response of the Danish agriculture minister who is reported as say-ing – succinctly – ‘Animal rights come before religion’. I read it as him saying that our social behaviour regarding our good treatment of animals trumps religious views and more importantly the practices that come from those views. (It is not illegal to import kosher or halal food in Denmark.)
So the religious are left with the options of ignoring the new requirement and acting illegally in Denmark; accepting the new requirement and adapting or explaining why what had previously seemed to be not possible is now possible; and possibly in the meantime ‘fighting’ the new requirement by showing that the current religious practice does already come under the goal of the new requirement (in this case the humane treatment of animals).
Of course things are easier when everyone agrees on the way of seeing life and how to tackle the issues that arise and in practice largely have the same ethics. Like goes with like. Smoother living. To achieve this we establish rules. In fact in our Lutheran way of talking it is the often forgotten political use of the law – the 1st use – sometimes colloquially called a fence or curb.
My sense of history and theology is that for Christians who lived ‘outside’ of the Roman Empire in the first centuries the move ‘inside’ in the 4th century and then to effectively be the centre was an uncritical jour-ney. Yes, with the Reformation the Church learnt that it could be split and the sky doesn’t irrevocably fall – though there was fighting and sadly bloodshed involved. When churches have accepted or ‘updated’ their practice, amended their teaching, perhaps they were right to do so, or wrong to do so, or things shouldn’t have been so codified. Meanwhile the state is not a silent player either in all this for it has its own interests and regards religion as a rather ‘man made’ enterprise (as evidenced by changes in reli-gious practices over time) so that by our time we face the increasing marginalisation of the Church and the increasing dominance of the state. Hence the squabble over whose rules trump whom.
I’m not antinomian – get rid of rules. Not at all. They are definitely needed. Nevertheless I do wonder when living in an alien land – this world is not our home – what does it matter what the rules of the land are? I’m called by God to be obedient to the governing authorities and I’m called to take up my cross and follow Jesus. And when there is a conflict? I hoist the cross a little higher on my shoulders and keep following Jesus. After all, the only rule to always follow no matter what is happening around you – so-cially, politically, legally, relationally – is that of love. (And if you’d like to read more on this then have a read of Romans Ch 12 and 13.) — GS