The Law that Liberates


Have you ever opened your mouth and said something only to think afterwards “I wish I hadn’t said that!” I do it all the time…
Well this week I wonder whether Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had a similar feeling after the British media whipped up a storm in the wake of him suggesting that it was inevitable that some aspects of Muslim Sharia law would be incorporated into British law…
As it was reported you would think that he had suggested the stoning of rape victims and the cutting off of thieves’ hands… (and given that many of the papers criticising him would suggest that such punishments would be going easy on thieves, I don't know what their problem is!) What he was actually advocating, was the recognition of the legal standing of some of the Sharia councils already active across Britain, operating, not in the field of criminal, but civil and family law, including the power to marry and divorce. He suggested giving these councils legal recognition in exchange for making them fully subject to British law. But of course that wouldn’t make a good tabloid headline, or a soundbite on the news.

Some people have said that they agree with him but that he is naive in the way he allows himself to be misquoted... I don't know about that. I think that he plays the doddery cleric/academic card, as a way of getting discussions out into the public square whilst using himself as a lightning rod for extreme opinion.
I also don’t know whether the incorporation of some aspects of Sharia Law into British Law is a good idea or not, not because, as some people fear that there may be a twin-track approach to law for different communities... because, again, that is not what he was advocating, but whether you can recognise certain aspects of Sharia law that are compatible with current British social and legal values, without also giving the green light to some less admirable aspects of Sharia and how it has been applied in more conservative contexts.

However, here in Northern Ireland we face similar problems incorporating community restorative justice programmes into the statutory legal system. Unless we do, these programmes will remain unregulated and be subject to no official scrutiny.
But the whole episode also reminded me that we have a very narrow definition of what law is all about. In Britain we see law and religion as almost completely separate… Yet in Jewish, early Christian and Islamic teaching you can’t have one without the other. Indeed the first five books of the Old Testament, which are held as sacred by all 3 of these religions to one extent or another, are collectively known as “The Law…” Within those pages we do find various lists of do’s and don’ts… But they are mostly a story of God’s continuing relationship with humanity, despite our constant disobedience…
The psalmist says this law is perfect restoring the soul… While in the New Testament, James says that this perfect law brings freedom… rather than restrictions…
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said he came to fulfil this law… How he came to do that has been the subject of debate for many years... some say he came to pay its penalty… some say he came to show the full implications of the law... some say that he came to show how it should be lived out...

Whatever he meant, if we take the insights of the Psalmist and James as appropriate, then what Jesus, the fulfilment of the Law, offers is the restoration our souls, and real freedom... A law that liberates...
A shorter version of this blog was broadcast as the Dawn Reflections Review of the Week on Downtown Radio on the 10th February, 2008. William Crawley the presenter of Sunday Sequence on Radio Ulster also touches on this subject on his blog.

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