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Breaking the Law

Monday, 6 June 2011  | Paul Tyson

It’s a fine cool May morning and the fresh breeze is in my face and the sun is on my back as I joyfully tootle into uni on my 110cc postie bike. In my happy and trusting state of mind I am totally unaware than I am about to fall straight into a carefully laid trap just around the corner. At the bottom of the hill there is a T-intersection with traffic lights. When the turning arrow is on for cars to come up the hill, then there is no traffic on the left hand lane for the traffic going down the hill, so typically all the cars banked up in the little turning shaft (about 40 meters long) file out and go around the corner. But there is a stop sign there, so, according to the law, each car should stop before moving into the left arm of the T. Of course, once the turning arrow is on, no-one does stop at the stop sign, and this is not only because there is no traffic but also out of consideration for those behind them.

This fine May morning a local constabulary arm of our transport operations team had decided to harness this convenient opportunity for apprehending law breakers. One officer was stationed around the corner with a camera, another officer was feeding the documented offending vehicles into a near by side street for processing. So, along with seven or eight other drivers from this one traffic light cycle, I received a note informing me that I now owed Queensland revenue $300 dollars and I had earned 3 demerit points for this serious traffic offence. This is, apparently, an example of how our police force “protects and serves” the average citizen and ensures the good order of public conduct.

From a legal perspective everything is all very simple. I broke the law. I was caught breaking the law. I got a fine. Open and shut case. I accept this and I will pay my fine. But from a Christian angle, what is going on here? Have I not only got a fine, but have I sinned against God? Or conversely, could the fact that this question even occurs to me indicate that I have internalized a rather toxic religiously framed morality of legalistic pedantry? For we Evangelical Christians typically uphold a soteriology of penal substitution where we tend to view sin as the merest modicum of moral/legal guilt and God as Perfect Righteous Judge and Law Maker. If we are legal pedants, could our habits of behaving legally and respectably be in some way a hindrance to the liberty of grace and a damper on the courage which Christians may need when they should be on the wrong side of the law? Let us explore this question a bit further.

After thanking the officer for giving me my fine (see what a good Baptist I am), I got back onto my postie bike, slowly crept though the carefully noted give way sign, and then rather crestfallenly continued my ‘tootle’ into uni. Once I got to my office I sat down, as is my habit, to my devotional reading. I’m reading Ephesians at present. In chapter 2 Paul explains that Christ is our peace for He has “abolished in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.” When abolishing ‘law’ and ‘regulations’ came up in my reading I could not help but feel a little excited. For no matter whether I had sinned or not in breaking the law, it was clear that I had been set up and trapped by an efficient and opportunistic exercise in legal pedantry. So – for the first time – I looked at what Paul was saying with an eye to thinking about legalism in a legal context.

Paul has a lot to say about legalistic pedantry, its bondage, and about how the righteousness that comes from conformity to its dictates is an active hindrance to justification by faith and Christian liberty. Checking my commentaries it became clear to me that one could not reductively spiritualize ‘the law’ when we read Paul here. Exegetically, there clearly is overlap between the word ‘law’ used in our modern secular sense – civil and legal structures that order public behaviour – and the law in the manner in which Paul uses this word. Indeed, Jesus broke the law regarding Sabbath observance, Paul broke the law when eating with gentiles, and all the Christian martyrs broke the law of the Empire when refusing to honour the public cultus of respectable civil power. Jesus died as a criminal, Paul advocated dispensing with legalistic righteousness, and the martyrs of the church defied the civil authorities of their day in the most unbending and costly way. Have we law abiding respectable Evangelicals lost this ‘criminal’ heritage?

Of course, the Christian does not aspire to criminality – our liberty is not licence or lawlessness – but the regulative principle for Christian conduct is not blind conformity with the law of the land, but the Spirit enabled freedom from sin, acting in love. Walking in the Spirit, then, has no particular regard for pedantic righteousness and may well get the Christian into serious trouble with the legally enforced public behaviours of the society in which the Christian lives.

In reflecting on this it became clear to me that in my Evangelical circles, an ethos of legalism and conformity regarding the laws of the land and the customs and norms of publicly respectable behaviour really does prevail. I have had it explained to me in the past how any breach of the laws of the land, including the most pedantic traffic regulation, is a sin. And whilst I agree that how we inter-personally respond to others on the road and our responsibility to use the power of our vehicle safely are serious matters that no Christian should disregard, I am inclined to think that these motives could, under some circumstances, entail the suspension of pedantic conformity with traffic laws, without sin. But in general terms, we are a demographic that is respectable, that takes a certain pride in our conformity to the laws of the land, and we tacitly consider ourselves as part of the ballast of law and good order within our society. We are comfortable with the status quo, and uphold it as a matter of course. But… what if what is legal is unjust? What if what is accepted in the norms and behaviours of our society is inhumane, anti-Christian, or a system of law that’s first aim is the mere protection and preservation of entrenched wealth and power? Will we, as a recognizable Australian demographic, mount large scale civil disobedience ventures like Ghandi’s salt marches? Will we, en masse, conduct illegal civic protests, as Martin Luther King did? I suspect not. I suspect we have too high a regard for the law and are too atomized to be interested in collectively changing injustice in our society. We are not a thorn in the side of unjust power in our society. We are well behaved private citizens that just let the powers that be have their way in the public arena.

What about a succession of governments who have cunningly altered Australian law so that asylum seekers who arrive in our territories are effectively criminalized, contrary to the clear spirit of the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which we still claim to be upholding? What about the protracted processing and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers in our detention centres on and off shore? What about the cosy deals governments do with big business, big media, big developers, big money at the cost of small, local and environmental interests? What about the relationship between privatized public assets and the blow-out of basic living expenses (say energy bills, phone services) for our poor? There is more, much more that could be said here.

These sorts of concerns don’t seem to be problems we as a demographic have any serious collective interest in. They are certainly not things we are going to collectively break the law about or cause any public disruption over. But is this passive social conservatism a function of legitimate law abiding, religiously appropriate Christian piety? Or, is our conformist and non-political piety a type of self concerned legalistic righteousness which is directly opposed to the grace and liberty of the Spirit?

Dr Paul Tyson lectures in Theology and Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University in Brisbane.


Tom Mayne
June 7, 2011, 10:14AM
Thanks Paul for your comments. The 'sorts of concerns' you mention would include, for example, the response to the death in 2008 of Aboriginal, Mr Ward who died a shocking death in the back of a security van travelling 360Km from Laverton to kalgoorlie where the temperature in the prisoner's pod was estimated to be 53.8 degrees because the drivers hadn't bothered to check the prisoner's aircon (which wasn't working). The response from the Church was a deafening silence. If the death had been of a dog or a sheep, the drivers would have been jaled for cruelty for animals. It's taken 3 years for charges to be brought against the WA govt who employed the GSL contractors. At best, they will be fined for failing to take due care - not for manslaughter. The same company was fined $500,000 dollars in 2004 for inhumane treatment of 5 asylum.detainees. The fed government has just signed up to Serco, another multinational security co which has been slammed by the UK's Commissioner for children for inhumane treatmen of its detainees.
Simon Moyle
June 8, 2011, 12:47PM
Thanks Paul. As an Evangelical Christian (and ordained Baptist Minister to boot) who has engaged in multiple acts of nonviolent civil disobedience to uphold God's law of love, I've been making these arguments for years. In my experience, Evangelicalism is too often equated with Western middle class niceness which has little or nothing to do with discipleship to the one who was killed by the powers. How can we say we are following Jesus if we are not in some kind of tension with a government who has been waging war for almost ten years, who are far too slow in acting on climate change, and who demonise and lock up indefinitely those who come here seeking asylum? All of these injustices are legal. Our faithful challenge to them, and embodiment of an alternative will no doubt require breaking those laws.
Paul Tyson
June 8, 2011, 5:25PM
Thanks for your comments Tom and Simon. A few years back I was at a non-violent student protest at QUT because our Administration – in their infinite ‘branding’ wisdom – was canning our Arts degree and ditching our Social Science and Humanities offerings with it. (This is a done deal now.)The police had been called onto campus by the Admin before we arrived, and after about half an hour, they decided we had had a fair protest, and it was time we were dispersed. So, unfortunately, when I got mugged by the police during the dispersal I had the misfortune of falling backwards on the officer who had thrust the back of his hand up under my wind pipe at the same time that he tripped up, and I landed on top of him. Immediately two other officers came ‘to his aid’ and hand cuffed me and threw me in the paddy wagon before I knew what had hit me. So I found myself spending the next four hours being processed at the watch house and charged with ‘hindering an officer in the course of performing his duties’ (funny, I used to visit the watch house regularly doing what’s called ‘prison ministry’ in my youth). I was chatting over this experience with Dave Andrews, who has also been there done that, and we found that it gives one a rather different take on reality, a different perspective on great saints like Paul who spent a lot of time in the slammer, and a different take on prison documents like some of Paul’s letters. The (unfortunately true) notion that law enforcement is just about the threat and use of violence in upholding laws, whether they are fair, appropriate, just or humane or not, comes as a real jolt to the sweet Evangelical system. It seems that the idea that unjust, unfair, inhumane laws are our business is also a shocking idea that we would rather not look at. I hope my little piece opens these questions up a bit.

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