Are Christians ‘above the law’? – Kristan Slack

Posted: November 27, 2012 by J in Church

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A post by our dear friend Kristan Slack, a colleague in the Sydney Diocese.

In the midst of all the discussions about priests and the ‘seal of the confessional’ there’s been an undercurrent of a certain kind logic applied which has bothered me. And that is the complaint that priests might claim allegiance to something/someone beyond the nation state. I’m not for a moment suggesting that priests (or any others) should keep the seal – in fact, I don’t actually think the confessional is a good idea in the first place (nor one established by the Bible). Actually, I think child abuse and other crimes should be reported by priests and others.

But what I am worried about is the idea that one’s allegiance to the nation-state and its laws is a given absolute. I suppose the complaint itself is concerned that a person might consider themselves ‘above the law’ and not bound to answer to the law. But, and here lies my concern, Christians believe that God is above all nations and that Christians (and everybody else, for that matter) do actually owe allegiance to God beyond any nation’s code of law.

It’s hard to even raise this concern of mine in the current turmoil, because it can sound as though I’m defending priests and paedophiles. But that simply isn’t the case. I’m merely worried that this idea of absolute allegiance to a nation’s laws has far wider consequences than forcing priests to report abusers. It could just as easily be applied in the future to ‘legally compel’ religious ministers to conduct weddings for gay couples, for religious organisations to hire people who have no religious agreement with the organisation itself (ie, an atheist forcing their way into employment with a Christian school or church), and etc. After all, what business do religious people have in not observing the nation’s law, one might argue. They aren’t above the law.

These aren’t meant to be alarmist illustrations but I’ve raised them to help demonstrate the danger when the nation state claims more for itself than is warranted – when a country’s politico-legal structure puts itself in the place of God. And that is at the core of my concern.

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Comments
  1. Jonathan says:

    Reminds me of C S Lewis, during WW2, saying it was about time a few Christians were shot for refusing to drop bombs on civilians. The (British) state required this wicked behaviour of its military men, but Lewis said Christians’ ultimate allegiance is to God, not the state. If they have to suffer for that, so be it!

    I share your concern, Kristan. Seems to me there are some measures in place in Oz to respect peoples’ religious consciences. I think the problem is, when it is perceived that our ultimate allegiance is to protecting the secrecy of a corrupt church institution, instead of to the state or to God.

    But I wouldn’t like to see a showdown between the state and the Catholic church over the confessional seal. Too much damage.

  2. kristanslack says:

    Jonathan, I think your reframing of the issue is really helpful – when it is perceived that our ultimate allegiance is to protecting the secrecy of a corrupt church institution.

    This is where real moral outrage belongs. Not that a Christian would dare to disobey the state rather than God but would rather protect themselves/their interests/or an institution rather than the vulnerable and the victim.

    And it may perhaps be that this is really what people mean when they said the kinds of things I’ve heard (and to which I referred in the post). But it wasn’t what they said. They spoke about the outrageous idea that there might be some higher authority than the nation’s laws. It’s like, if I remember correctly, John Howard speaking about Australian values as being transcendant. He may not have meant what he said – but then he should have instead said what he meant.

    Like you, I don’t want to see a showdown – and I don’t think the catholic church defending the seal of the confessional is the kind of Christian civil disobedience that I’m speaking of. For all his own acknowledged responsibility, I prefer the response of “Brother Mulhall” as reported by the ABC (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-11-27/brother-convicted-of-sex-abuse-a-church-treasure/4393618).

  3. kristanslack says:

    Sorry, that first sentence should have made that last bit a “quote”.

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