Thursday, August 19, 2010

Justice and Law

Where does the law come from? Do you ever wonder why we follow the law?  Do we have to follow the law?

Looking at these questions in reverse order:

Do we have to follow the law?
There are levels of perspective here.  On one level you must follow the law, otherwise there are consequences.  In reality though, you can avoid the consequences if you do not get caught.  That is not to say that we shouldn’t follow the law, just that getting caught is not a certainty.  Remembering that laws can change, it seems a bit unusual that a person can be charged with something one day and then not the day after the law is changed.  Surely there is something more abiding in terms of law that governs the way we act in society?  I’ve come across a division of law called “natural law” which deals with laws that are natural or innate and must be valid anywhere for anyone.  This sort of law gets to the heart of whether we have to follow the rules in any system.

Why do we follow the law?
Most people are born into a system of government and law that they did not consciously agree to follow, but they are brought up in such a way that they may not realise their automatic acceptance of the authority of the law over them.  This is an important point, because unless you agree to a set of rules that regulate your actions in particular circumstances (the agreement is called a contract) then you are not obliged to follow that set of rules.  By getting a drivers license, for example, you are agreeing that you need to be licensed and that you will follow the set of rules that go with the licensing system.  The police have no right to pull you over unless you either give that right to them, or if you are doing something dangerous that has a reasonable chance of causing harm to others.  This concept can be applied to almost any situation involving interaction with other people.  When you buy goods at a shop you are making a contract to exchange a set amount of money for the goods.  That amount of money is nothing but a suggestion by the owner about how much they will take, though we tend to assume they will not accept a different value because we automatically accept their suggested contract/rule.

So where does the law come from?
There are a number of obvious influences.  There is the innate idea of justice that is supposed to be the foundation of the entire legal system.  There is the matter of human rights, such as freedom of thought, speech, and action so far as it doesn’t impinge on another person’s rights. And there are the obvious religious influences, bearing in mind that the oldest religions have laws that have survived the millennia, e.g. the Ten Commandments.  To my mind, we can’t separate the idea of justice or human rights from the concept of a personal God who made man in His image.  The reasoning is that we have human rights guarding our well being because humans are made in the image of God and anything that harms that image is a crime against the God that chose to show Himself through His people.  And justice is linked to judgment and our expectation that even though we may suffer in this life, those who harmed us will receive their justice from God when they die and stand before Him to be judged.  Where it gets tricky is that people have their own ideas of what deserves punishment and it is normally themselves that they use as the standard of right and wrong.  That’s another story though.

So it seems, at a glance, that law comes from our Maker, and is designed to protect His glory as demonstrated in His image.  We follow the man-made laws, that are modelled after God’s laws to a certain extent, because we are brought up to do so without really being encouraged to think about why we are doing so.  And we do not have to stick to any law, but we should know that if we are a cause of harm to other people, both God and the man-made justice system will be after us!

I think it is much better to follow laws because you agree with the intention of the law and the law-maker and not because you are afraid of the consequences.  So I try to think about why certain laws are in place.  This leads to disagreement about the worthiness of some laws, but even if I chose not to follow these particular ones, I am always guided by God’s summary of the law: “Love God and love your neighbour”.  This means that personally, I will only go against man’s laws if they conflict with God’s law.  It’s safer than doing what is right in my own eyes!