It was once a common response to any kind of annoyance or disturbance that ‘There should be a law against it’, writes Rev Sydney Maitland. The strange thing is that these days, there probably is. Any perceived insult, any critical comment, any expression of dissent outside the norms of progressive opinion, and there is a howl of social media protest and even the most innocent or unwitting of observations is called out and a retraction and grovelling apology are demanded and often granted.
It is not just the objective background to the event and the remarks it provoked that are censored, but even the appearance of criticism. It is the subjective feeling, however slight and with perhaps little or no external examination, that must now be supreme so that the presumption is of the guilt of the alleged perpetrator. The idea of an objective and rational assessment, or at least a rational assessment by the wider community, is quite alien to the immediate satisfaction of perceived offence. There was a time when perceived insults would result in a duel, often with fatal results. Now, there is no danger of any such hazard, and insults can be generated out of the fevered imagination of the beholder, regardless of circumstance or context.
Is this really what law is for? Is it really how a civil community is expected to manage itself? I am more inclined to see it as an attempt to impose a kind of Orwellian thought-control on society as a whole and on any designated target group in particular.
The law of ancient Israel was set out first of all by the 10 commandments – and the first four of these related purely to the place of God in the life of the community. The remainder concerned the life of the community as such. These were supplemented by the laws of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy which provided much more detail on the life of a settled community. Once established however, the law became rigid and people were looking for ways of avoiding its strictures. Jesus had something to say about this as He criticized the practices of the Scribes, Pharisees and lawyers of Israel. See for example Luke 11: 37–52.
Psalm 19 however sees the Law of the Lord as perfect, sure, right, pure, enduring, true and righteous altogether. In this it is there for converting the soul, making wise the simple, rejoicing the heart, enlightening the eyes, enduring forever. In this the law is a way of life for oneself rather than a rod with which to oppress the neighbour. It is not an exercise in social control or demanding public obedience. That is not the point.
As a young Christian I wondered whether God had got it wrong with the law and with Israel. If so, how could God be God? But if not, then both the law and people of Israel were His choice for the present age and His promises to Israel are forever. Rather than setting ourselves up as judges of either then we were bound to honour both even if we could not fulfil all requirements of the law, such as in the conduct of worship in the temple. In any case Jesus had already made Himself the fulfilment of the law and the prophets but not their abolition.
Similarly, Paul saw the law in itself as a vehicle for condemnation and apart from personal faith in the blood of Jesus, there was never going to be any full compliance with the law. (See Romans chapters 1-8). In Galatians 3, the law is seen as against the promises of God which are received by personal faith in Jesus Christ. Again the law is more a tutor to prepare the people of the Lord for His coming and for His redemption than a vehicle for personal redemption.
Our present situation comes from our general social repudiation of the institutional church, of the Christian faith and of Jesus Christ Himself. In this, force and coercion, humiliation and abuse are more attractive than salvation by the grace of God and received by personal faith in Jesus. A Post-Christian era will indeed be judgmental, vindictive, given to the self-celebration of the leaders of public opinion and to an unremitting opposition to those with an alternative story to tell.
For us, the message is of the unearned blessings of God received by personal faith in Jesus Christ, who will indeed come again to judge the living and the dead. And this really is the message of a counter culture.