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Christians and Obedience to Unjust Laws
In response to a recently produced video, documenting the case of a politician in Finland who has been prosecuted for tweeting Bible quotes, one social media user retorted, “Being christian doesn’t make you exempt from the law, you know.” (sic) While the comment was likely just a thoughtless message into the ether of the internet, the premise does require consideration.
It is common in the modern age, especially in politics, to argue that everything moral is merely a legalistic nuance. On the left, you see attempts to make child mutilations legal, as if they would then have moral force. On the right, one frequently hears Republicans say some variant of, “I'm pro-immigrant, as long as they went through the legal process,” often in the same breath as saying that the legal process needs to be overhauled. The law alone is not what makes something right or wrong.
Just laws are reasonable and in accord with morality. That is how they make a claim upon our consciences. Unjust laws are out of lockstep with morality, reason, and the common good. For Christians, morality has a foundation. It does not move with the ages like political whims. For non-Christians, the basis of their morality will be different (or may even be absent), so among such people, there can be no consensus of judgment about whether a law is just.
Focusing again upon Finland, if a law exists that prohibits the sharing of Bible quotes lest they offend some people, then the law is unjust because it interferes with the citizen’s right to do what is good. This is the classical view of law in the West. Just laws promote the good and punish/discourage evil. This is made complicated in our time because few can delineate good from evil. Likewise, the classical view is that freedom is not sought as a license to perform any action, but as the true liberty to do what is good. It recognizes man’s higher nature than mere animal, and thus his obligation to govern his conduct by intellect or reason.
With an unjust law like the one described in Finland, one must ask, was the original commenter correct? Do Christians have to follow the law too? It starts to become something of an accusation, one levied throughout the ages, that Christians and especially Catholics, have ‘dual loyalties’. Thus, they can never be fully loyal to the State, because they have a higher allegiance elsewhere. John Locke, in proposing a social contract that would undergird society, said that Catholics could not be part of it, because they have dual loyalties (a higher allegiance to Rome).
The accusation isn't actually wrong. We do have hierarchical loyalties. Henry VIII made a mound of martyrs, begun with Thomas More and John Fisher, by trying to get those men to swear fealty to him above anyone else. Among More's last words were, "I die the King's good servant and God's first". The highest loyalty is due to one’s Creator. It is, in a word, just. So, while the faithful may suffer the temporal consequences of breaking unjust laws, their duties are always first to God and to His morality. To do otherwise would be to make a god of the State, and to perversely reverse the rightful order such that the spiritual realm becomes subservient to the temporal one.
The erection of law in its own right, as a mere instrument of amoral force, is a modern idea for an age that knows no morality, and which cannot sustain a society for long.