Faith & Reason: The law should be like a trellis, not a jelly mould

Our legislators are confused, and the Home Secretary particularly so. Living a good life means more than keeping the law

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John the Baptist came to prepare the way for the Lord. He did so by preaching repentance: a change of heart and mind. The Jews, whose religious ideal was "to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deuteronomy vi,5), were to turn back to God once more. One of the ways that they expressed their love was by keeping the Law, but John did not preach a more zealous attention to the details of the Law. He preached a change of heart.

John the Baptist came to prepare the way for the Lord. He did so by preaching repentance: a change of heart and mind. The Jews, whose religious ideal was "to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deuteronomy vi,5), were to turn back to God once more. One of the ways that they expressed their love was by keeping the Law, but John did not preach a more zealous attention to the details of the Law. He preached a change of heart.

I apologise for descending from John, the greatest of all children born of women, as Jesus called him, to our own Home Secretary. Have we not wasted enough time on just another muddled politician and his mixed-up life? Yet the tale of Mr Blunkett seems significant to me precisely because he is not unusually muddled: one particular confusion of his is far from peculiar to him. For the Home Secretary's attitude to the law, which it is his special responsibility to protect, reflects a widespread and deeply rooted paradox. On the one hand, we as a society undervalue, and even undermine, those few fundamental principles of law that have underpinned the civilisation of Europe, in particular those that guard marriage and the sanctity of life. On the other hand, we seek legislation as a remedy for every minor ill.

Thus this week the Home Secretary announced that the parents of very young vandals could in future be liable to pay up to £5,000 in compensation. "This will . . . encourage young thugs and their parents to learn that their actions have consequences and to appreciate the impact on their victims," he commented. Meanwhile, one David Blunkett, in the capacity of a private citizen, exploits the law to enforce his own claims as an adulterer over a child born in lawful wedlock to two parents who acknowledge and love that child as their own.

The present fashion is for politicians to use the law to make people good. They assume that laws should shape morality as a mould shapes a jelly; the more complex a jelly you wish to have, the more complex the mould, and a good jelly conforms exactly to the shape of the mould. Thus, if they want us to eat less sugar or take more exercise or keep our hospitals cleaner or write more academic articles or stop making jokes about religion, they will use the law to try to make us do so. On this view, there is no difference between keeping the law and living as we should: the jelly looks just like the mould. On this view, people can be good out of fear.

Suppose, instead, that law were a framework that supported the complex structure of our social lives, as a trellis supports a climbing rose. If so, laws should be few, simple, unobtrusive and easy to avoid breaking. They are there not for themselves, but to allow the rose to flourish, so to speak. To break them is very serious: if the trellis breaks, the whole rose collapses. But no one would ever confuse keeping the law with living well, just as no one would think that a bare trellis was a rose.

The Ten Commandments are examples of this kind of law, basic principles that provide the structures - those of religion, family, property, physical safety and honest communication - within which we can learn to live well. On this view, living a good life means more than keeping the law, for two reasons. First, the laws do not say very much about what to do: most of the time we need to rely on custom and experience, on shared thoughtfulness and intelligence, and on common sense.

Secondly, it matters not only what you do, but why and how you do it. A responsible mother, you might say, prevents her young daughter from shoplifting. But she is not a good mother if she does so by chaining her to the bed; nor if she does so only out of fear of being fined. Actions are not enough; her heart needs to be in the right place.

If law is a jelly mould, then goodness is nothing but actions; if the law is a trellis, then living well involves our character, our motives, our desires. That is why the politicians cannot pass laws to make us good. What they can do, however, is support the trellis on which the roses may grow. They can, for example, do their best to eliminate extreme poverty and to strengthen the institution of marriage. (Wise use of the law is not the preserve of either the political "right" or the political "left".) Neither poverty nor broken homes inevitably turn children into "young thugs", but sufficiency and solid marriages will enable them to be both happier and less likely to stray.

Jesus came "not to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it" (Matthew v,17). He fulfilled it by proclaiming, and living out to the bitter end, a gospel of love. As we prepare to celebrate the beginning of that story, two weeks today, we might examine our own assumptions about the job that laws should do. Are they there to tell people what to do? Or are they for freeing us to learn how to love?

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