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

Share
Related Topics

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?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London