Religion and the law. Are we protecting laws from religion?

Protecting laws from religion?  Management of religious affairs is about protecting what is lawful.  That last sentence is the English translation of something from China’s Religious Affairs Regulations.  But does that even make sense?  China claims its citizens have freedom of religious belief.  So shouldn’t laws about religion be concerned with protecting those religions?

What’s this thing about protecting the law from religion?  It sounds so backwards.  And yet, is it even unusual?  We claim to have religious freedom in the U.S.  So do many countries.  But are we really doing anything different than China?  In other words, is the real issue that China isn’t hiding what they’re doing?  Let’s find out.

 Protecting laws from religion?The image says “know the rules”.  I think what’s really important sometimes in “understand the rules”.  Sometimes knowing is enough.  But sometimes we need to go beneath the surface.  Find out what the rules supposedly mean.  Look around and see if they make sense.  And then maybe we can find out what those rules really mean.  What are the goals?  Especially the unstated goals.

When people make laws and rules, it’s always the unstated ones that matter.  Sometimes it’s because of unintended consequences.  But then, oftentimes it’s the intended consequences.  The intended but purposefully hidden consequences.  

In a so-called free society, somethings just aren’t said.  If they were, people would object.  But if they aren’t, we just complain and then go with them.  But in China, there’s no such problem.  The people are forced to go with whatever the government says.   If they don’t, they are punished, up to and including being “disappeared” or killed. 

In “free countries”, the unstated rules are the ones the government wants to hide from its own people.  In countries like China, the unstated rules are the ones the government wants to hide from the rest of the world.  Let’s take a deeper look and see how it works in this segment of China’s Religious Affairs Regulations.

Religious Affairs Regulations – Chapter 1 General Provisions – Article 3

The management of religious affairs upholds the principles of protecting what is lawful, prohibiting what is unlawful, suppressing extremism, resisting infiltration, and fighting crime. 

 

Quite a statement, isn’t it?  Flies in the face of what most of us would think of a country insisting Citizens have the freedom of religious belief.  If you haven’t read it yet, I suggest reading Citizens have freedom of religious belief? to get a better understanding of what freedom of religious belief means in China.   

Protecting laws from religion? – protecting what is lawful, prohibiting what is unlawful

This is so “pie in the sky” / “mom and apple pie” that it’s hard to comment very much on it.  The only thing, really, is having look at the unstated consequences of Citizens have freedom of religious belief?, we know something not right here.  If we hadn’t looked into those details, we would definitely think this sounds good.  But now we know, it’s not going to be good at all.

Protecting laws from religion? – suppressing extremism

It this about suppressing extremist views against religion?  Or is it about protecting someone or something from extremist religious views?  

In a true case of freedom of religion, this statement is about protecting religious people from extreme anti-religion activists.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  We even do it here in the U.S.  Here’s an excerpt from the U.S. Department of Justice website.  I’ve italicized and bolded the references to religion, to make them easier for you to find.

Since 1968, when Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed into law, the first federal hate crimes statute, the Department of Justice has been enforcing federal hate crimes laws. The 1968 statute made it a crime to use, or threaten to use, force to willfully interfere with any person because of race, color, religion, or national origin and because the person is participating in a federally protected activity, such as public education, employment, jury service, travel, or the enjoyment of public accommodations, or helping another person to do so. In 1968, Congress also made it a crime to use, or threaten to use, force to interfere with housing rights because of the victim’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; in 1988, protections on the basis of familial status and disability were added. In 1996, Congress passed the Church Arson Prevention Act, 18 U.S.C. § 247. Under this Act, it is a crime to deface, damage, or destroy religious real property, or interfere with a person’s religious practice, in situations affecting interstate commerce. The Act also bars defacing, damaging, or destroying religious property because of the race, color, or ethnicity of persons associated with the property.

In 2009, Congress passed, and President Obama signed, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, expanding the federal definition of hate crimes, enhancing the legal toolkit available to prosecutors, and increasing the ability of federal law enforcement to support our state and local partners. This law removed then existing jurisdictional obstacles to prosecutions of certain race- and religion-motivated violence, and added new federal protections against crimes based on gender, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Before the Civil Rights Division prosecutes a hate crime, the Attorney General or someone the Attorney General designates must certify, in writing, that (1) the state does not have jurisdiction; (2) the state has requested that the federal government assume jurisdiction; (3) the verdict or sentence obtained pursuant to state charges did not demonstratively vindicate the federal interest in eradicating bias-motivated violence; or (4) a prosecution by the United States is in the public interest and necessary to secure substantial justice.

This is all well and good.  But, does it work?  Well, not always.  Notice the part about jury service in the first paragraph.  As an example, being Jewish shouldn’t be a reason to disqualify someone from jury duty.  And yet, it happens. 

I was in the jury pool for a case a few years ago.  The prosecutor requested a sidebar with the judge during the questioning of prospective jurors.  He was loud enough that we could all hear his objection to what was happening.  The defense attorney was excusing (without cause) everyone who appeared to be Jewish.  That should be a violation of the above law.  But the judge ruled in favor of the defense attorney, and the process continued.

The jury pool was filled before I got questioned, so I don’t know why the defense attorney didn’t want Jewish people on the jury.  Presumably bias either for or against Jews. 

My point here is that in spite of the laws, people are involved.  And people don’t always truly follow the laws.  Maybe even the bias of the judge affected the way he ruled.  Even if that wasn’t the case, the jury pool wasn’t really random, because the defense attorney made sure it was skewed in favor of his client.

And that’s just jury selection.  The higher we go in any organization, the worse the impact gets to be.  As we get to higher and higher levels of government, the stakes are incredible.  And the power, well, you know what they say about power.

Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely

An observation that a person’s sense of morality lessens as his or her power increases. The statement was made by Lord Acton, a British historian of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

And then there’s the Bible:

The Bible on power

You may not remember this passage, assuming you’ve even read it.  It’s from Ecclesiastes.  It’s an interesting book.  But very hard to understand, given it’s seemingly negative and sarcastic view of many things “under the son”.  But let’s examine it, because it’s about people with power,  How they treat others.  And puts it in the light of evil and human oppression.

As you read, keep in mind that this is written by King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived.  It’s written under the name of Qoheleth, which means preacher.

Oppression, Toil, Friendlessness

Ecc 4:1 Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:
I saw the tears of the oppressed—
and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
and they have no comforter.
Ecc 4:2 And I declared that the dead,
who had already died,
are happier than the living,
who are still alive.
Ecc 4:3 But better than both
is he who has not yet been,
who has not seen the evil
that is done under the sun.

Rather than go through verse by verse, let’s look at a summary here.  Maybe the verse by verse will come another day.  But let’s try to keep this somewhat shorter and more focused.

These seem to be the words of a helpless bystander observing the exploitation of the weak by the powerful. Yet Solomon is a man who is in a position to do something about oppression and exploitation within his own kingdom but, as he turns to other gods, he abandons the sacred trust that God has given him as king of Israel (1 Kings 11). Yet God has declared his desire for justice for the exploited: ‘ “For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now I will arise”, says the LORD; “I will set him in the safety for which he yearns”, (cf. Ps. 12:5). Wherever there is power there is the temptation for its misuse. This can operate on a national scale, as in the case of rulers (Prov. 28:16); at a local level (Eccles. 5:8; Jer. 7:6)); and even in the church (1 Peter 5:1–3)!

Some of us have visited and worked in countries ruled by oppressive regimes and have encountered the chain of exploitation and oppression as it has filtered down through the army, police and petty bureaucrats, and on to the streets of the cities, towns and villages. For many, in the Third World, this seems to be their only way to survival. In such circumstances the Christian citizen is faced with a dilemma. Not only is he exploited, and in many cases oppressed because of his faith, he will often find himself in a position where he, too, is tempted to become part of the system.

For those of us living in a democracy, exploitation becomes more subtle and personal—but just as hurtful. Children encounter bullying at school and some are even driven to suicide! Such behaviour does not end with our childhood; it simply becomes subtler as it enters the workplace and even the home. Inevitably we see another kind of chain in operation—the bullied can look for someone weaker to bully—the abused becomes the abuser. Satan, the arch-exploiter, takes man’s fallen human nature and distorts the image of a God of justice in whose likeness we are created. The poignant cry of the Preacher is repeated, ‘they have no comforter’—and it comes from the heart of a man who is aware of his own exploitative nature.

The Preacher sees no way out other than death. Notice the despairing cynicism in verses 2 and 3. ‘Caught up in this web of exploitation,’ he is saying, ‘it is better that I had never been born.’ A slogan in the Spanish Civil War declared: ‘Long live death! Down with intelligence!’ The Preacher, the most intelligent of men, can find no comfort in this world of exploitation—for him, death seems to be the better option.  [1]Winter, J. (2005). Opening up Ecclesiastes (pp. 60–61). Leominster: Day One Publications.

I believe people tend to think someone living in a so-called free country aren’t subject to this kind of oppression.  But look at that third paragraph.  For those of us living in a democracy, exploitation becomes more subtle and personal—but just as hurtful. … 

And when we live in a country like the U.S. is now, with someone like Trump as President, the worst of the oppression can come from so-called Christians.  His policies, in an attempt to buy the Christian vote, are very oppressive towards anyone who doesn’t support the Trump version of Christianity.  And I dare say, Trump Christianity is a far cry from Jesus’ Christianity in the Bible.

So yes – it’s very subtle.  Very personal.  Very hurtful.  And very much from a bully.

And in the process, the current U.S. government is protecting laws from religion.

So no – religious oppression doesn’t have to come from a country like China.  It’s the process that counts, not the country.  It’s the way members of a religion change because of the political issues they get involved in.  And that’s because we forget, or ignore, something Jesus said.

Paying Taxes to Caesar

22:15-22 pp — Mk 12:13-17; Lk 20:20-26

Mt 22:15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Mt 22:18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”
Mt 22:21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Mt 22:22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

For Christians, we really should pay attention to what belongs to Caesar (Trump) and what belongs to God.  In other words, we shouldn’t be looking to Caesar or Trump to set God’s laws.  Not in any way, shape, or form.

Why not?  Just look around.  Even without political involvement, various denominations have been created due to arguments over “things”.  As C. S. Lewis wrote a book called Mere Christianity.  A great book.  Oftentimes, we argue over things that aren’t what Lewis included in “mere” Christianity.  It’s not generally the basics that cause splits in churches.  It’s more minor things than whether or not Jesus died so we might be saved.

But when politics gets into the picture, when we can’t tell the difference between Trump and the Bible, even the tiniest of things end up being really big issues.  Those disagreements over non-basic issues become weapons of oppression.  Doesn’t matter if they come from China or a leader of a so-called free country.  Oppression is still oppression.  And oppression is not Christian.

Protecting laws from religion? – resisting infiltration

Maybe now you can see why resisting infiltration is included in the Chinese Religious Regulations.  When someone gets to redefine their own version of an existing religion, they can make it out to be anything they want.  However, when a religion has been modified, the last thing you want is to have someone come in and tell everyone that it’s been changed!  That Chinese version of Christianity supporting a Communist government isn’t what Jesus actually taught! 

Ignorance of the people is bliss for the government.  Ignorance of what Christianity is really about is essential to China being able to redefine Christianity in the image they want it to be.  The same is true for any country where politics and religion get too mixed together.  If Trump Christians were actually aware of what kind of person he is, and what he’s doing to God’s creation – and then compared that to what’s in the Bible – it would be like when the Book of the Law was found in the Old Testament.  The people were shocked!

And I’m not just picking on Trump.  It could be any politician from any party.  As long as religion and politics are mixed, we aren’t giving to Caesar the things of Caesar and to God the things of God.  Generally, we give more to Caesar and less to God.  And Caesar is in the business of protecting his laws from religion.

The thing is, it also feels like the character of the person should matter.  And it feels like the impact on people should matter.  Not a selfish impact, like what’s in it for me.  No.  I’m talking about a Christian type of impact, where the poor, the widows and the orphans are cared for.

Even though we are supposedly in a free country and China is a dictatorship – I’m very concerned that we actually aren’t that far apart from each other in ways that we, as Christians, should be very concerned about.  We should be concerned about people more interested in Caesar than God who are infiltrating God’s Christianity, regardless of where we live and who our particular Caesar is.

Protecting laws from religion? – fighting crime

Fighting crime?  What crime comes from religion?  Truth is, there shouldn’t be any.  However, when the laws are set up in a certain way, the act of practicing a religion can be a crime.  That’s the way it is in China.  And that’s the way it’s going to be here in the U.S. as well.  And in every other country.

Not only that, but the penalty for practicing true Christianity when it’s criminalized will be – are you ready – death.

We’ll see as we move through this series, China considers anything other than their own state-supported and defined religions as a threat to the stability of the country.  Concepts like treason and infiltration of foreigners to overthrow the government come into play.  And then what’s the penalty for those things?  Death.  Or “disappearing”, where the convicted person does just that – disappears.  Are they dead or alive?  No one knows.

Conclusion – Protecting laws from religion?

Ultimately, we find two ideas at play here.  Freedom of religion and protecting laws from religion.  It sounds incongruous.  They can’t possibly both be happening at the same time, can they?  In China – absolutely.  Here in the U.S.?  It already exists to some extent.  But I believe it’s going to get much worse.

Actually, it will get much worse.  Whether it’s because of what China’s doing or something else we haven’t seen yet, there’s a book in the Bible that tells us this will happen.  Revelation.

The Beast out of the Sea

(Rev 13:1 …) And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. 2 The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. 3 One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was astonished and followed the beast. 4 Men worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?”
Rev 13:5 The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise his authority for forty-two months. 6 He opened his mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven. 7 He was given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them. And he was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. 8 All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.
Rev 13:9 He who has an ear, let him hear.
Rev 13:10 If anyone is to go into captivity,
into captivity he will go.
If anyone is to be killed with the sword,
with the sword he will be killed.

This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints.

Let’s get past the imagery here, and just get to the bottom line of what it means.

Rev 13:4 Men worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?”

People will worship Satan (the dragon) and antiChrist (the beast).  Those who refuse, like the true Christians, will die because they won’t renounce Jesus.

Now – whether or not what’s going on in China will turn out to be exactly what’s written in Revelation, we just don’t know.  However, we do know that there have been many instances over the centuries where similar scenarios have come up.  When we actually get to the End Times in Revelation, this will be worldwide.

So – it’s happening now in China.  I can see it beginning to happen here in the U.S., although death isn’t the result.  At least not yet.  However, people here are actually giving up on their beliefs from the Bible to meet the standards of the government’s versions of Christianity.  Yes – that’s plural.  There are, after all, Democrats and Republicans.  Both claim to be for God. 

And yet, neither is all that close to what Jesus taught.  Nonetheless, many politically active people follow the “teachings” of their political parties over those of Jesus.  All the while, they still claim to be Christian. 

I ask, when it comes to religion and the government, are we not on the road to becoming like China?


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


 

References

1 Winter, J. (2005). Opening up Ecclesiastes (pp. 60–61). Leominster: Day One Publications.

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