Thursday, February 13, 2014

Obeying the Law isn't Legalism

Sixth Ordinary Sunday

One of the most frequent justifications that is offered to explain the inconsistency we witness in the local Church between theory and practice, the law and its application, the rubrics of liturgy and its actual celebration, is to cite the uniqueness of “the Malaysian context.”  This reasoning, ironically, is not unique to the Church. When discussing the rampart flouting of laws, ranging from traffic regulations to copyright infringements, one would often hear the same argument. In Malaysia, it is argued, laws are merely meant to be ideals and recommendations; compliance, therefore, is not meant to be obligatory. In the political arena, many Asian leaders reject imposition of human rights according to Western standards and claim that Asia has a unique set of values. In making this assertion, regional leaders find that they have convenient tools to silence criticism and to fan anti-Western nationalist sentiments.

The frequent use of this justification has made me think – is there really such a thing as “the Malaysian Context” and if there is, what is it? If you honestly re-examine the various arguments, you will discover that there is no logical coherence among them. Perhaps, it simply means this – personal convenience and agenda outweighs other considerations. Decision makers can choose to say what they want to say and do what they want to do, they can choose to adopt or depart from a norm, simply by hiding behind this ambiguous catchphrase. Of course, I am not denying that there are matters which are culturally specific and would require adaptation. But, in many cases, there is really no genuine particular context which warrants a departure. In reality, the argument becomes a cover up for personal whims and fancies.

The truth of the matter is that the Malaysian context argument has often been wielded as an irrational lame excuse, a smoke screen, to justify abuse of power by those in authority and on the part of subjects, disobedience in favour of personal style and preference. The argument is often used hand in glove with the other argument that submission to rules and rubrics is a descent into legalism. The Catholic Church has often been tarred with the brush of legalism. But the reality is that the nominal rejection of legalism often reveals a new form of legalism – the new merely replaces the old, opinion steps in to replace dogma. In discarding rules written by others, one ends up writing one’s own set of rules and often imposing it on others. It’s like how Martin Luther, describes history, which he likens to “a drunk man on a horse. No sooner does he fall off on the left side, does he mount again and fall off on the right.”

Listening carefully to the majority of those who fling about the term “legalistic,” it is soon apparent that they understand the term to refer to too much attention to legal detail. This is really a reflection of the pervasive cultural phenomenon in our society, namely the predilection to be averse to law, restriction, and limitation. “Freedom” gradually has come to be conceptualised as freedom from restraint. Those who do not embrace a lax, casual, and open attitude toward moral value and ethical behaviour are labelled “intolerant.” Even within Christian circles, stressing the need to conform strictly to matters of faith and morals can cause one to be labelled as a “hard-liner”, a “fundamentalist” or “traditionalist”.

Today, we have a passage from the gospel that puts things in their proper perspective. Most critics of the Church’s perceived legalism often find it hard or impossible to reconcile this passage with the gospel of libertinism which they propound. And yet this is a text that none of us can choose to ignore. St Matthew the Evangelist records Jesus as saying this, “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish them but to complete them. I tell you solemnly, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved.” But Jesus does not stop here. He proceeds to issue this warning, “Therefore, the man who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven; but the man who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of heaven.” Doesn’t this make Jesus sound legalistic?

Most critics of the Church’s penchant for laws and rubrics would rather portray Jesus as an exemplary rebel, an anti-establishment instigator, a prophetic witness of libertinism, who came to undo the law, condemn the legalism of the Pharisees and set up a new relationship with God that was solely based on grace and freedom. For them, Jesus must always be a Jesus of Love, the anti-thesis of the Jesus of Law. It’s not hard to see how this ideological framework fits into today’s society with its suspicion of law and authority. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons why Pope Francis is often portrayed in a similar light by the media – a champion of the rebels who has finally arrived to set things right within the Church. Of course, the parts where the Pope confirms traditional orthodox Church teachings are often ignored or omitted because these do not fit with the ‘larger picture’ they have of him.

What these critics and ideologues fail to realise is that there is no inconsistency between the Jesus of Love and the Jesus of the Law. The Church’s law merely follows the theological reality of things. For example, it isn’t canon law that forbids divorce, the faith does. Canon law merely translates this into juridical language. It merely articulates the law of love and most importantly, the law of salvation. For too long, we have been deceived into believing that there is an irreconcilable dichotomy between those who follow the law and those called to love. We were told that to follow the law is to be under a burden, to be compelled, to be constrained. To love, on the other hand, is to embrace the capacity to choose, to be creative, to be liberated. In an interview, the contents of which were compiled in a book entitled, Light of the World, Pope Emeritus Benedict considered this way of thinking as having wrought catastrophic damage in the life of the Church. What happens when you take away the law or choose to ignore it? You would most likely find anarchy rather than love!

Today, we often hear the familiar refrain that people are leaving the Church in droves because of the unbending laws that have been used to subjugate them. These claims are never backed up by any real research. As a pastor of a relatively large parish, and having also ministered in another larger parish for seven years, I can safely say that the Church’s laws are not the top reasons for people leaving. Very often, Catholics leave because they choose to do so, not because they have been compelled against their will. They leave because they have lost faith. They leave because they are unable to get along with their priests or their fellow parishioners. And finally, people leave because they are unable to live up to the high standards of the gospel, standards which were not established by any human hierarch but by Jesus Christ himself. “You have learnt how it was said to our ancestors: You must not kill, and if anyone does kill he must answer for it before the court. But I say this to you anyone who is angry with his brother will answer for it before the court…”  “It has also been said: Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a writ of dismissal. But I say this to you: everyone who divorces his wife, except for the case of fornication, makes her an adulteress; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” And if you’re wondering which paragraph of Canon Law stipulates this, you don’t have to look very far. It was Jesus who said it in today’s gospel. Yes, Jesus the cold, self-righteous, legalistic, Pharisaic One!

So, do we actually suffer from legalism, the sort that was condemned by Jesus? Yes, we cannot deny that we can and sometimes do fall into the trap of legalism. But then the gospel story also presents the other end of the spectrum, minimalism. In fact both minimalism and legalism, which represent extreme attitudes when it comes to the law, are condemned by Jesus. Minimalism, as the name suggests, is basically just doing the bare minimum required by the law, which means that in most cases we would not really have to give a care about others. Legalism, on the other hand, refers to an attitude of strict observance of laws regardless of circumstances and possible harm to people involved. Minimalism and legalism, therefore, are deceptive partners in our attempts to lead moral lives, and Jesus does not agree with having either of the attitudes. Towards minimalism, Jesus encourages us to do more as in today’s gospel, and towards legalism, he encourages us to place concern for people and love of God over observance of law. He reminds us, as the Church often does, that the supreme law is the salvation of souls. This is and must always be the object of all laws!

The very idea that obedience to God’s laws would one day be viewed as negative by those who profess adherence to the faith, and then for this obedience to be denounced as ‘legalism,’ is utterly incomprehensible. But it is also equally incomprehensible and untenable for the precepts of the Church to be used as a kind of weapon to bludgeon its members into submission. It’s good to remember the constant plea of Pope Francis to proclaim the gospel of salvation and not the gospel of small-minded rules – “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”  Pope Francis certainly did not wish to say that law and mercy were antithetical. What he wanted to stress is this - that we must never lose sight of the object of that law; that laws cannot be the end in themselves. The end must always be our salvation.

Yes, we must avoid “legalism.” A smug sense of superiority and spiritual self-sufficiency will cause a person to be lost eternally. But salvation can also be lost by deliberately and flagrantly choosing to ignore God’s laws. We must stake our lives upon the grace of God, to desire always our sanctification and our salvation, to love Him above all else. But then let us never forget that love also demands that we obey and keep his commandments. Mercy and Love can never mean a licence to do whatever we want to do; most especially to go against the will of the One whom we profess to love!

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