Category Archives: christianity

God’s law and the law of the State

What happens when you have a particular group in society who are not minded to follow the law of the State, but prefer to follow God’s law as they interpret it?

Recently this question has come up in relation to Sharia law, particularly after the Archbishop of Canterbury said that some aspects of sharia law would inevitably be adopted in Britain. But the question doesn’t just arise in relation to Islam. Many religions have a group within who prefers the laws of God to the laws of the State. For example, orthodox Jews in Australia may take some disputes between one another to the Beth Din, a religious court where rabbis hand out judgment. And some indigenous Australians may prefer that a dispute be dealt with under traditional law rather than “whitefella law”.

My personal opinion is that as long as the law of God does not transgress fundamental human rights, then parties can consent to that particular law binding their actions. It is rather like an agreement to arbitrate in a contract where any disputes are referred to a mutually agreed arbitrator. The problem occurs when a particular practice or punishment which is said to be required by the law of God or tradition is illegal under the laws of the State: eg, stoning, spearing through the leg, promise of child brides etc. My personal opinion is that such things should not be allowed. The issue is slightly more vexed with indigenous tradition than it is with other religious laws because indigenous people didn’t “choose” to move here and to be subject to our laws, they were imposed upon them from colonisers. Nonetheless, as I have explained in one of my very early posts, as a feminist, I just cannot countenance the assault and rape of a teenage “promised bride” by her tribal husband, for example. Cultural relativism be damned.

It is a difficult question however, because it is a balance between religious tolerance and universal human rights (which should apply to all, regardless of race or religion or anything else).

Consequently, I was really interested to read this article in Slate about the American legal system and the Amish and the Mormons. I hadn’t really thought deeply about the conflict that would arise between State law and the traditions and laws of these two groups.

Amish are Anabaptists of Swiss-German origin who live in separate communities. They dress in conservative dress, do not use much modern technology and do not educate their children beyond 8th grade because of the “worldly values” they might learn. Study is focussed on the Bible, and children are expected to work in the fields with their parents once they leave school. They do not believe in Social Security, and do not either make payments or accept payments from the government. The educational practices and expectation that children will work in the fields has brought them in to conflict with US education and child labor rules. In Wisconsin v. Yoder 406 U.S. 205 (1972) three Amish parents were fined by the Wisconsin authorities for taking their children from school before the age of 16, but the US Supreme Court ultimately upheld the right of the parents to do this. Amish refuse to participate in wars, and their conscientious objection has also gotten them into trouble. As the article in Slate observes, the Amish have been given a fair degree of latitude, in part because they are peaceful and because they have managed to broker compromises with the State.

Mormons are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. They believe in the Book of Mormon. The Church of the Latter Day Saints officially abandoned polygamy after pressure from law enforcement in 1890, but some other fundamentalist groups continue to practice polygamy. The practice of taking multiple wives and taking child brides has brought the Fundamentalist Mormon Church into conflict with the law. In the last few weeks, Texan authorities raided a Fundamentalist Mormon compound after a 16 year old girl called authorities to say that she had recently borne a child to her 50 year old husband. Other US States are concerned that this raid may ruin their efforts to make Fundamentalist Mormons trust them and cooperate with them. As the Slate article outlined, a large raid on a Short Creek Fundamentalist Mormon community in 1953 was ultimately counterproductive. The Slate article concludes that the Mormon groups are in a different situation to the Amish:

But the fundamentalist Mormons groups are in a state of evasion. The ban on bigamy functions as a zoning ordinance: Plural marriage is fine in isolated communities, but not in Salt Lake City, and certainly not on TV talk shows, as Tom Green found. So long as the fundamentalists remain in hiding, the extreme ugliness of conducting raids creates a form of tolerance. They are thus in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” state of legal limbo that could break open at any time. They are outside the law in a different way.

It will be interesting to see whether the Texan raid is counterproductive or forces the Fundamentalist Mormon church into submission.

These situations remind us that the conflict between God’s law and the law of the State has many facets, and there are different ways of resolving the issue. Have a read of the Slate article and see what you think.

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Fitna

The other day, I watched the film Fitna on YouTube, a film about Islam by Dutch right wing politician Geert Wilders.  I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I had read some interesting reviews by Skepticlawyer at Catallaxy, Pommygranate at Australian Libertarian Society Blog and Saint at Dogfight At Bankstown.

I must say that I felt considerable ambivalence about it. I’ve waited over a week to write on it.

On the one hand, I support freedom of speech. Furthermore, there is no denying the fact that there are extremist Muslims who in the world who advocate terrorism or jihad (as I’ve argued previously). I think this kind of behaviour is unacceptable from anyone of any religion, and should be condemned.

But on the other hand, I wonder what this film will really achieve other than deepening the divide between the West and Islam. Among other things, it extracts news, film and photographs of all the worst instances of Islamist extremism and terrorism, and juxtaposes them against sura from the Qu’ran. It has a scaremongering feel which I do not like at all – it makes broadbrush generalisations and depicts the worst of a particular group. As I have said in a previous post, I find scaremongering propaganda to be problematic, regardless of whether it is on the Left or the Right, or from the West or Islam. It makes people behave in an irrational manner.

As Pommygranate noted in a post at the Australian Libertarian Society Blog, there is a rather odd dichotomy in this film – Wilders preaches Western values of tolerance and free speech, but he is essentially calling for intolerance of a certain religion. Pommy says:

He [Wilders] is essentially a hypocrite as on the one hand he champions Holland’s proud history of tolerance and freedom, yet on the other, seeks to introduce discrimination back into the Constitution (by banning further immigration of Muslims), wishes to ban the Koran as a fascist book comparable to Mein Kampf, and wants a complete ban on the wearing of the headscarf. 

The ironic thing, as with the Danish cartoons, is the way in which various Islamic groups and countries are claiming that the film is offensive and inaccurate for saying their religion is intrinsically violent and intolerant, but radical Muslims are also making death threats against LiveLeaks for posting the video… Don’t those guys who make the death threats have any sense of irony whatsoever? Any violent retaliation against Wilders will prove his point rather nicely.

The film makes me think of a book by Chester Porter called The Gentle Art of Persuasion. He argues that using fear to get your point across is not an intelligent way to put an argument. I concur. The central message I got from the film was “Muslims are terrorists, intolerant people, anti-Semites, bashers of homosexuals, genital mutilators and oppressors of women’s freedom.” But I am still wondering: what was the point? How are people (Muslim, Dutch and others) meant to respond to that message? How does this film fix anything?

If this film’s central message is that Muslims need to rethink the violent and unpleasant aspects of their religion, which is one of the film’s claims, then I don’t think a vehicle such as this would be the way to achieve it. It would immediately make even a moderate Muslim defensive of his or her religion, rather than open to reasonable criticism.

I suspect there were two responses Wilders wanted – to provoke a backlash among Dutch people to Islam (or at least, some extreme practices of some Islamic groups), and to make a point that the response to films or writings which criticise Islam is often violence (although I note that the Dutch Muslim population seems to have sensibly decided that the best response is to be moderate).

I’ve noticed in blog comments threads that a common response to the film is that “Christianity is just as bad” (see for example the comment thread which has developed at Iain Hall’s post). Yes, one could do the same with Christianity and find some nutbag Bible bashers who wanted to stone homosexuals or whatever, and intersperse it with Biblical quotes (particularly chapters like Leviticus). But I think that misses the point of the film. As Skepticlawyer has indicated in her post at Catallaxy, I think one of the particular concerns Wilders is focussing on is the interaction between Muslim immigrants in Holland and the mainstream Dutch culture, which is tolerant of homosexuality, prostitution, drug-use etc. Thus, it’s obviously not relevant for him to make a film on the shortcomings of Christianity, because the Dutch Christian attitude is generally tolerant; or at least, most Dutch Christians turn a blind eye to those things in Dutch culture which they disagree with. If a whole slew of US Southern Baptists emigrated to Holland and started questioning Dutch values, it would obviously be relevant to question Christianity, but that’s not the particular conflict he has in mind.

And ultimately, so what if you can do the same with Christianity? It doesn’t make the conduct of Islamists who espouse the same views right. It cannot be denied that there are a proportion of radical Islamists who believe many or all of the things in this movie. A plague on all the houses of those who seek to convert by the sword, kill and persecute those of different religions or oppress and use religion to justify violence towards women and homosexuals.

What is the best thing to do about Islamist terrorism and intolerance? I’m just not sure that this movie is a constructive solution to the problem: it may just make things worse. Yes, it is important to be honest about the problems of Islamist extremism, but it is also important to find ways to solve those problems rather than to inflame them.

Postscript

Incidentally, I heartly agree with Skepticlawyer that many Muslim commentators, politicians and imams need to get over calling anyone who disagrees with Islam’s tenets “Zionist”. A Jordanian media coalition described Wilders as “extremist and Zionist deputy Geert Wilders” in a press release. Wilders is not Jewish, and I don’t know if he supports the establishment and/or expansion of the State of Israel or not. Even if he does, that wasn’t the point of the film anyway. As soon as I hear insane frothing at the mouth about Zionists such as this, I start to doubt the credibility and sanity of the source.

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Filed under blasphemy, christianity, freedom of speech, islam, judaism, politics, racism, society, terrorism, tolerance

Dance of the seven robes

The title to this post could also be “Anything you can do, I can do better.” I’ve long believed that bickering and conflict between the three Abramic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) is a bit like sibling rivalry, as I’ve said before, and the story below just confirms that belief. The three are very similar, but the differences are all the more contentious because of that.

Apparently there is a new trend among ultra Orthodox Charedi women in Israel. Inspired by Rebbetzin Bruria Keren, these ultra Orthodox women wear ten skirts, seven long robes, five kerchiefs knotted at the chin, three knotted at the back of the head, hide their faces behind a veil and then cover themselves with several thin shawls. Whew! I’m surprised that these women can walk after putting all those clothes on.

The effect is somewhat like a niqab, or a full Islamic veil revealing only the eyes. I refer to and repeat my comments about the niqab (here and here). An outward show of inner faith, or a display of modesty before God are, to my mind, acceptable reasons for wearing religious costume. But as a feminist, I draw the line at religious costumes which impede women from interacting with the outside world. If a woman cannot engage in face to face communication, cannot drive, cannot run, cannot drink a glass of water in public…then I think it’s just plain wrong. It makes her less of a person than a man. I also dislike the idea that layers of clothing must be worn because a woman’s body is peculiarly seductive, or because it is thought that women’s bodies are unclean or lewd.

There are a number of interesting things about this phenomenon. First, the ultra Orthodox men tend to dislike the practice, despite their emphasis on tzniut, or modesty, in women. Thus it has been considered to be a kind of “counter revolution” – women saying, “Well, if you’re going to ask us to be modest, we’ll do that to the maximum degree possible.” I still don’t think that it can be considered “empowerment”, except in a very negative way.

The other interesting thing is that the women are apparently mistaken for Arab Muslims or Arab Christians, and are somewhat offended by this. They don’t feel any solidarity with their Arab sisters. I wonder, as foreshadowed by the alternative title to the post, whether there’s a sense of “oneupwomanship” here: “You Muslims think you’re modest? We Jews can be ten times more modest, and wear even sillier outfits, just watch us.” I’m waiting for some fundamentalist Christian women to start wearing old fashioned metal diving suits, just to show that they are the most modest of all.

In the end, it’s up to all these women (of whatever religion) to choose to wear whatever they please. I don’t really mind, as long as they don’t judge me for what I choose to wear, and don’t impose their standards on me or my daughter. My body is not dirty, thank you very much, and nor am I a harlot because I show my ankles. To me, empowerment is being able to move and communicate freely.

(Via Indyblogs)

Update

And it’s stories like the one of Indian tennis player Sania Mirza which make me believe that requiring women to cover up cannot be empowering or “feminist”. Mirza is an Indian Muslim, and some radical clerics have issued a fatwa against her. She has just withdrawn from the Bangalore Open after receiving threats because she wears short skirts and sleeveless tops.

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When PC = “Pretty Clueless”

Ham / Supplied

What is wrong with this picture? Hmm. Think about it for 5 seconds.

A posh New York food store apparently tried its best to be inclusive and politically correct, but missed the important point that any Jew who is likely to be celebrating Chanukah is unlikely to be eating ham. It’s just not kosher. Yeah, of course I know some non-observant Jews who eat ham, but as far as I’m aware they don’t bother to celebrate Chanukah in a big way.

It’s quite sweet really that the store tried to think of customers who would be celebrating festivals other than Christmas, but oh so clueless. Still, they should feel some nachas for trying.

Incidentally, I have to say that so far this year, I have received two Christmas cards…from Jewish friends. Maybe they’re the only ones who have patience for it all any more. I’ve only visited one large shopping centre so far in the last month, but already I was getting a bad case of the ol’ Bah Humbugs again. It always seems to hit around this time of year. In fact, it’s almost a year to the day from that Bah Humbug post.

When attending the large shopping centre (aka “Hellhole”) I thought I should take the kidlet to see Santa, but she ran screaming from the poor Santa-man, shouting “No, no, no! GO ‘WAY!” I felt a bit sorry for the Santa, he must get that all day. So I waved and smiled at him as I ran to catch the bubba. What a job.

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Supernatural suing

I was talking to a friend, and we both feel a bit sick of all the political jockeying in the news at the moment. So, let’s look at some different news.

1. Luis, Armand and Angel

I wrote a post about bizarre lawyers last year. One was Philipino judge Florentino V. Flores Jr, a trial judge who believed he was assisted by three elves, Luis, Armand and Angel. As this article in the Wall Street Journal explains, the story doesn’t end there. Apparently, belief in elves (or “duwende“) is common in the Philippines, and Mr Floro has become a cause celebre.

Mr. Floro has become a regular on Philippine television. Often he is asked to make predictions with the help of his invisible friends. “They say your show will be taken off the air if you don’t feature me more often,” was Mr. Floro’s reply to one interviewer.

The day after Mr. Floro’s first appearance on television last year, hundreds of people turned up at his house in a dusty Manila suburb hoping he could use his supernatural powers to heal their illnesses. Now Mr. Floro, who travels by bus, is regularly recognized on the street.

The Supreme Court says its medical clinic determined that Mr. Floro was suffering from psychosis. Even so, a series of disturbing incidents appear to have the nation’s top jurists rattled. According to local newspaper reports, a mysterious fire in January destroyed the Supreme Court’s crest in its session hall, and a number of members of the court and their close family members have developed serious illnesses or have fallen victim to car accidents.

Enough bizarre things have happened that in July, the Supreme Court issued an en banc resolution asking Mr. Floro to desist in his threats of “ungodly reprisal.” The Supreme Court’s spokesman declined to elaborate.

Apparently it’s all down to Luis, the “king of kings” and avenger elf, rather than Mr. Floro personally.

2. Take that, God!

When I was a little tacker, we had a series of crazy RE teachers whom I may have mentioned before. In any case, one of them told me God was omnipresent and omnipotent, and so I ran around the house with a pair of scissors, snipping them in the air, saying “I’m cutting God up into pieces!” Until my mother caught me.

I can’t help thinking that Ernie Chambers is indulging in the adult version of my childhood behaviour. He is a US Senator who has filed a suit against God.

Chambers says in his lawsuit that God has made terroristic threats against the senator and his constituents, inspired fear and caused “widespread death, destruction and terrorization of millions upon millions of the Earth’s inhabitants.”

The Omaha senator, who skips morning prayers during the legislative session and often criticizes Christians, also says God has caused “fearsome floods … horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornadoes.”

He’s seeking a permanent injunction against the Almighty.

Chambers has a serious intent. He is trying to make a point about a suit filed by Tory Bowen. Bowen alleges that she was the victim of sexual assault and rape. You might recall her case from an earlier post, where I discussed the fact that the trial judge had banned the words “rape”, “sexual assault”, “victim” and “assailant” from the trial. Bowen is now suing that judge personally for violating her free speech rights. It appears that the Federal judge hearing that case has said that the action is potentially vexatious and does not disclose a cause of action.

Chambers wanted to make the point that you could file a legal suit against anyone (or indeed, any Higher Entity) for any kind of offence, and there’s not much anyone can do about it, even if the action is frivolous and vexatious.

(Via Law.com)

Update

Obviously I wasn’t the only one who noticed a strange halo-like phenomenon around Chambers’ head in the photo accompanying the AP article… Maybe God is trying to tell him something?

(Via Boing Boing)

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From the sublime to the ridiculous

Hmm, maybe that should be just from the ridiculous to the ridiculous…

First ridiculous legal snippet:

An American millionaire has left US$14.8M on trust for her white Maltese terrier, Trouble. But two of her grandchildren get nothing. The other two get $5M each (still less than the dog…) as long as they tend their father’s grave.

This was a great example for class yesterday. We were able to conclude that non-charitable purpose trusts for dogs and tombs are exceptions to the general rule against such trusts, and therefore these trusts are probably valid.

Second ridiculous legal snippet:

A Kenyan religious group, Friends of Jesus, has lodged an application before the Kenyan High Court to declare Jesus’ conviction and crucifixion null and void.  As the article notes, there are a number of different legal questions on this one. First, does the Kenyan High Court have jurisdiction on this question, given that the conviction and sentence did not occur in Kenya? Secondly, is the action time-barred, given that it has been brought some 2000 years after the original conviction?

I would think that the Kenyan High Court would not have jurisdiction over this question. None of the persons involved were in Kenyan nationals or in Kenya at the time, and in fact, Kenya was not then a nation at that time. The question is then what court would? According to the accounts in the Bible, the Sanhedrin convicted Jesus of blasphemy, and the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, famously passed the death sentence on Jesus because the mob demanded it. The Friends of Jesus allege that the relevant sentence in Jewish law at the time should have been stoning to death, but that He was crucified instead, in violation of Jewish law. Unfortunately, the mention of the Sanhedrin led to anti-Semitism by Christians. In fact, it seems to me that there’s a taint of this in the comments of the representative of the Friends of Jesus.

Obviously, there is no Roman empire any more, and there is no modern equivalent of the Sanhedrin. The suggestion by a Kenyan constitutional lawyer in the newspaper article is that perhaps the International Criminal Court has the jurisdiction to hear the case, but Article 11 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court 1997 states that the ICC only has jurisdiction over crimes which occurred after the date of the Statute (being 1 July 2002). Therefore the ICC would not have jurisdiction over this matter either.

In any case, such a legal action would surely be beyond any reasonable limitations period.

I am really not sure what such a legal action would achieve. Surely one of the tenets of Christianity is that Jesus had to die to save our souls, and accordingly, the Sanhedrin and Pilate were only doing what God intended to happen? The Friends of Jesus say that it is necessary to clarify that Jesus was not a criminal, and that He advocated the rule of law. Hmm. Sounds to me like they’d be better off putting their money and their energy into better causes.

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Carrots that eat milk

When my sister and I were little, we came up with the sentence which is the title of this post (during a trip to Jenolan Caves). We found it hilarious because it made no sense. Carrots are incapable of eating, and even if they were capable, they couldn’t “eat” milk anyway. Yeah, we were strange little kids.

Dave from Balneus has drawn my attention to this interesting linguistic analysis of the US Supreme Court’s recent decision in Morse v Frederick, also known as the “Bong HiTS 4 Jesus” case. The events took place on 24 January 2002 when the Olympic Torch Relay passed through Juneau in Alaska, en route to Salt Lake City in Utah for the Winter Olympic Games. The Torch Relay passed by Juneau-Douglas High School, and the principal, Deborah Morse, decided to let students watch it. As the torchbearers and camera crew passed by the high school, Frederick and his friends unfurled a 14-foot banner which read “Bong HiTS 4 Jesus”. Morse immediately crossed the street and asked the students to take the banner down. Everyone but Frederick complied. Morse then confiscated the banner and suspended Frederick for 10 days. This was upheld by the school administration. Frederick then brought a legal action alleging that his First Amendment right to freedom of speech had been violated. It went all the way to the Supreme Court.

A majority of the Supreme Court upheld the school’s actions, saying the school was within its rights to cause Frederick to take the banner down. Roberts CJ said:

At least two interpretations of the words on the banner demonstrate that the sign advocated the use of illegal drugs. First, the phrase could be interpreted as an imperative: “”[Take] bong hits –” . . .”—a message equivalent, as Morse explained in her declaration, to “smoke marijuana” or “use an illegal drug.” Alternatively, the phrase could be viewed as celebrating drug use — “—“bong hits [are a good thing],” or “[we take] bong hits” — ”—and we discern no meaningful distinction between celebrating illegal drug use in the midst of fellow students and outright advocacy or promotion.

Accordingly, the school had a right to prohibit banners such as that displayed by Frederick.

The minority found that the school did not have a right to prohibit the banner because it did not advocate drug use. In fact, the minority was of the opinion that the banner said very little of sense whatsoever:

To the extent the Court independently finds that BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” objectively amounts to the advocacy of illegal drug use—in other words, that it can most reasonably be interpreted as such—that conclusion practically refutes itself. This is a nonsense message, not advocacy. The Court’s feeble effort to divine its hidden meaning is strong evidence of that. Ante at 7 (positing that the banner might mean, alternatively, “‘[Take] bong hits,’ ‘bong hits [are a good thing]”,” or “”‘[we take] bong hits’”). Frederick’’s credible and uncontradicted explanation for the message— — he just wanted to get on television— — is also relevant because a speaker who does not intend to persuade his audience can hardly be said to be advocating anything. But most importantly, it takes real imagination to read a “cryptic” message…with a slanting drug reference as an incitement to drug use. Admittedly, some high school students (including those who use drugs) are dumb. Most students, however, do not shed their brains at the schoolhouse gate, and most students know dumb advocacy when they see it. The notion that the message on this banner would actually persuade either the average student or even the dumbest one to change his or her behavior is most implausible. That the Court believes such a silly message can be proscribed as advocacy underscores the novelty of its position, and suggests that the principle it articulates has no stopping point. Even if advocacy could somehow be wedged into Frederick’’s obtuse reference to marijuana, that advocacy was at best subtle and ambiguous. … If this were a close —case, the tie would have to go to Frederick’’s speech, not to the principal’’s strained reading of his quixotic message.

The linguistic analysis of the judgment finds the minority opinion more convincing. Bill Poser says:

That an ill-formed or incomplete utterance might have no semantic interpretation is of course completely uncontroversial. Thus, from a linguistic point of view, it is perfectly possible that the words on the banner might have meant nothing at all. Frederick’s explanation of his motivation for displaying the banner provides a plausible account of his use of words that did not mean anything.

It is a silly message. It is deliberately courting controversy by mingling marijuana use with the name Jesus. Nevertheless, if I were a Christian, I suspect I would find it offensive. As a non-Christian, I simply find it ridiculous and childish. But as far as I can see, “Bong HiTS 4 Jesus” has no clear meaning, and makes no more sense than my sister’s and my phrase “carrots that eat milk”.

I can’t help noticing the irony that Frederick’s message (whatever it means) has gotten far more exposure than it otherwise might have done if the school had just told him off and dismissed it as a attention-seeking prank. It reminds me a little of the tantrums thrown my toddler. The maternal health nurse recommends that I ignore the tantrums, because the object is to get attention, and any attention, even bad attention is better than none. Given that the object of the prank was to seek attention and controversy, Fredericks would have been better off rewarded with no attention whatsoever.

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