Government-enforced religious law: how other religions do it

A few days ago I noted that the ultra-orthodox in Israel want to see the nation governed according to the Torah, the Mosaic Law, in contrast to the generally secular nature of the Israeli state. Now the Washington Post has an article about a similar situation in Tunisia. Here it is the Islamists pressing for the strict application of the Koran’s prohibition of blasphemy in the wake of Tunisia’s revolution a year ago. The most hard core Islamists want to see filmmaker Nabil Karoui executed for broadcasting a cartoon portraying God talking to a young girl.

Shouldn’t the death penalty be considered, asks lawyer Nasser Saidi: “Anything related to God is absolute. This was a test of the Tunisian people’s ability to defend God, and they have passed the test.”

The Post notes that Tunisia has long struggled to blend Islamic and secular western values successfully:

For hundreds of years, Tunisia has boasted a complex blend of Islamic and Western values, and now, having ousted their autocratic leader, Tunisians are struggling to find the right balance. No part of that wrenching, sometimes violent debate has been more divisive than the issue of freedom of speech.

Here’s perhaps the key paragraph:

The two sides argue as if they live in different galaxies. They cite different laws — God’s and man’s. They base their arguments on different histories — Western traditions of transparency and individual rights vs. Islamic concepts of Koranic authority and the obligations of the community of believers.

It is very instructive to compare the way in which Christians have handled the relation between their religion and the state to the way in which other religions like Judaism and Islam have done so. In many respects Christianity has an advantage. Most Christians believe the Gospel requires the separation of church and state in some sense, and in fact, from the very beginning Christianity was profoundly unique in this respect.

When the Gospel exploded into the Roman Empire in the first three centuries after Christ, one of its primary distinctives was that it worked through the establishment of communities that were self-governed and separate from civil governments. Christians did not believe the Roman Empire would be able to enforce God’s law any more than was Old Testament Israel. That would be Christ’s task through the proclamation of the Gospel. In contrast to an Islamic or Jewish state in which God’s law and human law contest for precisely the same space, Christianity acknowledges that honor and obedience is owed to human authorities ordained by but distinct from God: Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.

It is to this Christian distinctive that the West owes its legacy of the separation of church and state. Sometimes as Christians we argue over how this should be worked out; we do, after all, believe that secular government should rule consistently with basic justice. But it is worth keeping perspective by remembering how Christianity is different from the other great monotheistic religions. Christians can work with unbelieving neighbors and secular authorities in a way that other religions can’t.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on May 3, 2012, in Two Kingdoms and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Government-enforced religious law: how other religions do it.

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