June 8, 2024

“Rules are made for people, not people for rules” – A thought for the day by Marianna Michell, 9th June 2024

“Rules are made for people, not people for rules”

Rules are made for people, not people for rules. I had this phrase in my head, then I was reminded of Jesus’ statement in Mark ch. 2, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath”. 

The Sabbath day is meant to be a pause for reflection, and should not cause one-upmanship and division. And rules are not a substitute for humanity’s own conscience – our guidance from within. Any principle will create division between those who rely upon the principle without self-reference, and those who explore its result in practice. 

Governmental laws, from taxation down to the recent ‘all cats must be micro-chipped’, have a good aim but fail in the nitty-gritty. Laws can’t cover context: the national may not cover the local. Individuals adjust their actions and reactions according to context. 

And a rule is not a law: Laws are rules that the government has codified. In this talk, I want to explore a few areas which show how legislation, or commonly accepted rules, often fail; how rules can distort where true authority should lie – within ourselves. We may feel a bit iffy nowadays about the term ‘it’s just common sense’, yet this does exist in each of us.

There is governmental authority, and there are ingrained societal expectations. We need to balance each with self-respect, allowing appropriate autonomy in our lives and our behaviour. As we have observed in recent times, a government seeks answers – but in desperation, there comes a need to seem to have answers. So, we get sham representations of truth, then failure to deliver, general disappointment, and a depressed society which looks inward, with people suiting themselves.  

We know, in Unitarian circles, how far historic laws have held people captive – both metaphorically and literally: we know the term Non-conformist, that is, any church not in line with the Established Church. 

The Unitarian movement as such, in this country, was pushed into existence by the 1662 Act of Uniformity. Every clergyman (i.e. of the Church of England) needed to oblige his Sunday congregation to speak the same wording of the same beliefs. 

Almost 2000 priests would not go along with this, and, over time, they lost their jobs. Some set up and led educational institutions. Therefore, the result of having been excluded from acceptable leadership led to individual initiatives, along with educational improvements in society.

There are a few laws which, amazingly, were not removed from the statute books until recent times. Did you know that mandatory church attendance was not repealed until 1969?

And then there’s the Blasphemy laws. In England and Wales, this was only abolished in 2008, and in Scotland, it was this year! 

Until then, technically, these laws could punish people who make oral or written statements that are understood to express irreverence for sacred things. These laws were found to be contrary to human rights laws adopted by the UK, which protect freedom of expression. I suppose that clinched it!

Though these laws date back to medieval times, even in the middle of the 20th century, we were still pondering the matter: In a 1949 speech, Lord Denning placed blasphemy laws in the past, saying that “The reason for this law was because it was thought that a denial of Christianity was liable to shake the fabric of society, which was itself founded upon Christian religion. There is no such danger to society now and the offence of blasphemy is a dead letter“. 

This was countered in 1977, by Lord Scarman, in the case of Gay News publishing James Kirkup‘s poem The Love that Dares to Speak its Name

He said, “The offence belongs to a group of criminal offences designed to safeguard the internal tranquillity of the kingdom.” When actually, it was 1977 and therefore a queendom.

And though homosexual relations were decriminalised in 1967, as Peter Tatchell explained in a Guardian article a few  years ago, “Not only was it only partly decriminalised, but the remaining anti-gay laws were policed more aggressively than before, by a state that opposed gay acceptance.” Laws don’t change fear of difference! 

We are now struggling with notions of ‘hate speech’. Laws don’t change the human heart: fear breeds hatred.  

From 2013, in the UK, same-sex couples have been able to marry, in a civil ceremony, or in a religious one, where a religious organisation like ours has agreed. And Andrew has conducted same-sex marriages here. NZ actually got ahead of us by a few months!

Around 25 years ago, I attended a lecture about Restorative Justice, at what is now Anglia Ruskin University. This was given by Dr. Michael Schluter. His promotion of the principles of Restorative Justice helped me become aware of the idiocies of our penal system, evident in overcrowded prisons and high levels of reoffending. 

Also known as Relational Justice, it is a bringing together of victim and offender, in a carefully mediated environment. The victim or victim’s family is able to explain to the offender the results of the offence. The occasion helps sensitise the offender to the suffering that has been caused in others’ lives. 

In Scandinavia, large-scale implementation of this approach shows that when courts treat offenders as individuals who may improve, there is a lower rate of re-offending. A condition of guilt or innocence becomes less clear. 

If you are interested, note that UK Unitarians have a Penal and Social Affairs Panel, supporting this understanding. 

Boxes are a convenience: guilty or innocent is one such. Authority, and Society, place us in boxes, yet as social animals, we need our boxes – though we must choose them carefully. But the trouble is, we put others into boxes. 

When we meet someone for the first time, we are primed to make decisions about who they are, usually based on appearance, and their voice or accent. And we assess a person’s gender. We expect male or female. Physiologically, it is not always so. There is Intersex, and some of us are not clearly male or female, or maybe we know folk who are not so. 

The PM horrified me when 5 NEWS showed him at the conservative party conference. Out of the blue, he threw in a populist statement, proclaiming, ‘And about this gender business. Everyone knows that men are men and women are women!’ Much applause. For the first and only time, I sent a WhatsApp comment to 5 News at 5, explaining how ignorant was his statement, and how cutting to those affected. I suppose he wants everything to be clear-cut. But it isn’t.

Perhaps he gets desperate, like everyone else! 

We want to win – we want to correct another’s behaviour or opinion. But self-correction is much better. Contradiction from another is not often helpful unless offered with quiet objectivity. 

Replying challengingly places the other on the defensive, while quietness and space build trust. There is no such thing as a vacuum in conversation. It always prompts a change. Like music, a space asks questions. 

By accepting another’s conversation without objection, we create that space. It lowers tension, offering a moment to reflect, and then to speak more authentically, and calmly. We need to become channels of quietness. 

Currently, we live in a society of questioning. But questioning isn’t always based upon reason: we ask ourselves about the deeper reality, the complexities hidden under the label. As I said some weeks ago, it is about balance: in this case, balance between a societal expectation, and an inner conviction.

And so, external authority is no substitute for individual conscience and guidance; and a religious framework should not over-ride human sensibility, but encourage and enhance it. 

Words of Imaoka Shinichiro sensei – in Andrew’s translation – fit well: “Religion was created for humans. Religion does not exist first, with humans born for the sake of religion…. There is no religious life other than living each day as a meaningful, autonomous, and creative life….” 

And so may it be.