Friday, 21 October 2011

Laws and principles

 China has been doing some soul searching this week after horrific video footage showed a two year old girl, Yueyue, knocked over by a van and then ignored by at least eighteen of her fellow human beings. Finally a woman did go to her aid, a true Samaritan , as not only did she not walk by but she was apparently a scavenger, a garbage collector, one of the least privileged in society.
       This morning it was announced that Yueyue had died and that there was talk of bringing in a  new law which would make it illegal not to go to the aid of a stranger in need, there was also some discussion of why so many had quite clearly knowingly ignored or avoided a child in desperate need, including that some might have been motivated by fear of litigation or of being accused of causing the injuries in the first place. The discussion made me think about laws and our behaviour, particularly as the gospel reading this week includes Jesus telling the experts in the Law that the greatest commandments are to love God and your neighbour and that on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. It is a peculiarly apt and poignant reading in the light of these events, particularly as, in the gospel of Luke, Christ's injunction to love our neighbour as ourselves leads on to the story of the Good Samaritan in answer to the question, "Who is my neighbour?"
All societies have laws and need laws, but rules and regulations arise out of human frailty and can themselves be flawed. We have all heard of instances where the law has been correctly applied but the result has seemed unjust; the law has been a blunt tool in the hands of fallible humanity and might be said to have failed to achieve its intention or to be true to underlying principles. As Christians we are commanded to love God and to love each other; those are not the kind of rules and regulations that can be simply achieved, they are more something we have to devote ourselves to as a way of life, they are overarching principles upon which more specific and measurable rules and laws should be based. Laws are important, but the principles which underlie them give them meaning and make them more than just a set of dos and don'ts. This is why God aims to write his law on our hearts, because laws should not just be sentences written on paper, they should be a living attitude and ethos in the hearts and minds of all of us. He also aims to give us hearts of flesh, not stone, because hearts of flesh respond to the suffering and pain of others.
         I am not sure that bringing in a law that compels us to help others is the right approach (although removing a law that makes people afraid to help might be.) We should not go to the aid of a child because we are afraid of breaking the law; it is something we should do instinctively out of compassion and concern for another. A law like that should be written on every heart that is made of flesh and not of stone.


  1. In China some people ignore a child that has been knocked down in the street – in Britain someone one urinates over a woman collapsed in the street and videos his inhumanity for YouTube (

    I have saved the lives of at least two people collapsed or injured in the street and given help and assistance to several others. On almost every occasion tens of people were stood around gormless or rubber-necking, not knowing what to do or just having a morbid interest in someone else’s misfortune. First and foremost I have trained in First Aid and I am not a person who loses my head in a crisis (indeed I tend to come into my own!) – not everyone possesses these qualities or abilities – some people just don’t know what to do when someone is sick; and others can do a great deal of harm trying to help! (I once took over at a scene where a teenager had had an epileptic fit after mixing alcohol and his anti-epileptic medication – around fifteen people were standing around him, his friend had laid him on his back, the young man had vomited and was choking on his vomit and no one could even see this. I turned him on his side, took the risky step of delving into his mouth to retrieve tongue (if he’d fitted again while I was doing this he’s have probably broken my fingers) and released a plug of vomit and gunk that poured over my coat, which I’d put under his head. He then fitted again and it was clear he was in status, so I sent one of the gawpers to call an ambulance, waited until it came and then made my exit after reporting what needed to be reported to the ambulance crew (refusing to give my details!). If he’d been left at the mercy of his friends and onlookers it is likely he would have died...).

    I am not a sentimental person – in fact I despise the emotional masturbation and self-congratulatory fervour that seems such a part of charity and philanthropy these days. Real love, as far as I am concerned, is about the mundane and getting your hands dirty. You don’t even have to like people to love them or help them. When we lived in Edgware we had an elderly, homophobic neighbour who on occasion would stand outside our flat and shout obscenities at our window! (‘You f*ckin’ queer c*nts!’ being a favourite bedtime chant!) Yet when there was heavy snow I called around at his flat to make sure he had enough food etc. I thought the man was vile, but I couldn’t let him suffer or be at risk during a spell of severe weather. However this kind of giving HAS to be private and there has to be no thought of reward, social approval or even self-approval.

    “You must not value love because it is requited. It makes no difference if your love is returned. Your love is of value to you because you give it. It’s as though you gave me a present merely because you thought I’d give you one in return. This won’t do. If you have love to give, you give it, and you give it where it is needed. But never, never ask for anything in return.” Quentin Crisp

    Or perhaps more succinctly: ‘So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ Luke 17:10.


  2. Thanks, Peter.
    I agree with you that a measure of love is to be prepared to do the mundane and to do it unseen. I really admire people who are carers, who maybe nurse a partner with Altzheimer's or a terminal disease (as my husband did for five years.)It is exhausting and you get little support or recognition. I think when you have points that you think, "Why the fuck am I still here?" - but you carry on regardless, that is truly heroic.
    I'm not sure that kind of love comes easily to me actually. But maybe the point is that it doesn't come easily to any of us.

  3. Actually, I think anyone who has been a parent has experienced giving unconditional love – often when they don’t feel like it. I have not been a parent - and now in my mid-40s I know there is no way I could devote 24/7 to a child with its needs and wants.

    One of the big differences I found in my research between state funded faith-based welfare (the bulk of the large faith based charities (Livability, Salvation Army, Leeds Catholic Care etc. are almost wholly reliant on the taxpayer and a paid staff team (belief not an essential part of the job spec) for the hands on welfare work they do) and the smaller faith based services run by local churches or Christian (and Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, ISKCON, Jewish etc.) communities heavily reliant on volunteers is that there is a much more tangible sense of ‘service’ rather than just a product of the charity business. Those using the services have told me that they prefer some of these smaller operations because they are treated as people and staff/volunteers take an interest in them. And this is not just in a ‘rice Christian’ manner.

    The following is part of a transcript from one of my research interviews with the manager of a ‘drop-in’ centre run by a small Evangelical/Charismatic church in Bristol. I thought they’d all be Jesus Freak nutters, but after spending a several months at the church and its community centre I was deeply impressed by what I saw.

    Me: ‘One of the questions I have asked with other people – some have taken it up, some have become very defensive and others just haven’t understood it. That is, is there such a thing as a free lunch? In one sense you’ve already answered the question in that it seems you are trying to get away for the idea that ‘you can come here, but what we really want to do is proselytise you’. You don’t seem to be saying that?’

    Manager: ‘I don’t actually think it is quite true, because although on the scale of [long pause] successful function we would see somebody coming to faith, being baptised, joining the church, you know, that is highly desirable. But if through coming to the centre, somebody sorted their habits out, got themselves accommodation, got into work and didn’t do anything on the spiritual thing, we would be pleased with that. We would see it as falling short and it doesn’t solve some issues; or maybe not for them at any rate but we don’t want to impose and only deal with what we would see as the ultimate success. We don’t. We are open to putting time and effort into, you know... being there for people. Because in the end it is the visitor’s choice, isn’t it? How far they go. If we can help them, we’re happy to help them.

    It wouldn’t be accurate to say that is all we want to do. Because we do already have people who have been coming a long time and they’ve said they have no interest in spiritual things and we don’t talk to them about spiritual things. But we have to continue helping them. It is not as if it is conditional and it is not like we’re not interested in people who don’t show any interest in the spiritual side.’

    Me: ‘That is one of the things I can say about one of the nice sides of participative research, is that you’ve said that and I can evidence that.’

    I think there is real scope for Christians (and people of faith in general) to venture into this kind of work – not ‘professional social work’ but just being a place people can use in the community.


  4. I am glad you were deeply impressed, Peter. So many people criticise Christianity and especially have assumptions about the more evangelical/ charismatic elements. We need to remember that those kind of assumptions are prejudice as well.