God does not interfere with the responsible use of our human freedom
In October 1972 a plane from Uruguay strayed far from its flight path and crashed high in the Andes. Attempts to locate it failed. Only two months afterwards the wreckage was spotted from the air, and a group of 16 survivors was found. They had a horrendous tale to tell.
The plane had crashlanded on a high mountain slope in dense fog. Most of the crew and the passengers survived the landing. After the initial shock they found they were completely isolated in snowbound, barren terrain. As well as they could, they encamped themselves in the wrecked plane and some makeshift huts, waiting for the rescue parties which, they were sure, must be on their way. No one came.
In the beginning they ate the packed dinners lying ready in the plane’s pantry. Then supplies ran out. They went outside to look for food, but found nothing except snow, which they melted to have water. They sent pairs of scouts to look for a way down the slopes. Some came back exhausted and frustrated, others did not return at all. Meanwhile temperatures were freezing and the first passengers began to die of starvation.
It was in those desperate circumstances that the leaders of the group took a grisly decision. To stay alive, they had no choice but to eat the flesh of those that had died. And that is what they did. There is no need for us to dwell on the gruesome details. The fact is that it is certainly because of that decision that as many as sixteen stayed alive for so long.
I am starting with this unusual and rather shocking episode for two reasons. (1) When I heard the story first I was teaching students in Hyderabad, India, and one of them said: “I thought people in Latin America were Christians! How could they do a thing like that!” (2) The incident depicts our human situation so well. Our daily life may not be as dramatic as a crash in the Andes, but it does often confront us with unusual situations. Rarely can we base our key decisions on a simple application of rules and conventions. In almost all cases we have to assess the circumstances and their implications, and then choose what we consider right and proper.
Yet there are many people, including Christians, who think that, if you believe in God, all you do when you are confronted with choices is to study the rule book. God has laid down laws and regulations which you are supposed to follow. Virtue consists in obeying his commandments, sin in transgressing them. God is for them the supreme Lawgiver who judges us from his throne high up in the two-tier world.
It is necessary, therefore, to have a good look at socalled religious laws and see what we can make of them. I will do so from a Christian perspective, though I am confident the same would apply to many other religions.(see: Since it is especially Catholics who are often suspected of being mere blind and passive `followers of the law’, I will, moreover, explain the matter from a Catholic perspective.)
It is customary for Christians to distinguish the following kinds of laws:
- Natural law.This comprises the rights and obligations that flow from our being what we are. The Ten Commandments are reckoned to belong to this category, in as far as they express general human duties, such as worshipping God, respecting other people’s life, property, and so on.
- Revealed law.For Jews, this would include the 613 commandments (mitzvos) contained in the Torah, i.e. in the first five books of the Bible. Christians consider these as provisional laws, meant for Old Testament times. Though they may still contain some guidance, as laws they have been abrogated.Both the Gospels and Letters of the New Testament contain commandments which are sometimes referred to as `revealed law’. However, they are not `laws’ in the strict sense of the term, but principles and examples.For instance, Jesus teaches us not to swear any oaths (see: Matthew 5,33-37), but when challenged during his own court-case to speak on oath, he did so (see: Matthew 26,63-64). Again, Jesus upheld the life-long bond of marriage and forbade divorce in principle (see: Mark 10,11-12). But both Matthew and Paul (see: Matthew 5,32; 19,9; 1 Corinthians 7,12-16) introduce exceptions, showing that it is not an absolute law. Many of Paul’s guidelines to the Churches are out of date, and have been superseded long ago.
- Church law.Catholics would reckon here both general practices such as fasting in Lent and attending the Eucharist on Sundays. They would also put here the practical guidelines which the Church issues from time to time. Cremation, for instance, was discouraged at one time, now it is allowed. Periodic abstention in family planning was frowned upon by Church authorities at first, now it is the preferred method.
Christians are freed from slavery to `law’
Now, while the terminology of `law’ is still being used in the sense explained above, the important thing to note is that Christians believe that Christ has truly liberated us from all external obstacles to freedom including laws. Christians believe they are free from any law. The only law that they acknowledge is the Holy Spirit in their hearts.
When Christ taught that love of God and love of our neighbour is the highest commandment, he instigated a religious revolution. It is not the external laws that matter, whatever they are. It is love, the interior principle of responsible action, that supersedes any law (see: Luke 10,25-37.) This does not need to surprise us. For Jesus revealed that God himself is love, and that all morality can be summed up in a living up to the principle of love (see: 1 John 4,7-12).
Paul is equally emphatic. We cannot be saved by fulfilling external laws. We are saved by a new law which God has written in our heart: the law of the Spirit of life. This law is the love which has been poured into our hearts by the Spirit of God(see Romans and Galatians; esp. Romans 8,1-2; 5,5; Galatians 5,1-6.) St. Thomas Aquinas, who is seen by conservative Catholics as the norm of orthodoxy explains it as follows:
“It was necessary for Christ to give us a law of the Spirit, who by producing love within us, could give us life.” (see: THOMAS AQUINAS, Commentary on 2 Corinthians, ch.3, lect.2.)
“That which predominates after Christ’s coming is the grace of the Holy Spirit which is given through faith in Christ. Consequently, the New Law is chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Spirit, which is given to those who believe in Christ.” (see: THOMAS AQUINAS, Summa Theologica I-II, q.106, a.1, c.)
To put it in the words of Cardinal Seripando, who presided over the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563 AD): “We have received the Spirit of God in our mind, to take the place of external law” (see: H.JEDIN, Papal Legate at the Council of Trent, London 1974, p. 562.)
External laws, which tell us what to do and what not to do, will not really change us. But God’s Spirit can. God’s Spirit enables us to act responsibly and in harmony with selfless love. People who act like that are not under any law. They live by grace and not by the law (see: Galatians 5,18; Romans 6,14.) As Paul so aptly says: “The letter (of external laws) kills, the Spirit (who works in our hearts) makes alive” (see: 2 Corinthians 3,6.) Even the commandments found in the Gospel, in as far as they would be external `laws’, would fall under the letter which kills:
“The letter that kills denotes any writing that is external to a human being, even the moral precepts such as are contained in the Gospel. Therefore the letter, even of the Gospel, would kill, unless there is the inward presence of the healing grace of faith.” (see: THOMAS AQUINAS, Summa Theologica I-II, q.106, a.2, c. St.AUGUSTINE taught the same in The Spirit and the Letter, ch. 14, 17, 19, etc.; see also S.LYONNET, “Liberty and Law”, in The Bridge 4 (1962) pp. 229-251.)
Laws are signposts along our way
Why then do Christians still have `laws’, such as Church laws? The answer is that such `laws’ can serve a useful function as suggestions, guidelines and warnings. Paul compares the external law to a tutor who guides a teenager and gives him lessons. The laws are like traffic signs and notices which point out danger: they are for the unjust, not for the just. Since all of us are shortsighted and weak, we need such help. But it is we ourselves who take the final decision on the strength of our inner conviction (see: Galatians 4,1-7; 5,1; 5,18; Romans 6,14; 1 Timothy 1,8-11).
Christians who face a difficult decision, like the Uruguayans in the crash, will therefore ask themselves the following questions:
- What does our human reason tell us to do in the circumstances?
- Are there aspects we should remember in the light of Christian sensitivity to love and other Gospel principles?
- Are there things we can learn from previous experience, i.e. from Church regulations or recommendations, etc.?
These are the kind of questions they should always ask themselves when considering a moral option. For ultimately, the decision will be theirs. They may not hide themselves behind `a lawgiver’. They will be judged by their own conscience: by their inner reasonings, by the intentions and motives of their heart, by their courage in doing what they believe is right.
The survivors of the crash went, I am sure, through such a process of discernment and decided that their own survival outweighed the natural respect we should have for the bodies of other human beings, even if they have died. We who know their predicament only from a distance and who are not part of all that went through their minds and hearts, may not stand in judgment. But in my own mind I feel that they took a responsible decision which did not offend human dignity.
Decisions of life or death
Would the same have been true if they had killed one of the passengers to serve as food?
This is not just a theoretical question. It has happened. In June 1988 a boat with Vietnamese refugees was picked up by Philippine fishermen in the China Sea. They too had suffered starvation, and in order to stay alive, some passengers had been killed and eaten.
The boat had started out from Ben Tre in South Vietnam with 110 people on board. The ship lost its course and drifted aimlessly. The captain left. The refugees were soon without either water or food. After forty people had died of starvation, an ex-airforce officer named Phung Quang Minh, who was 33 years old, took charge.
In the stifling tropical heat, eating flesh from corpses seemed an added health risk. So he ordered that Dao Coung, a 30-year old man, be strangled, sliced up, boiled and fed to the travellers. Dao Coung was on the verge of dying from starvation and, Phung said, would have died any way.
Before the group was rescued, four others were killed and eaten in the same manner.
Here, of course, other principles are at stake. Since every human individual has an inalienable right to live, was Quang allowed to take one life to save others? “Thou shalt not murder!” is a recognised part of natural law. Yet, again, I do not want to be the judge. In exceptional circumstances, some people are sent to their death for the common good, such as soldiers into battle. And most Western countries tolerate a high level of abortion, even for the mere convenience of parents . . . . They may have much less justification than Quang had.
The point is that in all such circumstances, whether we are Christians or not, God does not interfere with our responsible decisions. Yes, we have to respect other people’s rights as we find them in natural law. We have to listen to the promptings of the Spirit of love in our heart — If Phung Quang Minh had done so, he might have offered himself as food to others! But, in all this, it is not God who decides for us, but we who make our own decision.
“For freedom Christ has made you free”, Paul said. “Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (see: Galatians 5,1). If people are the subservient slaves of laws and commands, it is not because God wants them to be like that.
“The prohibition to make idols”, the famous Rabbi Kotsker said, “implies that we may not make idols of God’s commands” (see: L.I.NEWMAN, The Hasidic Anthology, New York 1868, p. 193).
We owe allegiance to the living God, to his Spirit in us, to the freedom and autonomy God gives us; not to his external commands.
The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.
View the following film on the meaning of conscience