Many consider an appearance before the Supreme Court of Canada to be the pinnacle of practicing law. I’ll admit, I was a little giddy about it the first time. Cool and composed, I sat, listened, made notes and took it all in… for the simple reason that someone else on the team had the responsibility of speaking.
But, the first time I was the one doing the talking before the Court may well have found me at my most nervous, although hopefully somewhat controlled in my appearance and expression. Truth be revealed, I had to watch the video later to really take in and enjoy the experience.
In the moment, it was difficult to remember that such appearances are simply rendering unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar. The only reason I was there in the first place was because of rendering unto God what belongs to God. It wasn’t about the pinnacle of a legal career, as I am not a litigator. The cases in dispute had arrived before the court in a way that presented circumstances to serve the Church because of a mix of employment, education, interest, commitment and opportunity. These are the very things in each of our lives that present openings for any one of us to serve where we are.
Sometimes, as in the ancient Roman Empire, Caesar – who in contemporary democracy is embodied in government and the courts – asserts that he is the supreme authority; not only in the rule of his law, but in the judgement of his courts and the limits on what his subjects may do with their lives.
Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin of the Supreme Court of Canada stated the opinion that it is the responsibility of courts to find somewhere “in the comprehensive claims of the rule of law, a space in which individual and community adherence to religious authority can flourish.” The Chief Justice’s conclusion that “the law has been charged with the responsibility for creating this space” was expressed in her 2004 essay “Freedom of Religion and the Rule of Law: A Canadian Perspective,” found in the book Recognizing Religion in a Secular Society.
The assertion that supreme authority resides with the state is not unique to one judge, one court or even one government; and, stands in contrast to the Christian understanding that God makes an all-encompassing claim to our lives, because Jesus is both Saviour and Lord, while creating space for individual and community adherence to law.
So, when it comes to rendering unto Caesar, what then is the relationship between Christianity and the courts? And, what about our constitutional rights?
On multiple occasions, both publicly and privately with his disciples, Jesus said he would lay down his life for the benefit of those who chose to follow him. In one brief discourse he mentioned it three times (John 10:1-18). People didn’t seem to understand what he was saying. Even with the benefit of two millenia of hindsight there are many who read or hear his words and don’t get it.
At the Passover dinner that we now refer to as “The Last Supper,” Jesus again noted to his disciples that his death was imminent. Later that night, he was arrested and taken for trial because of his claim to be Messiah, in Greek “Christ,” the Son of God. Jesus submitted to the High Priest and the authority of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish religious council and tribunal in Jerusalem). But, the region of Judaea and Samaria was under the control of Rome and the Jewish tribunal had limited powers, which did not include the death penalty, so they took him to the court of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. You can read this part of the true story in chapters 18 and 19 of John’s gospel (also in Matthew 26 and 27, Mark 14 and 15, and Luke 22 and 23), including this fascinating part of the exchange between Pilate and Jesus as recorded in John 19:
10 So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.”
Jesus acknowledged and submitted to the authority of Caesar’s courts in Caesar’s realm. He also proclaimed the higher authority of his Father. More on those two realms in a future post.
The last time the apostle Paul was in Jerusalem, he was speaking to a crowd about Jesus when the crowd took offence at Paul’s words. It seemed they were on the verge of rioting. A Roman tribune (a senior police officer in the Roman military) took Paul into custody and was going to flog him for inciting this incident. Paul appealed to his rights as a Roman citizen by birth. There was no flogging. But, there would be court.
Paul, like Jesus, first appeared before the Sanhedrin; because, he was a Jew making statements about a matter of religion. He then appeared before Roman tribunals – the courts of Felix, who by that time had become governor of Judaea and Samaria, Festus, who succeeded Felix (Felix had kept Paul in custody for over two years before Festus arrived), and Agrippa, appointed by Caesar as King of Syria (Acts 21:27 to 26:32). In his appearance before Festus, Paul appealed to be heard by Caesar. This was his right as a Roman citizen (Acts 25:10-12). His journey to Rome is a great story that finishes out the Book of Acts.
In the 21st century, courts come in many forms, just as they did in the Roman Empire. We have human rights tribunals, employment tribunals and arbitration boards, among others, as well as superior and appeal courts and the Supreme Court of the nation. But, in one respect, today’s courts remain little different from those of the ancient world. They are charged with adjudicating the right application of laws established by government.
Whether or not we agree with decisions of the courts is not determinative of whether we abide by those decisions. And, there is no fault in appealing decisions with which we disagree. However, those appeals are to be within the confines of the rule of law – e.g. courts and legislatures. You may be wondering when civil disobedience is an appropriate response to a decision of the courts or government. Civil disobedience, and the forms it might take for a follower of Jesus, will be addressed in a future blog. For now, it’s important to recognize that as Jesus and Paul acknowledged the authority of Caesar, so should we.
When we stand on our rights as a citizen, those rights are interpreted by the courts. Similar rights may be interpreted differently by courts in different jurisdictions or by tribunals with differing degrees of responsibility and authority.
We may be unhappy about decisions of the courts, including how they interpret our rights as citizens, but the example set for us by the One we follow – and recorded as the understanding of his early followers – is submission to their authority. Laying down our lives before the courts.