The Law Is a Jealous Mistress

As a tribute to Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin of the Supreme Court of Canada, on her first day of retirement below is Chapter Six from my book UNDER SIEGE: Religious Freedom and the Church in Canada at 150 (1867–2017), “The Law Is a Jealous Mistress.” Footnotes are here omitted. Chief Justice McLachlin made space for religion in her interpretation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.


You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. —Exodus 20:3–6

And one of them, a lawyer, asked him [ Jesus] a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” —Matthew 22:35–40

At his August 1829 inauguration as a professor of law at Harvard University, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story remarked,

I will not say with Lord Hale, that “the law will admit of no rival, and nothing to go even with it;” but I will say, that it is a jealous mistress, and requires a long and constant courtship. It is not to be won by trifling favours, but by a lavish homage.

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Justice Story was referring to Sir Matthew Hale (1609–1676), who had served as a Member of the English Parliament, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in England, and in the House of Lords. Hale’s point as lawyer, judge, and lawmaker was not lost on Story, and Story’s point was little different. Lawyers, judges, and lawmakers often see the law as all-absorbing, if not all-encompassing.

Beverly McLachlin became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada in January 2000. On October 9, 2002, speaking at the Pluralism, Religion, and Public Policy conference held at McGill University, she stated her opinion that it is the responsibility of the 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 recognized that in the claims of law and religion, “two comprehensive worldviews collide. It is at this point that the treatment of religion becomes truly exigent… both lay some claim to the whole of human experience.” It was the Chief Justice’s conclusion that the courts must meet this challenge in society and that they have been charged with the responsibility for creating this space, “a space within the rule of law in which religious beliefs can manifest.”

The assertion that supreme authority resides with the state—even, more narrowly, with the law—is not unique to one judge, one court, one politician, or even one government. It is a worldview, a perspective on all of life, which is formed by the law.

The Canadian Church’s response to such an assertion has fallen along a broad spectrum.

At one end of the spectrum are those Christians who, quite frankly, don’t care. Their only real concern with Christianity is that church buildings be available when they have need of them. Christmas. Easter. Mother’s Day. Weddings. Funerals. Baby dedications. Church is an invitation-only activity for those who hold roughly the same definition of Christianity as I once did: “I am Canadian and therefore must be Christian because Canada is a Christian country.” (Which it is not.)

Progressing along the spectrum, we arrive at those who would be concerned if they thought it affected them. Not generally engaged with the Church or the world around them, their concern is that church buildings be available for the kinds of events noted above plus the annual picnic, church bazaars, bake sales, and other such events. They also wish that their names not be removed from the church records.

The next group is slightly more concerned. In addition to previous groups’ concerns, this group’s church congregation, building, and denomination are the focal point of their participation in social justice causes. If the legal accommodation provided impacts their ability to get a charitable donation receipt for their financial contributions or their ability to march in select parades and processions behind a church banner or comment to the media as a “church member,” then they declare that “the law is an ass.” This phrase will likely be attributed to either Shakespeare or the Bible, as they’ve heard it before, perhaps said it before, but have not read Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens to understand its source, context, or meaning.

As the spectral progression continues, we arrive at those who would object to the Chief Justice’s words and are willing to find a way to declare their right to religious freedom as contained in the constitution. In doing so, they may even reference the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These regular churchgoers, at least more regular than the special event people and bake-salers, have a firm commitment to church attendance, at least on Sundays after Thanksgiving, when the cottage is closed for the winter, and before sometime mid-April, when the cottage opens again, except for conflicts with a round of golf, family events, children’s sports activities, or their favourite football team’s early game. Armed with the knowledge gained from grandparents, parents, and their pastor quoting the Bible (they’re pretty sure it was the Bible), as well as whatever Christian ardour they have picked up from social media, they will seriously consider engaging in complaints to their spouse or “click slacktivism” (i.e. liking and potentially sharing or retweeting on social media posts about religious freedom in Canada being compromised). They may even add their name to an online petition.

Are you getting the picture? In his July 2016 article “The State of the American Church: When Numbers Point to a New Reality,” American researcher and church missiologist Ed Stetzer refers to the end of the spectrum I’ve described thus far as cultural Christianity and casual Christianity. Cultural Christians believe themselves to be Christian “simply because their culture tells them they are. They are Christians by heritage.” That’s the belief I held until December 1981. Casual Christians (or congregational Christians, another term Stetzer uses) “at least have some connection to congregational life. They have a home church they grew up in and perhaps where they were married. They might even visit occasionally.” Stetzer calls his third category convictional Christians because “they are actually living according to their faith.” I call this third group Christ-followers. Like the others, Christ-followers occupy several segments along the spectrum.

I suppose it depends on how wide a swath each group has on the spectrum, but I think there are more nuanced steps to consider before one gets to the group of Christians who are committedly engaged to following Christ, those who regard faith in Christ, with its beliefs and practices, as all-encompassing while recognizing the place for individual and community adherence to the law of the state as a reasonable part of citizenship.

When Jesus said the now-famous words found in John 3:16—“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”—He wasn’t suggesting that believing in His existence was sufficient without believing in the truth of His message, and practising it. The truthof His message both enables a fresh start in life and requires it, so that we might follow Him. Have you ever played Simon Says? To stay in the game, you have to follow Simon’s direction to the very word and demonstrate the actions of a Simon follower. To follow Jesus, He not only gives us a fresh start but also His Spirit to live with us for the one purpose of helping us follow our commitment to live as children of God (Romans 8:14–17).

The claim made on my life by Jesus Christ is to my whole life, not just a part. My pastor, Jason Boucher, has expressed the following, based on a message spoken by Bruxy Cavey, Teaching Pastor at The Meeting House. The gospel in one word is “Jesus.” The gospel is the entire story of Jesus. When asked to consider the gospel in three words, the culture chooses “Jesus is love.” This is true, but an incomplete and inadequate definition of the gospel. It only tells part of the story. The Bible tells the Church that the three-word answer is “Jesus is Lord.” As Lord, He is the one who has the right to tell us how to live.

Those who think God desires only a few hours of our time on Sunday morning, when it’s convenient for us, may need a rethink. The Christian worldview begins from relationship with Christ and sees all of life from His perspective, anchored in His Word, the Bible. To be in right and real relationship with Jesus

Christ is to respond to His challenge of us loving Him, with all of who we are: our hearts, our souls, our minds, and our strength.

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. To think of Jesus as Saviour—the ticket-to-heaven guy or simply the inherited God of Canadians—without acknowledging that He is Lord, the God who demands our all, is to accept a myth. Yes, Jesus paid the price for our sins, but not only for our sins. The true exchange to be made for accepting His grace—His all—is giving our lives, our all, to be lived for Him. Bonhoeffer explains further,

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession… Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23–24). This is what it means to follow Christ24/7/365, not one morning a week. In Jesus’ day, His challenge for people to take up their cross meant asking them to be willing to suffer public humiliation for their beliefs and be willing to die as an outcast from the culture in which they lived. That’s what it meant to face the penalty of crucifixion, to be a cross carrier.

This stands in stark contrast to the claims made by the state that its laws hold full control over all of one’s life—heart, soul, mind, and strength. A state that is willing to allocate space for our religious beliefs and practices, placing limits on that space based on its own interests, acts as if it is supreme. Likewise, a court that is supreme in the judicial system, interpreting and applying law, cannot hold the place of ultimate supremacy in the life of a Christ-follower.

When we are serious about our relationship with God, which requires our involvement in seeking the best for the world we live in, i.e. our neighbours, then the idea that the law would be permitted to set boundaries on our beliefs or practices will attract our attention and our effort to ensure that freedom is free, not just doublespeak for “you can have what we give you.”

As Moses recorded, our God is a jealous God (Exodus 20:5, 34:14; Deuteronomy 4:24, 5:9, 6:15). Or as Story shared, the law is a jealous mistress. Or as Hale put it, “the law will admit of no rival.”15 There is bound to be tension between these two assertions of absolute comprehensive claim on human life.

People of the law—lawyers, judges, lawmakers, and fellow citizens—will seek to break religion, forcing its submission rather than accommodating its presence.

This is the experience of those in dozens of nations around the world where the law is not as generous toward religion as ours currently is. And we are trending in that less generous direction in Canada. Increasingly, government and social pressures reveal the creeping approach of non-inclusive secularism that regards religious beliefs and practices as inconvenient, or offensive. Some believe what they are doing is the right thing to do, that religion is dangerous and needs to be controlled, reshaped to fit our nation’s shifting cultural values, or eliminated altogether. Others have less wholesome reasons for the same pursuit.

Are we, you and I, the Church in Canada, far enough along the spectrum of Christian commitment to be Christ-followers, cross-carriers, that we’re prepared to stand firm in our faith? Are we prepared to perhaps one day be imprisoned for our faith, to die for our faith or risk living out our faith even if it is illegal to do so? These scenarios are the reality in dozens, leaning toward scores, of nations around the world.

On February 2015, twenty-one men in orange jumpsuits peacefully preferred beheading on a Mediterranean beach to compromising their belief in Jesus Christ. If you or I were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence for a conviction?

It has not reached that point in Canada, and I pray it never does. Still, we need to be prepared in our relationship with Christ, and the nation in which we live, to stand publicly in our faith as witnesses to Him whom we live for. One key to that preparation is engaging fully our commitment to Christ, His Church, and His Word (the Bible). Another is being accurately aware of how Canadian courts are defining what the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms refers to as the “fundamental freedom” of freedom of religion.

The next part of this book will summarize vital and relevant implications for the Canadian Church, and freedom of religion generally, resulting from a selection of significant decisions of Canadian courts following the enactment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The third part of the book will consider how we should then engage our neighbours and our nation as Christ-followers in twenty-first-century Canada.