9You have six days to labour and do all your work; 10but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; that day you must not do any work…..
Exodus 20: 9-10 – Revised English Bible
14 One Sabbath, he went to have a meal in the house of one of the leading Pharisees; and they were watching him closely. 2There, in front of him, was a man suffering from dropsy, 3and Jesus asked the lawyers and the Pharisees: ‘Is it permitted to heal people on the Sabbath, or not?’ 4They said nothing. So he took the man, cured him, and sent him away.
Luke 14: 1-4 – Revised English Bible
33For this is the covenant I shall establish with the Israelites after those days, says the Lord: I shall set my law within them, writing it on their hearts; I shall be their God, and they will be my people.
Jeremiah 31: 33 – Revised English Bible
Whilst (rather reluctantly, I admit) listening to some of the debate about the parties in Downing Street that have had journalists in a state of complete frenzy, I’ve noticed that none of them seem to have referred to the issue that immediately sprang to my mind, which was this: ‘What were the regulations on the days on which these events happened? Can I remember? Were we in ‘tiers’ or ‘lockdowns’ 1, 2 or 3? And, even if I could remember, could I have stated whether the ‘rules’ at the relevant dates were law, advice, guidance or whatever?
Even at the time, I was unsure. The Guardian newspaper stated in January 2021, over a year ago, that by that stage there had been 64 different changes in the (English only) regulations over the previous ten months. I hate to think what the total must be now.
One of the few things that I do remember was that many Police Forces had attempted to treat absolutely everything as law, whether it was or not, and that this resulted in the vast majority of the ‘Fixed Penalty Notices’ issued by Police, being overturned later in the courts. I have an uncomfortable feeling that the government deliberately obscured what was law and what was guidance; they wanted total compliance, whatever the legal status was of their pronouncements. This has now come back to bite them.
It seems to me that the default position of those in authority is to issue mountains of ‘regulation’ to deal with any perceived problem, however small. We seem to have become so absorbed by this ‘elephant in the room’ that we aren’t even aware of it. In fact, if I’m honest, it’s even worse than that. I have clear recollections during key moments of the last two years when our screens were full of media commentators, MPs, Trades Union leaders and others complaining loudly that the ‘rules’ were not clear enough. We were regaled with comments along these lines: ‘The government is not being precise enough. We need to be told exactly what to do and how to behave.’ I recall wondering at the time, hearing these calls, how we would have managed to survive two World Wars, if we’d applied this level of thinking.
These issues have also taken me back to moments in my life, when I learned important lessons:
- At various times, I was responsible for running bonus schemes for sales staff. I rapidly learned that old mantra ‘You get what you measure’. Very often what you get is not what you wanted at all. In my first experience of this, my sales force pulled all their orders forward to earn their bonuses, so our factory was overloaded for a couple of months and then had no work.
- The City of London also fell into this trap in the runup to the ‘Credit Crunch’, when they issued massive incentives to staff to sell the notorious ‘Collateralised Debt Obligations’, without really knowing what they were, and almost succeeded in bringing down the entire global financial system. (In this case, I have to wonder whether the City actually has learned its lesson; I’m not at all sure).
- When the quality standard ISO 9000 became the norm for industry, I remember a very senior person in the Quality Control world saying ‘ISO 9000 licences you to produce any old rubbish, as long as you can trace every component.’
It seems to me that our world has now become totally obsessed with regulation, almost to the exclusion of everything else. This seems to apply to all our major organisations, including the NHS and even the Church of England. If you don’t believe me, find a Human Rseources specialist or a Financial Adviser, and ask them how much of their time is taken up complying with regulations. A GP friend of ours says that it takes her often 3 hours a day just to read the new regulations pushed out by government.
Our Police forces seem to be set on demanding new laws every time they’re confronted with a problem, rather than enforcing existing laws. Often our two Houses of Parliament are overwhelmed with new legislation, to the extent that much of it makes its way onto the Statute Book with next to no discussion. Literally tens of thousands of pieces of regulation originating in the EU made it onto our Statute Book over decades, without even one minute of discussion in Parliament. No wonder our Universities are packed with youngsters studying Law.
What has this to do with a theology-based blogsite like this? Has the Bible got anything to say about this issue, which seems to be so modern? You bet it has!
The founding principles of Christian thought include the Jewish Ten Commandments. The fact that Jeremiah felt the need to write about laws being written on people’s hearts is because the Ten Commandments were often not observed, even by devout Jews. Christ showed his understanding of this; I’ve included the example of the Sabbath above, because during Christ’s life, the ‘regulatory authorities’ (ie the Scribes and Pharisees, controlled by the Sanhedrin) were made hugely busy, for example taking the Sabbath law from Exodus 20 and defining exactly what journeys were allowed on the Sabbath. You could extend the length of your journey, said the Pharisees, by leaving possessions along the way. Today we call this ‘dancing on the head of a pin’ and this has been very visible during the last two years. ‘Is a Scotch Egg a substantial meal?’ being one of countless examples. If you re-read the ’Sermon on the Mount’ from Matthew 5, you may pick up that Jesus is trying to define people’s behaviour, rather than issuing a list of laws, acknowledging that unless laws are, in the words of Jeremiah: ‘written on their hearts’, they will have little impact.
What Christ realised is that regulation cannot teach us how to behave; we must be taught how to think, feel and assess, completely instinctively, due to His values being written so firmly on our hearts.
Maybe that’s one reason why so many governments have gone off the rails with regulation and ‘mandates’. Instead of being guided by our hearts and moral values, we look to regulation and enforcement.
‘Compassion’ means literally to suffer together, in other words to be able to see the situation through the eyes of others. Regulation encourages the exact opposite of this.
So what might be the answer to this conundrum, this obsession with regulation and enforcement?
I’ve come to believe that many of our problems as a world, let alone as a country, are that we’ve abandoned Christianity and have found nothing suitable to put in its place. I will explore this further in future blogs, but in the meantime, I feel that we need to recognise that all of our political and commercial leaders, civil servants and legislators urgently need to have a bare minimum of ethical and moral training, hopefully based on an understanding of Christ’s teaching. That will show us what to decide and what to do, in a way that regulation never can.
How else do you explain the fact that not only the Prime Minister, but all the Civil Servants and Advisers in Number Ten engaging in the endless parties, not only saw nothing wrong with them at the time, but even now that they’ve become public knowledge, can still not see the lessons, but are simply vying with each other to call for resignations?
Heavenly Father, teach us to understand your values. And write these on our hearts so indelibly that we apply your values to every situation that we encounter in our lives. And, we pray, help us to reverse our empty obsession with regulation. Amen