The Common Source of Law and Religion

We often think of law and religion as very different in nature, and in many ways they are. Religion finds its source in inspiration and intuition, while law is largely the work of the rational mind expressed by political bodies.

When the world’s religious leaders have spoken out repeatedly against war in Iraq, they have based their appeal both on the moral requirements of religious faith and on the requirements of international law. This surprised me at first, but also got me thinking, and has helped me understand that the fundamental principles of law and morality are identical and permeate all religions and cultures.

Both morality and law, wherever they are found, seek a single standard of behavior for ourselves and others. That standard is that the principles of action we demand others honor and respect, we must also apply to our own behavior. This is the essence of the Golden Rule, embodied in one form or another in all the world’s religions. In Christianity this is expressed as "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"; in Judaism as "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man; that is the entire law, all the rest is commentary"; in Islam, "No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself"; and in Buddhism, "Hurt not others with that which pains yourself." This is also the fundamental principle of the rule of law, which is expected to apply universally to all, and is embodied in the familiar axiom, "No one is above the law."

This common standard of conduct applied to conflict resolution has given us the religious principles of both nonviolence and just war. It has also given us the legal concept of a fair trial, and the treaties and rules of international law, including the Nuremberg Principles and the Charter of the United Nations. Fundamental to these religious and legal rules and principles is a respect for all people, and for common norms of mutuality and fairness.

When religious leaders have spoken out against unilateral U.S. war against Iraq, they have called on our nation’s government to apply these basic principles of law and morality to its actions. They have asked us to respect and value the lives of Iraqi people, whether civilians or soldiers, just as we would our own. They have also asked us to respect the rules of law we have helped establish over the years, just as we wish and expect other nations to do.

A good and thoughtful friend of mine has often reminded me that when we are considering the fairness and justice of our actions regarding others, the real test is whether we would be willing to trade places with them. How do our current actions in the world stand up to this test?

Would we be willing to have other nations and peoples act on their own with force against us when they perceive us to be a threat? Or do we wish them to present their grievances and their proof to international bodies such as the UN Security Council or the World Court, and to abide by a common decision, as required by the legal principles we have all adopted?

If our leaders are accused of genocide and waging aggressive war in violation of the Nuremberg Principles we developed for use against the Nazis, do we want the evidence against them to be presented to the International Criminal Court or another tribunal, or do we condone immediate assassination attempts and the bombing of our leaders’ homes by their accusers?

I think it is clear how we wish other nations and peoples to proceed under these circumstances. We want them to comply with international law and to refrain from violent actions.

My friend’s "Golden Rule" test of our willingness to trade places with others also applies closer to home. In dealing with our national and state budget crises, as we struggle with the question of what are fair and just levels of taxation and social services, what do we think of a system that leaves a substantial portion of our people without health insurance and proposes to cut basic services to the poor? If we were to trade places with those in need, would we consider that failure of service just?

Whatever faith orientation we come from, our values call us to mutual respect for others at home and abroad. And they enjoin us to constantly test our behavior against the easily forgotten but essential standard common to both law and religion—that we act unto others as we would have them act unto us. It sounds simple, but can we do it?

Daniel Clark
Walla Walla, Wash.