Bishop's Letter: Ignorance of the law is no excuse….

First published 25th June 2012
In this month's Bishop's Letter, Bishop Mike asks who should be teaching children right from wrong, what they should be teaching, and what part people of faith have to play.

I recognise that somewhere within me is an anti-nomian. Someone, who deep down is a bit ambivalent in my attitude to the law. I tick the box on websites that says, I accept the terms and conditions, but the truth is that I have never read them, probably never will and then I am furious when something goes wrong and someone, somewhere in a call-centre tells me that if I had read them I would realise that I dont have a leg to stand on! Pleading ignorance wont work.

There is a long-standing principle of English law, which goes like this ignorantia juris non excusat. Simply put it means, ignorance of the law does not excuse. This shouldnt surprise us, because very quickly we can see that if this principle didnt exist, law and order would quickly fall apart. I didnt know that robbing/beating/slandering/ this man was wrong, mlud. The defence, "I didnt know" just wont work.

In other words, the law has to assume that people know the difference between right and wrong. Theologians of the past have argued as to whether the knowledge of right and wrong is innate within us, or whether it has to be taught.Interestingly, in Deuteronomy Chapter 6, the imperative in the law of Moses requires the Jew, then and now, to teach it [the law] to your children. So who takes responsibility for teaching our children what is right and what is wrong? What informs such teaching?

One of the changes that I have observed in my lifetime has been a change in the way we understand both the idea of family and what a family needs to take responsibility for. The first ten years of my life saw the effective end of the extended family. The next thirty years saw the rise and fall of the nuclear family and the last twenty have seen a more light touch and ad hoc definition of family. The reasons for this are complex, but it kind of crept up on us.

Thirty years ago, I think if you had asked the question, Who is responsible for teaching children right from wrong? you would have probably been told "the family". Thirty years on and its not quite clear who claims to take this responsibility.Is it school? Is it the Government? Is it parents? Is it the media? Is it all four in varying degrees?

Of course, that raises the key question of WHAT is taught. Fifty years ago our culture obviously drew heavily on its Judaeo-Christian heritage. Todays culture is less reliant on such a source. What do we think and why do we think it? Its hard for children to tell right from wrong if parents are less clear.

Here are just a few examples from our culture.

  • Do we think that watching porn is OK? Acceptable if you like that kind of thing?

Do we think that websites set up for people who are looking for a bit of extra marital action to make "contact" are OK? If not then why do they attract so much interest?

Do we think that television programmes that set out to humiliate are a harmless form of entertainment?Do we think that our children will understand love if, instead of giving them time, we simply give them things?

The list of questions could go on and on What is clear is that the way we behave will communicate as much, if not more, than what we say.If our culture, when addressing these questions, can only create confusion, then what of the outcomes for our children? Passing on a list of dont knows, be that at home or at school or on telly is just unfair, and will lead to disordered community rather than healthy community.

Teach it to your children. The questions for us today are WHO teaches and who teaches WHAT? There needs to be more public debate about this and, believe it or not, people of faith have something to contribute.


June 2012

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