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26 April 2013

Qatada: Grace goes where the law cannot

Qatada: Grace goes where the law cannot

Imagine having Theresa May as a dinner guest. All evening she is preoccupied by trying to deport Abu Qatada. You have her back a year later and the story is the same. The problem is Europe, she says, they're endangering the security of our country.

Rumours circulated this week that the government were considering temporarily suspending the UK's membership of the Convention, bundling Qatada on a plane and then pretending they had never left the Convention. In the end Theresa May opted to try and mollify the human rights concerns through a mutual agreement with Jordan.

Abu Qatada is a bad man. At least that's what we've been told. To be honest I had to check what he was in the frame for because his notoriety is so firmly grounded in his non-deportation. He has already been sentenced in absentia in Jordan to life imprisonment with hard labour for terrorism charges. And his continued exile in Britain means this sentence is not being served. It means that in some way we are providing sanctuary to this man, and it means that justice is not done.

But maybe this is what justice looks like. The European Court of Human Rights are concerned that his trial will make use of evidence gathered through torture, and by sending him back the UK is tacitly condoning the use of such measures as a legitimate means of justice.

Because can the law be suspended to find a way round its contours when they work to our disadvantage? Surely either the law is right and what you're doing is wrong, or the law is wrong and ought to change. Suggesting it should be temporarily suspended means you see its general validity and worth but find it inconvenient in this particular application.

If only it were as simple as that. Laws can be positive in their general application but sometimes cause problems, even occasionally constitute discrimination. The European Court of Human Rights found in 2000 that a Greek law barring accountants with criminal convictions had a discriminatory impact on someone who had been convicted for not taking part in compulsory military services due to a religious commitment to pacifism. The law, while seeking a worthwhile end, failed to achieve that in its particular application. Likewise, in our present situation, can a law which is designed to keep us safe be circumvented if it is failing to achieve that?

The rule of law requires that it is not affected by individual circumstances or the whim of those applying it, because if it is, it becomes rule by law, and provides the potential for oppression at the hand of the state. Yet laws can be changed. What is legal one moment is not the next. What is permissible one day can be outlawed. The law of the land is only ever temporary, and it is only ever partial, and it is only ever imperfect.

Our laws have to come from somewhere, they have to have roots, or they can become whatever we wish. We might have elevated human rights to a pedestal, so they become our values for a Godless age, but while straightforward in their aspiration, they are complex in their application. When the law tries to answer every question its limits are rendered in fluorescent lights.

Laws were once given to structure the life and governance of another country. It was a country that bore the fingerprint of God. And even those laws didn't work. Their aspirations were clear, they sought to create and maintain a community that was pure and set apart. A community that did the will of God.

But these very laws could also be used to pernicious effect. They were turned against their initial intent in an effort to ensure they were not broken. Laws that left the edges of fields unharvested; laws about food set aside for priests; laws that prohibited work on the Sabbath. Jesus and his disciples were accused of breaking the law.

Jesus said: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

The law showed that rules could never reach far enough; they could never set straight the crooked paths. There is a rule that is higher than the rule of law and it is not us and we cannot define it. Laws will come and go; some will be good and others bad. Some will work how they are meant to; and others will fail. But the law cannot solve the problem of the human heart.

Paul in the letter to the Galatians talks of the law’s inability to make us righteous before God. We needed something else. We needed Jesus. Instead of papering over the cracks of our failings with more rules and regulations, God's grace welcomes us home. And we do not live under the constant threat of deportation if we fail to meet the mark. God's grace goes where the law cannot.

Daniel Webster is parliamentary officer for the UK Evangelical Alliance.