The blogosphere has exploded with vituperation over a recent lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury on legal theory. You’d think the same kind of crowd was responding to him as responded to Pope Benedict in Regensburg. You know, “Let’s read our ideas into his topic and take what he says out of context!”
Tom Wright has written a general defense of Williams, setting the wider context. From the angry complaints of Williams that I’d read, I get the distinct idea that either they’re reading a different piece than I read, don’t understand it, or simply didn’t read it, settling instead for hearsay an innuendo.
The Archbishop is not saying anything along the lines of, “Come on, Christendom, let’s just surrender to Islam and let them have their way.” I’ve read folks that seem to be saying that, but Williams isn’t one of them.
As a Christian, my first allegiance is to Jesus and his kingdom. It’s not to the USA, Western culture, or anti-Islamism. As an American citizen I have a secondary allegiance to the USA, an allegiance always tempered by my primary allegiance. As a Westerner, I see great value in our Western heritage. If I had to choose between living in a culture with a primary debt to Western culture and one primarily founded in another cultural setting, I’d opt for the West. But again, my positive evaluation of the West is conditioned by my primary allegiance to Jesus. If there’s a conflict, I go with Jesus.
While the US government is one of the more tolerant in history, it is still easily conceivable that conflicts will arise between my being an American and my living for Jesus. Sometimes Caesar will be unhappy that I choose the way of Jesus. Sometimes I’ll have to pay the consequences. One of the pleasant consequences of Western modernity (and though I’m plenty critical of Western modernity, I do see its benefits) is that there is much social and legal room for me to live as a faithful Christian and be an American.
This is the track that Williams is taking in relation to English law. Though his illustration is drawn from Islam rather than Christianity, he simply saying that there ought to be a way – from the perspective of Western modernity and the law it has inspired – for Muslims to see themselves as faithful Muslims and faithful Englishmen/women. Just as their will likely be conflicts between my desire to live as a Jesus-follower and as an American, there will also likely be conflicts between a Muslim’s desire to live as a Muslim and as an citizen of England. Is that really so controversial?
Well, I think it is. That’s why Williams wrote about Islam and Sharia instead of Christianity. We in the West have domesticated Christianity to such a degree that we usually fail to see the difference, the potential for conflict between living as Jesus-followers and as citizens of our modern Western democracies. Though Christendom is no more, we live as if there is no real gap between the American way and the Christian way (or the English way and the Christian way). I think Williams would say there is. Surely his critics unknowingly have demonstrated as much.