Ideas & Stories Part 4 – All Men

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In the previous most recent part of this series, I discussed the groundwork for re-asserting a view that in human fairs family must be the primary consideration and form in which to interpret the legitimacy of human activities and political structures. Yet this seems to conflict with the statement, taken in some form to be dogma by virtually every form of American politics today, “All men are created equal.” But – here we run into the problem that that phrase itself is, to some extent, an equivocation. There were unresolved tensions even as it was written.

While tacitly accepting the theoretical validity of that postulate, almost anyone today finds some shortcomings – at a minimum in its realization, but also in the actions of the men who approved it in the Declaration of Independence, and commonly even in the words it was written in. Without getting too far into the weeds, I am going to list some of the – at times competing – connotations bound up, even at the time of its publishing, with that phrase. This is merely those things that seem evident to my limited knowledge of the period: an expert could no doubt improve the list or even divide it differently.

1. Local Self-Government. The nature of the rest of the Declaration suggests that “all men” should be taken to mean something like “each self-recognizing independent society”. Not in quite those terms Jefferson does write that the colonies desired “to assume… [a] separate and equal station”, that is, the Declaration recognizes a change in status taking place – first claimed, and in the event then proved in war. Government is in the next paragraph claimed to be “the right of the people”, but not individual persons; but “the People” are seen not as all subjects of the British crown but particularly those American people represented by their Congress who authorized the Declaration. The key to this image is the fascination of the Founders with the Mediterranean city-states of antiquity.

2. Each Person. The English tradition of militating for civil rights; the Christian and especially Protestant insistence on individual conversion; the Enlightenment cogito: each of these and likely other influences can be linked to a strong – if often theoretical – insistence on the dignity and independence (ideally) of the individual, not on grounds of family or nation or accomplishment or anything but a common humanity. I think from the modern point of view it is easier to view this as more influential than it in fact appeared at the time but the influence of Locke and others cannot be denied.

3. All Free Men. It is evident historically that the American Founders for the most part would have expected – whether on theoretical, theological, or habitual grounds – some persons to take part in the governing of society and some not to. The ways this division can be represented are numerous, and – I want to emphasize – that it represents injustice inherently is not always clear. The contrast of the free man to a slave is obvious; but I also include in this category property owners compared to renters; recognized citizens compared to non-citizens; and, speaking generally, any rules put in place that state such-and-such a changeable status must be secured to participate in the government.

4. All Males. Because of the natural authority of fathers, monarchies and aristocracies (or if we wish to be less complimentary, oligarches) have generally tended to be male, with women holding a minority of these positions of authority in the historical record. The democratic ideal militates against this: but it is clear enough that few – indeed, hardly clear that any – of the Founders were advocates for pure democracy, however essential it seems to the modern world. In any case – even setting aside active suppressions of female involvment in politics – the mental habits and practical expectation would have been a continuation of a male-dominated, if not male-only political classes Europe would have been most familiar with.

5. All Whites. It is not clear that “race” had developed, at the time of the War for Independence, into the theoretical construct we would recognize today, or which we read defenses of even sixty years later. But the conditions – primarily America’s native tribes or nations being pushed away from land claimed by the colonies, and enslavement and trade mainly in Africans for the benefit of those descended from Europeans – which would harden into the next centuries’ racial theories were already practically in place.

Where the first two categories I outline here seem to me to illustrate the theoretical tensions, the later three cannot be forgotten as habits of thought. I have left out, but not forgotten, the idea of the head of household or head of a family, not because I think it was truly ignored, but because I think it was to some extent an assumption so used to being taken for granted socially that it seems to me to have been overlooked practically – not that I am an expert on the period. To the extent it had separate political import, that seems to me to have been very little, because of the social or legal assumptions that such a head would be male; but I am not actually familiar with the laws of the period themselves.

One could no doubt break down the possible connotations further. My point here is that the Founders had, to varying degrees of detail, considered these claims: but they had not resolved them, historically speaking, and certainly they were not prepared to treat particular conclusions as absolute principles. The Constitution in fact left citizenry to the states, and pushed even the end of the slave trade out to a convenient-seeming deadline which primarily served to further establish a more or less clearly delineated slave population. American political crises have been created mainly as the country seeks to resolve these conflicts.

Two Notes in Response to Today’s Rioting

America

In my American history textbooks, and I assume still today, it was noted with some pride that John Adams’ inauguration marked a peaceful transition of non-hereditary power in a context which made that – leaving aside the technically inaccurate superlatives these things accumulate – truly remarkable. Although I doubt President Trump quite anticipated the protests today would take the turn they did, his encouragement of the protestors and refusal even now to be more conciliatory than a request to withdraw from the Capitol makes it hard to say that tradition continues – arguably for the first time: even the Southern secessionists, as far as I am aware, let the Union states’ governmental functions continue uninterrupted. That’s an historical event and stain that will attach – whatever the other circumstances – to President Trump and his supporters, not his opponents.

The Church

The Reformed churches – I am speaking here as a Reformed layman – have generally taught the doctrine of the “lesser magistrate”, both in eccelsiastical and civil affairs. Although it’s most often invoked – at least in American circles – to justify defiance of wicked or tyrannical orders, it has its second edge, which is that there is no right of the private person to defy the magistracy as a whole. The layperson is not entitled to form his own church or to fight the civil authorities: the conscientious objector must accept civil penalties imposed or at most flee. No responsible authority appealed to has deigned to object to the election results as counted; no authority I am aware of, even those who supported the right of protestors to continue to appeal for further investigations, supports the attack on the US Capitol building and the Congress’s certification session – including the President who continues to cast doubt on those results. No reporting I am seeing indicates that any civil officials have orchestrated or helped organize – let alone regulate – the incident. Reformed theology is generous to a certain class of rebels, but theologically, today’s proceedings must be considered unlawful.* The exact term can be sorted out by the lawyers.

The Seat of the Pharisees

From within the American tradition, perhaps the strangest of Jesus’ teachings is found in passing in the final discourse recorded in the Gospel of Matthew before Jesus would go up to Jerusalem for the last time: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you”. (Matthew 23:2,3a ESV)

This text is remarkable because the Pharisees are known best to us from the gospels as the hypocritical opponents of Jesus.  Even here Matthew’s record immediately passes back to further warnings against the Pharisees – “but [do] not [do] the works they do.” (Matt. 23:3b)  The rest of the chapter is taken up with various warnings against those works, and condemnation of the Pharisees for corrupting the Law of Moses.

This is surprising as well because Jesus had often invoked His superior authority as the Christ to correct Pharisaic teaching or justify His deviation from their illegitimate standards.  Further, this instruction is recorded as happening shortly before the Resurrection and Ascension, briefly after which the Church would be declared free of the Mosaic regulations.  Still, that could be explained: Jesus reminding His disciples to maintain deference to a legitimate authority until its rule passed away.  We are, after all, not ourselves the Christ.

I still find it difficult to face, because Christ here commands obedience to authorities who immediately are identified as evil.  Duty to authorities is hardly an uncommon theme in Scripture.  But the difficulties are not always framed so starkly.  Where David respects the kingship of Saul, he is still a fugitive and we know from long familiarity David’s story ends, as we judge these things, happily.  Christ and the Apostles teach respect for all authority, but usually somewhat separated from condemnations of that authority or even warnings of suffering inflicted by evil rulers.  Here we have the immediate contrast, which leaves no doubt about the Christian principle of submission to authority.

There is one clearly Scriptural remedy against rulers who abuse their authority: flight.  From the Exodus to David’s adventures mentioned above to Elijah’s sojurn in Phoenicia to Mary and Joseph’s flight back to Egypt, and then in Jesus’ instructions to flee the seige of Jerusalem, Peter’s supernaturally-aided escape from prison, and various escapades of Paul, running away from evil is always seen as legitimate.  (Almost always: Jeremiah records a prophetic warning not to flee from – or fight – the conquering Babylonians but rather surrender.)

In contrast, the favored American arguments, of throwing up law and legitimacy against usurping acts of the authorities, stands Scripturally on shakier ground.  In Biblical terms, the authority of a position seems to be personal and to come from having been put in a position of authority.  The odd rebellion is instigated at divine command, but the framing is that God is judging the ruler.  Allowing for a nation to have formally endorsed a rule “by the people”, it would seem that their representatives would still retain even abused authority until removed.

However, it is also the case that what the Reformed often call lesser magistrates are not bound to enforce unjust or unlawful commands from superiors.  Jonathan defended David against Saul; Ahab’s minister Obadiah protected the prophets; Agrippa would have freed Paul except for Paul’s own appeal to Caesar’s court itself.  In more modern terms, we might recognize this as the principle which has declared “just following orders” an insufficient excuse for immoral conduct.

In many areas there is growing concern about abuse of authority, and thus how we are to respond.  We may find ourselves faced with a necessity to refuse unjust requirements – and then to flee or accept unjust retribution, which is persecution for righteousness’ sake that Christ says is a sign of promised blessing.  But the elements outlined above suggest active resistance – in contrast to this non-violent witness – is not the role of the private citizen acting on his own.  It is of course possible for subordinate authorities to fail to act; it is possible for subordinate authorities to resist improperly what are in fact just commands.  But I conclude that to identify legitimate resistance to tyranny, the Christian should look for movements being led by or at the very least cooperating with those other authorities which are given for our good in this world.