Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Tag: Civilization

THE SANCTITY OF HUMAN AUTHORITY

4.2.7

Anthony van Dyck: Family Portrait

 

The Fifth Commandment reads, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you” (Ex. 20:12; Dt. 5:16; NKJV).  So seriously was this commandment taken that the death penalty was attached to it.  “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastised him, will not heed them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the rulers of his city . . .” (Dt. 21:18/,19).  The parents would then make a declaration that their son was incorrigible.  “Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall put away the evil from among you, and all Israel shall hear and fear” (v. 21).

This commandment touches on the root of all man’s difficulties: the rebellious attitude we display to persons in authority.  It began with our rebellion against God himself, and that same spirit of rebelliousness aims at every form of human authority as well, and thereby threatens to undermine the whole structure of civilized society.

While the immediate reference is to the parent / child relationship, by implication it extends to other human relationships as well.  The apostle Peter could write, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake . . .” (I Peter. 2:13).  This includes servants being submissive to their masters (vv. 18-20) and wives submitting to their husbands (3:1-6).  This does not mean, however, that persons in positions of authority are free to abuse their subordinates at will.  Husbands, for instance, are told to dwell with their wives “with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers be not hindered” (3:7).

The fact of the matter is that society cannot function without authority structures.  We need rulers and managers to plan and organize, guide and direct.  Otherwise unproductive chaos would be the result.  But the basic moral principle holds throughout: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).  That means that those who are in subordinate positions must cooperate with those in authority to the full extent of their ability, so that the leaders can accomplish their tasks with a minimum of interference.  But by the same token those in authority are responsible for the wellbeing of those under them.  They are fellow human beings, of equal moral worth in the sight of God.  To mistreat or abuse them is unconscionable.

Much of this, of course, is just plain commonsense.  But what is significant about the biblical view is that it puts a divine sanction on our duty to respect authority.  It is a human authority; but it is also much more than that – it is also divine authority as well.

All of this is a little hard for Americans to grasp.  We are used to a political ideology that says that governments “derive their just powers from the Consent of the Governed.”  But according to the Bible we are to obey the government “for conscience’ sake” (Rom. 13:5).

This might strike a believer as somewhat odd.  We do not often think of the government as a particularly godly entity.  Governments are formed by men, often with little or no regard for God or morality.  Moreover a civil government operates on the basis of coercion, and in that sense does not reflect the Christian principle of “turning the other cheek.”  The whole political process can be a tawdry affair.  Yet Paul could call the civil magistrate “God’s minister to you for good” (Rom. 13:4).  He makes the observation that “there is not authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (v. 1).  The word translated “appointed”  could also be rendered “ordered” or “directed.”  The idea is that God in His sovereignty ultimately controls all that happens here on earth.  Hence Paul could say that “there is no authority except from God.”  The implication, then, is that “whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment upon themselves” (v. 2), and thus we “must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake” (v. 5).

Significantly Paul said all of this when the pagan Roman government was in power. In fact the emperor at the time was none other than Nero, although this was before the Great Fire of Rome in A.D. 64 and the persecution of the Christians which followed it.  Nero himself was known for being personally profligate throughout his reign.  Such was the kind of person Paul calls “God’s minister to you for good.”

Thus government derives its moral authority from God, not the people.  We are to be subject to it because God wants us to – it is part of our duty toward Him.  This does not mean, however, that the government is free to do anything it pleases.  While the authority of the state has been established by God, it is limited by Him as well.  God is the final Judge, and He is a God of justice.  He has promised to punish injustice and oppression.  No government has the power to command anything that directly contradicts God’s will.

Moreover there is a danger to the government itself when it tries to detach itself from God and morality.  If fails to gain the respect of its citizens, if it can command obedience only at the point of a sword, it will either become tyrannical or be swept away in revolution.  In a functioning democracy people obey the government voluntarily – and they do that only t the extent that they believe that it is their moral obligation to do so.  Let us ever remain “one nation under God.

MAN’S REVOLT AGAINST GOD

4.2.7

Caravagio: The Young Bacchus

The Bible tells us that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven” (Rom. 1:18; NKJV).  But why would God be angry with us?  He knows that we are only human, right?  God is a loving Father; surely He can overlook our weaknesses and failures.

What the verse goes on to say is that the wrath of God “is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men . . .”  The Greek word translated “ungodliness” might better be rendered “impiety.”  It denotes the lack of reverence and devotion to God.  “Unrighteousness” is the lack of conformity to God’s law.  And that, according to Scripture, is why God is angry with us.

But why?  As long as we mind our own business and do not harm others, what is the problem?

As we have seen, God is our Creator and Lord, and He expects us to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly” with Him (Mic. 6:8).  What happens in actual practice, however, falls far short of the mark.  We routinely ignore God in our lives.  Yes, we may pay lip service to God, or to some duty, but our “religion” amounts to little more than a mere formality.  We rarely pray; we rarely read the Bible.  Our decisions are mainly based on calculated self-interest.  We assert our independence, and then look for ways to rationalize our behavior.  Scientists and philosophers try to devise elaborate alternative explanations of reality.  The rest of us just fill our lives with money, pleasure or entertainment.  And when circumstances overwhelm us we turn to the psychiatrist or the bottle.  We will try anything and everything except turn to God.  And inwardly we resent the thought of God having any kind of authority over us.  This is what the Bible means by “ungodliness” or “impiety.”  It is the near total absence of God in our thinking.  We call it “secularism.”

And then we are guilty of “unrighteousness.”  We pursue our own individual self-interest, and it often comes at the expense of others.  We try to convince ourselves that we are not really hurting anyone else, but our actions often belie our words.  As a society we will created governments and pass laws; but as individuals we will look for ways to game the system.  We lie and we cheat.  We gossip.  We lose our tempers and seek revenge.  We are motivated by greed and ignore the suffering of others.  We eat too much; we drink too much; we lust after women.  We hurt each other through a thousand tiny cuts.  We know that all of this is wrong, and yet we do it anyway.  This is what the Bible means by “unrighteousness.”

But, you may ask, what about the many people who have made personal sacrifices for their fellow man?  What about Washington and Lincoln and Martin Luther King?  What about those who have given their lives on the battlefield or those who have devoted their lives to the care of the sick and the poor?  Aren’t they good people?  Aren’t their deeds noble and virtuous?

Yes, indeed, there have been many people who have done great things.  But in the sight of God they are often doing the right things for the wrong reasons.  Most people are guided by a kind of social morality.  They have been raised and educated in a certain culture, and the society in which they live expects them to act a certain way.  There are rewards and punishments.   If you do the wrong thing you could go to jail; if you do the right thing you might achieve recognition from your fellow man.  But the morality of a society is often determined by the social, economic and political needs of that society, and as a result sometime comes into conflict with God’s moral law.  America’s economic system is based on individual self-interest and the profit motive.  The Bible says that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (I Tim. 6:10).

Thus the behavior of individuals within a given society is motivated by a desire for social acceptance, and this often involves an element of hypocrisy.  We maintain a public persona that we project to others, but inwardly we can be quite different.  The true inner self can be stubborn, proud or resentful.

But all of this is quite different from what God requires.  What He wants is that we love Him with all of our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves (Dt. 6:4; Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:35-40).  We look at the outward appearance; God looks on the heart.  He discovers the hidden motive.  And “rational self-interest” is still self-interest.  Civilization is too often an attempt to better our lives without God.

In short, it is the underlying motive that counts.  What motivates us to do good things?  Is it a genuine love for God and for our fellow man?  Or is it a desire for esteem and success?  And what do we do when society’s standards conflict with God’s.

In other words, when God looks down from His throne in heaven, what He sees is not a bunch of basically good people trying their best to do the right thing.  What He sees is a human race that stubbornly refuses to recognize Him as Creator and Lord, routinely ignores Him in daily life, and breaks His commandments when it is convenient to do so.  He sees people who hurt each other in ways large and small.  And that is why God is justly angry with us.

FOR WHAT DID THEY DIE?

 

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Gettysburg

Today, of course, is the day when we honor the many servicemen and women who gave their lives for their country.  But for what exactly did they die?  We are often told that they were defending our freedom.  But most of the recent wars the U.S. has fought involved conflicts in foreign countries.  In many cases these countries did not have a tradition of democracy.  So what exactly was it that we were defending?  “American values?”  But what are they?

Not too long ago Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens asked the question, “Do we still want the west?”  He told of how in the late 1980’s Stanford University did away with its required Western Civilization course.  An attempt was made last year to bring the course back, but the students voted it down by a 6 to 1 margin (Wall Street Journal, Feb. 21, 2017).

Stephens went on in his op-ed piece to say “There was a time when the West knew what it was about.  It did so because it thought about itself – often in freshman Western Civ classes.”  But today do we even know what a “civilization” is, let alone Western civilization?  What does it mean to be “civilized”?

The word “civilized” comes from the Latin adjective “civilis,” which in turn is related to the noun “civis,” which means a citizen.  A “civis” was a member of a “civitas,” a union of people in an organized community.  The Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero described a “civitas” or state this way: there are “societies and groups of men, united by law and right, which are called states (civitates)” (On the Commonwealth, VI.13).

The earliest form of civilization was a city state.  Thousands of years ago various groups of people chose to give up their nomadic existence as hunter-gatherers and chose instead to live in settled communities.  Early city states arose in lower Mesopotamia (Sumeria) and then others spread across the ancient Near East.  Eventually some city states became more powerful than others and developed into large empires.

But life in a settled community requires some form of social organization.  A sociologist could argue that even primitive tribal societies have at least some form of social organization, and of course they are right.  But life in a settled community requires something more formal and elaborate.  First of all there must be an organized government with written laws and records.  This is why Cicero defined a “civitas” as a group of people “united by law and right.”  Written laws and records, in turn, require a written language.  Moreover in a civilized society there is likely to be economic specialization, with different people pursuing different trades.  This, in turn, requires some form of trade and commerce.

But in order for any of this to happen there must also be something else.  There must be a willingness on the part of the citizens to cooperate and work together.  In order for this to happen there must be shared values and a shared vision.  There must be the social skills necessary for people to work together at the practical level.  And all of this requires some sort of educational system to transfer these values and skills from one generation to another.

In short, a civilized requires social norms – rules to govern human behavior.  These include formal, written laws against criminal activity, as well as customary rules that govern everyday behavior.  This includes common everyday rules of etiquette – people are expected to treat each other with courtesy and respect.  They must be polite with each other.

The Greeks called these social norms ethoi, from which we get our English word “ethics,” and the Romans called them “mores,” from which we get our English word “morals.”  In either case the words refer to accustomed habits or regular practices.  It is the way people are expected to behave in a civilized society, and it is what enables human beings to live and work together harmoniously.

Nor must the role of religion in all of this be overlooked.  Most civilized societies have a form of civil religion, the role of which is to reinforce the mores of society by encouraging people to look beyond their own individual self-interest and to see a larger reality.  The individual comes to see himself as a part of a larger whole, and this helps motivate him to cooperate with the other members of society.

All of which brings us back to Mr. Stephens’ article.  Do we still believe in Western civilization?  Mr. Stephens says that it was once understood that Western civilization’s “moral foundations had been laid in Jerusalem; its philosophical ones in Athens; its legal ones in Rome.  It treated with reverence reason and revelation, freedom and responsibility . . . It believed in the excellence of its music and literature, and the superiority of its political ideals . . .And it believed all of this was worth defending – in classrooms and newspapers and statehouses and battlefields.”

And what happened to Western civilization?  It collapsed during the 20th Century.  Radical philosophers attacked belief in universal truths and moral absolutes.   The counter culture of the late 1960’s rejected social norms of every kind.  Established institutions were seen as artificial and corrupt, and “back to nature” was the cry.  Free speech and free love were the order of the day.  Then came radical feminism’s rejection of gender roles, along with no-fault divorce, legalized abortion, and finally same-sex marriage.  In our consumer oriented society we have rejected social norms of every kind, and believe we are entitled to engage in almost any kind of behavior that suits us, be it rude and crude, vulgar and bizarre.  In short, we have rejected the very premise of civilized life – that there are social norms which ought to be observed in order for organized human society to function smoothly.  In a word, we have become uncivilized.

What does the future hold?  None but God can see.  But it is hard to see how American democracy can survive in a sea of social chaos.  Has Western civilization has become an anachronism in a post-modern world?