Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Tag: Dred Scott decision

CHRISTIANITY AND CIVILIZATION

 

The Tower of Babel

 

 

In our last blog post we considered the nature of civilization, and concluded that it was an organized effort on the part of human beings to live and work together; and that this, in turn, required certain standards of behavior.  But what is a Christian to make of all of this?  Is civilization good or bad?  Should he support it, attack it, or ignore it?

The answer is that from a Christian standpoint civilization is both good and bad.  It is both good and bad because it reflects the fundamental contradictions of human nature.  We are created in the image of God and have consciences.  We are social creatures.  Yet at the same time we are also fallen sinners and routinely do what is bad.  And thus it is with human civilization as a whole.

On the one hand there is much that is undeniably good in civilization.  In a civilization people are willing to work together for the common good.  When a government is created to establish justice, this is a positive thing.  The apostle Paul could go so far as to call the civil magistrate “God’s minister to you for good” (Rom. 13:1-7), and urges prayers to be made “for kings and all who are in authority” (I Tim. 2:1,2).  Civilizations have made tremendous advances in science and technology and have created great works of art, music and literature.  All of this is undeniably good.

But sinners are still sinners, and this is reflected in civilization as well.  Even when human beings outwardly do what is right they often do it for the wrong reasons.   Instead of being motivated by a genuine love for God and for righteousness, individuals are often driven by the prospects of rewards and punishments that are held out by the particular society in which they live.  They seek the praise of their fellow men, or dread the prospect of a prison term.  They go along in order to get along.  At best they are motivated by “enlightened self-interest,” but that is still a form of selfishness nonetheless.

Moreover civilization itself is in many ways an attempt to better the human condition, but to do it without God. It is an expression of man’s hubris, a reflection of his underlying rebellion against God.  Civilizations impose standards of behavior, but these are usually conceived of as standards we create ourselves to advance our own interests as a society.  And these values and ideals often fall far short of God’s standards of morality – everything from Roman gladiatorial games to American rugged individualism.

But what is even worse, the members of society often try to undermine the very ideals they profess to believe.  No sooner is a constitution adopted and laws passed then men begin looking for ways to circumvent them.  Right and wrong soon become a matter of what we can get away with.  We in the U.S. declared that “all men are created equal” and are endowed by their Creator with “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  But just eighty years later the U.S. Supreme Court, in the infamous Dred Scott decision, declared that black people were not included in the “all men” of the Declaration, and that “they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.”  And so we rationalize our bad behavior.

What our Creator really expects from us, however, is that we love Him with all of our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves.

The Bible gives us a brief but vivid account of the beginning of human civilization.  In Gen. 11:1-9 we are told how that ancient peoples found a place to dwell in the land of Shinar (Sumeria).  They then proceeded to build a city.  “And they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (v. 4; NKJV).  What is significant here is not just that they undertook a construction project, but the mentality that lay behind it.  They wanted to reach the heavens and “make a name for ourselves.”  In other words it was a purely human endeavor driven by pride and ambition.  And God’s response was to scatter them by confusing their language.  The city became known as Babel, or Babylon, and it remained a symbol of worldly power and human arrogance.

To understand the biblical attitude toward civilization it is necessary first to understand the biblical view of history.  The Bible draws a contrast between “this age” and “that which is to come” (Eph. 1:21).  The age to come is a time when the Messiah will reign over all the earth.  But this age is the time when “the prince of the power of the air” is “the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience” who are “fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1-3).

By the same token the apostle John tells us that “all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – is not of the Father, but is of the world.  And the world is passing away, and the lust of it . . .” (I John 2:16, 17a).  In other words human society as a whole, including its various civilizations, is fallen and corrupt, and under the wrath of God.

The Christian, however, is no longer a part a part of this corrupt world system.  “He [i.e., God] has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Col. 1:13).  And this kingdom operates on a whole different principle from the surrounding world.  “. . .for the kingdom of God is not eating or drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).  Thus a human civilization can never truly be called “Christian”; it is always sub-Christian at best.

But what about the culture of civilization – its arts and science, its learning and philosophy?  “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (I Cor. 3:19: cf. 1:18-25).  Because fallen sinners refuse to acknowledge God as the Creator and Lord, their philosophy is based on a false premise and they develop a warped and distorted view of reality.  They live in a world created by God, but they refuse to admit the fact.  The result is an educational system that does not truly educate.

That, then, is the picture that the Bible paints of human civilization.  But how is the Christian to relate to the surrounding world?  How does he fit in?  Or doesn’t he?

On the positive side we are to honor and respect those who are in positions of authority in human society.  Jesus said “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21).  The apostle Peter could write, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake . . .” including kings and governors.  We are to “Honor all people.  Love the brotherhood.  Fear God.  Honor the king” (I Pet. 2:13-17).  It is even permissible on occasion for the Christian to avail himself of the legal remedies at his disposal.  The apostle Paul could claim Roman citizenship and make a formal appeal to Caesar when threatened (Acts 22:25-28; 256:10-12).

Yet the Christian must always be conscious that he answers to a higher authority, and when human law clashes with divine law, divine law always takes precedence.  Jesus state the matter quite starkly: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).

The fact of the matter is that the life of a Christian should stand in sharp contrast with that of the world.  Paul could write to the Ephesian believers and tell them “For you were once darkness, but you are light in the Lord.  Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), . . .”  He then goes on to say, “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them . . .” (Eph. 5:8-11).

But what about Western Civilization?  Was it not a “Christian” civilization?  Should not Christians have whole-heartedly supported it?

The answer is that Western civilization was only superficially Christian.  It supported state churches and professed Christian values, but it was largely an external morality, whereas genuine Christianity is the life of Christ within the heart, transforming life from the inside out.  Western civilization was the greatest civilization in the history of mankind, and it attained that status precisely because of the influence on it of Christianity.  But it still fell short of what our Creator expects from us as human beings.  Genuine Christians must conform to a higher standard.

The Christian, then, lives in the world but is not really a part of it.  He seeks to do good to his neighbors wherever he can, but must be careful not to participate in their sins.  While he may support the government in its efforts to establish justice and meet human need, the Christian realizes that man’s real need is for salvation and eternal life.  The Christian’s aim, then, is to be a light shining in the darkness.

MORALITY AND THE LAW

 

Is America a “Christian nation”?  Most Democrats today would probably say “no,” or at least claim that America was founded as a strictly secular state.  As evidence they would point to the lack of mention of God in the U.S. Constitution.

Interestingly, however, no less a Democrat than President Barack Obama observed that “our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo- Christian tradition” (The Audacity of Hope, p. 218).  He noted that “Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., — indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – not only were motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue their causes” (Ibid.).

Interestingly, however, when we look at the debates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 it becomes apparent that there was a variety of opinion among the Founding Fathers on the matter.  By far the greatest moral question facing the Constitutional Convention and the early Republic was slavery.  The slave trade was still very much alive in 1787 and slavery was an entrenched institution in some states, particularly South Carolina and Georgia.  The question arose at the Convention as to what to do about the importation of slaves.  Luther Martin of Maryland suggested either taxing it, in order to discourage it, or prohibiting it altogether.  He noted that “it was inconsistent with the principles of the revolution and dishonorable to the American character to have such a feature in the Constitution” (Madison’s Notes, Aug. 21, 1787).  To which John Rutledge of South Carolina replied, “Religion & humanity had nothing to do with this question.  Interest alone is the governing principle with nations.”  Several delegates, including both Oliver Ellsworth and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, wanted to leave the question alone.  But interestingly George Mason of Virginia, spoke out strongly against slavery, declaring that slaves “bring the judgment of heaven on a country.  As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world they must be in this.  By an inevitable chain of causes & effects providence punishes national sins, by national calamities” (Aug. 22).

So who was right?  Rutledge or Mason?  Slavery remained as an American institution, and seventy years later the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Dred Scott decision of 1857, tried to settle the matter once and for all.  Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, writing for the majority, asserted that black people “had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order . . . so far inferior, that they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.”  The problem, however, is that in God’s sight there is no essential difference between a black person and a white person: they are both human beings created in His image.  And while every human society must have its political and economic structures in order to function, no human being should be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.   That applies to black slaves; that applies to unborn children.

And, just as George Mason had predicted, “providence punishes national sins by national calamities.”  On April 12, 1861 Confederate artillery opened fire on Ft. Sumter, and the Civil War had begun.  By the time it was over 620,000 soldiers on both sides were dead and the South lay in ruins.

Every civilized human society has had to struggle with the question of justice.  Does might make right?  To the victor goes the spoils?  Or is there some universal standard of morality that governs all actions of human beings?

The question is by no means new; it faced the citizens of ancient Athens.  In Plato’s dialogue Gorgias there is a fascinating account of a philosophical debate in which Socrates, one of the participants, challenges the conventional attitudes of the day regarding education and politics.  Is it all ultimately based on self-interest?  Or should we all be pursuing a higher aim in life?

Socrates argued for the latter, but was never able satisfactorily to answer the question, where, ultimately, does this standard of justice and morality come from?  He had a sense that a human being if more than just a human body, that there has to be a principle of justice that ought to govern human actions, and even that there has to be an afterlife and a final judgment.  But he could not find a deeper explanation for this other than man’s pursuit of happiness.

The fact of the matter is that as human beings we have the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong, and we cannot avoid the moral implications of the choices we make in life.  Was it wrong to drop an atomic bomb on a Japanese city?  Is it wrong to take the life of an unborn child?  How do we know?

None of us wants to live in a lawless society; nor do we wish to live under a human tyranny.  The Christian answer is that we were created by God in His image and are accountable to Him for the way we live our lives.  Morality originates with God Himself.  The safest protection for our liberties is to acknowledge them as having come from God: we “are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. . .”

AMERICA’S BROKEN COVENANT WITH GOD

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Today is the day, of course, when we celebrate the formal adoption of the Declaration of Independence.  And yet this year it comes at a troublesome moment in American politics.  In just a few weeks the Republican and Democratic parties will be holding their national conventions.  The Republican Party is poised to nominate a demagogue as its candidate for president, the streets are likely to be filled with violent protests, and the Republican Party may very well self-destruct.  This, coupled with the chronic social and economic problems that have increasingly plagued the nation bodes ill for the future of the republic.  What many of us have taken for granted as the American way of life seems to be coming to an end.

Our end is just.  What many do not realize is that when we declared our independence form Great Britain we entered into a tacit covenant with God.  Almost everyone is familiar with the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence.  Almost no one has read the last paragraph.  There, after having stated the basic principles of government and delineated King George’s “long train of abuses and usurpations,” the Declaration went on to state that the Continental Congress, “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” declares our independence.  It then concludes by saying, “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

The statement, “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” amounts to an oath.  It fits the definition in the Westminster Confession of Faith of a “lawful oath”: “. . .the person swearing solemnly calleth God to witness what he asserteth, or promiseth, and to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he sweareth” (WCF, XXII.1).  By “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world” we were doing exactly that.

But what did we assert or promise?  The Declaration says that we are appealing to God “for the rectitude of our intentions.”  We are calling God to witness that our intentions were right and proper.  What is implied in this is that 1) the reasons stated in the Declaration are the real reasons we were declaring our independence; and 2) those reasons were right and proper, i.e., they were in accord with “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.”  That means that if we succeeded in winning our independence we would proceed to establish a government that would secure “the unalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

To achieve these ends we proposed to fight “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.”  We were, in effect, asking God to give us victory on the condition that we were acting in good faith to achieve the ends stated in the Declaration.  In other words, we had entered into a tacit covenant with God – we swore to create a government that would respect people’s rights in return for God giving us the victory.

And God did indeed give us victory.  No less than Benjamin Franklin could acknowledge at the Constitutional Convention several years later that during the War for Independence, “we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection,” and that “all of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending providence in our favor” (Madison’s Notes, June 28, 1787).  We won our independence having fought the greatest military power on earth at the time.

And yet we did not live up to our end of the covenant.  In spite of having declared that “all men are created equal,” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” we failed to apply that principle to African-Americans. After years of controversy over the slavery issue the U.S. Supreme Court tried to settle the issue once and for all in its decision in the Dred Scott case of 1857.  Writing for the majority Chief Justice Roger B. Taney went so far as to assert that African-Americans were not included in the “all men” who were “created equal,” and that “they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.”  It was a clear and direct violation of the covenant, and God’s judgment was not long in coming.  Within four years America was engulfed in a bloody Civil War in which a total of 620,000 soldiers on both sides lost their lives.  Near the end of the war President Lincoln could proclaim, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.  Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” (Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865).

And yet today we have gone one step even further.  In 1962 the Supreme Court handed down another decision with disastrous consequences.  This was the case of Engel v. Vitale, the New York Regents’ Prayer Case.  The New York State Board of Regents had composed a brief prayer to be recited in public school classrooms.  The prayer read as follows: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”  The prayer was brief, non-sectarian, and strictly voluntary.  Nevertheless the Court ruled that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Admittedly there is a difficult church / state issue involved in having a prayer composed by a government agency recited in a public school classroom.  In fact, the question might be raised as to how the state can conduct a program of public education without getting entangled in religious and moral issues.  Such a program of education will either have to be implicitly atheistic or else amount to little more than vocational training.  But in this case the Court’s decision had the practical effect of abolishing even the most rudimentary forms of civil religion, and making the government, for all practical purposes, atheistic.  The government, as the government, could no longer recognize the existence of God at all, let alone acknowledge a covenant with Him.  This was not simply another breach of the covenant; it abrogated the covenant altogether.

“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Gal. 6:7).  Again, the judgment of God was not long in coming.  Within just a few short years President Kennedy was assassinated, the U.S. became mired in a no-win war in Viet Nam, our cities were torn apart by race riots, and the nation’s youth turned to drugs and promiscuous sex.

God had indeed withheld His blessings from America’s educational system.  A whole generation was given a thoroughly secularized education, and the foundations of public morality were eroded.  “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful . . .wherefore God also gave them up . . .” (Rom. 1:21-24).  Today we have legalized abortion (another violation of the covenant), a high divorce rate, single-parent families, same sex marriage, openly practicing homosexuals in the military, women in combat roles, and “transgender” people free to use the public restrooms of their choice.  Mass murders have become more frequent, and once again we are facing a drug epidemic.  It is hard to imagine a society more dysfunctional than ours, and it is a sure prescription for an authoritarian government.

President Lincoln was certainly right when he quoted in Psalm 19:9 in his Second Inaugural: “. . .the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”