On Pirate Ship Governance

I have been arguing that Christians need to learn how to stand for liberty, but in order for this to happen they must first learn what it is. And when this happens, they will find themselves saying some outrageous things, like I am about to do.

Human rights — which everyone is automatically in favor of — are nonsensical and absurd unless we have a robust understanding of property rights. Property rights are human rights. In our age, we understand that human rights are a grand and glorious thing, but we are bewildered when it comes to the crucial matter of property. We are entirely in favor a birthday cakes, but are dubious and confused about the concept of cake batter.

First, some history. In 1772, the first statement by the colonial Committees of Correspondence was released. Samuel Adams is credited with being the primary force behind that statement, and it begins by itemizing the rights of the colonists as men. The first right was the right to life, the second was liberty, and the third was property. The echo we hear in the Declaration four years later is obvious. We are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, and among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of happiness is therefore grounded in our ability to own property.

But how may a free people, whose rights of property are duly respected, fund the costs of government? We all agree that taxes are a necessity, so how may taxes be levied on a free people? The fundamental principle is that because property is an unalienable right, this means that property can only be released by the consent of the owner, either directly or by his representative in the legislature. This is why taxation without representation is tyranny. The property that the government acquires from a people without their consent is therefore theft.Uncle Sam Thief

The whole point of government is the protection and preservation of property. If we call life and liberty our car, property is the fuel pump.

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Note that governments do not grant us these rights. Our rights are given by our Creator. Governments are created by the people in order to secure the rights we already have. Governments do not bestow rights upon anyone. Their sole duty is to recognize and protect them.

Now in order to have these rights granted to us by a Creator — follow me closely here — there has to be a Creator. One of the first steps in robbing us of our heritage of political liberty was spreading the insidious and morbid joke of Darwinism. Little bits of protoplasmic froth on the ocean of evolutionary development don’t have any rights to speak of.

Now when government becomes destructive of the central point, the telos of protecting our property, certain things follow from their destructiveness.

“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”

That’s a tall order, and a big responsibility. In subsequent installments, I am going to be making some very practical suggestions. But the first thing — and it is a very necessary first step — is to get our minds around what has happened to us. How is our current government funded? As Hillary Clinton once famously put it, it takes a pillage.

500 in the Boot

A story is told of a fellow who was mugged in an alley by a band of thugs, and he put up a ferocious fight. After about fifteen minutes, they got him down on the ground, and found just two dollars in his wallet. “Two dollars?” one of them said. “You put up that fight for two dollars?”

“Well, no, actually. I thought you were after the $500 in my boot.”

One of the most precious possessions a government has is its moral legitimacy. When they have it, taxes are paid, for the most part, voluntarily. Any society requires force for the outliers, but is not held together at the center by force. When the ruling elites start to opt out of this societal bond — “laws are for the little people” — there is usually a time lag, but the “little people” do catch on. When they catch on, the whole thing spirals down into chaos.

One of the central techniques that is used by despots for divesting themselves of moral legitimacy is the technique of governing through arbitrary administrative law. A free people live under laws passed by legislatures in which they have freely chosen representatives. The prerogative of passing such laws may not be transferred. So if you chafe under rules and regs that spew forth from all the alphabet agencies, then you are not free. It doesn’t matter that you are currently not being harassed. No despot can torment all his slaves simultaneously.

Now when you find yourself in this situation — as we do — there are two aspects to it, represented in this situation by the two dollars in your wallet and the five hundred in your boot. When a government has lost its moral legitimacy, the fact that you actually do pay your taxes on the two dollars (which comes to three dollars) needs to be understood as principled acquiesence, and not as a statement on your part that what they are doing is legit. It is not.

At the same time, there are those who have studied these things in depth, and who have seventeen reasons for denying the legitimacy of the IRS, and nine of them are pretty good. They live in a cabin high in the mountains of western Montana, where they study Blackstone by candlelight, late into the evenings. These are the fellows who tell the thugs in single-spaced typewritten letters that they have no right to the five hundred in their boot.

When St. Paul Was Fourth and Long

Before getting into the appropriate Christian response to the tyrannies of the arbitrary administrative state, we have to set aside a particular objection that can be marshaled from the Bible. Not only can it be marshaled, let us acknowledge that it frequently is.

When I say that Christians should stand for liberty, and I do, and I say that they should work and pray for it, and that preachers should preach with this in mind, the objection comes back that this is not what Jesus did, and this is not what the apostles did.

What I want to do here is highlight what this objection is actually doing, which is ignoring the cumulative flow of history. It is treating the strategies employed by God, Jesus, and the apostles as a fixed constant, when it is their faith and demeanor that is actually the fixed constant. If we lock down on the strategies, we will refuse to alter anything based on where we are in history. But this is like insisting on punting because St. Paul was fourth and long. Yes, I might reply, but we are third and inches.

I don’t really care that the early church punted a lot.

So it is quite true, and perfectly obvious, that Paul never organized a political party, never wrote a letter to the editor decrying the Stamp Act, never picketed a slave market in Charleston, never opened a crisis pregnancy center, and so on. But the fact that he never did such things does not mean that we shouldn’t. Neither does it preclude our obedience to his teaching requiring us to do things he never did.

A Long and Winding Road

We have already seen that Christ is the foundation of every true form of liberty. Civic liberty is an impossibility for a people who are enslaved to their lusts. For such a people, constitutional liberties are nothing but paper liberties — the kind of thin surety that tends to satisfy slaves who need to be flattered by their masters.

Here is Samuel Adams on the subject: “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.”

His cousin John Adams said that our Constitution presupposes a moral and a religious people. It is “wholly unfit” for any other.

This is why Jesus is absolutely necessary to any civic reformation worth having. If you want a nation of potsmoking fornicators to be free you want something that is not going to happen. Before giving speeches in favor of such a proposition, you might want to consider saving your breath for walking uphill. Republics do not exist without republican virtue. And virtue does not exist apart from the grace of God, as offered in the message of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is why, if our freedoms are to return, secularism has to go.

So liberty is the work of the Spirit of God, which brings us to another crucial point. The Spirit moves as He wills. He is like the breeze, which cannot be bottled or contained. This is quite true when it comes to evangelism and the growth of the church, but it remains true when we trace the work of the Spirit through the church in bringing about civic liberty.

At different times in history, the Spirit anoints different men, different movements, different civic currents, different nations, making them the delivery platform of His glorious work. If the Spirit then moves on, the besotted curators of the Ichabod museum will still want to lecture us all on the importance of their dead relics. But liberty — and follow me closely here — liberty itself is free.

Well, I may be an extremist now, but centuries from now I will be a logo for insurance companies.

Well, I may be an extremist now, but centuries from now I will be a logo for insurance companies.

Liberty cannot be locked up in a cage, whether that cage is a party platform, a national constitution, a bill of rights, or a campaign slogan. Liberty exists, or does not exist, in the hearts of the people. If the people are free, then civic freedom for the people becomes a possibility.

In a previous post on this general topic, a reader from the UK objected to my characterization of the House of Hanover as tyrannical. Britain was the birthplace of constitutional liberties, and so how was it possible for me to characterize the actions of Parliament as tyrannical? The answer is that it is easy — the battle for liberty never ceases, and it never ceases anywhere. Tyrants are always waiting in the wings, looking for an opportunity. When the people become complacent, drifting into sloth and lust, they have that opportunity — and they always take it. What do you have to do in order to have a garden full of weeds? The answer to this trick question is nothing.

A great blow for civic liberty was struck in the establishment of the Magna Carta. Arbitrary taxation was out. That was established as a foundational legal principle in England. But the battle for liberty ebbs and flows. Liberty does not take off like a rocket ship — there are advances, there are setbacks, there is confusion about the setbacks, there is a revival of learning, there are advances, and the cycle starts over again. You don’t banish arbitrary taxation from the world, and then forget about it. And why? Because kings like arbitrary taxation. So the whole mess crept back in again. Royal prerogative courts, like the Star Chamber, came into existence and began to rob the English people of the liberties they were supposed to have, and still did have, on paper anyway.

As part of the long battle for liberty, the English people in the 17th century rose up, and abolished arbitrary government. But like a burglar who finds one window locked, and who moves on to the next one, those with a despotic turn of mind immediately moved on to another device. They had not all been banished to the moon. They were all still here, and people with power soon want more of it. It is “necessary,” they say, with a deeply concerned look. “What about the children?”

So in the 17th century the battle for liberty was between the Crown and Parliament, and Parliament was in the right. In the 18th century, the battle for liberty was between Parliament and the colonies, and the colonies were in the right. No one institution or nation or entity is indefectible. Bad men show up everywhere, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if our final liberties were eventually removed by the Czar of All Fourth of July Celebrations.

In our time, the central threat to our liberties is the administrative state. Among a free people, laws are only binding (i.e. they are only laws) if they are passed and approved by the legislature. The legislature is not authorized to delegate this authority to anyone, and when they attempt to do so it is dereliction of their solemn responsibility. Someone might plead necessity, and say that administrative law is too extensive and too complex for a legislature to understand, still less to pass. The reply to this is simple — if a set of regulations is too burdensome for the legislature to pass, then it is too burdensome for us to live under.

The next question is therefore a practical one. Say that we have come to our senses, and have found that our representatives in Congress have sold us into bondage. What now? There are two aspects of this “what now?” problem. The first has to do with lawfulness. We have to fix it in our minds that the current set-up is deeply and profoundly unconstitutional, illegal, unlawful, and immoral. The second has to do with prudence. How may we best resist this massive encroachment?

That may be described as the problem of getting Gideon out of the wine vat and over to the city park where the Baal is. And that discussion we will defer until our next installment.

A Longing for Liberty

One of the things that the Holy Spirit gloriously does in this sorry world of ours is His liberating work. The Holy Spirit is an agent of liberty. The Spirit sets men free, and He does it through the gospel.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; Because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to them that are bound” (Is. 61:1).

The Lord Jesus quoted this verse in Luke, using it to describe the work that he had come to do (Luke 4:18). So this is in fact all about the gospel. But when that is said, there are too many Christians who might be tempted to say that they are glad I was not getting into politics. Oh, but I was getting into politics, because politics is part of everything, and the gospel gets into everything.

This Spirit of liberty is not a spirit of stoicism, which cares only for an internal liberation, where the slave is liberated by pure thoughts and cares not that his chains are clanking. There is an approximation of this in Paul’s exhortation to slaves, but note that Paul tells them to take the first door out when they have opportunity. “Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.)” (1 Cor. 7:21, ESV). There is a stark difference between Christian teleological patience in affliction and a Stoic acquiescent patience in affliction.

Christian patience is all about patience as we await deliverance, which means that it knows which direction to look, to long, to pray, and to labor. This means that one of our central tasks as culturally engaged Christians is the task of advancing the blessings of liberty, real liberty — not the potsmoking kind. “Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17).

A people who are enslaved to their lusts will never be the kind of people who successfully throw off tyrants. We have been offered a series of bribes — free love, porn, drunkenness, government handouts, and other forms of lotus-eating — and these are the bribes that make us content with the dimensions of our prison cell. But a man set free by the gospel will be begin to think like a free man, and that will soon enough affect his body, his business, his travel plans, and so on. It is all grounded in obedience, and obedience is not possible apart from the grace of God that is offered to us in the gospel. Efficacious grace is first, and holiness second.

“So shall I keep thy law continually For ever and ever. And I will walk at liberty: For I seek thy precepts” (Ps. 119:44–45).

The verse that is inscribed on the Liberty Bell is this one:

“And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family” (Lev. 25:10).

That is why it is called the Liberty Bell. That is why we as a people used to be free. Jesus used to be with us.

Used to be free? Right. More on that later, along with what we should do about it. We need to learn the kind of obedience to God that is bane of all administrators of the royal prerogative.

The R2K Crucifix Problem

Carl Trueman recently wrote A Church for Exiles for First Things, which you may read here. If you would like, a good response from Joel McDurmon can be found here. But my response to Carl will be a tad shorter than Joel’s — just enough to register a few basic concerns.

First, it is undeniable that exile is a strong biblical motif, and it is one that Christians do need to draw on. But in Scripture, it is always a paired motif — like salt and pepper, or ham and eggs. We find, all through the Bible, the patterns of death and resurrection, exile and return, cliffhanger and helicopter.

There is both a cross and a crown. Triumphalists are those who just want the crown. Defeatists are those who just want the cross. Trueman is a defeatist — for all his Reformed credentials, his faith is a crucifix faith. Note that both the defeatist and the triumphalist are partly right, but in such a way that their partial truths undo the point of the whole thing. “Jesus died” is true, but is not gospel apart from resurrection. And “Jesus rose” is meaningless nonsense if there had been no death.

Carl says this: the Reformed tradition “possesses the intellectual rigor necessary for teaching and defending the faith in a hostile environment.” I believe this is quite true. In fact, I agreed with many of the points that he made throughout the article — but he left out one crucial thing. Let me insert that missing element. “The Reformed tradition possesses the intellectual rigor necessary for teaching and defending the faith in a hostile environment, while preparing for our inevitable comeback.” Why? It is not just exile. It is exile and return. Nehemiah rhymes with Jeremiah after all.

The second problem is that Carl does want us to engage with culture, and be responsible citizens, but he doesn’t quite know what to do with the possibility of everything going terribly wrong, and we win or something. And he is enough of a church historian to know that things have gone wrong for us in just this way any number of times.

The Willies and the Fantods

One of the things I do from time to time is draw lessons for the United States from the history of Israel in the Old Testament. I know that this must exasperate some good folks, making them dance beside their computers in frustration, exclaiming to their ceiling fan that I clearly don’t know that America is not the chosen nation, that the old covenant is not the new covenant, that baptism is not circumcision, and so on.

But actually I do know, appreciate, embrace and love all those distinctions. Yay for all of that. Something else is going on, which I will touch on briefly. Then I will say something about how we can, at the very least, still talk this way on the basis of story. And then I will apply a lesson from ancient Israel to the current cultural morass we find ourselves in.

The church is no longer “confined to one nation, as before under the law” (WCF 25.2). This does not mean that God’s Word in the Old Testament now applies to no nation, but rather that it applies, through the gospel, to every nation. To apply the fulfillment of all the blessings purchased by Christ to a modern nation is only a theological violation if we tried to limit that to one nation, as in “our own”. But the Deuteronomic blessings have already been enjoyed by multiple nations, and, as the gospel progresses, will be enjoyed by many more.

But let us say that you have not (yet) been persuaded to drink the postmill circus water. Let us say that the thought of baptizing babies still gives you both the willies and the fantods. Let us grant that you don’t want to get swept up in an overrealized eschatology. I mean, who wants that?

We can still take the lessons we need to take from the Old Testament because God is still the same God, and people, at their best, are still the same old dufflepuds. At the very least, we should still be gaining wisdom from the older Word in the same way that we can learn from Wormtongue and Theoden, from Shift and Puzzle, and from the dragon and St. George. We are so far gone that we don’t believe in the authority of stories anymore.

“The Lord will smite thee with the botch of Egypt . . . The Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart: And thou shalt grope at noonday, as the blind gropeth in darkness, and thou shalt not prosper in thy ways” (Deut. 28:27–29).

Like a Fist

As Iraq continues to spiral toward chaos, and is doing so in the Facebook era, the one thing we should want to avoid is directionless or aimless outrage. Anger under such circumstances is certainly appropriate and necessary, but like a fist, it needs somewhere to land. I am writing primarily about the treatment of Christians there by ISIS, but of course that cannot be at all separated from a host of other issues and circumstances. Let me start with the more important, and finish with a few related observations.

1. There truly are evil men in the world, and this is what imprecatory psalms were made for. This is why we have them. There are men who will grin for the camera over the prospect of beheading Christian children, and our response to them should be to pray the words of God back to Him.

“Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth: Break out the great teeth of the young lions, O Lord” (Ps. 58:6).

“Break thou the arm of the wicked and the evil man: Seek out his wickedness till thou find none” (Ps. 10:15).

Our psalter has this second example rendered as “O God, come down and break their evil arms.” In the face of the kind of evil that is abroad in the world, evangelical Christians need to stop filling up their worship services with sentimentalist treacle, and worship biblically in a very dark world. We are confronted with a great and growing evil, and we are discovering that we do not have the liturgical vocabulary to respond appropriately at all. When we sing or pray the psalms, all of them, there are two consequences that should be mentioned. One, we are praying in the will of God, and He hears such prayers. Second, we discover that praying and singing biblically transforms us. This really is the need of the hour.

We need to become the kind of people capable of standing against this kind of thing. Read Chesterton’s great poem about the battle of Lepanto, written one year shy of a century ago, and plead with God to raise up a fitting leader for our day. “But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.”