The Scruffiest You Ever Saw

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Let’s begin by distinguishing two different kinds of resistance.

In the first, let us begin by supposing a godless despotism that has been a godless despotism from its founding. There is no heritage of restrained government. If one of the subjects of this realm were converted to God, started preaching the gospel, and was told to cease and desist, it remains true that he must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). The issue is a matter of straight-up seniority. Should a private in the army obey the captain or the general, assuming their commands to be mutually exclusive? At the same time, assuming the same scenario, the cost associated with making this choice will frequently be martyrdom. The issues here are easy to understand, but would require great courage to follow out.

The second scenario is quite different. Courage is still required, as it always is, but so is an adroit use of what the French call les brains. What do we do when the Spirit of God has been working in a civilization for many centuries, and as a consequence a number of constitutional limits have grown up, restricting, restraining, and prohibiting autocratic power? Attempts at autocratic power will continue to be made (because sinful men still exist, and are always inordinately attracted to politics). But they will also be resisted in such attempts by righteous men, who know how the law is supposed to work.

Let me highlight the issue before diving into the weeds. Suppose the Constitution says that “the president may never, under any circumstances, appoint more than two judges to the Supreme Court who were born in the same month.” Of course, politics being what they are, some president will eventually appoint three men who were all born in February, and the argument will be very complicated and involve leap year, phases of the moon, and some advanced math from a Harvard mathematician that the White House has on retainer. But those resisting the president at this point will simply point to their copies of the Constitution and then at their calendars, and continued to submit to the highest authority. Those resisting him continue to submit to Romans 13, while the president continues on in his rebellious ways. I say this because the Constitution is a higher authority than the president.

I recently wrote on how this understanding of civil authority was foundational to the American War for Independence. One commenter, a Brit, said that my thinking was certainly ingenious, he would give me that, but that our rebellion was directed against very the birthplace of civic liberty, the home of the first and finest constitutional monarchy, and so on. My reply is that this is of course true, and it is the very reason why it happened. Liberty grew in England before it grew in America, and as it grew, it wrote down arguments. Those arguments went into books, which Americans brought across the water with them.

The Americans resisted because they were Englishmen, and they knew their rights under the English Constitution. Edmund Burke, foe of the leveling French Revolution from the get go, nevertheless supported the cause of the Americans on the floor of Parliament. He did this because he knew that the Americans were defending a point of constitutional law. In the American Revolution, the colonists were the conservatives, and their foes in Parliament were the innovators. This is the opposite of what happened in the French Revolution. The distinction between those two revolutions, besides a couple of decades, was the difference between righteousness and unrighteousness.

The Americans rejected an unconstitutional taxation, refused to comply, and defended themselves with arms against the king. Their adversary in this, Parliament, had done far more than that to the king the century before. They had chopped off the king’s head, thus making the Americans the moderates. My point here is not to say anything about the execution of Charles, one way or the other — another time perhaps. It is simply to point out that Charles I was handled more roughly than George III was.

Parenthetically, (let me say that there were three stages of resistance to tyranny that developed in the political theory of the Reformed. The first was to preach against the tyranny, the second was to flee, and the third was to take up defensive arms. Open revolution, trying to overthrow the constitution of the society by armed force directly, was not one of the options.)

In constitutional societies, such as England was, there is a constant ebb and flow in these affairs. Men in office will attempt to get away with things that their written terms of office obviously prohibit. Those who allow them to do so (in the name of Romans 13!) are actually the ones disobeying Romans 13. Those who resist them will get called a lot of names by scoundrels in authority, but that is part of the cost of submitting to Romans 13.

England was a cradle of liberty, but that does not mean that there wouldn’t have to be an ongoing battle there to preserve it. The same thing is true of America. We developed one of the finest constitutions in the history of the world, but liberty must always be defended with vigilance. We have one of the finest forms of government in the world, but the current guardians of our halls of civic authority are among the scruffiest you ever saw. Imagine a marble palace, with halls of glory, inhabited entirely by ruffians who do nothing but scratch themselves and spit in the corners.

Now I am about to show that resistance to encroaching tyranny is a biblical necessity. Not only is it lawful according to the laws of God, it is also lawful according to the laws of our land and the long heritage of our civilization. When such resistance occurs in a stark despotism, our weapon is our blood on the sand of the Colliseum. When such resistance becomes necessary in a society where there has been a heritage of liberty, it will be because corruption has set in. Our opposition to that corruption will not be met with loud shouts of acclaim from the corrupt establishment. We will not find ourselves walking across the golf green of reformation accompanied by the polite golf applause of the regnant scoundrels and mountebanks. That’s not how it works. There will be disputes, and court cases, not to mention some yelling, and don’t forget some IRS audits.

Let me quote a series of documents before making that point again. The first is from the Declaration:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

This is from the Idaho Constitution:

“All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for their equal protection and benefit, and they have the right to alter, reform or abolish the same whenever they may deem it necessary . . .”

Then there is this little gem from the New Hampshire constitution:

“Whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the doctrine of non-resistance against arbitrary power, and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind” (Article X).

And what Abraham Lincoln denied to the states, he explicitly granted to the people generally. This inconsistency on his part should not blind us to the implications. He is claiming far more than I would. Here is what he said in his First Inaugural:

“This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.”

Now in order to do anything of the kind, “the people,” an inchoate mass if ever there was one, would have to organize themselves, and they would not be able to do with this with the support of the current regime of corruptocrats. If they had the support of the existing corrupt establishment, there would be no need to organize. They would only need to organize because the mountebanks in power were saying things about the law, and the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, and the enumerated powers, that were the very reverse of the truth.

I know that I have used the word mountbanks twice in the same post, not my usual form, but I feel strongly about this. Maybe I should have said saucy fellows, but out to the sixth decimal place.

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christian
christian
7 years ago

Thank you. A helpful post from a historical standpoint on resistance. But the question lingers as to the biblical support and biblical parameters for use of arms in a “defensive” manner against tyranny. Does this mean in, our context, only when life is threatened with physical harm? Or does it mean use of arms is biblical to protect some other right or interest in our context? If so, what and when? I would not be comfortable one day facing the Lord backed up only by the New Hampshire constitution. Thank you for any further wisdom on this.

Seth B.
Seth B.
7 years ago

Book recommendations? I now have Idaho’s and Washington’s Constitution on my Amazon to buy list. But I’ve been looking for something that gives commentary to the Constitution and other founding documents. I read it and some parts of it were a bit obscure.

Eric Stampher
Eric Stampher
7 years ago

Lincoln’s North successfully exercised the revolutionary right to strut South past the constitution and keep all within the circle of love, no?

Once you grant revolutionary rights, ain’t all fair game?

Ben
Ben
7 years ago

@christian: When it comes to collective defense, I think there’s a pretty simple way to look at it: If someone is physically aggressing against someone who is innocent, you have the right to use whatever force is necessary to eliminate the threat. Collective defense is simply applying this principle on a macro scale, i.e. to situations where a lot of people are being put in danger. That’s why I think our gubment’s current “defense” policy is so laughable, since, if anything, it actually puts us in more danger by starting fights with people who could potentially do us great harm.… Read more »

Ben
Ben
7 years ago

Correction: I meant to say, “..treating it as the ultimate EARTHLY authority in how our society should be governed.”

Kyle B
7 years ago

Doug, I’ve been going back and forth with a couple of friends on this very issue. We all agree that the current set-up and tear down of this country is illegal and immoral. But we disagree on when to pick up the pitch fork, so to speak (if at all). One friend says, basically, that our submission should actually look like submission, and Christians should be the last ones to violently resist the government. He bases this conclusion on Jesus’s treatment of the (clearly unjust) Roman authorities during his time, including Jesus’s refusal to speak out against the unjust taxation… Read more »

Darius T
Darius T
7 years ago

Ben, I don’t think Doug is arguing that the Constitution is a perfect authority, but it is our ultimate earthly authority as Americans. More importantly, it is a higher authority than the president and his minions.

Edward Amsden
Edward Amsden
7 years ago

When such resistance occurs in a stark despotism, our weapon is our blood on the sand of the Colliseum. When such resistance becomes necessary in a society where there has been a heritage of liberty, it will be because corruption has set in.

So armed resistance is only an option when it is legal according to the highest law of the land? So Christians in Saudi Arabia, say, would not be within their rights to take up arms and form a new government?

Ryan
Ryan
7 years ago

A song for your enjoyment by the excellent Josh Garrels: http://joshgarrels.bandcamp.com/track/the-resistance I was born into a system constructed for failure It’s a sinking ship manned by drunken sailors An escape artist behind the bars of a jailor An asthmatic attack when we forgot the inhaler If the shoe doesn’t fit what good is a tailor In the midst of a crisis please cancel the gala Without a symphony there’s no need for a prelude To foreshadow what’s to come. See the secret committees, commence with their meetings To make red tape in response to simple questions Questions threaten the perception… Read more »

Ben
Ben
7 years ago

“….but it is our ultimate earthly authority as Americans.” Who says the Constitution is the ultimate authority as Americans? The Constitution itself? That’s obviously circular, is it not? And on top of that, what if I believe that the Articles of Confederation are the true authority? If so, then the Constitution is a usurpation of states’ rights and ought to be abolished. So just to be clear, since you believe that the Constitution is the ultimate authority, then you cannot morally advocate for privatizing any of the following (based on the enumerated powers): money, the post office, defense, police, and… Read more »

James Bradshaw
James Bradshaw
7 years ago

I’m just thinking what it would (or should) take for someone to say, “Yeah, the government has gotten so bad that I need to pick up a musket, join a militia and try to oust our current leadership with force and bloodshed.” Is it when taxes go from 18% to 20%? Maybe 18% to 18.005%? Is this about having to bake cakes for people you don’t like? I’m making this sound trivial because, to be honest, most wars seem to start because of one trifling or another. Of course, once violence starts, it just snowballs. Shouldn’t that be seen as… Read more »

ArwenB
ArwenB
7 years ago

@Seth B: Have you considered The Federalist papers in their entirety? IIRC that’s where the reasoning behind the Constitution was worked out. They might serve to illuminate the obscure areas.

Luke
Luke
7 years ago

Lets say there is a society in which powers have been clearly ennumerated and carefully divided among a handful of magistrates. Now lets say a couple of these magistates begin to overstep their bounds and usurp the power of the other magistrates. It would seem reasonable to say that they other magistrates have the right, even the obligation and responisbuility, to resist this usurpation and uphold and imposte their own authority in their own area. This is, in fact, the whole reason the powers were divided among them and clearly defined in the first place. In our society, it clearly… Read more »

Dan Glover
7 years ago

Thank you, Doug. This is the best post yet in this discussion. I look very forward to your continuing to work this out and eventually right down to “what does this look like?” With some past posts, I have commented because I saw a tendency among some commenters to run for the gun cabinet. Assuming most of your readers are Christians, I don’t think this is an appropriate response for the church to a tyrannical bureaucracy, at least not at this stage and without first exhausting the existing avenues through which non-violent resistance is still possible. I was encouraged to… Read more »

Mike Bull
7 years ago

“Now in order to do anything of the kind, ‘the people,’ an inchoate mass if ever there was one, would have to organize themselves, and they would not be able to do with this with the support of the current regime of corruptocrats.”

It’s ironic that the guy at the top is a rabble rouser, a community organiser. I guess the pigs always end up at the table.

JohnM
JohnM
7 years ago

First of all “…the Spirit of God has been working in a civilization for many centuries, and as a consequence a number of constitutional limits have grown up, restricting, restraining, and prohibiting autocratic power” assumes more than I’m willing to take for granted. The civilization is? Western, and if so – defined as? European? Anglophone? Now there is probably something to the idea, something, but probably less than implied here and I wish we’d specify who we’re talking about an in case. But, the Spirit of God has been working toward constitutional limits on the autocratic exercise of political power?… Read more »

Mike Belknap
Mike Belknap
7 years ago

Now I am about to show that resistance to encroaching tyranny is a biblical necessity.

I agree, but I assume you meant that you’ll do this in a forthcoming post?

Corina Treece
Corina Treece
7 years ago

Post a comment

Seth B.
Seth B.
7 years ago

@ArwenB: I actually have the Federalist and AntiFederalist papers, but they’re both really long and I was hoping for something a little shorter. I just finished reading Calvin’s Institutes and need a break from long books. =p

Darius T
Darius T
7 years ago

Ben, you’re still missing the point. The point is that the President and our other human leaders in Washington are NOT the ultimate authority… the Constitution is above them.

Rob
Rob
7 years ago

@JohnM

“Constitutional government, which I value, is a good means to a good end, but not a sacred end in itself.” Perfect. I want to frame this.

While the American Constitution is certainly a huge blessing, and we should not fail to voice our displeasure when its protections and guideposts are dismantled, it’s also a very easy idol. The great majority of the Church worldwide does not have its protections, and yet are still faithfully pursuing their call to be salt and light in the cultures in which they live.

Ben
Ben
7 years ago

“Ben, you’re still missing the point. The point is that the President and our other human leaders in Washington are NOT the ultimate authority… the Constitution is above them.” My whole point is that I don’t understand how the Constitution has ultimate earthly authority. What if I declare, for example, the Articles of Confederation to be above the Constitution? Who are you or anyone to say that such a declaration on my part is invalid? This is not a hypothetical question; it would be nice if you or someone could give me some kind of philosophical reasoning behind this. Fundamentally,… Read more »

John W
7 years ago

I can see that this is a strictly in-house US debate but since I am the Brit that Doug referenced in his post I hope that you will permit me as a gatecrasher! I, too am somewhat puzzled by the level of authority afforded the US Constitution. Presumably that ultimate authority once resided with its human drafters. As I understand it, their intent can therefore only be interpreted but never actually challenged. Or could anyone ever argue in a US court of law that perhaps the founders actually got something wrong? If not, why not? Without at least the possibility… Read more »

Luke
Luke
7 years ago

John – a couple points to consider: In a constitutional republic, by definition the constitution’s role is to define who has power where and when. That’s why it exists. If the constitution is not accepted as authoritative, the constitution isn’t a constitution! That’s simply what a constitution is. It constitutes the structure and division of the assembly, community, or nation for which it was drafted. Now, if the US thought that the constitution was without error in its original form, we would not have so any amendments to it. If there is a flaw in the constitution, you use the… Read more »

Jane Dunsworth
Jane Dunsworth
7 years ago

Without at least the possibility of that, then it seems that your Constitution is being viewed as an inerrant document written by infallible men. It’s not that it’s infallible, it’s that it’s the duly adopted existing law. It is not treated as though it is infallible, as it is subject to amendment. It is not followed because the Founders created a perfect document, it is followed because the ratification process was followed and the various states thereby bound themselves and their descendants to follow it. It is not that it is perfect, it is that it is the law. Just… Read more »

JohnM
JohnM
7 years ago

@Luke – “.. I said “governed in accordance with” not “governed by”. I do not see the constitution as a paper magistrate the way some have seemed to imply in the Romans 13 debate.”

And with that you hit the nail on the head. Well said.

timothy
timothy
7 years ago

Pastor Wilson,

Thank you for addressing this topic.