A number of somewhat related thoughts have been rattling around in my head, attempting to coalesce. I recently read a book called, “America on Trial”, by Robert Reilly. Reilly is clearly influenced by Catholic theology, which means he is guided by church tradition, as well as Greek philosophy. Think Thomas Aquinas. He argues, effectively, I think, that while the founders of the U.S. were influenced by Locke, Locke’s thinking was steeped in Christian revelation and in Natural Law.
Natural law, as he presents it, implies that the very existence of humans implies that all people are of the same nature and, therefore, of equal value. Since this is so, all people are entitled to equal representation in government. Governments are in place at the discretion and permission of the people. He quotes Robert Bellarmine, an Italian Cardinal, who lived from 1542-1621. “Kings will profit much to remember that the people over whom they rule are of the same kind and equality as they themselves. It is possible that not a few of their subjects be more prudent, capable, conscientious, and worthy of the crown than they themselves.”
Reilly (and the Declaration) argue that the truths of Natural Law are self-evident. Freedom for the Founders would not have been about human autonomy, but about the right and responsibility to act with mutual respect and consideration. As such, though the Founders certainly had large blind spots in their collective moral perspective, Americans today should take a hard look at whether they were generally more morally mature than society of the 21st century. The idea that humans are on an evolutionary path to moral enlightenment is, by and large, hogwash used to persuade the simple-minded that new ideas tend to be better ideas.
While I do think America is on more solid ground when it looks along with the originalists to understand the Constitution, I would also caution that the Constitution hardly bears the authority or wisdom of Biblical revelation. Consider the famous line, “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.” First of all, the phrase, “we hold these truths to be self-evident” is inherently a bit of nonsense. If the truths were self-evident, wouldn’t everyone hold them? What would be the point of making the statement in the first place? In the context of a declaration of independence, it is clear the colonists were holding a very different view of the matter than the British Crown and Parliament. The context of conflict proves the truths were not self-evident. And let’s consider the meaning understood by the Founders, while we’re at it. One study concluded that 41 of the 56 signers of the Declaration were slave owners. Apparently their self-evident understanding of “all men” was limited, and incorrect.
More philosophically speaking, it’s hard to argue that natural law proves the equality of people. In more recent years the ideas of evolution have captured the thinking of the majority of people. From an evolutionary perspective, natural law, rather than reinforcing human equality, implies that the strong are free to prey on the weak, because the aim of life is survival, and those who survive best are the best. If you’re weak, well, may your sacrifice serve humanity. There may be no point to surviving, as far as Evolution is concerned, but it never has pondered quite that deeply. Having survival as the goal is enough. This means that people of power, of beauty, and of charisma are the ones who rule, because it’s only natural. The world today tends to speak publicly using Catholic natural law assumptions, while functioning privately using evolutionary natural law assumptions.
But the other thing that disturbs me with respect to natural law is that the Founders used it as justification for fomenting revolution. Natural Law apparently implies that if a government does not rule according to the will of the people, the people have the right and obligation to replace it. From a practical standpoint, this idea does seem like it would serve to keep a government honest. At least they would want to make sure they were secretive about their dishonesty.
Americans were being taxed without their permission, i.e., without representation. The Brits were heavy-handed, certainly, but did their heavy-handedness warrant a war? Natural Law, as explained by Reilly, did not seem to address the question of measure. If I think the mail should be delivered three times a week but the government insists on delivering it six times, is that cause for revolution? If the government decides that each person should decide in his or her own mind whether infanticide is permissible, is that reason enough to rise up and overthrow the government? (It’s certainly a far greater reason than taxation without representation.)
It’s hard to reconcile this application of natural law (the right to revolution) with Revelation. Where do you find in Scripture that people should revolt against political leaders? The Hebrews escaped from Egypt. When they were carried away into Babylonian and Assyrian captivity they were commanded to remain faithful to God while living as peaceful citizens.
Jesus has been appropriated and contorted to justify just about every sort of cause in the history of the world. Some have called Jesus a radical revolutionary which, in some senses, he was(is) the greatest. Others have argued that Jesus proved the case for pacifism. There’s also a great deal of evidence for this.
What did Jesus have to do with political revolution? Consider the historical setting of his life. He was born in an Israel that was occupied by a foreign power, i.e., the Roman Empire. He came to earth as a king, as the Messiah (the anointed one). His own people expected the Messiah to be a liberator and, in fairness, it is the Christian belief that the next time he comes to earth he will be just that…though with no intention to establish a kingdom on this earth. But, to the great disappointment of many of his followers, he was politically disengaged. He had a lot of harsh words for the religious leaders of Israel, calling them a “brood of vipers” and “white-washed tombs”, as well as calling them a heavy burden to the people instead of serving as good shepherds.
What, on the other hand, did he have to say to or about the Roman oppressors? “Give to God the things that are God’s and give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar.” When Pilot told Jesus that he held Jesus’ life in his hands, Jesus did not even object. All he had to say was that Pilot could not do anything without the permission of God.
Paul, writing to the church in Rome after Jesus’ resurrection, said this: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” – Romans 13.1-7. Note that the Roman government eventually executed Paul, as they did many other Christians in the first couple centuries.
I’m not sure how one reconciles the life of Jesus and this teaching of Paul with the Natural Law concept that insists that people have the right to rebel and revolt if their leaders fail to represent their interests. It is true and should be repeatedly told that the job of political leaders is to serve the interests and, more importantly, the needs, of the people. Nations should diligently guard against despots. But order should be maintained. War is fruit of dysfunctional government. War may not always be the worst choice but it is always a bad choice. We should never trade our frustrations in for dead neighbors and relatives (though we repeatedly make this mistake).
Consider, for example, that Great Britain abolished slavery in 1833, 32 years before it was abolished in the U.S. If we had not revolted against Great Britain, we would have spared American blacks those 32 years of slavery and, perhaps we would have also spared our country from the Civil War, by far America’s most costly war.
When do we go to war? Taxes on tea and even taxation without representation hardly seem serious enough for war. Perhaps a better principle for going to war than lack of representation of the people (which must logically always be the case to one degree or another) is to ask whether war is preferable to the existing government. This would require ongoing government action that directly and indirectly is causing the deaths of large numbers of its own people. In this situation it could be argued that the government had already declared war on its people and that the people were driven to self defense.
The other issue I’ve been thinking about had to do with pledging allegiance to the flag. One of my sisters insisted she would never pledge allegiance to the flag. She was adamant but, disinclined to argument, did not explain herself. I was left to speculate about what she found so troubling in the exercise.
The first thought I had had to do with what it means to pledge allegiance. I notice that in these turbulent times there are some who don’t pledge their allegiance to the flag or to the Republic, but to the Constitution. Are they the same? Probably should be but don’t always seem to be. I note, too, that there is such a thing as international tribunals. The Nuremberg Trials after World War II demonstrated that people could act loyally toward their own countries and still be tried by an international court for war crimes. This reveals that there is an international understanding (perhaps not recognized by all countries) that there are allegiance limits one may cling to with respect to one’s own country. Your patriotism may find you dangling from a rope after an international trial. Therefore, everyone who properly pledges allegiance to any flag must do so with reservations. The basic limits encoded in international law are listed below. I don’t remember going over these in my Civics classes, though it seems like everyone should be familiar with them, not only because there is risk to ignoring these laws, but because the laws are sensible, and a reminder of what it means to be a good neighbor.
The following are international rules for war:
1. Intentionally targeting civilians, buildings such as schools or houses and infrastructure like water sources or sanitation facilities is a war crime. Killing or injuring a person who has surrendered or is no longer able to fight is also prohibited, as is punishing someone for an act that another person, even a family member, has committed.
2. Torture and other forms of cruel, degrading or ill treatment are expressly prohibited. The lives, rights and dignity of detainees should be preserved. They must be given food and water, protected from violence and allowed to communicate with their families.
3. The wounded and sick always have a right to be cared for, regardless of which side of the conflict they’re on. Medical and aid workers who are on duty in these areas make an effort to be neutral and serve both sides of the conflict. They must, therefore, be protected by all warring parties and allowed access to collect and care for the wounded and sick.
4. Parties to a conflict must take all reasonable steps to evacuate civilians from areas where there is fighting. In the heat of conflict, such steps can take the form of advanced warnings or the creation of “safe corridors” for civilians to leave a besieged city and for humanitarian workers to deliver aid and services. Civilians must never be blocked from fleeing.
5. Civilians and militants who are no longer fighting in the conflict have a right to receive the help they need, whether it’s medical care, food, water or shelter. This means that restricting the delivery of humanitarian aid — through naval and air blockades, closing ports or confiscating supplies — is prohibited. In fact, deliberately causing starvation and hunger is a war crime.
6. The tactics and weapons used in war must be proportionate and necessary to achieve a definitive military objective. The use of weapons that are “by nature indiscriminate,” according to the Geneva Conventions, is prohibited.
It should be obvious that individuals, too, may have qualms about total allegiance. Many individuals who have been law-abiding, law-respecting citizens all their lives may at some point wonder whether the demands of their government have reached the point where it is unconscionable to follow. There are quite a few today, for example, who are deeply troubled that our nation permits and even provides funding to support the abortions of young Americans. There were many in pre-Civil War America who, against the requirements of law, smuggled slaves out of the American South. There have always been a number of conscientious objectors to war, period. Again, some of these people are quite brave but believe it is evil to take life or to intentionally maim another human being. Corporal Desmond Doss, depicted in the 2016 movie, Hacksaw Ridge, is an example of such.
Another problem with the American pledge of allegiance is that it uses the phrase, “one nation, under God.” I suppose anyone who believes in God would feel personally comfortable with this. However, the fact that those pledging are thinking of a variety of different gods does seem to undermine the intent of the pledge. Furthermore, there are atheists in this country. They may feel some discomfort in pledging allegiance to a nation under a god they do no believe exists. In one sense or another, everyone must plug their nose while making this statement.
And, finally, there are those who feel that America has never provided liberty and justice to all. This is both true and false, of course. Neither America nor any other nation in world history has managed to truly provide liberty and justice. Such a thing is not possible unless all citizens are perfect in the first place. That leaves all of us fumbling about in societies that can’t agree on what justice means, and whose citizens have wildly varying levels of commitment to the concept in the first place.
Perhaps it’s time to draw up a new national pledge. Here is an attempt:
I give my word, that I am a loyal citizen of the United States of America. I will seek her wellbeing above all other nations and the fair treatment of her citizens and guests, while remaining committed to the fair treatment of all nations and individuals.
I pledge to obey her laws, excepting only those that blatantly conflict with my conscience. I will support those responsible for law enforcement, while insisting that enforcement is both fair and humane. I promise to vote when called upon, and to speak truth in the public square with civility and respect.
I look to the U.S. Constitution as the structural guideline for this pluralistic Union, and I will use what influence I have to see to it that it serves as our nation’s guide, amended, as necessary, but only by the process outlined in the Constitution.
We who live in America, in spite of America’s many flaws, are highly privileged. We have so much to be thankful for. But that does not justify defensive reactions towards those who would criticize the country. Justice is a work, like a wagon that, unless it is continuously pulled, will come to a standstill. In a still wagon the cargo will rot; in a still nation society will rot. We can criticize and love our country. To love her we must criticize her.