By the Bible or the Bayonet?

Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) was a Dutch lawyer, scholar, theologian, and author. His most noteworthy work, The Law of War and Peace, made him famous as the foremost authority on the law of nations, which we now tend to call international law.

There is a statement attributed to Grotius that I wish I could document as actually emanating from him, but I haven’t found the source. I’ve read some of his Law of War and Peace, and the statement certainly sounds like something he might say. If anyone knows for sure if he said it, or if not, who did, I would welcome that information.

However, I’ve decided that even if Grotius didn’t write this, it’s so good that it needs to be shared. As I tell my students, if he’s not the author of this thought, then I’ll claim it for myself.

Here’s how it begins:

He knows not how to rule a kingdom that cannot manage a province; nor can he wield a province that cannot order a city; nor he order a city that knows not how to regulate a village.

Notice the progression. The concept is that one should not be given a greater realm of authority if he cannot handle a lesser realm. One must prove himself at a lower level before being granted more responsibility.

The statement continues:

Nor he a village that cannot guide a family; nor can that man govern well a family that knows not how to govern himself.

The principle keeps getting extended downward. Yet how many men and women in our day, particularly in politics, are awarded by the people with high office when they cannot even govern themselves?

Shall I insert here Senator Ted Kennedy, who drove a car off a bridge and swam away while the woman with him in the car (not his wife) was left to drown? The people of Massachusetts, in their electoral wisdom, made him a senator for life. Should that have been?

You would think the statement might end where I’ve already ended it, but it goes even further:

Neither can any govern himself unless his reason be lord, will and appetite her vassals; nor can reason rule unless herself be ruled by God, and be obedient to Him.

Will and appetite refer to desires/emotions—they need to be servants to one’s reason. Desires and emotions cannot drive one’s actions. Yet even reason, as we know, can go astray. Autonomous human reasoning is a mini-god itself. Therefore, our reason also has to submit to God and His loving rule.

I call this the principle of self-government, and I’ve devoted a chapter to it in my book, If the Foundations Are Destroyed: Biblical Principles and Civil Government.

Proverbs 16:32 tells us, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city.”

There have been many “great” men in history, at least by standards other than God’s. On the outside, they may look like “winners,” but God looks at the heart.

A society with Biblical self-government at its roots, and that looks to place people in positions of civil authority whose lives reveal that self-government, will be a society substantially free from oppressive rules and regulations. Only a people not self-governed under God will turn to a strong civil government to hold themselves in check.

In truth, the people of a nation receive the type of government that their level of self-government deserves. What does this say about modern America? After all, our representatives, from local officials to congressmen to the president are merely a reflection of us.

One more quote—this one documented.

Robert Winthrop (1809-1894), who served as speaker of the House of Representatives and also as a senator, gave an address to the Massachusetts Bible Society in 1849. What he said in that address is a fitting conclusion to the thoughts I want to share today:

All societies of men must be governed in some way or other. The less they may have of stringent State Government, the more they have of individual self-government. The less they rely on public law or physical force, the more they rely on private moral restraint.

Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled, either by a power within them, or by a power without [outside] them; either by the Word of God or by the strong arm of man; either by the Bible or the bayonet.

May we be controlled by the Word of God and show ourselves worthy of self-government.

The Puritans’ City on a Hill

The word “Puritan” has developed, over time, into a reproach. If someone is tagged a Puritan today, that supposedly means he is an austere, humorless, narrow-minded bigot. Yet what do most people really know about the Puritans who came over to America in droves, especially during the 1630s? Not much. What we have now is primarily a stereotype.

Puritans Laugh

Puritans were far more diverse than the stereotype allows. Some, indeed, were lacking humor, but that might be because they were persecuted in the England of their day. Due to their desire to “purify” the Church of England of all vestiges of Catholicism, they were kept from all positions of influence by church authorities.

One Puritan, who publicly called out some Anglican ministers as cancers on the Body of Christ because of their unwillingness to push reform further, was given a sentence of life imprisonment, his family was dispossessed of all property, his nose was slit, and he was branded on his forehead with the letters “SS,” meaning “sower of sedition.”

I might lose my sense of humor in those circumstances.

Yet when, in 1630, a group of Puritans operating as the Massachusetts Bay Company, arrived on these shores, they were a brave lot, seeking to set up what they hoped would be a model society based on Biblical principles. Their leader on that first expedition, and their first governor, John Winthrop, gave a sermon on board their ship on the way over. It outlined what they intended to do. Some of his words have become well-known:

John WinthropFor we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.

Winthrop, and all on board with him, firmly believed they had a covenant with the Lord. He would fulfill His part, but the only way the covenant would come to fruition was for them to fulfill their side of it. They wanted to establish a community that old England would observe and imitate.

Near the end of his sermon, Winthrop explained that there was only one way for them to succeed. In words that the stereotype of Puritans won’t allow, he reminded them of this salient fact:

Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck and to provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. . . .

For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities, we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality.

We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labour, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.

So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as his own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways.

Those are beautiful words. They reveal the heart of the Puritan enterprise. How well did these colonists live up to those lofty ideals? I’ll trace their history—their successes and their failures—in posts to come.

Reflections on American Morality

The whole Anthony Weiner incident has left me deeply disturbed about the tenor of our society. That’s nothing new, of course, since I believe man in sinful and plays out that sinfulness continually. Yet this particular episode I find particularly perturbing. Let me see if I can explain why.

Weiner himself is what I always expected him to be; I’m less concerned about him personally than I am about other aspects of this. The media, both liberal and conservative, seem to be painting the women involved as victims of a sexual predator. There’s no disputing Weiner is a sexual predator, but if these women were victims, they were more than willing to be victimized.

One of them, Megan Broussard, has conducted interviews over the past two days, one on ABC, the other on Sean Hannity’s Fox program. I watched the latter. First of all, I was not impressed with her grasp of basic morality. She thought it would be “fun,” I guess, to banter sexually with a married congressman. Only when she feared her tweets would become public, or the pictures she sent him would be displayed on the Internet did she decide to preempt that exposure by speaking up. Even now, she doesn’t seem to have any real concept of having done anything inappropriate—at least on her part. And when asked if Weiner should remain a congressman, she had no opinion, saying that it was up to the voters in his district.

She is a microcosm of the state of morality in America at this time, I fear. She obviously doesn’t represent the morality of all, but I do wonder if she is representative of the majority: morally clueless.

Even now, only a slim plurality of Weiner’s constituents think he should step down. He may be able to ride this out. His arrogance is that great.

I think back on the Clinton impeachment. Even though it was evident that he had abused the trust given him by the electorate, and that he had committed perjury, public opinion polls indicated that about 2/3 of the country didn’t want him removed from office. I recall being dispirited over that at the time.

Just who are we as a people?

I want to believe better about us, but I don’t know if I can. After all, we put Barack Obama into the highest office in the land.

There is no golden age in our history where everyone was Christian and all was well, but there certainly was a time when we, as a society, had a keener understanding of eternal right and wrong, and when we veered off course, we at least felt guilty.

Does genuine guilt exist as a force in America anymore? Only by comprehending guilt will we ever seek forgiveness and reconciliation with God. I hold the firm conviction that nothing less than an explicitly Christian moral standard, and a firm belief in the transforming power of a Spirit-filled existence, will suffice to hold our society together. Without that basis, we will spin out of control.

I’m reminded of a quote from Christian statesman Robert Winthrop, who, in a speech to the Massachusetts Bible Society in 1849, pointed out a significant truth:

All societies of men must be governed in some way or other. The less they may have of stringent State Government, the more they have of individual self-government. The less they rely on public law or physical force, the more they rely on private moral restraint. Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled, either by a power within them, or by a power without them; either by the Word of God, or by the strong arm of man; either by the Bible or the bayonet.

Here’s the rub: do we still have enough people who live by individual self-government to make the difference, or are we in the process of losing all moral restraint? The reason I write and teach is that I believe there is still hope. I hope I’m right.