Monday, November 3, 2014

The Divine Right of Government

From the time of the first central states in Babylon through the age of the Roman Empire, kings took upon themselves the mantle of the divine.   In the first states there was no "separation between church and state", for the priests served the king.  Religion was at the service of the state, and the rulers often presented themselves as descendents of the gods, if not gods themselves.   The great mass of humanity existed to elevate the state, which was personified in the form of the King or Emperor.

The main exception to the rule was a collection of tribes in the Levant who for 360 years elected their own local leaders, had a fixed law, a travelling judiciary, and no national executive at all except for brief periods of national emergency.   When they finally decided to have a king, the priesthood was already established, and for a time maintained its independence from the state.   Over time this independence broke down, but so did the expression of the faith through a priesthood.  Prophets rose up and were the main movers and shakers of the faith, challenging both Kings and Priests.

In the Jewish tradition Kings were not gods whose will was law.  There was a Higher Law, established by the One True God, and to that law both King and commoner were equally bound.  Indeed King and Priest were to remain separate offices, only to be united in the person of Messiah, who alone was worthy to be both King and High Priest.   The Messiah was the King of Kings, to whom all earthly Kings would be obligated to submit.  Kings had a king- the King of Kings.  They did not dictate the will of heaven to the masses, for kings were just as subject to it as they were.

As Christianity spread into Europe so did these ideas, for Christianity is not so much a separate religion from Judaism as it is Judaism fulfilled.   Like all powerful people not used to, or happy with, restraints on their behavior, Kings attempted to use the parts of Christian scripture and tradition which were favorable to civil authorities to their best advantage. This took the form of the doctrine of the "Divine Right of Kings."  Romans 12 and other places in scripture suggest that civil authorities exist by God's permission. That is, they are in charge because God ordained it so.

The kings most favorable to this doctrine tended to forget that any divine right that kings had was balanced by divine responsibilities that kings had.   Should a king fail to exercise their "rights" responsibly, their subjects reasoned, then the king himself was in rebellion against the Divine order.

After all, didn't the same passages of scripture which taught that rulers were established by God also teach that those same rulers, wittingly or unwittingly, were Ministers of God?  And didn't the same passage (Romans 13) describe this ministry as "honoring those who do good" and "bringing wrath on evil doers"? What if a ruler failed to do this?  What if they did the opposite of this?  It was thinking along this line, starting from the basis that religion was above state and not a function of state, which established what we know today as "the right of rebellion".   From this it was deduced that a just government required "the consent of the governed" to its claim of a divine mandate.  The people being governed had to agree that those doing the governing were doing so in a legitimate manner.

While this view has some distance from prior notions, notice that even the doctrine of the "Divine Right of Kings" was less totalitarian than the old pagan view.  The old pagan view was that the state was the dignitary of the gods on earth and that the will of the king was the will of heaven. In contrast, Kings who had a Divine Right to rule can be in error and offend the Divine.  Kings which are divine themselves cannot, their word is absolute, they are accountable only to themselves.   When heaven and king are separated this way, certain things were rightly beyond the reach of even the King.  Not so when King and the will of Heaven are viewed as one and the same.

From this idea of separation of King from the Divine it was but a short leap to the idea that the common people could be their own kings as it were, sharing power in a Republican form of government.   The Creator was still viewed as the source of rights (as noted for example in the Declaration of Independence), but He didn't just give the governing authorities a Divine Legitimacy to govern, He also gave individual persons legitimate claims against governments which exceeded their Divine mandate.  

In other words, individuals had rights.   The idea that there lives a King of Kings translated into the idea that there were just limits on the power of the state. The earthly King or ruler was not the Master of the people, rather they were ministers acting on behalf of God, the true Master of both King and Commoner.   This idea held even in a nation where the People themselves were the king.

The same God which gave rulers the authority to rule placed boundaries on that authority for the sake of the individual, which was actually the point of government.  Not like the Pharaohs, who considered the purpose of his subject's lives was to glorify the state and his own royal person by slaving away at constructing elaborate tombs.  Rather, government existed for the purpose of upholding justice. Glorification of the state was not the point of government, but rather the state existed to serve the individual by providing justice.  As it is recorded in scripture, in the Kingdom of Heaven to "rule" is to "serve".    This view of government was a wellspring of human liberty.  It was the basis on which the Democracies and Republics of the West were established.

For much of this period most education was conducted by the church or by local communities.  It is not surprising then that during that time educated persons were trained to understand that the state was not absolute, that even the king (or Parliament) is but a minister of God and is duty-bound to rule justly, and that individuals could claim rights even against the mighty state.   This policy carried over unto America, where the people as a whole were supposed to rule.   That is, a Bill of Rights was recognized which constituted areas of life beyond the just reach of the state and therefore not subject to majority vote.  

As the state itself began to take over education this doctrine of government was first de-emphasized, then ignored, and now suppressed.   In its place the post-modern state is not devising a new system, but re-incarnating an old one.   A neo-pagan view of government is now emerging which claims that there is no Divine Will separate from and above the state, or if there is it is mandatory that the state disregard it.    The Collective Man will become the new god, and some new Ceasar claiming to speak "for the people" will represent this "god's" will on earth.

The current crop of "progressives" is not bringing humankind progress at all, but rather regression to an oppressive period of human history where the desires of the state triumphed over the will of the individual without limitation.   In Roman times the Emperors made themselves out to be gods and used the state as their instruments to enforce their "divine" whim.  In the new order a vast collective called "The People" will insert itself into the role of the Divine, using the state to enforce its whims.  The voice of the people will be considered the voice of God.
 In this view "rights" can only be mere grants of the state, not something the individual is entitled to by a power above it.   They are thereby transformed from restrictions on the state to political tools of the state.  They become the means by which groups favored by the state are granted new privileges at the expense of the disfavored group's freedom. At that point the substance of individual rights, as claims by individuals against the state, will vanish. The word may persist without substance for some time, but only to be used by whatever small group is really running things as a fig-leaf to cover the state's trampling over some groups in favor of others.

Our only hope of sustaining liberty is for us to revert to the view of government which produced it.  Should we fail to do so the result will not be a government without god, but rather the false god of humanity collectively deifying itself under a new "divine" ruler.   Only a government with a true divine right to govern can have divine limitations on its governance.

1 comment:

  1. “It is blasphemy to call tyrants and oppressors, God's ministers. They are more properly the messengers of Satan to buffet us. No rulers are properly God's ministers, but such as are just, ruling in the fear of God. When once magistrates act contrary to their office, and the end of their institution; when they rob and ruin the public, instead of being guardians of its peace and welfare; they immediately cease to be the ordinance and ministers of God; and no more deserve that glorious character than common pirates and highwaymen. So that whenever that argument for submission, fails, which is grounded upon the usefulness of magistracy to civil society, (as it always does when magistrates do hurt to society instead of good) the other argument, which is taken from their being the ordinance of God, must necessarily fail also; to person of a civil character being God's minister, in the sense of the apostle, any farther than he performs God's will, by exercising a just and reasonable authority; and ruling for the good of the subject.…. When magistrates rob and ruin the people, instead of being guardians of its peace and welfare, they immediately cease to be the ordinance and ministers of God, and no more deserve that glorious character than common pirates and highwaymen.” - Jonathan Mayhew (1720 – 1766), Congregational minister at West Church in Boston