Friday, 25 September 2015

Lawful Christian Resistance, Part III

Escalating Lawful Christian Resistance

Calvin's doctrine of Lawful Christian Resistance has had a marked influence upon the development of human rights and liberty in Western Europe and the Anglo-Saxon world.  In it he makes a sharp distinction between the duties and responsibilities of a private, non-official citizen with respect to the State, on the one hand, and the duties which lie upon officers of the State, on the other.  Both private citizens and State officials, however, right up to the highest authorities in the land, have a common duty and obligation to subject themselves to God, both to His law and His providences.

It is at this point that orthodox Christian views of the State sharply diverge from the presently prevailing secularist views.  The Christian knows that the "King"--the ruling State authorities--are appointed by God, and are first of all His officers and representatives.  Calvin points out that the Scriptures are replete with doctrine and teaching along these lines. The secularist view (at least in its democratic manifestation) is that our rulers are answerable solely to the people.  Any consideration about God is, to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, not good.

With the extension of democratic forms of government and doctrines of the rule of law (not men), Calvin's teaching needs extension and development.  Democratic and representative forms of government mean that the private citizen is also an implicit officer of state, since the State authorities hold their office, either directly or indirectly, through the suffrage of the people.
  Notwithstanding this, however, the Scriptures require that the private citizen remain patiently loyal to the governing authorities, praying for them, seeking their good, and loyally supporting them in their efforts and rule.  For they are ministers of God.  When authorities and rulers rebel against God, and do evil, it is God's prerogative to enter the lists of judgement upon evil rulers, not the prerogative of subjects--except through the lawful exercise of the subject's responsibilities--that is, at the polling booth.

Two striking qualifications to this general duty of citizens, however, must be made.  The first is that Christians must not obey a command or rule or law which, if they were to obey, would mean breaking God's higher law.  Such cases represent the duty of  passive Christian resistance to evil laws.  ("Passive" in this context means disregarding and ignoring unjust laws.)

Calvin writes:
But that obedience which we have shown to be due the authority of rulers, we are always to make this exception, indeed, to observe it as primary, that such obedience is never to lead us away from obedience to Him, to whose will the desires of all kings ought to be subject, to whose decrees all their commands ought to yield, and whose majesty their sceptres ought to be submitted. . . . The Lord, therefore, is the King of Kings, who, when He has opened his sacred mouth , must alone be heard, before all and above all men; next to him we are subject to those men who are in authority over us, but only in him.  If they command anything against him, let it go unesteemed.  [Calvin, Institutes, iv:xx;32.]
The classic apostolic declaration on this matter is found in Acts 5:29 where Peter declares to the Jewish ruling council that the Apostles would not submit to the command that they cease preaching about Jesus and His resurrection, for they must obey God, rather than men. A classic Old Covenant parallel would be the passive disobedience of the Hebrew midwives, ignoring Pharaoh's command to kill all male Hebrew babies (Exodus 1: 15-17).

The second qualification is that subordinate governing authorities--since they also have been appointed by God--have a duty to resist tyrants and tyrannical government.  The private person has a duty to submit patiently; the state authorities have a duty to resist the evil authority and defend the freedom of the people.
For if there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings . . . I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed as protectors by God's ordinance.   [Ibid., iv:xx:31]
If subordinate magistrates do not resist the tyrant, they are guilty of "nefarious perfidy".  They have public duties to which God has bound them.  They are God's public servants above all else.  Their resistance may commence passively, but if the tyrant were to double down, it becomes lawful to resist to the point of punishing the tyrant by force, in order to defend the freedom of the people.  Calvin pointed to the "three estates" [First Estate (clergy); the Second Estate (nobility); and the Third Estate (commoners)] in his native France as an example of powers and officers responsible to defend the people against tyrannical monarchs.  

If a private citizen has a duty passively to resist ungodly government, diverse government institutions (representative, judicial, and executive) have a lawful duty to resist tyranny both passively and actively if need be. 


No comments: