A Share in the Patria

This short essay on government by Aaron Wolf surprised me, since it matter-of-factly promotes a view that I thought was marginal and controversial. I need to learn more about the folks that think this way.

He begins by relating a bit of biblical history that has been much on my mind lately.

When the children of Israel clamored for a king, so that they might rely on him to protect them from foreign invaders, the prophet warned them that “he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants.”  God had been their sovereign, but they wanted what the other nations had.  So He gave them what they wanted.

And He wasn’t doing them a favor when he did that.

Wolf goes on to point out that when the country was young there were competing views of how to define a republic.

How, then, should we define the nature of a republic?  The word itself was batted around by all of the Founding Fathers, but its usage varied.  John Adams, who favored aristocracy and “balanced power,” wrote that the only “rational” definition of republic is “a government, in which all men, rich and poor, magistrates and subjects, officers and people, masters and servants, the first citizen and the last, are equally subject to the laws.”

John Taylor of Caroline assailed this sort of “republic,” which puts its faith in the “rule of law.”  Answering Adams in 1814 (An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States), he asked how this was any different from the government from which they had declared independence.  What guarantees that the law to which everyone is “equally subject” is just—or good? [Emphasis added]

This strikes me as a fatal flaw in the concept of “rule of law.” An unjust or wicked law equally applied will still result in injustice and wickedness. As Anatole France sarcastically observed, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” And I take no comfort in the fact that, say, jack-booted thugs will descend on anyone who tries to sell raw milk, whether industrial conglomerate or the farmer down the lane—it is still wrong to prohibit a farmer from taking money for something he could legally give to someone for free, no matter how many of his fellow citizens endorse the prohibition.

Apparently Adams had a comeback to Taylor’s objection, but two hundred years of history has shown it to be a delusion.

Adams’ imagined government would counter this injustice with a “balance of power,” by which each class, emerging “naturally” according to a divine distribution of talent, would find equal representation.  But do such classes really arise “by nature,” according to “God’s design”?  Taylor argues that Adams’ classes are artificial—special interests created by laws and sustained by government.  (Government’s creation of a standing army, for example, creates a “soldier class,” a military interest.  Central banking creates a banking interest.  Etc.)  And man’s lust for power being what it is, these artificial classes would (did) seek to advance their standing among the others, if not dominate them altogether, even taking the moral high ground for doing just so.  “One tyrant may thank God that he is not another tyrant.”

So what does Taylor propose as the proper alternative to the rule of law? Self-government, i.e. a truly sovereign people. Who is up to the task of governing themselves?

The people are the farmers.  At the time of the War of Independence, 95 percent of Americans were engaged in farming.  And as many as two thirds of the farming families owned their own land.  The prospect of owning a farm was what had made the colonies attractive in the first place.  The wealth they sought in America was not cash but crops. […]

According to the Jeffersonian tradition, of which Taylor was the greatest exemplar, the farmer is capable of self-government.  His is the only vocation that is “natural”—that is not a creation of government.  He depends on God to sustain him.  His hands know the soil and the hard work necessary to cultivate it.  His product sustains his family and his community.  His people and his soil are his interest.  Thus, he takes up his arms to defend hearth and home in the local militia, and the mantle of statesman when called upon—all the while eager, as Taylor was, to get back to his land, to the plow.  “And the interdependence of such solid citizens,” wrote M.E. Bradford, “all of them capable of honor in each other’s eyes, all with a share in the patria, is the closest we can come to the providentially provided Garden or ‘golden age’ under the present, unpropitious dispensation.”

This is the true republican ideal—a nation of farmers.  It abounds not it laws but in corn.  Its people are defined not by party affiliation or political law but by the mores majorum, the “customs of the fathers.”  It is the agrarian republic Cato wrote of when he spoke of his ancestors who, “when they would praise a worthy man,” would say “good husbandman,” “good farmer.”

Now, here’s what continues to bug me. As God pointed out, when Israel clamored for a king they were in essence rejecting Him—not a good thing. But how does the Bible describe the stretch of Israel’s history which preceded their rejection of Him?

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 17:6, NASB)

That phrase, “every man did what was right in his own eyes,” is usually taken as a bad thing, a description of unbridled license. But why? Would the farmer, so aware of God because of his utter dependence on Him and His creation, be likely to stray from His ways? Or would his eyes be a reliable guide, having learned to see things as God’s eyes see them?

Wouldn’t it be accurate to describe a self-governed man as one who does what is right in his own eyes?


15 thoughts on “A Share in the Patria

  1. Related to this in a roundabout fashion: my three oldest and I are reading Piers Plowman together and there’s an interesting word used — lewte. The glossary in the back defines it thus:

    lewte the primary meaning is “Justice,” as distinct from “law” as such. The medieval conception of justice, however (as the fact that the modern descendant of this word is “loyalty” illustrates), is more oriented toward relationships than ours….

    In the Prologue where the word is first used, the passage talks about law and lewte, justice, kindness, and pity, and the king is told that in order to rule in a Christlike fashion, he must clothe “law’s naked truth” with pity and kindness.

  2. Excellent point, Rick! I’ve never considered that refrain from Judges in such a light before, though it makes perfect sense in the context you present. I wonder if that understanding has any support among orthodox Bible scholars.

  3. Funny, I’ve always wondered about that passage, too.  I guess people assume it’s a bad thing because some of the judges were a bit rough around the edges.  I wonder what a word study would turn up.

  4. Laura,

    I guess people assume it’s a bad thing because some of the judges were a bit rough around the edges.

    Or perhaps that judges aren’t sufficiently powerful to protect them from the rough edges of others. But it’s a mistake to think that investing the authorities with more power will fix that particular problem; history seems to show otherwise.

    Here’s what occurs to me about the time of the judges.

    • God really was king at this point. As He says at the end, when Samuel comes to Him to say that the people are demanding an earthly king, “it is not you [i.e. Samuel the judge] they have rejected, but they have rejected Me as their king.” (1 Samuel 8:7b)

    • God was apparently satisfied with the situation as it stood in Judges. The people would wander away from Him, get themselves into a mess, turn back to Him, and He would raise up a judge to get them out of the mess. I don’t see any indication that He repented of having set things up this way, as he did just prior to the Flood. And I certainly don’t see that He decided to rescue them by giving them an earthly king.

    • The people give three reasons for wanting a king (1 Samuel 8:19-20): they wanted to be like the other nations, i.e. no longer set aside; they wanted to be led, i.e. no longer saddled with the responsibility of self-government; and they wanted someone to fight their battles for them, i.e. no longer required to secure their own peace and prosperity. Thus they rejected three God-given responsibilities—ones we consequently ought to consider embracing.

    • In the time of the judges, everyone had the option of living a godly life. Some people were godly and some were not, some benefited (temporally) from their ungodliness and some suffered (temporally) from the ungodliness of others. I don’t see that the establishment of an earthly king, or any other governing authority since, managed to change this situation in any way.

    • I think at the heart of Jacques Ellul’s concept of Christian anarchy is that we still have the option of serving God as king or not, just as in the time of the judges. To those who serve God as king, temporal authority is a matter of indifference, and they obey temporal authority or seek its protections only as a way of maintaining peace, not because it wields any true authority over them.

  5. “To those who serve God as king, temporal authority is a matter of indifference, and they obey temporal authority or seek its protections only as a way of maintaining peace, not because it wields any true authority over them.”

    I agree, and this also happens to suit my temperament. All my life, I’ve heard Christians say in so many words that they can’t trust their own intuition, because it’s sinful. I certainly understand the need to put everything before a sovereign God, but I don’t see where trusting a committee’s intuition helps particularly, either. Or at least, you don’t get the same sort of results. I’ve also heard people say that a plan succeeds for many advisors, but more often I’ve simply gotten contradictory advice. I think this is because Proverbs isn’t a rule book, but a book of wisdom.

    Obviously, I’m not talking about deciding for oneself on clear moral matters. Just the more practical areas. Good thoughts, Rick.

  6. Sorry to write three comments on one post, but after I had time to go back and review these passages, I noticed that Judges 17:6 (which I hadn’t read in a while) did indeed follow a grievous sin of idolatry, which gives credence to the idea that following what is right in one’s own eyes was a bad thing. The implication of the phrase, though, wasn’t that the Israelites’ form of government was flawed, but that they didn’t follow what they already had, the law of Moses.

    Then, later in Samuel, when they asked for a king, they claimed it was because Samuel’s sons weren’t godly, but the Lord made it clear to Samuel that they were rejecting the Lord, not Samuel, in favor of military security. And yes, Samuel did make it clear to them that more government would be a burden to them.

    I agree with you that the Bible doesn’t establish earthly kingship as a superior form of government. But I’d have to revise is my evaluation of the phrase “right in his own eyes” itself. In the immediate context of Judges 17:6, it seems to refer to disobeying the Law of Moses. I’m not sure how it’s meant when it’s repeated at the end of the book. Perhaps there it allows more room to acknowledge the faithful men and women of the time.

    And while I greatly admire the Jeffersonian and Roman ideal of citizen farmer, neither Jefferson nor the rural Romans Cato spoke of were Christians. It does make sense on the face of it, though, that a person who feels the consequences of his own actions sooner (like a small farmer) would be more likely to consider his actions carefully. I think the Romans called it virtue.

    Not disagreeing with you. I see that your main point is that kingship (i.e., more government) isn’t a good in itself, and that the Bible doesn’t establish it as such. But I just had to correct myself in light of my own review of the passage.

  7. Laura,

    Thanks for continuing the discussion; it made me go back and look through Judges, and as I expected I learned some new things.

    I’ll agree that Judges 17:6 is explaining why the situation is as it is. But I still can’t interpret the sentence “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” as describing the situation negatively, because it would also have to imply that it was a bad thing that Israel did not have a king, and that can’t be true—in fact, throughout the book of Judges God repeatedly uses kings, even their very own king Abimelech, to chasten the people and turn their hearts back to Him.

    I also can’t read Judges 17:6 as an explanation of why the people in the last two stories are behaving so wickedly. Idolatry and murder are described throughout the Old Testament, sometimes when there is a king and sometimes when there is not. In fact, the presence of a king sometimes adds to the wickedness of the idolatry or murder by legitimizing it.

    Here’s an analogy with the last two stories in Judges which I hope will shed some light on how I read Judges 17:6. Say I lived in England in a time when competition with the church was prohibited and violators strictly and severely punished by the state. Then someone tells me two tales. One of America, where people on every corner are proclaiming themselves to be pastors and setting up independent churches. The other of Africa, where a fellow named Colonel Kurtz has traveled to the remotest part of the Belgian Congo, set himself up as a god, and enlisted the local tribes to commit various atrocities in his name.

    My reaction would probably not be, “How could people behave in such a way?”, because I am well aware that people are capable of such behavior. But my reaction might be, “Why aren’t these people being arrested?” And a good comeback might be, “In those places there is no king; every man does what is right in his own eyes.” In other words, the sentence doesn’t explain why folks are exhibiting a certain wickedness, but only why they aren’t getting in trouble with the law for doing so.

  8. Self-government under God is the goal of the gospel, I believe. The grace of Christ produces citizens who behave, against whom ‘there is no law’. Still, even among christians, there has to be some civil government to mediate effectively between citizens and provide for mutual defense, and I think this is the main issue Israel was grappling with in moving from a radical decentralization to a monarchy. Unfortunately, Israel knew better, but decided to chase worldliness. I personally think though, that the Judges model ‘everyone did what was right in their own eyes’, is at least potentially, too much freedom in the hands of individuals. Without any visible outside authority, personal freedom would degenerate into hedonistic license very quickly, I would think. We enjoy much less personal freedom today, and yet look at all the ways we abuse that freedom! Nevertheless, the problem is not with freedom, but with the total depravity of fallen men. Despite this fact, modern libertarians continue to favor the Judges model, which, in a country unrestrained by christian morality is essentially the law of the jungle. But, if men gathered together into governments can’t be fully trusted, (and they can’t) it is because individual men can’t be fully trusted, either.

    Exodus 18 gives us at least part of the solution: Moses appointed representatives for the people, men of good character and ability, who governed according to God’s law. Apparently, by the time of the Judges, this republican form had deteriorated into democracy. Sound familiar? The answer for Israel would have been to restore the Exodus 18 model, instead of doing what Moses said they would do in Deut. 17, ie. choose a king. But self-government is lots of work and personal responsibility; and many would rather be told what to do from the time they rise till the time they lay down. That is precisely where we are at today. Very soon we will have to choose between restoring a christian republic, with only christian men qualified for office, and no law but God’s, or offering incense to a self-proclaimed Caesar. The issue is never: ‘government or no government’ or ‘law or no law’ but rather, what kind of government shall we have? And by whose law shall we govern, man’s or God’s? Humanism can only lead to the tyranny of men, either individually (libertarianism) or corporately (monarchies and dictatorships). But God is good; and His Government is good and right and true. Psalms 2. The Kings of the Earth need to kiss the Son, NOW; before it’s too late.

  9. In light of Jacob’s blessing of Judah in Gen 49, I’ve always assumed that God would have eventually given Israel a king — maybe if they hadn’t demanded a king “like the nations” they’d’ve had David, “a man after God’s own heart,” for their first king.

    Genesis 49:
    8 Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise: thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies; thy father’s children shall bow down before thee.

    9 Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?

    10 The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be….

  10. The potential wickedness of self-government whether individual or democratic is a strand with a long history in the West, beginning with Plato (if you want a modern take on this problem see Irving Stone on the death of Socrates, who brings out the commentators who saw the Apology as an indictment of democratic decisionmaking). Until the 18th century, most readers of the classical tradition saw Sparta as the model rather than Athens.

  11. Kelly,

    That’s a good observation. I will definitely allow that mankind is disposed to follow kings and dictators, as this is clearly the dominant form of government throughout recorded history, but is kingship for Israel normative? In other words, did God establish Israel as a monarchy, OR did God make allowances for their weakness and anticipate that they would eventually want to be like the surrounding nations?

    Clearly, God led Israel out of Egypt by the hand of Moses, who was uniquely qualified to be the first king of Israel. And yet, even Moses was overwhelmed by the demands of the people, thus Jethro’s advice to him in Exodus 18. Israel was initially established as a republic. In addition to the representatives appointed by Moses, a priesthood was established under Aaron, and this priesthood shared power with Moses and with the representatives of the people. If monarchy is normative for the people of God, why bother with multiple branches of government and shared responsibilities under His Law? I believe God foresaw it and permitted it, but didn’t establish it.

    I liken this forbearance of God in the matter of government to His making allowances for human weakness by regulating divorce, or even polygamy for that matter. Neither is normative, or even desirable for the people of God. And yet God’s law allows for and regulates both.

  12. This is such an interesting discussion — so much of what I’ve been reading in different areas has nuggets that all seem to apply.

    My oldest kids and I are also reading Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World where he says:

    There are only two kinds of social structure conceivable — personal government and impersonal government. If my anarchic friends will not have rules — they will have rulers. Preferring personal government, with its tact and flexibility, is called Royalism. Preferring impersonal government, with its dogmas and definitions, is called Republicanism. Objecting broadmindedly both to kings and creeds is called Bosh; at least, I know no more philosophic word for it. You can be guided by the shrewdness or presence of mind of one ruler, or by the equality and ascertained justice of one rule; but you must have one or the other, or you are not a nation, but a nasty mess. Now men in their aspect of equality and debate adore the idea of rules; they develop and complicate them greatly to excess. A man finds far more regulations and definitions in his club, where there are rules, than in his home, where there is a ruler. (p.54)

    You hear so much that we are a nation of laws, a Republic as Chesterton says, and that really rubs me the wrong way. A man can be merciful, but a law cannot. It strikes me as Pharisaical, but maybe I’m overreacting, because “There oughtta be a law!” is such a common attitude nowadays.

    Compare this with “the idea that only the man who holds himself within self-chosen limits can be free.” That’s Edith Hamilton in The Echo of Greece, and she’s saying the same thing that I think all of us here are saying.

    I’m not really philosophically bound to one form of government or another — I think anything can work, provided it’s small enough. In Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education, David Hicks summarizes Plato and Aristotle’s views on government by saying that “ultimately, the state’s only justification is that it makes the good life, the life of virtue, the life that takes responsibility for what it knows, possible.”

    So at least part of the debate is over what form of government makes that possible. But since we are ruled by a King in heaven, and by a king in the home, I don’t think there can be anything morally objectionable to tribes or nations being ruled by a king. I think the scope of his power must be limited like everything else, which is one thing that’s happening in Jethro’s advice to Moses (the other thing is making sure that the social structure is actually personal, to use Chesterton’s words), but I don’t think it’s necessarily immature or slavish to want a king.

    Framed another way, it can look like a debate between grace and law.

    (And I want to be sure to make clear that what I’m doing here is not so much advocating the “royalist” position as being the loyal opposition. I really don’t believe firmly one way or the other — but I’m recently beginning to consider the value of something completely different from what I was brought up with.)

  13. Kelly,

    A good summary, thank you. It is fascinating that Chesterton regards royalty as ‘personal’ and a government of laws ‘impersonal’. I tend to think of all external government as impersonal, and grace as being rather foriegn to what God established as a ministry of justice and order. But your point about being ruled by the King of Heaven is well taken, and He is certainly concerned with extending grace to His children. If earthly kings would only style themselves after the King of kings, I could be a royalist. I never considered myself the ‘king’ of my home, though. More like a mangy ole sheep-dog, looking to the master for marching orders, and hoping to protect the sheep in my charge. But maybe I should think more highly of myself; after all, my dear wife should not be characterized as a.. ah.. female dog. ;-)

  14. Laura,

    All my life, I’ve heard Christians say in so many words that they can’t trust their own intuition, because it’s sinful.

    This is a hot button topic for me, so I left it alone when you first wrote this. But just this morning I read a couple of related passages on Rod Dreher’s blog. While writing about recent abuse of spiritual authority in the Roman Catholic Church, he ends with this:

    If we are all our own popes and patriarchs, though, and refuse to yield to any authority but our own autonomous judgment, how are we to know when we are abusing and misleading ourselves? We have all known people who thought they were taking the right way down a religious or moral path, but it was obvious to anyone with a lick of sense that they were self-deluded, and would come to ruin unless they listened to their priest, their pastor or someone with spiritual wisdom and authority. Maybe we’ve been that person. Maybe we might yet be.

    Well, fine, but I’ve known at least as many people who have been led down such paths by people who were nominally in authority over them. How are we to know when we are abusing and misleading ourselves? The same way we are to know when others are abusing and misleading us.

    Strangely enough, Dreher seems to understand this at some level. In a later post he describes a young friend whose spiritual maturity he admires and would like to emulate. Then he says:

    Funny, but most of the priests and pastors I’ve known over the course of my life, whether Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, aren’t men I looked to, or would look to, for spiritual and moral leadership. Valid confectors of the Sacrament, yes, but not as spiritual leaders one can trust with the most important decisions one faces in life.

    Why isn’t he worried here about abusing and misleading himself?

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