Monday, July 04, 2005

Submission to the Government or Independence?

Perhaps it was just coincidence, but I happened to be reading an essay by Herman Sasse this Fourth of July, that addressed several of the pertinent questions about the rise of new governments from the anarchy of revolution, and the fall of old governments that have neglected their God-given responsibilities in the maintenance of peace and justice. Some of those questions might be whether citizens have the right to rebel against government; what constitutes legitimate government; and how does a government become established as an authority under God? So on this Day of Independence, I thought I'd offer some particularly illuminating (and possibly controversial) quotations from Sasse's essay, "The Social Doctrine of the Augsburg Confession." (For those who don't know Sasse, he was a German-born pastor/theologian who was a contemporary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and though he vigorously opposed the Nazi's he was not of a like mind with Bonhoeffer in regards to how this opposition should be carried out.)

First of all, regarding "legal government authority," Sasse writes, "There can be no doubt that every revolt against the legal governing authority is a grievous sin according to Lutheran doctrine. It can happen that governing authorities are overthrown because of grievous guilt, that the revolution comes as the judgment of God upon them. But the insurgent never has legal right...He can be the instrument of divine wrath, but his rebellion remains guilt. As God does his 'alien work' in the midst of war, so may he also allow the outbreak of human sin in revolution in order to fulfill his angry judgment. Anarchy follows revolution. From anarchy a new power arises, and the question is whether such new power can be a legally constituted governing authority. We must answer this question in the affirmative. For as far back in history as we are able to see, every governing authority once arose from anarchy....Any political power which has arisen out of anarchy may become a God-given governing authority, if it fulfills the tasks of the office of governing authority. "

So according to Sasse, the American Revolution was clearly a sin in revolt against the governing authority, but we may see it as the overthrow of a corrupt government by God's angry judgment, using the instrument of human rebellion. And though the action was sinful in God's eyes, that doesn't mean that our new American government was from that point on an illegitimate government, for once an authority rising from the anarchy begins to fulfill the tasks of a governing authority, it may become a God-given governing authority. So what about the fall or decline of a government. Here I thought Sasse's words were particularly prophetic--they might as easily have been written as an editorial on the state of the nation today (he wrote the essay in 1930).

Sasse continues, "A governing authority which bears the sword in vain, which no longer has the fortitude to decisively punish the law breaker, is in the process of burying itself. A state which removes the concepts 'right' and 'wrong' from jurisprudence and replaces them with 'useful' and 'injurious,' 'healthy' and 'ill', 'socially valuable' and 'socially inferior,' [a state] which in the place of the principle of remuneration places the principle of innoculation, a state which in its civil law dissolves marriage and family--such a state ceases to be a constitutional state and thus the governing authority. A governing authority which knowingly or unknowingly makes the interests of social position or class the norm for the formation and definition of law, or which allows the norms of the law to be dictated by the so-called 'legal consciousness' of the time, sinks to the level of raw power." [qtd. from p. 97-98, "The Social Doctrine of the Augsburg Confession", by Herman Sasse, in the volume of essays, "The Lonely Way: Selected Essays and Letters, Vol. 1" CPH, 2001]

Now I know that it has become fashionable these days to decry our government for all manner of reasons, while taking for granted the great freedoms we enjoy. This is not my intention here--I am proud to be an American, and thankful for our freedoms. But what I want to ask here, is this, "Are we not witnessing the very things Sasse describes?" The waning ability to punish wrongdoers, the relativizing of right and wrong, and the dissolution of marriage and family? If so, are we not also watching our country "burying itself?" Food for thought.


Dan @ Necessary Roughness said...

Good post. Interesting and almost scary stuff.

I think some people have been sold that mercy, rather than justice, should be the role of the state. In an attempt to turn the other cheek, they inadvertantly give evildoers a pass and promote more bad behavior.

Rick Ritchie said...

Sasse's essay doesn't really answer the questions posed by the American Revolution. I would suggest it needs to be balanced by the following quote:

"Since we have always taught that one should acknowledge civil laws, submit to them, and respect their authority, inasmuch as the gospel does not militate against civil laws, we cannot invalidate from Scripture the right of men to defend themselves even against the emperor in person, or anyone acting in his name....In previously teaching that resistance to government authorities is altogether forbidden, we were unaware that this right has been granted by the government's own laws, which we have diligently taught are to be obeyed at all times." (LW vol 47:8, quoted by Eric W. Gritsch in "Martin -- God's Court Jester" pp. 126-127.)

The question would be whether or not British Law granted rights to the citizens that the king had failed to honor.

Josh Schneider said...

Rick, I haven't studied this particular issue in great enough depth to speak too definitively on it. But it seems that the defense against the abuse of authority by either the emperor or his agents in your quote, is still to be understood within the realm of the government. IOW, protecting oneself and even resisting corrupt authorities, but not necessarily overthrow of that government and the ensuing temporary anarchy. So if I read this rightly, it means opposition and reform, not revolution per se.

Again, briefly back to the Sasse quote, he regards the new American government as a legitimate governing authority because it rightly takes up the tasks of government. But the act of revolution is nevertheless not a God-given perogative. If you have access to the Sasse essays in the Lonely Way, I'd recommend reading the whole article in context. I'm sure my quotes have not quite rounded out all the issues as it pertains to the American Revolution.

Rick Ritchie said...

I follow that to a point.

The question would be, "What does within the government entail?" Within its laws? Using its functionaries? I think there is a bit of a gray area.

I think I would agree that in most cases I would be against pure revolution, where there is no continuity whatsoever. (Though if the government were an anti-government which did the opposite of what it is called to do, I would prefer anarchy. Lawlessness is not worse than mechanized evil.)

My problem with the Sasse quote (It may be cured by further reading, but I doubt it.) is that he suggests that the American government was only legitimate AFTER the Revolution.

Our revolution was not a bunch of people firing randomly and creating a power vacuum which was later filled.

Josh Schneider said...

Rick, I agree there is gray area, but I think where Sasse is saying it comes to black and white is when it turns to revolution. He says, "But the insurgent never has legal right...He can be the instrument of divine wrath, but his rebellion remains guilt. As God does his 'alien work' in the midst of war, so may he also allow the outbreak of human sin in revolution in order to fulfill his angry judgment." So I would say he probably does mean 'within the laws' of a country, as he says the insurgent has 'no legal right.'

I see your problem with the quote, that he seems to suggest "the American government was only legitimate AFTER the Revolution." I think that is a correct assessment of his position, because he's basically saying that even though our government had an immoral or sinful inception because of the Revolution, yet it is now a legitimate government. I would probably say it this way--just because we have a legitimate government now (as it fulfills the God-ordained duties of governing (see original quote)), doesn't mean we have to or should try to justify the act of rebellion. When God does his 'alien' work of punishing the evildoer--as for example through the Babylonians taking Judah into captivity--that doesn't justify the cruelties of war or conquest. Yet God's purpose is accomplished despite the evil that man brings about. I certainly don't think that Sasse is trying to downplay the grievances that the colonists had against the British Government. Remember that Sasse experienced the same question of resisting a tyrannical government, as he lived and taught in Nazi Germany before he had to flee the country. Though he vigorously opposed Nazism and Hitler, he did not condone the actions of contemporaries like Bonhoeffer, who attempted to assasinate Hitler.

Rick Ritchie said...

Do you have a definition of revolution? Do we just go by the historical label?

The Continental Congress was called in part to respond to the king's actions, one of which was to restrict the activities of the Massachusetts legislature. So you have a legal question as to whether or not the king had the right to restrict such activities.

The term 'insurgent' itself begs the question.

While I would likely side with Bonhoeffer against Sasse, I don't see even Bonhoeffer's action in the same light as the American Revolution. You would have a better parallel if when Hitler dissolved the German parliament, it had continued to meet and it called for armed resistance.