Rebelling against the God-ordained civil authority, or defending certain unalienable Rights?

In Uncategorized on March 10, 2006 at 12:00 AM

God commands His people obey the governing authorities since they are established by Him. What exceptions does He allow? When the civil authority requires a believer to sin, he or she is to obey God, not men.

What possible argument can be made in defense of the American rebellion against its sovereign? Perhaps self-defense against those violating the laws of both man and God, but nothing else. From Was the American Revolution a Biblically Justified Act (footnotes omitted)?

The second factor which the Framers believed gave them Biblical justification for their actions was the fact they did not initiate the conflict. The Framers had been fully committed to peaceful reconciliation and had pursued that course for 11 consecutive years before the separation from Great Britain. There was no desire to raise arms against England, their mother country and the land of their birth. Nevertheless, in the last two years of their peaceful reconciliation attempts (e.g., as in May 1776 with their Olive Branch Petition), their entreaties and appeals were met solely by military force. In fact, King George III dispatched 25,000 British troops to invade his own Colonies, enter into the homes of his own citizens, take their private possessions and goods, and imprison them without trials — all in violation of his own British common law, English Bill of Rights, and Magna Carta.

When their peaceful entreaties were met with armed attackers, the Framers cited full Biblical justification to defend their own homes, families, properties, and possessions — an important point to them. In their understanding of the Scriptures, God could bless a defensive war but not an offensive war. This was their great point of spiritual appeal: they had not attacked Great Britain; they had never fired the first shot — not in the British Massacre of 1770, nor in the Lexington and Concord engagements of 1775, nor in the bombing of Boston in 1774. Yet, now fired upon, they could defend themselves. In fact, so reticent were they to separate from Great Britain that it was a full three years after King George III had drawn the sword and sent armed troops against his own citizens in America before they announced their separation. As signer of the Declaration John Witherspoon confirmed:

On the part of America, there was not the most distant thought of subverting the government or of hurting the interest of the people of Great Britain; but of defending their own privileges from unjust encroachment; there was not the least desire of withdrawing their allegiance from the common sovereign [King George III] till it became absolutely necessary — and indeed, it was his own choice.

When the decision for a separation was finally made, however, the Founders continued to maintain their strong entreaty to God for the justness of their actions. For example, in a letter to British officials, Samuel Adams, the “Father of the American Revolution,” declared:

There is One above us who will take exemplary vengeance for every insult upon His majesty. You know that the cause of America is just. You know that she contends for that freedom to which all men are entitled — that she contends against oppression, rapine, and more than savage barbarity. The blood of the innocent is upon your hands, and all the waters of the ocean will not wash it away. We again make our solemn appeal to the God of heaven to decide between you and us. And we pray that, in the doubtful scale of battle, we may be successful as we have justice on our side, and that the merciful Savior of the world may forgive our oppressors.

Adams also authored a manifesto for the Continental Congress which reflected a similar tone of submission to God:

We, therefore, the Congress of the United States of America, do solemnly declare and proclaim that. . . . [w]e appeal to the God who searcheth the hearts of men for the rectitude of our intentions; and in His holy presence declare that, as we are not moved by any light or hasty suggestions of anger or revenge, so through every possible change of fortune we will adhere to this our determination.

It was the fact that they had been attacked which — in their understanding of the Bible — completely changed their status in the eyes of God, for the Bible clearly authorized and justified self-defense against an aggressor as righteous before God. But some object that the American Revolution resulted in a loss of life, and therefore cannot be justifiable in the eyes of God. This position demonstrates a lack of Biblical understanding about life.

Clearly, protecting innocent life is a key and recurring theme in the Bible. Life is God-given; He formed us, made us, and breathed life into us. Therefore, He gave clear commands both on preserving innocent life and on punishing those who take it (See, for example, Exodus 23:7, Deuteronomy 27:25 & 21:8-9 & 19:10, Proverbs 6:16-17, 2 Kings 24:4, Psalm 10:2,8, et al.) Since God is the author of life, and since He alone holds the keys of death (see 1 Samuel 2:6), He – not man – is to determine when life is to end.

However, the taking of life is not always the taking of innocent life. God allows man justifiably to take human life on three occasions.

The first occasion is for the cause of civil justice (e.g., Deuteronomy 19:11-13, Numbers 35:16-27, 2 Samuel 4:11, etc.). The shedding of blood in such cases is not the shedding of innocent blood. The second justifiable cause is general military conflict (e.g., Numbers 32:27, 2 Chronicles 32:8, 1 Samuel 4:1). The third cause is in defense of one’s life, family, or property (e.g., Nehemiah 4:13-14 & 20-21, Zechariah 9:8, 2 Samuel 10:12). In these three situations, the taking of life is not viewed by God as the shedding of innocent blood.

Similarly, Jewish scholars point out that the prohibition in the Sixth Commandment is not against killing but rather is against murder. That is, they assert that the proper translation from the Hebrew is not “Thou shalt not kill,” but rather “Thou shalt not murder.” Murder is the taking of innocent life, while killing may not be (e.g., the three Biblically justified examples given above).

Therefore, the fact that the American Revolution was a defensive rather than an offensive war made all the difference in whether it could be a righteous war before God. The Framers’ writings emphasized this fact. For example, Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence (and a church choir leader, musician, noted poet and literary figure), made this clear in his 1777 work “A Political Catechism”:

Q. What is war?

A. The curse of mankind; the mother of famine and pestilence; the source of complicated miseries; and the undistinguishing destroyer of the human species.

Q. How is war divided?

A. Into offensive and defensive.

Q. What is the general object of an offensive war? . . .

A. [F]or the most part, it is undertaken to gratify the ambition of a prince, who wishes to subject to his arbitrary will a people whom God created free, and to gain an uncontrolled dominion over their rights and property. . . .

Q. What is defensive war?

A. It is to take up arms in opposition to the invasions of usurped power and bravely suffer present hardships and encounter present dangers, to secure the rights of humanity and the blessings of freedom, to generations yet unborn.

Q. Is even defensive war justifiable in a religious view?

A. The foundation of war is laid in the wickedness of mankind . . . . God has given man wit to contrive, power to execute, and freedom of will to direct his conduct. It cannot be but that some, from a depravity of will, will abuse these privileges and exert these powers to the injury of others: and the oppressed would have no safety nor redress but by exerting the same powers in their defence: and it is our duty to set a proper value upon and defend to the utmost our just rights and the blessings of life: otherwise a few miscreants [unprincipled individuals] would tyrannize over the rest of mankind, and make the passive multitude the slaves of their power. Thus it is that defensive is not only justifiable, but an indispensable duty.

Q. Is it upon these principles that the people of America are resisting the arms of Great Britain, and opposing force with force?

A. Strictly so. . . . And may Heaven prosper their virtuous undertaking!

Q. But it has often been said, that America is in a state of rebellion. Tell me, therefore, what is Rebellion?

A. It is when a great number of people, headed by one or more factious leaders, aim at deposing their lawful prince without any just cause of complaint in order to place another on his throne.

Q. Is this the case of the Americans?

A. Far otherwise.

James Wilson (a signer of the Declaration and the Constitution, an original Justice on the U. S. Supreme Court and the father of the first organized legal training in America), explained in to his law students more about defensive rights:

I here close my examination into those natural rights, which, in my humble opinion, it is the business of civil government to protect, and not to subvert, and the exercise of which it is the duty of civil government to enlarge, and not to restrain. . . . The defence of one’s self, justly called the primary law of nature, is not, nor can it be abrogated by any regulation of municipal law. This principle of defence is not confined merely to the person; it extends to the liberty and the property of a man: it is not confined merely to his own person; it extends to the persons of all those, to whom he bears a peculiar relation — of his wife, of his parent, of his child, of his master, of his servant: nay, it extends to the person of every one, who is in danger, perhaps, to the liberty of every one, whose liberty is unjustly and forcibly attacked. It becomes humanity as well as justice. . . . As a man is justified in defending, so he is justified in retaking, his property, or his peculiar relations, when from him they are unjustly taken and detained. . . . This long investigation concerning natural rights and natural remedies, I conclude by answering the question, with which I introduced it: Man does not exist for the sake of government, but government is instituted for the sake of man.

A final indication that the Framers believed they were engaged in a defensive war was the fact that throughout the course of the struggle, the conflict was often described by the Americans as a civil war rather than a revolution. Only in later years was it consistently called a revolution rather than a civil war. Very clearly, the Framers did not view the American Revolution as an act of anarchy or of rebellion against God, the Bible or any of its teachings. Under the view of Romans 13 as understood by the Framers, the American Revolution was indeed a Biblically-justifiable act.


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