The Laws of Christ for Common Life. Chapter 12. Political and Municipal Duty
16 min read
16 min read
When the Son of God became flesh, He revealed the sacredness of human life; its sacredness, not merely in its direct relations to God, but in its relations to that natural order and social environment by which it is disciplined and developed, and in which it exercises its affections and virtues. In translating us into the kingdom of heaven, He does not separate children from parents, husbands from wives. He takes up the Family into the diviner order, and so consecrates it. He does the same for industry and commerce, for literature, and science, and art. Christ does not pronounce them common and unclean; He makes them His own and transfigures them, by declaring that in all these pursuits men are to do the will of God. Nor does He call us out of that social and political order which is necessary, not only to the prosperity, but to the existence of nations. On the contrary He affirms the sacredness of civil authority, and enforces civil duties with new and Divine sanctions. As there is no conflict between the Divine Kingdom and the Family, neither is there any conflict between the Divine Kingdom and the State. Christ does not suppress the Family, but purifies and ennobles it. Christ does not suppress the State, but inspires political life with a more generous temper, and directs it to higher ends; He makes loyalty the religious duty of subjects, and under penalty of the Divine displeasure requires rulers to be just.
Unhappily this conception of His work has never yet been firmly grasped by Christendom. In the corrupt ages of the Church, men thought that the Family was not Divine enough for the perfect life; there are many Christian people who are still of the opinion that political activity is inconsistent with saintliness.
There are the clearest indications in the New Testament that the distrust and antagonism which have so long existed between the Church and civil society began early. The apostles had to insist with great energy on the duty of submission to secular governments; and this is an indication that many of the early converts to the Christian faith were disposed to think badly of kings and magistrates, and to dispute their authority. It was not easy, indeed, for Christian men and women in apostolic times to believe that “the powers which be are ordained of God,” and to regard civil government as part of the Divine order of the world. Idolatry met the Christian man in all public places. Heathen gods received the homage of the State. The Roman Emperor was the high-priest of Paganism. Why should the sons of God, the heirs of immortal glory, acknowledge the authority of rulers who were in revolt against the Divine authority; who sometimes persecuted those who were trying to obey the Divine law? And were not all Christians citizens of a Divine Commonwealth? Had they not their own laws? Was not Christ Himself their King? Were they not looking forward to the great day when they would stand at His judgment-seat? Were not earthly kingdoms to be broken up and brought under His authority? Was not this immense revolution the great hope of the Church? Were not the golden days of universal righteousness and peace delayed while the existing order of political and civil society remained un shaken? What claim had secular rulers, secular laws, secular institutions on their allegiance and respect?
The alienation of Christian people from the secular order was increased by their Church organizations. They belonged not only to an invisible kingdom, under the rule of a Prince who reigned at the right hand of God, but to visible societies having regularly appointed rulers, who administered, in concurrence with the commonalty of the faithful, the laws of Christ. It was considered an offence for a Christian man to appeal to heathen judges, for the settlement of any differences between himself and a Christian brother. Jewish communities in heathen cities had acquired the right to appoint magistrates of their own, and within certain limits to govern themselves by their own laws; Christian Churches endeavoured to maintain this tradition of civil autonomy. They tried to have nothing to do with heathen tribunals. What necessity was there for two governments and two systems of law? How could they obey two masters?
The presence of Jews in most Christian Churches during the first century embittered antagonism to the empire. It was the custom of the apostles to begin their evangelistic work in the synagogue; in many Churches converts from Judaism constituted the majority of the membership. The old vision of an earthly Messiah, with armies and fleets to assert His power, had vanished, or was vanishing, but the Jewish hatred and scorn for Gentile rulers, which had been intensified by the glories and disasters of many centuries, by the supreme hope, renewed through age after age, of the future splendour of the Jewish race, and by the consciousness of possessing already a sublimer faith and a nobler morality than any of the heathen nations, — this hatred and this scorn remained. The Churches were infected by the fierce, reckless, revolutionary spirit which was hereditary among the Jewish people.
Peter, therefore, affirms with great strength the duty of obeying the secular authorities, “Be subject to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake,” — as part of the obedience you owe to Christy — “whether it is to the King, as supreme, or unto governors, as sent by him for vengeance on evil-doers and for praise to them who do well. For so is the will of God, that by well-doing ye should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” — who in some cases were not silent and had reasons for saying that Christians were bad citizens — “as free, and not using your freedom for a cloak of wickedness, but as bond-servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the King.”
Paul tells Titus to put Christian people “in mind to be in subjection to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready unto every good work,” — to every form of service to the State, which the laws and the magistrates required.
In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul develops more fully the Christian conception of the secular organization of society. The Church is not the only institution that has the Divine sanction: the State is also Divine. Caesar, the provincial governors, the city magistrates, all ” the powers that be,” are “ordained of God.” Church rulers derive their authority from heaven: so do political rulers. They, too, are ” ministers of God’s service.” Chris tian men are therefore to submit to them, not only in order to avoid civil penalties, but ” for conscience’ sake,” for “he that resisteth the power with standeth the ordinance of God.”
Christ had anticipated all these apostolic precepts in His reply to the malignant question of the Pharisees and Herodians, — ” Is it lawful for us to give tribute unto Caesar or not?” “He perceived their craftiness, and said unto them, Show me a penny. Whose image and superscription hath it? and they said Caesar’s. And He said unto them, Then render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
It is often assumed that the Christian faith is the natural ally and support of oppressive governments, is unfriendly to a generous patriotism, and extinguishes the love of freedom. But it appears that in the earliest times it was associated with a revolutionary spirit, and regarded political authority with resentment. Even in those centuries during which the priesthood and the papacy struggled, and for a time successfully, to appropriate to themselves the powers of civil rulers, the original temper of the Church survived. Ecclesiastical ambition was not without its nobler elements. It attempted, in the name of God, to limit the absolute authority of the State. It asserted that there are regions of human thought and activity over which the State has no sovereignty, and that there are institutions, such as the Family, which are rooted in Divine laws that the State cannot repeal. It was an attempt to resist the encroachments of civil governments on provinces of human life which are beyond its authority. The fault, the crime, lay in the profane attempt to establish the usurpation of the priest in the place of the usurpation of the crown. There was another fault and another crime. The Church, in asserting its own supremacy, impaired the independent authority of the State, and virtually impeached its sacredness as an institution not less truly Divine than itself. The Christian theory, as laid down by Christ Himself, and illustrated by the apostles, is, I think, very clear. There are provinces of human life in which the authority of secular governments is sustained by the will of God. Parliaments, town councils, judges, magistrates, have their place in the Divine order. The Christian man is not released from the obligations of citizenship: to him these obligations are strengthened by new sanctions, and for the manner in which he discharges them he will have to give account at the judgment-seat of God.
“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” The precept was suggested by a question about tribute. In its original reference it enforced the duty of paying taxes. Paul describes the levying and collection of taxes as a divinely appointed function of the civil magistrate. This throws quite a new h’ght upon ” Committee of Supply,” upon the Budget, upon the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer, upon Income-tax Commissioners and Custom-house officers, upon the unwelcome documents which we receive from the overseers of the poor and the collectors of rates and taxes. We are to pay ” tribute ” because civil rulers are “ministers of God’s service, attending continually upon this very thing.” The tax may be excessive, unfairly levied, unwisely or unjustly spent; if so, the civil rulers are doing their work badly, and will have to account to God for their injustice or their folly. We may try to set them right; in a country with a free constitution, and where private citizens have a large responsibility for the acts of the government, this is a duty. In extreme cases — when, for instance, a tax is levied by an arbitrary exercise of power, and in violation of the recognised rights of the nation, or when a government is so corrupt and tyrannical that the primary objects for which the State exists are not secured — there remains the power, perhaps the duty, of resistance and revolt. But a wise nation will suffer much before it resorts to measures of violence, and good men will be slow to come to the conclusion that the powers which are ” ordained of God ” have lost the Divine sanction.
There are some people — honest enough in all their private affairs — who seem to think that a tax or a rate is a claim to be evaded. Paul makes tax-paying a religious duty; “the demand note ” of the collector is backed by the Divine authority, and countersigned by the Divine hand. What happened when Ananias and Sapphira made a false return to the apostles, who were ” ministers of God ” representing the Church, we know. It ought to warn us against making false returns to the Income-tax Commissioners, who, according to Paul, and according to the whole Christian conception of secular society, are ” ministers of God ” representing the State. The tax may be vexatious, it may be unequal, but while it lasts we ought to return every farthing of our income ” for conscience’ sake.”
The same obligation holds in relation to all other public payments. The Custom-house officer is one of the “ministers of God,” and to evade lawful “duties” is to evade a Divine claim.
On the other hand, Christian men in Parliament, overseers, members of town councils and of local boards should remember whose servants they are, and should levy taxes and rates justly, and expend them wisely and fairly as the representatives of the authority of God.
But we have not discharged the duty of rendering to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s when we have paid rates and taxes. In many countries the State requires all men of adult age to serve for a definite number of years in the army; in addition to contributing money to pay for the defence of the country they have to defend it themselves. We have no military conscription in England, but our constitution requires that very large numbers of men should give a considerable portion of their time to certain national and municipal duties; if they refuse to do it the whole system of government breaks down. As long as justice is administered by an unpaid magistracy men must consent to spend dismal hours on the bench. As long as our local affairs are under the control of local authorities elected by the ratepayers men must consent to serve on town councils, to be members of watch committees, markets and fairs committees, finance committees, gas committees, water committees, and the rest; and they must consent to accept the mayoralty. Other men must be willing to serve on school boards, and others to act as overseers and guardians of the poor. Men who discharge these duties pay a voluntary tax levied on personal service. It is a tax which must be paid by some one, and every man has to determine his own share.
As long as we are governed by two Chambers, a member of the House of Lords has no more right to neglect his legislative duties than a policeman to go off his beat before his time, or a bricklayer who is paid for ten hours’ work, to work five hours and sleep or smoke the other five. It is true that most of the men who have to serve in the Upper House inherit their responsibilities by birth, and were never asked whether they would bear the burden of legislation or not. But this does not relieve them from their responsibility. Many of the gravest duties of every man are duties which came to him in the same way; a man’s duties to his parents and to his brothers and sisters are just as binding as if he had undertaken them voluntarily. Nor is it enough for an hereditary legislator to discharge his duties as well as he is able; he should try to make himself able to discharge them well.
In the House of Commons a man sits by his own consent, and the obligation to discharge the trust he has received from his constituents is too plain to be ignored. A man who uses his position in that House to promote his private interests instead of the interests of the nation, is guilty of a flagrant moral offence; he is as guilty as a solicitor who uses for his own purposes the money he has received to invest for a client. But men may also be guilty of neglecting duty who refuse to enter the House. It is plain that the State has claims on the services of those who are able to serve it most efficiently. Where there is political knowledge, political sagacity, the power of commanding public confidence, leisure to discharge Parliamentary duties, there is some reason to think that a man is in possession of ” the things that are Caesar’s; ” it is possible that in refusing to stand for the House of Commons he is defrauding his country, defrauding it as really as if he had returned his income at two thousand a year, when he ought to have returned it at ten. This is a question for a man’s judgment and conscience, not for his personal tastes and preferences. It would hardly do for a man to refuse to pay his debts, and to plead in self defence that paying debts was extremely distasteful to him, and that he found it more agreeable to his personal inclinations to spend his money in other ways.
Civil authority — this is the main point I want to assert — is a Divine institution. The man who holds municipal or political office is a ” minister of God.” One man may, therefore, have just as real a Divine vocation to become a town councillor or a Member of Parliament as another to become a missionary to the heathen. In either case it is at a man’s peril that he is ” disobedient to the heavenly vision.” The Divine right of kings was a base corruption of a most noble truth; so was the fanatical dream about “the reign of the saints.” We shall never approach the Christian ideal of civil society, until all who hold municipal, judicial, and political offices, recognise the social and political order of the nation as a Divine institution, and discharge their official duties as ministers of God.
But in this country the responsibilities of government are shared by the people. The great outlines of national legislation and policy are laid down, not in Parliament, not in the Cabinet, but at the polling booths. It is the electors who make war or maintain peace, who repeal old laws and pass new ones, who interfere, justly or unjustly, between landlords and tenants, masters and servants, parents and children. Those who abstain from voting, determine the national policy as truly as those who vote. The responsibility of the Parliamentary franchise cannot be evaded.
I sometimes think that municipalities can do more for the people than Parliament. Their powers will probably be enlarged; but under the powers which they possess already they can greatly diminish the amount of sickness in the community, and can prolong human life. They can prevent — they have prevented — tens of thousands of wives from becoming widows, tens of thousands of children from becoming orphans. They can do very much to improve those miserable homes which are fatal not only to health, but to decency and morality. They can give to the poor the enjoyment of pleasant parks and gardens, and the intellectual cultivation and refinement of public libraries and galleries of art. They can redress in many ways the inequalities of human conditions. The gracious words of Christ, “Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these My brethren, even these least, ye did it unto Me,” will be addressed not only to those who with their own hands fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and cared for the sick, but to those who supported a municipal policy which lessened the miseries of the wretched, and added brightness to the lives of the desolate. And the terrible rebuke, ” Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of these least, ye did it not unto Me,” will condemn the selfishness of those who refused to make municipal government the instrument of a policy of justice and . humanity.
If, years ago, the Christian people of the metropolis had insisted on having an effective system of municipal government, and had worked its powers vigorously, the “Bitter Cry of Outcast London” need never have been heard. Now that the cry has come to them the churches will never be able to remedy the evil apart from the action of municipal authorities. Medicine, and not the gospel only, is necessary to ‘ cure the sick. Municipal action, and not the gospel only, is necessary to improve the homes of the poor.
In some countries the local authorities corresponding to our mayor and town council, are appointed by the Crown. The duty of appointment is a difficult one; the central government can never have all the knowledge necessary to appoint wisely. With us the duty of appointment is thrown upon the ratepayers, and the duty carries with it grave responsibilities.
The municipal as well as the political franchise is a trust; both are to be used, not for private but for public purposes. If in appointing an ambassador to Paris, St. Petersburg, or, Berlin, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary were influenced by improper motives; if they appointed a man, not because they thought that on the whole he was the best man available for the post, but because he was an old friend; or if they recalled one ambassador and sent out another on the ground of personal pique, and to gratify personal resentment; or if a man obtained the appointment by giving splendid entertainments to his political patrons or friends; it would be a public scandal. If he obtained it by a bribe — by a bribe given in any form — by a heavy subscription, for instance, to the election fund of the Carlton or the Reform Club — it would be a public crime.
But the same moral laws that govern the exercise of political patronage, govern the exercise of the franchise. If in a municipal or a political contest, you vote for a man for no other reason than that he is a friend or a neighbour, and it would not be pleasant to disoblige him; or because the rival candidate passed you in the street without speaking to you, or omitted to invite you to a dinner-party, or forgot to tell his wife that your daughters were to be asked to a dance — this is a clear violation of public duty. If you vote for a man for no other reason than that he has subscribed to a hospital, or a school, or a church, in which you happen to be interested, or because he sustained your application for some public office; if you refuse to vote for him because he told the manager of the bank of which he happens to be a director, to decline to increase your “overdraw,” or because he gives you no orders for coals or meat — this is positive corruption.
According to the Divine order civil authority is necessary to the existence of civil society. Civil rulers are “ministers of God.” But they are not designated to their office by a voice from heaven. In this country the sovereign and the peers inherit their position by birth; the rest have to be selected, directly or indirectly, by those who possess the franchise. It is surely a part of God’s service to deter mine who shall be God’s ” ministers,” and for the manner in which we discharge this service we are responsible to God. Not to vote is to act the part of the unfaithful servant who hid his talent in the earth and made no use of it. To vote corruptly is a felony; it is to appropriate to our own purposes what we have received as trustees for the town or the nation.
Those who are in the habit of speaking of political life as though it were unfriendly to all the pursuits and interests of the kingdom of Christ, and who therefore decline to discharge their political duties, are strangely inconsistent. If a municipality proposes to open libraries or museums on a Sunday, many excellent Christian people become greatly excited and strain all their influence to prevent what they regard as a desecration of the weekly day of rest; but they do not seem to believe that members of a town council have to get the will of God done on Monday and Tuesday as well as on Sunday, and that Christian ratepayers ought to elect the men who will do it. If a parliamentary oath is to be abolished, these devout persons sign petitions and make speeches against the abolition: for a professed atheist to get into Parliament seems to them a terrible scandal in a Christian country; but many of these same persons regard the actual business of Parliament as so remote from the province of religious duty as to make it a very “worldly ” thing for a Christian man to interest himself in politics; if this is a true account of political life, then all the members of the House of Commons ought to be atheists. I pronounce no judgment in this place on either of these measures. It may be the duty of Christian men to insist that municipalities shall refuse to open libraries, museums, art galleries, on Sunday; it may be their duty to insist that Parliament shall refuse to permit a man known to be an atheist to take the oath. But it is rather odd and not quite intelligible that those who regard politics as the special province of the prince of this world, and who ordinarily shun all contact with political life for fear of losing their spirituality of mind, should now and then become zealous politicians in order to protect the interests of the Christian faith, and to maintain the honour of God. If political forces are so incurably evil, one would suppose that the defence of the kingdom of heaven would be the last purpose for which Christian men would be willing to use them. They pray for kings and magistrates; but if politics are so fatal to Christian fidelity, kings and magistrates are past praying for. They enjoy — apparently without any qualms of conscience — all the advantages of municipal and national institutions; but if municipal and political activity is ruinous to the souls of all who engage in it, Christian men ought to decline the personal advantages which are bought at so fearful a price.
Paul has taught us a nobler and profounder theory of politics. “The powers that be are ordained of God,” for the maintenance of public order, for the protection of life, of property, and of personal freedom. Civil rulers are “ministers of God,” and their service is necessary to secure the great ends of civil society, the diffusion of material comfort, the accumulation of material wealth, the cultivation of the intellectual life of the race, the transmission from generation to generation of the discoveries of science and the triumphs of art. Apart from civil society some of the noblest and most generous virtues could never be developed. Through the Municipality and the State, as well as through the Family and the Church, the infinite righteousness and goodness and mercy of God have provided for the discipline of human perfection. The true duty of the Christian / man is, not to forsake municipal and political life because it is corrupt, but to carry into municipal and political activity the law and the spirit of Christ; to resolve to do his part to secure for his fellow-townsmen and his fellow-countrymen all those blessings which a municipality and a nation, justly, wisely, and efficiently governed, can secure for them; that so “the powers” which are “ordained of God” may, fulfil the purpose for which He ordained them, and the Divine will be done by civil rulers on earth as it is done by angels and the spirits of the just in heaven.