Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Concerning the Power of the Civil Magistrate


It has taken two years, but this post marks the end of my posts on Barclay's Apology. I discussed the 15'th proposition in September 2006 when our First Day School was examining the Testimony on Simplicity. I have enjoyed this examination of Barclay and parts of it have sparked much interest among you. I have gained a greater understanding and appreciation of the thought of early Friends from this exploration. More importantly I have come to have a deeper understanding of their religious exercise. In particular I have come to appreciate both the inwardness of it and the simultaneous expectation that the inward work will manifest itself in our outward lives. I have found myself being challenged to greater faithfulness in my religious walk. I trust that this has been helpful to you as well. I will continue to post about current happenings among Friends and reflections on what I read but I do not foresee me taking on a reflection on a major work in the near future. So with thanks for your support, here is Barclay on the power of the Civil Magistrate.

Since God hath assumed to himself the power and dominion of the conscience, who alone can rightly instruct and govern it, therefore it is not lawful for any whosoever, by virtue of any authority or principality they bear in the government of this world, to force the consciences of others; and therefore all killing, banishing, fining, imprisoning and other such things which are inflicted upon men for the alone exercise of their conscience or difference in worship or opinion proceedeth from the spirit of Cain, the murderer, and is contrary to the Truth, providing always that no man, under the pretence of conscience, prejudice his neighbour in his life or estate, or do anything destructive to, or inconsistent with human society, in which case the law is for the transgressor, and justice is to be administered upon all without respect of persons.
[Barclay's Apology, Proposition 14]

In the United States we tend to think that this is a settled matter. That isn't so elsewhere. Perhaps 7 years ago I had the opportunity to visit Friends in Cuba. When I was at Holguin Friends Church I was given a chance to speak to the church and I presented a brief rundown Barclay's Apology. When I got to the part about religious persecution proceeding from the spirit of Cain, the person who was translating for me turned to me and asked in English if I really wanted him to translate this. I said that I did and he did, as near as I could tell. I have sometimes wondered whether this was the right thing to do and I hope the Friend has not gotten into trouble for speaking words that were not his.

Barclay starts off by pointing out that conscience is a persuasion of the mind of the truth or falsity of some matter. Even if a person is wrong about the matter in question it is a sin for them to act in a way that is not in accord with their belief. This principle is another reason why we need to be gentle with each other when dealing with the controversial issues that divide Friends. In many cases we have disagreements that turn on matters of faith, belief and conscience. Even a mistaken conscience is binding on us. So it is not enough to attempt to prove to someone the errors of their ways, however much we are tempted to do so. What is required is a change of heart, of conscience, and that is work for the Holy Spirit. The Spirit in these matters seems to have much more patience that we do.

“[T]he conscience of man is the seat and throne of God in him, of which God is the alone proper and infallible Judge.” The church can remove heretics from its membership but they cannot remove them from civil society. To make the magistrate to punish according to determination of the church is to make the magistrate the church's hangman. This is still true today whether the law in question is sharia, the Ten Commandments, laws on abortion or limiting marriage to one man or one woman. In all of these cases people are asking the state to create and enforce laws that codify a particular set of religious beliefs. These are areas in which religious people have serious and sincere differences of opinion. A church may certainly hold their members to a more restrictive code of conduct than society as a whole does, but they should not rely on civil society to enforce those rules on everyone.

Christ's kingdom is not of this world and we should not rely on the powers of this world to promote it. Barclay quotes 2 Cor 10:4 that the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but spiritual. Would we turn to wrestling with flesh and blood if we cannot prevail with the Spirit? If we cannot succeed with spiritual means should we turn to carnal weapons to create Christ's kingdom?

[T]his forcing of men's consciences is contrary to sound reason, and the very law of nature. For man's understanding cannot be forced by all the bodily sufferings another man can inflict upon him, especially in matters spiritual and supernatural: 'tis arguments and evident demonstrations of reason, together with the power of God reaching the heart, that can change a man's mind from one opinion to another, and not knocks and blows, and suchlike things, which may well destroy the body but never can inform the soul .... To seek to force minds in any other manner, is to deal with men as if they were brutes[.]
[Apology, Proposition 14, Section IV]

By force we can make men hypocrites but we cannot make them Christians. God only seeks the sacrifices that come from a contrite heart, not a coerced one.

If dissenters prove resolute in the face of persecution and are willing to suffer boldly for what they believe to be right, this often leads to commendation of the sufferers and not the persecutors. This was the experience of early Friends and their sufferings led to the establishment of religious toleration in England and the United States. This principle is the underpinnings of all non-violent resistance. It underlay Gandhi's struggle for independence in India and it lay at the American civil rights movement. It is a practical application of the same sacrificial suffering the Jesus exemplified in his crucifixion. In fact Barclay finds the ground of all persecution to be the unwillingness to suffer. “No man that will persecute another for his conscience would suffer for his own, if he could avoid it.” True, faithful Christian suffering is to profess and practice what one believes to be true, no more and no less, in the face of either outward encouragement or the threat of persecution. This was the witness of Quakers who kept to their meetings even when they were banned and disrupted.

Barclay describes the persecutions that Quakers endured and sums up:

What liberty we now enjoy, it is by his mercy, and not by any outward working or procuring of our own, but 'tis he has wrought upon the hearts of our opposers; nor was it any outward interest hath procured it unto us, but the testimony of our harmlessness in the hearts of our superiors: for God hath preserved us hitherto in the patient sufferings of Jesus...
[Apology, Proposition 14, Section VI]

Blessings to all

Will T


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"To make the magistrate to punish according to determination of the church is to make the magistrate the church's hangman. This is still true today whether the law in question is sharia, the Ten Commandments, laws on abortion or limiting marriage to one man or one woman. In all of these cases people are asking the state to create and enforce laws that codify a particular set of religious beliefs."

Do you think murder should be legal? How about rape? Infanticide? Child molestation?

Would you consider the laws that make these illegal to be simply enforcing "a particular set of religious beliefs"?

I agree with much of what you say, but the State, if it is worth anything at all, should have some role in protecting people. There ARE ethics that transcend religion. Our governments already condone enough violence - war, torture - without them also condoning murder or rape by legalizing them. While gay marriage doesn't hurt anyone, abortion does (including women, by the way), and the fact that the embryo/fetus is a developing human being is not a matter of specific religious morality, but of science. We must be able to distinguish between ethics that come from a particular religious view, and ethics that are the natural fruit of a reverence for human life - which, I hope and believe, is something which is beyond organized religion.

June 16, 2008 3:01 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

Dear Anonymous,
And where did I say that murder, rape, infanticide or Child molestation should be legal? Nothing in Barclay or what I said should be construed as saying that there is no place for civil law. What he says is that the civil law should not be used to enforce religious beliefs.

So laws against murder and rape can be justified in terms of keeping all citizens safe in their persons without needing to justify it by reliance on religious doctrine. That is where arguments against same-sex marriage based on quotations in Leviticus or Romans fail. Civil marriage is a civil function that conveys a certain package of rights and privileges on the couple. Some are property rights, some are rights of privilege against testifying against the other other and there are a lot more. Religious arguments are only meaningful in determining if a given denomination will perform a religious marriage of the couple.

What makes the question of abortion so difficult is that there are a number of conflicting rights at play. At what point does the right to life begin. Does it trump the right of the mother to control her own body. What happens when the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. Whose right to life takes precedence? If opposition to all abortion is based on the belief that the soul enters the body at the moment a sperm fertilizes an egg, then you have to recognize that this is a religious argument. It may motivate you to change the law but you have to recognize that there may be people with different sincerely held beliefs.

Civil law is not the place for moral absolutes. It is an arena where people work out how they can create a society that is just for everyone and that respects the beliefs of everyone - knowing that these two principles will continually come into conflict.

Our religious and moral principles will often call us to live life following stricter ethics than required by the law. Under the law, you only have to tell the truth when you have taken an oath to be truthful. The Quaker testimony on honesty in all things holds people to a much higher standard. Civil law is the enforcer of the lowest common denominator of acceptable action. It cannot enforce the highest standards.


Will T

June 16, 2008 9:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Will,

Again, I agree with much of what you say. I was not trying to suggest that you thought murder or rape should be legal, only to emphasize the fact that laws - the laws we really need - are the ones that protect human beings. They are the response to our innate morality, the morality which does not need to be indoctrinated into us by religion or by anything else. Also, in case I wasn't clear, I completely support gay marriage. And I'm a woman.

Here's a quote from Jesse Jackson back when he was pro-life: "There are those who argue that the right to privacy is of higher order than the right to life. I do not share that view. I believe that life is not private, but rather it is public and universal. If one accepts the position that life is private, and therefore you have the right to do with it as you please, one must also accept the conclusion of that logic. That was the premise of slavery. You could not protest the existence or treatment of slaves on the plantation because that was private and therefore outside of your right to concerned."

If "civil law is not the place for moral absolutes" then why make slavery illegal? Yet John Woolman and other Quakers fought against slavery; they did not say, "Well, I don't have the right to force my personal religious beliefs on other people."

There are complications around the issue of abortion, to be sure, but science is pretty darn clear about when life begins, and if you look at photographs of developing embryos, it's remarkable how quickly they look human. Is life a religious issue? I know atheists and agnostics with a deep reverence for human life. Obviously, if the life of the mother is in danger and the fetus cannot be safely delivered or kept alive outside the womb, the thing to do is save the woman's life. But cases such as this do not mandate the existence of a full-fledged abortion industry.

The separation of church and state should remain in place. But we need to be clear that there are issues important to the church that are ALSO important to the state. Abortion is one of the most controversial current examples, but it is far from the only one.

June 17, 2008 5:51 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

Dear Anonymous,
I think that we may be in closer agreement than you think. I am not saying that we should not advocate for changes in civil policy based on our religious beliefs, otherwise FCNL would have to go out of business. The point is that in the civil arena you need to develop a case based on something other than the religious argument. You can argue based on rights or the greatest good for the greatest number of people or because it fits a vision of a civil society that you can clearly articulate. You cannot just say that something is wrong because it is against your religion. You have to have reasons that will be persuasive to someone who does not share your religious assumptions or beliefs.


Will T

June 17, 2008 10:40 PM  
Blogger Mark Wutka said...

I really appreciate the way you have presented this. One thing I have been struggling with is that while I agree that the government is not in the business of enforcing/promoting/squashing particular religious views, when it comes to person-to-person interactions, it seems like there is a place for witnessing our faith, and not just presenting arguments.

For example, if we are opposed to war because we live in "the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars", it seems like it would be effective to help people come to live in that same virtue. Your post and these comments really make me struggle with where that fits in.

With love,

June 19, 2008 11:02 AM  
Blogger Will T said...

When we are dealing with individuals we may indeed witness to our faith. We may also witness to large groups of people and use blogs and whatever - when it is clear that witness to our faith is what we are doing. The part of the witness of early Friends that was so successful was that they were willing to accept the consequences of their faith, even when it came at a high cost to their property, health or safety.

But if we are petitioning the legislature for a change in laws we are not witnessing to our faith - even if the faith is our motivation. We need to find arguments that are persuasive in a more general way. We should not be looking to the legislature to impose our views on society at large. It is quite permissible to try to change the attitude of society at large. If we succeed in doing that, the politicians will follow.

Will T

June 20, 2008 8:35 PM  

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