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