By the People

By Lincoln E. Steed

A cold Christmas we had of it; what with plummeting economic indicators, spreading unemployment, tears to anthrax on even Christmas mail, and the prospect of continuing shocks in the ongoing war with terrorism. So much has changed in only a few months. And so much change continues to be justified by the situation.

In these back-to-the-Bible times, for this sometime Christian nation there have been more than a few Bible verses cast to the public maw. Some are comforting to those of us who are Christian—after all, there is a peace promised to the believer that goes way beyond the ritual remembrance of a Christmas Gift. Some, unfortunately, are used in a way that is inflammatory to both true Christians and nonbelievers; exploiting the public panic as they conflate recent events into a wrath of God message.

And others are well-intentioned misreadings that can lower our guard to the real issues.

Take Ecclesiastes, a perfectly benign analysis of conventional wisdom back in the days of King Solomon. It's a collection of pithy observations made by a "preacher king" back from a wide-ranging search for meaning that led him to conclude that "all is vanity" other than "fearing" God and "keeping" His commandments. Any reading of the full text shows the alternation between what the author "saw," and what he came to "know" as a result of rejecting the popular wisdom and looking to God.

And, yes, the preacher "saw" that "for everything there is a season." It's lovely poetry, and the inspiration for sixties folk songs, but actually a sad commentary on the moral wanderings of society. "A time to be born, and a time to die," used so often at funerals, should be seen less a truism than the biblically rejected view of fate and predestination. "A time to kill," "a time to hate," and "a time for war" sound like sweet justification for a nation inclined toward revenge: but to so read these words wrongly tilts holy writ toward the jihad tone we deplore in others. And so it goes through the poetic seesaw of those first nine verses of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes—nice cadence, but taken literally, and out of context, a collection of "satanic verses."

After September l1 the rush to seek redress via military means was so generally supported that a developing discussion on what constitutes a just war was swept away as unnecessary. We have accepted quite uncritically the need for a military "crusade"—which lies well within the right of a state to declare—and erred greatly, believe, in casting the issue ii purely black and white moral terms. Killing in the name of is not granted to any people side of a theocracy. And to so presume and claim is to descend the same mindset as those cast us as infidels to be eradicated.

There are indeed times when nations go to war and kill—but national self-interest is a poor lens to divine the will of the Almighty. We need to keep this in mini encounter citizens willing to on conscience and claim the right of noncombatancy—religious has many facets, and this is sure to be tested in a conflict with moral overtones. During the Civil War President Lincoln pains as part of his second inaugural address to remind all "both [sides] pray to the same God; and each invokes his against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered March 4, 1865.

That same misused pas from Ecclesiastes tells of to keep and "a time to cast away." Descriptively true, this is suspect if put into action. The United States was founded on a high concept of universal human rights and freedoms, which was in large part derived from a theological view of mankind as the creation of a just God. Those principles have not only served to protect freedom and religious liberty in the United States, but have been used as a moral springboard to demand the same of all societies. Much of the cold war was actually a battle to project certain views of the rights of the individual. And the rationale for American "secular evangelization" 'has been the fostering of freedom rights in the world at large.

But since September 11 there has been a chilling shift in the view of humankind projected by the U.S. Quite naturally we have tended to demonize those who planned and perpetrated the outrage. The search for the enemy within has produced much rhetoric about hunting down and destroying those who would do us evil. And out of that natural yearning for justice has come talk that marginalizes the rights and humanity of those suspected of being terrorists. Posse talk tends to produce lynchings, and we face that danger.

It is worth noting that several friendly countries have declined to deport suspects out of concern that they might receive less than a fair trial in the U.S. The Patriot Act, the Executive Order authorizing military trials for terrorism suspects, and the present actions against aliens all operate on the assumption that noncitizens have greatly diminished human and legal rights. This is a curious shadow to the original complaint from the American revolutionaries of their diminished rights. But it becomes even more hazardous an attitude to continued freedom if we contemplate that this battle against terrorism, being partly a battle against the enemy within, can more easily cull out and dehumanize any dissonant element if rights are stratified. And I say "rights," believing as this issue of Liberty argues, that "No Right Is an Island."

This is no time to cast away the principle that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain rights"; no time to cast away the basic maxim of American (and British) jurisprudence that a person is "innocent until proven guilty."

This is no time to descend into the moral and theological convenience that in another age led churchmen to define certain races and peoples as nonhuman. This is no time to fall prey to mullahs and ministers who would return God to a sort of state icon of national uniqueness. This is also no time to fear religion as the province of fanatics and madmen.

No, indeed. Going back to the conclusions of the preacher in Ecclesiastes, "the end of the matter," he concluded, "all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil."

"I never change," says the God of the Bible. What was right and godly once remains so. Oh, there's plenty of talk in the Bible about time. God has determined in foreknowledge—not manipulation of human will—when evil will get its comeuppance and everlasting righteousness will come in. And He speaks often of taking the time to worship Him—I happen to put a lot of stock in the fourth commandment of Exodus 20, where God reiterates a time requirement to worship Him on the seventh day of the week. Evidently God's time requirement is not the flexible worldview imagined by quick readers of Ecclesiastes. He says it was established as a sign "forever."

The Christmas season is long past as you read this, even if it was the present inspiration for my thoughts. It's important we separate the tinsel of the season from the true gift Christians celebrate. Just so, it's important that we don't lose the uniqueness of our freedoms in the day-to-day shabbiness of the struggle for national survival.

No, there is not a proper time for everything. Some things are eternal, irrevocable. If freedom— liberty, religious liberty—means anything at all to us, we must recognize it as an absolute; not a convenient moral stepping-stone.

Thus endeth the reading. Pardon my preaching.

Lincoln Steed, Editor

*Verses from Ecciesiates and Exodus are quoted from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."