The Law of Liberty

James 1:

25 But the one who peers into the perfect law of liberty and fixes his attention there, and does not become a forgetful listener but one who lives it out — he will be blessed in what he does.

(NET Bible®)

Law of liberty? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? And how about a Biblical law of liberty? That’s a lot of restrictions, not liberty!

At least, that is what I thought in my callow college days. I remember them well. Our first assignment in Western Civilization was to read a passage from the Illiad – heroes duking it out with the gods on near equal terms – and compare it with a passage from the Book of Judges: Gideon dithering and asking for divine proof before mustering the tribes of Israel to war; God telling Gideon to send most of his army home so the people would know that God won the upcoming victory, not the Israelites.

Heady stuff. I drank it up and called myself a pagan for a time. I was not alone. The ancient Greek outlook which underlies the liberal arts tradition sells well to youth recently emancipated from public schools. Who needs a church service on top of a hangover? Who wants to be reminded of the virtues of chastity when there are hoards of beautiful women about? The professors offered liberation from Biblical law.

Ayn Rand drank a double dose, but insisted on Aristotle over Plato. Many of her followers do likewise and preach the evils of religion, how Christianity enables monarchs and other tyrants. Many libertarians join this chorus and they are quite vocal at LP conventions. (Christian big-L Libertarians usually practice discretion, separation of Church and Statesman as it were.) This became one of the reasons for my leaving the party.

Even religion departments are in on the act. It probably started with teaching Plato as a backdrop for Paul. But now they go further, questioning the timing and veracity of the Bible books, and producing the likes of John Shelby Spong, the anti-Bible bishop. Many churches are now liberated from the Bible.

And yet, conservative holdouts say that the liberty we enjoy today comes from our very Christian past, that even the Constitution was based on Biblical law. They rally around Ten Commandments displays and pine for prayer in the public schools. Maybe this is simply rich Republicans pandering to the un-college-educated masses; you cannot win elections with just the rich.

Or maybe these conservatives are right. The historical evidence is interesting.

Historical Evidence for the Law of Liberty

So, should we relish our modern liberation from Christian constraints? Is our aggressively secular education system leading us to greater freedom? Look to Post-Christian Europe…and pause.

Better yet, look at human history, not just Western Civilization. True, Europe was an oppressive place during the Middle Ages, when the Church reigned supreme. And yes, liberty advanced during the Enlightenment, when deists and agnostics dared to reveal their beliefs. But this is too narrow a focus. How did Christian Europe compare with the rest of the world? Compare it with caste system India or Imperial China. The Moslem world was more advanced in learning, but how free was it? Include women in this metric. Compare chivalry and courtly love with the harems of the East. China had its balanced yin and yang – along with foot-binding. These civilizations would consider Pat Robertson to be a dangerously radical feminist.

Though the Church reigned supreme, the Church was not entirely Christian. The Catholic hierarchy had made many compromises with pagan practices and the powers of Rome over the centuries. For example, feudalism would had disappeared under a more Christian Church, because primogeniture is illegal under Biblical Law [Deuteronomy 21:17]. Consider what happened when the Church lost its monopoly on Bibles. The Reformation brought revolution and democracy across the north of Europe. Even today, the footprint of the Reformation remains. Compare a map of stable democratic countries with a map of countries with deep Protestant roots.

Look at the Middle East. Which lone country has democracy and a reasonable amount of freedom? Israel.

Some argue that the freedoms we enjoy in the U.S. are the product of the Enlightenment; that we are relatively free despite our fanatically Christian roots. We have a nice side-by-side test for this theory. Two countries had revolutions influenced by Enlightenment ideals. One was fanatically Christian, so even the skeptics used religious citations in their writings. (See Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.) The other rejected Christianity in favor of rational religion. The first led to a democratic republic that remains to this day. The latter quickly degenerated into mass executions, hunger, war and dictatorship. I am referring, of course, to the American and French revolutions.

Consider more modern attempts at unchristian government. Consider that product of German university philosophy: Marxism. Marxism gave us dictatorship, mass starvation, mass enslavement, mass murder and Che Guevera T-shirts. “Christian sharia” looks rather libertarian by comparison. (OK, even the Puritans dabbled in communism briefly, but they learned quickly.) As for a New Age pagan revival, the Germans gave it a go during the 1930s and 40s. Nice pep rallies, but otherwise not pretty. Consider Ayn Rand. When she got a following she created a conformist cult. Philosophy, who needs it?

As for the ancient Greeks, were they all that libertarian? Plato admired Sparta. His Republic was a blueprint for totalitarianism. I now look back to those early college days. The Illiad placed men and gods on near equal footing, but those men were kings. Meanwhile, Gideon was just this guy, called to temporary leadership of an otherwise anarchic people.

The Torah: a Blueprint for Anarchy

Judges 17:

6 In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.

(King James Version)

I’ll admit it. Christian rule is not always pretty. Devout Christians have played the tyrant, and today the Religious Right advocates oppression in some areas and liberty in other areas. But I submit that these Christians oppressed not because they were Christians but because they were not Christian enough.

What happens when Christians take the Gospel message seriously? What happens when they practice “love thy neighbor” and “judge not?” What happens when people dispense with priests and tradition and try to get to the Bible directly? Take the early Quakers, for example. Murray Rothbard cited early Quaker Pennsylvania as an example of his ideal of anarcho-capitalism. But that’s from the New Testament. What of the Old Testament? (And what was St. James referring to? The Law of Moses, liberation from said Law, or some new law?)

The Old Testament Law was not fully libertarian. You could get in serious trouble for practicing alternative religion or alternative sexuality in ancient Israel. But the Old Testament Law was suitable for something resembling anarchy. Between the time of Joshua and the crowning of Saul, the Israelites had informal government. They had no police, no jails, and no standing armies. They even had a bureaucracy-free welfare system. Law enforcement was spontaneous order, a mix of blood feud, lynch mob, and trial by jury. When outsiders invaded, a prophet would appoint a temporary leader, a “judge”, to deal with the crisis.

I was once an anarchist, but no more. Orderly anarchy is hard. Anarchy usually devolves into civil war, tribalism, dictatorship and/or conquest by outsiders. Advocates of anarchy are hard pressed to find exceptions. Murray Rothbard cited Medieval Ireland (an island, yet later conquered). David Friedman cited Medieval Iceland (a more remote island, also eventually conquered). Israel during the time of the Judges is a truly rare example of anarchy working for a civilized people surrounded by other civilizations. But the Israelites had the advantage of divine intervention, and even so, they gave up and opted for monarchy after a few generations.

A manual for anarchy – even one that requires a uniform culture and divine intervention – is useful for maintaining small government. When the people learn a law code in church out of an ancient book, they need not kneel to earthly authorities. They can govern themselves with little supervision. And they can govern themselves well if that law code is well crafted.

The Libertarian Bits of Biblical Law

The Law of Moses has much we can learn from, but it is not entirely libertarian. It calls for a rather extensive welfare system – one which I have grown to like. But it also has some very harsh provisions. The following were death penalty offenses:

  • Working on the Sabbath [Ex. 31:14, 35:2]. Even gathering sticks or lighting a fire on the Sabbath could get you killed! [Num. 15 for fire]
  • Cursing a parent [Lev. 20:9].
  • Adultery and certain other sex crimes [Lev. 20:10-16].
  • Being a medium [Lev. 20:27].
  • Cursing God [Lev. 24:14].
  • False prophecy [Deut 13:5].
  • Worshipping other gods [Deut, 13:6-9, Deut 17:2-5].

So I can quite understand why gay pagan prophets or workaholic swingers might consider the Old Testament a very authoritarian document. And no, I do not think we should enforce such laws today using the might of the State. (Churches could enforce these dictates via shunning, however.) The Old Testament Law was both an everyday legal code and a manual for worship. Ancient Israel was the Holy Land, the Hebrews a Holy people. Those who wished to do unholy things needed to do them elsewhere.

The ancient Israelites were tasked to be an example to the rest of the world. They were not tasked to go on a worldwide jihad to purge the world of idols and abominations. Likewise, Christians are tasked to be an example to the rest of the world. We should set high standards for ourselves, but be merciful to outsiders, judging them to a much lower standard. As I explore more deeply in The Power of Mercy, Christians should not impose the entirety of the Law upon outsiders; that would be unmerciful.

But much of the Law of Moses is merciful. It is mercy to make use of these laws, even for unbelievers. Much of the Law is more merciful, more libertarian that U.S. law today. I have pointed this out to Republican activists and gotten this bizarre bit of liberal theology in response: “We are not under the Law so we are free to impose whatever laws we see fit.” Some people will rationalize just about any bit of tradition and call it Christianity. ‘Tis no wonder that freedom loving philosophers snort in contempt.

In the chapters that follow I point out the libertarian parts of the Law of Moses. They are many, and very important. In this, possibly the most Christian of First World nations, we have the highest per capita jail population on earth. Meanwhile, the Law of Moses has no provision for jails whatsoever! It does have terms of servitude, and internal exile to cities of refuge, but no prisons. And it most certainly has no “three strikes and you’re out.” Punishment was meted out for the current crime in question and nothing else. Crime was, in some respects, a narrower term. There was no war on drugs (unless recreational drug use was “witchcraft” as per Exodus 22:18, which is quite a stretch.) Prostitution was legal under Biblical law – under certain circumstances. The punishments for property crimes were, in many respects, less harsh than we have today (unless you have a good lawyer). And the city of refuge concept provides some interesting possibilities for tort law today.

If Christians were to once again study the Law as given to Moses, and were to temper it with mercy and realize that not all are called to Belief, then the poor would prosper; the jails would empty; the streets would be safer; and the world would see Christian nations as beacons of freedom and justice. We would be witnesses to the world that the Law of God is indeed the Law of Liberty.