Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Second Amendment Rights and the Constitution

There is an excellent article in the Weekly Standard by Erin Sheley concerning Parker v. District of Columbia, the D.C. circuit case interpreting the Second Amendment in a reasonable sort of way. As the article has pointed out, judges don’t like the Second Amendment. While they are generous in interpreting constitutional clauses they like and even inventing clauses for the Constitution that you cannot find in the text, judges have been extremely stingy in enforcing the right to bear arms. Part of the reason is that the Second Amendment is not like many of the other amendments to the Constitution. It actually says, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Notice anything unusual? The amendment does not purport to create a right to bear arms; instead it recognizes one and gives an additional reason for that right not being infringed.

When the Constitution was enacted, the framers already believed in what we would call natural rights and/or natural law. They believed that God had given mankind certain rights which governments were not to infringe. Among the rights recognized traditionally as flowing from natural law within reformed Christianity was the right and obligation to defend others. Defending others, of course, if it’s to be done effectively, necessitates arms and the existence of government to facilitate the coordination of that defense. Natural rights scholars, by contrast, emphasize a right to self defense. While this is, in a sense, less biblical, it has the same result in indicating that people ought to be entitled to the means necessary to defend themselves.

During the English revolutionary period, the people of England deposed and beheaded one king and deposed a second king in part because they sought to interfere with the right of people to bear arms. They made their new king and queen, William and Mary of Orange, sign a declaration of rights that essentially recognized that their predecessors in the crown had been wrong in seeking to disarm the people, especially during a time of crisis. The founders of the United States were well aware of the understanding of common law in England, that there was a right to bear arms. They knew that this was a right of the people, not a right of the state or the collective. But they also knew that in the peaceful society that they imagined, there might be a temptation to think that the right to bear arms was less necessary than it would be in a government with a greater propensity to tyranny. Perhaps this is why they gave a reason for the government’s obligation to avoid infringing the pre-existing right to bear arms. They reasoned that a well-regulated militia was necessary to the security of a free state. Today we don’t have militias in the sense that the founders meant. We do not call up all able-bodied men to fight on behalf of the state. We wouldn’t expect them to bring their own firearms even if we did. But it is still true that people have a need to defend others, and that the state cannot always be the guarantor of our safety. As a result, we still have a natural law right to bear arms. This right is explicitly recognized by the Second Amendment. In fact, I think that there is a good argument that it is also one of the sort of pre-existing rights recognized in the Ninth Amendment, the provision of the Bill of Rights that says, “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The Supreme Court held some time ago that the right of travel, for example, clearly recognized in the Middle Ages and Magna Carta, is one of the rights protected by the Ninth Amendment. If the Second Amendment didn’t protect the right to bear arms, the Ninth Amendment clearly would. It is a well-known and long held common law right and if the government took away our right to defend others or ourselves by owning weapons that are reasonable for that purpose, it would be doing us a grave disservice and injustice.

Bravo to the D.C. court for getting this one right. Let’s hope that the Supreme Court of the United States eventually does likewise.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Book Review: Stephen Grabill's Book Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theologiocal Ethics

Until fairly recently, Protestants in the last fifty years have neglected their historic roots in natural law theory. Protestant Christian jurisprudential writers have preferred secular philosophies of law like American realism and pragmatism to the legal philosophy held by the Reformers. In fact, to a large extent Protestants in the last fifty years have ignored what the Reformers had to say about law or political philosophy. Stephen Grabill attempts in this noble book, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics, to explain some of the reasons why recent Protestants have avoided natural law and exactly what Calvin and some of his most noted successors actually believed about natural law.

In his conclusion, Grabill discusses the gradual slide of scholars away from natural law theory. As empiricism and skepticism grew and belief in Augustinianism and the classic understanding of Reformed epistemology diminished, Protestants became increasingly vulnerable to sophisticated philosophical attack in the areas of law and epistemology. While Grabill does not discuss the next phase much in his book, the rise of skepticism succeeded in pummeling many Protestant Christians into pietism and anti-intellectualism during the 1800 and 1900s. Grabill does discuss Karl Barth’s contribution to the loss of natural law awareness. Barth, in substituting a false but spiritual sounding nonsense for the philosophy of higher criticism, convinced many people that in adopting his rejection of God’s general revelation they were being very biblical and very Protestant despite the fact that they were rejecting both what the Bible says about natural law and the beliefs of most of the Christian church prior to 1950. Barth confidently claimed that Calvin himself did not believe in natural law although anyone who actually reads portions of Calvin’s Institutes dealing with these issues can easily see that Calvin did believe in natural law. But Barth’s popularity was such that he swayed many people toward his side and also promulgated the belief that natural law was a Roman Catholic doctrine rather than a Christian doctrine. Grabill goes through much of the history of prominent natural law thinking within Reformed Protestantism. He discusses the views not only of John Calvin but of Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562), Johannes Althusius (1557-1638), Jerome Zanchi (1516-1590), Francis Turretin (1623-1687) and others. Most of these important second and third generation Reformers believed in natural law.

These various Reformed theologians had slight differences in their theories of natural law and their understandings of its application, but they had a great deal of agreement as well. Grabill summarizes it this way: “Calvin, Vermigli, and Reformed scholastics all share the conviction that Scripture is the cognitive foundation (principium cognoscendi) of theology and that moral arguments can be based on axioms derived from that principium. Consequently they recognize the existence of a natural knowledge of God that is present in the natural order and discernable either in conjunction with or apart from Scripture. This knowledge, however, has no saving efficacy and merely serves to render all people to be ‘without excuse’ for their moral infractions, as Romans 1:20 attests.” The Reformers agreed that knowledge of right and wrong didn’t cause you to do what was right or cause you to be saved. But they did believe that God has not left Himself without witnesses. In addition to the direct and superior testimony of Scripture, God has also revealed Himself by writing the law on our hearts - a law that is very much the same as the principles behind the Ten Commandments. These Reformed scholars were also Augustinian in their epistemology. They recognized that God makes human knowledge, thought, and language possible, in addition to providing us with a moral compass.

Grabill does not go into depth in discussing the political and legal implications of natural law philosophy and its accompanying Augustinian epistemology. I would argue that our Western understanding of law, the rule of law, and the proper nature of jurisprudence, were originally based on the same presuppositions held by the Reformed theologians discussed by Grabill. Men like Richard Hooker and Coke, who shaped the theory and practice of the common law, understood that men were fallen, sinful and not to be trusted to reason or act properly. But they also understood that God had endowed man with the ability to learn language and communicate in a practical way, with an ability to understand universals like justice, goodness, truth, property, beauty, etc. and with a basic knowledge of good and evil in addition to providing man with the ability to reason, albeit an ability damaged by the fall. The way Western law developed presumes all of these things.

The current emphasis in post-modernism and pragmatism on our inability to communicate or know anything objective about right or wrong is changing the meaning of the phrase “the rule of law” and rending the fabric of American law filament by filament. If Christian legal scholars want to reform the American legal system, they must do more than carry it a few decades back up the slippery slope down which it has slipped, and instead restore the theological and philosophical foundations upon which a proper legal system is built. Stephen Grabill’s book is a wonderful step in that direction. I hope and pray that we will see many more similar works appearing in print in the relatively near future.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Movie Review: Amazing Grace

I went to see Amazing Grace on its opening weekend. I was glad I did. It was an extraordinary film with excellent acting, costuming, locations and story.

Amazing Grace is the story of William Wilberforce and his work to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. Wilberforce was a very interesting man on the human level, and worked for civility in politics and humane treatment of animals in addition to his political work against slavery. He was not always right about everything. He did not completely foresee the danger of Napoleon or the futility of negotiating with Napoleon during the wars between England and France. But Wilberforce was a great man who succeeded in convincing England to end the slave trade and eventually to end slavery itself.

The film has a variety of flashbacks and can be a bit confusing to people who don’t know something about the history or story line in advance or who are inattentive to the hints and clues given in the early parts of the film. One of the critical supports to Wilberforce is his own school teacher, John Newton. Newton had been a slave trader and upon converting to Christianity, gave up the trade. Nevertheless, he was haunted throughout his life with the memories and images of the brutality he had participated in. Newton became a clergyman and was also the author of the famous hymn, Amazing Grace.

Also important in Wilberforce’s life were the Clapham Circle—friends who supported abolition and did research toward that end, his extended family, and his wife. The romance between Wilberforce and his wife-to-be is a prominent feature of the movie, and shows the tremendous difference that a good marriage can make in the lives of individuals who are seeking to serve God in stressful fields.

The film also conveys something of the wisdom Wilberforce eventually obtained in dealing with political problems. He learned that sometimes a direct assault is not the best way to achieve political goals. Instead, they can sometimes be achieved incrementally through measures designed to have indirect effects that will make more radical change possible later on.

Unquestionably, Wilberforce is one of the most important figures in the history of the West. His efforts at political and moral reform in England were of the greatest importance. The end of the English slave trade also contributed to making it possible for America to end the slave trade and eventually abolish slavery here as well. Christians today should study Wilberforce and take lessons from his failures and successes as they too seek to influence society by limiting evil and promoting good.

It is not possible for Christians to transform earth into heaven. It is not even possible to eliminate all corruption from politics. But it is possible to work for the good and to eliminate some institutions such as slavery. The Bible instructs us to not only share the Gospel with our neighbors, but to free those who are oppressed and to help those who are hungry, thirsty and impoverished. Politics is not always the best way to achieve these goals, but it does serve a contributing part, particularly in ending oppression. William Wilberforce is an excellent example for us of how to bring about lasting and significant political change.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Selfishness of Pacifism

While I have some respect for pacifists because of their commitment to an ideal many of them believe is biblical, I have recently been re-reading a book of views about war and I have been impressed by the overall selfishness of pacifist and non-resistant positions. Constantly, people with pacifist or non-resistant positions toward war talk about themselves and their enemies. They constantly focus on how they will respond to the enemy, what they will do, what they feel, what they think, what God thinks of them, and what God requires of them. Nowhere in the articles about just war or non-resistant positions do I see people thinking about the victims of aggressive totalitarian regimes. I think the real question involved in the morality of war is not whether we are going to fight back ourselves, but whether we are going to protect others. If it was just a matter of the defender and the attacker, the defender might be justified in turning the other cheek and not resisting evil. But it isn’t like that at all. In the situation of war, we have many people who are being attacked by the aggressor (or in the case of a preventive war, who would have been attacked by the aggressor if the aggressor hadn’t been attacked first). War theory has to think about these third party innocents, not just about the belligerents. In discussing whether or not it was right to fight the Nazis, we have to take into account the Holocaust and the atrocities against the Poles and others. In deciding whether or not war is right in general, we have to think about the third party victims of unrestrained aggressive regimes.