Continued from Part I here.
Accustomed to see death as their own product, the strong were and are far less likely to be intimidated by it. The line of demarcation between those who suffer death and those who deliberately make it happen became the clear dividing line between the many and the few, and remains so to the present day. But this suggests that conscientious action (action taken with deliberate knowledge of the consequences) has a different meaning for those few. They act with a knowledge of death that mitigates their fear. This fearlessness is good. Timidity is bad. Because strength and power make this fearlessness possible, they are good. Weakness and powerlessness are evil. Because it helps them to stand firm midst the horrors of war, this understanding of conscience is good for them. But it is not at all good with respect to those it inclines them to prey upon.
This difference in conscience would explain what became the characteristic moral culture of the few. “I am fearless and you are timid” expressed the line of demarcation between the rightful few and all the rest even before there was reason for anyone to make the observation Tocqueville relies upon: “I am rich and you are poor.” It exemplifies the resource that often allowed the few to amass material goods, at the expense of the many. Of course, since wealth brings with it the kind of power once more exclusively associated with physical prowess, people who come into great wealth may acquire the conscience that equates power with right.
It is, in fact, entirely consonant with a certain kind of common sense that right should refer to power, for without the capacity to act how can one assert the right to do so? However much we forget it, in our adamantly self-deceitful times, the spectacle of an unhorsed Knight, cut off from both his arms and legs, bravely demanding the right to do battle with an opposing champion is laughable, (or pitiable at best, as anyone who remembers the famous angry torso scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail will be forced to admit.)
In this respect the assertion that “all men are created equal” has something ludicrous about it. Differences in strength, talent and ability naturally make a difference in the condition of human beings. Therefore it makes a difference in the habits of mind and will that are susceptible to their condition. To say that people are entitled to be what they have no capacity to achieve involves forgetting that being is an activity, which assumes the capacity to undertake whatever activity it is supposed to be. Though in our minds we may see ourselves, like Walter Mitty, in every circumstance having talent, power and achievement, yet and still we will actually be only what we are actually capable of being, no more, though often much less.
Why then does it seem strange to us to speak of conscience as an attribute of power? How did the conscientious arrogance of power, clearly accepted in testament of right throughout most of human history, (as in, for example, the once accepted principle of international law known as “the right of conquest”) come to be regarded as depravity rather than virtue? On what account did right come to mean something other than a prerogative endowed by power?
Tocqueville rightly surmises that the answer has much to do with Christian (and therefore Biblical) religion. Both hold that the Creator is the source of right, informing the relations, boundaries and limitations that constitute the distinctive way of existence that allows us to descry our nature as human beings. Christianity emphasizes the dependence of human existence on the power of God, made manifest in a material way, but entirely derived from God’s immaterial power. It is therefore ultimately governed by His will, which determines in every way what all things are supposed (i.e., laid out beforehand by God) to be.
This means that there is in every circumstance an outcome consonant with God’s will that corresponds to the way things are supposed to be. By defect of our understanding things may, in this way or that, seem to us to fall short of God’s supposition, but the standard of His will nonetheless assures us of its truth. If we hold to the sense of His will, (remain faithful in our commitment to His intention, doing all that we can to respect it) He has and will redeem it. Jesus Christ is the token of that redemption. By his birth, life, death and resurrection he represents it to us. He justifies our trust in the will of God for our salvation. He shows us the way to live up to the true possibility that it entails.
In terms of Monty Python’s ridiculous example, this means that, whatever the condition of the Knight’s body, if he trusts in the Lord with his whole heart, mind and strength God will justify his righteousness. As he lives to honor God, God’s will is to honor him. It holds in readiness the true body, consonant with his faith; with God’s intention; and with the sincere and heartfelt virtue that springs from them, so that, in the fullness of time, the faithful knight will come again into his own. His longing for God will find in Him the place where he belongs.
The knowledge Christ perfects in those who trust in him encourages them to see in themselves an image, not strange but familiar; not of the death we mortal men are capable of making, but of the life our God alone has the power to make within us, in and through Christ our Lord. Encouraged by this good conscience, we live accordingly, in light of the experience of true life that mitigates the fear of death within us, going even so far as to extinguish it altogether, in those whom God calls upon to bear the full and truest witness to its truth that we are here and now capable of bearing.
This fearless witness, wrought in faith, sometimes in battle, but oftentimes by way of peaceful suffering and submission, is our testament of right. It is not the right of those who have triumphed over others by violence. It is rather the right of those who have been conquered by God in truth. It is good therefore for courage in war and peace: in what the world celebrates with pride as victory, or treats with contempt as utter defeat. In respect of it, all are indeed created equal, for all may equally say yes to the offer of God’s mercy, love and truth, or else spurn His easy yoke, to live for a time in pride, and then to suffer death for all eternity.
For all its imperfections, America was founded upon the hope that the shared sense of being empowered by God through Christ to remake our lives in the image of God’s intention for us, would be the basis for a sense of right, founded upon our longing for God’s justice (justification), rather than the threatening violence of merely human power. For all their imperfections, the American people were striving, and not without success, to realize this hope. But now we have come to a fateful moment, occasioned by the fact that, instead of being composed of people elected to represent our righteous hope, our government is in the hands of elitist faction parties dedicated to casting aside the premise of God-endowed equal rights.
They mean to scrap the concept of unalienable right. They mean to put in place again the principle that right is the prerogative of those who fancy they have the power to meet every occasion, and the right to treat with contempt all those who refuse to share their fantasy. Will people of good will and faith arise to restore the true conscience of right before it is too late? Not if people who call themselves Christians continue to abdicate their promise to live in view of the kingdom of God implanted by Christ within them. Not until people who call themselves Christians begin to act on the certainty of their faith, instead of the treacherous, false miscalculations of a sham political process that honors every form of material power except the transforming power of God in Jesus Christ.