The Need for an Unchangable Law

St Nilus the Younger
Power abuses. Almost every time. That is one of the main horrors of slavery - you just cannot trust one human being to have that much power over another human being. Give someone absolute power over another person and you are almost sure to get sexual abuse, physical abuse, and general mistreatment. And it is this principle that led to the ever increasing restrictions on the state in Western Culture (and English history in particular). First with the Magna Carta, then with Cromwell's rebellion, and finally with the Declaration of Independence by the United States and other colonial powers, humans have recognized the danger of unlimited power in the hands of a single person (or small group of persons).

The problem with these efforts is that they help check the tendencies of the single unjust ruler but they do not fix the tendencies of an unjust society. It is possible for a democracy to do great harm to minorities. Get 51% to support some evil and that evil will be done. In some ways, when democracies go bad they are worse than when monarchies go bad. At least with a monarchy going bad you can always wait for the bad king to die. Public opinion is not so centralized.

But when we look at the history of the West,  we do not see a slide into evil. Generally speaking, we see the opposite. Rewind 2000 years and Europe was wild and barbarous. Slavery was ubiquitous. Women were widely abused, raped and killed. Men painted their faces and committed unspeakable atrocities against one another. Human sacrifice, strangely, was present in much of what we now know as Europe. Even in "civilized" Rome, terrible slavery, gladiator games, and widespread infanticide were considered normal parts of society.

But by 1776 when Jefferson wrote that famous line, "all men are created equal," things had changed considerably. And this was BEFORE the United States had established the first enduring democratic republic. How did this happen?

If absolute power corrupts and if Europe was largely still under the rule of monarchs who had very little check on their power, why was there a sense of human rights that Jefferson could say this truth was, "self evident?"

Some would point to the church. The church called kings to repentance and challenged their abuses. There is certainly a vein of truth to this argument. Bishops often appealed to kings on behalf of the poor and there are many cases of kings that refused to listen being excommunicated.

But this does not tell the whole story. Bishops for much of church history were put in place by the kings. Kings even helped choose Popes.  If the king can choose his bishops, you would expect there to be a rubber stamp on the ambitions of the king. And often there was. But these rubber stamps rarely lasted. As in the famous story of Thomas Becket and Henry II, it was common for kings to appoint bishops only to have the bishops challenge the kings.

What is going on here?

I would argue the answer is that the answer is that bishops were also being constrained. In Christianity, there is a canon. 27 books of the New Testament along with the Hebrew bible. These books were all written by the close of the first century and once recognized by the church they became a sticking point for anyone that would choose to abuse and kill.

One example of this is the case of Otto III and Pope Gregory V. In the late 10th century, Otto was the Holy Roman Emperor. He appointed his cousin,  Bruno of Carinthia to be pope. At age 24, Bruno took the title of Pope Gregory V. The only problem was that Gregory had a rival pope to deal with. Roman aristocrats, against Otto's wishes, had appointed John XVI as pope. Otto, furious, stormed Rome, drove out and killed the villainous aristocrats and then troops pursued and captured this 'anti-pope'. His troops cut off John's nose and ears, cut out his tongue, broke his fingers and blinded him. They degraded him before Otto III and Gregory V forcing to ride through the streets of Rome seated backwards on a donkey as crowds jeered and threw stuff at him. Absolute power corrupts absolutely?

It would have but Christians have this book. And this book says that we are not to do so cruelly to anyone especially our enemies. Nilus the Younger, an old monk in Rome, went up to the pope and the Emperor. He was unarmed and aged. But nevertheless he reproached Gregory and the Emperor for this crime. He pointed to Jesus and his forgiveness of his enemies and willingness to forgive even the worst of enemies. Nilus prophesied that "the curse of heaven sooner or later would affect their cruel hearts". No power under heaven could have forced the king to repent but the words of Christ coming from an ancient monk did. The king was broken. When his cousin died, the King saw this as a sign that his sins were destroying him. He went to Nilus on his knees and begged him to remove the curse.

And thus, power ceased to be absolute. The bishops could be changed by the king but the words of scripture could not. Power was checked.

And this is what makes societies like Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany so dangerous. Lacking any trust or fear in the unchangeable book, torturing enemies is no longer taboo. As long as a king can justifiy it to himself, no force on earth can stop him. And not just kings. As long a society can justify abusing a minority, no power on earth can stop them.

It is worth reminding everyone that white people had all the power when Jim Crow laws were repealed. Why would whites give up this power? Like Nilus, people like MLK appealed to the scriptures and pricked the heart of the majority. In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, he wrote, "How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law."

His words are clear. Moral laws are not established by men but by God. And, his argument followed, what you are doing is not consistent with the bible.

This is the modern incarnation of Nilus. And the society listened. The wicked laws fell.

This is why we need the Bible. It is a law that we cannot change.

There has to be a force from without.



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