But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. 23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: 24 For he beholds himself, and goes his way, and straightway forgets what manner of man he was. 25 But whoso looks into the perfect law of liberty, and continues therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. (James 1:22-25)
Among those I call the moral conservatives there is much anguished discussion these days about what to do in the face of the evident exaltation of evil Barak Obama represents. All the moral capital “piled up by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil,” and the subsequent century of racial injustice and legalized humiliation, Obama now puts in service to the destruction of innocent human life; the suppression of the natural right and characteristics of family life; and the subversion of the form of government required to preserve our life in liberty.
People who care about these essential goods are right to grieve and to raise their cries to heaven from hearts broken and heavy laden. They are not only right, but also wise, who understand that the prayer (that is, the one who prays) must be prepared to be the instrument through which God answers prayers. Such preparedness, as the apostle says, lies first in the willingness to reform our lives in accordance with God’s will; to remember as best we can, and in all that we do, the example that, in Christ, God sets before us. Then, following that example, we must offer and give our lives to fulfill God’s will, giving the life that ends in order to gain life that doesn’t.
This is not only an admonition. It is the key to understanding the strategy of action that wins God’s blessing in the deed, and thereby plugs us into the power for good it represents. When we get right with God, and seek to do right according to His will, we are in the right as we act. Others are obliged to respect the right we exercise (i.e., put into practice.) In the strict sense, therefore what they respect is not “our” right but the will of God which accounts for what we do. The right belongs to God, not to us. It passes to us in and through God’s act of creation, in the way that He shares His being with us so as to form and constitute our nature. Our unalienable rights arise from the specific requirements of maintaining ourselves in this way of being, which is right for us because it makes our existence possible. Such rights are called “unalienable” because we cannot lose or surrender them without contradicting the distinctive way of being that makes us what we are. Without them we become, as it were, strangers to ourselves, alien to our own identity.
This accounts for the dehumanizing effects characteristic of institutions such as slavery and serfdom. But it also makes clear that this degradation of humanity arises from the failure to respect those aspects of human being that announce a presence in each man and woman that transcends humanity. The key effect of this presence is life itself. Life appears in the form, shape and physical constitution of the body, but we each of us experience life as feelings that perceive, and therefore lie beyond such things. Life appears in feelings. But we, each of us, are conscious of life as thought that observes and therefore lies beyond these feelings. Life appears in thought, but we have knowledge of life as being that lies beyond our thoughts, and therefore beyond the appearances of life that come to us through the mediation of any of our faculties. Whatever we experience, however deeply we feel, however much we think we observe and seem to know, something of life escapes us even as, with certainty, we hold it in our grasp.
The Bible’s account of our creation explains this irony of our existence with the simple truth that we are, in the very essence or intention of our existence, that which we appear to be. But this is true only because that which we appear to be determines at every moment what we are. We are made in the image and likeness (that is the appearance and activity) of God, who is the being that in and of itself determines the appearance of all things. We therefore represent that which is within, and yet forever lies beyond, what we are.
In the literal sense, our existence is paradoxical. In the practical sense, this means that whenever we deal with a human being, we are dealing as well with the being that lies beyond humanity. In ancient times, actors held before themselves a mask (in the Latin, persona) of the character they were supposed to represent. Like actors playing a part, human beings carry about the image, and act like the character, they represent. As they do they call upon the resources of the individual carrying the part, whose body, feelings and mind inform the representation. In this analogy, God is both the actor and the character he plays, while we are the person (mask) He carries. We are the mask of His being, our existence the veil through which He appears in the nature of the universe that conforms to the character we are supposed by Him to be.
In this respect, too, the Biblical account makes sense. After the flood, God lays down the first law of our nature as we know it, when He says to mankind “And for your life’s blood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from his fellow man (brother) I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever pours out the blood of a man, in recompense his blood shall be poured out, for I made man in the image of God.” (Genesis 9:5-6) Because each man is a person (an image of God, supported or upheld by Him), God commands retribution for murder. When one human being assaults another, he attacks God. But God is the substance (the upholder) of the attacker’s person too. His attack upon another is therefore substantially the same as an attack upon himself. God’s declaration of retribution simply reflects this fact.
The flare of indignation we feel on account of murder constitutes the executive power that God intends for the enforcement of the commandment of retribution. Indignation moves us to do what God commands; to carry out what the murderer has begun (which is the annihilation of his own life.) Because it is God’s command, we are in the right as we execute it. We have the right to shed the murderer’s blood. The first law of nature therefore gives rise to a right of nature, a right of way to the result foreseen in God’s will. As it opens to us we are drawn towards this will. We feel strongly inclined to act against the one who violates another’s person (image of God).
By this paradigm of right, particular rights are not passive goods stored in our possession. They are active responsibilities, reflected in the emotional forces that incline our will toward action in response to God’s commands. As we shall see, this difference has profound implications for the strategy of right. As executors of God’s will, we are not supposed, in the first instance, to act in defense of our rights. We act to do God’s will. If opposed when we do so, we stand on our rights in defense of our action. We resist whatever denies or draws us from God’s right of way. Since the ground of rights is our responsibility to God, we cannot exercise those rights while sitting by the roadside, oblivious to wrongdoing. Nor can we do so by standing aside, letting wrongdoers have their way so long as they leave us in peace. Rights arise in the context of our positive commitment to right action. They are warrants for action, not writs of entitlement.