Sterile Protest and Productive Work

By R. J. Rushdoony
August 17, 2022

Chalcedon Report No. 91, March 1973

One of the key factors in any era is the attitude of the people. Men have often put up with great evils because they have been loyal to the system, and yet at other times men have resented trifles because of their hostility to the order, or because of their own inner restlessness.

An interesting example of this is England after the Black Death. An in­tense discontent followed as the old order disintegrated and men felt out of place in the new. According to Sir Arthur Bryant, “Everyone tended to blame someone else for his sufferings.” A vivid expression of this discon­tent was William Langland’s Piers Plowman, often called “The Vision of a People’s Christ.” Piers Plowman depicts corruption in church and state and contrasted undeserved wealth with undeserved destitution. Lang­land’s poem presented a mild and reforming view which soon gave way to more radical answers. The later defrocked priest, John Ball, declared, “Things will never go well in England so long as goods be not in common and so long as their be villeins (serfs) and gentlemen. By what right are they whom we call lords greater than we? . . . We are formed in Christ’s likeness and they treat us like beasts.”

One of the most important ideas in the Western European tradition, one which has been especially important in England, Scotland, and the United States, is the medieval doctrine that “law is not law unless it is the voice of equity” (Gervase Mathew). From John of Salisbury to Langland, this was a powerful concept. It was basic to the outlook of John Knox in Scotland at a later date, and again important in the American colonies. Both a great measure of the vitality and progress of the West has been due to this concept as well as much of its troubles. Our Western liberties are rooted in this concept, and also many civil disobedience movements and revolutionary parties. One of those who misused the doctrine was John Ball. The monastic chronicler Walsingham tells us that Ball preached “those things which he knew would be pleasing to the common peo­ple, speaking evil both of ecclesiastical and temporal lords, and won the goodwill of the common people rather than merit in the sight of God. For he taught that tithes ought not to be paid unless he who gave them was richer than the person who received them. He also taught that tithes and oblations should be withheld if the parishioner was known to be a better man than the priest.”

The age of Richard II (1367–1400) had real evils and problems to contend with. Du Boulay has declared, however, that the era did see eco­nomic and social advances. The problem lay elsewhere. The authorities did not take the dissatisfaction of the people seriously, and the people now did not view matters theologically. The appeal of John Ball was a humanistic one; it was not the relationship of rulers and people to God’s law that he stressed, but the questions of wealth and status. The result was a rebellion, and the people, who had begun with Piers Plowman, the “People’s Christ,” chose as their leader Wat Tyler, an ex-soldier who had since then been earning his living by highway robbery.

A contemporary chronicler wrote of John Ball’s program for the insur­gents: “He strove to prove that from the beginning all men were created equal by nature, and that servitude had been introduced by the unjust oppression of wicked men against God’s will, for if it had pleased Him to create serfs, surely in the beginning of the world He would have decreed who was to be a serf and who a lord . . . Wherefore they should be pru­dent men, and, with the love of a good husbandman tilling his fields and uprooting and destroying the tares which choke the grain, they should hasten to do the following things. First, they should kill the great lords of the kingdom; second, they should slay lawyers, judges and jurors; finally, they should root out all those whom they knew to be likely to be harmful to the commonwealth in future. Thus they would obtain peace and se­curity, for, when the great ones had been removed, there would be equal liberty and nobility and dignity and power for all.” The chronicler added, “When he had preached this and much other madness, the commons held him in such high favor that they acclaimed him the future archbishop and chancellor of the realm.”

John Ball’s program has a familiar ring. First, it was a gospel of salva­tion by equality. Second, evil was seen as the characteristic of a particular class, and a theory of class conflict was preached. Third, to solve society’s problems, Ball held, eliminate the evil class and all will be well. The call for justice had now become a cry for mass murder as the way of salvation.

The ruling classes responded with no less a fallacious doctrine. First, it was progressively held that virtue and power were a class monopoly, and the monarchy claimed more and more of this for itself in the suc­ceeding generations. Second, evil was seen as the especial property of the lowborn, especially those who might speak of equality in any sense. The word villein, meaning serf (and related to village), came to be our modern word villain. The common people were villains, thieves, and robbers. In our day, race has intensified this idea. Third, to solve society’s problem, it was held that it was important for the right people to rule. Fourth, as against John Ball’s idea of salvation by mass executions, the rulers held to salvation by legislation. In 1349 and 1350 attempts were made to freeze wages and control labor. However, as Du Boulay noted, “solemn laws do not stem such rising tides” (see F. R. H. Du Boulay, An Age of Ambition [New York, NY: Viking Press, 1970]; Gervase Mathew, The Court of Richard II [New York, NY: Norton, 1968]; Sir Arthur Bryant, The Fire and the Rose [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966]).

Then as now, society floundered from crisis to crisis, searching for answers. It looked, however, for both problems and answers in the wrong place, and hence aggravated its problems. Both the rulers and the ruled were clearly a part of the problem rather than the answer. Sir Arthur Bry­ant called the problem “spiritual” and a “sickness of soul.” The peasants resented the controls over them, and yet also demanded that something be done for them, and the same attitude marks our own day, and with far less excuse. Andrews has observed that, “The power to do things for you is also the power to do things to you” (p. 33). In every era, to ask for benefits is to ask for bondage. The origin of serfdom was in the Roman Empire. In exchange for cradle-to-grave security, people surren­dered themselves and their possessions to the imperial estates and called it salvation. As Ramsay stated it, “The ‘Salvation’ of Jesus and Paul was freedom: the ‘Salvation’ of the Imperial system was serfdom” (Sir W. M. Ramsay, “The Imperial Salvation,” in his Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament [London, England: Hod­der and Stoughton, (1915) 1920], p. 198). Salvation is still seen as serf­dom, as cradle-to-grave security, by all too many people.

The theoreticians of statism do understand one fact, as Andrews not­ed, and it is this: “Work is Power, and the modern trend is of necessity to subject power to increased social regulation and supervision” (Matthew Page Andrews, Social Planning by Frontier Thinkers [New York, NY: Richard R. Smith, 1944], p. 57). Exactly. Work is power, and, properly understood and directed, is essential and basic to God’s Kingdom and man’s exercise of dominion under God. The control of the future always depends to a large degree on motivating and governing work. If the state governs work, then we have a statist order and a decline of social energy as men sullenly withhold cooperation from the state, as in the Marxist empires. If men govern their work, then men are as powerful as the mo­tives which provide the fuel for their work.

But men who have the malaise and “sickness of soul” Bryant spoke of are better at sterile protest than at productive work. Moreover, then as now, there is a strong correlation between protest, lawlessness, and theft. The connection is a logical and natural one. When a man wants things on demand rather than in return for work, theft is a logical consequence of his demands.

The sins of the rulers are no less, and, in fact, are greater. The prophet Ezekiel gives us God’s indictment of the rulers of Israel, saying, “The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them” (Ezek. 34:4). Instead of being shepherds protecting the flock from hostile forces, the rulers have been wolves, preying on them. As in the fourteenth century, rulers offer laws as the solution to problems they have helped to create.

The great sin of the modern state and its theoreticians is the pretense of moral and religious neutrality, whereby humanism has been introduced as the new value and the new established religion. However, as Orton observed, “It is simply impossible to maintain, in either pure theory, or practice, that the state is by nature amoral — that is, morally neuter” (p. 24). Moreover, Orton pointed out, “every major political system rests on an act of affirmation as to the nature of man . . . The affirmation it embodies is therefore by nature moral rather than political or economic” (p. 55). It follows that, “The central concern of the state is therefore, in the widest sense, justice; not power; not even prosperity. The state is the social structure through which our sense of right becomes articulate and effective” (p. 59). The state in its law structure is a theological establish­ment. It represents a doctrine of man, law, and ultimacy. The control of the state today by “organized atheism” is simply a new form of religious establishment. “In the sphere of values it is simply not possible to be neu­tral — neither individually nor collectively” (William Aylott Orton, The Economic Role of the State [Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1950], pp. 31–32). One more important comment from Orton: “For it is the essence of the Christian position that there are limits both extensive and intensive to the scope and exercise of secular authority. I do not need o remind the reader of the history of this issue; but I do need to empha­size the fact that it is a uniquely Christian tradition and that, whenever and wherever it is denied, the community ceases in both theory and prac­tice to be Christian. Its values as well as its policies undergo a radical change” (p. 29).

It is this change we have been undergoing since the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, and we now are approaching its end results. The future will not be commanded by protest; then, in the fourteenth century, as now in the twentieth, it is sterile and destructive. Similarly, barren statist power is again effective only in controls and destruction. Only as our thinking, our faith, and our values are again informed and governed by the Word of God, and only as we recognize again that work is power, and we work productively and effectively in terms of freedom under God, will we again have the motive force to redirect men and nations. Sterile men are governed by their fears and hates. Productive men are governed by a faith for living.

Topics: Culture , Humanism, Philosophy, World History

R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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