Democracy’s Day – A.T. Robertson (historic sermon 1863-1934)
“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” – John 8:32
Note: Robertson delivered this sermon after World War I had ended. World War II has not yet begun.
DR. VEDDER quotes Nietzsche as saying: “Christianity is the reality of all that creeps upon the ground against all that is elevated.” Then Vedder replies: “Christianity is the revolt of democracy against aristocracy. What the small-souled philosopher thought is Christianity’s disgrace is actually it’s glory.” Certainly Paul has the same idea in I Corinthians 1:26–30, for God chose the foolish, the weak, the base things of the world, and the things that are not. Jesus laid hold upon the common people who heard Him gladly to the discomfiture of Pharisees and Sadducees. The leaven of the Gospel works upward.
I. The Call to Freedom
Many crimes have been wrought in the name of liberty. The step from liberty to license is not hard to take and it has often been taken. Russia, China, Poland and other nations have experienced the steps to and from democracy. The State faces the same spirit that confronts Christianity. “For freedom did Christ set us free: stand fast therefore, and be not entangled again in the yoke of bondage.” (Gal. 5:1) These words of Paul have a modern ring and suit the needs of the present hour. He was struggling to keep the Gospel free from the yoke of the Judaizers who sought to clamp legalism upon the free spirit of the Gentile Christians. No bondage is more terrible than that of the spirit to ecclesiastical tyranny. ” For ye, brethren, were called for freedom; only use not your freedom for an occasion to the flesh, but through love be servants one to another.”
Freedom is freedom. A man is not free unless he is free in body, mind, and soul. Ordered liberty, that is, not license, for no one lives to himself. Freedom is limited by our relations to God and to our neighbors. But ordered liberty applies to all the functions of life. The air is stuffy unless one has proper freedom of action. The eagle cannot fly in a cage. We may have tyranny of spirit or of intellect under the form of a democracy. We may have freedom of both or of all under the forms of autocracy. Let us not deceive ourselves by phrases. Russia under Lenin professed to be a democracy, but it is a tyrannical government. England is a nominal monarchy. Cromwell and George Washington completed the work of the barons at Runnymede and won real liberty for the Anglo-Saxon world. The autocrat has disappeared from Britain and America after centuries of conflict. The French Revolution drenched the land in blood, but freedom came and has made France glorious. Italy is carrying on the work of Garibaldi for freedom from Teuton and Pope. The idea of equal fellowship “is part of the humane movement which for a century has been spreading over those parts of Christendom which remain sensitive to spiritual ideas wider than national range or to moral sense which rises above racial egoism.
The war of autocracy against democracy is the last gasp of feudalism in its effort to throttle freedom. This dragon must be slain. The world will be made safe for democracy as President Wilson said in his immortal address. Yes, and democracy will conquer the world, whether the rulers be termed President, King or Emperor. Japan does not yet understand the democratic movement, but it will yield to the resistless onward sweep of the people. It is no wonder that the Hapsburg and the Hohenzollern went down in the flood. President Faunce quotes Gladstone as explaining his political inconsistencies by saying: “The reason is very simple; I was brought up to dislike and distrust liberty; I have learned to believe in it; that is the secret of all my changes.” We may add this word from Kent: ” Jesus lived in an age when despotism was regnant; and yet He was the most thoroughgoing democrat that has appeared in history.”
2. Prayer for Kings
Nowhere in the New Testament is a form of civil government prescribed. Jesus admitted the rights of Caesar. Paul taught subjection to the higher powers; for there is no power but of God, and the powers that be are ordained of God.” (Rom. 13: 1). This great passage (Rom. 13 : 1-7) is a clear and powerful presentation of the rights of government. Christianity is wholly on the side of law and order and against all anarchy, mob rule, lynching, and every form of lawlessness. Taxes are to be paid. Consequently military duty is to be performed when demanded by the State. Neither John the Baptist, nor Jesus, nor Paul denounced the calling of the soldier. Paul urged prayer “for kings and all that are in high place; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity.” (i Tim. 2 : 2) The purpose of government is to make possible the free exercise of all proper liberties by the citizens. The government that secures this is a good government.
Even Nero began well. The Romans looked back to the first five years of his reign as the golden quinquennium. But he made his closing years a living hell for the Roman world. His very name has become a byword. One is strangely reminded of the Kaiser’s plea that he was a lover of peace because for twenty-five years he kept the peace, but all the while he was with feverish haste preparing to engulf the world in a war that would make Nero green with envy when he thought of the burning of Rome and his fiddling on the housetop. What was a little conflagration like that compared to the desolation of Belgium, Serbia, France, Romania, Russia. And yet Paul taught prayer for Nero after he had begun to persecute Christians. Surely Nero needed prayer if ever a king did. And Peter said: “Honor the king” (1 Pet. 2:17) when Nero was putting Christians to the fiery trial. (1 Pet. i: 7)
3. The Right of Revolution
There is a limit to obedience. When civil government, meant to be the organ for order and freedom, becomes the agent for tyranny and oppression, the right of protest exists. Government is of God per se, but it may be exercised in the spirit of the devil. The people have had to wrest from their rulers the right to govern themselves. This is a God-given right, not the divine right of kings. The Bill of Rights rests upon the very nature of man and of society. Every liberty enjoyed by Anglo-Saxon freedom has been won at a great price. Resistance to government can only be justified when it is a serious effort to establish another government that will bestow the liberty that has been taken from the people. A brave spirit must say like Luther: “I can do no other. So help me God.” It was this spirit that made Peter and John defy the Sanhedrin: “for we cannot but speak the things which we saw and heard.” (Acts 4 : 20) Hence they refused to obey the mandate of the Sanhedrin. The Puritans came to New England for conscience’ sake. When George the Third curtailed that freedom, the tea was hurled into Boston Bay and America became the synonym for the freedom of the human spirit. Here the oppressed of all nations have found refuge. Our land has become a veritable crucible of the nations. When free America joined this war she crowned the liberty that frees the slave with the loyalty that creates the servant. She rose from the hatred of coercion to the reverence for the moral authority of the world.” (Forsyth)
4. The Challenge of Democracy
The Kaiser and the German Junkers have challenged the right of free men to rule themselves. The Germans drank in their private feasts to Der Tag, They plotted for the day when they would feel themselves strong enough to strike a swift blow against the freedom of the world. It was all in their books before the blow fell, but it was such a Satanic idea that the nations did not take it seriously. A few far-seeing men like Lord Roberts of England tried to arouse the world to what was coming, but all in vain. The world was taken unawares, stunned by the swift blow of the burglars at night. Russia struck back quickly. Belgium stood in the path of the invader for two immortal weeks while Britain hurried over her “contemptible little army ” that fought at Mons as if the angels of the Lord were with them. And then the French turned round and rolled back the Huns from the Marne to the Aisne. And the world had its chance to save itself, a chance that was taken. The day had come and heroism was not dead. It was impossible for the democratic peoples to do aught but resist if they valued their souls. America had to step into the struggle or be a helot of Germany. America then would have been dead. The spirit of Lexington was at Chateau-Thierry.
A democracy is not a good in itself unless the people make it worth while. It is right to make the world safe for democracy. But democracy must also be made safe for the world. This can only be done when conscience and intelligence rule. A people must be worthy to be free before they can remain free. Else they are “moving about in worlds not realized.” We come back again to the leadership of Jesus: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) There is no other way to remain free than by the possession of truth with all that this great word means. “If therefore the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” (John 8 : 36) Jesus spoke of spiritual freedom beyond a doubt and that is what matters most. One may have political liberty and yet be in intellectual, moral and spiritual darkness and bondage. There are plenty of slaves still in the United States. Lincoln did not, and could not, set all the slaves free. We now talk about the white-slave traffic, the bondage of childhood in the factory, the oppressor of labor by capital.
Millions of men and women in America get little good out of the freedom that exists in our country because of their ignorance, their heredity, their environment, their vices. Lynch-law is still a reproach to America and, in particular, to the South. We shall not be what we should be till conscience reasserts itself in all the walks of life. There can be no freedom while truth is forever on the scaffold and wrong forever on the throne. We must let mercy and truth meet together and then righteousness and peace will kiss each other. This must be done in public as well as in private life if our democracy is to live and to remain the beacon light for the world ; else the statue of liberty will be a mockery instead of a hope.