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Organizing principles

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We have been thinking about something we wrote about last year in a new way.

It's obvious that nature has organizing principles. In Britain, Christians adopted the organizing principles of Christ's radical teachings and created ideas and institutions that still bless us. They did this despite being opposed at every turn by ruthless men who did not believe in those principles and tried to suppress them.

“You know that the leaders of nations dominate their people and exercise tyrannical rule over them,” Jesus said. “That's how it is in the world. But that isn't how it must be with you. Whoever would be great among you, let that person serve you; and whoever would be your leader, let that person minister to your needs." (Mark 10:42-44)

The result of this organizing principle, and several others, can be clearly seen -

St Dunstan believed passionately in Christ's idea of the servant king. In AD 973 he wrote the Coronation Oath as a great covenant between the people and the sovereign, who promised to defend justice and mercy for the people.

In 1100 Christian knights and bishops forced Henry I to sign the Charter of Liberties and affirm that no one, not even the king, was above the law.

In 1102, St Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and his fellow brothers and priests ended slavery in England at the Council of Westminster.

In late 12th century Christians saw the genius of the poor child who was Robert Grosseteste, and educated him and sustained his exploration into the mathematical principles behind God’s creation. And Christians established Oxford and Cambridge universities.

When a new king, John, tried to trample on justice, Christians - bishops, knights and townspeople - rose up against him and forced him to agree that "To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice."

Christians remembered how Jesus had been held without charge, presumed guilty and sentenced without trial. They insisted on our rights to habeas corpus, presumption of innocence and trial by jury.

The Christian community included Robert Grosseteste’s friend, Simon de Montfort, who established the first Parliament and in 1265 willingly died to defend it.

In the 16th century Robert Kett defended the people's ancient right to common land and John Lambert fought for the right to silence - which is also the right not to incriminate yourself and not to be tortured in an effort to make you confess to false charges.

John Lilburne fought for the same right in the 17th century, and helped to abolish the Star Chamber.

In 1670, William Penn and his jurors fought for freedom of speech and the right of juries to declare innocence.

In the 19th century British Christians ended both the trade in slaves and slavery itself. They reformed work laws to protect children.

British Christians believed in the organizing principle that God gave each of us dignity and freedom. As a result they made momentous advances in establishing freedom.

Jesus was extremely practical - it is one of his overlooked virtues - and his parables accept property rights that are clearly understood and protected under the law. He depended on the men and women growing wheat and grapes and raising sheep on their land to feed him and his disciples and the poor. If the government took it all or most of it, they would have nothing to give.

Jesus did not advocate government solutions. He asked his followers to make a free and individual choice to love and cherish others.

Following in his footsteps, the community of Christians in Britain were passionate about property rights as a shield against tyranny, and equally passionate about helping others. They founded thousands of charities, trusts, friendly societies and unions.

We can complain about how long it took Christian Brits to get things right, as long as we don't forget how long it takes us to right a wrong. What organizing principles do we follow today?

Comments (2)

James:

Good summary and I appreciate your shout-out to John Lilburne but aren't you forgetting the most important:

1647, Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton, and the soldiers of the New Model Army at Purney church in London for the first time openly debate the establishment of democratic principles in England -- principles foundational to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution of 1776.

James Holloway:

Thanks, first of all, for your great site.

The grand thing about English, and by extension, American history, is the organic nature by which the institutions/laws/traditions have evolved; it's what's saved us from the bloodbaths of the French or, God forbid, the Russian or Chinese or Cuban revolutions or any other led by radical utopians. Putney was the all-important first step toward universal suffrage, and for that reason should be honored, I believe, as the foundational debate of the principles of liberty that would be realized in 1688 and then in 1776, and that in the 20th century were so brilliantly described by Hayek and Friedman.

The best short essay desribing the issues at Putney and their resolution can be found in the introductory essay to "Puritanism and Liberty," an edition of the debates and related materials edited by ASP Woodhouse. Put shortly, Putney represents a debate between the Independents, represented by Cromwell and Ireton, and the more radical elements in the Army, represented by Cols Lilburne and Rainsborough, as well as the "Fifth Monarchy" men such as Col Harrison and Lt-Col Goffe.

Putney was intended to reach a settlement on the "constitution" of
England after Parliament's triumph on the battlefield, and the role/ scope of the monarchy within. The radical elements, in "The Agreement of the People," presented a written document drawn up in accordance with abstract principles that were new to English politics. Cromwell objected: "This paper doth contain in it very great alterations of the government of the Kingdom, alternations of that government it hath been under ever since it was a nation. What the consequences of such an alteration wouldas this would be. . .wise and godly man ought to consider."

Cromwell believed the Agreement, if enacted, would result in anarchy, in the reduction of England to Swiss-like cantonments. And given the recent example of the Thirty Years War, and such events as the radical- religious experiment in Munster that ended in such bloodshed, he had every reason to fear anarchy. And while Rainsborough's statement that "the meanest man in the Kingdom" should have a voice in choosing who made laws, Ireton opposed universal suffrage on the principle - which may be correct, given the experience of welfare-statism - that only owners of private property should have the vote. Cromwell and Ireton, in my reading of the test, represent the voices of moderation and very English good sense against the utopian schemes of radicals like Lilburne and Rainsborough.

Now, I realize none of this meets the plumb-line of what, today, constitutes a "democratic society." But in the context of the times, that these matters were debated at all is profound; and the settlement eventually achieved by Cromwell, while imperfect, are the foundational principles of 1688 and 1776. Liberty, as realized in England (tho I'm afraid it's been destroyed be the ten years of Bliar/Brown) and
America, was discovered by the Puritans and its cornerstone laid by
Cromwell and the New Model Army. The Puritans were indeed, as Macaulay wrote in his Essay on Milton, the most remarkable group of men the word has ever seen; and it's a shame that "Puritan" has become in our wretched, off-the-rack, mall-rat Stalnist popular culture a term of opprobrium.

But I intend to attempt changing that in the coming years with a project of my own. And in the meantime, poke around a bit in the history and literature of the English Puritans. The Woodhouse book,
and what Macaulay wrote both in the Essay on Milton and his History of England are good places to start.

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