At what moment does a government lose the moral authority to be able to speak out against evil without being seen as hypocritical and unjust even where it is dealing with obvious evildoers? At what point does a government forfeit its moral authority to such a level that even those who by nature tend to be the sort of people who work diligently to keep institutions alive stand still while there are barbarians at the gate, unwilling to lift a hand in defense of what has grown corrupt and without defense? What can a government do to regain the trust it seems to take for granted in the face of continual threats to its legitimacy? Some might say to ask such a question is to answer it, but it is perhaps a chilling matter to articulate questions that should perhaps never be asked in the first place. There are some questions that strike to the fundamental nature of our order and society, that to ask about such fundamentals that used to be taken for granted is to concede that there are dangerous times afoot. It is not merely that there is great temptation to rise up against government that is dangerous, but that even those who are not in the least inclined to rise up, or to hold a great deal of sympathy for those who do, may still lack any sort of sympathy for those authorities whose rule is questioned, and who are faced with growing dissatisfaction in those considered the pillars of society. All that is necessary for empires to fall is for their people to stand aside against threats from the inside and the outside.
Here some historical context is useful to flesh out these matters. As an American, one who is not in the least ashamed of our origin by revolution , and as someone who firmly holds along with the apostles in Acts 5:29 that in case of a conflict between the two, we obey God rather than men, there is a firm recognition that in dealing with authorities there is always a line, that if crossed, frees me and those who think like me from any active loyalty to corrupt institutions. This does not mean taking up arms or wishing for the downfall even of corrupt authorities, or in speaking evil of dignitaries , but rather it means adopting a sort of passivity that leaves such authorities in the hand of God and that refuses to uphold defiantly and unrepentantly corrupt institutions with active support and encouragement. For an American, and for a Christian, these matters are never merely hypothetical. Given our founding, according to inalienable rights, including the sacred right of revolution, and given the fact that contemporary struggles over our Bill of Rights continually founder over the difference in whether it is still necessary and proper to enshrine the practical means to ensure that the right to revolution remains a possible potion, these are contentious matters. Even those of us who do not believe in a constitutional right of secession  cannot remain patriotic Americans and reject the sacred right of revolution, to be used only in extremis and when all other appeals to reason and to the common feeling of our people fail, but to remain an option nevertheless.
In this context, it is worth remembering that the Roman Empire did not fall because it was overwhelmed by hordes of barbarians. In truth, most of the federations of various German tribes were small, in the realms of ten thousands of people, and the Roman Empire itself, even in the 5th Century AD, was made up of many millions of people. Yet most of those people, unarmed and apathetic, were unable or unwilling to raise up arms against the barbarians at the gates who demanded tribute and who eventually overthrew the decadent Western Roman emperors. This is a sobering thought, that even though they were outnumbered in the realm of a thousand to one, the Roman Empire simply lacked the will to defend itself, because many of its elites were willing to be co-opted by the barbarian kingdoms, if they were not half-civilized barbarians themselves, and the ordinary peasants and townsfolk that remained in the empire were so downtrodden and passive that they could provide no strength to an empire even in its moment of greatest need. Nor is the Roman Empire the only one to have this problem. Traditionally in China, empires have tended to fall when internal conditions inflamed peasant rebellions that coincided with attacks on the empire from outside among the martial barbarian peoples, leading a dynasty to lack the means to defend itself because the people as a whole lack the will to turn their arms against the common enemy because they are so fed up with the corruption and misgovernment and disaster that has occurred under the authority of the current dynasty. Let us be careful to study history so that we do not repeat it, especially this kind of history.
For the past few days I have been mulling over an unpleasant confrontation between the Bureau of Land Management and a large body of armed militia in Eastern Oregon. Without going into all of the tedious details of the case, two ranchers who were shafted by the government started fires and are now being called to face the penalty for their arson. Not being in general a particular fan of armed militiamen nor of arson, it is clear as well that there was some theft of property and a failure on the part of government to uphold their social contract in providing water to landowners , a social contract that was made when the West was first inhabited. Without having any sympathy for the armed rabble seeking to nullify the outcome of the law, it is my belief that the representatives of the government involved are equally worthy of jail time, and no less contemptible than the people whose behavior has been ridiculed by many people I know. I find it rather concerning that my lack of willingness to defend even verbally our corrupt government leads me to consider them the moral equals of militia groups engaged in what I plainly consider to be treasonable actions. Yet if there is treason on both sides, then neither of them is really worthy of respect or obedience, or of encouragement. And so we are back to where we begin. When barbarians are at the gates, does our government as it now stands have the moral sanction to reasonably expect my support even in the face of armed protest against its behavior? Not at present. Moral capital for too long squandered by our society’s authorities and institutions cannot be called upon in need unless there is a clear sign of commitment to show the fruits of repentance, fruits that take time to show and grow. It is too late in a crisis to recover what was lost over the course of generations, such as the trust and loyalty of those who by inclination are law-abiding people who have no difficulty serving institutions of, by, and for the people, but whose moral sense forbids any support of corruption and wickedness.
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