Insubordination: Its Causes, Tendencies and Guilt
A Sermon by Rev. J. Lansing Burrows
Pastor of the Fifth Baptist Church, Philadelphia, Penn., 1844
“The wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt.” – Isaiah LVII: 20.
The wicked are necessarily restless. An approving conscience is essential to a calm and quiet spirit. The passions of the depraved heart, when left, without the restraints of inwrought moral principles, to their own natural exercise, strengthen in virulence and turbulence, until from the din of their conflict, peace flies and hides. The chambers of the mind, where heavenly guests are not invited and cherished, will be forced and filled by infernal tenants. He whose passions are unsubdued and uncontrolled by divine grace, has within himself all the elements of riot.
Outward manifestations of the inward turmoil may be prevented, by the necessary activity which the business of life demands; by the dread of legal penalties; by the absence of sufficient causes of excitement, or opportunities of their exhibition, in a well governed community; but the elements of insubordination and brawl exist in every unregenerate heart.
The text describes the natural character of the whole human race. The wicked cannot rest. The waters of the sea are the graphic type of their restless spirits. Occasional calms are no security against sudden and frequent storms. While the “mire and dirt” of sin remain in the uncleansed heart, though for a season in undisturbed deposit, the waves of passion, so easily moved, may at any moment “cast up" the filth, and dash it. over the surface of human society.
Fearful illustrations of these truths we have been compelled, recently, and repeatedly to witness in our own city. The blood of murdered citizens still stains our streets, and the bitter tears of bereaved widows and orphans, have not ceased to flow. The terrible sounds of cannon and musketry, and the tramp of armed men, are still resounding in our ears, teaching, by their tremendous
utterances, the truth and universality of the inspired descriptions of man's inherent and unmodified depravity. Human character remains essentially unchanged, notwithstanding the boasted progress and influence of civilization and refinement, of education and art.
Believing it to be the solemn duty of the Ministers of Jesus Christ, to exert the whole of the mighty influence of the pulpit for the support of law, and for the suppression of popular turmoil, I invite your attention, in this discourse, to a consideration of THE CAUSES, TENDENCIES, AND GUILT OF INSUBORDINATION.
I. THE TEXT SUGGESTS THE ULTIMATE CAUSES OF INSUBORDINATION. Without dwelling upon the secondary causes of particular scenes of violence, that have distressed and disgraced our community, I remark, at once, that, selfishness is the prime element in a riotous spirit.
The preservation of the personal rights of each member of a community, while at the same time, the best interests of the whole body are secured, is the great end of law. It prohibits men from pushing their own purposes at the expense of others interests and happiness. It builds barriers around every one's person and habitation, through which no one has a right to force a passage, and beyond which no inmate has a right to obtrude. Every person under a government of law, moves, as in a charmed circle, which all are forbidden to enter. A sacred regard for individual rights and happiness, is essential to general prosperity. The body being composed of members, each member must be unrestrained in the exercise of its appropriate functions, or the whole body suffers. Human law, so far as perfect, is based upon the simple precept; “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Thou shalt regard his rights and means of happiness as sacredly as thine own.
Against this principle, the selfishness of the natural heart rebels. It would have others bound indeed, in order that its own ends may be the more readily gained, but it chafes beneath the cords that hold back its rapacious hands from a neighbor's rights. It would appropriate to itself more than its own share of the means of enjoyment. It is dissatisfied with its legitimate place, and would enlarge its own circle, though its circumference may impinge that of others. Selfishness would set up another law for its conduct - its own will. Desirous of attaining its own ends, reckless of the interests of others, it groans as in bondage under legal restraints.
Here originates the restlessness of the unsubdued heart. Here commences the struggle for selfish freedom. The bad man may regard law, as a bond properly fastened upon others, to prevent their interference with him - to hold them fast while he plunders with impunity, but as a preventive of his own designs and aims
he dislikes it. He is bound within limits which he loathes, and beyond which he tasks his ingenuity safely and profitably to pass. Compelled by law, yet struggling to burst its fetters, he is “like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt.”
Illustrations of this selfish disregard of law are found upon almost every page of the world's history. Our first parents were controlled by wise and benevolent laws. When by the injected suggestions of the Fiend, selfish desires originated in their hearts, they disregarded the law, rose in insubordination against the lawgiver, and with a riotous hand, plucked the “forbidden, fruit.” The history of our first parents symbolizes the history of the race. At one period, the whole world, with the exception of one faithful family, threw off the restraints of law, and made their own perverse wills the rule of their conduct. “There was no fear of God before their eyes.” The world was in riot and rebellion, and God swept them from the face of the earth. So has depraved man ever rebelled against God's authority. His government they have rejected. “We will not have him to reign over us,” has been the fixed determination of the world.
The necessary restraints of this selfishness of depraved humanity, originates and fosters enmity against the laws. This enmity may not be openly avowed, or even secretly confessed. The heart is very deceitful, and men often conceal, even from themselves, the motives of their actions. They may persuade themselves, that righteousness demands their disregard of law, in avenging or rectifying, real or imaginary evils; that in some circumstances riot is duty.
Neither do I mean that men indulge hostility to law in the abstract. They are willing that it should bind all but themselves, and perhaps the band with which they sympathize. And even its claims upon themselves they acknowledge, in all but pendant circumstances. They would make themselves, for the occasion, exceptions to the general application of the code; and prohibitions of what they desire, awaken restless anger in their hearts. Nothing but fear of the penalty prevents open hostility. And when this fear is allayed by the promise of impunity, the law is as impotent to restrain as a spider's web upon a giant's limbs.
The principle is the same, in its application to human or divine law. The great mass of mankind promise themselves impunity in violating God's law, and exhibit their open hostility and contempt, by an utter disregard of all those precepts that interfere with their depraved appetites and passions.
The next step naturally and easily taken, when opportunity offers, is violence. This is the open exhibition of the selfish enmity of the heart. The enmity to law may long be hidden. The valve of public sentiment may be kept closed upon it, too tightly, to permit the escape of the boiling wrath. But let circumstances
relax the pressure of public opinion upon these turbulent elements, but for an hour, and a disastrous explosion will be sure to follow.
II. Let us, in the second place, consider the TENDENCIES of this spirit of insubordination.
All manifestations of this spirit, are destructive of individual rights and safety. If men are encouraged in disregarding law, what assurance have I, that an unpopular sentiment, uttered to day in the discharge of a conscientious duty, may not bring upon me or upon the Sanctuary in which I minister, the wrath of the offended.
Are you a merchant? The purchase or sale of some article, concerning the manufacture of which there is difficulty among the artizans, or concerning the importation of which there is excitement among seamen or citizens, may bring the torch to your store-house.
Are you a mechanic? If you refuse to co-operate with your fellow-mechanic, in demanding an advance of wages, or if jealousy is excited against you, because of the qualities or prices of your wares, what warrant have you, that your property will not be destroyed, and your person assaulted by your opponents.
Are you a physician? The death of a patient under your treatment, though the utmost skill and wisdom may have been exercised, may expose your person or habitation to the wrath of his friends.
Are you a lawyer? The felon you defend, may be convicted; and his associates may visit their rage upon you; or the honest man against whom the popular prejudice is excited, may be cleared by your labors, and the disappointed wrath of the multitude may fall upon you.
Criminals may be torn from our court rooms; our dwellings may become blockaded prisons, and inoffensive citizens may be shot down in the streets. What will be the end of the operation of this principle? Who is safe? Whose rights are secured? If the laws are not competent to protect each class and citizen against popular rage, what encouragement is there, for the freeholder to erect his tenement, or for the capitalist to invest his stock? Unless this spirit be checked and crushed by the overwhelming force of a correct moral sentiment, generally diffused among the people, and encouraged by them, no man can gain a warrant of an hour's safety or enjoyment.
The spirit of insubordination is necessarily subversive of all national prosperity. There can be no stability, no enduring prosperity, under a government, the legislation and administration of which is vested in the capricious will of a despot. No subject can be sure, for an hour, of his property, or his life. In oriental nations no permanent foundation can be laid for national greatness. The scimetar [short sword] and the bow-string are so constantly shaken before
the eyes of the people, that their terror prevents them from looking upon any other object, with the fixed attention necessary for its attainment.
The administration of a populace, acting according to its own caprices, under varied causes of excitement, is the most terrific kind of despotism. Its laws are written, as it were upon the sea beach, liable to be obliterated by every swelling wave.
“All public improvements require time, and the fixedness and the security which can be furnished by laws alone. The purposes connected with the endowment of a college, a school, a canal company, a banking institution, with manufactures and with commerce, can never be accomplished, rarely more than commenced in a single generation. They stretch into future times, and demand the continued protection of the laws. They must reach on beyond the life of an individual, and beyond the capricious will of a mob, or a despot, or their purposes cannot be accomplished. They demand the permanence of laws that are known, and the plighted faith of a whole people, that cannot soon change.” “In our own country there are more rights vested on the presumption of the stability and permanence of the laws, than in any other on the face of the globe. All our agricultural improvements; our farms and plantations; our banks, colleges, churches, manufactories, railroad investments, religious seminaries, hospitals, and asylums, are founded on the presumption of the permanence and stability of our laws; and the announcement that the caprice of a mob or a despot was to rule hereafter in this land, would cripple or destroy them all in a day.”*
There is nothing that gives assurance of the perpetuity of our national institutions - nothing that constitutes our glory and greatness as a nation, that may not be swept away by the ruthless hand of lawless violence. I have no fear for my country from foreign innovation. The threats of distant monarchs trouble me no more than the distant rumbling of the thunder, in an eastern cloud, upon a summer evening. Our distance, isolation, energy, self-esteem, and jealousy of foreign influence, render our overthrow, impossible, unless the omnipotent aid our foes. But I do tremble before the gatherings of internal lawless mobs. This startles me like the near thunder that suddenly breaks close to the roof that shelters me. I remember Jerusalem, before its last destruction, when its own citizens turned their swords against each other, and in all the furiousness of popular violence, wrought out their own ruin. As a man's bitterest and most vengeful “foes, are those of his own household,” so, a nation's most powerful and destructive enemies are marshalled among its own citizens. Let riots be defended and encouraged, as the remedies of wrong, and soon under their rule would be realized the graphic description of the Poet. +
* Albert Barnes.
+ Robert Pollock.
186The violence of insubordination strengthens the very evils it is intended to prevent and punish. Abuse, is not unfrequently a commendation to popular favor. The veriest wretch, whose hands reek with the blood of the murdered, as he passes to the deserved scaffold, looks upon crowds of compassionate faces and weeping eyes. Human nature sympathizes with the oppressed, or with those who seem to be oppressed. Would you enlarge the influence of Romanism? Kindle a fire in its convents and churches, and that light will reveal its most attractive features, while its deformities will all be concealed in the dense shadows, created by that very light. Would you multiply converts to Mormonism? Excite the wrath of the populace against its advocates; shoot down their leaders like wild beasts; and the very sound of your musketry will be most eloquent preaching in their behalf. Would you spread the principles of abolitionism? Give its advocates an opportunity of pointing to the ashes of its ruined halls, the graves of its martyrs, or their own scourged backs, and scarred forms, and you furnish them their strongest appeals to the sympathies of the people. Nuns are more respected in Charleston, and gamblers are more tolerated in Vicksburg, than before riot undertook their suppression. Christianity itself was most rapidly propagated in its purity when most fiercely persecuted. Evil or good principles - like the fabled Gheber fires - are only scattered to blaze in more numerous places, by every rude attempt to beat them down, and the very instruments used for extinguishing them, become fuel for the flames, and spread wider their light and heat.“Satan raged loose, sin had her will; and death
Enough; blood trode upon the heels of blood;
Revenge in desperate mood at midnight, met
Revenge; war brayed to war; deceit, deceived
Deceit; lie cheated lie; and treachery
Mined under treachery; and perjury
Swore back on perjury; and blasphemy
Arose with hideous blasphemy; and curse
Loud answered curse; and drunkard stumbling, fell
O’er drunkard fallen; and husband, husband met
Returning from each other's bed defiled;
Thief stole from thief; and robber on the way
Knocked robber down; and lewdness, violence
And hate, met lewdness violence and hate.”
Riotous violence generally recoils upon the heads of those who excite and urge it. In the present state of our humanity it is the direct tendency of violence, to rouse a desire of revenge in the oppressed party.
Long protracted oppression may habituate its victim to the hopeless endurance of wrong. The spirit of christian piety
may subdue the resentful passions of the natural heart, and refer the punishment of injuries to him, who has declared “vengeance is mine, I will repay” - and who has explicitly promised to “avenge his own elect.” Thus did Jesus, the faithful Stephen, and many other of the primitive saints, endure with calm and forgiving spirit, the reckless wrath of murderous mobs.
But the number who thus bear injuries, is comparatively small. Most hearts throb with desire, and most eyes watch with eagerness, for an opportunity to hurl back the weapons with which illegal violence has pierced them. Rarely do men attempt to revenge the punishment of law, by violence against its authorized officers. An innate sense of right justifies legal penalties. But if even a just and mild punishment, of great crimes, be illegally inflicted, the vengeful anger of the victim is aroused, and nothing but want of power or opportunity, will prevent the blow of revenge. The criminal who will quietly submit to the sentence of an official judge, without the consciousness of a passionate emotion against him, personally, will swear vengeance against an individual, or a self-constituted clique, even if they inflict lighter punishment for similar crimes.Not unfrequently do rioters themselves, become the victims of riot. For an illustration of this principle, we need look no farther than to the terrible scenes that have recently disgraced our own city. The clan who in utter disregard of law, armed themselves to drive from their lawful privileges, those whom they chose to consider their foes, murdering them, as though they were rabid dogs, along the streets; were speedily visited by the wrath of a band, as riotous and more powerful than themselves. The mob that fired the churches and dwellings of Roman Catholics, was begotten by the mob that assaulted and assassinated American citizens, legally and peaceably assembled.“Spirits of fire, they brood not long,
But flash resentment back for wrong;
And hearts, where, slow but deep, the seeds
Of vengeance ripen into deeds;
'Till in some treacherous hour of calm
They burst like Zeilan's giant palm
Whose buds fly open with a sound
That shakes the pigmy forests round.”*
So long as the law maintains its power and integrity, aggressors upon the rights of others will be hunted out, and meet the penalty of their infractions. The passion of a mob speedily dies away. Its fire is too fierce to last long. But law, can calmly and deliberately wait its time, for the infliction of its vengeance.
The penalty not having been threatened in wrath, is not modified by postponement. It can follow transgressors to their homes, watch about their doors, and track their wandering course, with unimpassioned determination, until the favorable opportunity for vindicating its power, and avenging its dishonor, arrives.
And even if the wretches who trample upon law, and upon the rights of their fellows, and stab the peace of others from the throng and darkness of a crowd, escape the eye of Justice in this world; Jehovah has said, “though hand join in hand the wicked shall not go unpunished.” They may run and hide from earthly tribunals, but they can take no path that will not terminate at the bar of God. There the record of their crimes has been faithfully kept, and when the judgment is set and the books are opened, there can be no evasion or escape. If the advocacy of Jesus Christ, the only Mediator, be not then secured, the settled sentence of the law will most assuredly be uttered and inflicted: “Depart from me ye accursed; into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.”
III. We speak in the third place of the GUILT of insubordination.
Violation of human law, involves violation of God's law. Insubordination is direct and positive disobedience against God. At a time when self-interest, and safety, and personal rights, would, if ever, seem to warrant resistance to law; when the bloody Nero bore the imperial sceptre; Paul's pen guided by the Holy Ghost, wrote to those dwelling in the very city and palace of the tyrant, subject to his capricious and cruel despotism, the following plain and emphatic instructions; “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God; the powers that be, are ordained of God. Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive unto themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou not then be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same, for he is the minister of God unto thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God; a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but for conscience sake. For this cause pay ye tribute also; for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render, therefore, to all their dues; tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.”* That it is right, under some circumstances, for a people to abrogate their laws, and change their government, cannot be denied
* Epistle of Romans, Chapter xiii: 47.
or doubted. That no human law is binding upon man, when it directly contradicts, or counteracts God's law, is also granted. But while the laws are satisfactory to the mass of people, while they are upon the whole willing to live under a fixed administration, and while conscience is permitted its legitimate control of the conduct, the man who manifests or encourages insubordination, rebels against God himself. He denies God's right to rule, by the same speech or action that violates human law.
God governs the universe, in all its departments, by fixed laws. Matter is controlled by unchanging physical laws. For the government of mind he has prescribed a system of moral laws. The administration of civil magistrates forms a part of this system. He has given them authority to punish evil and reward good. They are “his ministers.” “These laws are to the moral universe, what the laws of nature are to the material universe, the source and secret of strength and order. Who would tamper with the law of gravitation in the solar system, or try to stop the smallest wheel in the machinery of that system, even if he could disturb them? The very idea of falling stars, or loosened comets would paralyze the boldest hand, or an indignant world would arrest and chain it. He is however a greater enemy to his species and to his own soul, who would destroy or disturb the authority of moral law as a whole, or in any of its parts.”*
Disregard of law is the very essence of guilt. “Sin is a transgression of the law.” The man, therefore who exerts an influence for the subversion of human law, at the same time sins against humanity, and rebels against God.
If the guilt of human actions be measured by the mischief and woe they procure, then no action can be more guilty, than those which originate and encourage riot. Is man responsible for the evil results of his wicked deeds? He is so held by laws both human and divine. Beside the mischief wrought, by endangering the stability of government, by weakening the confidence of the community in its power and perpetuity, by undermining the foundations of that wall of law which has been erected around the persons and rights of men, there are other terrible results, which necessarily flow from this source.
Riot arouses all the evil passions of the depraved heart. When all these passions are subdued and quiet under the controlling and salutary influence of order, and while religion, under these most favorable circumstances, is laboring entirely to purify the heart, and whilst the members of a community are dwelling together as a common affectionate brotherhood, are not the wretches most fearfully guilty, who turn loose upon society the demons of passion and lash them into fury; who thrust discord and hate in amongst the people, break up all harmonies of peace,
* Robert Philip.
interrupt all the communings of mutual confidence; call up from their graves, where christianity had buried them, the horrible ghosts of bigotry and intolerance, and array neighbors against each other in malignant and prolonged feuds? The men who strive and boast in such a work, are allied in spirit and aim to the fiends of hell.
Murder is reckoned the blackest crime which man commits. Insubordination, always awakens the murderous spirit. Life is worthless in the estimation of a mob. Shall we speak of the woe that distracts the family, whose head has been murdered in a riot? Shall we write the guilt of the murderers, in the tears of the widow, and sound it abroad upon the wailings of bereaved orphans!
And those murdered men!! They have been hurried into the presence of their Judge, perhaps, “with all their sins upon their head.” Oh! what are all earthly griefs, and wrongs compared with the “eternal destruction” of a soul. I see lying amid the ruins which riot has wrought, the mangled body of an unpardoned sinner! I trace the flight of that spirit to God's bar, and hear the just, though fearful sentence, that pronounces its doom of woe! I can see nothing else!! Oh! tell me not now, of persecuted and flying families, of burning and sacked buildings, of chapels consumed and property destroyed, and law dishonored. All the woe, time can alleviate; all the buildings, clay and stone can replace; the violated law can be avenged; but, the murdered can never be restored to life; their souls, if unprepared for death, are irredeemably lost!!
These things considered, how infinitely beyond all human computation, is the guilt of those who originate or countenance riot.
Among the many important reflections suggested by this subject, I have time, in conclusion, only to allude to the following:
1. This subject teaches the unspeakable importance of settled and absolute submission to law. For the maintenance of its positive supremacy, every christian and citizen - where an enlightened conscience does not interpose its higher claims should give his whole, unmodified influence.
2. The constant necessity for the exercise of charity and forbearance, is taught by this subject. Remembering our own lamentable fallibility, let us permit others to hold and defend principles and sentiments, even if abhorrent to ourselves, while our civil and religious rights are secured. And if abused and wronged still let us exercise that forbearance which the gospel teaches, and which Jehovah exhibits toward our transgressions.
3. This subject teaches us that christianity is the sole conservative influence, upon which we can depend for the preservation and perpetuity of our civil institutions. The law cannot restrain the sovereign who legislates, if sufficient motives are presented him for disregarding it. The people of this country are its sovereign
legislators and none can call them to account if they violate their own laws. Intellectual culture, unregulated by moral principle, will only give men greater power for mischief. The prevalence of pure christianity, teaching us to “love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves,” is our only hope.
In fine, this subject suggests the infinite value of Christ's atoning mediation in behalf of a revolted world. The guilt of insubordination against the divine law attaches to each of us. To its charges we can only plead guilty.
But Christ by his sacrifice repaired the breaches our sins had made, and prevented the ruinous results our rebellion must have procured. Through him we are reconciled to God, our hostility of heart is subdued, and our peace and purity secured. “Great peace have they who love thy law, and nothing shall offend them.”
[From Henry Keeling, editor, The Baptist Preacher magazine, Volume III. October, 1844, pp. 181-191. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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