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Sermon V.
Danger of Sympathizing With Rebellion.

by John Keble

Preached before the University of Oxford, January 30, 1831.

Romans i. 20.

Who, knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.

THE temper described in this verse is the worst form of moral degradation; consisting not so much in want of principle, as in principles positively bad and ruinous. Which distinction is more clearly marked in the original by the use of the two verbs poiein and prattein. "The civilized and enlightened heathen,"—so the Apostles seems to say,—"were fully aware of the sentence, the judicial sentence of God Almighty, declaring that such as practice (oi prassonteV) outrageous immoralities, are worthy of death: yet they could find in their hearts, not only to commit those actions, (ou monon auta poiousi,) which might have happened under strong impulse, contrary to their own habitual feelings: but also to consent to such as practise them, (suneudokein toiV prassousi,) to acquiesce in them thoroughly, and be well-pleased with them."

Here, as with the finishing touch, and the darkest of all, he completes his picture of that intense depravity, from which Christ came to rescue the Gentile world: emphatically implying, that worse could not be, on this side the region of unmingled evil.

Assuredly it would be a fatal mistake, to limit this aweful denunciation to those only, whose circumstances tempt them directly to participate in great and heinous crimes: or to imagine that, living as we do in an age of Christian light and instruction, we can have no great occasion to deprecate these worst excesses of heathenish wickedness. The effect on society, the immediate effect, is indeed greatly mitigated; but the effect on our own character is the same, when we have pleasure in the guilty, as such, though we cannot, or dare not, perform their worst actions. Those who are kept, so far, innocent, merely from irresolution or want of energy—which state of mind is infallibly indicated by the imagination delighting to dwell on wickedness—cannot well be conceived of as less guilty, in the eyes of an All-seeing God, than if they had been allowed to accomplish their own evil dreams. And wilfully persisting in such inward licence, for any considerable length of time, their condition may seem, in one respect, the more dangerous for this involuntary restraint. It has less chance of being amended by outward reverses, or the reproof of others: it gives less room for the sort of reaction, which is apt to ensue on great and palpable transgressions, and to make the remorse and repentance of ardent minds as signal as their guilt had been. There is the more reason therefore, and the more mercy, in those numerous denunciations of Scripture, which represent us as partaking in other men’s sins, merely by brooding over them in fancy, with any thing like indulged approbation or sympathy.

Two kinds of immorality may be named, in which, more readily perhaps than in others, men’s unchastened imaginations are apt to involve them: sins of sensuality, and sins of rebellion.

For just as in the former of these two instances, reading, hearing, or seeing mischief, if the heart at all consent to it, may plunge a man in intense guilt, though shame, fear, or want of opportunity, put a bar on overt actions of sin: so it is possible, as we read history, or hear news, to learn a vicious sympathy with rebellion or oppression. I name the two thus together, because they are but two names for the same evil tendency within us, only acting in opposite directions. Discontented, covetous tempers, I say, as naturally exercise themselves in brooding over past, or imaginary, or distant, examples of successful rebellion, or triumphant violence, as debauched and sensual hearts do in those which most naturally occur to them.

There is, indeed, a closer analogy between these two vices, than many, at first sight, would be apt to imagine: and Scripture accordingly names them together, as equally descriptive of those degenerate Christians, who might be expected to arise in the latter days. They who "defile the flesh," we are told, will also be the readiest to "despise dominion, and speak evil of dignities." "These speak evil of those things which they know not:"—calumniate, where they are incompetent to judge:—"but what they know naturally, as brute beasts, in those things they corrupt themselves." "These are murmurers, complainers, walking after their own lusts, and their mouth speaketh great swelling words of vanity," They "walk after the flesh, in the lust of uncleanness, and despise government." "While they promise" their disciples "liberty," "they themselves are slaves of corruption."

Nor is this connection hard to account for. It is the same love of excitement, and impatience of pure and quiet satisfactions; venting itself, ordinarily, in wild and wanton pleasures; and flaming out, when opportunity is given, in lawless defamation, and rude resistance. These are the visible and actual results, where men have audacity and ability to compass them: but who shall estimate the silent corruption, which they daily and hourly foster in themselves, dreaming of and enjoying the mischief, which they want the heart or the power to realize?

It is possible, therefore, in every department of wickedness, to make one’s self partaker in other men’s sins, however long ago committed. And in these two ways of sensuality and rebellion, it is even certain, that without overt acts, an infinite load of such guilt is daily incurred by inconsiderate or self-deceiving Christians. Consequently, there is nothing so very absurd, as some men appear to imagine, in deprecating, annually, all participation in a public sin of former days. According to the pattern set us in the Litany, we have cause to humble ourselves for the "iniquities of our forefathers," else they will surely become our own.

But if ever the descendants of a guilty generation stood in need of continual warning, not to "find pleasure" in their fathers’ sins, and so become, like them, "worthy of death:" surely it is so with us of this country, in regard of that series of crimes, of which this day saw the consummation. Whether we consider the general tendency of human opinions on such subjects, or the habitual leaning of the people of England in particular, the experience of every year must shew, I think, to an impartial eye, more clearly than that of the last, how apt men are to have pleasure in those, whom the law of God would charge with rebellion.

To say, that mankind in general are disposed to think slightly of this sin, and to encourage it, at least, by seeming pleased with it, is merely saying, that we sympathise most readily with the faults which are prompted by our own situation in life, the temptation to which, therefore, we are able most thoroughly to estimate. By the constitution of society, nay, even by the law of domestic life, by far the greater part of mankind stand in an inferior relation to others. Children and subjects are by many more numerous, than magistrates and parents are, and have therefore always a greater number to stand by them, and keep them in countenance. The result is well known to every one, who has ever been called to direct others, as magistrate, teacher, master, or parent. It is what almost all must confess, who will survey their own past demeanour, as children, servants, pupils, or subjects, with any thing like an impartial view.

It is the last thing men are ready to own as a fault, their simply refusing to submit and obey. That they have gone too far, in such and such expressions of their contumacy, they are not seldom willing to acknowledge; but they will scarce ever cordially allow, that they were wrong to be contumacious at all. And what greatly encourages this evil spirit is, that here, as in the matter of sensual indulgence, men commonly, as far as they dare, take the part of their guilty neighbours; from a secret consciousness, it is to be feared, that themselves are, or soon may be, more or less partakers in their guilt.

Further: in spite of habitual recklessness, our moral nature, generally speaking, will have its way so far, that some pretence of good will be acceptable, even to the most profligate of men, to justify the pleasure he takes in the wicked: and it is obvious to remark, that insubordination, in this respect, has greatly the advantage of sensual vices. For as no human administration can be perfect, there never shall be wanting some colour of oppression, towards which it will be easy, if we choose, to turn our minds so exclusively, that all our presumption and self-will shall pass off, in our own account, for a generous hatred of wrong, and concern for the weaker party. When the question really lies between submission and resistance, we have an artful way of putting it to ourselves, as if it lay between resistance and oppression: as if the merely not interfering, where one has the power to do so, made a man partaker in the wrong. Of course, there are some such cases; but it may be questioned, perhaps, not unreasonably, whether they do not occur oftener on the side of authority than against it: and at any rate, what is called "the heroic temper," the love of excitement, credit, and consequence, is sufficiently awake in human nature, to allow enough for those instances, without any special care of the moralist. On this head, as in the regulation of the bodily appetites, the theorist may conceive an excess of apathy, but the stress of warning surely must be laid, almost or altogether, on the side opposed to indulgence.

These observations are remarkably confirmed by the total silence of Holy Scripture, as to any exceptions from the general rule of not actively resisting civil authorities: a silence so obvious and emphatical, as to be confessed even by those moralists, who are disposed to make the greatest allowance for our natural impatience of control; and carrying with it, by their own statement, this very important conclusion, that obedience to rulers and magistrates is, in His judgment who cannot err, as sacred a duty as filial obedience, and admits only of the same kind of exceptions. According to which, no calculations of expediency, no amount of public or private good, would justify a subject in violently resisting authority, except in such an extreme case, as would justify a child under pupillage in violently resisting a father or mother. The duty cannot be well stated lower, on the principles of Paley himself.

But however that may be, the studious omission, throughout the Bible, of any word of encouragement to resistance, is surely a circumstance of more meaning, than we seem, in general, willing to allow. It is, as every one knows, the fashion, to dismiss this consideration at once, with some such remark as the following: That it was no part of our Saviour’s mission, to interfere at all in our political conduct:—a very unadvised assertion, surely, unless it can be proved that political conduct involves no moral responsibility. But those who believe that the sanctions and principles of the Gospel were meant to guide us as members of civil society, no less than in the other relations of life,—I do not see how they should so lightly forget, that the whole weight of express Gospel precept is thrown unreservedly into the scale of submission. The exceptions, be they rare or frequent, are not however thought needful to be mentioned: and whoever dwells much upon them, either in popular instruction, or in his own views of social duty, is so far at variance with Scripture.

Here, again, it is usual to say, that the first Christian converts had wilder notions of liberty, and were more disposed to be turbulent, than mankind in general are; that passages, therefore, intended for their guidance, required to be very strictly worded, but may be received now with large allowances. It is usual, I say, to affirm this: but for the shadow of any thing like proof of it, we may search far and wide in vain. If there be one fact in Ecclesiastical History more thoroughly proved than the rest, it is the patient loyalty of the early Christians, under every kind of persecution and injustice, and latterly, in spite of great temptations, from the consciousness of their own number and influence. Is it possible for an unbiassed reader to suppose, that it was fear of their peculiar turbulence, which led the holy writers to speak as they have spoken of the duty of submission? Was it not rather their deep sense of that inward dislike of authority, which they knew to be rooted in all mankind? Let us hear the words of one, who was certainly very much on his guard against overstating the rule of non-resistance. "The Scripture," says Bishop Butler, "throughout the whole of it, commands submission; supposing men apt enough, of themselves, to make the exceptions, and not to need being continually reminded of them."

Such is the tone of God’s holy word: how ill it harmonizes with the ordinary tone of Christians, speaking or writing on political subjects, all know, who have ears to hear. The lowest statement of the Christian doctrine is that which makes submission the rule, resistance the rare and dangerous exception: would it be speaking too strongly if one said, that the prevalent feeling of Christians is, to sympathize, at once, with such as resist, but to require unusual energy or talent, before they can be interested for the supporters of authority?

St. Paul has ranked even personal liberty, liberty opposed to the condition of a slave, among other temporal blessings, as an object, comparatively speaking, below the serious concern of a redeemed immortal being. "Art thou called being a slave? care not for it: but even if thou mayest be made free, put up with it rather." That is, "make the best of your condition as it is, rather than grasp, with eager anxiety, at every chance of emancipation." And what he says of personal liberty, is true, I suppose, a fortiori, of civil liberty as opposed to subjection. "Care not for it," says the inspired Voice: "let it be your tendency, in this as in all things, rather to improve existing opportunities, than to be always craving after a change of condition."

But what says the Christian world to this? Do not men, somehow, think of liberty, as of something unlike other outward blessings, such as health, riches, domestic comfort? something, the mere pursuing of which, for its own sake, is a part of virtue? Contented slavery in either kind, are they not apt to pronounce it meanness?

All this being calmly considered, and compared with what our Lord and His Apostles have said; or rather, with what they have left unsaid, (for there is a silence more significant than words;) I think one must own, that civil liberty, high as it may stand among earthly blessings, is usually allowed to fill a space in our thoughts, out of all proportion to that which it fills in the plan of happiness drawn out in the Bible. Though men commit things worthy of death, yet if they be done for freedom’s sake, the world finds pleasure in them that do them.

Divesting ourselves, therefore, as far as we may, of all national and party-feeling, the common tendency of mankind, I think, would seem, alone, sufficient to justify the institution and continuance of this day’s warning.

But if such be the leaning of mankind in general, it will not, I suppose, be pretended, that we of this country are exempt from it: we who pride ourselves in our love of independence, our quick sense of encroachment and oppression: we who can endure the daily diffusion of calumny and falsehood, of irreverence and insubordination; and not only endure them, but pay their way; under the plea that liberty might suffer, if the popular channels of information were restrained. Of such a people it cannot be said, that the annual commemoration of a great public sin, into which they were hurried in a great measure by their extravagant love of liberty, is as yet become superfluous and unmeaning. On this point one might confidently appeal from the judgment of minds hackneyed in politics, to the pure and unbiassed feeling of those, who read history for the first time; that is, supposing them accustomed also to the reverent and thoughtful use of the Bible.

For what are the undisputed recollections of the day? A Christian King, as pure and devout in his daily life as any character that adorns history, is brought to trial by his own subjects, for refusing to sacrifice his persecuted friends, and the Church of his country; is condemned and executed with circumstances of insult, inexcusable though offered to the vilest malefactor. All this is done for liberty’s sake: and within a few months the same people, who could not endure his doubtful prerogative, shall be seen crouching at the footstool of his murderer, a notorious usurper and tyrant.

I know there is a way of reading history, and watching the turns of passing events, which would make men indifferent to all this, and teach them to regard it as a matter of course: but can this indeed satisfy any, who soberly recollect the moral government of God? To such it must ever seem quite as natural, that the Church of England should keep this day, as it is, that Christ’s universal Church should keep the day of St. Stephen’s martyrdom: God having shewn Himself to the eye of faith, not indeed miraculously, yet, as distinctly, in the one for our special good, as in the other for that of all Christians.

Such, I am persuaded, is the first feeling of all good minds on this part of history. But too many, as they grow older, are taught to regard it very differently: a change, which in persons generally well-principled is owing perhaps chiefly to two causes.

The first to be mentioned is, the course of events after the restoration of the King’s son. His vices, even more than the errors of his brother, have alienated sincere but inconsiderate judgments from the very name and memory of the race: and thus, reversing the Scripture rule most unfairly, men visit the sins of the children on the parent. But surely, on reflecting and generous minds, the very opposite impression must be made. The dignified purity of the King’s conduct must shine brighter in their eyes, by contrast with what they are forced to believe regarding his successor’s heartless dissipation: and the more dangerous and seducing they esteem the religious errors of James the Second, the more cause they see to bless God for his father’s loyalty to the Church of England. The solemn protest against sins of rebellion, which this service brings with it, is so much the more welcome to them, as it comes accompanied with an act of justice to one, too often unfairly condemned by mere association with names less pure than his own.

The same might be said of the other circumstance just alluded to, as lessening men’s interest in King Charles the First, and their horror of the Great Rebellion: I mean, the mixture of religious prejudice, and especially the interference of received opinions on the point of unlimited toleration. Men look on the King as the chosen champion of doctrines to which themselves are averse, and allow their party-spirit to make them at least indifferent to his wrongs, and impatient of the solemn remembrance of him, if they do not actually take pleasure in his murderers. But this only makes it the more desirable that the memorial should be retained, as a caution for ever against the indulgence of party-spirit, and doing evil that good may come: the force of which godless principles is demonstrated by the indifference of posterity to such crimes, quite as unequivocally, though not so fatally, as by the aid or connivance they received at the time. Opinions, be they true or false in the abstract, must be immoral or immorally applied, to have such an effect on the popular sense of right and wrong. Upon this ground, those even, who differ in faith or politics from the King, might well bear with the service of tins day: and such among them as are considerate and truly liberal, do, I believe, bear with it, and approve it.

Connected in some degree with this latter prejudice is one arising from his personal character; by nature reserved, serious and retiring, and loving his own contemplations better than the applause of the world. This was not the kind of demeanour to attract the popular sympathy then, nor to fascinate, in after-times, the ordinary readers of history. And when his severe trials came, unimpeached as he was for personal fortitude, and nobly obstinate in his own good principles, he was found wanting in some qualities, which the world seems agreed to call "heroic," and which have secured the good word of posterity to many, in spite of oppression and tyranny far worse, than any one now dares impute to him. In a qualified sense, one might apply to his political character (there is no irreverence, I trust, in so applying) the prophetical delineation of his Master, the King of Kings. "There is no form nor comeliness, and when we shall see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him." If he had been less pure in his morals and religion, more decided and unscrupulous in his public conduct, he had been likelier then to win his way, and men would now be judging of him more indulgently. There is nothing at all to wonder at in this: nor to lament either, as far as he is concerned. If in his reputation he still continue to bear the Cross after his Saviour, and be likely to do so till the end of the world; we know that every thing of this sort will but enhance the reward of the true Martyr, when the day of retribution comes. But it highly concerned the Church of Christ in this realm, in her office of public instruction, to take such a providential opportunity of putting on record, for her children’s warning, her own estimate of true greatness. And it is at each individual’s peril, whether he will take that warning, or whether he will yet go on to measure things by the old Pagan notions of heroism: admiring talent more than virtue, and "speaking good of the covetous, whom God abhorreth."

These cautions are the more necessary, on account of a peculiar kind of Fatalism, which is apt to intrude itself, more especially, on our political opinions and conduct: by reason, I suppose, of men’s acting together, on such occasions, in large masses: which makes it easier for each person’s imagination to transfer his own guilt to others. But whatever be the cause, certain it is, that such a tendency does exist; that many consciences are beguiled by it; and must we not add, that it has of late been visibly and daily gaining ground? For at what time ever among Christians was the doctrine so often heard, that "such and such evils must be complied with, the ‘spirit of the times’ so requiring?" On every part of literature and conduct, but especially in reference to political duties, we hear this observation repeated; it appears, in fact, to be the sum and substance of some men’s practical wisdom; but can it win the calm assent of the conscience? does it not, in fact, amount to a surrender, I do not say of Christian principle only, but of every thing like moral independence and dignity? Can such casuists have root in themselves? can they endure even for a while, when the times are evil and corrupt? "It is impossible," they plead, "but offences will come;" and they proceed as if our Saviour had inferred, "It matters not by whom the offence cometh." Let it be enough for the condemnation of such a spirit, that it is the direct contrary of the spirit of martyrdom: and we all know how its promptings are applied to palliate great public crimes.

Thus, in regard of the fatal precedent by which our history was this day stained: we are told over and over again, that the season had come round, in a kind of moral cycle, when there could not but be a revolution: that the King was in some sort fairly punished for not understanding the times better: that it was indeed much to be regretted, but could not be helped, and had better be borne with, in consideration of greater benefits ensuing.

It is something, at all events, to have upon record the deliberate protest of the Church of England against these lessons of base accommodation: something, that those who are yet willing to take advice from her Prayer-Book, should find there the good old principles, of plain submission and cheerful obedience, applied to a real and near example, and a condition of society like the present. But it is more, to have the verdict of Scripture herself (for such, undoubtedly, may the History of the Passion falling on this day be considered) in favour of those, who have followed their Saviour in making resignation all their glory. Whether wise or unwise in a worldly sense, the doctrine of the Cross is on their side, and can never, surely, be misapplied, when rehearsed to encourage us in imitating them. Again; could any thing tell more significantly against the too fashionable notion of I know not what fatal necessity, suspending, as it were, men’s accountable agency, when they yield to the "spirit of the times"—could any thing more unsparingly condemn the measuring political right and wrong by mere present visible expediency—than the parable selected for the Gospel of the day: our Lord’s own expressive rebuke to the Jewish rulers, Caiaphas and the rest? They were deceiving themselves, no doubt, more than they did any one else, with the specious plea of public welfare, and the little worth of one man’s blood, set against the safety of the whole nation. There was a voice which spoke home to their consciences, when it represented the husbandmen saying, "Come, let us kill the heir, and then the inheritance surely will be ours." And it is our duty to repeat the warning, as long as we see people doing such things, or "taking pleasure in them that do them."

It is easy enough, no doubt, for any one who is so inclined, to neutralize all that the Church can say, by a dexterous use of party-feeling: easy, to call it a device of the State for upholding a particular set of opinions. But the matter may be brought to a short issue. If attachment to the cause of our injured King, and sympathy with his high-minded patience, were not in entire harmony with the principles inculcated in all other parts of the Prayer-Book: if Sanderson, Hammond, and Taylor, those Restorers of our fallen Church, spoke otherwise on the duty of subjects, than as former generations of true Churchmen had spoken: then we might perhaps have cause to fear, that Feeling had got the better of Reason, in this one portion of our yearly solemnities. But if they "all speak the same thing, and there be no division among them;" and (what is infinitely more) if what they speak be altogether scriptural: if the doctrine of submission and loyal obedience be only one inseparable branch of the universal doctrine of resignation and contentment—an ingredient of that unreserved Faith, without which it is impossible to please God—then let us bless our Preserver, for not leaving us without special witness to a part of our duty, where all experience has proved us so likely to go wrong. Let us trust our civil welfare to the Gospel rule of non-resistance, as fearlessly as we trust our domestic happiness to the kindred rule of filial obedience. Such conduct, if universal, would be a perfect security to liberty: inasmuch as the same principle which forbids illegal resistance, would equally forbid being agents in illegal oppression. And they who abide by it, be they many or few, have for their warrant the general tenor and express word of Revelation, the example of our Blessed Lord, His Apostles, and His suffering Church. In every case, the burthen of proof lies wholly on those who plead for resistance.

And what if young men—the high-born especially—instead of that degrading ambition of commencing, early, "men of the world," would consent to shape their own conduct by the noble simplicity and downright goodness of him, whom we this day commemorate? the secret of whose excellence lay, chiefly, in two qualities, by them most imitable: consistent purity of heart and demeanour, and strict constancy in devotional duties, under the guidance of his and our Church? Does any one believe that such a change would leave society at all a loser, in point of true generosity and courtesy, or whatever else makes life engaging?

But if all this must still be unheard—if the instruction of the day be quite drowned, in men’s eager cry for what is called Freedom: at least the service answers the purpose of a solemn appeal from human prejudice, to Him, before whom king and subject must ere long appear together. To whose final and unerring decision, not, it is hoped, with presumptuous confidence, nor yet with any uncharitable thought, but in cheerful assurance that resignation and loyalty can "in no wise lose their reward," we desire, now and always, to "commit our cause."

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