Fighting Tyranny – The Role of the Lesser Magistrates

How, in a moral society, do you fight tyranny? What if your politicians, your representatives or other government officers go rogue?

When the Declaration of Independence says that “…Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…,” how exactly is that done morally?

Would it be moral, for instance, to gin up a mob and attack the government? The French tried that. How did that work out for them? Or would it be proper to create secret loyalties of select military commanders and use the military to overthrow the government? That was Catherine the Great’s solution. If you don’t mind exchanging one dictatorship for another maybe that’s your medicine.

If only someone, somewhere had thought about this. Well, of course, someone has. Or, rather, quite a few people have. The answer to dealing with tyrants comes from a long line of Hebrew and Christian scholars. The first contribution, by Jewish scholars, was to establish the idea that the leader was to be a servant of the people, not a ruler of the people. This line of reasoning grew from its Hebrew seeds and was further developed by Christian scholars over several centuries from 1000 AD to 1776 AD.

The basic principal is that one cannot, ever, take the law into his own hands. No riots, no purges, no Reign of Terror allowed. A revolution, if it is to be moral, depends on the, so called, lesser magistrates. That means that, in a country, there is more than one leader. There is more than one official. There are mayors and governors and judges and sheriffs. Most of them, if not all, have their positions legitimately.  Morally, the public must turn to them for support. I can’t say it any better than Gary Amos did in his book, Defending the Declaration from which most of this information is gleaned.

What is the Christian theory of Revolution? Stated simply, if through acts of tyranny the highest ruler in a country forfeits his right to rule, lower officers who still have a right to rule can declare a change in government. Those who have a right to rule must be representing the law and ‘the people,’ because the people can resist tyrants only through lawful representatives. Lower rulers must act to defend the covenant or compact of government. Once the lower rulers declare a change of government, ‘the people’ in self-defense of their rights may use force to remove the tyrant from office.

Mob action, riots and the rest are not allowed according to this philosophy. The people must be guided by legitimate authority, by the “lesser magistrates” who have been sworn to uphold the law. And violence is a last resort.

You don’t have to be a Jew or a Christian to see that this idea has ethical merit. In the past this idea was called “interposition” because the lesser magistrates would interpose themselves between the people and the tyrant.

Interposition was one of the reasons the Declaration of Independence lists the violations of law by the King. Other than the American War of Independence, the most famous example of lesser magistrates bringing a ruler into line ended with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 by King John of England at Runnymede.

There is a rich, but today little known, history of what is considered legitimate rule. Other treatises include Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants, 1579, by Stephen Junius Brutus and Lex Rex, 1644, by Samuel Rutherford. There are many other historical documents in addition to these, including the works of John Locke.

So how can books and articles from 1600 matter today? I guess if you are one of those who believe that law and thought becomes invalid with age, Constitution 1789, you don’t think these document matter one bit.

As of this writing, 40 sheriffs around the US have pledged to defend the Second Amendment from the Obama Administration. The governors and legislators of several states have passed laws to protect their citizens from so called “Obamacare.”

These sheriffs, governors and legislators rest the morality of their actions on documents such as Lex Rex, whether they know it or not. But more importantly, concepts such as interposition are what separate us from many third world countries where violent revolutions are common and the winner takes all. Whether you are a Jew, a Christian or even a libertarian agnostic, civilized society depends on you understanding concepts such as the Role of the Lesser Magistrates.


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