Friday, June 2, 2006

The Frustrations of Good Men

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Within this past week, I finally finished David McCullough's 2001 bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner, John Adams, a book I have been wading through since sometime in 2004. My slow progress was not for lack of interest, since the book is a well-written, informative, and insightful account of the life of one of the nation's founders, who has, sadly, not received the credit he deserves. No, I simply neglected it during busy times and allowed other interests to interfere, something that seems to happen all too often these days.

From the book's earliest chapters, McCullough shows that John Adams was a breed apart. He was not just intelligent, but diligent, thoughtful, and incisive. His parents reared him to hold firm principles of personal conduct and public responsibility, and he embraced them with little variance for the rest of his long life. He read the classics in their original languages, studying deeply into the ideas of great men down through the ages, yet he never wavered from his understanding of God's sovereignty in the affairs of mankind and of individuals (unlike many of the Founders, Adams was not a Deist).

One instance will illustrate his pugnacious adherence to his principles. As a young lawyer, he courageously defended the British soldiers indicted for killing colonists during the Boston Massacre because he believed in everyone's right to a vigorous defense and a fair trial. He managed to have six of them acquitted, while two received manslaughter sentences (under the law of the day, these last two should have hanged, but they were instead branded on the thumb). Throughout his life, even during his presidency, he would continue to act against popular opinion in order to remain steadfast to principle. Such principled stands played a substantial role in his loss to Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election.

Several times in his life, he complained to his wife, Abigail, of the corrupt, degenerate nature of humanity, which he observed daily while practicing law or in his political dealings. He sometimes despaired because of man's duplicity and thirst for power. During his long political career, his foremost worry was that the fledgling country would dissolve into bickering, petty parties that would elevate partisan gains over the common good. In fact, his chief criticism of Jefferson—an on-again, off-again friend over the last fifty years of his life—was that the tall Virginian played party politics, which Adams considered low, brutal, and contemptible (so much so that, as a point of pride, he never campaigned or even asked others for their votes).

Through his early training in God's Word, his immersion in the classics, and his own shrewd observations of men, Adams held that human nature was not intrinsically good, as others of his time believed, but that it was corrupt, deceptive, grasping, ambitious, cruel, greedy, and susceptible to all sorts of evils. For this reason, he included and insisted on a clear separation of powers, along with checks and balances, in the Massachusetts state constitution, which he wrote (James Madison, by the way, used Adam's constitution as one of his templates in his drafting of the U.S. Constitution). Adams argued that man must be restrained by law, or else in his "liberty" he would selfishly take advantage, corrupting the government and ultimately the nation.

Nevertheless, despite such constraints founded in the bedrock of the Constitution, Adams felt frustrated by the open corruption of men. He had done his best to enshrine noble principles in the nation's founding documents, but even his strident efforts proved ineffective in curbing humanity's predatory nature. The no-holds-barred political brawls (and even one physical brawl on the floor of the House of Representatives) between the Federalists—advocates of a strong central government—and the Republicans—believers in states' and individual rights—during both Washington's and his own term in office provided proof to him that men, even those he at one time considered to be patriots, would use every means at their disposal to win. He could only conclude that "victory at any cost" is the norm among human beings.

If he bewailed the situation then, when the first signs of corruption in American government were hatching, what would he think of the situation today, when it is in full flight? Were he transported by time machine to our day, he would rejoice and wonder at our power and prestige but weep over our spiritual, cultural, and political condition. He would surely wail, "What have you done to our noble nation?"

This attitude is one of which God approves. Notice Ezekiel 9:4-6:

. . . and the Lord said to [the angel], "Go through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and cry over all the abominations that are done within it." To the [other angels] He said in my hearing, "Go after him through the city and kill; do not let your eye spare, nor have any pity. Utterly slay old and young men, maidens and little children and women; but do not come near anyone on whom is the mark; and begin at My sanctuary." So they began with the elders who were before the temple.

We live in a time of great abominations, of terrible transgressions of God's perfect standard and way of life. We see our culture degenerating daily before our eyes. We hear of corruption in politics, business, and just about every other area of life. Our children are growing up in an era of great affluence poisoned by mounting rejection of authority and truth. Our society is swiftly devolving into the kind of which God says, "[E]veryone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:25).

Does this frustrate us? Does this sadden us? Does this make us yearn for the second coming of Jesus Christ in power to solve the mess mankind has made? Yes, it should, but while we grieve, we need to keep faith and hope strong because we have God's promise to act in justice.

Then [Jesus] spoke . . . to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying: ". . . And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:1-2, 7-8)