Looking at John Locke and Individual Liberties
Thelma Glass, instrumental in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, died at the age of 96, reported the Washington Post. Her 40 year struggle shed light on the deep inequalities of segregation. As a civil rights leader, she tirelessly championed individual rights and racial equality. Like John Locke (as we will see below), her life is a testament to the classic tension between an individual’s rights verses the state’s rights to rule.
In the case of segregation, the state argued that segregation was necessary in order to maintain peace between two very separate classes of citizens. Thelma Glass, and many others, argued that the state has no right to subjugate one ethnic group in order to maintain public tranquility. Their life’s work ensured that equality under the law is more a reality today than it was 50 years ago.
But her work would not have been possible if it were not for one man. His work on individual rights, the natural state of man, and the social contract paved the way for the declaration of independence and modern democratic thought. That man was John Locke. We will take the rest of this post to look at his work, compare it to the Bible, and check for similarities and differences. Since his work is foundational to our way of life, it is important to examine his thoughts in the light of the Scripture. Let’s take a look.
John Locke and Individual Rights:
John Locke (1632–1704) is arguably among the most influential philosophers of the modern period. (Stanford) His work directly influenced the founding fathers as they labored to produce our democracy. It was John Locke’s tenants of individual rights, limited government, and religious tolerance that set the tone for the American Revolution. He is lovingly called the “Grandfather of American Democracy.”
John Locke conducted a series of thought experiments known as the “state of nature.” In it, he imagined all people were free, equal, and independent. All government of any kind was absolved. Each person was 100% responsible for their own life and affairs. If they ate, it was up to them. If they had shelter, it was up to them. If they had clothes, it was up to them. They were 100% autonomous, 100% equal.
Given this theoretical framework, he then devised a system by which these 100% autonomous people would “conditionally transfer some of their rights to the government in order to better insure the stable, comfortable enjoyment of their lives, liberty, and property.” (Stanford) He reasoned that the main thrust of giving up some of our rights is so that we can live in reasonable harmony with each other for the mutual betterment of our lives.
His reasoning would follow like this: I am a totally free human capable of fully autonomous action. I can hunt and gather food and make rudimentary shelter and clothing. But, in order for my life to be more enjoyable, I will leverage the skills of others to enhance my life while they leverage mine to enhance theirs. For example, I am a baker. In a society, I get to devote my working life honing the craft of the baker. Others are plumbers, electricians, butchers, etc. They buy my delicious artisan bread while I contract their services to maintain my pipes, electricity, etc. Each person, then, benefits from the skills of others to enhance their life, enjoyment, and comfort.
But in order for this exchange to happen, we must give up some of our rights in order to reasonably live together. For example, it is my right to operate my automobile at whatever speed I wish. But in order for our society to be safe and operate in an orderly fashion, we limit the speed that each member can drive. While this limits my rights, it benefits our cooperative effort to live together. This, then, is the basis for government in John Locke’s thought experiment. It is a system of laws that help facilitate the cooperation of each member while still deriving the maximum amount of freedoms to the individual.
The Bible and John Locke:
The Bible constantly references the motif of “each man with his own vineyard.” In fact, the King of Assyria used the euphemism when he came against Jerusalem. His field commander told the people, “Make peace with me and come out to me. Then each of you will eat fruit from your own vine and fig tree and drink water from your own cistern.” (2 Kings 18:32) In it expressed the idea that they would have a high degree of autonomy and enjoy the fruits of their labor if they just relented.
In Amos 9:14, Israel is promised that when they return from exile they will rebuild cities and plant vineyards and gardens. In contrast, due to disobedience, Zephaniah 1:13 tells us that “though they build houses, they will not live in them; though they plant vineyards, they will not drink the wine.”
Farming and pastoralism are both fairly independent lifestyles. If you own your own land and work it, it is entirely up to you to make it in this world. A bad harvest could mean the difference between security or being sold into slavery. So it is telling that the Israelites did not pine for some utopian lifestyle that provided for all their needs, but rather fought for an independent lifestyle in which each family was responsible for their own livelihood.
The theme of autonomy and self-determination are reoccurring in the Bible. It is seen as a goal and ideal state. If the nation obeyed, God ensured that “The Lord will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands. You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none.” (Deuteronomy 38:12) To further send the point home, if the nation disobeyed, “You will plant vineyards and cultivate them but you will not drink the wine or gather the grapes, because worms will eat them.” (Deuteronomy 38:39) Obedience saw a blessing of the work of their hands and their labor – not a cessation of labor.
John Locke’s thought experiment looked at the individual in their natural state. He reasoned that individuals are 100% responsible for their survival. But, in order to secure for themselves a more secure future, they could enter a social contract in which some rights are abdicated in order to secure peaceful transactions between others. Socialism, in contrast to John Locke’s social contract, the emphasis in not on individual rights but on collective responsibility.
At first, there does not seem to be any obvious contradictions in this thought experiment and the biblical view. After all, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 says: “if any man will not work, neither let him eat.” It is clear from the Bible that we all have a responsibility to provide for ourselves. But that being said, there is one crucial difference between the Bible and modern interpretations of John Locke – the family.
Both the Old and New Testament base civilization not on the individual but the family. It was families that rose or fell based on their corporate actions. After all, a family, clan, or tribe was punished or rewarded based on the actions of its leaders. It was the family that comprised the local farm. And local farms comprised a village. And villages comprised a region. And regions comprised a tribe. And tribes comprised the nation.
The Bible writers never bothered to boil things down below the family. (Exodus 12:3, Leviticus 25:10, Numbers 1:4, Numbers 2:2) To them, each persons fate within a family were bound together. Each worked cooperatively to survive and thrive. The family was represented by a single member and each family got a single vote in the assembly. To the Israelites, it was the family that entered into a social contract, not the individual. It was each family joined into the social contract a Sinai to become the people of God. It was on this basis that the nation was born.
We should do well to remember this. It may seem like a small issue, but if you stray but an inch, you will be off by a mile when it comes to the end. Ironically, when it comes to family as a societal cornerstone, John Locke probably thought in these terms as well. In his day, as in biblical times, the man was the head of the home and he was the voice for the family. And while I am certainly not advocating stripping women of their rights, we would do well to hold the family in high regard as the basis of society. If family is not nurtured, society crumbles.
So yes, John Locke and the Bible have a lot in common. I think that a families responsibility to thrive and care for its own it paramount. After all, 1 Timothy 5:8 says, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” And a just society should give each member of that family the maximum rights to fulfill that mandate.
But in my previous post on Socialism, we talked about how we all are interconnected as a society. So in my next post I will be talking about the Bible and Socialism. Don’t wait for the post, tell me what you think now…