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The Magna Carta of Humanity: Sinai's Revolutionary Faith and the Future of Freedom -- Os Guinness

The Magna Carta of Humanity: Sinai's Revolutionary Faith and the Future of Freedom -- Os Guinness

Michael Giere interviews author and social critic Os Guinness, exploring the trail of human freedom, its modern crisis -- and the way forward.

Submitted by David W. Virtue, DD
May 8, 2021

GIERE: Os Guinness is a clear, articulate voice in the world of evangelical politics, philosophy, and social criticism. He has written over 30 books. He's one of a handful of writers and thinkers over the years that really have shaped me and many others, along with Francis Schaeffer and C.S. Lewis. His book, Last call for Liberty, is a marvelous book, Fool's Talk is a book we need to reread today: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion. A Free People's Suicide: and many others. The Call is into its 20th year in print, and has sold 100,000 copies.

Os is a skilled tour master; he leads us through the highways and byways of our times. He connects the dots for us and he shows us how things that are happening in our culture, in our society are happening for a reason, they don't just happen by happenstance. He always takes us back to God's master plan and he leaves us hopeful. He shows us the roads we haven't explored.

He's been associated with many of the most influential institutes in Washington, DC. He was the draft leader of the Williamsburg Charter celebrating and reaffirming religious liberties. He wrote The Noble Charter of Conscience for the European Union. He's spoken across the globe.

His newest book is just out, printed by Intervarsity Press - The Magna Carta of humanity. Sinai's revolutionary faith and the future of freedom.

So how do you conceptualize the connection for your book to Sinai and the exodus of the ancient Hebrew nation?

GUINNESS: The Magna Carta is a symbol of a stand for freedom and a stand against the abuse of power of King John. And in that sense, there is no greater statement of freedom, including the prevention of the abuse of power than the Book of Exodus and Deuteronomy, and I'm arguing this book that it is the once and future key to American freedom. Many Americans don't realize that the American Revolution comes out through the Reformation from Exodus from the Torah - consent of the governed. The whole notion of a covenantal or constitutional freedom, separation of powers, you can go on down the line. We owe them all to Sinai and Americans don't know it. So, what you have is the greatest statement of ordered freedom in all history.

You know, Reinhold Niebuhr's idea that the bookends of history are authoritarianism on one side, all order, no freedom and anarchy on the other side, all freedom, no order. And you know that when people are living in chaos, they can't live that way, so they prefer tyranny to chaos. You see a swing from anarchy back to authoritarianism now in our world.

Clearly, the Chinese, as you mentioned, are totalitarian; they represent that extreme. But the American Revolution, following the Reformation and the Torah, used to be the expression of ordered freedom. Now that's on the verge of collapse, and that is what my books are about. On the one hand, we need to look at the ideas that are undermining it today. And on the other hand, look back to the Old Testament, the Hebrew scriptures, and then see what needs to be restored and recovered. We know books like Plato's The Republic or Machiavelli's The Prince are the classics on Liberty. But I would argue that Exodus and Deuteronomy together are classics on liberty that are far more important than the others. We owe more to Sinai than we owe to Athens. And many Americans are clueless about this. And that's why today they're in danger. Some are suppressing our freedom on the left, but many are just squandering our freedom and both of them are tragic.

GIERE: Do you think the early Hebrews worked this out in captivity? That it was pushed by that, or do you think, in fact, it was a God inspired paradigm that they saw?

GUINNESS: I think it was both to be positive. When it comes to freedom, who gives us the basis? you obviously don't find it in Egypt? Slavery, in Babylon, or Persia, or even Greece, nor behind freedom that we do know is fate, that is more like destiny. The amazing thing is that in modern atheism, you don't find freedom either, because atheists are naturalistic, you have chants, necessity, determinism. What is absolutely remarkable, that people think the only solid foundation for freedom is God. And the God of the Bible, the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, so you have there a sovereign God. Now, some people say to me, God doesn't talk about what on earth his sovereignty means. He can express his will regardless of any interference or assistance. He is sovereign and he's made us significant. We're not absolutely free like he is, but we are significant and we make choices. Choose today whom you will serve, good or bad, life and death choice. And you can see the biblical view gives a ground for freedom. Now your points are good ones, though. Egypt was always the anti-Israel or Israel was the anti-Egypt. In other words, the backdrop of that slavery was the contrast of that freedom. One of my principles in thinking is that contrast is the mother of clarity. When you see the alternatives, you go, wow, and you understand what you're about in a much deeper way.

Freedom needs to see the alternatives. And let's say bluntly, we haven't talked about the radical left, but you mentioned I was there in China as a seven-year-old. I remember the day in January 1949 when my dad said to me, son, we're in trouble. Chiang Kai-Shek just abandoned the city and we're at the mercy of the Red Army. So, I saw two years under the reign of terror. My father was accused falsely. Hundreds were tried, thousands who had tried and executed. And the reign of terror was awful. And of course, as we know since then, Mao may have killed up to 75 million of his own fellow Chinese. Now, it's intriguing. As many years later, when I was at Oxford, I was at one night dining with my tutor at All Soul's College, and one of the tutors there was Isaiah Berlin, the great Jewish philosopher of freedom. And as we talked, it turned out he'd been a seven-year-old in the Russian Revolution and it marked him for life. I had been a seven-year-old in the Chinese revolution and it's touched me for life now. Neither of us would ever have a dreamed that 50 years later, America would be flirting with cultural Marxism and unbelievable degeneration of freedom. And many Americans don't realize what's happening.

Many Americans are just simply suffering from dementia in terms of history. And that is absolutely disastrous. You can see this in Exodus on the night of the Passover. What did Moses talked about? Freedom? No, they're going free after 400 years of slavery, but never a mention of freedom.

They're going to the Promised Land of milk and honey. Children, in other words, if you want to have a faith that survives and freedom that lasts, you've got to tell your story from generation to generation. And that's what the Jews, of course, have always done. Why is this night different from all other nights? And then you retell the story and you can see that history has not only gone, say, from the American public schools, it's been replaced by Howard Zinn on the one hand and now by the 1619 Project. Well, if that prevails, the American Republic is finished, that there's no question about some mathematical certainty. You need history. Rabbi Sacks puts it like this. If any project takes longer than a single generation. You have to have schooling and you have to have history, and America's abandoned both, and much of the Church has so tragically. Neither faith nor freedom survive well without history and schooling.

GIERE: Can we take our listeners back to the great Exodus. What makes that so singularly declarative, so foundational to the ideas and the ideals that were later to filter through really all of at least the English speaking, the Western world of the Enlightenment thinkers. And then it landed in the colonies and in the colonial church first, which most people don't recognize, is that these are ideas were really thought about and discussed and sermonized in their early colonial church and then ended up in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights especially. Can you can you tell us? how that came down to us, how we understood freedom and more importantly, how what that word really meant to them, as opposed to the colloquial way in which we use it today. Could you expand on this idea of covenant? Because I think that is critical.

GUINNESS: Well, this is not going back to like most politics who dance with Greek categories; monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, and each of them with the corruption of 50 years ago. Daniel Eleazar said, let's look at governments. You should also look at societies and how they're founded. And if you do that, you look at the different three. You have organic societies that are linked by blood and kinship, a tribe, a clan, many African countries that's much rarer and the highly mobile modern world. And then you have the main category of societies which are hierarchical, the hierarchies linked by power. Force conquest, power divisions, caste systems and so on, the third type are covenantal, and that's the Jews, the Swiss and the Americans above all, and the covenantal system as a whole number of things about it that are unique.

First of all, we the people, it's a matter of freely chosen consent. That's where the consent of the governed comes from. Three times says in Exodus it says do all the Lord says we will do. Michael Walzer of Princeton calls it an almost democracy, freely chosen consent, and then you have a morally binding pledge. There's a collective responsibility because everyone is responsible for everyone, every Jew responsible for every Jew. This is centuries before the Three Musketeers, all for one, one for all. But you have at that reciprocal responsibilities. So collective response. Christians sometimes asked me, you know, the early church wasn't very involved politically because they weren't they weren't a covenantal society. They were under Roman dictatorship. They had no freedom at all. So, we're not to follow them.

America is a covenantal society. That notion of covenant, freedom within a framework, an agreed framework that came through the Reformation to Calvin, Zurich and then across to John Knox in Scotland and Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell says Exodus is the direct parallel to what he was trying to do. He failed, but what was the lost cause in England became the winning cause in New England and the notion of covenant jumped the Atlantic. And it was not only in the churches, it was in marriages, it was in townships. And when John Adams drafted the first constitution of Massachusetts, he called it a covenant. And the United States Constitution is actually a nationalized, somewhat secularized form of covenant. In other words it's much more than just law. And if you think of it at the heart of covenant, is the notion of promise keeping, if you have a high trust society, you have high freedom, low trust, low freedom, high surveillance. Covenantalism is all about trust, people making promises.

You love your neighbor as yourself and so on. You love the stranger because you were once strangers. There's a reciprocity there and so on. So, the notion of covenant is richer, deeper and to understand you have Judge Learned Hand in 1944 in his great speech in Central Park in New York, pointing out the covenant is far more than just law lawyers and constitution, which is by itself a parchment barrier. It is in the hearts of Americans.

That's where it's gone today. You take the kneeling crisis in the NFL. It's a disaster. Why they're disrespecting the very source of the standard of justice. So, Martin Luther King called the declaration a promissory note. It hadn't been cashed in for the blacks, but time had come to cash it in. It's a promissory note. Lincoln appealed to the Declaration and the better angel. But today, the kneeling crisis, they're disrespecting the very standard in the name of justice. They're throwing out the American standard of justice, which is why so many things are so inconsistent and ignorant today if people were only to understand this great experiment and defend it.

GIERE: Mao envisioned destroying history and the written word and how he looked at destroying old ways and old habits and at the base of what he was saying is exactly I think what you're alluding to. with what's happening that symbolized at least by the destruction and the tearing down of old statues. That if we remove history, then we can start fresh. That's a bit of tarpaper. You're stuck to it once you step in that, you can't get yourself out of it. It's a tragedy. It's truly a tragedy that we're there and there are no modern voices rejecting that, save a few. And thank God for you and a handful of others who are who are reminding us of this, that what we hold in our hands is a treasure, not a burden, but a treasure.

GUINNESS: One of the reasons is Americans don't understand how it's unfolded. Take the French Revolution. It only lasted 10 years in France. And then Napoleon came a dictator again and said the revolution is over 1799 but the lava flow. Jim Billington, the former librarian of Congress, taught on this so well. The lava flow has come out ever since. In the 19th century, the great lava flow was revolutionary nationalism in France, Italy, Greece and so on. In the 20th century, it was revolutionary socialism, in other words, communism, Russia, 1917 and China and so on. But what Americans don't realize is we're facing a third lava flow, cultural Marxism, and they need to understand this. How it began with Gramsci writings in an Italian jail in the 1920s, picked up by the Frankfurt school from the 30s to the 60s, helped forward in California and San Diego by Herbert Moxa. And at the end of the 1960s, he, Icaza and Rudy Deutschman in Germany called for a long march through the institutions. In other words, they wouldn't win in the streets. Despite the incredible protests of the 60s, they wouldn't win in the streets, they had to win the high schools, colleges, universities, the press and the media, and then the world of the culture, industry, as they put it, Hollywood and entertainment. And then you win the cultural gatekeepers and sweep down and win the culture. And of course, they've done it. And in many ways, the last redoubt is business. Who in their right mind would have ever thought that free market capitalism, which was the bastion of conservatism, would become WOKE? And yet what we see today, aided by work capital asset management on Wall Street with incredible super funding, George Soros and many, many others, and now, of course, the impact on Delta and Coca-Cola and so on. You've got WOKE business joining the radical left style. And of course, that's a disaster for America.

In the 1850's, the last time that America was this deeply divided, you had a Lincoln. And he addressed the evils that was then slavery in the light of the better angels in the Declaration, but he called for a new birth of freedom. And what America needs today is to address the evils and someone to call for a new birth of freedom. Where we are now in the Biden era you can put America's present situation in three words. Revolution; that's what we've been talking about, the radical left, and I would say, please, God, no, revolution has never worked. Oppression has never ended. Please, God, no. The second word, oligarchy, what we're seeing and our mutual hero, Angelo Codevilla, that notion of the one-party politics, the consolidation of politics, the bureaucracy, the academic world going all the way across the board, right down to work business, that is a disaster for America.

That's what the Biden administration is hastening rapidly. The third word homecoming, everyone knows the Greek word for repentance, metanoia an about turn of mind and spirit. The Hebrew word has another dimension, it's an about turn of heart and mind and spirit. Yes, it's a turning. But it's a homecoming when you have an about turn of heart, mind and spirit, you're turning from what's rotten to what's good, and you come home from alienation, from exile.

America needs to come home from the insanities of the alternatives, particularly on the radical left, and come home to its own real roots, which through the Reformation are in the Hebrew scriptures where you have the deepest, richest view not only of freedom, but of justice. Take some of the other foundational ideas, human dignity. There's nothing anywhere close to the majesty of human worth because we are made in the image of God or take our post truth post rights world. There's nothing like the biblical view of truth and truthfulness and loyalty and so on. And then, of course, there's nothing.

Like the biblical view of words in America, words have been belittled by advertising and they've been weaponized particularly in the social media. For all the great things the last president did, his tweets and so on were not good by biblical standards. They were very wrong because he demeaned people often. In the Bible that's called evil speech, and it's tantamount almost to murder in the thinking of the rabbi. So, we need a reformation of discourse. People of other conservatives; certainly, Christians who use words as commitments with respect to truthfulness and we respect the dignity of people were speaking.

Finally, let me be clear. I think America would still be a great nation, powerful and economically, powerful, technologically and so on in the future. But we're in imminent danger of the death of the republic. And that's what's the unique part about freedom. And then down the line, we're increasingly close to the suppression of democracy. And that's important, too, to freedom, but it's not as unique as the republic. So, America could be in 20 years' time just a big, wealthy, powerful nation, but has lost its essential democracy and more importantly for me, has lost the uniqueness of its very distinctive view of freedom, which is the Republican covenantal view of freedom.

I'm a person of immense hope and I always finish by saying to myself and to others, God is greater than all. God can be trusted in all situations, have no fear. I have faith in God. I am absolutely delighted by that. Move out with confidence.

The link below allows you to listen to the two men talk on the issues: https://vimeo.com/542754981

The link below allows you to listen to the two men talk on the issues: https://vimeo.com/542754981

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