Part IV: John Locke, Jews and the Transactional State

John Locke (1632-1704) did not simply use Jewish texts for his own purposes and create a theory of the state that allowed both Jews and gentiles to search for security. He came to the defence of Jews. His advocacy of tolerance towards dissenters among Christians extended to Jews. At the same time, though not a Hebraist like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke claimed that, “The Bible is one of the greatest blessings bestowed by God on the children of men. It has God for its Author, salvation for its end, and truth without any mixture for its matter.” With statements such as these, how can I claim that Locke created his foundation for the state on a secular foundation without regard to any divine source? The answer in a word; salvation is made into a private transactional exchange.

We know that Locke was familiar with the writings of Menaseh ben Israel and may even have been in correspondence with him given Locke’s reference to ben Manasseh in a letter to Nicolas Toinard. We know that the 414 Jews in England in 1680 more than doubled in size by 1700. We know that Sir Solomon de Medina had financed the military campaigns of military general and diplomat John Churchill later named by King William, the 1st Duke of Marlborough; Medina paid £32,000 in taxes in 1677 on his earnings.

Marlborough was able to play both sides of the fence, leading the charge against the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685 to secure the throne for James I, and then participating in the military conspiracy that led to the overthrow of James when William of Orange invaded England in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Jews, though relatively few in number, were now very active participants in English civil society and its internal violent conflicts. The issue was no longer the exclusion of Jews from England, but how they were to be treated as subjects of the King, citizens of the state and members of society.   

We know that Thomas Jefferson quoted John Locke’s argument that “neither Pagan nor Mahamedan nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.” Further, in the colonies, specifically in Surinam, in 1665 a law had been passed that Jews be treated as if they were “as English born.” They were to be allowed to build and run their own schools and places of worship. This went far beyond the first half of the seventeenth century when Jews were still fighting for the right to live in England.

Following the victory of William of Orange from Holland in 1688, and Locke’s return from there where he had been in exile from 1683-1688, England passed the Toleration Act of 1689, the same year that John Locke became well known for his volume, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. That Act granted freedom of worship not only to nonconformist Baptists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists, but to Jews as well, but not to either atheists, unitarians (penalties against the latter were removed in 1813) or Roman Catholics, the common adversary of all Protestants. (Though the latter were no longer hunted down and killed, they were still not allowed the right to assemble and pray in their own houses of worship.) The members of the nonconformist faiths and Jews merely needed to swear an oath of allegiance, but, given the provisions of the Test Act, were not allowed to sit in Parliament.

Lest one think this was a universal breakthrough, at that very same time in North America, President Trump, in his off-the-wall letter to Nancy Pelosi concerning his impeachment, reminded us of the 1692 Salem witch trials. There, without the rule of law, marginal and older women were crushed and murdered because of a fearful fantasy, a conspiracy theory. Of course, Trump, in his ignorance and nittiness, got everything upside down and inside out. For his prospective trial is being carried out strictly in accordance with the rule of law. The Salem witch trials were not. His prospective trial is about men in power. The Salem witch trials were about powerless men. Finally, Trump’s own fearful fantasies about conspiracy theories in the deep state and in the Ukraine led to the immanence of his on trial, whereas the conspiracy theories of 1692 led to the persecution and murder of marginal women in 1692.

John Locke is often touted as the direct source for The Toleration Act, but his A Letter Concerning Toleration was only published in 1689. Rather than originating or even initiating a voice for tolerance, John Locke, heavily influenced by the Dutch, merely articulated and gave voice to what was becoming a widespread outlook. Tolerance as a theme could be traced back to the earlier Puritans and Oliver Cromwell. In The Two Charters Granted by King Charles IId to the Proprietors of Carolina with the First and Last Fundamental Constitutions of that Colony (1669), Francis Bacon was the founder of the Carolina colonies, Locke was neither the authorial source of The Toleration Act nor even the source of its ideas, though he gave clearest expression to those ideas in his A Letter Concerning Toleration in 1689.  

That letter was even then condemned as a “senseless and insipid Project of Imagination” that no religious group in power would accept. In the 1693 work, A Full Enquiry into the Power of Faith, the Nature of Prophecy, the Translation of Enoch and Elias and the Resurrection of Christ, the critic charged double loyalty and insisted that neither the Jew nor the Presbyterian would accept Locke’s plea for naturalization. But they did. In overwhelming numbers as they bought into the idea of separation of church and state. Politics had gone far beyond tolerating the Jews residing in England to including them as equal members of the polity. (Cf. Thomas Barlow (1692) The Case of the Jews.)

Thomas Hobbes in separating the Behemoth of civil society from The Leviathan of the state made room for Jews in the former, but not in the latter. However, once an unconditional right to property was granted, once England had gone through a series of civil wars that finally replaced the medieval constitution with one favourable to the market place and the new economic players, political equality followed.

In the first half of the seventeenth century, the argument was advanced that was similar to the one that Christians ought to support Israel because the re-establishment of Israel was the precondition for the conversion of Jews to Christ. John Lightfoot (1602-1675), the best Hebrew scholar in England for his time who had never met a Jew, had argued, “I see not how we can look upon the conversion of the Jews, under a lower notion than the conversion of a brood of antichrist…Jerusalem should [not] be built again, when the fulness of the Gentiles is come in, which the Jews conceit: nor that then the Jews should be unblindfolded, and become a gospel–church, as the Gentiles had been.” Jews had to be accepted if they were to be reborn as Christians, a precondition of the second coming. Lightfoot read the commentaries of the rabbis and claimed that the rabbis had recognized Jesus as the messiah. He helped co-author the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647).

The latter work provided the ground on which John Locke built. However, he argued that, although the light of nature, the works of creation and of providence, all manifest the goodness, power and wisdom of God, they were all insufficient. To understand fully the will of God, scientific and, therefore, secular knowledge was required.  Such a claim was truly revolutionary.

Thus, John Locke could be both a believing Christian (cf. his A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul to the Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Ephesians) who helped articulate the idea of the restoration of the Jews first in English Protestant thought and then in gentile society and politics. John Locke articulated those beliefs and was critical of the necessity of calling Jews to the Christian faith as a precondition of their participation in the polity even when this was a far lesser offence than forcing their conversion.

If Hobbes had made room for the Jews by helping undermine the paternalistic model of society and freeing the economy from its embrace, John Locke went further to remove the fetters of intolerance by making, not just the reform of the state subservient to the reform of civil society, but founding the state itself on a social contract among men and not between man and God. Like Hobbes, the key motivation was to make peace and avoid war.

In Locke’s First Treatise on Government, he concurred with Sir Robert Filmer, a defender of the divine right of kings, citing the case of Abraham and Judah, to argue that, “The power of making laws of life and death is indeed the mark of sovereignty.” Whenever there is a demand to sacrifice a life, there you will find the exercise of sovereignty. Laws determining war or peace are the essence of a sovereign authority. But it is natural law, not divine dictate, the light of nature and of reason, that give it force.

As Locke argues, in the great variety of its iterations, a god is cited to justify the use of violence, but the ground of duty cannot be derived from such an authority, but only for that authority as it expresses itself in natural law. As to the gods themselves, there are far too many variations. A core natural law is that the law of nature dictates that every man should keep his own property and no one take another’s. But this is precisely what the Israelites did when they stole Egyptian property and fled Egypt. The explanation: they had not yet learned the universal applicability of natural law. Their eyes were not yet opened. That does not mean that natural law was inapplicable.

This is similar to the case where the Israelites have such a harsh approach to idolatry but where they were unable to read the minds and intentions of the worshippers. Mindblindness is the illness. The death penalty for idolatry runs contrary to the Ten Commandments. Over the ages, civilization progressed by a closer understanding of the laws of nature. A more exact understanding provided better guidance with a closer understanding of the laws of nature and their applications. The interim, supposed authoritative dictates were used but that had to be discarded with the revelation of a greater exactitude with respect to the law of nature.

Further, according to Locke, though the ancient Israelites delivered death to idolaters, they never forced them to convert. Strangers embraced the religion of the Hebrews willingly and of their own accord. Conversion was solicited as a privilege rather than an act of compliance under the threat of death. Not once in the Tanach, Locke declared, can you find even one person forced into the Jewish religion. The bottom line: “articles of faith as which are required only to be believed, cannot be imposed on any church by the law of the land.” They certainly cannot be imposed on Jews.

Tolerance is based on the principle that we not forbid anyone to think and write what they will (though there may be laws preventing what is written or said from being entered into the public realm). Censorship and the force of law are only used when an action endangers the security of others, not when it assaults another’s sensibilities or beliefs. For when we cross that barrier and restrict the behaviour of an Other, we read into their minds a malicious intent.

But does not Locke write that, “A good life, in which consists not the least part of religion and true piety, concerns also the civil government; and in it lies the safety both of men’s souls and of the commonwealth”? In other words, tolerance must go beyond what is written above. It must embrace civility. It must embrace the inner as well as the outer court. It must embrace conscience as well as a court of law. Further, since the observance of our highest obligations demands that we be true to the will of God as well as to our true selves, how do we adjudicate when the behaviour of one assaults the sensibilities of another, but there is no breach of the law?

John Locke proposes the following guide. Does the behaviour violate the right of an Other? The issue is not whether he is wrong. The issue is not whether he embraces erroneous opinions. The issue is not whether he has bad manners – of worship or anything else. The issue is whether he deprives another of his (or her) ability to act in a way true to himself. “The care of each man’s salvation belongs only to himself.” It is only in accordance with that rule that we can have civil peace and avoid the turbulence and destructiveness of religious conflicts.

Diversity of opinions cannot be avoided. But tolerance of the opinions of others is a prerequisite. To most moderns, this may read as case closed. This does not mean that the sacrifice of children may not be forbidden by law. Or polygamous marriages. Or genital mutilation of women in the name of religion. But what about male circumcision if it can be shown that the action causes pain to the infant? The guide is whether such action harms the larger realm. If it is relatively inconsequential, if the practice is not imposed, then there is no reason for the magistrate to intervene.

But what about when the words and actions of one are seen as hurting and even threatening another? The understanding of law as operable only when it does not abridge the right of an individual to worship and follow his religion in his own way is not sufficient to deal with such cases, cases that we now term “incorrect behaviour.” What must be remembered, according to Locke, is that when a magistrate is given the power of suppression in one case, may be used when the other controls the reins of the commonwealth. The powers in command should not do what they would not want others to do when they are in command. All ought to act to uphold the universal civic religion.

But some argue that the protection of the civic religion demands banning the display of religious symbols when performing public duties. Further, the behaviour of reactions to words and deeds that make one “feel” insecure, feel threatened, belong to another realm. The latter is much more difficult to adjudicate. That may be the case, but is not the criterion itself one imposed by a male dominated regime that prioritizes external behaviour, external motions of bodies in Hobbes’s language, rather than a consideration of sensibilities which are central to being female?

Asking such questions makes it clear that John Locke’s strictures on tolerance to prevent wars of religion and to allow humans to live side-by-side in religious accord, leaves many unanswered questions. That may be the case, but it was a strong indicator that society had come a very long way from the strictures applicable at the beginning of the seventeenth century and certainly those in force at the beginning of the sixteenth century. At the same time as these revolutionary norms freed humans to practice their own religion while being loyal members of the state, they not only did not deal with other contentious spheres, but also gave the state the power to demand the sacrifice of one’s life, and much more seriously, the sacrifice of one’s children’s lives.

That was the trade. That was the quid pro quo.


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