A Reflection on the Hymn:
"O Beautiful for Spacious Skies"
and Justice and Liberty for All
by Parrish W.Jones, Ph.D.
©2006. All rights reserved.
As we sang the hymn “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies”, I was drawn to the final words of the second stanza, “Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!” These words may not have summoned me so strongly were it not for the context of the last several years and the service in which we were singing them. The service was held to pray for the Al Qaeda detainees at Guantanomo Bay, Cuba.
It occurred to me as we sang the words and listened to the reflections and prayers that I once thought that the notion of justice on which this nation was founded was invented by our forefathers. Perhaps, that is true of most citizens raised in our educational systems. I still have a tendency in that direction despite knowing the European influences on our forefathers: Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes, Calvin, and others.
Even that understanding assumes a historically recent origin for ideas and concepts found in ancient portions of the Bible. Justice, due process, liberty, are all found expressed clearly in the scriptures of the Older Testament and affirmed in the Newer Testament.
Exodus is about liberty and founding a community in a law that was not of its own making but of divine gift. We know now that it may not have been sent from heaven, but the slow and deliberate development of a people who sought the favor of a God so distinctly different from other gods. Their God listened to the cries of the oppressed and led them into liberty with the intention that they build a community distinct (holy) from all other nations. This new nation would be neither oppressed nor oppressor. It would be a community of liberty and justice.
Of course, Israel did not live up to the vision. It faltered and became apostate. Yet, its history and its prophets bore the reminders of the liberty to which they had been called, a liberty of social and economic justice rooted in law—a law that would be adjudicated without regard to person or station. (Lev. 19:15). But it was not just a law for the courts, the law was for everyone, thus we are exhorted to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18). Then, "Love the foreigner (alien, stranger) as you do yourself." Jesus says, "Love your enemy, and prey for those who persecute you," which is his rabbinic interpretation and extension of these Levitical texts.
It would take pages to give every mention of justice in scriptures, but it is clear that justice is a theme throughout the Older Testament. The law of Moses was given for both self-control and socio-politico control. Israel failed the test and was exiled only to return home and fail again. That did not stop the prophets who spoke on behalf of the absolutely free God who seeks liberty for his creation.
In our day the radical freedom of God is a lost concept. Perhaps, it is simply too hard for us to think about for long. The scriptures show that God will not be restricted by person, tyrants, priests, societies, or prophets. God is free to do as God likes. But God is not capricious. God works in predictable ways that are extraordinary only because the human world wants God to be otherwise.
Unlike the aloof gods of others, Yahweh, the God of Israel, often gets down and dirty with the people. God takes on the tyrants: Pharoah (Exodus), David when he wanders, Solomon and his sons and successor kings (1 Kings), the Babylonian kings (Daniel, Jeremiah and Isaiah), Greek emperors and governors (see also Daniel understood to come from the second century BCE), and finally the ecclesiastical leaders of Israel and the Roman Empire (See the newer testament). God, in Jesus, will not cave to them. Jesus does God’s thing on earth. When they thought they had nailed him solidly to the tree and then sealed him in the tomb, he broke free.
Then the Apostles and other disciples demanded liberty from human constraint for the work of the Savior. When they got thrown in jail, God broke them out. If they got stoned, as happened to Stephen, God redeemed the situation by Saul’s presence. One can hardly imagine the young Saul untouched by the manner of Stephen’s death.
The final book of the Bible, despite its misuse by many in the church, speaks of liberty in the face of unfettered violence, oppression, greed and destruction. In the face of it all, God will do a new thing. The oppressors will be overcome and the faithful set free. But it is not the faithful who will claim victory through their own resources, but God who will do it. “'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19) affirms Paul with Leviticus 19:18 in mind.
So we return to the hymn. Self-control, law, vengeance. The hymn says nothing of vengeance, yet our whole legal system was built on the premise that it should assure that vengeance not be executed by any. In its place, the government should justly punish wrong doers and make every effort to assure that the right person bore the punishment. Thus our constitution and laws assured what we call due process. Laws are a way to assure self-control.
A good soul the hymn declares is confirmed to be good by self-control. And liberty is confirmed in law, that is, following the law.
These are heady concepts at best and difficult to carry through on. Humans are all too ready to forsake them. Thus is the case in the world today. Two of the great nations that are governed by the rule of law, the U.S. and Brittain, have forsaken it following 9-11.