The Making of a Civilized Society

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My wife, Pat, posed an interesting question to me a couple of weeks ago: What distinguishes a civilized society from a barbarian society? The question was prompted as she read a book about Michael Rockefeller, the 23-year-old son of Nelson Rockefeller, who disappeared off the coast of Dutch New Guinea in November of 1961. 

What distinguishes a civilized society from a barbarian society?

The official version of his disappearance states that he drowned while attempting to swim some nine miles to shore from his overturned double dugout canoe. His body, however, was never found. That gave rise to much speculation. Over the years the rumor mill has churned out two alternative scenarios of Rockefeller’s death for fascinated inquirers.  

In Scenario One Rockefeller makes it to shore safely and is taken in by natives. They are very good people. He assimilates and acculturates and ends up “going native.” And so, one can find pictures alleging to show a bearded white guy, naked and paddling a 40-foot dugout canoe in the midst of naked natives doing the same thing. The man is supposed to be Rockefeller. 

A completely different tack is taken by Scenario Two. Again, Rockefeller makes it to shore safely. At the shore he meets up with a group of 40 or 50 native men, men who know him because he’s spent time in their village. But now he is exhausted and vulnerable. One stabs him with a spear; he’s loaded into a canoe and taken away to a designated location. There, he is tortured, killed, butchered, cooked, and eaten. And all done according to a regulated, prescribed ritual. 

The book Pat read was Savage Harvest and it purports to document why the cannibalism scenario is the accurate one. I read the book also and found it disturbingly convincing. How does a society come to the place where cannibalism is an accepted part of the culture? Is there a cultural continuum with a “tipping point” where cannibalism goes from forbidden to accepted? 

I don’t know that I can answer that question. I do believe, though, the two alternative scenarios provide an interesting perspective on our human perspectives! 

According to Scenario One Rockefeller found a society much more suited to the human condition than our western culture. Scenario One encapsulates a recurring human notion: that of an Eden-like primitive culture, free from civilized contaminations, and thus possessing a purity not possible for folk like us. Popularly, it is known as the ideal of the “Noble Savage.” 

We’ve all dreamed of such a place, even longed for such a place! According to some, it is what the Americas were before the coming of Columbus. He and those who followed him ruined everything. Scenario One is confident of the inherent goodness of man. If kept free from corrupting (read: civilizing) influences, man can be what he naturally is: a noble savage.  

The notion of the inherent goodness of man and the noble savage is not to be found in Scenario Two. In this perspective man is corrupted and corrupting. The famous lines from Tennyson about “nature, red in tooth and claw” are most apt. Like the rest of the natural order, man in his natural state always ends in bloody degradation. It is truly the survival of the fittest! 

In the second scenario, Rockefeller had the misfortune of landing among a tribe of people that lived with the misfortune of not having civilized laws to keep their inclinations in check. According to this perspective, societies need to encode laws, then impose and enforce those laws to keep man’s baser instincts under control. 

Which of the two scenarios is more accurate? Obviously, Scenario Two! It is the only perspective in touch with real life, that is, life where there are no Edens. But, does that answer Pat’s question? Is it merely the encoding, imposing, and enforcing of civil laws that distinguishes civilized societies from barbarian societies? I think not.  

The crucial question concerns the content of the laws. As I reflected on Pat’s question it slowly dawned on me that a society replete with civil laws can be an utterly barbarian society.  

Think of what Jesus said in Luke 11:35, . . . watch out that the light in you is not darkness. When might something like that happen? Consider how the Lord describes the day in which Jeremiah lives: . . . they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one has turned back from his wickedness. [23:14] From verses such as this I take it that we humans can mistake darkness for light and encode, impose, and enforce laws that do not turn folk back from evil, but rather encourage them in doing evil. 

As a matter of fact, Scenario One is not possible at all. No such society exists now or ever has existed since the Fall. Scenario Two is partially correct, but fatally flawed finally. It is flawed because it takes no account of God’s Law.  

In recent months I’ve been impressed again and again with how gracious God was to humanity in revealing His Law and writing it on the two stone tablets at Mount Sinai. Why? Because every culture and society will develop laws. Ultimately those laws will serve their societies well only if they are in agreement with God’s Law.  

every culture and society will develop laws. Ultimately those laws will serve their societies well only if they are in agreement with God’s Law

In the case of the society where Rockefeller came ashore, their laws condoned and encouraged the practice of cannibalism. The light they had was darkness. They needed to receive the revelation of God’s Law. It would prove to be a tutor to lead them to Christ. 

What about Israel, the nation that directly received the Law of God? They were blessed by the Law, but not saved by the Law. The Law did not change their hearts, it just revealed what was in their hearts, and thus was a tutor to lead them to Christ. Except they didn’t want to be led to Christ, they wanted to do what they wanted to do. 

Much the same can be said about America in our day. America has received the Law of God; we’ve not been kept in the dark. What we have done, though, is reject the Law of God for our own laws. Now we have laws on our books that strengthen the hands of evildoers so that no one is turned back from his wickedness.  

Back to Pat’s question: What distinguishes a civilized society from a barbarian society? I don’t think it is a question of having running water, electrical service, an intricate highway system, an advanced monetary system, or any of the other attributes we often associate with civilization. What distinguishes civilized societies from barbarian societies is the acceptance of God’s Law as authoritative. When a society rejects God’s Law as the basis for its moral order, then its genetic code is barbarian. 

Let us regularly pray that we not concede our own country to barbarianism but instead that the Law of God be recognized so that we can come to Christ, the Redeemer.

In the Joy of the Lord, 
John H.C. Niederhaus