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It All Depends


You have heard the expression, “It all depends whose ox is gored,” or maybe you haven’t. It is the basis of a common-law precedent, and even a couple of Biblical references. Back when just about everybody had some beast of burden for a little farming or transport, or I suppose for eventual food, we kept oxen or cows or old horses.

If a horned ox injured another, or a person or property; or was injured somehow itself, the bedrock question of adjudication and responsibility – and an owner’s attitude – often boiled down to depending on whose ox was gored.

Outrage was relative; demands for justice were dependent on whether you were the aggrieved party – or owner – or, well, had no control over what a dumb beast did on its own…

The phrase in other words meant and means that our reactions often relate to how much we will suffer inconvenience or liability. Your ox? Get over it. My ox? I demand compensation!

The formal term for this attitude, most exercised in religion and philosophy, is “relativism.”

In broader terms today – taking it, as our culture does, to its logical extension – relativism is a moral disease that infects religion. The contemporary church, in many of its corners, defines Right and Wrong not by traditional biblical revelation, but by what is thought to be right and wrong in each situation – an ethical lapse also known as Pragmatism.

In the legal world, neither the 10 Commandments nor even English Common Law are called upon as they once were, by common consent. What seems right? What can be explained away? What is convenient? Who can say what’s “right” and “wrong”? These attitudes echo in our courtrooms.

When people reject standards and values, there are, by definitions, no standards by which they can live, or will be governed. It is what American society has slipped into: Soft Anarchy.

Relativism? Sex scandals in politics and the entertainment industry? The left howls when preachers and newsmen (for instance) are exposed; and the right drives the stories of political leaders and major entertainers committing atrocious acts.

Relativism? Political and financial corruption are decried by the right and left… selectively.

Relativism? The sanctity of life… attitudes toward war and military action… which Constitutional amendments or principles to champion or ignore… how God’s earth and Creation itself is to be respected… when protest is legitimate or crosses the line… all “depend on whose ox is gored.”

It is hard to remember that at once time the world – the West, the United States – had values and standards that nearly every person honored. If they did not believe them all, they were anyway observed in the breach. A priori ideas were first defined by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason, but the idea of theoretical truths whose validity is independent of deduction or experiments, extended back in time past Kant, to Luther, to the Magna Carta, to Augustine, to the Gospels, to Plato, to the Old Testament – the Decalogue.

Once, despite all the other problems and challenges to humankind, societies operated on accepted truths, agreed-upon principles, “givens.” That is hardly the case in America, in the West, any more. Soft Anarchy. That we roll along, deluded that we advance, is more inertia than progress.

I mentioned Martin Luther, and have in recent essays, and will again until the 500th anniversary month of the Reformation has passed. His revolutionary life (I am ever more persuaded that he was a revolutionary, not simply a reformer) was more than the nexus of previous centuries’ growing contradictions and the world’s future vistas of faith, democracy, literacy, and liberty.

More? Yes – more, to us, than these possibly abstract principles. Luther’s imminent persecution and death; the challenges to his mind and his conscience; the affront to his relationship with Christ – the “free exercise thereof”; where have we heard that, since? – were on trial that fateful day 500 years ago.

He defended himself before the Holy Roman Emperor, to representatives of the Pope, to influential princes present in the court… and to us, 500 years in the future. Would he recant (deny) his writings? As legend tells us, he said:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted; and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.

I cannot, and will not, recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.

Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me.

These words, properly, should thunder through centuries, down to us.

But how many Christians, say, think abortion is murder, but fail to do anything for fear of offending their neighbors? Or are outraged that the Bible has been taken from schoolrooms, instructions, and the courts, yet are too timid to act? Or are bothered when their churches stray from the Word of God, but label their own lack of response “not wanting to rock the boat”?

Our oxen are being gored every day, friends. What are we doing about it?

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Click: “I Can Do No Other”

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About The Author

... Rick Marschall is the author of 74 books and hundreds of magazine articles in many fields, from popular culture (Bostonia magazine called him "perhaps America's foremost authority on popular culture") to history and criticism; country music; television history; biography; and children's books. He is a former political cartoonist, editor of Marvel Comics, and writer for Disney comics. For 10 years he has been active in the Christian field, writing devotionals and magazine articles; he was co-author of "The Secret Revealed" with Dr Jim Garlow. His biography of Johann Sebastian Bach for the “Christian Encounters” series (Thomas Nelson) was released in April, 2011. Read More