One of the great depictions of American historical events is John Trumbull’s painting, Declaration of Independence, which hangs in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol. The scene captures the moment on June 28, 1776, when the five men who drafted the Declaration present their work to the Continental Congress. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration, 42 appear in Trumbull’s work, the others having died before he could obtain their images. The painting also depicts five men who did not sign, including Robert Livingston of New York. Livingston was one of the men who drafted the Declaration, but New York recalled him from the Congress before he could sign his work. In Trumbull’s painting Livingston appears in the center of the drafting committee, with Roger Sherman of Connecticut on his right and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia on his left. Americans may not remember the distinguished men from Connecticut and New York, but they do remember Jefferson and John Adams of Massachusetts, two future presidents. Jefferson and Adams embraced different visions of how to govern the infant American Republic, and even though they became political rivals, they remained friends until their deaths on the same day, July 4, 1826.
There is a legend that Jefferson paid Trumbull to paint his foot on top of Adams’, but it is only a legend. The two men’s feet are close together in the picture, and as time and dirt wore away at the painting it came to appear that Jefferson’s foot was resting on Adams’. That is not the only oddity in Trumbull’s work. Like many works of art it is not entirely accurate, but is effective in capturing the spirit of the moment and of the age. So also is 1776, a musical play which humorously explores the events during that fateful summer of American independence. Howard DaSilva dominates the film version with his portrayal of Dr. Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania. If we are to believe the movie, independence was Adams’ idea, and the declaration was expressed in Jefferson’s words, but it was Franklin who brought it into being with his wisdom, wit, and ability to achieve consensus. 1776 embellishes the story with fictional dialogue, but it captures a number of famous quotes by the Founding Fathers, including Franklin’s immortal words: “If we do not hang together, we shall most assuredly hang separately!”
Dr. Franklin spoke a warning to a people facing the threat of political extinction before they could become a nation. Long before Franklin uttered his warning, Yeshua of Nazareth spoke the same truth to the people He had come to redeem from the threat of extinction by the enemy of their souls:
And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them, “Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand. (Matthew 12:25 NASB; see also Mark 9:38-40; Luke 9:49-50, 11:16-23)
At some point between the withdrawal of Rome’s legions in 410 CE and the advent of Saxon England in the 6th Century, a Celtic chieftain named Arthur restored a measure of order to Britain. Arthur’s reign occupied a bubble in time, set apart from the chaos that preceded and followed it. Although the mists of time shroud the truth of Arthur’s career, the legends born of that truth still inspire us 1,500 years after his passing. Who cannot admire a king so good, so wise, so honorable, and so humble that his very presence compels the allegiance and obedience of all good people? Such a king is invincible, for no evil thing can overcome him. If Arthur has a fault, it is that he bestows his love too freely and trusts too completely. And in this we find the enduring tragedy of King Arthur. His downfall and the end of his shining kingdom of Camelot came not at the hands of an enemy, but through his beloved bride and his greatest friend. We rejoice with Arthur that he finds in Guenevere a queen of exquisite purity, grace, beauty, wisdom, and kindness, and we rejoice still more when he is joined by Lancelot, the epitome of knightly honor, courage, and fidelity. How it wounds us when Guenevere and Lancelot cannot remain true to their king, but fall to the attraction they have for one another. Their adulterous affair ruins the king and the kingdom with him.
One of many moving interpretations of the Arthurian legend is John Boorman’s film Excalibur, starring Nigel Terry as Arthur, Cherie Lunghi as Guenevere, and Nicholas Clay as Lancelot. At the high point of the film, all is well in the kingdom except for the perpetual absence of Lancelot. Because of his attraction for Guenevere, the good knight has exiled himself from court so as to avoid temptation. Everyone in the kingdom seems to understand this, everyone, that is, except the king himself. No one speaks of this matter until one day when Sir Gawain (played by Liam Neeson) takes it upon himself to address this blight on Camelot’s perfection. Gawain accuses the queen of driving Lancelot from the company of Arthur’s knights. Stung at the assault on her honor, Guenevere turns to Arthur and cries, “Will you not champion me?” He replies:
I cannot! I am your King, and I must be your judge in this. Lancelot must do it. He also stands accused. I decree – that at sunrise, two days from now, the champions will meet, and the truth shall be known. For by the law of God, no knight who is false can win in combat with one who is true.
The trial by combat proves Guenevere’s innocence as Lancelot defeats Gawain, but which the secret is exposed Guenevere can no longer hide her attraction. Before long she and Lancelot are indeed lovers, leaving Arthur devastated and bringing about the dissolution of Camelot. Yet in the end Arthur has a chance to restore order by leading his knights in one last, desperate battle against Mordred, his mortal enemy. On the eve of the battle he goes to visit Guenevere, who has turned from her sin and sought a life of holiness in a convent. There she has kept Arthur’s great sword, Excalibur, in hope that one day he will take it up again in the cause of justice. After receiving the sword from her, Arthur bids Guenevere farewell with these words:
I’ve often thought that in the hereafter of our lives, when I owe no more to the future, can be just a man, we might meet. You’d come to me, claim me yours, know that I am your husband. It is a dream I have.
Arthur’s dream is the very dream, and the very promise, of the Holy One of Israel.
One of the compelling images I recall from childhood is the opening scene of Branded. This Western TV drama starred Chuck Connors as a United States Army officer unjustly charged with cowardice. Week after week the series opened with Jason McCord, Connors’ character, being drummed out of the service at a remote post in the American West. As the garrison assembles, McCord is marched to the front and center of the formation, where his commander removes from him every vestige of his connection with the Army – his hat, rank insignia, and even the buttons on his coat. Last of all the commander removes McCord’s sword from its sheath, breaks it over his knee, and tosses the broken hilt out of the fort’s gate. The shamed officer then walks out of the fort as the doors close behind him. Now on his own, branded for life with the mark of a coward, he must find a way to clear his name.
What if someone had exonerated Jason McCord? Such things have happened before. There is provision in the law to excuse an offender, either when the accusation is proven unjust, or when a duly constituted authority bestows clemency in an act of mercy. The law, however, remains in effect. Should another man, or even the same man, desert his post in an act of cowardice, he would be guilty of the same offence. Even if the entire United States Army deserted, requiring the President to recruit an entirely new force, the deserters would still be guilty according to the statutes and regulations governing the military service. And should the law change somehow, perhaps refining the definition of cowardice and clarifying the penalties, the law would still be in effect, and those subject to it would be wise to learn the changes lest they find themselves inadvertently in error.
How interesting that such a principal gleaned from a 1960s TV Western is actually a principal of the Word of God. While some may argue that the Law of God has no application at all in an age when Messiah Yeshua has won forgiveness for all who believe on Him, in actuality His work of redemption secured a prophesied change in the Law, not its abolition.