Getting Burned

Although this is a personal account of disobedience and the consequences, it primarily concerns mistakes made due to ignorance and/or rejection of Law. Swayed by human weaknesses such as greed, or yielding to financial and social pressures, or to other distractions and temptations prevalent in contemporary society, our ability to make moral decisions in personal affairs and in public deliberations are clouded; and, as individuals and as a society, for reasons we do not seem to grasp, we get ‘burned.’

On December 15th, 2004, the Birthday of our Bill of Rights, during a conversation with one of my county supervisors, I urged him to vote against a pending local project involving federal subsidies and tax credits, and attempted to persuade him the select few who would benefit from the project were simply reaching into the pockets of every American—against the will of many, if not most taxpayers—in order to enrich themselves at others’ expense. I attempted to reason with him about his oath of office to do his part to uphold the Constitution; about the fundamental Constitutional prohibitions against federal subsidies and involvement; and about his lack of lawful authority to vote for the project.

“I don’t consider the Constitution in making my decisions.” Those were his words. Exactly. His response was a momentary lapse, devoid of the usual political doubletalk obscuring the real character of most elected and appointed officials. He went on to say Congress had approved the project funding, that was good enough for him, and he would not second-guess their authority to do so. So much for our system of checks and balances. So much for local autonomy and for the idea of federalism in our Republic.  

It is true the subsidies were legislatively approved. What the federal government did, of course, was legal, just as the legislative acts of every government are legal. Mugabe’s “nationalization” of private land in Zimbabwe is legal. Lands Minister Nkomo stated, “In the end all land shall be state land and there will be no such thing called private land.” Slavery was legal in the United States. Hitler’s various orders to exterminate more than 13 million people were legal. Infanticide in America is legal. Are the comparisons outlandish? Not really. The underlying principle is identical. Where unlawful acts are legalized through deception, or as a result of the people’s ignorance, by vote or by dictate, there are few limits to man’s destructive inclinations.

The politician in him tried to convince me to soften my position. He claimed he didn’t “always agree with federal subsidies and grants, but everything is subsidized.” Therefore, he reasoned, if we, our county, “didn’t take them, someone else would.” He could not follow his ‘reasoning’ to its logical conclusion.

How many decisions, made by local, state and federal officials, and made by private citizens in their daily affairs, are based on that premise? It must number in the thousands every hour.

This supervisor’s admission the Constitution has no relevance is not astounding. Like most public officials, it is unlikely he has ever taken the time to seriously study it. And even if he were to do so, would the plainly-written words of the Founders, able to be understood by almost every citizen, have much meaning for him? Would the words of his oath, to defend and uphold it, have meaning? For he is the product of the ‘modern system’ of situation ethics and legal positivism; the ‘I want it now’ generation, where “democracy,” by its very nature devoid of morality, determines right or wrong in the minds those elected to “do the will of the majority” and to oppress the minority.

How do you discuss principles with those who are ignorant of principles, or with those who are unwilling to act on principle? My county supervisor admitted the federal subsidies for the project were, “in principle probably wrong,” but he assured me, “Everyone else is doing it. It’s perfectly legal, so why shouldn’t we?” Principles did not matter, in his eyes. The conversation came to a dead end when I realized he was not interested in discussing the implications of his position. The difference between legalities and Law had no meaning. Nothing I could say would make a difference.

Years ago, every farm had its ‘dump.’ Ours was a trench pushed out in a wooded hillside with an Oliver Cletrac dozer. Periodically we soaked the trash down with spent motor oil and gasoline, and set it on fire. On February 20, 1962, John Glenn blasted-off in the Mercury-Atlas “Friendship 7” spacecraft—the United States’ first manned orbital mission. It was a good day to burn the trash.

The fire was not burning well. I decided to ‘coax’ it along with some alcohol-based antifreeze we used in our tractors. It came in gallon cans which were stored handily in a shed near the dump. With a hole punched in each side of the top, a thoughtless youth poured it on the trash, and being fascinated by the blue flames, ‘played’ with the fire. The flames followed the stream of alcohol back to the can and, in a flash, I was in orbit with John Glenn.

The fumes in the can exploded, blowing out both ends of the can, dumping the contents on my legs, spraying my hands and face. The result was weeks in the hospital, months of physical pain, and pain for family and friends as well. Why, I asked myself again and again? What could have caused me to make such a stupid decision? Had I not been taught the consequences of playing with fire?

During the late 1970s, my wife and I regularly ordered bulk foods for our family from a wholesaler. On one delivery day, the truck driver had an extra bag of flour on his route slip. We had not ordered it and it was not invoiced, obviously a mistake made at the wholesaler’s office. When I pointed out the error, he said, “If you don't take it, I’ll just give it to someone else at another stop.” Not giving it much thought, I said, “OK, I’ll take it.” It was ‘free’ and I reasoned if I didn’t, someone else would benefit.

About a half hour later, the phone rang. It was the driver. His van was broken down at a local country store and, knowing I was a mechanic, he asked if I would help. I left my work and drove to the store. It seemed to be a fuel problem, possibly a blocked fuel filter or a faulty fuel pump.

The van’s engine compartment was between the front seats. With the engine cover raised and a soda bottle full of gasoline in hand, I trickled gas into the carburetor. When the engine started, it backfired. The bottle in my hand went up in flames, spilling gas over the inside of the truck and over me. My hands, face and leg were toasted as well as the inside of the truck. Once again I was in pain with nasty burns. I cursed myself for being so careless. I had ‘primed’ carburetors many times before with no disastrous consequences. What went wrong this time? Why had I made such a dumb decision?

Months later, driving past the same country store, I recalled the fire. Without warning, a voice spoke. It was not really a voice. Clear, distinct words came into my brain from somewhere. “You were burned because you were dishonest in taking the bag of flour.” The questions I had asked myself months before were instantly and forcefully answered.

Some have doubted my explanation of the events. Just as my supervisor rationalized his position and would not be persuaded by fact and reason, skeptics will arrive at a ‘rational’ explanation for my ‘accidental’ burns; but I have absolutely no doubt what had taken place. It was not ‘inner conscience’ speaking. It was not ‘neurons’ connecting, putting two plus two together in my brain.

We’ve read Biblical stories of miracles, of signs, of plagues, of punishments meted out on a ‘stiff-necked’ people; and of Divine love, protection and prosperity for those who obeyed the Law. I am not a ‘prophet of old’ and claim no special ability to receive Divine communication, but I have never had such an unmistakable experience, before or since. It was not a dream in the usual understanding of the word. 

But are not the Biblical tales simply myths? They don’t apply in the modern world; nor do the legal decisions and acts—and the consequences—of our modern ‘kings, princes and judges’ parallel anything in Biblical ‘mythology.’ For in this new age, we are rational, pragmatic beings using the latest ‘scientific methods’ to guide our decisions. The successes and failures, the consequences of our acts, are simply derivations of ‘mathematical formulae’ we have, in our omnipotence, devised for ourselves. Millennia of Res Judicata, Judgments of the Law, have been vacated.

We like the way a formula works because it makes us feel happy or important, or wealthy, or powerful, or it assures us of the most votes. We base decisions on the ‘numbers’ our parents, clergy, lawyers, accountants, elected officials, neighbors, consultants, school teachers, newspapers and televisions give us. The numbers work in our formulae. Without much thought, we just plug them in and use them. If things don’t quite work to our advantage, we simply change the numbers or devise a new scientific formula. By manipulation of the formula and the numbers, the results can be immediately beneficial—at least they appear to be—and we go on about our lives in the bliss of ignorance.

I phoned the wholesaler, told the manager about the extra bag of flour, and mailed him a check. He was more concerned about the possibility of being sued or having a claim filed with his insurance company for my injuries than he was about payment of a few dollars for a sack of flour. But I knew it was an unsettled account entered in a record book. Sooner or later, it would have required payment in full.

Since that time, there have been other incidents when a ‘voice’ reminds me. And each time I think about the fire twenty-some years ago. It is not the same voice. I recognize it now as conscience, an instinctive warning helping me to make what I hope are principled decisions. It’s similar to the annoying, bell-like alarm intruding when we forget to remove the key from the car’s ignition switch.

That is not to say there have not been numerous mistakes and failings along the way. Human awareness is small and far from perfect. But the Divine Plan is for us to strive to increase our understanding of Natural Law and to act in harmony with it. His Will is a plan for perfection of Creation, and we have been given the only formula that truly works. We just need to plug the correct numbers into the correct formula.

Some may read more into this story than is intended. It is not necessarily about a taste of eternal damnation, burning in the ‘Fires of Hell’ for wrong decisions; nor is it simply about religious beliefs and the lessons of Biblical ‘myths’, although these are very real and important considerations for many of us.

It is about gaining an understanding of the here and now relationship with Law, the way things work in this world, not the way we would like them to work. It is about understanding the rewards, the gentle proddings, or the sometimes forceful corrections or violent punishments built into the spiritual system governing the workings of the physical universe.

It is about understanding the difference between man’s futile formulae—his ‘legalities’—and the Law. It is about realizing there is a Covenant, a Contract of Record, by which we are bound, like it or not. We may ignore its terms and we may get by with it, at least for a while, but we do not have the power to change the Contract or the inevitable consequences of our default.

It is about not getting burned.