Monday, June 4, 2018

Identity Politics


In the Track 1 Old Testament reading for this Sunday (1 Samuel 8:4-20; 11:14-15), the people of Israel demand a king. Samuel is grieved by this. As we heard yesterday, the Lord has been with him, not letting any of his words fall to the ground. As a prophet and religious figure, he had, more or less, been holding the tribes of Israel together in a loose confederation of questionable effectiveness. He had appointed his sons to succeed him, but, like Eli's sons before him, they had proven unworthy. The people wanted a unified, central ruler. They were tired of existing as a scattering of clans. It's hard to convince leaders from Ephraim and Judah to raise an army to repel an invader in the territory that belongs to Dan. The people wanted a king. Toward the end of the lesson, we see that they wanted a king because they wanted to "be like other nations" in having a king to rule them and go out before them in battle.

Samuel knows better, but we see that his motives are mixed. The Lord says to him, "Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them." Those seem like words of consolation, words God has given Samuel to comfort his bruised ego. "It's not you; it's me," God seems to say. In God's classic way, God tells Samuel to inform the people what they're getting into and then let them make their own decision, accepting whatever consequences come with it. So Samuel puts it all on the line:
These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots...and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest...He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work...And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.
In other words, no matter whom you appoint, that king is going to start acting like a king, and he's going to want you to pay taxes so that he can live like a king. And, when you're angry about it, God isn't going to listen to you. You will have made your bed, and it will be your time to lie in it. But the people don't care. They want a king.

Tomorrow is primary election day in Alabama. My phone rings several times every evening with pollsters who don't really want my opinion but instead ask questions like, "Did you know that Candidate X was fired from his law firm in 1992 because of financial irregularities?" and "Now that you know that, does that make you less likely or more likely to vote for him?" Like everyone else, Alabamians want leaders who look and sound and act like they think that they themselves do. The truth is that people are no good. And another truth, of which Samuel reminds us, is that power brings out the no-good in people. Just look at Alabama's track record for Governor.

Politically speaking, Israel needed a centralized government with a central leader. Read the book of Judges and see that the struggle without a king is real. The problem wasn't Israel's decision to have a king. The problem was thinking that a king would solve all of their problems. In the religious framework of 1 Samuel, we see that a king cannot be a substitute for God. The people still need to honor the One who truly holds them together. Perhaps there's a lesson here for us as we approach primary election day. Instead of electing people to solve all of our problems, maybe we should remember what it means to belong together as one people and remember that it's our job to participate in that community. There is no "right person" to put into office because all people are no good. Sure, some are less no-good than others, but all people are people. Because of that, it takes more than one or two or twenty to hold us together. Yes, go to the polls and vote for the best people for each office, but don't stop there. The work isn't done. It's our work even after the election is over.

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