"Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so." ~ Douglas Adams
No Need for a King: God and Small Government
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Missing the Point
It is difficult ' if not impossible ' to discuss the relationship between Christianity and politics without acknowledging the all too cozy relationship between the so-called Christian Right and the Republican Party. From the Moral Majority to the Christian Coalition; from the Christian Voice to the Family Research Council; one cannot overestimate the role religion has played in politics over the last three decades. The most recent election cycle saw something of a reversal of the trend of religious people to affiliate with the Republican Party, as many mainline and evangelical Christians joined with the cultured despisers of their own religion to elect Barack Obama. Often citing biblical mandates to fight poverty and strive for justice, these Christians of the New Left helped usher the nation into the Age of Obama, full of messianic expectation.
The problem with Christians of either the right or the left is that they fail to grasp a central tenet about God's design for government. When reading scripture carefully, one finds a God who is interested in self-government through a set of principles, not in statism or the creation of central government.
Early Israel as an Example
A brief excursus on the history of ancient Israel shows us that God did not intend to establish a centralized government. In fact, leaders emerged and were anointed as needed. When Israel found itself enslaved in Egypt after a great famine, God chose Moses to lead the people out of the Egypt and into the Promised Land. Moses, however, never held absolute power of the Israelites. In fact, Moses himself never even made it to the Promised Land, a punishment for his own disobedience. After Moses , Israel was led Joshua, who completed the conquest of the land. Once conquered, the land was divided between the twelve tribes of Israel .
Once tribal land was allotted, Israel effectively became a loose confederation of tribal states. Whenever leadership was needed to fight off a neighboring nation or tribe, Judges were raised to lead the people. Otherwise, the tribes were called to manage their own affairs. As time progressed, the people of Israel grew weary of the model, so the tribal elders began to beg for a king who would centralize rule.
In an interesting and oft overlooked biblical passage, the tribal elders confront the prophet Samuel in I Samuel 8 with their demands for a king. God had created the people with a free will, allowing them to choose to follow whatever path they determined for themselves, so when Samuel approached God with the request for a king, God responded by telling Samuel to give them the king if that is what they really wanted, but to warn them of the great price of centralized government. Samuel warns the people that a king would mean several things: involuntary military conscription (vv. 11-12); daughters taken into domestic servitude (v. 13); claims of imminent domain over the best fields and crops of the nation (v. 14); involuntary taxation to support his army and servants (v. 15); conscription of the best servants to serve the king (v. 16); and finally, slavery of all the people through increased taxation taken by force (v. 17). A final warning was issued: 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 (I Samuel 8:18 ).
In essence, what the prophet tells the people is that keeping the leadership local and intentionally small is much better than allowing a central authority to have control over the land and the people. The people would not be persuaded by the small government argument, and pushed Samuel, saying 'But there shall be a king over us, that we may be like the rest of the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out to fight our battles' (I Samuel 8:19 -20)
The More Things Change'
Sadly, everything the prophet predicted came true. Freedom was lost, children were conscripted, land stolen, and taxes levied to pay for wars of greed and expansion. If we continue to look to early Israel, what we see is that the three BEST kings include one who goes crazy, one who is bloodthirsty and lustful to the point that he kills to cover up his 'affair' (which may have actually been a rape), and one who loses the unified kingdom because he spends all of his time cavorting with his one thousand member harem. This doesn't include the long list of evil rulers who followed, ultimately leading to the demise of the nation.
Furthermore, when God is presented as speaking through the prophet about the mess that big government causes, the savvy reader should understand that there is an implicit shift from voluntary religious observation to enforced moral conduct. The laws of Israel as given were minimal voluntary laws that determined ones standing in the community. In fact, historians tell us that much of what constitutes Israel 's legal code was written long after the demise of the unified empire, leaving just a handful of religious laws to be followed. If you chose to break the covenant with God by ignoring Israel 's religious laws, then you had two choices: either remove yourself from the community or suffer the consequences of breaking the law. In this way the law was still voluntary, and was sign of one's decision to live in covenant with God and community, and thus was sign of God's ultimate respect for human free will. The laws that would accompany a king would no longer be either religious or voluntary in the strictest sense, as they would be tied to kingship and not to covenant. No longer would a voluntary offering of food for the needy be sufficient; a tax would be taken by force. No longer would men freely enlist to defend their land and homes against attack; they would be conscripted. The human birth right that is free will would be exchanged for government sponsored compulsion, much in the same way that Esau traded his birthright for a bowl of pottage in Genesis 25. This is, in essence, what happened, as Israel shifted from a tribal confederation following a common religion to a kingdom built upon the monarchy.
It is an unfortunate fact that people of faith still seem to be more interested in being like other nations or in having someone fight their battles for them than they are in self-governance. Much like God promised the Israelites, we have taxes taken from us at gun point, we have seen our children conscripted, we have idly watched as government has stolen land in the name of eminent domain. And yet people of faith continue to participate in the very system that goes against the original desire for self-governance established by their own holy book. Made in the image of God, endowed with a free will, and guided by freely chosen principles, we have no need of a king.