12 January 2016

No King in Israel

On the 4th of July last year, I wrote a piece defending monarchies against revolutions, which seemed the à propos thing at the time. I wrote this using as inspiration an Orthodox exegesis I read, which used the Old Testament Book of Judges as its primary basis. The phrases ‘and there was no King in Israel’, and ‘every man did that which was right in his own eyes’, which repeat so often, and at the end of every chapter in Judges, are laments. They usually follow hard upon the heels not just of theft and deceit, but of gross and heinous injustices, and brutal and barbaric crimes of the worst sorts – debauchery, torture and murder, committed by those who claimed kinship in Abraham, and the protection and justification of Abraham’s God.

Seeking justice, therefore, the elders of Israel sought out their last good judge, the Holy Prophet Samuel, and asked him to appoint for them a King, such as the other nations had, and who would do three things for them. Namely: the king would provide them with justice; he would go out before them, to represent them before the Gentiles and before God; and he would fight their battles, protecting them from their tribal enemies. Samuel himself seems not to have taken too kindly to the idea at first, expressing qualms that a king would oppress and beleaguer his people in ways that the judges had not done. But in the Torah there is a commandment that the children of Israel would take for themselves a king in due time, and the elders of the Tribes insisted upon it. The subsequent story of Samuel’s appointment of Saul, and then of David, who was succeeded by Solomon, is well-known to us from Sunday school.

And as we also know, each of these kings ruled well and wisely for the most part, but usually had some flaw either of personality or of the temptations of power, which led them to fail in some fundamental way, to deliver upon the charges enjoined upon them by the elders of the Tribes, and by God Himself. Saul withheld a portion of the war booty for himself, when God explicitly commanded him not to; and because he failed to fight the battles of Israel rightly, he forfeited the right of the kingship to David. David failed to deliver justice when he seduced Bathsheba the wife of Uriah, impregnated her, and then had Uriah killed. And Solomon, though he was wise enough to fight his battles with care and to deliver justice, failed to represent the children of Israel before God: in spite of having built the Temple to God, he also erected temples and monuments to the idols worshipped by his hundreds of foreign-born wives.

The entire promise to the people of Abraham, to which the Orthodox Church holds as well to this day, is that the Kingship rightly belongs to God, and that the earthly king is merely ‘captain over His inheritance’. The demands of kingship are truly resolved and recapitulated only in Christ Our Lord, who not only fulfils the three earthly marks of the King demanded by the elders of Israel in the first Book of Samuel, but who also fulfils the Heavenly Kingdom as the living God. Earthly kingship is viewed sceptically: all earthly kings being sinful – even the best of men like David and Solomon – they will never fulfil their earthly duties in perfection. Yet the ideal of kingship is not forsaken in the slightest. Earthly kingship is the icon of the Heavenly Kingdom, and its marks, as suggested in the Book of Deuteronomy and in the first Book of Samuel, are in the active pursuit of social justice and the common good; in the representation of the people before God; and in the defence of the people from their enemies within and without.

The Kingship of Christ fulfilled all three, even as He was living amongst us. He healed the sick and ‘unclean’ who were unjustly kept from entering into the Temple to worship and to be forgiven their sins; and He also opened His table fellowship to prostitutes, tax collectors, foreigners, debtors and other sinners. He forgave sins and bade people to go and sin no more – in this way He perfected the justice which had been demanded of His forefather David. He preached to the people and taught them in the Temple, He went before the people who lined his way into Jerusalem shouting ‘hosanna’, He preached the Kingdom of God which had come near, and He stood before Pilate’s judgement as the ‘King of the Jews’; in this way He represented the children of Israel to the nations, and being God in human flesh He naturally represented all people before God, as had been demanded of His forefather Solomon. And He drove out demons from those afflicted, He drove the money-changers out of the Temple who had been turning it into a house of commerce and a den of thieves, He went to the Cross and He fought with and defeated the power of death, which is the enemy of all people – thus fulfilling what Saul had not done in fighting the battles of his people.

And yet all these things being fulfilled in the fullness of time as well as within history, we still find ourselves contending with sin and injustice and facing it on every side. We therefore still need good government; we still need earthly kings to be ‘captains over God’s inheritance’. Without absolutising its demands in some post-millennial fever dream of earthly self-sufficiency, some true attention to social justice, to the common good, to the respect for persons as they are, socially-situated and yet possessed of free will and choice, is demanded. Anarchy, as the Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church rightly notes, ‘run[s] contrary to the Christian outlook’.

But we American Christians (particularly those of us who hold to the Orthodox and Apostolic wholeness of truth) are caught in a very difficult civic dilemma, when it comes to facing the intellectual consequences of the deposits of Scripture and Holy Tradition honestly. ‘Each man doing that which is right in his own eyes’ is in a certain way the moral underpinning which guides our civic thinking. The sad thing is that mainstream American Protestantism appeals to the brutal and violent era of the Judges not as a warning, but as a kind of ideal. In modern times this underpinning is appealed to on the ‘left’ of the political spectrum in the relationship of the person to the culture, and on the ‘right’ of the political spectrum in the relationship of the person to the economy. Each man ought to be free not only to his own life, but to his own ‘liberty’ and to his own ‘pursuit of happiness’, however he cares to define them. So the saying comes down from the idols of our civic life: John Locke, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

And this, ‘each man doing that which is right in his own eyes’, is the saying that underpins the entire intellectual and political enterprise of American individualism. That individualism is the same which champions the ‘right’ of a mother to destroy her own child in the womb, and which champions the ‘right’ to sell a weapon to anyone without reference to their character or to their health. That individualism is the same which undermines civic organisations generally (and labour unions especially, with a vengeance), and which also undermines the nuclear family. And it is this individualism which has eroded the very moral legitimacy of the American government. On one side our government acts as though it is the sole global arbiter of democratic governance and individual rights; and yet on the other side we behave with an extraordinary gluttony when it comes to weapons sales and petrol consumption (to which individuals and businesses feel themselves entitled in perpetuity), which totally compromises our moral capital in the first endeavour, and shows it for the hypocrisy it truly is.

On one level, it is psychologically understandable – and this is a trend to be approached with sympathy and understanding – why people would turn in anger, as many on both the right and the left of the American political spectrum already have to an extent, to political expressions of anarchy in an attempt to detach themselves from a government which seems totally dysfunctional and perhaps even philosophically flawed from inception. But this is ultimately not a healthy approach. As said above, this kind of individualistic anarchism runs contrary to the Christian outlook. Rare if not impossible is the revolution which achieves what it wants without an equal or greater cost. It strikes me that a tactic of both engagement and detachment, respect for government’s right purpose and civil disobedience against its wrong practices – what The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher has been referring to for a long while now as the ‘Benedict Option’ – will need to be set in motion, evaluated and re-evaluated, and maintained with some level of individual and community self-sacrifice. It strikes me thus far that this is the most effective way to witness to the Kingdom of Christ in modern American society.

No comments:

Post a Comment