Are There Lessons That Modern Americans Can Learn From Ancient Israel? (Part 3)

For the last two weeks, we have used the division of the Israelite monarchy after the death of Solomon (1 Kings 12) as a tool to help us understand the current political situation in the United States. I argued that four factors contributed to the demise of Davidic rule over the whole of Israel: 1) longstanding ethnic and geographical tensions, 2) the presence of conflicting ideologies, )3 the overuse of royal power (and perhaps an unequal distribution of its benefits), and 4) a tendency to compromise on matters of religious and/or moral importance. I then argued that each of these phenomena, to a lesser or greater extent, can be found in our own political context.

Now, we must turn our attention to the question of how we address these problems. Many people have attempted to propose solutions to what ails the American body politic, and most of them are a lot smarter than me. I’m just a Bible nerd, and, unfortunately, the Bible does not tell us how Israel solved its problems. (Indeed, the problems only got worse. The northern kingdom was eventually conquered by the Assyrians, and the southern kingdom was conquered by the Babylonians.)

Nevertheless, I am convinced that at least some of the answers to our current woes can be found by carefully reflecting upon Israel’s story and by considering how it might impact us. In the paragraphs that follow, I present a few of my own insights, and I hope that you will do the same in the “Comments” section at the end of the blog.

Begin Where We Are

I think that we ought to begin by remembering the calling we have received as servants of Christ. Our first and primary responsibility is not to solve all the world’s political and economic problems. It is to make disciples for Jesus (cf. Matthew 28:16-20).

Some of you may have rolled your eyes, or even laughed out loud, at this suggestion. In this age of skepticism about the effectiveness of religious instruction and cynicism about religious motivations, it is hard to take anyone seriously who thinks that discipleship to Jesus really matters. But, then again, it is hard to find anyone who actually takes being a disciple of Jesus seriously. Perhaps we should not mock discipleship until it has actually been tried.

A more serious objection comes from those influenced by New Testament scholars like N. T. Wright, Richard Hays, and Scot McKnight (as well as those who belong to the so-called “missional church” movement). These folks rightly point out that the mission of Jesus was about more than just getting people to adopt a worldview or embrace a pattern of worship. It was about, in the words of Wright, “setting right” what has gone wrong with God’s good world. Hence, this stream of Christianity argues, we need to broaden our understanding of the gospel. It is not just about, in the words of Dallas Willard, “sin management.” It embraces every aspect of our lives as creatures embedded in the world and responsible for both it and one another.

With this objection in mind, it is important to note that I am not calling for a withdrawal from the world and its problems. I am simply suggesting that we cannot do all that Wright and others have correctly called us to do until we have been properly initiated into the fellowship of those who sit and learn at the feet of Jesus. Indeed, I am convinced (both as a Christian and as an ideological conservative) that this fellowship can do far more to positively impact our society than any government, political theory, or economic system.

Learn from Israel’s Mistakes

We would also do well to observe how God responded to Israel’s problems, particularly in the prophetic tradition. Over and over again, God told Israel to put away its idols and to practice justice. We would do well to do the same.

But what does that look like in our context? Two points come to mind. First, we need to examine how we, and our neighbors, spend our time, our money, our effort, and our talent. To what do we devote our lives, and why do we devote our lives to these things? We will quickly learn that, although we (for the most part) no longer bow down in front of statues of stone or wood, we do still worship things that are not God and that are not good for us. These things make claims on our lives that prevent us from living abundantly and that impede our ability to be good participants in our community.

Second, we need to stop obsessing so much about what justice looks like on a national scale and start considering what it would look like for each of us as individuals to act justly. Our practices as a nation mimic our practices as individuals. Moreover, the injustices perpetrated by individuals often have to be redressed by governmental entities. And those efforts often create more problems than they solve. If we, as individuals, would simply treat one another in ways that promoted the other person’s good, we would not need to give over so much of our money and our rights to nameless, faceless bureaucrats. We would have fewer problems, and the problems we did have could be solved more often simply by leveraging relational capital for the benefit of the individuals in our communities.

Invest in Civic Education

As the Trinity Forum has often pointed out, we as a society need to invest in civic education. Indeed, I would argue that we as Christians should lead the way in this important task. As Os Guiness rightly points out, this does not mean that we sacrifice our own capacity for careful reflection and discernment on the altar of the American Constitution. But it does mean that we help people understand what kind of republic the founders had in mind, how that republic works, and how its vision is different from the visions of other revolutionaries.

What does this task have to do with Israel’s history? Actually, a lot. It is important to remember that the law handed down to Moses by God was not just a religious document. It was also a civic document. So, when God commanded the people to teach the law to their children, He was commanding them to teach their children about how Israelite society was to be ordered. He was teaching them how to love their neighbor in a formal and public way.

When we as Christians do civic education, we need to do it from an explicitly Christian point of view. This means that we need to do it with three tasks in mind. First, we need to give people the tools to deconstruct the founding vision of America, exploring both how it is rooted in the peculiar convictions of the Protestant Reformation and how other influences shaped its ultimate form. Second, we need to help people see where our nation has acted in ways that are consistent with this vision and where it has acted in ways that are inconsistent with this vision. It is particularly important to demonstrate how the founders themselves did not always fully implement (or even understand the implications of) the vision, for, in so doing, we will help people understand some of the problems that still afflict our society today. Third, we need to give people tools that they can use to deconstruct the rhetoric of contemporary politicians and movements. In particular, we need to help them determine how such politicians and movements are consistent with and different from the founding vision of the nation, where these differences come from, and whether these differences are positive or negative.

Get Informed

We also need to be informed participants in the political process. The task of getting informed has two dimensions. We need to get informed about the theological requirements of our own faith. As Christians, we need to be experts in what God wants from us and what He wants for us. But we also need to get informed about the specific issues faced by our nation and the various people that inhabit it.

This second task is quite difficult. It requires that we know the scientific data of economics or criminology, but it also requires that we know the stories of women, African-Americans, victims of crime, and others who have been affected by the sin and dysfunction of our society. And, whether we are reading stories or science, we have to be an empathetic reader without being naive. We have to realize that no one tells their story or conducts their research in a vacuum., and we have to be responsible consumers of all claims to knowledge.

Confront the Elephant in the Room

Up to this point, I have tried to ignore the elephant in the room. Those of us who follow Jesus, to say nothing of everyone else in the American electorate, come to our involvement in politics from different perspectives. We tell different stories about ourselves, share different experiences (usually with people who have the same perspective as we do), and construct different ideologies on the basis of those shared experiences.

In other words, we disagree with one another—and not just about arcane matters of policy. We disagree about the values that ought to form the foundation of our democracy, about the principles that ought to form its structure, and about the heroes that ought to be celebrated as examples of our democracy’s highest ideals. And any attempt to appeal to Scripture or the Christian tradition as an arbiter of these disagreements will inevitably be seen as a naked play for power. After all, Karl Marx and Adam Smith have far more influence on how we interpret these sources of religious authority than many of us would like to believe, and the human thirst for power is far more active in us than we are willing to admit.

Nevertheless, we have to tackle the divide (or the divides) in our ranks, and we have to do so in light of the gospel. I don’t have any special wisdom or any prophetic insight that will make this an easier process. It is just going to take really hard work. And, we are going to have to experience the pain of having our motives, our values, or even our experiences questioned.

Why does this have to be so hard? We all (supposedly) have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, don’t we? Why can’t we just listen to one another in love and work out solutions that satisfy everyone? For one thing, the history of Israel’s prophetic tradition shows that not everyone who claims to be a faithful community member actually is one. There are, I am sad to say, a lot of bad actors, both in society and in the church. Not everyone is a person of goodwill; some people really are only interested in the acquisition and appropriation of power.

For another, many of the problems that we face are enormously complicated, and some do not have good solutions. It is just part of living in a fallen world. For example, everyone admits that we as a nation have too much debt and that we would be able to do more with the money we have if we did not have this debt. But are we willing to make the sacrifices necessary in order to pay off that debt? Are we willing to make drastic cuts to social security, national defense, Medicare, or Medicaid? Are we willing to allow our infrastructure to decay even more than it already has, and what would happen to millions of Americans who depend on poverty relief programs to survive if those programs had to be drastically curtailed for a generation or more? And what happens if we do nothing—or, even more to the point, if we continue to spend increasing amounts of money to fund new entitlements (universal healthcare, etc.) or to create a new infrastructure (high-speed rail, etc.)?

Problems of this sort tend to do nothing but accentuate the underlying differences in our values and principles. It might be easy for each party to give a little bit on various points if such compromise would actually yield a solution, but everyone in every ideological camp knows (whether they are willing to admit it or not) that real solutions to complex problems usually result in real pain. And real pain means people in power lose their jobs. (As one commentator said recently, “People don’t go to the polls to say, ‘thank you.’ They go to the polls to say ‘get out!’”)

We who follow Jesus need to model a different way of engaging in political dialogue. We need to use our understanding of the human condition and our commitment to human flourishing as points of departure for meaningful interactions about the future of our country. It is not just about finding common ground—although that would help matters substantially. It is not just about being more civil—although that, too, would help in many (but not all) cases. It is about allowing the Word of God to call into question our most treasured assumptions about our own experiences and about the common good. It is about looking to God for guidance with respect to issues that are much too big for us to solve. It is about coming to terms with the fact that nothing we do will ever be perfect and with the fact that there will always be trade-offs. And, above all, it is about being ruthlessly committed to the truth, whether or not it benefits our political party, our race, our gender, our geographic area, or whatever other subgroups we have taken into our identity.

Trying Something Different

Nothing that I have said in these paragraphs is unique. Nothing that I have said is profound. The main reason that they are worth saying is that we as a nation do not do them well. Indeed, we in the Christian community do not do them well. I do not do them well.

A new presidential election is only two years away. Congress is divided, and the courts are still a battleground. We can do things the same way that we have been doing them for the last thirty years. I guarantee that we will get the same results. Or, we can try something different. I hope that we will do the latter.

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