Russell Moore has been doing a lot of writing lately about the dangers posed to the church by an excessive desire to obtain, exercise, and protect power. He has argued, in ways both subtle and overt, that too many evangelical Protestants (and conservative Roman Catholics) have been willing to sell out their faith in support of an immoral and autocratic leader. All they seem to want in return is for the leader in question to fight their battles.
Not a New Problem
As Moore well knows, this is not a new problem. God’s people have always been tempted to sell out their convictions, and even their relationship with God, to obtain the privilege, pleasure, or power they want. They have always been tempted to value security more than faithfulness and to put their trust in human (and often violent) institutions rather than in God.
The most famous example of this unholy tendency can be found in 1 Samuel 8. After decades of military success, religious revival, and (presumably) economic progress under the leadership of Samuel the prophet, the elders of Israel came to that same prophet and asked him for a king.
If we are to read the story honestly, we must admit the fledgling nation faced real problems. Its tribal organization had definite advantages, but it also presented significant obstacles to the achievement of a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors. Of more immediate concern was the age of Israel’s prophet/leader. Samuel had placed the responsibility for providing judicial and administrative oversight in the hands of his two sons, but they had shunned the hard road of integrity for the alluring fruit of injustice.
Nevertheless, the solution Israel’s elders proposed for these problems demonstrated that they did not trust God or understand what God was up to. Indeed, God comforts Samuel by telling him their request for a king was not a commentary on Samuel’s leadership. It was a rejection of the rule of God.
Warnings Old and New
Samuel tried to dissuade Israel’s elders from their desire to have a king. It is easy for people to think a potentate will simply function as a mechanism for focusing their own power, but that is almost never how things actually work out. Once power is vested in a king, dictator, etc., older structures of authority become ineffective in restraining the potentate’s lust for, or exercise of, power. The entire apparatus of society becomes focused on the strong man (and, yes, it is almost always a man) and those who help him maintain control. Not only are the interests of the individual subordinated to those of the nation, but the interests of the nation can easily be subordinated to those of its leader.
In his farewell address to Israel, the prophet Samuel provides another warning about the dangers of monarchy (1 Samuel 12, especially v. 12-15). This time, the warning is spiritual and moral rather than political and economic. Having a king will not protect Israel from apostasy. Indeed, the concentration of power in a single person will give that person an outsized influence over the nation’s identity. That could be a good thing when the king was faithful to God, but the Samuel-Kings narrative shows it was more often a very bad thing. It was all too easy for corruption to flow down from the king through the aristocracy to the populace. And the more royal institutions replaced tribal ones as the primary shapers of Israelite life, the fewer institutional barriers there were to slow the spread of idolatry and injustice.
We might add one further warning to those articulated in Scripture—one that is related to the desire for concentrated power even in the absence of its achievement. When our enemies become our focus, it is all too easy for us to misconstrue what is going on in our geopolitical and spiritual context. Samuel implies that this kind of misconstrual may have motivated the request for a king in his farewell address, and we have seen this process play itself out throughout human history. We become so obsessed with the supposed threats around us that we lose sight of what is true and of what matters.
Faith and Power
Autocracy is not a relic of the past, and Christians are not immune to its attractions. We must heed the warnings of our Scriptures and our history.
I do not agree with people like Stanley Hauerwas or Marva Dawn. I believe that the exercise of coercive power is sometimes necessary for our present eschatological situation. But I do agree with them that the exercise of coercive, or any other political, power is not the ultimate solution to our problems. Indeed, it usually makes those problems worse.
The power we as Christians celebrate—the power we seek to utilize on behalf of our nations, our communities, our churches, and ourselves—is not the power to make people do what we want. It is not the power to destroy our enemies, for our only King has commanded us to love them (Matthew 5:43-48). It is the power that is only found in the cross. It is a power that works through weakness and suffering to bring about transformation, reconciliation, and renewal. It is the power that raised Jesus from the dead and turned the Roman Empire upside-down.