Segal: The king and we
The Bible is wary of kings (human ones, that is). The Book of Deuteronomy warns against the potential abuses of monarchs, urging the people not to let them amass too much gold and silver, too many horses and chariots or too many wives.
The Book of Samuel recounts the transition from tribal chieftains to a monarch. The people’s request for a king disappoints Samuel and angers God, who takes it as a rejection of divine kingship. Just as Deuteronomy prescribed checks on a king’s power, Samuel warns the populace about what a king will do to them: He will draft their young men into war and make them plow his land; he will take from their land, crops, servants and flocks for his own gain. One wonders if the American founders drew as much inspiration from these anti-monarchic texts as they did from the Exodus.
It would be a stretch to locate the seeds of American democracy in the Hebrew Bible. That concept was imported from ancient Greece. But the Scriptures established what came to be an American mantra: No ruler is above the law. Other ancient cultures deified their kings; the ancient Hebrews, not so much. In the Bible, kings are only as worthy as they are obedient to God’s laws.
Since the birth of civilizations, humans have wrestled with how best to organize society and set leaders over ourselves. These questions confront Americans again as we select our party nominees and next president.
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It is tempting, amid widespread anger at a corrupted system, to cast a no-confidence vote by flocking to an outsider who promises vague solutions based on force of will. Authoritarianism is seductive to people fed up with a dysfunctional system. But before we cry out for a “king” to solve our problems, we should take another look at the biblical warnings. Not to mention the measured checks and balances built into our system to prevent government overreach.
Unfortunately, the mechanics of campaigns require candidates who are comfortable touting their own greatness. It’s enough to make one yearn for the likes of George Washington, the reluctant leader who assumed the yoke of leadership for the good of the newborn nation. His restraint set a precedent for the modest executive. Lincoln, too, comes to mind as a model of servant leadership. Not without ambition — he wrote plainly about his drive to make a mark on history — Lincoln approached faith and governance with a remarkable combination of conviction and humility. Imagine a politician today confessing only “firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right” — he or she would be dismissed as wishy-washy. Foolishly, we forget that uncompromising ideology is not the same as integrity. We confuse dogma with strength.
It is almost laughably quaint to long for humility as a salient quality in our candidates. That’s why it was so refreshing when Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett asked Hillary Clinton about this rare virtue at the Nashua, New Hampshire, Democratic town hall on Feb. 3. He said:
“Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught that every person has to have two pockets, and in each pocket they have to carry a different note. And the note in one pocket says, ‘The universe was created for me.’ And in the other pocket the note says, ‘I am just dust and ashes.’ I want you to take a moment and … tell us about your two pockets. How do you cultivate the ego, the ego that we all know you must have … to be the leader of the free world — and also the humility to recognize that we know that you can’t be expected to be wise about all the things that the president has to be responsible for?”
Clinton seemed pleasantly surprised at this gem of a question. She reflected on her “discipline of gratitude” as well as the friends and religious advisers who help her navigate the tension between self-serving campaigning and public service. Every candidate should be put on the spot with a question like the rabbi’s. For that matter, so should every citizen.
In the Bible, it was the people who set up a king. All the more so in our time, the authority of our leaders stems from the people. The responsibility falls to us, therefore, to hold them accountable. Voting is one way to fulfill that responsibility. But real change depends on our doing more, like demanding a different culture of power. We will have to stop supporting self-righteous obstructionists and start rewarding pragmatic visionaries. We will have to demand media that are watchdogs and not cheerleaders.
We also will have to remember that politics is not a reality-TV show, though these days it feels like a circus. Aristotle called it a “noble profession.” It is supposed to be the place where we live our values and virtues in public.
Let’s remember in this election year that our job as citizens entails convening with conviction and humility to challenge and support one another in this messy collective effort called human society. Or, if we can’t handle that responsibility, we can crown a king instead.
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