by Berry Friesen
“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.”
1 Samuel 8:18
Those of us schooled in the Hebrew scriptures are acquainted with the bad-king, good-king pattern through the stories about Saul, David, Solomon, Ahab, Josiah and 400 years of Israel’s history. Our take-away from that bit of Bible education is the habit of labeling current political leaders the same way (e.g., good President Obama, bad President Trump).
As the opening quote from the prophet Samuel reminds us, this bad-king, good-king rubric is not what the prophetic voice of Hebrew scripture intended. Instead, it associated kings and the imperial state of mind with oppression and grief. It is this prophetic voice—reiterated so beautifully by Genesis and 2nd Isaiah in the post-exilic era of Jewish history—that we need to follow today.
During his first month in office, President Trump reiterated his support for torture and secret CIA prisons where kidnapped prisoners can be dealt with outside the rule of law. He voiced regret that the US had not stolen Iraq’s oil during its invasion and occupation (2003-2011) and broached the possibility of correcting that “mistake” in the future. He tried to close our borders to persons from seven, predominantly Muslim countries. He ordered the building of a wall along the US border with Mexico and then attempted to humiliate president of Mexico, who does not support such a wall.
Pretty bad, huh?
Then someone reminds us that torture and secret prisons were part of Bush Administration policy, only a few years ago. That the invasion and occupation of Iraq were supported by nearly all of the Democrats and Republicans ensconced in Congress today. That President Obama bombed six of those seven countries whose citizens Trump wanted to bar from the US—creating bitter enemies in the process—and commenced cyber warfare against the seventh (Iran). That the wall President Trump wants has been under continuous construction since the mid-‘90s and already covers 580 miles.
Am I trying to downplay the anxiety and apprehension people are feeling about our new President? Sort of, but not exactly.
Most of all, I am asking us to get a grip on our emotions by drawing on biblical wisdom about kings and empires.
Here is journalist and author Paul Street describing the politics of this moment:
For the U.S. establishment, Trump poses a threat to Brand America. It is longstanding bipartisan U.S. ruling class doctrine that the United States is the world’s great beacon and agent of democracy, human rights, justice, and freedom. American Reality has never matched the doctrine, and it didn’t under Obama, of course, but it is especially difficult to credibly align those claims with a candidate and now a president like Trump, who has openly exhibited racist, nativist, sexist, arch-authoritarian, police-statist, Islamophobic, pro-torture, and even neo-fascist sentiments and values.
Street quotes author Mike Lofgren, former Republican congressional staffer and author of The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, who wrote last summer on why nearly all of America’s political elite supported Hillary Clinton instead of Donald Trump:
If our system of government is an oligarchy with a façade of democratic and constitutional process, Trump would not only rip that façade away for the entire world to behold; he would take our system’s ugliest features and intensify them.
In other words, with the arrival of President Trump as Oligarch-in-Chief, the empire is stripped naked. It’s ugly and brutal and reveals the US to be undeserving of the power to rule the world and seize such a large share of the world’s wealth. This is why so many in the mainstream media are freaking out.
As Jesus-followers, we would do well to give this some thought: is Trump’s version of America something new or alien? Or is he merely revealing what America has been for the past 70 years? Are we anxious and apprehensive because Trump is showing us a picture of our nation that we have managed to ignore?
1 Samuel 8:18 reminds us that President Trump is but another iteration of a long-entrenched reality: the ideology of dominance metastasizes into empire. Scripture has shown us a better way—the Kingdom of God. Let’s put our energy into building that structure, not playing the latest version of bad-king, good-king.
Berry Friesen lives in Lancaster, PA and is part of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite congregation in that city. A version of this essay was previously published at his blog, www.bible-and-empire.net