Sunday, May 10, 2020

Sunday Thoughts: "We Want a King"

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah.  They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
 But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord.  And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.  As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you.  Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.” (I Samuel 8) 


In thinking about the way that politics have co-opted American Christianity, I have been struck by a few things. 

First, I was raised in a faith community that instilled in me a love for the Bible and taught me innumerable lessons from it for decades. Yet somehow, they - particularly the Baby Boomer generation - seems to have forgotten the very lessons they taught me

Second, as I have pointed out in previous “Sunday Thoughts,” (on my facebook page) white evangelicals in particular treat Trump as if he were a god, not a mortal. And they believe that he provides them with a certain something that they cannot get from anyone else. (Otherwise, they would have supported impeachment of Trump - because they could have had Pence as president - someone supposedly one of them.) 

I believe that this passage in I Samuel is particularly illuminating as to the dynamic here - and also troubling in its implications. 

Like so many stories in the Bible, this one saves the most important part until the end. This is something I have noticed in both the parables of Christ and in so many of the stories in the Old Testament. The writers of the Bible were, if nothing else, experts at the art of the story, and this is no exception. 

Let’s dive in:

First, the problem starts with the corrupt children of Eli, the high priest and Israel’s last “Judge.” But I believe that this, while relevant, isn’t the most important part. After all, pretty much every Judge died and the next generation made a royal mess of things - if the judge himself didn’t do that first. So why a king? 

I believe there are two answers to this question. The first is repeated twice - at the beginning and the end - and I believe it is crucial to understanding this story. I remember being taught this as a kid, and subsequently in Sunday School or church my whole lifetime. 

“We want a king like every other nation has.” 

They wanted to be like every other nation. I was taught that this was a wrong, evil desire. The people of God are to be different from every other nation. Israel should have been content to follow God without needing a powerful authority to take the places of God in their nation. And likewise, the Church - the Kingdom of God on earth - was to have different values and structure than other human institutions. 

I believe, however, that the way to understand this first part of the answer is to understand the second part of the answer:

“We want a king to go out and fight our battles.”

They wanted someone to beat up the enemy. They thought that by having a strong leader who hated the people they hated, they could finally “win” over their enemies. Hey, the other nations make war as a matter of course. Why couldn’t Israel do it too, and make their own empire? 

I think to understand why evangelicals - and white evangelicals in particular - want a king, and thus why they worship Trump, you have to understand that they want someone to fight their “enemies” for them. 

Because Trump very much fulfils that wish. He is indeed aggressive and violent and nasty toward various groups of people, and (in my experience) a solid majority of white evangelicals love that about him. He does indeed lead them into battle against their enemies. 

As Ben Howe put it:

"The more he fights, the more they feel justified, like, He’s our hero because we needed someone to do this for us. Trump’s appeal is not judges. It’s not policies. It’s that he’s a shit-talker and a fighter and tells it like it is. That’s what they like. They love the meanest parts of him.”

Which begs the question: who are their enemies?

This is a partial list:

1. “Liberals” - meaning people who do not vote Republican, obviously, but particularly people who believe in freedom and access to society for everyone, not just evangelicals. (See below.) This also includes a lot of Christians with different beliefs than theirs, which is why I am definitely on the “enemy” list these days. Although the reasons we left organized religion are many, it was obvious that we were no longer welcome if we spoke out against Trump. 

2. LGBTQ people. Not much explanation needed here. Evangelicals want the right to persecute gay people, with no consequences.

3. Scientists. Evangelicals have been waging a jihad against science ever since it first challenged their belief in biblical literalism.  

4. Immigrants and non-whites. And yes, white evangelicals get furious with me for pointing out the obvious. But their words (and posts online) betray them. They want millions of people deported. They want a wall. They want a change to dramatically reduce legal immigration. And they don’t think we have any moral duty to take in refugees. (James Dobson is, unfortunately, par for the course for evangelicals.) White evangelicals are also the one group most likely to think racism is no longer a problem in our country - or if it is, it is racism against white people. And again, it isn’t close. I wish I could believe otherwise, but so many in my life, including extended family – people I thought were better than that – weren’t.

5. The poor and vulnerable. Evangelical politics right now are social darwinist. Full stop. There is no other group in our nation so intent on grinding the faces of the poor. And I believe this is related to the endemic racism. There is a history of associating certain social programs that literally every first world country (and an increasing number in the third world) have with “taking money from white people who earned it and giving it to lazy brown-skinned people.” And with the Covid-19 pandemic, it appears that anyone vulnerable to dying is in this category now

6. People with different religious beliefs. So certainly Muslims. But also “liberal” Christians too. And the sort of Catholics who speak Spanish. And so on. 

7. Young people. This is increasingly obvious. Facing a demographic bloodbath, evangelicals cannot conceal their contempt for “millennials,” by which they often mean Gen Z. And as far as political policies, they have sold their grandchildren’s future for political power now.

So, it becomes clear that Trump is very much the sort of “king” who will fight the “enemies” of evangelicals. 

He makes no pretense of being the president for all of America - he only serves his voters. (And his ego, of course.) He constantly attacks the other side with vicious language and slander about their motives. 
He has taken positive steps to persecute LGBTQ people, and promises more, in the form of “religious freedom” to persecute in the name of god. 
He is aggressively anti-science, both in rhetoric and in policies. That his policies are to open the earth to catastrophic exploitation by the ultra-rich does not trouble evangelicals, because they believe that god will just destroy the earth any day now, so who cares what we do with it now. 
He is (and this is not even remotely arguable) viciously anti-immigrant, anti-minority, and white supremacist. The only people who seem unable to see or admit this are...evangelicals. The KKK certainly has no illusions - they trumpet how great Trump is for their cause. (“Hail Trump! Hail Our People!” [Nazi salute]) 
He has done more than any other president in my lifetime to try to strip food and healthcare from the bottom 50% of our population. He shows contempt for anyone who is struggling financially. He sees no point in a living wage, public healthcare, or food stamps. He has zero empathy for people who lack his privilege. And he has enacted the greatest transfer of wealth to the ultra-rich in 100 years. 
And, of course, the Muslim ban, the non-stop rhetoric against non-evangelicals combined with his promise to give evangelicals special treatment. 
Even when it comes to young people, all that Trump offers is contempt. 

It’s all there. White Evangelicals hate a lot of people, unfortunately. And Trump hates them too. And is willing to lead them into battle against those enemies. Which is the number one reason they forgive his faults and defend the indefensible.

I guess that sounds good if you are on the “winning” side. But not so much for the rest of us.

There is more to the story, of course. The Israelites got Saul, a tall, blustering bully. A guy who refused to listen to wise advice, believed he knew better, got the nation into never-ending and catastrophic war with its neighbors, got in trouble for hoarding the spoils of war, went crazy and started tweeting saying a bunch of nutty stuff, and eventually caused mass disaster to his nation. 

It didn’t end well. 


Just a final thought: it seems to me that white Evangelicals have basically given up on the idea of making converts by persuasion. Whether it is the appeal of cults like Gothardism that promise that your kids will be political and cultural clones of their parents, or the enthusiastic embrace of King Donald, there is no belief that Evangelicalism might, you know, convince outsiders to join them. This isn’t exactly wrong: nobody who isn’t already an Evangelical has any interest in becoming one. And that goes double for us ex-evangelicals. 

And that is the point. What decent person would want to embrace the hate and violence and anger that Evangelicalism is so full of right now? What compassionate person would want to give up their desire to care for immigrants, refugees, the poor, the sick, and the vulnerable? What reasonable person would want to decide that those they love and interact with every day are suddenly “the enemy”? For that matter, who would want to go from considering humanity to be one species that thrives on cooperation and caretaking to believing most other humans are an evil enemy to be defeated and destroyed? 

That is why I expect that as Evangelicalism faces catastrophic collapse (as the Boomers die off), it will get more and more hateful, and more and more shrill - and alienate even more people.

Hidden in the account above is another telling statement - this one from God speaking to Samuel:

[I]t is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you.

It’s sad to see, but the tragedy of white Evangelicalism is the natural result of rejecting a religion of following Christ in humility and love for one’s neighbor in favor of a king to lead one into battle against the enemy. Asking for a king isn’t just a bad idea: it is IDOLATRY. Ultimately, this is the heart of the issue. In following Trump, evangelicals have forsaken any pretense of following Christ. You cannot do both. 

Evangelicals - particularly the white ones.

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