Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (I Samuel 12) transports me to a time when the holy land was turning unholy, in the 11th century before Christ. Samuel is indicting the people for the epic upheaval they started when they asked for a king so they could be like the other nations. What they really wanted was a five-star military general to defend them against the likes of the Ammonites and other neighboring enemies who threatened them. Their desire revealed their lack of trust in God as their executive, and their lack of confidence in Sam as God’s appointed chief justice. Sam presents his case in a blistering opening argument. Here I stand, he begins. Somebody come up and testify against me. What have I done wrong? The people reply that he hasn’t done anything wrong. No oxes stolen, no donkeys rustled. No cheating. No corruption. No oppression. Sam presents his one witness: As God is my witness, he says, you haven’t found anything up my sleeve. The people raise no objection. Even so, after all the Lord has done for you, as soon you saw a threat on the horizon, you lost your nerve. You wanted a king. You wanted an empire. Now, stand still there while my star witness, the Lord, does something awesome in front of your eyes. And you will realize what evil you have done in asking for a king. The people are then eye-witnesses to exhibit A, a mighty act of God, and they immediately cop a guilty plea for their faithless foolishness, and beg for mercy from the court. They fear a death sentence, but Sam reveals again the merciful heart of God toward them. They will have to suffer the penalty of life under an earthly king, but God will not abandon them. They will have to learn how to be faithful under this worldly system, how to live faithfully under imperial rule.
Followers of Jesus have not been so different from the people of Samuel’s day, who longed to be as powerful if not more powerful than their neighbors. The church didn’t start out that way. For three hundred years, the early church lived a communal life, sharing all things in common and trusting none but God for their king. Then Constantine did what none of the other Roman emperors thought of: he defeated the unconquerable Christians by making the entire empire Christian, taking away all of its defining characteristics, and in essence “baptizing” the world system. Over a millennium later, the Holy Roman Empire experienced the revolt of those protesting its indiscriminate power and oppression. The protesting reformers wanted to “re-pristinate” the church, to take it back to its purer days. But even the mainstream reformers couldn’t resist the temptations of power. Luther and Calvin wanted to create reformed Christian empires, but empires nonetheless.
It took the radicals of the reformation – the Anabaptists and Mennonites and Levellers and Diggers (the original Occupy movement)– to resist this temptation and form egalitarian communities of faith that distrusted all attempts to consolidate power. And then the once-marginalized baptists started moving up in the world, and by the mid to late 20th century they started dreaming of how much influence they could have in the halls of power, in government. Just think, they thought, what a majority of moral people would be able to accomplish in a democracy! As it turns out, they could do about as much damage as any other group that consolidates power. And so we look again for the radicals, the protesters, the occupiers, those who are willing to forgo the mega-power of privilege and status and reputation in hopes of a more authentic community. We look at the fringes to find expressions of complete confidence and trust in God, and an understanding that corrupt imperial power will always place self-interest above the interests of the poor. These fringe folks are the ones who envision a day when the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth will invade our world and pull a Saul Alinsky, stopping the wheels of oppression dead in its tracks as the trumpeter blows reveille for radicals: The marketplace is empty, no more traffic in the streets, all the builders tools are silent, no more time to harvest wheat. Busy housewives cease their labor, in the courtroom no debate, work on earth has been suspended as the King comes through the gate. The King is coming.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.