Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (2 Samuel 1) transports me to the 17th century British civil wars, where the Rump Parliamentarian and anti-royalist Oliver Cromwell led the charge against King Charles I. Cromwell, known as “Old Ironsides,” was one of the prime signatories to the King’s death warrent. Cromwell’s charismatic charge against the abuses of regal power helped sweep him and the Parliamentarians to victory. Given human nature, though, it was only a matter of time before this believer in shared governance and balance of power took on the title of Lord Protectorate, with every bit as much power to oppress and abuse as any King. When he died, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, but when the House of Stuart regained power a couple of years later, the Royalist forces exhumed his body, hung it in chains, and displayed his severed head on a pole outside Westminster Hall for 25 years. What’s interesting is Lord Cromwell he is described by the various British historians, either as a heroic Moses guiding his people through the Red Sea of Civil War, or as a hypocritical Machiavelli hungry for power. More than a century after Cromwell’s death, the philosopher David Hume wrote about him as a regicidal dictator, while historian Thomas Carlisle pegged him as a hero of liberty, as each side tried to establish his legacy.
It didn’t take a century for the remaking of King Saul’s legacy to start taking shape. His first eulogy made no note of the undesirable task that had been foisted on him, of being the first to occupy the throne of Israel when the covenant people showed contempt for God by asking for a King so they could be like other nations. Neither did the eulogy mention that Saul soon proved he was in over his head, as he abused power and took on privileges reserved for the priests. David did not speak about how God sent an evil spirit to haunt the King, or how he started a campaign to destroy the court musician. David didn’t allude to the way the monarch was plagued by jealousy and fear and how David himself had been perceived as a threat to Saul’s power. While much of the book of I Samuel documents David’s many close calls and his narrow escapes from Saul’s irrational rage, none of this made it into the eulogy. No, when David heard the news of Saul’s death (one of three varying accounts of how the King died), he immediately began the project of re-writing history, giving Saul and his legacy a complete makeover. Of this haunted and haunting man who had broken the covenant and failed in his leadership in the Philistine wars and had spent an inordinate amount of time trying to destroy David, this very same David had this to say as he eulogized the fallen King: A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel. How the mighty have fallen! . . . Saul and Jonathon, how in life they were loved and admired. They were swifter than eagles, and stronger than lions. Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul! I find this an amazing about face from the man who had spent so much time dodging the arrows of the evil spirit-possessed King.
We have our own projects of re-writing the histories and remaking the legacies of our leaders. Sometimes the legacies get re-written from a negative perspective, as is the case with Jimmy Carter. The man who negotiated peace between Egypt and Israel, ratified the Panama Canal treaty, created the Departments of Education and Energy and FEMA, bolstered the Social Security system, and established human rights as a primary measurement in his foreign relations policies, has seen his legacy reduced to the symbol of ineffectiveness. On the other hand, Grover Norquist and the Heritage Foundation quite deliberately set out in 1997 to re-write the history and remake the legacy of Ronald Reagan, who was not among the most popular of Presidents during his two terms of office, largely due to high unemployment and scandal in foreign policy that saw several of his administration sent off to prison. But due to a long series of articles written and disseminated by Norquist and the Heritage Foundation in the late 90s, President Reagan’s legacy, like that of King Saul, was recast until he began to be seen as a gazelle on the heights, loved and admired, swifter than eagles and stronger than lions. Oliver Cromwell could have only dreamed of faring so well in the annals of history. Time will tell how our current President gets written up, whether the future historians and philosophers will shine the light on his Mosiac achievements or on his Machiavellian shortcomings.
How about you? Where does this Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.