Justice Without Corruption
Pastor Matt Braddock
Then Samuel addressed all Israel: “I have done as you asked and given you a king. Your king is now your leader. I stand here before you—an old, gray-haired man—and my sons serve you. I have served as your leader from the time I was a boy to this very day. Now testify against me in the presence of the Lord and before his anointed one. Whose ox or donkey have I stolen? Have I ever cheated any of you? Have I ever oppressed you? Have I ever taken a bribe and perverted justice? Tell me and I will make right whatever I have done wrong.”
“No,” they replied, “you have never cheated or oppressed us, and you have never taken even a single bribe.”
“The Lord and his anointed one are my witnesses today,” Samuel declared, “that my hands are clean.”
“Yes, he is a witness,” they replied.
“It was the Lord who appointed Moses and Aaron,” Samuel continued. “He brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt. Now stand here quietly before the Lord as I remind you of all the great things the Lord has done for you and your ancestors.
1 Samuel 12:1-7
They want a king. The people of Israel – they want a king, so they can be like the other nations. In the beginning chapters of the book of 1 Samuel, the leader of the people of Israel is a judge named Samuel. He’s not a monarch. Samuel is known a charismatic and wise leader who hears from God clearly and can communicate God’s will to this loose confederation of cranky tribes known as Israel. The people don’t want Samuel’s sons to take over, now that that Samuel is getting old. The elders of Israel think Samuel sons are corrupt. The do not want the sons of prophets to lead. They want a king.
It’s not just about being like the other guys. At one point, the people cry, “We want our king to go out before us and fight our battles.” In other words, “We have enemies who want to destroy us. They have attacked us before. We are afraid and we need a tough national security strategy. We want a king. We want a military. We want them to protect us.”
God does not want Israel to appoint a king. Even though God expresses feeling rejected by the choice, God does not stand in the way. The people need to understand the consequences of their choices. God will not force them to trust. It’s remarkable, really. God finds them a king – a man named Saul. In our first readings, Samuel anoints Saul with oil as a recognition of his new title. Israel will have a King. And then, as Samuel give up his position, Samuel gives a blistering sermon that reminds the people what a king will do to them. He says, “You want a King who will fight your battles for you? King’s don’t do that. King’s take. They take your resources to enrich themselves. Kings take your children and order them to fight. Kings take your resources and force you to make weapons with your farm equipment. Are you ready to pay the price? Consider what you are asking. Kings take, take and take. God asks. With God we always have a choice. Kings demand allegiance. God requests our faith. Kings enforce laws. God enfolds us with love.”
In the reading from 1 Samuel 12, Samuel, in his old age, defends his term as the last Judge of Israel. He asks, “Have I ever cheated any of you? Have I ever oppressed you? Have I ever taken a bribe and perverted justice? Tell me and I will make right whatever I have done wrong.” The people confess he has been upright and good. Samuel is the kind of leader I want to be and the kind of leader I want to follow. Samuel has clarity about his God-given life purpose and goals. He does not become confused or lost in the swirling emotions of others. Samuel can connect to the hearts of other people by respecting them, engaging with them in healthy debate, loving them, honoring their strengths and bolstering their weaknesses. Instead of making people adhere to rules and policies, he values relationships. Instead of trying to control behavior of others, Samuel is led by an inner sense of what God is saying and encourages others to hear God for themselves as well.
Samuel knows that if the diverse and disunified tribes of Israel want to have peace, they need to make security decisions based on something other than fear. If they want to be taken seriously by their enemies, then their foreign policy must represent the aims of God, which have the best interests of all the people in mind. Foreign policy is not just tied into military affairs, it is directly connected to economics. Will Israel succeed if it a society where a small number of extraordinarily powerful and wealthy special interests exert enormous influence over the survival of the people?
Well, as I said, Israel gets its King – the man named Saul. Saul represents what could have been but was not. Saul has some good points. He starts out as a dedicated and thoughtful king who defends Israel from its enemies. But as his fame increased, so did his delusion of grandeur. In the end, Saul refuses to obey God because he’s afraid of public opinion – worried about the consequences to his reputation when God asks him to go to war.
Saul’s style of leadership was so different from Samuel’s. Saul wanted people to like him. On top of that, Saul was an insecure and jealous king, to the point of paranoia. He saw traitors everywhere. Many of you know about David, of David and Goliath fame. David will eventually become King. Before his coronation, David was Saul’s aid, confidante, and son-in-law. Saul slandered David, assumed the worst of motives, and eventually made him a blood-enemy. No matter how many times David reconciled with him, Saul’s insecurity and paranoia gnawed at him. Saul became obsessed not by the true enemies of the people of Israel, but by spending his energy on palace intrigue and aggressive revenge, instead of governing and defending the people.
When I think about the times we live in, and the decisions we make when we feel afraid and insecure, I think the dominant expression – the main way we express our fear – is through aggression. In times of crisis, we turn to hostility as the only alternative for dealing with conflict. Consider some of the language we use around problem solving. We attack the problem, tackle the issue, take a stab at it, wrestle it to the ground, and get on top of it. If colleagues argue with us, we complain that they shot down our idea, took pot shots, used us for target practice, or killed us. Facing opposition, we back down, retreat, or regroup. Because aggression is so ingrained in us as a response, we can easily experience it as a positive attribute. Parents and cheerleaders scream from the sidelines of school sports events, “Be aggressive!” Supervisors reward managers for aggressive timelines and plans. Dictionaries define “aggressive” as hostile action, but also positively as assertive, bold, and enterprising. These combative descriptions of relationships and problem-solving point to a startling conclusion: We experience challenges as war zones, we view competing ideas as enemies, and we use problems as weapons to blame and defeat opposition forces
If we want peace, then we need to lead from a different emotional response than fear through aggression. I think we need mercy. Showing mercy can become a way to disengage from the current culture of aggression with a new way of being. We have all done things we regret. Aggressive things. Violent things. We have all had times when we wish we could go back in time and do something over again. The truth is, we all want mercy. But mercy is not given just so we can feel better. Mercy is not pity. God offers mercy as a way for us to restore our relationships. God offers mercy so that we can extend mercy to others.
We must find the means to work and live together with non-aggressive strategies if we are to resolve the serious problems that afflict us. As we become more aware of how the habits of aggression affect our actions, we realize behaviors that support violence; programs that have outlived their usefulness; and policies that don’t work as intended – it’s time for them to be replaced. We can dismantle our outdated, violent ways, we can establish habits of mercy.
Do you remember what Jesus said about mercy? Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy (Matthew 5:7) Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who are shown mercy, for they will be merciful.” In other words, Jesus does not say you get mercy and then you give it. Mercy is the primary intentional act. You are blessed for being a person who commits compassion. You get mercy once you give mercy. We must lessen our aggressiveness and increase our compassion, just as our God so often does with us. We give mercy. Then we receive mercy.
One of my majors in College was English. I ended up taking many classes with the Chair of the English Department. Dr. Peters was a large, pompous man who regularly intimidated students. He impressed fear into everyone. His authority came from his title, his position, and his ability to scare his students half to death. In a literature course on the age of classicism, Dr. Peters would bellow out, “Braddock, what, according to Alexander Pope, is the requirement for being a British magistrate?” He would scowl at me as I sat in stunned silence. “Well, Braddock, what’s your answer?” I would finally stammer out a made-up answer. “I think Pope says if a man wants to be a magistrate, he has to have a wife who sells Tupperware.” Dr. Peters would shake his head and look at me in disgust before moving on to the next victim.
I was also a teaching assistant for another English professor, Dr. Paul. One afternoon he handed me a stack of papers to grade. As I went though the pile of freshmen English journals, I was disgusted by how poor the work was. Each passing paper was worse than the one before it, and the marks I gave reflected my loathing for their pasty writing. I delivered the graded papers back to the Dr. Paul, shaking my head in repugnance. The next day I went to his office, and he had a stack of papers for me to look through. They were actually the journals I had corrected the day before. Dr. Paul had gone through and changed all of the grades to higher marks. When I asked him about it, all he did was quote an OT prophet: “Matt, in wrath, remember mercy.” That lesson has stayed with me. There is no doubt in my mind why Dr. Paul had a very devoted band of students on campus. Dr. Peter’s authority was fed by the fear of his students. Dr. Paul’s authority was rooted in mercy.
The same should be true with people of faith. If we want to claim the authority to confront unjust systems and oppressive ideologies, if we seek to replace paranoid and fear-driving creeds with inclusivity and love, then our behavior must be established by mercy. This weekend, as we commemorate the life and message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we have become ever more aware of the challenges we face as a people to bear witness to God’s mercy and justice in the world. A society that fails in mercy will soon find that it is unable to fight for better working conditions, for the rights of workers, for immigrants, or for the poor. Such a society will find that what is considered fair, what is consider a right, or what is considered an act of mercy will be determined by the small number of powerful and wealthy special interests. It is time for faith communities to reject this ends-justifies-the-means approaches to leadership. We have a role in deconstructing the culture of aggression, and we do it by showing our communities what it looks like to give mercy before receiving mercy.
Saul suffered from moral madness, and that the power he wielded as king of Israel made his paranoia unspeakably frightening. Saul demonstrated no inclination to listen to reason. His suspicious accusations of betrayal and conspiracy grew in range and intensity. His delusions of grandeur swelled with each passing event. And Saul distanced himself from God. Israel could not sustain a materialistic leader who distanced himself from his faith tradition and ignored the belief that God’s world is not soiled but sacred … All of creation is not soiled but sacred … Nations are not soiled. Nations are sacred … People are not soiled. People are sacred.
Saul’s destructive lunacy eventually threw Israel into a civil war. Israel’s enemies, sensing the instability caused by Saul’s weakness, seized the opportunity to invade. Saul died in battle, and his death finally rid Israel of its crazy king – the king they wanted in the first place. Saul nearly destroyed the nation. Like all kings who go morally mad, Saul arrogantly believed himself to be the center of gravity when he was actually the epicenter of disaster.
It’s a good thing Samuel stuck around for a while after turning over Israel’s leadership to Saul. Saul needed a prophet to call him out, to remind him that he was not God, and to urge him either to repent or step down before he brought disaster upon the nation. Someone had to be resist the king’s madness.
In our age of warring aggression, with the fear we have of a nation marching toward madness, may the prophets arise. God give us prophets who show us how to resist. God give us prophets who teach us how to lead. God give us prophets who lead through mercy instead of aggression. God give us prophets who help mend the fabric of our society by weaving a seamless garment of mercy and compassion. God give us prophets who denounce the powers that oppress. God give us prophets who they bring us back to the heart of compassion.