Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Foundations of Anarchotheism: I Samuel 8, Part I

A friend who also professes Christian Anarchism (yes! I know another Christian Anarchist, IRL!!!!) asked me to reflect on 1st Samuel Chapter 8, a wonderful chapter outlining the basic moral argument against monarchy (and by extension all -archies). This chapter testifies to our current situation even as it plays a vital role in the structure of the Old Testament (sacred text for the win once again). I'd like to emphasize: in no way am I an expert on the historical circumstances of this text, nor do I have any understanding of the original Hebrew. But certainly this text is ancient and has spoken to centuries of communities, and it is in this sense that I affirm its importance. A more detailed historical background would interest me, but I discuss here its narrative and rhetorical truth even in the absence of such facts.

You might want to reread this chapter. It relates the powerful, tragic conclusion to the era of the Judges, a village-elders style of government where people brought their concerns to divinely appointed (and almost certainly locally admired) wise people who led through good decision-making. Samuel was a well-regarded judge, but the system broke down under his sons' corruption. Because of their failings, the people ask Samuel to appoint a king for them. Samuel consults God, who disapproves of the King plan; he explains to the people why they should not seek a monarchy. But they clamor for one regardless because they want to be like the other nations! And so God hands them over to the kings, whose misdeeds and exploitations frame the rest of the history of Israel.

In this post, I'll focus on the beginning of the chapter, on Samuel's corrupt sons, and the application to the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. It seems clear that demanding a king was a bad idea, but the demand does not materialize from thin air. Samuel was wise and just in the best tradition of the judges, but his gifts did not extend to fatherhood; his sons, Joel and Abiah, tainted faith in the judicial system by accepting bribes. That they were judges at all represents part of the move to monarchy. When bloodline instead of demonstrated merit determines authority, the distinction between judges and kings becomes very murky indeed. It's not hard to imagine the Israelites, disillusioned with inherited authority, demanding a change in their governance. Not only did the sons thwart justice in a few cases, but they also destroyed the appearance of impartiality and wisdom in the judicial system, directly leading to the demand for a king.

This reminds me of the state's justification of the murder of Trayvon Martin. The corruption and evil of one man helps destroy the legitimacy of the entire system. Samuel did wrong and participated in the destriction of judge-based rule by allowing his sons to continue judging despite their corruption. The State of Florida does wrong by retroactively establishing walking around while young, black, and hoodied as a capital crime. And the greatest wrong is not only this once instance of unpunished murder (although the one instance is heinous), but advertising the state sponsorship of murder. Murders will probably happen, even in the best society we could possibly create--and we must seek to eliminate them and come up with adequate deterrants and punishments. But instead of doing that, the state used the Stand Your Ground law to endorse murder as a good response to fear of unarmed teenagers. We must remember that George Zimmerman had the opportunity to state his case to a jury of somewhat-peers, which is good and right. But Trayvon Martin never had that opportunity because he was dead, and now the State of Florida has murdered him all over again, and may in the future murder other young black men who Cause Fear in armed citizenry. The Florida courts and the sons of Samuel alike devastated trust in the justice system to protect the vulnerable and to make wise decisions, weighting the scales towards the wealthy and the privileged.

And when the existing structures are exposed for their injustice, it is natural and understandable for the people to cry out for a change. We see a reasonable demand from the people of Israel, from the judicially underpriviliged populations of the United States, calling out for oversight and reform. The unfortunate thing in both cases is that the proposed solution does not address the problem. The kings had more authority, and as a result were still worse than the limited corruption of Samuel's sons. Trying to convict George Zimmerman on a civil rights charge on the federal level does nothing to return Trayvon's life, and also does nothing to change the situation of hate and fear that allowed the state to pass Stand your Ground laws and then declare Zimmerman not-guilty. Maybe it is human nature to try to get the higher-ups to clean up corruption and bring about peace and justice. But a federal court cannot establish a land of justice and peace; a king generally did not bring about the Kingdom of God for the people of God.

Tomorrow I will explore more of the tragic establishment of the Kingdoms of Israel. For today, I leave with this thought. Injustice exposed destroys the communal faith in any system designed to relieve injustice. The people who allow that injustice to continue are also guilty, and they should not be surprised when the community cries out for a change.

N.B. I do not argue that George Zimmerman should or should not face federal civil rights charges--only that those charges do little to nothing to address the underlying systemic failures.