A Biblical Warning on the Nature of Government

Ernst Josephson (1851-1906), “David and Saul” (Detail)
Ernst Josephson (1851-1906), “David and Saul” (Detail) (photo: Screenshot)

There is a remarkable passage in the Old Testament that speaks to the issue of centralized government. The portrait painted is not a flattering one. Generally speaking, the Scriptures do not comment much on secular government other than to note its existence and to prescribe a combination of support (Jer 29:7, Mk 12:17), endurance (Romans 13:1-7), and prayer (1 Tim 2:1).

But at a critical point, the prophet Samuel sets forth a litany of woes that come from centralized ruling authority (a king in this particular case). His remarks surely resonate today in the era of large, centralized, secular government. More on this in a moment, but first a little background:

Prior to the anointing of King Saul over Israel, the Jewish people existed as a kind of confederation of twelve tribes (Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim and Manasseh). Though united by faith in the LORD, the tribes were rather decentralized. When threats (usually invading armies) beset any or all of the tribes, they would unite under a charismatic leader known as a “judge,” who would see them through the crisis and then step back once the threat was quelled. There are twelve judges (though there may have been more) mentioned in the Book of Judges: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson.

It seemed that this was God’s central organizing plan for ancient Israel (and for us?): governance under the principle of subsidiarity in which a decentralized confederation of families (nuclear and extended), tribes, and clans supported and cared for one another, and shared an allegiance to God and His revealed law. Although the tribes of Israel did unite under leaders (judges anointed by God) in times of crisis, God was the true King of Israel; He was the lawgiver and the unifier. Or so the ideal went.

In the period of the judges, the system usually worked and the people trusted God to lead them through crises in these ways. The glue that held it all together was tribal, clan, and family loyalty interacting with faith in the LORD.

This leads us to the passage from the Book of Samuel, in which it would seem that the Jewish people wanted to replace God’s plan.

Indeed, over time there was a growing interest among the Jews to have a king. As Samuel’s death drew there was a fear that perhaps no judges would be found in time of crisis. But why this fear existed is not clear; God had always provided leaders in times of crisis. The text from Samuel gives the following reasons for Israel wanting a king: appoint a king over us, as other nations have … There must be a king over us! We too must be like other nations, with a king to rule us and to lead us in warfare and fight our battlesThe LORD … said in answer [to Samuel], It is not you they reject, they are rejecting me as their king (1 Sam 8, various verses).

So the rejection of God’s plan of governance is seen as sinful by Samuel and the biblical tradition. In effect, the Lord tells Samuel to grant them their every wish, more as a punishment than as a gracious acquiescence to the will of the people for an earthly king.

Though the Lord told Samuel to give them what they wanted, He also told Samuel to warn the people that their decision to submit themselves to an earthly ruler would have consequences. The text from Samuel describes them:

Samuel delivered the message of the LORD in full to those who were asking him for a king. He told them, “The rights of the king who will rule you will be as follows: He will take your sons and assign them to his chariots and horses, and they will run before his chariot. He will also appoint from among them his commanders of groups of a thousand and of a hundred soldiers. He will set them to do his plowing and his harvesting, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.  He will use your daughters as ointment makers, as cooks, and as bakers. He will take the best of your fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his officials. He will tithe your crops and your vineyards, and give the revenue to his eunuchs and his slaves. He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best oxen and your asses, and use them to do his work. He will tithe your flocks and you yourselves will become his slaves” [1 Sam 8:4-7; 10-22].

In modern terms the consequences of having a king and a centralized authority included high taxes, expansive and aggressive use of power, military draft, conscription of the people into the affairs of the king and the state, intrusive policies that affected families, seizure of land and resources, and a kind of bondage that expanded to take the best resources of the people and entrusted them to cronies and the like.

This is a pretty bleak list, and unfortunately it is very familiar to us in this era of expansive, intrusive government with its increasingly complex and burdensome regulations.

As a priest I am hesitant to enter into political discussions. I have never studied political theory or public policy and am not a member of any political party. I prefer to leave political debates to the laity, to whom the temporal order is consigned.

But I comment here due to the biblical text before us and its sober reminder that centralized power is costly, tends to grow, and draws people into a kind of servitude in exchange for some sense of security and/or moderation of justice.

G.K. Chesterton once said, “When you break the big laws, you do not get liberty; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws.” Indeed, we get thousands of lesser laws.

How true this is in an age that has cast off God’s moral vision (the big laws). We don’t get fewer laws; we get more—a lot more. Increasingly in the United States, we ask the federal government to adjudicate every personal matter. And thus, setting aside God’s governing vision, we get a modern version of what is described by Samuel. We get an increasingly intrusive and litigious government that inserts itself into every aspect of life: healthcare, childcare, sexual matters, when life begins and ends, what constitutes a marriage, who is more to blame in a divorce, who can mow your lawn and how much insurance he must have and that you must collect his Social Security number and issue him a W-2 or 1099 and make sure his I-9 papers are in order (but meanwhile are not permitted to profile him).

We have created a central government that can tell you that you must pay for the contraception and abortifacients of other people, and bake cakes for “gay weddings,” and accept “diversity education” in schools, but cannot speak openly of Jesus Christ in those same public schools (which by the way can refer your daughter to an abortionist without your knowledge but will penalize you or her for sending her to school with an aspirin in her purse to alleviate her headache). Refuse certain demands or disobey certain rules of the government in any way and expect to receive confiscatory fines followed by even more intrusive policies, forms to fill out, and scrutiny from IRS agents, etc.

Even simple human interactions like giving or receiving Christmas bonuses are on the government’s radar. As a pastor and employer, I am no longer permitted to issue Christmas bonuses to employees in the form of cash or gift cards without reporting it to the IRS. Giving an employee a gift of $100 requires the parish to withhold almost $40 in taxes ahead of time; ignoring this can trigger enormous penalties. As a pastor, I can no longer receive Christmas gifts from parish organizations without reporting it to the IRS and paying tax on those gifts.

I could continue with this list for a long time, but I hope you get the point by now. As a mere clergyman who has little knowledge of political theory or practice, I do not know the solution. I don’t even know how to walk all this stuff back even a few inches. It just seems to keep growing no matter which party is in power or who is president.

Most Americans still see government as a “force for good.” I do not deny that good is possible from government. But calling it a force for good seems strange in this bloody era of state-sponsored violence and dark utopianism.

Joseph Sobran wrote about this problem some years ago:

In the 20th century alone, states murdered about 162 million of their own subjects. This figure doesn't include the tens of millions of foreigners they killed in war. How then can we speak at states protecting their people? No amount of private crime could claim such a toll … The term “state” despite this bloody history doesn't disturb [most people].  Yet it would seem that an institution that can take 200 million lives within the past century needs to be replaced. As morality loses its cultural grip … we can expect the state to show its nature nakedly. Saint Augustine took a dim view of the state, as punishment for sin. He said that the state without justice is nothing but a gang of robbers writ large [Subtracting Christianity pp. 55-56].

Sobran, like me, puzzles as to how we could envision a different solution:

But what would you replace the state with? The question reveals an inability to imagine human society without the state. For most people, anarchy is a disturbing word, suggesting chaos violence, antinomianism, things they hope that the state will control or prevent …

For me this [concern about the nature of the state] is anything but a happy conclusion. I miss the serenity believing [as I did as a child in the 1950s] that I lived under a good government, wisely designed and benevolent in its operation. But as Saint Paul says, there comes a time to put away childish things [Ibid, p. 56].

At some point we failed to heed the warning that a text like Samuel 1:8 provides. When we ask earthly rulers to take the place of God and His plan for families and tight-knit local communities in which we care for one another, we invite trouble and we get an ever-expanding central government that usurps and breaks natural, traditional bonds.

No so long ago, the family was the central place of care and support for people. People got married, stayed married, had children, and were connected to extended family, church, and community for survival. Even if there were tensions (and there always have been and will be in families), the family was how you survived. Your children were your social security; they took care of you in your old age. All this bespeaks God’s plan: marriage, children, family, extended family, church, and local community.

The biblical tradition was not anarchy. After the time of Samuel, both Jewish and foreign kings existed. But kings were a troublesome reality, as much to be endured as honored. God’s faithful were to obey just laws. And though the biblical world largely accepted that rulers existed and had to be respected, this was not to be done in a way that overruled God’s law. In the biblical tradition, rulers were also instructed not to multiply gold (i.e., no high taxes), not to multiply horses (i.e., no large army or frequent wars), and not to multiply wives (Deuteronomy 17:16-17). In other words, the power of kings was to be limited.

But the more things change, the more they remain the same. The experience that the people had with Saul was awful. David seemed a good king, overall, but Solomon went bad and broke all three norms of Deuteronomy 17 (above). His folly and that of his sons split the Jewish people into two kingdoms and eventually led to the loss of both the Northern and Southern kingdoms.

Samuel’s warnings were valid then and are still so now. It seems clear enough that God has set forth the family (nuclear and extended) as the primary center of care, rather than a centralized authority (which too easily expands; becomes intrusive; and further breaks down the family, church, and community, replacing them with itself). Subsidiarity is lost, and as Samuel says above, He will take the best …

I apologize if this all sounds too political. It’s hard to talk of the polis (state) without referencing politics. I ask you, in your charity, to consider that I have tried to reflect on a biblical passage and others related to it. Strive, if you will, to comment on all this as a Catholic rather seeing the commentary through political lenses. Hard, I know, but possible with grace!