I am often quite amazed at how timely some Biblical stories can be, providing fresh insights into issues we are facing today. For example, there is the Old Testament story of Gideon. The days of the Hebrews’ wanderings in the wilderness were over. They had settled down into what they called “the promised land” and become farmers and herdsmen. But all was not going smoothly. At harvest time each year, raiding parties from other lands would stream across the Jordan River and steal their crops, leaving them hungry and broken. Then up stepped Gideon.
He was a natural leader and gifted military strategist. He gathered together a band of warriors and soon defeated the foreign raiders, ending the yearly plundering of his people’s crops. He brought peace, security and stability to the land. Says the Biblical narrative, “The land had rest and peace for forty years because of Gideon.” But then an interesting thing happened. The people of Israel, who had suffered so much for so long, said to Gideon, “Rule over us!” But rather surprisingly Gideon refused this offer, saying, “I will not rule over you. Only God can do that.”
How many times has this situation been repeated in the long sweep of human history? A people, frightened, insecure and hard-pressed by seemingly unsolvable problems, conclude: there is only one way out — find a leader to tell us what to do, what to believe and even what is the truth — someone to rule over us. And I am increasingly convinced that it can happen here. Consider, just a week ago it was reported that 42 percent of Republicans believe that President Trump should have the authority to shut down news outlets engaged in “bad behavior.” I assume this would not include Fox News!
Democracy can be untidy and challenging. And time after time, demagogues have taken advantage of this to convince anxious people that things have gotten out of hand, that freedom has produced too much disorder, that pluralism may have once been a good idea but now it would be a lot better if everyone were forced to march to the same drummer, and that some freedoms may have to be sacrificed in the name of order. So Donald Trump continually attacks our democratic processes and institutions, while supporting the curtailment of civil liberties – children in cages. He tells us that we must believe him and not what we see or hear. And his supporters cry, “Rule over us!” But what does it do to the human spirit when we are reduced to peas in the pod look-alikes, doing and believing what we are told.
Not a bad time to return to Gideon. For he understood that no one person’s voice is the voice of God and that no single person — or government — should have too much authority over our souls. Attacks on the free press, on science, on almost anyone who deviates from the party line really are attacks on our humanness, on the free traffic in ideas, on freedom of thought. “The truth is what I say it is. Surrender your sovereignty to me.” Security and order at the price of one’s humanness is simply too high a price to pay.
In the words of a colleague, “Whenever there is the cry, ‘rule over us,” you may be sure personal character is on the decline. And that is the real crisis of our time. A free society cannot be merely inherited; it must be chosen anew by each generation” My hope and prayer is that we not be tempted to give away this great gift of our humanness.
Gene Nelson is the retired pastor of the Sebastopol Community Church.