It is uncanny how timely some Biblical incidents can be. Of course, in order to understand this, you actually have to read the Bible and not just use it as a prop for a photo op. But I digress. Getting back to the timeliness of the Bible, I turn to the Old Testament story of Gideon. He came along just when his people needed a leader, just when they yearned for some security and stability in their communal life.
The days of the Hebrews’ wandering in the wilderness were over. They had settled down in what they called the “promised land.” No longer nomads, they were famers and herdsmen. But all was not well. At harvest time each year, bands of Midianite raiders would stream across the Jordan River, stealing and destroying the Hebrews’ crops, leaving the people broken and bitter.
And then came Gideon. He was a natural leader and military strategist. He gathered together a small army of warriors and, in short order, brought peace and order to the lives of his people. He defeated the raiding Midianites, secured the borders and brought stability to the land. Says the Biblical narrative, “The land had rest and peace for forty years because of Gideon.”
It is not hard to guess what happened next. With “law and order” restored, the people came to Gideon and pleaded, “Rule over us.” But what is surprising is that he refused, saying, “I will not rule over you. Only God may do that.”
Here we have a classic situation, repeated how many times in the long sweep of human history. A people, hard pressed by problems — anxious, fearful, insecure and troubled — decide there is only one way out … find a leader, strong and powerful, to tell us what to do, solve our problems and rule over us. It is the totalitarian temptation. And it is not just some distant memory. It raises its ugly head whenever people convince themselves that things have gotten out of hand, that freedom has created too much disorder, that diversity is a nice idea but it sure would be a lot better if everyone were forced to march to the same drummer. How much easier it would be if we had a leader to direct us, to relieve us of this dangerous freedom, to keep newspapers and government agencies and writers and dissenters — even the Post Office! — in line. Then we would have orderliness and peace.
As the musical, “Hamilton” reminded us, there was an intense struggle among our founding fathers over what government should be about. Alexander Hamilton insisted, “The people is a great beast!” And yes, sometimes people are. I deplore acts of violence and destruction in our cities. Unruly mobs do not represent freedom of assembly. Indeed they make a mockery of freedom. Freedom has a price. It must be balanced by intelligence and character. And whenever there is the cry, “Rule over us,” you can be sure that personal character is on the decline. Perhaps that is the real crisis of our time.
I am not arguing that there is no place for leadership. But I am saying that all leadership must be accountable to the law and to the people. Because ultimately, people, in all their uniqueness and diversity, is what government ought to be about. And we need to be very clear. A free society cannot be merely inherited. It must be chosen anew by each generation. The mark of being truly human is to be able to choose. We must not, no matter how crazy and out of the control the world can seem at times, be tempted to give away that great gift of our humanness, not if this government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” is to survive.