Take me to my leader?
By Savitri Hensman
'The trees once went out to anoint a king over themselves. So they said to the olive tree, "Reign over us."
'The olive tree answered them, "Shall I stop producing my rich oil by which gods and mortals are honoured, and go to sway over the trees?"'
So begins one of the bleakest fables ever written on leadership and power. Though originating long ago, in the biblical book of Judges, it strikes a chord in today's world, where many are dissatisfied with spin, and concerned about the individual, social and global impact of ruthless ambition and conformity.
Many people today believe that the Bible reinforces earthly relationships of mastery and obedience. This is after all a view put forward with great confidence by many who claim that they themselves speak with the authority of God. A few phrases are quoted repeatedly, such as this passage in the Epistle to the Romans: 'Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.'
In the light of atrocities ordered by Nazi and other governments, this can seem naíve, even chilling. In fact the Bible is far richer and more complex. Indeed the writer just quoted, St Paul, is said to have himself, in the end, died at the hands of the state. And in the book of Revelation (also chapter 13), when the state is seen as overwhelmingly evil, it is rigorously opposed.
While wise and just deeds by rulers are sometimes portrayed as divinely inspired, even the greatest rulers, like King David, are shown to abuse their power at times. The worst are tyrannical and destructive, stooping to such depths as the mass-murder of children. Religious leaders, too, may be corrupt and callous, like the sons of Eli in the book of Samuel. Through the Bible's very contradictions, and its power to move and persuade, puzzle and provoke, it can help its readers go beyond the search for earthly authority figures to make difficult choices on behalf of others.
As well as the pursuit of power, parts of the Bible probe people's willingness to give away the power they have, their desire to be ruled and exploited rather than facing the challenges of freedom. In one passage, the Israelite elders beg God, through the prophet Samuel, for a king, which God experiences as rejection: they want a ruler other than the divine.
They are warned of the consequences, if they have a king how their sons and daughters will be sent to work for him, the best of their fields, vineyards, orchards and livestock taken to support their master and his courtiers, how 'He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves'.
But the urge to imitate neighbouring countries fiercely competing for security, dominance and wealth is too great: 'No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles'. God gives way to their insistence, and they indeed pay the price.
The Jesus of the Gospels is determined to overturn the passivity of those around him, their wish at most to replace one set of masters with another, to rule or be ruled. He does not forbid limited cooperation with the authorities, such as paying taxes, but people's allegiance should be to the divine in whose image they were created. When a dispute arises among his followers about who is the greatest, he tells them, 'The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.'
The despised and destitute are summoned to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, taking responsibility for bringing out the best in humankind and transforming the world into a place of peace and justice. There is no elite of the especially holy and wise on whom ordinary people must rely to reach out to the divine and seek truth. 'You are not to be called teacher,' he warns, 'for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.'
The hierarchies in family, community and society which condition people to govern or be governed, grasp or abdicate control, are radically challenged.
Attempts to find authority figures to sort out problems, even Jesus himself, are questioned. In one passage, when someone in the crowd urges Jesus, 'Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me,' he responds, 'Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?', and urges listeners to be on guard against all kinds of greed; those caught up in competing for wealth, status or approval may all too easily surrender their own freedom or encroach on that of others.
Because of Jesus' refusal to play by the world's rules, to set institutional stability and leaders' prestige above human need and potential, secular and religious authorities unite to destroy him. He is labelled a subversive and blasphemer, and is put to death. Yet the misery and defeat of the cross lead to the joy and hope of an empty tomb. And time and again in the Acts of his followers, inspired by the divine Spirit, the attempts of priests and rulers to exercise control are shown to be in vain.
Even in the early Church, however, the temptation to seize power or give up responsibility was not always resisted. Some were lured by the thrill or reassurance of being in charge, others by the comfort of being part of a crowd united behind a leader, fending off the fear of isolation and annihilation in an often brutal universe.
Piety itself could be put to use to try to justify hierarchy. Increasingly, in much of the world, Christianity was seen as reinforcing orderliness and submission to authority in the home, workplace and wider society, unity behind church and national leaders at times when power was contested. Nevertheless there were dissenting voices and bold movements for change.
Now, with the demise of Christendom, and the urgent need for people throughout the planet to find better ways of understanding their environment and relating to one another if life on earth is to be preserved, there may be greater openness than in the past to some of the more challenging passages and themes in the Bible. The importance of the kind of freedom which Jesus embodied and taught for human self-realisation -- not as isolated individuals but interconnected beings who must take responsibility for their relationships and choices -- is perhaps clearer than ever before.
So is the connection with the requirement to love God and neighbour. All too often, devout Christians have abandoned attempts to create the realm of peace and justice described by the prophets and Jesus, having been assured by Church leaders or supposedly godly rulers that this was not necessary, or have been indifferent or mentally or physically cruel to the needy and marginalised, on the grounds that these were morally lacking.
For instance the poor supposedly suffered because of their own shiftlessness. If so, the best that could be done for people in need, perhaps in addition to dispensing some charity, was to urge them to adopt the correct cultural or religious norms. The discomfort of looking too deeply into one's own feelings and conduct, and society's mores and structures, could be avoided: after all, if 'father' or the elders, the 'chairman' or the queen accepted certain things as normal or inevitable, or stated that they were prescribed by Scripture or tradition, why ask awkward questions?
Beyond such cosy certainties, however, may lie the chance of engaging at a deeper level with oneself, fellow-creatures, the universe -- and maybe whatever or whoever is at its core. The Bible, with all its challenge and complexity, can play a part.
In the tale of the trees in Judges, it is the thorn bush, unable to meet needs and bring joy to those around, who chooses dominion and the threat of destruction instead. But elsewhere people are depicted as compassionately and boldly addressing the problems of their day in a spirit of freedom. There is much here that is relevant to understanding and dealing with the urgent challenges of the twenty-first century.
Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka and lives in London. She works in the voluntary sector.
Originally published by Ekklesia, October 11, 2006.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License .