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Scandalous Leaders, Scandalous Power - An ON Scripture Feature

1 Samuel 8, A Reflection By Eric D. Barreto

Political scandals are evergreen. 

On any given week, one or another political leader, cultural star, or renowned athlete are experiencing an embarrassing and public downfall. Recently, we’ve born witness to the fall of a former Speaker of the House and a reality television celebrity. Next week, a new cast of characters will take their place. So ubiquitous are such scandals that they are the backdrop for the television show Scandal, a show I know is on because my Facebook page explodes with conversation about it!

But here’s the odd thing about these scandals, these falls from grace: they are so common that they shouldn’t shock us anymore. And yet these scandals sell newspapers, draw eyes on television. We can always muster some outrage at these all too common crimes.

We expect more from our leaders even when we know that we have set the bar far too high. We expect more, but we actually don’t demand more from our leaders. We expect more, but we forget to hold any leaders to these expectations, let alone ourselves. We expect more, but by now we ought to know better. 

Leaders disappoint. Leaders let us down. All of them and not just the ones with a different political label than we hold. 

In 1 Samuel 8, the Bible recounts an ill-fated political decision. The narrative explains that the elders of Israel come to Samuel and demand “a king to govern us, like other nations.” Samuel thinks this is a terrible idea, and God agrees with him. God tells Samuel that the people are not rejecting Samuel so much as they are rejecting God in asking for a king. They are turning to human leadership, trusting in a king rather than leaning upon a God who rules with grace not force.

God has Samuel warn the people that kings do exactly one thing well: they take. As my colleague Cameron Howard has taught me, God here recounts a very precise and evocative description of what imperial power does. The powerful will take from the weak, the center from the margins, the king from the people. Empires and kings extract the value of your land, sacrifice the lives of your children in warfare, take even your livelihoods for his advantage. Is that what you want? Is that the king you seek? A king who will enslave you and your children, not the God who liberated you from slavery in Egypt?

Despite these dire predictions, the people still demand a king, "so that we may also be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles." With that vote for monarchical authority, the reign of Saul begins and so a long line of kings — both great and terrible but mostly terrible.

According to Samuel, this was a doomed enterprisefrom the first because of the corrupting influence of power, the insatiable demands of an empire, the idolatrous election of a king who takes all over a God who breathes life and liberation.

Facts about leadership.

In a very real sense, Samuel was right. He is proven right weekly if not daily. We don’t trust our leaders, or at least we only trust leaders who echo our desires. But even they will disappoint us. 

Is this a call to hopelessness, to misanthropy, to nihilism? Is this a story merely a reminder that we can’t trust whose govern, that the powerful are corrupted by our investing in them with so much trust?

Samuel’s warnings are sobering reminders that we have chosen this path for ourselves. We invest hope in frail creatures and are shocked (shocked!) when their frailty emerges in a public spectacle. Our leaders reflect our worst tendencies.

But every once in a while justice and truth are victorious. Even broken political systems can act justly under the pressure of prophets and public will. Sometimes, when we least expect it, God’s Spirit shows up in our political systems, and Samuel’s truthful prognostications are held at bay if but for a moment.

God’s promises don’t cease when we make bad choices, when we choose blindly to trust frail women and men. God’s promises didn’t come to an end even as Samuel predicted the dark days up ahead. God’s promises are still true even when we celebrate the fall of another politician. God’s promises hold no matter what.

So what does this mean for us today? It does not mean that we give up on our leaders. It does mean that we recognize what binds us and them, that our common sinfulness leads inexorably to injustice were it not for the intervention of the divine among us. 

Political scandals are evergreen. But so is hope.

Bible Study Questions

When have you felt most and least hopeful about our political leaders? 

We have seen often how problematic the joining of religion and politics can be. How can your faith help shape your political decisions? How can your hope in God shape how you vote, how you trust political leaders?

Where is your hope today?

For Further Reading

Efrain Agosto, Servant Leadership: Jesus and Paul, Chalice Press, 2005.

Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, IVP Books, 2013.

Anathea E. Portier Young, Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism, Eerdmans, 2014.

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