Hillary Vs. Barack
In 2008 when it wasn’t Hillary vs. Bernie but Hillary vs. Barack a good friend who is African American and more than a little politically savvy told me “Barack will never win. There’s too much racism in America to elect a black man as President.”
I disagreed. I thought Obama had a chance. I was right. He’s been president now for nearly 8 years.
I recall watching his election and his victory celebrating with all of the talk about hope. Barack Obama is probably the most eloquent president of my lifetime.
It’s the answer that led those who’ve been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.
It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment change has come to America.
I kept thinking that the reality of a black man being elected president in this nation with its history of race based slavery is certainly something to celebrate. The other reality of our human nature sobers me on the separation between symbolism and substance.
Racism in America
The events of this week, with the two shootings by police of African American men and now the shootings of police officers as retaliation sober us all again by the realities of racism in not simply America but within our hearts.
The Harvard Implicit test which attempts to suss out racial bias deep below our conscious minds regularly demonstrates how our formation defies even surface stereotypes.
Jonathan Chait who writes for New York Magazine wrote that “It is not 1968”. He makes the point that on many levels the kind of racism institutionalized by Jim Crow and other laws have made huge improvements, what we see on the news reveals that the social, legal and political technology that we believe in is unable to dig deep enough within our hearts to change us at the level where change is required.
These words of Dr. King about violence are helpful but we have to be conscious of the fact that we trust in just and legal violence to bring peace and keep order. We trusted in police to take down the Dallas sniper. The practice of arrest and incarceration whether or not guns are drawn or fired are made effective by either implicit violence or the threat of violence backed by the government’s use of violence as the Apostle Paul discusses in Romans chapter 13.
We hope for violence to stop suicide bombers who blow up airports or to stop movements like ISIS or Boko Haram in Nigeria whose attacks regularly kill or kidnap hundreds of civilians often children.
We celebrate violence in the superhero movies we watch as we hope violent justice to bring peace.
Dr. King’s words look forward to a world where the lion lays down with the lamb and the child can reach into the viper’s nest but that is not this world.
Bad News Samuel
If you read the Bible you might notice that God’s prophets have a way of shining a positive light on what looks like disaster and casting shadows on what looks like promise. Our story from 1 Samuel today is no exception.
In chapter 8 the tribal elders of Israel were demanding of Samuel a new and improved political technology to curb the violence and abuse by the more powerful nations around her. Israel was regularly being subjugated by the Midianites, the Philistines, and other peoples around here and she wanted an institution that could offer Israel protection from that violence.
Samuel was against it and grumbled to the Lord that this wasn’t really about Samuel’s performance or necessarily even his son’s corruption but about their relationship with the Lord himself. Throughout the book of Judges the pattern had been well established that the people would walk away from the Lord, get themselves into trouble over their heads, fall back into one kind of slavery or another and call to God to rescue them. God would do so again and again but the pattern would repeat.
One the one hand might have been a good thing that the tribal elders wanted to break the cycle, on the other it wasn’t a good thing that their hope of breaking the cycle was essentially to double down in their independence from God rather than their dependence upon God. But God relented and promised to give them a king despite Samuel’s reluctance.
God forced Samuel’s hand by bringing Saul into their lives. God’s chosen king for Israel was a good looking giant of a man who looked the part but lacked the skills to fulfill Israel’s hope for a technical solution. Even after Samuel presented Saul as the Lord’s anointed for Israel many doubted Saul had what it would take to do the job. After the Nahash incident where Saul, filled with God’s Spirit, threatened violence against those in Israel who wouldn’t offer the violence needed to deliver Jabesh-Gilead, Saul would be seen has indeed having the requisite qualities to keep Israel safe from her violent neighbors.
Samuel Calls for the Parade then Rains on It
1 Samuel 11:13–12:25 (NET)
13 But Saul said, “No one will be killed on this day. For today the Lord has given Israel a victory!” 14 Samuel said to the people, “Come on! Let’s go to Gilgal and renew the kingship there.” 15 So all the people went to Gilgal, where they established Saul as king in the Lord’s presence. They offered up peace offerings there in the Lord’s presence. Saul and all the Israelites were very happy.
1 Samuel said to all Israel, “I have done everything you requested. I have given you a king.2 Now look! This king walks before you. As for me, I am old and gray, though my sons are here with you. I have walked before you from the time of my youth till the present day. 3 Here I am. Bring a charge against me before the Lord and before his chosen king. Whose ox have I taken? Whose donkey have I taken? Whom have I wronged? Whom have I oppressed? From whose hand have I taken a bribe so that I would overlook something? Tell me, and I will return it to you!” 4 They replied, “You have not wronged us or oppressed us. You have not taken anything from the hand of anyone.” 5 He said to them, “The Lord is witness against you, and his chosen king is witness this day, that you have not found any reason to accuse me.” They said, “He is witness!”
6 Samuel said to the people, “The Lord is the one who chose Moses and Aaron and who brought your ancestors up from the land of Egypt. 7 Now take your positions, so I may confront you before the Lord regarding all the Lord’s just actions toward you and your ancestors.8 When Jacob entered Egypt, your ancestors cried out to the Lord. The Lord sent Moses and Aaron, and they led your ancestors out of Egypt and settled them in this place. 9 “But they forgot the Lord their God, so he gave them into the hand of Sisera, the general in command of Hazor’s army, and into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the king of Moab, and they fought against them. 10 Then they cried out to the Lord and admitted, ‘We have sinned, for we have forsaken the Lord and have served the Baals and the images of Ashtoreth. Now deliver us from the hand of our enemies so that we may serve you.’11 So the Lord sent Jerub-Baal, Barak, Jephthah, and Samuel, and he delivered you from the hand of the enemies all around you, and you were able to live securely. 12 “When you saw that King Nahash of the Ammonites was advancing against you, you said to me, ‘No! A king will rule over us’—even though the Lord your God is your king! 13 Now look! Here is the king you have chosen—the one that you asked for! Look, the Lord has given you a king!
14 If you fear the Lord, serving him and obeying him and not rebelling against what he says, and if both you and the king who rules over you follow the Lord your God, all will be well.15 But if you don’t obey the Lord and rebel against what the Lord says, the hand of the Lord will be against both you and your king. 16 “So now, take your positions and watch this great thing that the Lord is about to do in your sight. 17 Is this not the time of the wheat harvest? I will call on the Lord so that he makes it thunder and rain. Realize and see what a great sin you have committed before the Lord by asking for a king for yourselves.”
18 So Samuel called to the Lord, and the Lord made it thunder and rain that day. All the people were very afraid of both the Lord and Samuel. 19 All the people said to Samuel, “Pray to the Lord your God on behalf of us—your servants—so we won’t die, for we have added to all our sins by asking for a king.”
20 Then Samuel said to the people, “Don’t be afraid. You have indeed sinned. However, don’t turn aside from the Lord. Serve the Lord with all your heart. 21 You should not turn aside after empty things that can’t profit and can’t deliver, since they are empty.22 The Lord will not abandon his people because he wants to uphold his great reputation. The Lord was pleased to make you his own people. 23 As far as I am concerned, far be it from me to sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you! I will instruct you in the way that is good and upright. 24 However, fear the Lord and serve him faithfully with all your heart. Just look at the great things he has done for you! 25 But if you continue to do evil, both you and your king will be swept away.”
The Tribal Elder’s Implied Retort at Samuel’s History Lesson
Beneath this back and forth and within Samuel’s review of history is the elder’s complaint. While we might on a breezy Sunday afternoon stroll through the pages of Judges and Samuel we should realize that there are lots of clues in the chapters that victories happened once in a while leaving misery to be a far more regular companion.
- There were twenty years between the catastrophe at Shiloh in chapter 6 and Samuel’s military triumph in chapter 7.
- Samuel was an old man with corrupt sons and the Philistines had an outpost that Saul passed by in chapter 10.
- Saul will deliver Jabesh Gilead from the Ammonites in chapter 11 but there is no indication that the Philistines aren’t still a serious problem.
The elders want results and while the destructive demonstration of power by the thunder storm is impressive what the elders are really looking for guarantees of security, prosperity and stability. This is what they hope the king will deliver.
Misery: Expectation Adjustments about the Age of Decay
Did electing a black president mean that black lives mattered more than before? When the President promises that the Justice Department, lead by an African American women, will investigate these shootings does it satisfy?
What do we want? When do we want it?
Verses 14 and 15 are the heart of the passage. Samuel essentially tells the elders that the king will change little for Israel. This new political technology will change the basic dynamics of Israel.
Israel will learn that when their king was so powerful that they no longer lived in fear of their neighbors they would live in fear of their king. Israel will learn that even if they weren’t at war with their neighbors because they were subdued under King David they would be at war with each other after the king’s son Absalom would rise up to take the throne. Kingship didn’t end bring peace, prosperity and stability it just changed the characters in the drama that doesn’t end.
Why not? The problem is inside of us, not simply between us.
The False Promise of Self-Control
So Samuel gives the people a choice. If THEY can obey the Lord and serve him with all their hearts THEN all will be well.
This isn’t a false promise because the formula is wrong, it is a hope that we are incapable of fulfilling. Can you sit down today and by sheer force of will and self control drive out all the bigotry and hatred from within your heart?
Maybe you think you can. I’ll give you a little test.
Consider the people that you should love most in the world, your own flesh and blood.
- Maybe it’s a spouse that you stood at the altar with and promised to love and be true to until the day you died.
- Maybe it’s a parent who brought you into this world and to whom you should be grateful for giving you life.
- Maybe it’s a child that you brought into this world or welcomed into your home and in a moment of rapture declared that this person had your undying love.
Isn’t it true we sometimes say and do things to family members we wouldn’t dare say or do to co-workers or even just people on the street?
It is often the people we love the most that we hurt the most.
I’ve been making my way through the documentary “OJ: Made in America” pondering the complicated story of race in America and California. Often in the documentary a comment will pop up to the effect “If I had killed her it would only be because I loved her so much.”
There is a lot in that phrase that is worthy of reflection. Do we know what love is? Can we do it?
People often like to imagine Jesus to be a great moral teacher. He was, but most of what he taught wasn’t new. It came out of the Old Testament. The startling thing about Jesus’ ministry was not that he told Israel what she should have done, but that he did what Israel was unable to do for herself. That is what we mean the assertion that he fulfilled the law. Israel could not keep Samuel’s promise, so Jesus did, for Israel, and for us.
We believe he not only fulfilled the law with his life, but he also paid the penalty of the law with his death. This was all vindicated by his resurrection.
Where then does this leave us?
The first answer is waiting and the second is believing.
Paul in teaching the Corinthian church about the shape of this waiting had this to say.
2 Corinthians 4:7–11 (NET)
7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8 We are experiencing trouble on every side, but are not crushed; we are perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are knocked down, but not destroyed, 10 always carrying around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our body. 11 For we who are alive are constantly being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal body.
2 Corinthians 4:16–18 (NET)
16 Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 17 For our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison 18 because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
That waiting and believing gives us the strength to endure and to learn to forgive and to hope along the way. We are looking and waiting for that city that the elders of Israel hoped for but couldn’t secure. We are looking and waiting for the land where the lion will lay down with the lamb. We are looking and waiting for that place where the hatred and bigotry within our hearts will be healed.
Because we believe that our inheritance in that land is secure, we can begin to live out those values even in imperfect ways today.