America’s Choice Between Two Wealthy New York Candidates for President
The presidential elections of 2016 will be remembered as a competition between two of the least liked candidates in American history. Normally a candidate’s winning strategy is to magnify the attention to paid to them. In 2016 the candidate most in the news at the moment drops in the polls making Donald Trump’s incessant Twitter strategy for winning the Republican primary an obvious liability.
Hillary Clinton’s saving grace in this campaign is that she’s running against someone even more unpopular than she is. While it doesn’t seem difficult to figure out who the real Donald Trump is there is constant debate over who the real Hillary Clinton is. This is surprising given her long life in the political spotlight.
During the Democratic primary Bernie Sanders turned what was supposed to be a coronation into a horse race mostly by raising questions about Clinton’s long relationship with halls of great wealth and power. Whatever you might think about Sander’s politics this rather odd looking old man who wore frumpy clothes and drove an economy car was able to make the case that her long association with the political elite compromised her ability to relate to the struggles of ordinary Americans. While Clinton eventually dodged the Sanders threat to her nomination his charges still stick. Neither the current Democratic nor Republican nominees have for a very long time had to pump their own gas or buy their own groceries.
Jonathan Chait who is an opinion writer from the left in the American spectrum wrote an important piece on why the Clintons need to give up their foundation. While the sins of the Donald are pretty obvious Hillary’s flaws are of a more common political variety.
The Clinton Foundation is a stand-in for the Clintons’ sloppy ethics in general. In the eyes of their enemies, the Clintons are criminals on a world-historic scale; in the eyes of their supporters, innocent victims of a massive smear campaign. The reality is that their venality is rather ordinary. There’s a reason the term politician is synonymous with lying, calculation, and ambition — these are common qualities for politicians. The Clintons are common politicians, motivated in general by a desire to implement policy changes they think will make the world a better place, but not immune to trimming and getting rich in the process. None of their behavior is disqualifying, given the number of elected officials, presidents included, who have done the same. Neither does it justify it.
The Road to Hell is paved with good intentions
My point here isn’t really to talk politics but rather to talk about sin, character and the long, common path to perdition. The story of Saul in the book of Samuel is probably one of the most complex narratives on the nature of evil and the road to perdition. A good looking, well-born, innocent, rather dim hunk of a man is elevated by God’s call to become Israel’s first king. What happens over the length of the book of 1 Samuel is a long path to becoming a monster blind to his own flaws.
Over the last 20 years the tone of America’s moral debates has become more shrill but no less facile. We continue to embrace simplistic and often contradictory debates about rule keeping or rule avoiding, categories of “good people” and “bad people” and assumptions that evil can be educated or legislated away. As even sympathetic Chait points out for all of Hillary’s smarts, education, experience and accomplishment the central flaw of her moral ability is her blindness to herself. Donald Trump shares this same liability, as do all of us.
Before CS Lewis became a Christian one of the things he questioned about Christianity was its seeming duplicity about sin. On one hand, especially to previous generations, Christians seemed overly prudish. Christians promote moral standards that they themselves cannot seem to keep about sex, money and what contemporary critics might denounce as thought crimes. On the other hand Christians seem to welcome and embrace the worst sorts of moral monsters and hypocrites. Our prisons are filled with murders, thieves, child molesters that facing long prison sentences for doing horrible things “come to Jesus” and will be supposedly welcomed into heaven with open arms. People look at this and say “that can’t be right?”
Are these examples of Christians doing exactly what Jesus complains of the Pharisees that they strain at gnats and swallow camels? Or is it the case that Christians are paying attention to some things that because of their worldview they believe are of more importance and deeper relevance than what being looked at in the more secular conversation?
Lewis noticed this dynamic in ancient Christian writers who at one moment could imagine the most monstrous sins being forgiven while chiding their listeners to pay attention to the small things.
what always used to puzzle me about Christian writers; they seem to be so very strict at one moment and so very free and easy at another. They talk about mere sins of thought as if they were immensely important: and then they talk about the most frightful murders and treacheries as if you had only got to repent and all would be forgiven. But I have come to see that they are right. What they are always thinking of is the mark which the action leaves on that tiny central self which no one sees in this life but which each of us will have to endure—or enjoy—for ever. One man may be so placed that his anger sheds the blood of thousands, and another so placed that however angry he gets he will only be laughed at. But the little mark on the soul may be much the same in both. Each has done something to himself which, unless he repents, will make it harder for him to keep out of the rage next time he is tempted, and will make the rage worse when he does fall into it. Each of them, if he seriously turns to God, can have that twist in the central man straightened out again: each is, in the long run, doomed if he will not. The bigness or smallness of the thing, seen from the outside, is not what really matters.
Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (pp. 92-93). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
The transformation of Saul the innocent youth into Saul the tyrant is a path of small turnings. Samuel comes in so often looking over-the-top in his judgments but Samuel seems to understand clearly the tiny turns that Saul is making and where they will lead. This seems strange in contrast to David who will in some ways be a more obvious sinner than Saul. We won’t find Saul setting up a loyal soldier for death to cover up a tryst. Saul seems to have been a better father to Jonathan than David was to his sons. Jonathan would not seek to take the kingdom from Saul even though he would have been a more worthy aspirant than Absalom. Why are Saul’s seemingly small flaws so fatal and David’s gaping sins so forgivable? The Bible asks us to penetrate deep into these questions and ask them of ourselves.
While the decline of Saul is marked by Samuel in 1 Samuel 13 this chapter marks the definitive break. Our reading of this incident is complicated by our own contemporary moral judgment of the Old Testament. While the kingship was desired by the elders of Israel as new political technology to address their struggle with the Philistines, Ammonites and other military rivals in the region this chapter begins with God wanting Saul to settle an old score against an old enemy. While Saul moves militarily in a defensive way against Ammon and the Philistines God’s call to execute “the ban” against the Amalekites is pre-emptive.
What was the great sin of the Amalekites?
What was so abhorrent in Amalek’s first attack on Israel was, according to Stern, its timing. Yahweh had just “exercised his cosmogonic powers, allowing Israel to safely pass through the Un-Welt in two manifestations, Egypt and the Sea.” The Amalekite aggression threatened to return Israel to “the Un-Welt,” to chaos, to nonexistence. Because of this heinous act, Amalek “became officially set apart as the ‘enemies of YHWH’ and deserving of being fought against from generation to generation.”
Walton, J. H. (2009). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament): Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel (Vol. 2, p. 337). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
When we read about “the ban” today we are horrified, and it would be interesting to have a larger discussion on it. “The ban” was a known practice in the Ancient Near East where unlike common warfare where the combatants could enrich themselves with the booty won in victory loot taken from “holy war” specifically commanded by the deity was “devoted to destruction”, essentially as an offering to the deity. This was the case in the conquest of Jericho and also in this case. Israel was to be God’s special instrument in this case to bring judgment upon the Amalekites.
Saul didn’t seem to have a problem with attacking the Amalekites but like Aachen in the book of Judges the booty was simply too good to waste. Saving the pieces of Amalek that “had value” while destroying what didn’t turned supposedly “holy war” into common human violence. God’s command became an opportunity for common human avarice. Any hope of there being any justice in this errand was eliminated by Saul’s duplicity.
While Saul was erecting his own monument probably to this military victory Samuel pounced.
Saul’s problem was not that he wasn’t religious. We don’t find Saul going after the Baals. Even in his pitiful pleading with Samuel he wants Samuel to help him patch this up with God. Everything can be bargained for or negotiated. All exchanges are opportunities for self advancement.
Samuel will have none of it. He declares that the divorce is final between God and Saul and Samuel and Saul. Samuel himself will execute Agag who we imagine Saul had left alive possibly hoping to find some value in ransom if Agag had resources that Saul’s forces hadn’t already exploited.
Simplistic Religious Readings
If you read enough commentators on this passage you’ll find the voices of our own culture wars and anxieties bleeding through. Was this just bitter Samuel setting up hapless Saul?
Most conservative readers will see this as a clear cut example of disobedience, which of course it was. The underlying message that then gets translated through the sermon into the pew becomes simple moralism. “Do what God says and you’ll be rewarded. Disobey God and you’ll be punished.”
Lewis again notes how this moralistic approach fails.
People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, ‘If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.’ I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.
Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (p. 92). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Misery: So then How Do Christians Benefit from this Text?
The Apostle Paul, Saul’s namesake, wrote the book of 1 Corinthians to the church he had helped plant in Corinth. There is a lot of conflict between Paul and the church in Corinth over a number of very complicated moral issues including whether or not Christians should attend feasts they might be invited to in pagan temples. The divided church likely wanted a “yes” or “no” answer but Paul refuses and gives them a rather long discourse on love and idolatry and Christian ethics. 1 Corinthians 10 is part of this discourse and in it he reflects back on these stories from the Old Testament.
1 Corinthians 10:11–12 (NIV)
11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!
Paul sees these stories as illustrations for us. These stories of Saul expose for us the fissures and weaknesses of our own hearts. While our sins and defects are often obvious to others we are blind to them.
Saul, as we will see, will always remain blind to himself. He won’t be able to see what everyone else can see, and this is true of ourselves.
We do read this story as Christians, however. We must fully appreciate how powerless we often are over our own sin to begin to look to the source of our deliverance, a source that must come from outside ourselves.
Saul cannot save himself, this much becomes clear. Saul stands in a sense here for Israel who wished to save herself via kingship. This too fails.
Christianity is not a list of rules by which we qualify for God’s mercy. It is the work of God’s mercy while we are yet sinners to act on our behalf.
Samuel comes into the story as God’s instrument of justice but Jesus comes in as our payment to justice for our sin.
Christianity is not denial about our sin, in fact the light of our misery and Christ’s deliverance equips us to see our sin more clearly. I’ll finish the Lewis’ great chapter on this from Mere Christianity.
One last point. Remember that, as I said, the right direction leads not only to peace but to knowledge. When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.
Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (p. 93). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Now in the light of Christ we see more clearly the monsters we are prone to become, but also the nature of the path by which he makes us the saints he makes us to be.