A few days ago, I decided I would read the biblical story about how Saul was chosen to become king of Israel. It seemed fitting to revisit this text because of the way that it dramatizes the tension between the political and the theological, something which has surely been at the forefront of all of our minds these days. In much of our online commentary, we tend not to exert too much mental effort thinking about politics and theology more theoretically. I’m a firm believer that story and narrative can inspire us to think in this manner, even if it does not supply us with the cogent, refined, clear-cut propositions that “standard” theory usually prefers. It may be that popular digital forums are not the ideal space to leisurely meander through the wilderness of theoretical abstractions, or perhaps it’s because abstract reflection is perceived to be at odds with the concrete goals of tangible political progress that we refrain from contemplative thinking on this topic. After all, there are real people implicated by this economic policy or that religious dogma, so how can we talk distant abstractions without risking our humanitarian credentials? But if abstract, disembodied theologizing is a political cop-out whose chief function is to ensure our escape from our messy material reality, then political theology that operates adrift any theoretical foundation is vulnerable to even the most mediocre criticisms conservatism can muster.
The conservative criticism with the most traction, it seems, is that theological progressives have little or no regard for orthodox faith, the meat and bones of theological teaching, or a true sense of Christian piety—a piety that surely leads the pure in heart to conclude that matters related to human flourishing are of secondary importance to “the gospel,” “the kingdom,” or whatever epithet is being used to signal Christian traditionalism. This logic is at least partly fuelled by the dichotomous manner in which we typically approach the political/theological debate in Western culture—it’s habit for us to talk about it using the language of opposition. And you can only really be committed to one or the other. Conservatives benefit nicely from this binary, because once it’s been set up, they need only claim they’ve defended the right side—usually it’s scripture, tradition, God-fearing womanhood, or some other “biblically” sanctioned social norm. In the end, it’s always the side which signals the authentically spiritual. Of course, the denial that one’s theology is devoid of (or perhaps transcends) politics is nothing more than wand-waving sorcery, which evidently beguiles a great number of people.
Conservative theologies often don’t expressly state their underlying political commitments; instead, their politics is covertly incorporated into a larger theological worldview which is then defended as “natural” or “biblical” or true to historic Christian witness. They are rather stealth in that way. Progressives have tended to be more up front about their politics, perhaps as a way of calling out this manoeuvre. It seems to me this latter tactic functions as a kind of corrective: better to be honest about your politics and not peddle them as some God-sanctioned revelation. More importantly, better to defend those wounded by the (theo)politics of silence, apathy, and outright discrimination than engage in endless, impractical theological debate. And so, many “social justice” Christians approach the subject of theology first from a political perspective, and then work out the theological implications from there. Maybe this is the honest and nobler move, but perhaps it is not the shrewder one. And I do believe it’s possible to think more holistically about the relationship between the political and the theological, that Christians can be theologically committed to human well-being, and that the accusatory head game of where does your real allegiance lie is counterproductive and dispensable. There’s no one better at illustrating this principle than Jesus—his religious teachings repeatedly address humanitarian and ethical care issues. Similarly, I find the biblical narrative of how Saul became Israel’s first king to be another useful resource for thinking about the relationship between theology and politics, precisely because the narrative does away with the either/or of politics and religion, presuming at every turn that they are part of mutually informing whole.
Saul enters Israel’s politically turbulent tale in 1 Samuel 8, while Samuel and the Israelite armies are fending off the Philistines. Chapter 7 very deliberately ends on a triumphant note, making clear that it is God who delivered Israel from the Philistines encroaching on their border. This makes Israel’s request for a human king in chapter 8 read that much more like a betrayal of the God who repeatedly rescues them from foreign domination. The takeaway message is thus: the request for an earthly, human king is also a rejection of Yahweh’s divine kingship. Ideally, there should be no (earthly) king in Israel at all:
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” (1 Sam 8:4–9, NRSV)
It’s these verses I think of when anyone argues that God has divinely appointed so-and-so to this or that political office because that’s what God wanted. The biblical record (at least in this case) makes it very clear that human political traditions run contrary to the kind of divine rulership that God desires for his people. God agrees to select a king for Israel begrudgingly, because it’s what they want. There’s a radical distinction here between the Lord’s kingship and the kingship of “other nations.” In this text, there is not that annoying conflation between divine will and the reigning political order du jour that has so plagued Western regimes, from pre-revolution France to Trump’s America. To want any kind of political figure who is not Yahweh, and who does not rule in the manner that Yahweh would, is in fact comparable to idolatry (v. 8) and reminiscent of pagan culture. Their political systems lead only to forced labor, endless war, slavery and death (vv. 10–17), experiences so endemic to every godless empire that has ever ruled this earth. Again, all these things characterizes the goyim—they have no place among a community that considers itself God’s spiritually elect.
Apparently, white evangelical Christians are so thoroughly invested in worldly political ways that they can talk about God working enthusiastically within them, endorsing this person, orchestrating that event, and so on. I know there are other places in the Bible that could be interpreted as supporting divine action in earthly politics (Romans 12 comes to mind), but perhaps we should always be mindful 1 Samuel 8, remembering God’s fundamental disdain for propping up earthly political powers. After all, God’s disappointment in Israel asking for a king did not stop him from commanding Samuel to listen to them and anoint a king. Likewise, if Trump has indeed been chosen by God, it’s because God has indulged our sinful need for human politicians that provide the illusion of strength that only God can provide; it’s our fallenness, not our fidelity, that makes us eager for political leaders who align with our socio-political values. The joke’s on Jerry Falwell Jr. and his cronies who succumbed to Trump the way the Israelites succumbed to Saul. There is no biblical theology of God’s work in human politics that does not ultimately lead back to himself.
The Lord’s objection isn’t to governance and political office as such. It’s not that Israel should have no king, but that Yahweh is the only acceptable option. It’s a simultaneous embrace of both the theological and the political—in 8:4–9, it’s the theological that should enter and transform the political, but there is no denial or diminishment of either. That God could be king of an earthly political entity (rather than an otherworldly heavenly kingdom à la Christianity) is an ancient Israelite idea that makes more sense in a pre-rational culture; it can only be fully apprehended by a Mesopotamian mentality that does not sharply divide the sacred and the mundane. But it’s an idea from which we modern believers can learn something important: it is indeed very theological to reject the corrupt business of human politics, not through political retreat, but through the spiritual transformation and renewal of the political arena. The kingdom of God is the kingdom of milk and honey, and it’s political agenda is not the voracious pursuit of power, or the preservation of a nationalist-religious ideology. It is the real and material freedom from famine, war, suffering, and captivity of every kind.