There is a remarkable passage in the Old Testament that speaks to the issue of centralized government. The portrait painted is not a flattering one. Generally speaking, the Scriptures do not comment much on secular government other than to note its existence and to prescribe a combination of support (Jer 29:7, Mk 12:17), endurance (Romans 13:1-7), and prayer (1 Tim 2:1).
But at a critical point, the prophet Samuel sets forth a litany of woes that come from centralized ruling authority (a king in this particular case). His remarks surely resonate today in the era of large, centralized, secular government. More on this in a moment, but first a little background:
Prior to the anointing of King Saul over Israel, the Jewish people existed as a kind of confederation of twelve tribes (Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim and Manasseh). Though united by faith in the LORD, the tribes were rather decentralized. When threats (usually invading armies) beset any or all of the tribes, they would unite under a charismatic leader known as a “judge,” who would see them through the crisis and then step back once the threat was quelled. There are twelve judges (though there may have been more) mentioned in the Book of Judges: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson.
It seemed that this was God’s central organizing plan for ancient Israel (and for us?): governance under the principle of subsidiarity in which a decentralized confederation of families (nuclear and extended), tribes, and clans supported and cared for one another, and shared an allegiance to God and His revealed law. Although the tribes of Israel did unite under leaders (judges anointed by God) in times of crisis, God was the true King of Israel; He was the lawgiver and the unifier. Or so the ideal went.
In the period of the judges, the system usually worked and the people trusted God to lead them through crises in these ways. The glue that held it all together was tribal, clan, and family loyalty interacting with faith in the LORD.
This leads us to the passage from the Book of Samuel, in which it would seem that the Jewish people wanted to replace God’s plan.
Indeed, over time there was a growing interest among the Jews to have a king. As Samuel’s death drew there was a fear that perhaps no judges would be found in time of crisis. But why this fear existed is not clear; God had always provided leaders in times of crisis. The text from Samuel gives the following reasons for Israel wanting a king: appoint a king over us, as other nations have … There must be a king over us! We too must be like other nations, with a king to rule us and to lead us in warfare and fight our battles … The LORD … said in answer [to Samuel], It is not you they reject, they are rejecting me as their king (1 Sam 8, various verses).
So the rejection of God’s plan of governance is seen as sinful by Samuel and the biblical tradition. In effect, the Lord tells Samuel to grant them their every wish, more as a punishment than as a gracious acquiescence to the will of the people for an earthly king.
Though the Lord told Samuel to give them what they wanted, He also told Samuel to warn the people that their decision to submit themselves to an earthly ruler would have consequences. The text from Samuel describes them:
Samuel delivered the message of the LORD in full to those who were asking him for a king. He told them, “The rights of the king who will rule you will be as follows: He will take your sons and assign them to his chariots and horses, and they will run before his chariot. He will also appoint from among them his commanders of groups of a thousand and of a hundred soldiers. He will set them to do his plowing and his harvesting, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will use your daughters as ointment makers, as cooks, and as bakers. He will take the best of your fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his officials. He will tithe your crops and your vineyards, and give the revenue to his eunuchs and his slaves. He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best oxen and your asses, and use them to do his work. He will tithe your flocks and you yourselves will become his slaves” [1 Sam 8:4-7; 10-22].
In modern terms the consequences of having a king and a centralized authority included high taxes, expansive and aggressive use of power, military draft, conscription of the people into the affairs of the king and the state, intrusive policies that affected families, seizure of land and resources, and a kind of bondage that expanded to take the best resources of the people and entrusted them to cronies and the like.
This is a pretty bleak list, and unfortunately it is very familiar to us in this era of expansive, intrusive government with its increasingly complex and burdensome regulations.
As a priest I am hesitant to enter into political discussions. I have never studied political theory or public policy and am not a member of any political party. I prefer to leave political debates to the laity, to whom the temporal order is consigned.
But I comment here due to the biblical text before us and its sober reminder that centralized power is costly, tends to grow, and draws people into a kind of servitude in exchange for some sense of security and/or moderation of justice.
G.K. Chesterton once said, “When you break the big laws, you do not get liberty; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws.” Indeed, we get thousands of lesser laws. Read the rest here.
Welcome to the Blog! I am a Salesian of Don Bosco and was ordained to the priesthood on August 26, 2000. I hope this site is a place of interest for you where you will find ideas and information on the Catholic faith and on Salesianity.