With another election approaching, I wanted to write again about Biblical perspectives on elections. In the past, I have written about key Biblical principles that can be applied to discerning how to approach and prioritize different issues. Applying these broad Biblical themes is critical to seeing policy issues properly, rather than just pursuing what we want and calling it “Christian”. This year I would like to take a couple of posts to deal with a some Bible passages that perhaps most directly deal with the question of specifically how Christ followers should approach the action of electing and influencing government leaders. One passage is from the Old Testament, and the second from the New. The first passage is a warning, and the second is an exhortation to positive action.
Probably the most direct and applicable statement in the Old Testament to the question of electing officials is found in 1 Samuel 8:10-18. Here, the Israelites have asked for a king (vs 5). God then responds to their request, through Samuel. God’s response begins with a rebuke of the Israelites for rejecting the current theocratical structure (vs 7-8). But God tells Samuel to proceed with their request (vs 9, which may partly be due to the corruption that was occurring in Samuel’s sons, vs 3). However God makes plain the most dangerous pursuits of government leaders, and clearly warns them of what to be wary of in leaders.
The first caution, in verses 11 and 12 warns against leaders who would use their position of authority to invest in military might. It is one of the most common base tendencies of man to hunger for power. After successfully winning a leadership position, the next step in this pursuit is always to extend that power over other countries or regions. This hunger for more power, as sought through military strength, is precisely what God is warning against. And this is warning is against appointing or electing those that would either seek the enlargement of military might in terms of soldier count (“he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots”, vs 11), or those that would seek to expand the economic investment in military might (“to make his implements of war” vs 12).
The clear warning of 1 Samuel 8:11-12 is against establishing leaders who want to expand and grow the military. And there is probably no place on earth (and maybe even in history) where this warning is more pertinent. The US spends around $600 billion dollars a year on the military, more than the next top ten militaries in the world combined. Our obsession and spending on military might is unparalleled. Some have estimated that we spend 50 times as much on war as peace-keeping efforts. God’s warning against this focus on power and war is not just an arbitrary decree of God, this spending has been a huge part (in the trillions) of our federal debt and the tax burden on citizens.
What is the alternative? Support leaders that don’t want to invest so much in the military. As David later writes, in Psalms 20:7: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” This may sound naive to many, but this type of radical trust in God is precisely how Christians demonstrate their faith.
The next verses in this passages, from 13 to 18 warn against choosing leaders who would take resources from the people for their own gain, and even enslave people for their own benefit. This type of self-seeking leadership is not only unethical, but has increasingly been identified as one of the greatest hindrances to the growth of a country. One of the most influential books on developing economies in recent years was Why Nations Fail which defined a contrast between extractive and inclusive economies. They showed how throughout history, extractive economies where institutions and laws were established to primarily benefit the elite consistently lead to failed states with corruption, poverty, and violence. On the other hand, inclusive economies, that are structured such that the majority benefit from the resources and efforts of the economy, consistently flourish and enjoy growth and peace. And interestingly, the concept and definition of extractive leadership is very closely described in these verses. The extractive leadership that God warns against in this passage is exactly what leads to failed societies.
So what types of government activity are extractive? Some may simply think that taxation in general is extractive, but this isn’t actually consistent with this passage or others. In fact, Jesus (Mark 12:17) and the epistles (Romans 13:7) both explicitly state that taxation is a legitimate function of the government. Taxes can be quite beneficially used for the common good of society. The warning in verses 13-18 are not against taxation in general, but specifically against taxation (or enslavement) that is for the purpose of benefiting just the leaders or an elite group.
Historically, America has actually done quite well at fostering an inclusive economy. We have boasted of being the land of opportunity, and indeed millions have reaped the benefits of their investments in the American economy. As a democracy, leaders are held accountable, forcing them to take more inclusive approaches to their leadership. However, we must not be complacent. The most objective measure of an extractive economy, where an elite few are receiving the fruits of the economy, is economic inequality. And, unfortunately, America has steadily been growing in economic inequality.
Some of the most significant recent economic research has shown how economic inequality can naturally grow when nothing is done to abate it. It is important to remember extractive economies can be the result of both proactive extraction from people, as well as passive acceptance of economic structures that may increasingly result in an elite few receiving the majority of resources while most people receive less.
The basic warning of verses 13 through 18, is to avoid leaders who want to lead for their own benefit, or the benefit of the elite. The opposite of these leaders are those that seek an inclusive society, who are concerned about inequality. Taken as a whole, 1 Samuel 8 is God’s warning against choosing leaders that want to invest the country’s resources and efforts into power and selfishness, who hunger for more military strength, and hoarding of resources.
This post has primarily been a caution against negative leadership and focus. In the next post, we will look at an affirmation of positive focus in government power.