Column Entry,  “Give Us a King”: The Allure of Power at the Cost of Truth, by John Hatch

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Column title: Crossed My Mind: Thoughts on Culture and Communication

Column entry:  “Give Us a King”: The Allure of Power at the Cost of Truth

By John Hatch, Ph.D.
Eastern University (retired)
CCSN Senior Fellow

Column Description: As Christians, we are called to have the mind of Christ. This goes against the grain of our social and cultural conditioning. We seek personal or political advancement; Christ seeks the lost and the least. We grasp for cultural ascendency; Christ descends to the cross of love. This column is dedicated to thinking about culture and communication under the sign of the cross.

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 “Give Us a King”: The Allure of Power at the Cost of Truth

Living in the 21st century, it’s natural to long for simpler times. Our media-saturated world confronts us with ever-increasing complexity, uncertainty, and insecurity. The 24/7 news cycle exposes us to a barrage of viewpoints and movements that challenge our norms and values. It’s tempting to try to simplify our world by listening only to voices that echo our own concerns. And when we perceive over an extended period that our group—for example, evangelical Christians—is under threat, we may begin, subconsciously at least, to long for a king-like leader to swoop in and save us, as in Bible times.

Although the biblical narrative is filled with kings and emperors, Scripture ultimately shows this desire to be misguided. Both the Old and New Testaments reveal that when we succumb to the allure of kingly human power as the answer to our insecurity, we divert our trust from God and end up sacrificing truth in our communal life. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a couple of key examples from Scripture and consider their implications for our day—namely, the type of political voice we should listen to and kind of leader we should choose.

Ancient Israel had far better reason than modern Western Christians to wish for a king:  surrounding nations regularly attacked them, taking captives, plunder, and territory. According to biblical account, this occurred because of their repeated unfaithfulness to their true King—Yahweh, God Almighty. When they would repent of idolatry and pray for deliverance, Yahweh would occasionally raise up ad hoc “judges” to rescue the Israelites from these oppressions.[1] Scripture tells us, however, that they eventually grew tired of trusting in an invisible and unpredictable King to send help. They longed for a king they could see, complete with the trappings of royal power, glory, and a standing army. So they cried out, Give us a king to lead us, like all the other nations have.[2] Scripture records that God was displeased with this demand, grieved that they had rejected Him as their king,” and warned that the kind of king they’d chosen would become their oppressor.[3] The reign of their first king, Saul, fulfilled this warning. Many others followed.

We witness a similar phenomenon in the New Testament. Under the thumb of the Roman empire, Judea was burdened with heavy taxes, occupying troops, and the threat of crucifixion for anyone who dared challenge Rome’s rule. They longed for the promised Messiah to come at last, throwing off Gentile shackles and raising up Israel as a free kingdom. Under these conditions, it was natural for the crowds who witnessed Jesus’ miraculous power to suppose their conquering hero had finally arrived. That’s why, as John’s gospel records, they wanted to rise en masse and make him king.[4] Meanwhile, the Jewish ruling council in Jerusalem, under the watchful eye of the Roman governor, feared this kind of people’s revolt, as it could only lead to a Roman crackdown and them losing what little power they had, not to mention Israel’s limited freedom as a subject state.[5] As a result, they wanted to eliminate Jesus.

Ironically, despite their differing agendas, both the crowd and the ruling Sanhedrin ended up being enemies of Truth as they anxiously grasped to lay hold of (or hold onto) power in the face of Gentile enemies. Let’s see how.

Regarding the Messiah-hungry throng, John’s account shows us that they expected Jesus to pander to their national pride. When he instead challenged them to follow the truth of his nonviolent teaching—and so become genuinely free—they took offense, claiming status as free people by natural birthright as children of Abraham and of God. Jesus’s response to their religious nationalism gives us cause for pause:

“‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God . . . You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.’”[6] Jesus links the lust for kingly power with the lies of the devil, even when it appears in the guise of pious patriotism; for he knows that false power, to sustain itself, must do violence to truth—along with human beings.

It’s little surprise, then, that the Sanhedrin resorted to false charges in their effort to eliminate Jesus as a perceived threat to their power. And the Roman governor did no better in his effort to maintain control: as the mob began crying for Jesus’ blood, Pilate acquiesced to their demands that he be crucified as an insurrectionist and blasphemer, even though he knew there was no truth in these accusations. When Pilate tried to make Jesus incriminate himself (“‘Are you the king of the Jews?’”),[7] the true King made it clear that his mission and priority lay elsewhere: “the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth.’”[8]

These biblical examples stand as warnings to us today. In the United States, many Christians take pride in our country being “God’s nation,” so to speak, and feel it is our birthright of freedom to take back our nation from perceived enemies in the land. To buttress this identity and fuel this zeal, culture warriors in media and advocacy organizations tend to demonize those who don’t subscribe to their vision of Christian America and exaggerate the threat they present, thus fomenting fear in their followers (not to mention increased viewer ratings or financial support for themselves).

In this state of mind, we become ripe for seduction by the kind of political leader who projects power, wealth, and human glory, while feeding us lies that resonate with our fears. If we’re not careful, we’ll end up trading God’s truth for lies and God’s peace for strife and violence.

Now, some readers may counter, “The thing is, all politicians lie anyway; so we have to focus on what they get done, not what they say.” The problem with this truism is that some leaders are clearly given over to lying, while others are not. It’s probably true that (virtually) all politicians occasionally lie or shade the truth to advance their political agenda, especially given the diverse constituencies they must court in a large, modern nation-state. (That’s one of the reasons we must not equate political agendas with the advance of Christ’s kingdom.) However, many political figures at least recognize it’s wrong to lie and try to avoid it most of the time. If caught in a lie, most politicians typically try to correct or qualify what they’ve said to bring it more in line with truth, knowing that a healthy democracy depends on voter trust and truthfulness as a norm.

The greater danger, therefore, lies with leaders who show no real regard for the integrity of truth—who admire raw power and reduce “truth” to whatever serves their agenda. What does this look like, exactly?

Here are some telltale signs we can look for in a public figure, political or otherwise:

  • Do they lie frequently and shamelessly, even when it contradicts well-established facts?
  • When caught in a lie, do they simply bear down and repeat it as “truth”?
  • Do they question well-established facts whenever it suits them to do so?
  • Do they sow distrust toward sources of information more knowledgeable or reliable than themselves?
  • Do they do these things to support their own ego needs and desire for power?
  • Do they recklessly spread conspiracy theories?
  • Do they regularly spread false slander?
  • Do they say whatever their followers want to hear, instead of speaking difficult truths?
  • Do they habitually sow division, fear, and hatred?
  • Do they express admiration for dictators?
  • Do they demonize those outside their own political tribe and present themselves as the people’s only savior from these apparent enemies?
  • Do they sow distrust in any voting outcome other than victory for themselves?
  • Do they foment or excuse violence committed by their followers on their behalf?
  • Do they pressure political officials and allies to lie on their behalf?
  • Do they expect others to sacrifice integrity for their sake?
  • Do they act as though they are above the law, or the law should bend to accommodate them?

Bottom line: as much as we might appreciate a given leader’s policies or accomplishments, if we can answer “yes” to one or more of the questions above—and especially if most of the boxes are checked—we can reasonably conclude that this individual’s public life is contrary to the Spirit of Truth, animated in some way by the Father of Lies, and working against the way of King Jesus—even if they cloak it in a garb of religiosity or garner the support of religious leaders.

If the Jewish Sanhedrin could condemn Israel’s true King, and German Christian leaders in the 1930’s failed to recognize the demonic nature of Hitler’s rise, we must take care to test our own religious leaders’ political endorsements against the light of Christ in Scripture.

And while no political leader will fully measure up to the way of Christ, we can still vote for leaders who generally value humility, public service, truth, integrity, civility, unifying rhetoric, independent fact-checking, an independent judiciary, a free press (one that holds leaders accountable), and democratic compromise (reflecting an acceptance of political limits) over the kind of person who revels in boasting, authoritarian power, lying, yes-men as advisors, incivility, divisive rhetoric, unfounded conspiracy theories, a sycophantic press, and refusal to collaborate with the democratic opposition. If we choose the latter type, we can be sure that the conditions for a peaceful democracy governed through impartial laws and truthful communications will suffer—as will our claim to be witnesses and followers of the True King.

Especially in a political primary season—when we have a say in who will represent the values and policies we believe in—it’s incumbent on us to face this choice. Will we entrust our political hopes to someone who projects king-like ambition, or trust in our true King? Will we support leaders of limited power and charisma, like Israel’s judges of old, or choose a modern-day Saul (or Cyrus)?

* The views of any CCSN columnists are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the CCSN. We invite and embrace a wide range of views and critiques on important communication and cultural issues. The CCSN is a community of Jesus followers who study communication. We do not support or promote a particular social, political, or denominational agenda. 

[1] Judges 2:8-18.

[2] See 1 Samuel 8:5-6.

[3] For the full account, see 1 Samuel 8:4-20.

[4] John 6:14-15.

[5] John 11:48.

[6] John 8:42, 44.

[7] John 18:33, NIV.

[8] John 18:37, NIV.

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