For Want of a King
August 10, 2022
The two books of my summer reading paint a picture of America that is both unsettling and understandable. Anne Applebaum is an award - winning historian and prizewinning author. In The Twilight of Democracy, she writes an account of the world, particularly the Western World, not in a hair-on-fire way, but in a way contextualized with historical perspective, thoughtful reflection, clear thinking, and a word that seems to say we still have a choice about who we want to be as a nation, as a state, as a people.
In Deer Hunting with Jesus, Joe Bageant writes about his hometown, Winchester, Virginia. Bageant’s writing is sometimes humorous and sometimes alarming. It is filled with explanation for the grievance and division that has been part of American culture for years. In Bageant’s book, I see a clear causation pointing to Applebaum’s premise that we are moving toward authoritarianism now because it is a “seductive lure.” The pain of a people stuck in what seems like untenable circumstances, where they have few choices, creates a stewing pot of anger and discontent with what many see as a stacked status quo.
This cause and effect has been pushing and pulling the world since the ancient story of the Hebrew people was told. In the history of the Israelites, judges and prophets were speaking to a people lost in their worship of small gods. They thought a strongman could set things right. The human condition is described in the Disciple I Study Manual: “We cannot tolerate political disorder and confusion. We swing between desiring unity born of our faithfulness and wanting to ‘do our own thing.’ Please, somebody give us a sense of direction.” And, “We demand leaders, hoping they will bring security and peace. We want our leaders to make decisions for us, to tell us what to do so we won’t have to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions. But power tends to corrupt, and we discover that our leaders, like us, have feet of clay.”
Accumulation of power to King David began a very stable time for the Hebrew people. A United Kingdom brought stability and prosperity, so the text says. That lasted until it didn’t anymore. The Kingdom split and the kings that came after the top three (David, Saul, Solomon) were good and bad throughout the history we read in the Bible. That’s the problem. It’s the same problem we have with maintaining our Republic. Power hunger, wherever it emerges, serves the few and not the many.
There is no question that our system of government is strained right now. People don’t trust a lot, not elections, not media, not truth. The acrimony that accompanies the inability to get anything done seems rampant. When we see recalcitrance and stubbornness, and hear name calling, and belittling of each other, it is easy to want something different. Wouldn’t the arguing stop if we just had a king? Think about that for a few minutes. In Orban’s Hungary and Putin’s Russia, dissent and resistance are stomped out and punished. Think about Marie Antoinette and the circumstances of the French Revolution. “Let them eat cake.” Too dismissive a response to the suffering that is around.
It begins when money is a driver. Political campaigns in America cost so much. Faustian deals are made. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. We have never really tried to take the money out of politics. We have never taken seriously the fact that we need term limits for public offices. We have never funded education in our state and our nation, offering broadband and books to help the most vulnerable from Winchester, Virginia, to the rural east and west of North Carolina. College is too expensive and too many young people end up with huge debt.
Joe Bageant offers a great definition of what the working class is in America. It has less to do with income and more to do with the power structure of the workplace. Bageant says the working class might be defined as this: “You do not have power over your work. You do not control when you work, how much you get paid, how fast you work, or whether you will be cut loose from your job at the first shiver on Wall Street.” There is little motivation for anybody to do more, to be more in work situations like that, even if you are making good money.
Until playing fields are leveled in this state and in this country. Until one vote for one person is lived as the law of the land. Until we realize that this American Experiment holds great hope and great promise for the world, until we can get a grip on the dysfunction that is on course to derail the whole thing, we are teetering on a tectonic fault line.
Applebaum ends her book with a word of hope, “We always knew, or should have known, that alternative visions of our nations would try to draw us in. But maybe picking our way through the darkness, we will find that together, we can resist them.” The want of a king is fraught with danger, like the want of a horseshoe nail as the kingdom is lost. We need to pay attention before this beautiful, flawed experiment falls.
Lib Campbell is a retired Methodist pastor, columnist, retreat leader and hosts the blog www.avirtualchurch.com You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org