Sunday, October 22, 2017

Kings and Functionaries

One must be careful what one wishes for, not to mention one’s choice of words.

Israel said to the prophet Samuel, “Appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” They were looking for a judge and a defender, someone who would grant them justice against their domestic enemies and take up arms against foreign enemies on their behalf. Instead, in Saul, after an initial honeymoon period, they got a king who judged them arbitrarily, oppressively, selfishly and moodily, and who fought on their behalf with only limited success.

Exactly like all the nations.

But being judge and defender were only a portion of the job. God had in mind a third aspect to the leadership of his people, saying of the new king, “He it is who shall restrain my people.”

Exercising Restraint

“Restrain” is, I think, the best translation here. The KJV says “reign over”, but “rein in” would actually be more literal. The idea of holding something back, stopping it, or fencing it in is thoroughly baked into the original Hebrew.

Well, that’s a bit different, isn’t it? I’m not entirely sure all God’s people were keen on being restrained. Their idea of a king seems to have been someone who would do things FOR them rather than TO them. Still, hemming in the citizenry — managing them in their own best interests — was part of Saul’s job, as it is an essential part of every monarch’s job, secular or otherwise.

Throughout most of history kings have been understood to be above or apart from the people they govern in much the same way a shepherd is distinct from and in charge of his sheep. Good kings were themselves subject to law and applied that law consistently to their people for the common good. Bad kings were not, and didn’t. They set themselves above the law, did as they pleased and their people suffered accordingly.

But that’s the danger inherent in a monarchy: the system is as good or as horrible as the character of the man at the top.

Power to the People

At any rate, history tells us horrible kings have seriously outnumbered good ones, and as early as the Magna Carta in AD 1215, major efforts were being made by the people to restrain their monarchs. We can hardly fail to notice that precisely inverts God’s original purpose in anointing Saul over Israel.

So here you are reading this blog post in 2017, mostly from the comfort of various western democracies, in almost all of which kings have been supplanted by a multitude of functionaries, and in which any monarchs that remain are mere figureheads.

Today, the power is with the people ... or so we are taught. But most of us have figured out by now that’s not quite the case.

From the Long Leash to Majority Rule

Historically, kings were rarely expected to do everything the people requested of them. Even post-Magna Carta, rulers tended to operate on a pretty long leash. As long as they were not overly oppressive, as long as the borders got defended, and as long as a quiet life with a few occasional perks was available to most, the citizenry tended to cooperate with them. Win a big military victory or two, and the king might even be publicly celebrated.

A democracy, and the U.S. especially so, is a very different story — well, at least in theory. In any functioning society it’s understood that individuals who violate the agreed-upon law of the land will be restrained, sure, but the idea that the people themselves might be restrained en masse by their own elected functionaries is foreign to the whole spirit of democracy. Politicians are elected in the expectation that they represent the will of the majority, not that we do theirs.

Hey, At Least He Was Consistently Bad ...

Case in point: Barack Obama was elected on a platform of progressive promises, and to a large extent he delivered for the folks who elected him. His unkept promise to cut back on the usual military adventures was a notable exception, but most on the Left were willing to look the other way on that one considering how many items on the Dems’ wishlist were delivered with a bow on top. Meanwhile, apart from refusing to confirm a Supreme Court nominee in the last year of Obama’s second term, Republicans pretty much gritted their teeth and consoled themselves that the people had spoken, even if they’d said a bunch of things that were anathema to conservatives.

And that’s how things are supposed to work in a democracy.

Conservatives may not like admitting it, but President Obama’s performance as his country’s Chief Functionary largely reflected the expressed will of the majority of those who voted him in. Not all of us liked the modifications he made to American life during his time in office, but we should at least acknowledge that he had a legitimate electoral mandate for many of them. Especially toward the end of his second term, and occasionally by fiat, Obama initiated sweeping change consistent with his more progressive campaign promises, and his attack dogs in the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Media and the Deep State got the job done for him.

That was one Chief Functionary who ... er ... functioned.

A New Kind of Restraint

Then came President Trump. In the absence of any hard evidence to the contrary (which would surely have been exhumed by now if it ever existed), we should assume November’s election results were legit, and that the Trumpian agenda (border wall, repeal-and-replace Obamacare, tighter immigration, tax cuts, etc.) represents, if not the necessarily the will of the majority of the American public, at very least the will of the majority of American voters who chose to exercise their prerogative to express an opinion as to how they wish to be governed by means of the long-established methods of the Republic. In short, Trump has exactly the same mandate to govern as did his predecessor.

And yet President Trump’s agenda is being persistently hamstrung; and not, as one might expect, by Democrats in Congress, but by representatives of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate — and this in defiance of the expressed will of their own Republican voters.

We live in interesting times. If there’s a precedent for what we’re currently seeing, I can’t think what it might be. There’s not even a pretense anymore: the functionaries are behaving like kings. Sure, the rules of American democracy are being observed in a rigid technical sense, but the spirit of democracy is entirely absent.

One has to ask: From the perspective of Republicans planning to vote in the 2018 midterms, what exactly would be the point in re-electing the present slate of 292 congress-critters when a not-insignificant number of these Republican functionaries seem determined to do the opposite of what their base is asking of them?

So who is being restrained now?

A Government I Could Get Behind

Most Christians accept that human rule is a dead-end. Given sufficient time, all forms of purely human government inevitably demonstrate they exist on a continuum somewhere between badly deficient and totally dysfunctional — and they stack heavily toward the far end. Democracy is no exception, though most of us prefer taking our chances with the will of the people over the will of a king.

If the current U.S. congressional shenanigans don’t make Americans long for the government of an all-wise King unimpeded by the sort of chaos that results from the competing wills of hundreds of bureaucrats and functionaries, I don’t know what will.

Happily, that’s exactly what we have to look forward to:
“ ‘As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.’

I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’ ”
See, now THAT sounds like a government I could get behind.

The kind that doesn’t need me to get behind it.

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