Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Sunday School Stories for the Polling Place Crowd
Ryan Patrick O’Dowd
Another election year is upon us, and it hits with a sound and fury that threaten to warp our understanding of citizenship and justice. Trite as this may sound, we can find help in the stories of sacred Scripture—but not just any reading of Scripture.
Election Year-- When Politics Becomes Religion
We first need to recognize how powerfully “religious” our two- and four-year election cycle is. It assails us with candidate announcements, debates, primaries, and caucuses, which are carried along by the carefully crafted scripts of our sacred mass media. Festivity and ritual abound: polls, posters, pundits, mailings, the Iowa Caucus, Super Tuesday, party conventions, and the granddaddy of them all, the Inauguration.
We’re each lured into our part, making offerings, loving and hating candidates and their positions, cringing through cliché-filled debates and ads, chattering heatedly at virtual watercoolers, and rising each morning eager for news of twists and surprises of some new scandal or policy proposal that touches a nerve in our emotional register and ensures our increased participation. It’s virtually impossible not to worship at this altar of modern politics and imbibe its stories.
These are stories like the need for freedom of expression and the primacy of individual rights for happiness, pleasure, choice, health, and security. Stories of the call to find our passion, do what we love, and pursue our dreams. Stories of the fear of our neighbor and our government, and fear for our security and our future. And intertwined stories of suspicion of government, religion, and the establishment, and stories of an unashamed expectation that these institutions will make our personal narratives come true. As the poet Ben Okri suggests, the liturgical rhythm of these stories works hypnotically—“subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.”1
Okri also says that, “Stories are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories individuals or nations live by and tell themselves, and you change the individuals and nations.”2 This is why, as engaged Christian citizens, we need to return to and be shaped by the stories of sacred Scripture.
Biblical Narratives for Citizenship
In particular, we need a retelling of scriptural stories that nurture what Ben Quash has called the Christian “habits of mind” of the historic church.3 We need this retelling, or opening up again, as Quash observes, since we cannot simply fall back on old tellings of Scripture and expect to act justly amidst the changes in our culture. After all, we are not dealing with papal corruption, church-endorsed slavery, Schofield dispensationalism, or fascism, but new mutations and amalgamations of these ideas and many more. For this we must read through traditional doctrines as we delve into Scripture and hear a fresh word that, through the work of the Spirit, gives us wisdom for today.
With this in mind, let us consider this brief retelling of the stories of Jonathan and Ruth and how they might speak to the current decline of citizenship and justice.
Jonathan the Citizen
In our natural attraction to charismatic leaders and celebrities, Jonathan is relegated to the status of David’s sidekick. The friend. I want my kids to have friends like Jonathan, and I want them to be a friend like Jonathan. But I’d go as far as saying that, when it comes to being citizens, I’d rather my kids were like Jonathan than David. I didn’t used to think this. Like most people, I’d assumed Jonathan merely added color to David’s story. But now I don’t believe that the narrator wanted to create a minor character at all. Rather, he wanted to give us a model for godly action when we’re not king.
The narrator shocks us with a peculiar and unprecedented scene where Jonathan willingly and ceremonially removes his royal robe and relinquishes the throne that was his by right. This often overlooked event is the narrator’s invitation to peer into Jonathan’s character, where, contrary to expectations, we don’t find a second-class soldier sitting idly by and waiting for David to come along. The story spares no expense framing Jonathan as the true warrior in Israel’s early battles with the Philistines: courageous, skilled in the art of war, inspiring as a leader, quick on his feet, and calm under pressure.
Jonathan was a David before there was a David. He trusted Yahweh to give Israel victory, “whether by many or by few,” and in moments of extreme uncertainty, “Perhaps the Lord will work for us.” A stark contrast to Saul, with his “priest-bound” and “altogether self-destructive approach to battle” who seems consistently out of touch, sitting at home, offering desperate sacrifices, and making foolish vows.4
Still, the Lord chooses David, and our natural instinct is to assume that this is because David loved Yahweh. But this is again shortsighted, because Jonathan’s love for God is never in question, whereas David’s faith is mired in scandal, with lust leading to theft, adultery, deceit, and murder. It’s difficult to avoid the fact that Jonathan is the better candidate on merit.
And this is precisely where Jonathan speaks to a culture full of social climbers and extreme egalitarians, as well as people stymied by a lack of upward mobility. Jonathan exposes both the lie in our western narrative of unlimited progress, and the emptiness of friendship measured by likes and shares. Jonathan’s story proclaims that one can be godly and faithful without achieving greatness, fame, or privilege. One can act fearlessly and freely and yet not be in line for promotion. One can be stronger, more qualified, and more experienced, and still willingly defer to another.
Jonathan’s life also imagines humility and selflessness as the soil out of which grow loyalty and social solidarity. To be sure, it’s become fashionable to speculate about Jonathan’s love for David. But this anachronistic reading misses that everyone loved David-- Jonathan, Michal, and all of Judah. While there is a great deal of affection between them, their love plays out in the public sphere of selfless service to the other.
Few have more written more credibly on friendship than Jean Vanier who founded L’Arche communities to serve the intellectually disabled. Vanier chides our modern notions of friendship where, “People very quickly get together with those who are like themselves” and “friendships…very quickly become a club of mediocrities, enclosed in mutual flattery and approval.”5 Vanier nearly perfectly describes the highly individualized and partisan behavior that constitutes our modern political culture. With Jonathan, Vanier reminds us that humanity is larger than a party, that we need one another, and that “We are responsible for one another.”6
Ruth the Merciful
The story of Ruth grabs its readers with an opening flourish of literary forms: symbolism, chiasm, wordplay, suspense, and irony, each, in turn, provoking surprise and drawing us in. Elimelek (“my God is king”) leaves Bethlechem (“house of food”) with his wife named Naomi (“pleasantness”) because there is no lechem (“food”) in the house. Where is Bethlehem's God? And his king, his pleasantness, and provision in the land flowing with milk and honey?
As with Jonathan’s story, we could quickly move past this opening scene to the more familiar tale of Ruth and Boaz. Yet the crisis faced by Elimelek and Naomi hits close to home too with a family being forced to search for work and food in a foreign and dangerous land. Adding insult to injury, all of the men in the family die, leaving no protector and no one to carry on the family name.
Ruth’s story is timely for our nation with its crises of migration and national geographical mobility. We struggle, for example, to balance our laws on immigration with the needs of nations of refugees around us. Similarly, as Eli Lehrer and Lori Sanders argue, the dizzying layers of federal, state, and local policies make it undesirable and often impossible for the unemployed to relocate to places with a desperate need of laborers. What can citizens do?
It should strike us as odd that Elimelek and Naomi receive no family or government assistance—assistance that was stipulated explicitly for such cases in the biblical law. We don’t know why, but the government failed to provide.7 The resulting irony serves as a rebuke for Israel just as it does for us; the laws of a nation will not ensure justice unless its citizens are willing to act.
And Ruth is our model for action. Against Naomi’s contrived protests, against all reasonable odds, and with no law compelling her, this foreign woman intervenes in Israel’s stead. Notice especially how Ruth’s Moabite background (Ruth 2:9) strikes a similar chord of fear among the people in Bethlehem as would a Syrian moving to the United States or an urban dweller moving to the suburbs. Ruth has little to offer and no one to protect her. Like Jonathan, however, she suppresses her fears and acts in faith to show love for a neighbor in need.
Then enters Boaz, who is undoubtedly one of the few Israelites actually observing the gleaning laws conscientiously. Boaz’s gentle leadership ripples outward in all directions, whether with his administration of his young men and his generosity with his resources, or his careful notice of a vulnerable foreign woman at the outskirts of his land.
In levels of irony, the center of the book weaves these two altruists together to underscore an uncommon union between members of two socially, economically, and ethnically opposed cultures. Ruth is more devoted to Naomi than Orpah. Boaz is more eager to rescue the family line than the legally bound kinsman redeemer. Boaz the strong Jewish male redeems the weak, widowed Moabite woman. And Ruth, the fearless and devoted immigrant, rescues a family, a nation, and a king to come. Three times, in fact, Ruth is praised for the “lovingkindness” (covenant mercy) she showed to Naomi, Elimelek, and her dead husband.
The Decline of Mercy by Tuckness and Parrish assists us in retelling the story of Ruth in our modern context. They demonstrate how the western political tradition slowly allowed mercy to recede in the face of a scientifically motivated search for strict measures of justice. As a result, care for the poor and needy now belongs primarily to a legal system of justice, whereas mercy represents a concession that weakens the law.8 The story of Ruth runs across these lines, wedding justice to mercy. What motivates Ruth and Boaz to do justice is their deep love for God and neighbor, a perfect embodiment of the prophetic oracle, “to do justice and love mercy.”9
Citizenship, Mercy, and Justice in the Polling Place
It is interesting that the same Hebrew word is used to mean “neighbor” and “friend,” such that the two always overlap. As well, biblical justice is never far from mercy. The Center for Public Justice aims to equip us to live out this biblical vision of mercy and citizenship that lead to justice and human flourishing in our communities and in our nation. As the political rhetoric around us increasingly threatens to drown out such a vision, stories like those of Jonathan and Ruth provide a counter-narrative that renews our vision for justice as citizenship, friendship, responsibility, loyalty, dying to self, and mercy.
Questions for Reflection:
- What cultural and secular stories do you find working behind your emotions, worries, and behavior? What about in your home and your place of work?
- What words and images dominate your political vocabulary? Is there a healthy share of words for community, friendship, humility, mercy, and compassion?
- What practices do you have of retelling biblical narratives? Where can you add the practices into this Lenten season?
- Ryan Patrick O’Dowd is the Senior Scholar at Chesterton House at Cornell University and Rector of Bread of Life Anglican Church in Ithaca, NY.
1 Ben Okri, Birds of Heaven; London: Phoenix Paperbacks, 1996, 34.
2 Ibid., 21.
3 Ben Quash, Found Theology: History, Imagination, and the Holy Spirit, Bloomsbury: 2014, 2, 111.
4 Oliver O’Donovan, Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 55.
5 Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, orig. 1979, Paulist Press, 1989, 32-33.
6 Ibid. 18.
7 The story would certainly stand out to the original audience a contrast to Joseph’s government in Egypt that provided food for seven years for countless nations in a time of famine (Gen 41-42).
8 Alex Tuckness and John M. Parrish, The Decline of Mercy, Cambridge, 2014.
9 Micah 6:8.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”