In Those Days There Was No King In Israel, And Everyone Did What Was Right In His Own Eyes

Four times in the book of Judges (Judges 17:6, 18:1, 19:1, 21:25), the author laments the consequences of sin as a result of the absence of strong moral leadership in ancient Israel. Twice, the author makes the following ominous statement: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Of course, it should be noted that God was king in Israel, yet Israel did not follow God’s ways, and so rather than a principled and restrained and obedient freedom there was moral anarchy, and so Israel lost its freedom after demanding a king to save them from themselves [1]. Of course, by and large the kings were not any more righteous than the people, and although there were some righteous kings like David, Hezekiah, and Josiah (among others), eventually both the northern and southern parts of the tribes of Israel went into captivity because of their sins as a nation.

Why do I mention such ancient history? At times a sufficient confluence of factors makes dealing with a particular question obvious and particularly timely. It so happens that yesterday I received a book [2], reserved for today’s reading, that seeks to provide a justification for a point of view approaching libertarianism. Those with a bent towards libertarianism have a difficulty with strong government on any level, in large part because of a fear of abuse, something I certainly share. Such people chafe against external restraint and resent the corruption and inefficiency that result from central control. Yet the difference between freedom and anarchy is a slender one, the virtue and morality of people themselves, for freedom can endure so long as people remain under self-control, while anarchy results when people have lost all moral restraint. And while freedom is a rare but occasional and virtuous state of affairs in humanity, one which Americans often take for granted, anarchy is a disaster (think Somalia) that anyone who can avoid will seek to avoid, even at the cost of preferring tyranny. To the extent that our nation is losing its moral fiber, its freedom will become anarchy, and that anarchy becomes an unassailable argument against a reduction in the power of central government.

Why would someone prefer tyranny to anarchy, even if they like neither? In a proper tyranny, there is one bully at the center of a government, and if life may be grim, at least there is the hope that if one keeps one’s head down and avoids drawing too much attention to oneself, one could survive such a state. There is no such possibility of survival in anarchy, where the absence of control makes for no safety or security at all, for anyone who possesses enough force can take for themselves what they like, and no one can stop them unless they possess sufficient force. Most people realize that their strength is small. Since tyrants are often people of extreme discipline, those who are not noisy political dissidents generally are able to live fairly well in such a realm, and certainly safer than in a place where one’s life, one’s dignity, and one’s property are never secure from the threat of rioters and bandits and the criminal element that enjoys mob scenes and demonstrations. Given the alternative between random and pervasive violence and narrowly focused violence that is almost always going to be focused elsewhere, most law-abiding people are going to prefer tyranny over anarchy if given the choice.

In the contemporary American republic, there is a considerable element that desires greater freedom. This is entirely comprehensible, given that few people enjoy the burdensome regulations that come from being part of a modern-day paternalistic state. The fact that many libertarians urge what is patently immoral behavior, whether in regards to drug and alcohol use, abortion, tax evasion, and sexuality, increases the likelihood that any move towards greater freedom will immediately signal a slide into immorality and anarchy. We can only trust people to be free if we can trust them to be virtuous. A great deal of the current regulatory system that now exists does so because of the scandal of private and public corruption, to which the inevitable response is an increase in regulation and a decrease of freedom. As there exists no libertarian or conservatarian call for a return to biblical morality, only a call for a restoration of political freedom, there is to be no increased self-restraint to replace a reliance on inefficient and ineffective external restraint. Yet external restraint, however inefficient or ineffective, is to be preferred to no restraint at all.

There exists a fundamental problem of trust at the basis of these questions of freedom. A government that is secure in its popularity and popular legitimacy and possessed of trust in its people will often be inclined to grant a great degree of freedom. Either insecurity on the part of authorities or a lack of trust in the virtue of the people, or businesses, or any other part of civil society will tend to reduce the state of freedom that exists. So, a city or nation in turmoil will find itself under a curfew, or under martial law, as was the case when I visited Trinidad & Tobago as a child shortly after a failed coup attempt there in 1989, or as is the case with Baltimore at present. Once a feeling of security is restored, or once trust has been rebuilt, freedom can resume. This strongly encourages those who wish for freedom and yet to oppose authorities to act with extreme restraint and self-control, and police themselves so that no occasion is given to justify repression.

It is perhaps unsurprising that this fear of anarchy and a desire to avoid repression is at the basis of so much of what the New Testament says about Christian virtue as it relates to political authority. When Paul states, under the inspiration of God, that the job of government is to restrain evildoers, as he does in Romans 13, this gives government legitimate police power in the eyes of God and of godly people in general. The fact that this power can be easily abused does not negate that there is a legitimate use for police power in punishing evildoers, those who offend against the laws of God. Such freedom as we possess under such constraints requires both that we restrain ourselves from evil, so that we are not subject to external restraint from various authorities, and that we somehow find a way to encourage authorities to be secure as well as godly in their own behavior. It should go without saying that this is an extremely important but also extremely difficult task.

In such circumstances, it is remarkable that our squabbling is about forms and about the political order rather than about the moral order upon which any legitimate political order exists. If we wish for a virtuous government, we must choose leaders based upon virtue, upon their avoidance of abusing such power as they possess, as demonstrated by a track record of moral probity in their personal and professional lives in increased positions of responsibility. If we wish for a virtuous republic, we must possess a virtuous populace that restrains itself from evil in all facets of life, from our family lives (so that we do not abuse our children) to our refusal to take advantage of others in business and in our personal relationships, to our behavior in the politics of churches and communities, so that we behave even towards our enemies with kindness and graciousness and respect. We will only be free so long as we are virtuous, and our leaders are only virtuous by the extent that they spring from a virtuous populace that cares deeply about virtue and excellence. Our political restoration, if it is to occur, can only occur after a moral restoration that shows no evidence of beginning. Let us not put the cart before the horse, for we are not yet repentant enough to be given our freedoms again, and our continual political discontent only portends even greater future losses unless we repent.


[2] Book Review: The Conservatarian Manifesto

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christianity, History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to In Those Days There Was No King In Israel, And Everyone Did What Was Right In His Own Eyes

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