The Presidential campaign has reached a fever-pitch. Exaggeration, half-truths and lies abound as each party scratches and claws toward election day in hopes of victory. It seems that truth in political campaigns, as in war, is the first casualty. Nevertheless, those who choose to vote, and do so responsibly, seek some measure by which to evaluate candidates.
I’m not going to attempt to separate the “wheat” from the “chaff” in the current crop of partisan wrangling. It should be no surprise that as a minister I’m more inclined to urge Christians to consider some of the things the scriptures have to say about the desirable characteristics and priorities to be sought in public leaders. While Presidents, Senators and members of Congress were missing from the scene in biblical times, some important lessons can be learned from what the scriptures say about kings.
By and large, kings did not get high marks by biblical writers. However, there are exceptions. Among the few kings regarded as good was Josiah. The prophet Jeremiah said of him, “He defended the cause of the poor and the needy and so all went well” (Jeremiah 22:16). Notice how the positive state of the nation is directly linked to the support this head of state gave the least advantaged. But what is said next in this verse is even more striking: “Is that not what it means to know the Lord?”
Defending the cause of the needy is virtually equated with having a genuine relationship with God. If a leader truly knows the Lord, that leader will act on behalf of the poor and by acting on behalf of the poor he or she will display the nature of his or her relationship with God. The use of God-words in speeches or the display of religious symbols in public buildings or the performance of religious rituals do not have priority over defending “the cause of the poor and needy.”
This commendation of King Josiah is in keeping with the leadership values affirmed elsewhere in scripture. Psalms 72 is a prayer that points to the qualities that make a leader praise-worthy. We should note both what is included and what is excluded in the text. The prayer asks God to lead the king in ways that will result in “prosperity for the people” (vs. 3) and abundance in food so the people may be satisfied (vs.16). Further, the prayer asks, “In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound” (vs.7).
The national leader is to “judge your people with righteousness.” But observe that a particular class of people is given special attention: “and your poor with justice” (vs. 2). These words are directly linked to the prayer for prosperity. In this same vein, the prayer continues, “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor” (vs. 4). There is no suggestion that the righteous leader should give similar attention to the interests of the strong or wealthy, thought the leader must be fair to all. Apparently the emphasis on being especially attentive to the needs of the poor is because leaders have a tendency to cater to the rich. This is certainly what we find in many contemporary American political leaders. There is no shortage of leaders and want-to-be leaders who are intent on defending the cause of the rich without regard to how the consequences crush the poor
The fact is that as political candidates seek public office sometimes they mask their real commitments. They may claim to care for the less advantaged while supporting policies that would leave the weak and poor even more vulnerable. It counts for nothing good if a politician says, “The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves” and then advances measures that will do the opposite. We need to beware of leaders and aspiring leaders who pursue courses of action that will most immediately benefit the wealthy, while insisting that others will have to “sacrifice” in the short run, trusting that “somewhere over the rainbow/ skies are blue/ and the dream that you dare to dream/ really does come true.”
The Psalmist can’t seem to emphasize enough the importance of the leader’s attention to those who are less advantaged: “For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight” (vs.12-14). The commendable King/leader enforces the laws that protect the poor and weak from the rich and strong, granting the poor, not just voluntary charity, but their rights. There is no way to govern “righteously” that neglects this focus.
Unfortunately, many who insist that more “godly leaders” are needed don’t have in mind leaders with the qualities extolled in scripture. Where do we find leaders who will govern with an emphasis on caring for the least advantaged, as scripture commends? Do we have any in either major party? They seem to be rare. Poverty has not been a serious topic during this campaign. Christians need to look carefully and prayerfully to find leaders whose influence will be “good news to the poor” (Isaiah 61:1).
Craig M. Watts is the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the Disciples Peace Fellowship’s, “Shalom Vision.”