Text: 1 Samuel 8 (Israel demands a king)
In September 1962 when I entered kindergarten, I did so as a subject of the British Empire. In the staunchly United Empire Loyalist city of Cornwall Ontario, my elementary school seemed entirely British. Every classroom contained a world map on which the British colonies were colored in pink. The Queen’s portrait was everywhere. And each day, we started school by singing “God Save the Queen.”
I had a vague notion that the eastern part of Cornwall was French-speaking and that the First Nations reserve on Cornwall Island was, through some kind of magic, part Canadian and part American. But we, the students of Central Public School, were British through and through.
But in September 1970 when I started high school, I did so not as a subject of the British Empire, but as a citizen of the nation state of Canada. During the cultural turmoil of the 1960’s, Canadian identity had shifted. In 1965, Canada had adopted the Maple Leaf flag, one with no royal symbols. The Centennial year of 1967 had quickened a desire among many Canadians to define themselves as something other than British, French, or American. And more and more, fireworks displays were reserved for Canada Day on July 1 and not for Victoria Day.
Today is May 24, the date in 1819 on which Queen Victoria was born. But 201 years later, and almost 50 years after I started high school in Cornwall, the celebration of her birthday is not a big deal. Everyone likes the May long weekend. But its connection to Victoria and the British Empire continues to wane.
Monarchy forms a big part of the biblical tradition. Much of the Old Testament is about a mythical history of the kings of Israel and Judah. In the gospels, Jesus is hailed as a king or Christ by his followers. And many of the books of the New Testament envision Jesus sitting as King on a throne beside his Father in heaven.
But unlike my elementary school self, I no longer support monarchy as a form of government. I also don’t appreciate how often the church has acted as the handmaiden of empire, beginning when the Roman Empire co-opted it in the Fourth Century. So, I am glad that the first mention of monarchy in the Bible is so negative.
In First Samuel chapter 8, Samuel is horrified when the people of Israel ask for a king. He warns them that monarchy will lead to exploitation, war, and slavery. But despite his warning, the people clamor to be a nation like others. So, Samuel appoints Saul as the first king of Israel.
Samuel’s warnings are confirmed in the subsequent books of the Hebrew Bible. They recount the foolish deeds of one terrible king after another until the time when the Israeli empire is finally conquered by the Babylonians.
Like Samuel, I don’t support the idea of empires or kings; and so I am cheered when followers of Jesus turn our backs on empires and focus instead on the radical and democratic sovereignty proclaimed by St. Paul.
According to Paul, Christ does not rule from a distant throne. Paul writes that an inner Christ or king flickers in the heart of each person who follows a Way of Love. In contrast to 1600 years of church support for empire, I am drawn to Paul’s idea of inner sovereignty. Christ has died and then arisen within each one of us. This spiritual reality runs counter to emperors who try to lord over their subjects.
The question of sovereignty is much in the news this spring. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, nation states have exercised extraordinary emergency powers. They have quarantined citizens, restricted physical movement, and poured vast sums into financial subsidies.
To the extent these efforts have flattened the curve of the spread of infection and saved millions from destitution, most people support these efforts.
But what happens when a sovereign state — whether a monarchy, a dictatorship, or a democracy – adopts emergency powers, but the curve of infection isn’t flattened and the economy crashes despite massive spending programs? In the latter case, public support can wane, and state sovereignty can be questioned.
I am grateful that the rate of infection has slowed in Canada and that thousands of job losses haven’t yet led to drastic increases in poverty or bankruptcies. I am also aware that much has been revealed by each government’s response to the pandemic.
The countries where discontent with the pandemic response is greatest include the United States, Russia, and Brazil. They are all ruled by authoritarian nationalists who focus more on power than the well-being of their citizens. Other dictatorships have seen better results, including China, which is the most populous nation on earth and the place where the new coronavirus first spread.
I am particularly impressed by democratic countries that acted with greater speed, transparency, and social support than Canada. This list includes New Zealand, Taiwan and South Korea. They have been more adept at testing, contact tracing, and supportive isolation than Canada. Some of them have now eradicated the coronavirus.
For most of human history, sovereignty meant rule by a distant king. But in conditions of crisis, more people might be inclined to listen to Paul when he says the sacred power of the king does not have to reside in a far-off capital city. Instead, sovereignty can be as close as our breath and as dear as our sacred values.
In the tradition of Samuel and Paul, I pray that in the face of the pandemic crisis partisans of Love will unite to exercise our sacred sovereignty in the struggle to keep everyone safe regardless of how well or how poorly governments are responding to the pandemic.
May it be so. Amen.