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Seeing Political Corruption with Biblical Eyes

January 22, 2009


Seeing Political Corruption with Biblical Eyes
By Rev. Robert Barron

People all over the country—but especially here in Illinois—are reeling from the revelations concerning Governor Rod Blagojevich’s alleged attempt to sell a Senate seat to the highest bidder.  The tapes of a foul-mouthed governor carrying on like a character from the Sopranos have been, to say the least, disquieting.  But how do biblically-minded people in particular assess this phenomenon of gross political corruption?  They do so, I would argue, with a sort of clear-eyed realism.  Anyone even vaguely acquainted with the biblical world knows that the Scriptural authors are far from naïve when it comes to the abuse of power by unscrupulous politicos.
    Consider just a few representative passages.  In the first book of Samuel, we hear that the people of Israel petitioned the prophet Samuel to anoint for them a king “as the other nations have.”  Displeased with this request, Samuel laid out for them exactly what a king would do:  “he will take your sons and assign them to his chariots and horses, and they will run before his chariot…he will set them to do his plowing and his harvesting…he will use your daughters as cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and give them to his officials…”  In short, he will abuse his power and oppress the people for his own benefit.  Despite this warning, the people persist in demanding a king and so God tells Samuel ruefully, “Grant their request and appoint a king to rule them.”  What follows, over the course of many centuries, is one of the most corrupt, incompetent, and abusive lines of monarchs in human history.  It’s as though God were saying, “I told you about these kings.” 
    In the second book of Samuel, we read of a particularly grievous sin of King David, one that went beyond personal evil and involved the conscious and wicked abuse of political authority.  David wanted to marry Bathsheba, whom he had impregnated, but he faced the inconvenient fact that Bathsheba was already married to Uriah the Hittite, an officer in the Israelite army.  Undetered, David arranged for Uriah to be placed in the thick of the battle where the unfortunate man was killed.  Once he had Uriah out of the way, David married Bathsheba, but we hear that the Lord was deeply displeased with what David had done.  God sent his prophet Nathan to the King who confronted him bluntly with his crime and detailed for him the Lord’s punishment. 
    In the Gospel of Matthew, we find the account of Jesus’ confrontation with the devil in the desert.  After tempting Christ with sensual pleasure (“turn these stones into bread”) and with glory (“throw yourself down and the angels will hold you up”), the devil entices him with the alurement of power:  “all these kingdoms, I will give you if you but fall down and worship me.”  What is most interesting about this final temptation is that the devil couldn’t offer all of the kingdoms of the world to Jesus unless he, the devil, owned them.  Indeed, in Luke’s account, this is made explicit.  Satan says, “I shall give to you all this power…for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish.”  I don’t know a passage in any of the literature of the world that is as critical of political power as that one!  All the kingdoms of the world belong to a fallen spiritual force. 
    Whereas many (if not most) cultures both ancient and modern tend to apotheosize their political leaders, the Bible sees right through politics and politicians.  One of the most important contributions of the Scriptures to contemporary politics, at least in the west, is this deep suspicion that power tends to corrupt.  The institutionalization of this suspicion in complex systems of checks and balances is a healthy outgrowth of the Biblical view. 
    To be sure, Scripturally minded people should not allow their suspicion to give way to a complete cynicism regarding politics.  Since God is powerful, power in itself cannot be construed as something evil, and indeed the Bible frequently states that legitimate political authority participates in God’s own governance of the cosmos.  But given the general human tendency toward self-absorption and violence—about which the Bible is remarkably clear-eyed—one should never put one’s total trust in political systems, leaders, or programs.  And one should ever be aware of the fact that human legal arrangements are under the judgment and authority of God.  And when a politician abuses his office and uses his power for his own aggrandizement, Biblical people should rise up and protest with all of the insistence, courage and eloquence of Nathan in the court of David.