It would be anachronistic to say that in today’s Scripture we find the people of God in an election year. What we know as democracy and democratic elections are entirely unknown in the Biblical world – which is more a world of tribes, and kings, and Pharaohs. But if we think of “election” in its general sense – as a “choosing” – we could say that we find the people in a moment of election – in that sense – we find them in a moment of choosing.
We also could say that we find them in a moment of constitutional crisis. Their government is broken. The people have lived under corrupt, abusive leaders for far too long – and they say, “Samuel – God – give us a king.” Let us choose. We choose a king.
Their constitutional crisis brings them to a moment of choosing.
We sit here in an election year – perhaps the most important election in our lifetime. We are not yet in full-blown constitutional crisis. But let’s say some true things -- we are apprehensive. We have a President who has suggested that he might not follow a constitutional transition of power. This week, we have a White Terrorist militia arrested as they planned an armed revolt. So, I thought it might be good, in this, our season of choosing – to spend some time with our ancient siblings in theirs, and to look for a Word, for this aspect of our Long Haul.
As we enter this morning’s Scripture, the people are responding to an enduring experience of abuse of power. Over the past few weeks, we have journeyed with them through their history. They have lived enslaved under Pharaoh. God has led them up and out into freedom – through the wilderness – providing manna in the morning and water from the rock. And with the gift of the Ten Commandments, God says to them, “This is how free people live. Live this life of trust and love with me and with each other.”
By this morning’s Scripture, they have settled in the land, and they are now living under the rule of something called judges – tribal leaders. The Book of Judges recounts their travails – life under judge after judge – most with a reign of violence and lawlessness and injustice. The history of these Judges is punctuated again and again with the summary: “In those days, Israel had no king, and everyone did as they saw fit.”
And then we come to Samuel the prophet and his sons – his sons are judges, and they are just plain corrupt. The people have had enough, so they go to Samuel, and they say to him, “Go tell God, that we want a king. We no longer want to be different from the other nations – like this. We want a king—just like all the other nations.” And that irks the prophet Samuel, but he goes and tells God, and – surprisingly – God says, “OK.” “OK, give the people what they want, but make sure they know this:
"This is what a king will do – a king will take you to war; a king will conscript your sons into military service; a king will take your daughters into forced servitude; a king will take your fields and your vineyards, and you will plow his land; a king will seek their own gain, not the good of the people; a king will force on you a world that favors a powerful, wealthy few – all at your expense – at the expense of your families, and your well-being, and your life. This is what a king will do; this is what kings do.”
You, see, God points out to the people the dangers of concentrating power-over in the hands of one or a few. God tells them the human truth that power, un-checked in the hands of one or a few, always, always, always results in violence and oppression and war. This is not news. This is the way the world is. Century after century. Millennium after millennium. Power-over, concentrated in one place, is where tyranny is born.
This universal truth, expressed in this ancient text, also – thousands of years later – terrified and animated the Framers of the United States Constitution. We know the list of revolutionary complaints that we learned in school, and we know the colonial abuses that they didn’t teach us. But at the heart of it all, at the founding of this nation, was an experience of an abusive colonizing king – King George III – whom history has come to call Mad King George – whose abuse of power was exacerbated by his mental illness.
Perhaps above all, the Framers of the Constitution feared the rise of yet another tyrant, so they constructed the US government with checks and balances on power. Separate branches of government to balance each other – legislative power vested primarily in an elected legislature; a President with limited power to veto and to administer those laws as Congress had legislated them; and a judiciary to check them both.
The primary check on the abuse of power, though, was vested in a system of elected representation. Representatives – and Presidents – could be voted in, and voted out. But the voting initially envisioned in the United States Constitution was nowhere near a universal right to vote. The Constitution protected and preserved the institution of slavery, and the privilege of voting was limited to white men who owned land. What’s more, even that vote was mediated through a Senate and an Electoral College, both constructed to advantage and protect the interests of States that enslaved human beings. At the inception, the Constitution preserved power-over and placed it in the hands of the few, particularly to protect slavery.With all of its worthy promises, the Constitution also preserved more than a bit of tyranny – power in the few – at the expense of so many.
And we know that it took a Civil War and a series of constitutional amendments to expand the promise of a vote to include more than white men who owned property. The 14thAmendment promised Equal Protection of the laws, and the 15th Amendment provided that “the right of citizens to vote shall not be abridged by the United States or any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But even that didn’t yet include women, which would take the 19th Amendment in 1920. And we know that, even with those promises in place, the right to vote has never been actually universal – in fact, it has remained under fairly constant attack.
The vote – or the right to vote – is perhaps our most important constitutional check on the abuse of power. Remember: Power-over concentrated in the hands of the few tends toward tyranny. The right to vote – extended to all people – disperses power. It vests judgment and the government of the people in the people – all the people. The right to vote is a threat to those who would abuse power. It holds them accountable. It says to those elected to positions of power, who then abuse that power, you can be removed.
If you want to get a glimpse of how much of a threat the right to vote is to those who would abuse power, you only need look at the energy that has been expended over the years to suppress it.
We know that the 15th Amendment’s guarantee of a right to vote to those who had been enslaved was met immediately with massive resistance. The powers of white supremacy mobilized to suppress the right to vote by erecting hurdles and barriers to voting.
· Some were plain on their face – “grandfather clauses” provided that you could only vote in an election if your grandfather had voted – plainly cutting off free people whose parents and grandparents had been enslaved.
· Some efforts at suppression tried to conjure up some patina of reasonableness. There were “literacy tests” and “understanding tests” – laws that required that a voter be able to read and explain various provisions of state and federal law. The white supremacists said, “Oh, but a voter should be able to show that they understand the laws.” But of course, white voters were given simple laws and little was expected by way of explanation. Black voters were given long, complicated passages – think of being asked to explain any number of the initiatives that will be on the California ballot in a few weeks – and even when they offered substantial answers, they were summarily failed and turned away from the polling place.
· And there was the poll tax – a tax on the right to vote – that was often cumulative – and disenfranchised those who struggled most to make ends meet.
These voter suppression tactics thwarted the 15th Amendment’s promise of the right to vote from becoming a reality for Black American citizens. By 1940, only 3% of age-eligible Black Americans were registered to vote in the South. It would take the Civil Rights movement, and the courage of so many Black Americans and their justice co-conspirators to bring about the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act provided substantive protections against the most egregious of these voter suppression measures, and it also required, for a time, the pre-clearance of any new requirement or process that might limit or impede the right to vote.
But that part of the Voting Rights Act was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. And we have witnessed a new, emboldened era of voter suppression. What once took the form of literacy and understanding tests now takes the form of Voter ID laws and voter-roll purges.
· Voter ID laws require the presentation of specified forms of government-issued ID before a registered voter can vote. Proponents of these laws invoke the specter of voter-impersonation fraud, even though study after study has shown that voter-impersonation fraud is exceedingly rare. What those studies also show is that these requirements disproportionately disenfranchise Black voters and other voters of color.
· Voter-purge laws require that registered voters be purged from the voting rolls if they haven’t voted in a specified period of time – approaching the constitutional right to vote with a “use-it-or-lose-it” mentality. These efforts, though, target and disproportionately impact voters for whom it may be difficult to get away from work, or voters who have transportation issues.
These measures target minority voters, young voters, low-income voters, and the less-mobile elderly, in particular. As scholar Carol Anderson explains, they do this by targeting “socioeconomic characteristics” and then offering seemingly “racially neutral justifications – like administrative efficiency... to cover their discriminatory intent.” The playbook hasn’t changed.
When I think of these efforts over the years to suppress the vote, I think of my friend Hattie Mae Fielder, who would have turned 100 this year. Hattie Mae lived through much of what we’ve been talking about. Born in Alabama, she was part of the Black migration north, to Michigan where she worked her whole life, and then returned to Tuscaloosa to care for her mother. I met Hattie Mae in her late 60s, and knew her through her 70s, 80s, and into her 90s. When I knew Hattie Mae, she didn’t’ drive, and she didn’t need or have a drivers license. She would have needed someone else to take her to the polls. Some election years, her health would have been good enough for her to go to the polls, other years not so much.
These voter suppression efforts and laws – voter ID laws and voter-purge laws – they are intended to disenfranchise people like Hattie Mae.
Over the past year, I’ve preached several sermons where we have talked about the entrenched systems of American racism and White Supremacy that perpetuate and institutionalize our racism even beyond individual racist action. What we see here is yet another system constructed and maintained to keep all those other systems intact – to prevent, by all means necessary, the people – and particularly Black people and people of color – from using voice and vote to stand against the concentration and abuse of power-over.
And this Scripture shouts to us: This is what kings do – this is what power-over does. This is how tyranny is born and nurtured – how it thrives.
Scripture often gives us a glimpse of what is true about us and about humanity. AND, we come to Scripture – always – for a Word of grace, a Word of life. A Word for the Long Haul. Where’s that Word here?
Well, this Scripture offers us (1) a Word of agency, and (2) a Word of ultimacy. First, the Word of agency. The people in this Scripture stand in a world where their government is broken – where their officials are abusing power, and where the failure of governance is harming the people. When they ask for a king, it’s not surprising that God then offers a lengthy critique of kingship. What is a surprising is that God says, “OK.” God leaves the decision and the responsibility with them. God honors their agency – their ability and capability to participate in the working out of life together. “No, there is no judge that will fix this for you. There is no king. Watch out for both. Don’t forget I am here. Remember, I have shown you how free people live.” It is as if God is signaling that ultimately the people will need to step up and step out. God leaves it with the people.
And the Constitution does something like that too. Almost before the ink was dry on the Constitution, the Framers knew that it was not enough. And so they added more protections against tyranny and abuse of power: the right and responsibility of free speech; the right and responsibility to petition the government for redress of grievances; the right and responsibility of a free press; the right and responsibility to assemble (and take to the streets); the right and responsibility to vote.
It’s in moments like these where our life of faith and our public life converge. God honors our agency, but it’s not agency to do as we will, it is agency to work for the good – for the public good – the good of all people. That’s why this congregation’s work on voting rights this past year has been so important, and why it is not yet finished yet. Folks in this congregation have been working with Reclaim Our Vote, as part of a larger community nationwide, working to make sure that those who have been removed from voting rolls, know that, and have the chance to get their names back on those rolls and vote. I checked in yesterday with Lisa Della Valle, who has organized and encouraged that effort and, as of September 23, folks associated with this congregation had sent 1,760 postcards, encouraging folks in GA, MS, FL, TX to check their registration status and vote. That effort has also included phone-calling and letter-writing to make sure that folks have the resources and support they need to exercise their right to vote.
God gives us agency – the ability to create meaning in the world with the lives we live – to speak up – to mobilize communities – to hold our leaders accountable – and to vote. In the system of government that we have chosen and then broken, God empowers us and calls us to do better. Calls us to do good.
And, a word of ultimacy. In the second act of the musical Hamilton, the playwright Lin Manuel Miranda quotes George Washington, quoting the Bible, as George Washington dreams of the future they are working for. Micah 4:4 -- “Everyone shall sit under their own vine, and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.” George Washington quoted that verse from the prophet Micah over 50 times in his written letters and addresses. In Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda voices that vision in the black and brown bodies of the actors who tell the story of the founding of this nation.
The prophet Micah’s vision is even more expansive than that: In that day, God will rule the nations; they will beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; neither will they learn war anymore; everyone will sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”
Yes, today’s Scripture tells us what kings do – but what’s more important is what God does, through the Long Haul. Yes, this Scripture speaks of the power of kings, but what’s more important is the sovereignty of God. What kings do is never the ultimate Word for us.
God says to God’s people, yes, this is the way of kings, but remember, here is the world that I am making. I am the God who brought you up out of slavery into freedom; I am the God who will bring you back when your kings lead you into exile. I am your God. You are my beloved people. Honor me, and honor each other. Honor mothers, and fathers, and families. Don’t lie; tell the truth. Give every worker a Sabbath rest. Honor the dignity and humanity of all people. Remember, this is how free people live. This is the world I am making. This is our Long Haul.
And then God empowers us – empowers us together to mend and to tend, to heal, to repair, to establish justice, to make meaning and peace, to speak up, to do the work, and to vote. God empowers us and invites us together to tear down what needs tearing down, and to build with God this new world – where everyone lives free.
© 2020 Scott Clark
 For general background on this text, see Bruce Birch, “1 & 2 Samuel,” New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. ii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press 1988); Alphonetta Wines, Working Preacher commentary, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3686 ; Roger Nam, Working Preacher Commentary, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2472  For background on the ways that the Constitution as enacted protected slavery and preserved racist power see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press: New York, 2011); and Derrick A. Bell, Jr., And We Are Not Saved (1987). See also Scott Clark, “When Wait Means Never: American Tolerance of Racial Injustice,” National Black Law Journal (UCLA ed.), vol. 13, no. 1 (1993).  For a thorough history of voter-suppression efforts, see Carol Anderson, One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018).  Anderson, pp.5-7.  Id., pp.7-10.  Id., p.4.  Id., pp.17-22.  See Shelby County v. Holder (US Supreme Court 2013).  See Anderson, pp. 44-95; Theodore Johnson & Max Feldman, The New Voter Suppression (Brennan Center report, January 2020), https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/new-voter-suppression  Id.  See https://www.npr.org/2018/10/23/659784277/republican-voter-suppression-efforts-are-targeting-minorities-journalist-says  See Anderson, p.62.  Anderson, p.2  See https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/vine-and-fig-tree/
Photo used with permission, by Unseen Histories, via Unsplash.