We live in interesting times. Despotic leaders are the new black. How do we respond?
For more than 10 years I have lived under the regime of one of the most brutal men to lead a country in modern times. This is a man who is a multi-billionaire, while his own people languish in poverty. A man who lives in a mansion while millions of his people live in shacks. A man who will throw you in prison for a Facebook post (that's why I'm not naming names).
So just your regular run-of-the-mill, tin-pot tyrant then.
This Christmas, let's remember that Jesus was born under the regime of just such a man: Herod the Great.
Here's a quick run down on the man who was so obsessed with being "Great" that he became known as Herod "the Great"...
- Herod undertook lavish, ambitious construction projects that were built by exploitation.
- He publically identified himself with the religion of the people of God, but lived a decadent and self-indulgent lifestyle - with multiple wives and children.
- Herod was expected to support the interests of his outside patrons (the hardass Roman Emperor Augustus).
- He used secret police to monitor and report the feelings of the general populace towards him. He sought to prohibit protests, and had opponents removed by force.
- Herod's excessive concern for his reputation led him to give extravagant gifts, increasingly emptying the kingdom's coffers.
So, what can the Christmas story teach us about living under a man like this? Here are a few tips from the Bible...
1. Have eyes to see
The first people who sought to worship Jesus were a bunch of spiritual gurus from Asia (Mt 2:1-2). Scholars believe they were most likely from Syria or Iraq. Funny how truth can sometimes come from outside our own religious and cultural context.
These men, religious and cultural outsiders, had eyes to see what God was saying about Jesus' birth. And they were eventually able to discern Herod's true character.
As Dave Andrews says:
King Herod said that when he found the child born to be King, he ‘wanted to worship’ him, but what he actually wanted to do was kill him. Let us not put our trust in leaders who claim to care but do not practice what they preach.
Dave is right.
Words are cheap. Campaign promises and political speeches and tweets come and go. The proof is in the pudding. A leader's track record and actions tell us most of what we need to know about their commitment to the most vulnerable members of society.
Ask God for discernment. Then act accordingly. Which may lead you to...
2. Practice Civil Disobedience
These foreign gurus were the also first of many in the New Testament to refuse to obey the ruling authorities.
King Herod told the Magi, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."
But after the Magi found baby Jesus and gave their gifts, they were "warned in a dream not to go back to Herod" and they "returned to their country by another route" (Mt 2:8, 12).
Apparently, God told them not to do what the King had instructed.
God told them NOT to obey the ruling authority.
This was during a time when disobeying the King was a capital offense, punishable by death. It is the first recorded act of civil disobedience in the New Testament.
It's worth mentioning again that the law is not our ultimate moral guide. Slavery was lawful. The holocaust was legal. Segregation was legally sanctioned.
Simply put, the law does not dictate our ethics. God does. So it should not surprise us that the One we follow was executed as a criminal, and that there will be times we we are called to break unjust laws.
As St Augustine said, "An unjust law is no law at all."
3. Pray for him
Finally, the words of Jesus:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. (Mt 5:43, 44)
Perhaps like me, you've had to fight the temptation when working for justice, to demonize those who oppress.
Anger, yes. Hatred, no.
(Apparently, overturning tables is within the range of viable options in responding to injustice though...)
True transformation is only complete when the oppressor is changed as well as the oppressed. So, we should ask God for the grace to love and pray for our leaders, even the tin-pot tyrants and dictators who step on our necks.
If we act in love, then we won't go too far off track.
I like the Wise Men. They were gurus from afar. Mystics on a mission. (Heretics on a hike?)
And they teach us a lot this Christmas about responding to a tyrant like Herod "the Great".
So, how have you responded to oppressive leadership?
I'd love to hear your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.