The Israelites of Samuel’s day wanted a king. A king they got. They also got sectarian strife that led to harsh dictatorial rule that led to rebellion, that led to a cycle of repetition.
We humans have a confused relationship with authority. We want it. We value it. When we get it, we rebel against it. We clamor for someone to lead us with unerring certainty as long as their certainty agrees with our certainty, and then we rebel against their authority the moment they try to exercise it. As with the Hebrews of old, we send our own versions of Moses up the mountain to find out what God wants of us, and then argue with what is said on God’s behalf, preferring whatever golden calf is nearby. A few of us contend that we are Moses with God alone is our authority in everything, but ascribe that authority to a five hundred year old edition of the bible, or worse, to whatever we claim has been “laid on our hearts,” which we then feel free to impose, if we can, on others.
The authority of parents vs. the rights of children. The authority of the law vs. personal freedom. Bosses vs. subordinates. Coaches vs. players. Popes vs. nuns. We just have a hard time with finding a comfortable place to live with authority. Today’s Tea Partiers want as little government as possible, and would happily endorse autocratic rule to get it. We contradict ourselves at every turn.
I am way out of touch with contemporary research, but in the early 1970s O. J. Harvey produced a study in which he claimed that 65 – 70% of the U.S. population were most comfortable in authoritarian environments, divided, it seemed, between those who were more comfortable as active order givers, and those who were more comfortable carrying out orders. That quickly leads to competing realms of authority with members in each camp almost certain that everyone else is wrong. No doubt they need some form of corrective action to set things right. He also asserted that another 10-15% could be labeled as anarchists rebelling against authority, either actively or passively, just because. A perfect recipe for constant turmoil.
It was a long time ago, and I’ve probably left out important variables, but the point he tried to make then was that we cannot assume that the majority of the population is interested in, or capable of, responsible self direction. Was he right about that? I’m not so sure. If so, it’s pretty demoralizing. The prophet Samuel, looking at the people of his own time and place, seemed to go along with Harvey.
I prefer to think that there are more of us who are capable of something better than that, although these last few years of political nonsense have left me in doubt. Moreover, in retirement with more time to listen to a wider variety of people as a fairly anonymous bystander, I have become more aware of how many think in black and white terms, terribly uncomfortable with the grays of life. Some are attracted to the certain authority of the Catholic Church, or the fundamentalist teaching of conservative Evangelicals. Some reject all authority, yet search endlessly for something to believe in. Some are scared to death to question their own political, religious or social views on the assumption that, if they are not firmly, inflexibly held, they will collapse altogether. Perhaps, for them, they are right. How very sad. Just the same, collectively I think we can do better than that.