We Want a King! 1 Samuel 8 and Strongman Politics

By Charlee New 01 Nov 2018
Jair Bolsonaro

Brazil just elected former military Captain Jair Bolsonaro as President. He’s being dubbed by many as the ‘Trump of the Tropics’ for his populist appeal, anti-establishment messaging, authoritarian flavour and nationalistic spirit; his campaign catchphrase was ‘Brazil before everything, and God above all’. He is a deeply divisive figure, who has a reputation for his numerous misogynistic, homophobic and racist remarks. Socially conservative and reportedly pro-market (although he has openly stated that he knows little about economics), he is also decidedly popular with Brazil's evangelical (Pentecostal) Christians.[1]

However, to compare him directly with Trump is to ignore perhaps the most worrying aspect of Bolsonaro’s rise to power. Whatever you make of his policies on, for example, withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement or relaxing Brazil’s gun laws to allow individuals to defend themselves from street crime, there is evident reason for concern in his open admiration of dictatorship and military rule. Unlike the US’s two-hundred-and-fifty-year commitment to democracy, which submits any US president's inclination for autocracy to a rigorous system of ‘checks and balances’, Brazil’s democracy is still young, with the country under military dictatorship until 1985. In 2016, Bolsonaro argued that ‘the dictatorship's mistake was to torture but not kill’, whilst the following quote from 1999 outlines his anti-democratic feeling; when asked what he would do if elected President, he replies:

"There is no doubt. I would perform a coup on the same day. [Congress] doesn't work…And I am sure that at least 90% of the population would celebrate and applaud because it doesn't work. The congress today is useless… Let's do the coup already. Let's go straight to the dictatorship."

And yet, in the face of record-breaking unemployment, political corruption and (crucially) a huge problem with violent crime, some Brazilians are willing to see the end of democracy if it solves these issues. Put succinctly by one female supporter of Bolsonaro, when interviewed about street crime: ‘If dictatorship ends all that, we welcome it.’

I would like to suggest two ways that Christians can reflect on this:

1. Lessons from 1 Samuel 8

Whilst we consider the ‘rise of strongman politics’ and seeming distrust of democracy, it is helpful to remember that there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). If we turn to 1 Samuel 8, we can see an Israel led by local leaders and prophets. However, when the prophet Samuel passes on his leadership role to his two sons, Joel and Abisha, they both prove to be corrupt and unjust leaders (1 Samuel 8:3), triggering Israel's request to God for a 'king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.' (v.5) Seeing the corruption of their current leaders, the people reject the system as a whole, and tellingly, they also express their desire for a military might—a king to lead their battles (v.20). Yet the warning from God is clear, handing over authority to the King will grant him 'rights' over the people, and also opens them to the abuses of power; where 'you yourselves will become his slaves' (v.16). Human communities have long wrestled with fear, and have willingly sacrificed their freedoms for the sake of security. This is a timely reminder, both to nations as a whole, but especially to the church, that willingly (collectively) handing over your power to one authority in the belief that they can 'save' the future of the country, is a sure pathway to that same power being wielded against you. Moreover, for Christians especially, God's reply to Samuel on hearing Israel's request ('it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king' v.7), is a sharp reminder that God is the ultimate authority for us and we must be careful that our endorsement of a fallible, human political candidate is not a rejection of trust in God.

2. The value of democratic freedom

Whilst the prevailing mood appears to be a pessimism about, or exhaustion with democracy, it can be easy to take for granted or disregard democracy's value and benefits. Vinoth Ramachandra has argued that: 'Christians engaging in the public sphere should not be defending an abstract “democracy”, but rather the liberal values (which are also Christian values) on which a democracy that respects and safeguards the rights of all people ultimately rests.' This is a crucial point, that many of the values underpinning liberal democracy (universal suffrage, active participation in communities, liberty, representation, commitment to common good, civil freedoms etc) are values that Christians today should uphold. To continue a cynical disparagement of democracy (which is how several media outlets are interpreting the situation in Brazil), without also affirming its good, is to fall into an apathetic relativism about different political structures, saying 'Well, they're all bad anyway.' And amongst the contemporary context of modern nation states, do we currently see alternative, viable political systems that also seek to limit power, give voice to all people and value freedom? If not, then we should be wary that speaking only dissatisfaction with the current political system, with no mention of its positives or framework for an alternative, will inevitably open the door of general opinion to other, more oppressive options.

And what is the importance of freedom? Perhaps we should finish with this quote from Albert Camus:

"If someone takes away your bread, he suppresses your freedom at the same time. But if someone takes away your freedom, you may be sure that your bread is threatened, for it depends no longer on you and your struggle but on the whim of a master."


[1] Evangelicals have been growing in numbers since 1970, now making up 29% of all Brazilians. And pre-election polls show 61% of evangelicals intended to vote Bolsonaro. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-45979682

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