When There Is No King
I have been doing a slow walk through J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion in concert with a Tolkien podcast; concurrently, I am moving through the Old Testament books of Joshua and Judges, accompanied by Fr. Mike Schmitz’s Bible in a Year podcast. The experiences are weirdly similar. Each text chronicles the struggles of fallen and pre-Christian people to live peaceably and humanely together while afflicted by warring neighbors, internal betrayals and defections, and corrupt or competing warlords.
The darkening account of the Israelites’ early centuries in the Promised Land following the Exodus features a series of champions or “judges”—don’t think of magistrate judges or Ruth Bader Ginsburg when you hear this word, since these judges spend most of their time battling the various peoples occupying portions of Israel in a long series of defeats and victories. Each champion leads some or occasionally all of the 12 tribes of Israel for a period of years or decades, and then dies, after which another period of chaos and subjection ensues. The book concludes with a horrific account of gang-rape and brutal retaliation against members of the offending tribe, after which, to prevent the tribe from completely dying out, the repentant avengers authorize the mass kidnapping of unmarried young women to serve as brides. The last sentence in Judges neatly sums up the situation: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
That would also be an apt coda for the accounts of betrayal, cruelty, revenge, and kin-slayings during the First Age of Middle-Earth and recounted in The Silmarillion. Oh, there are local kings aplenty in Middle-Earth, but they spend much of their time squabbling among themselves, swearing deadly oaths, and betraying one another, when they are not briefly united against the orcs and other servants of Morgoth.
Unhappily, these accounts also have more modern counterparts in our own era, early in the third millennium following the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For it is difficult not to see that for the past few centuries much of the Christian West has been straining to become post-Christian.
Not, mind you, that Christian countries during Christian centuries have not been guilty of many and frequent acts of brutality, selfishness, cruelty, and corruption. But there remained a common standard to which victims could appeal and against which villains, even in high places, could be judged and sometimes restrained. There is something peculiarly frightening, igniting a kind of vertiginous terror, in the words “in those days there was no king . . . and each man did what he thought right.”
The darker actions that punctuate human history include wars, assassinations, oppression—pretty much any selfish or oppressive deed that human ingenuity can rationalize as “right.” Today the bloodier and more obvious forms of darkness and oppression are evident in many parts of the world. However, events in apparently law-abiding and non-warring realms such as the U.S. can also be dark—and, when considered cumulatively and in their cultural influence, perhaps even darker than some of those occurring in war zones.
This spring, for example, in my own state of Maryland, Democratic legislators thought it right to introduce two abortion-related bills. The first, a bill that would amend the state constitution to guarantee the right to abortion (an insurance policy against a possible Supreme Court reversal or sharp curtailment of Roe), passed the lower house but died in the state senate. However, the second passed both houses and then survived the governor’s veto. This bill would empower non-doctors—nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and physician assistants—to perform abortions after receiving “free” training costing taxpayers $3.5 million per year.
On the other side of the continent, the State of Oregon has decided that its 25-year-old assisted suicide law will no longer be reserved for Oregonians. The pro-assisted-suicide organization Compassion and Choices had sued the state on behalf of an Oregon doctor seeking the right to prescribe terminal medications for his out-of-state patients. The Oregon court found for the equal opportunity doctor.
Receiving far more media attention was an item related to a newly emerging human life issue. It arose during the Senate questioning of Supreme Court nominee (now confirmed) Ketanji Brown Jackson. A Republican senator, concerned about how Jackson’s liberalism on social issues might translate to transgender issues, asked how she defined “woman.” Jackson replied that, not being a biologist, she could not hazard a definition. In other eras this bizarre admission might be deemed a personal idiosyncrasy that the justice could leave at home. However, at a time when transgender cases have already begun migrating from schools, amateur sports events, businesses, and government agencies into lower courts and legislatures, Jackson’s response could only be seen as a rehearsed sidestep to avoid committing herself on a matter inevitably heading for future Supreme Court dockets.
Even during periods of human history fondly remembered as tranquil and just, members of our troubled and defective species still manage to inflict and suffer a world of hurt. Immoderate desires for a host of morally dubious, demeaning, and sometimes exploitative ends prove insufficient to satisfy boundless human longings. Pride, hurt feelings, envy, fear, greed, and lust all press us to encroach upon the rights of others, use them for our satisfaction, and suppress empathy with the suffering of others.
Still, over the two thousand years since God became man, walked the world he had created, suffered death at his creatures’ hands, and then rose triumphantly from the grave, great numbers of people have come to know who our true king is, and learn what actions he does and does not think it right for us to do. Therefore, while fighting the good fight—in the short- or medium-term, often on the losing side—we do not entirely lose heart. For, though, as he told Pontius Pilate on that first Good Friday, his kingdom is not of this world, those of us who count ourselves his loyal subjects know that ultimately the dark prince of this world is destined for defeat. After all, Easter follows Good Friday, and we know that our Redeemer liveth.
Meanwhile we sojourn here, attempting to do what our king thinks right, on the way to our celestial homeland.