By Benedict Augustine
“Then all the trees said to the buckthorn, ‘Come; you reign over us!’
But the buckthorn replied to the trees,
‘If you wish to anoint me king over you in good faith,
come and take refuge in my shadow.
Otherwise, let fire come from the buckthorn
and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’”
In times of social unrest, communities will always look for a strong leader. Unfortunately, if the community has reached a low enough state, it will often lack decent leaders to follow. This situation arises from a weak culture that has given up morality, meaning, and goodness. Indifference and despair pervade the atmosphere. Everyone claims the status of victim, pointing fingers at everyoneelse, and all clamor for a leader to make the problems go away, but this only invites an even bigger problem: a tyrant, or party of tyrants, that enslave the whole population.
Good leaders rise from good cultures, ones that reinforce a moral code, a vigorous search for truth, and a reverence for beauty. In such conditions, allmen and women accept their roles with gratitude, act selflessly, and contribute to the common good—indeed, they themselves form the common good. Healthy cultures are never at a loss for leaders, for all the citizens could carry out the duties of leadership, knowing and doing what is good, what is fair, and what is required. Because accomplishing this is somewhat easy (and even fun) with such a virtuous community, the people hardly desire a strong leader, but rather a weak one that will leave everyone alone.
As Christ says, “For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.” Good societies have an abundant crop of talented leaders, but do not need them; bad ones in need of good leaders have none and often sink into deeper misery. This fundamental truth suggests something important about leadershipand history: strong leaders are not the solution, or the problem, but rather the result of culture; they can act as the nasty symptom of a diseased culture, or the sweet fruits of a prosperous culture.
In nearly every community, misunderstanding this cause and effect relationship, good/bad cultures and good/bad leaders, has led to cultural decline. Leaders and citizens alike mistake their wealth and power as culture rather than the product of culture. In logical terms, they mistake the effect for the cause. When this happens, they do not simply neglect the culture that made them great, but reject it outright. When a community has money, power, and influence, the old ways of virtue, religion, and tradition threaten to overturn these goods that seem to stand on their own merits.
As history makes clear, relying on money, power, and influence, virtually ensures a culture’s immediate decline and ensuing decadence. People abandon God, one another, and even themselves, knocking down the pillars of law, compassion, and hard work. Soon enough, another younger and slightly less corrupt power will overtake it for a while before falling itself to yet another power. Thus, the cycle continues indefinitely.
The book of Judges illustrates the scenario perfectly. Probably the most dystopian—and politically intriguing—of any of the books of the entire Bible, it captures the fluctuating fate of fallen humanity in all its frustration. A few centuries after Joshua leads the twelve tribes triumphantly into Israel, they stop worshiping God, stop following His laws which hitherto kept them safe, and completely lose their identity amid the pagan cultures left in the area.
Right on cue, they would cry out for a strong leader to save them from all their problems. God instead gives them judges, who are not exactly leaders, but more warriors and prophets who would ward off the pagan influence in the attempts of restoring Israel’s culture. The questionable character of most the judges, who excel at killing and not much else (like my personal favorite, Shamgar, who kills 600 Philistines with an ox goad), offers strong evidence of Israel’s inferior culture. With the help of God, they have a few good judges, yet in the absence of enduring faith, they had no good leaders.
Nevertheless, they still hope for a strong leader, and finally had one in the tyrant Abimelech. The prophet Jotham makes clear in his parable that they have allowed their desperate search for a king blind them to the man that they actually agreed to follow. They did not pick the olive or fig tree, nor the vine, which all produced goods of value; they picked the prickly parasitic shrub, the buckthorn. Needless to say, his reign spells disaster for Israel as he ravages the land for the next few years in the hopes of aggrandizing his kingdom.
Although Abimelech eventually dies in one of the captured towns at the hands of a woman, the Isrealites scarcely learn their lesson of seeking salvation from an earthly king instead of their King in Heaven. After so many centuries of turmoil and judges, God grants their wish with King Saul, which starts another cycle of varying fortunes, sadly with more buckthorn kings than olive ones, that finally end with Babylonian captivity.
This lesson, spanning the whole Old Testament, not only makes plain the need for Jesus’ Kingship, but the need for a cultural revival. Sinful leaders cannot save a sinful people, and sinful people cannot produce anything but sinful leaders. They must be restored from within, and this can only come from Jesus. He is the Leader that causes, not the one that results, flourishing. With the judges and Israel, Catholics have the prefigurement; with Jesus and His Church, they have the reality.