Jewish and Christian Americans of faith view the recent historic
capture of Saddam Hussein? Most of us project the core elements
of our own self image on to an imaginary big screen which then
displays our larger world view. Those who chiefly think of themselves
as journalists deploy their ubiquitous "objectivity."
They analyze all news with the usual "on the one hand"
and then follow it up with "but on the other..." Then
we have those whose entire self image is structured upon their
identity as academics or intellectuals. They think of themselves
as citizens of the world and so they carefully avoid anything
that could sound patriotic or American. Politicians knowing
they must sound serious, express enthusiasm tempered with the
caution that much work still lies ahead. How about those of
us whose self image is chiefly derived from our Jewish or Christian
faith? Does the Bible suggest a world view? What is up there
on our screen?
possible starting point might be King Solomon's adage from the
first chapter of Ecclesiastes, "There is nothing new under
the sun." We have seen many earlier Saddam Husseins. In
the west during the past century we saw Adolf Hitler and Joseph
Stalin. During the same period, African and Asia produced their
own tyrants who also followed the standard pattern. Tyrants
and their consistent styles go all the way back to Nimrod in
the book of Genesis.
Here are two chief
characteristics of tyrants. The first is that they come to power
during times of chaos and anarchy. When the traditions and rules
that hold together the invisible framework of social stability
collapse, the tyrant seized his moment. We humans so yearn for
predictability in our lives that even if it is offered by someone
odious and suspect, we will often embrace it. Freedom run amok
can be far more frightening to ordinary folks trying to raise
their families and feed them, than the cartoon figure with the
moustache who insists on total power in order to restore our
lives to the normality of our nostalgia.
The second characteristic
of tyrants is that they dominate the epoch within their cultures.
They demand and obtain a worship of personality. Statues, parades,
and rallies are only symbolic of the total authority they exercise
over their people. Women frequently adore them and babies are
raised in their adulation. Almost never does history reveal
good, wise, restrained, and noble leaders who become idols to
their nations in this way. Even Winston Churchill never achieved
anything remotely resembling cult status in wartime Britain.
Here in the United States guffaws of ridicule would greet any
suggestion of large public statues to George W. Bush. We even
refrain from depicting living leaders on coins or stamps.
In other words,
anytime we see a leader aim for and achieve god-like status
among his people, fear the worst. (Does North Korea suggest
itself?) Ancient Jewish tradition identifies any epoch defined
by one charismatic and powerful leader as an epoch headed for
The first time the Bible identifies this pattern of human history
is the opening of Genesis chapter fourteen, "And it came
to pass in the days of Amrafel king of Shinar..." Jewish
tradition identifies Amrafel as Biblical history’s first
tyrant, Nimrod-the same ruler who built the tower of Babel.
Every chapter in the Bible that begins, "And it came to
pass in the days of ______" where the blank identifies
one individual, know that you are about to read a story of tragedy
and destruction. Sure enough, chapter fourteen continues to
tell the story of history’s first world war. The pattern
continues reliably throughout the Bible all the way to the Book
of Esther, with its story of impending genocide, and which begins
with the same fateful words, "And it came to pass in the
days of Achashverosh..."
Stalin rose to power
during the chaos following the Russian revolution. Lenin may
have brought about the revolution but it was Stalin who was
able to convert mass street demonstrations and the terror of
ordinary citizens into his own power base. He offered stability
and quickly created the same cult of personality that Hitler
was soon to emulate. Hitler exploited the moral, cultural, and
economic chaos that plagued Germany after World War I and promised
predictability and prosperity. This was an almost irresistible
enticement to Germans baffled by the anarchy that had overtaken
them. Saddam Hussein rose to power between 1956 and 1968, while
Iraq was being torn asunder by the end of their monarchy and
the fierce struggles between pro-Western Iraqis and the nationalists,
which made daily life for ordinary citizens all but unbearable.
In each of these stories the cult of personality and total individual
power followed mass erosion of civic predictability. We can
be guided by the pattern we recognize in Genesis chapters eleven
through fourteen. The predictability of ordinary life for ordinary
people was eroded by the tumultuous Tower of Babel and this
was followed by the rise to power of Nimrod (Amrafel) who ultimately
brought complete destruction.
Yes, in our yearning
for predictability, we can easily fall prey to evil. In the
aftermath of Saddam’s capture, that very Sunday evening,
during ABC’s prime time special on Sunday night, Peter
Jennings declared that "there’s not a good deal for
Iraqis to be happy about at the moment. Life is still very chaotic,
beset by violence in many cases, huge shortages. In some respects,
Iraqis keep telling us life is not as stable for them as it
was when Saddam Hussein was in power."
What helps destroy
predictability? One unintended side effect of the secular fundamentalism
sweeping America is how it erodes the rules that hold together
the invisible net of social stability. By encouraging unfettered
personal license, secular fundamentalism helps collapse civilized
norms. Then, when people dress with deliberately provocative
vulgarity and they express themselves loudly and obscenely in
public, hardworking, family-minded citizens are left with a
growing feeling of unease. When young people no longer see their
maturation leading naturally toward marriage and when marriage
itself becomes threatened by cultural ridicule and purported
alternatives, parents feel unmoored. When public institutions
depict religion as only for the emotionally needy and the intelligence
impaired many Americans feel resentment and alienation.
obviously not to suggest that the hobby of shattering traditional
rules that seems to delight so many journalists, academics,
and intellectuals is going to endow America with a future dictatorial
tyrant. It can eventually, however, infect ordinary Americans
with docility about further Federal control beyond that necessary
to protect us from our enemies. In a desperate attempt to recover
some sense of normality and predictability in our lives, we
might be tempted to embrace expanded government influence over
how we live, earn, and worship. We would yearn for the predictability
and normality that used to be supplied by those traditional
rules that many Jewish and Christian Americans of faith remember
increasingly nostalgically. Biblically-based faith helps to
maintain freedom by holding together the invisible framework
of social stability. This might be one lesson that we Jewish
and Christian Americans of faith can draw from the historic
capture of Saddam Hussein.
Daniel Lapin is the President of Toward
Tradition, working to advance our nation toward the traditional
Judeo-Christian values that defined America's creation.
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