Samuel and the Supreme Court

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Wednesday, July 3, 2013 — Week of Proper 8, Year One

[Go to Mission St. Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 972)

Psalms 119:15-176 (morning) // 128, 129, 130 (evening)

1 Samuel 12:1-6, 16-25

Acts 8:14-25

Luke 23:1-12

Last November, I got a small taste of how challenging it can be to vote. I could barely hobble to my polling place, since I was recovering from emergency surgery. The process for obtaining an absentee ballot had been too difficult to navigate in my circumstances, with its various deadlines, designated bearers, authorized agents, and affadavits. I was glad I voted in person, though. I finally put my 20-word Spanish vocabulary to good use, helping another voter figure out what identification and information the poll worker was seeking. By comparison to many other people, my own obstacles to voting were minor and temporary.

Our first Scripture reading this morning reminded me of the crucial role that voting access can play in demanding justice. In our reading, Samuel delivers a speech that opens his public record for examination, and that gives his people an opportunity to respond. Has he taken anyone’s ox? Anyone’s donkey? Has he defrauded or oppressed anyone? Has he taken any bribes? Samuel invites open testimony against him. The people, in turn, affirm the goodness of Samuel’s leadership. He has not defrauded or oppressed anyone. In effect, Samuel holds himself accountable to the people, and they confirm his authority. Elections allow the same dynamic of accountability and affirmation.

Samuel, of course, is not an elected leader himself. He certainly isn’t subject to term limits! (As he says to his people, “I have led you from my youth until this day.”) Samuel is a spiritual leader, and his mission is to instruct his people “in the good and the right way,” and to pray for them no matter what they decide. His political role is to point out, explicitly, the consequences of their choices—particularly for the defrauded and the oppressed.

What would Samuel say to us today? In his own context, Samuel tried to warn people about the dangers of a monarchical form of government. Samuel said that, under a king, the people would experience a heavy tax burden, forced labor, and loss of life and loved ones in the king’s ambitious wars. Far from modeling Samuel’s leadership ethic, a king would be unaccountable, and he would serve his own interests rather than his people. He would never need to invite their testimony against him.

Samuel would probably point out similar perils in our own system of government. Because of two recent Supreme Court decisions, it is all the more difficult to imagine scenarios in the United States in which leaders are held accountable to their constituents. Even without commenting on the specific data or reasoning in the Shelby County v. Holder decision, we can acknowledge the risks to justice that the decision poses. Voting is one of the most basic ways to say to those who hold power, “Yes, I have been defrauded. Yes, I have been oppressed. Now, give us something better.” But now, without key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, elected leaders are less accountable to communities with a long history of being defrauded and oppressed.

It is also more difficult now to force our leaders to answer Samuel’s question, “from whose hand have I taken a bribe to blind my eyes with it?” After the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which rejected parts of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (a.k.a. the McCain-Feingold Act), corporations can have unprecedented and disproportionate financial involvement in elections. Entities like 527s—especially so-called “Super PACs”—make it all the more difficult to trace what financial influence different groups have on elected leaders.

Tomorrow is the Fourth of July, when people in the United States celebrate the historic overthrow of a monarchical government, claiming their access to representative leadership. As we have learned, no form of government can, in and of itself, guarantee justice, freedom, and peace. We need faith communities and leaders like Samuel—leaders who can ask, “Whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed? Or from whose hand have I taken a bribe to blind my eyes with it?”

And people deserve mechanisms that compel leaders to say, “Testify against me and I will restore it to you.” Pray that all of God’s people, in every nation, lift up these leaders and establish ways to hold them accountable to the defrauded and the oppressed.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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