"Pinning all our hopes on what our leaders can do and deliver simply wouldn’t work."
For centuries after their arrival in the Promised Land, the ancient Hebrews were ruled by a succession of “judges” chosen by representatives of the Israelite tribes to serve not only as dispenser of justice and protector of the people, but even as the nation’s military leader. Whenever a crisis arose, the elders representing the tribes would select the strongest and wisest among them and nominate him to the “judge” who will bring the nation through the crisis. When it was all over, the “judge” would willingly relinquish his office.
This is almost an ancient version of today’s modern representative democracy.
The last of this line of judges was the prophet Samuel, and when he was nearing the end of his life, the people of Israel came to see him and demanded of him, “Give us a king to lead us.”
At first, Samuel was hesitant to accede to the people’s demand. He reminded the people of what the kings of neighboring nations did to wield their authority. The men will be taken to war and the women will be conscripted to work for the king. The people will be asked to pay burdensome taxes, and the king’s word will be the law of the land. In a way, Samuel explained that with a king to lord over them, the people would have to give up many of their freedoms.
Unmoved by what Samuel said would happen to them if they had a king, the people of Israel remained insistent, “Give us a king.”
So, God told Samuel to do as the people pleased. Samuel then went to anoint Saul as Israel’s first king. However, soon enough Saul was replaced by David, who in turn was succeeded by his son Solomon. But with the rise of the Israelite monarchy came the beginning of the downfall of their nation. First, with its division into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Second, with the exile of both kingdoms centuries later—and the diaspora of the Israelite nation that continues up to our time.
Even this biblical story seems to repeat itself. Despite decades of democracy – corruption, poverty, war, crime and discontent has slowly replaced the people’s faith in democracy with cynicism, frustration and desperation, closely echoing what the people asked Samuel, “Give us a king.”
Sadly, our people seem to be too eager to let go of their freedoms in exchange for a “king” who could fight the crisis for them. It isn’t too surprising that in many countries today, strong populist leaders have emerged, all promising to make decisions that would ensure a better future for their people.
Except that in most cases, these populist leaders would fail in the end.
When Samuel disagreed with the people’s demand for a king, it was not because he believed that Israel was better off without a king. It was because he wanted the people to understand that if they wanted an advanced, progressive and secure society, what they needed was not a king, but for the people to play their role in strengthening their nation.
Samuel seemed to affirm that the people will always get the leader that they deserve —that if they allow money or might to influence their choice of a leader; in the end, that leader could exploit his power and adversely force his rule on them. Nation building was not simply a question of who the leaders were but more importantly of the willingness of the people to have faith and accordingly, take a stake in their nation’s future.
For us who are citizens of a modern democracy, Samuel leaves us with an important lesson—that in order to keep democracy functioning, there is a need for faith, albeit of a more secular nature. Faith in representative government. Faith in dialogue and compromise. Faith in elections. Faith that our fellow citizens will abide by a social contract that includes both liberty and law, rights and responsibilities.
Pinning all our hopes on what our leaders can do and deliver simply wouldn’t work.
We cannot all plead, “Give us a king” and then fail to do our part as citizens.
Similarly, we cannot expect the government to do everything for us, because democracy is not built on a stable leadership alone, but for it to grow and flourish, it must be sustained by active citizenship.
Active citizenship is to understand that being part of this nation means more than enjoying our rights and liberties. Instead, it also entails willingly embracing the duties and responsibilities that come with it.
A corrupt government will persist as long as the people couldn’t care less about how their country is run. Bad politics will last for as long as the people will continue to choose people who are blinded by power and profit.
Only when the people start to care more about their country, knowing that they have an indispensable role to play in shaping its present and future and only then will democracy grow and progress come.
Change will not and will never happen by itself—we need to make it happen.
When the people understand their power is greater than the people in power, it is then when politics becomes a powerful platform for change.