Sitting at this coffee shop in Jerusalem’s Old City, I am struck more by the similarities of the people passing by than the differences. I watched as an old man—probably Muslim, given the quarter of the Old City I am in—tended the racks of knickknacks outside his shop. A young woman walked past, lugging bags of goods with three children in tow; the oldest boy’s kippah testifying to their family’s Jewish faith.
A Muslim shopkeeper and a young Jewish mom might seem to have little in common, but both were benefiting from the one thing they absolutely have in common with each other and with people at home in Texas. And it’s the one thing all of us take for granted, despite making such a not only familiar but common sight.
We are all living under a system of self-governance that entered the world in this land. It is the system of government God intended for the people of Israel but they rejected. Mankind has lived with the consequences of that rejection for three millennia.
When the people of Israel, led by Joshua, entered the land promised to their fathers they took control of it. The most notable feature of their centralized government is that there was not one. God was their king, and the law was to govern their daily affairs. They were a self-governing people, united in a way Israel never would be again. The laws served the people, rather than rulers serving themselves at the expense of the people.
Yet despite hundreds of years of relative peace and prosperity – or perhaps because of it – the Israelites looked around and realized, to their horror, they were different from everyone else. (Which, of course, was exactly the point.)
They realized every other nation had a strong man, a king, to lead them. And so they entreated the prophet Samuel to find and anoint one.
Samuel, acting at God’s direction, pleaded with the people not to pursue such a path. His counsel is recorded in 1 Samuel 8:11-18.
He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”
Sound vaguely familiar? The point is the people dove in, rejecting God and the government he gave them. Self-governance vanished into antiquity, with people suffering under the burden of the government they wanted.
It would be more than 2,500 years before the wisdom of self-governance would be rediscovered and tried again. Our founding fathers knew from Scripture that simply setting up a new King George in the New World would be a fool’s errand; they wanted to pursue authentic liberty, not an American-made yoke.
Hence the American Experiment, the hallmark of which is a system in which everyone is subservient only to the law. No one – not a president, governor, or king – stands above it. Or, at least, that was the intention.
When Israel achieved independence in the mid-20th century, their founders had the opportunity to merely mimic the world and install yet another king, another strong man, another “leader.” Yet they chose a different way. While absent a constitution, modern Israel is a republic built on clearly defined laws respecting individual liberty. Is it perfect? No. Could they do better? Yes, as could we.
We all know the story of Benjamin Franklin being asked about the results of the constitutional convention: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Israel faces a daily existential threat to their expression of a self-governing system of government. On all sides they are surrounded by people, living in countries with kings and dictators, who wake up and pledge “death to Israel.” That must have a clarifying effect on a sense of national purpose, for Israelis are more involved in government affairs than Americans.
More than 72 percent of Israeli voters participate in their elections, compared to the 50 percent forecasted for Texans’ 2018 participation. Even at the municipal level, Israelis turnout in much higher numbers than Texans.
While Israel faces existential threats from outside, the threat we face is from within.
Across America and even in Texas we find governing institutions infected with cronies seeking to profit off government, and bureaucrats who view themselves as a special ruler-class rather than servants of the people. But it has been the people who have allowed the weed of cronyism to grow unchecked, watered with our civic apathy.
It’s said politics is the art of compromise. That is a lie told with smug self-satisfaction by those who desire to be masters. In a self-governing system, the “art of compromise” always works against individual liberty and undermines self-governance. Always. In our system of government, politics must be focused on expanding liberty and reducing the power of centralized leaders.
Self-governance as a political philosophy is rooted in God’s practical desire for people to be free of external restraint so they can worship Him and be all He designed them to be. President Calvin Coolidge once observed, “Prosperity is only an instrument to be used, not a deity to be worshipped.”
Whether the shopkeeper is in Jerusalem’s Old City or the trendy part of Houston, and the harried mom is dashing about on streets three millennia old or in a minivan through Frisco, the tool of prosperity is more readily available to each when centralized government is limited, liberty is expanded, and self-governance flourishes.