Tuesday, September 7, 2010

2 Samuel 15: "The Hearts of the People"

How do you win the hearts of the people?

As midterm elections creep nearer in the United States, politicians across the country--or at least, sadly, those up for re-election--are trying very hard to come up with an answer.

On the left, President Obama has proposed two ideas likely intended to win voters' favor as November draws nigh: a capital investment tax credit for small businesses and a $50 billion public works plan to spur job growth and update infrastructure. (There's also a research tax break floating around somewhere.)

On the right, candidates are proposing less and crowing more; many echo a chorus I heard yesterday on the Howie Carr Show: "Are you better off than you were two years ago?" Presumably, Republicans' answer is "no." (It's worth noting that the time frame--two years--has been halved since Reagan coined the phrase in his debates with Carter thirty years ago. I wonder how low politicians can go? "Are you better off than you were fifteen minutes ago? No? Then vote for Michele Bachmann! ... Yes? Did you eat a sandwich? Oh. That makes sense.")

But at least one politician in the Bible--and a nefarious one at that--knew something that Obama and the right seem to have forgotten in the sturm und drang of the midterm election season: that winning the hearts of the people has less to do with talking than it does with listening.

That "politician" is Absalom, the son of King David who, for a brief moment, usurps his father's throne. (Marc Chagall's depiction of Absalom's reconciliation with his father appears above.)

For some, Absalom is a classic villain. He is a conspiring murderer who gains power through deceit and subterfuge. But for others, he's a man looking to settle scores in the wake of a heinous wrong.

Absalom has a beautiful sister--for whom he cares deeply--named Tamar. However, he's also got a half-brother, Amnon, with a taste for half-incest. Amnon falls hard for Tamar, rapes her, and discards her. But when David hears of his son's disgusting sin, he fails to punish him; actually, he fails to do anything: "When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn" (2 Samuel 13:21).

Understandably, Absalom is livid--at Amnon for his crime and at David for his blind eye. But Absalom is also the classic snake in the grass; diabolically, he waits two full years for his revenge, catching Amnon completely unawares and slaughtering him at a feast. (He intends to do in his father too, but David does not show.) David, however, is consistently soft on his princes gone wild, and he stands by as his homicidal son flees.

When Absalom returns, at his father's request, he still harbors a deep hatred for the king and plans his overthrow. But dethroning this particular monarch--the spectacularly popular David--is no small feat. So Absalom adopts a surprisingly simple strategy for winning the people to his side: he listens to them.

Here is the author of 2 Samuel to explain:

"Absalom used to rise early and stand beside the road into the gate; and when anyone brought a suit before the king for judgement, Absalom would call out and say, ‘From what city are you?’ When the person said, ‘Your servant is of such and such a tribe in Israel’, Absalom would say, ‘See, your claims are good and right; but there is no one deputed by the king to hear you.’ Absalom said moreover, ‘If only I were judge in the land! Then all who had a suit or cause might come to me, and I would give them justice.’ Whenever people came near to do obeisance to him, he would put out his hand and take hold of them, and kiss them. Thus Absalom did to every Israelite who came to the king for judgement; so Absalom stole the hearts of the people of Israel" (15: 2-6).

Note two things: first, Absalom asks the first question. He inquires of the supplicant, reversing the expected roles. (Usually, you address the prince; the prince does not address you--not so here.) Then, he sympathizes with the travelers, telling them that their cause is legitimate. I know from countless hours in graduate seminars that the words "You have a good point" are some of the most empowering in the language.

Second, when the person seeking "judgement" tries to bow to Absalom--to "do obeisance to him"--his immediate response is a kiss and an embrace.

The implicit message of these two movements is clear: I hear you, and I love you.

And the rest barely need be said: the king isn't available right now. Can you leave a message?

Notice that Absalom never actually resolves any of the cases brought before him. Indeed, we learn nothing of the complaints of the Israelites, and perhaps we know that Absalom doesn't care. But the mere act of bearing witness is enough to sate the people's appetite for a leader. And with it, "Absalom stole the hearts of the people of Israel."

This word "stole" is of course telling, and it reminds us that Absalom does not have the best interests of his people in mind. Nonetheless, his pantomime is enough to inspire a majority to join his de facto revolt.

So do you hear me, President Obama? John Boehner? And Reid and Angle and Feingold and McCain and the rest? Talking is pretty. But listening? That's power.

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