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Can a Divided America Heal?

The Bible offers some perspective on the repercussions of a triumph of bravado, and a citizenship at odds

Erica Brown
November 09, 2016
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
A supporter steps over placards that litter the floor of the ballroom where Republican presidential elect Donald Trump spoke during election night at the New York Hilton Midtown Manhattan, November 9, 2016. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
A supporter steps over placards that litter the floor of the ballroom where Republican presidential elect Donald Trump spoke during election night at the New York Hilton Midtown Manhattan, November 9, 2016. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Many churches are holding a prayer service for healing today, to bring people together with humility and contrition over election-related bad behaviors, to try through faith to bring people together who have sparred mightily. The Episcopal Church of the First Ascension in Cartersville, Georgia will hold one at 12:15, if you’re interested. Alternatively, you can go to the “Unity Service of Healing for Our Nation” at the Avondale Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina at noon. The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson of St. Aiden’s in Virginia Beach will be preaching at his healing service. Virginia is not only for lovers. It’s for pray-ers, too. Wilkinson wants us to go back to being good neighbors, better friends, empathic congregants. “I think it’s incredibly important to go back to treating each other with some sense of dignity,” he has said. Maybe noon is the popular hour because the hangover after the all-night drinking stupor, brought about by the Trump victory, needs time to wear off.

But can healing take place so quickly when the fragmentation is so deep? I wonder. What will rabbis be doing across the country in their sermons this Shabbat? Will they, too, lead healing services? If I were a rabbi, I would teach II Chronicles 10 because this election cycle was biblical in its hubris and in the possibility it presents for redemption.

Here’s the basic plot. After King Solomon died, his son Rehaboam took his seat on the throne. Rehaboam would then reign for 17 years, have 18 wives, and 60 concubines. (That’s nothing compared to his father, who had 700 wives and 300 concubines.) Rehaboam had 28 sons and 60 daughters. He also had a very rough leadership start. One of Solomon’s ministers, Jeraboam, wanted a change in the kingdom and approached the new king with a committee (because if it’s Jewish, it needs a committee). They respectfully asked him to lighten the punishing work load that Solomon placed upon the people. For Solomon’s ambitious building plans of Temple and palace, he burdened the people with great labor. The people wanted a break: “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you” (II Chronicles 10:4).

Rehaboam asked for time. He wanted three days to think about his response, which would ultimately determine what kind of leader he wanted to be. This seems wise and thoughtful. He took the case to his father’s advisers, the old guard, to seek their considerable wisdom. They counselled Rehaboam to follow the people. Lighten the load. “How would you advise me to answer these people?” he asked. They replied, “If you will be kind to these people and please them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants” (10:6-7). Lead with compassion and you will be rewarded with steady followship.

But Rehaboam then made a tragic error. He sought the counsel of his peers as well. These young, brash friends, full of machismo and arrogance, gave him different advice. Reject the peoples’ pleas. Stress your power: “If my father hit you with whips, I will hit you with scorpions,” they said. Ouch. “Now tell them, ‘My finger is thicker than my father’s loins’” (10:10). We hear the bravado and the sexual innuendo in these words. Politics for Rehaboam and his friends was not about influence; it was about power, the power to corrupt, to exploit, to diminish, and to demean.

Three days passed, and the committee came back. No surprise, Rehaboam used the language of his rag-tag band. He spoke of scorpions and loins. The people left dejected, but instead of simply accepting more of the king’s dominance, they fought power with their own limited power. The king hired a task-master—and like in an earlier version of a young Jewish man who killed an Egyptian task-master beating a slave—the people fought back. “King Rehaboam sent out Adoniram, who was in charge of forced labor, yet the Israelites stoned him to death. King Rehaboam, however, managed to get into his chariot and escape to Jerusalem. So Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day” (10:18-19).

The people got the last word. They killed their tormentor to access their freedom. Rehaboam escaped, frightened of the mutiny that his bravado generated. When people feel highly charged and their needs are grossly neglected, they sometimes resort to violence.

Many of us woke up today to a different America. All across this country, we find voters, who felt angry and disenfranchised, today proudly claiming victory in a fight colored by bravado, by a mean-spirited, hate-filled campaign. They feel heard. Trump’s America promises a different landscape, not the liberal elite one that his supporters feel has controlled the country for too long. The people, just as in Rehoboam’s day, ultimately triumphed. But in our story, the king had to run away because he used his power inappropriately.

I think about Donald Trump’s first days of leadership. I wonder, President-elect, who will your advisers be? Only you can decide if you will continue the bold swagger of power or opt for the civilizing influence of persuasion. This country’s deep political divide requires more than reaching across the aisle. It’s almost like reaching across the universe. Raw power appeals to people who feel powerless. It appealed to Rehaboam. But the Bible always advocates a referendum, so to speak, on human power. It contains story after story of power gone awry with the hope that someone is listening, that someone will privilege influence over power. It’s a return to the politics of respect that will ultimately heal us.

Healing is not only about bringing people together who are in pain. It’s about changing the binary discourse of hate and control that created the suffering in the first place. As citizens, we may not have political power, but we have the power to heal ourselves and each other and this country.

Let a new day begin.

Dr Erica Brown is an Associate Professor at George Washington University and the director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.