And it came to pass in the days of Saddam ...
Posted: December 17, 2003
1:00 a.m. Eastern
By Rabbi Daniel Lapin
How should Jewish and Christian Americans of faith view the historic capture of Saddam Hussein?
Most of us project the core elements of our own self image onto an imaginary big screen, which then displays our larger worldview. Those who chiefly think of themselves as journalists deploy their ubiquitous "objectivity." They analyze all news with the usual "on the one hand" and then follow it up with "but on the other ..."
Then, we have those whose entire self image is structured upon their identity as academics or intellectuals. They think of themselves as citizens of the world, and so they carefully avoid anything that could sound patriotic or American.
Politicians, knowing they must sound serious, express enthusiasm tempered with the caution that much work still lies ahead.
How about those of us whose self image is chiefly derived from our Jewish or Christian faith? Does the Bible suggest a worldview? What is up there on our screen?
A possible starting point might be King Solomon's adage from the first chapter of Ecclesiastes: "There is nothing new under the sun." We have seen many earlier Saddam Husseins. In the West, during the past century, we saw Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin. During the same period, Africa and Asia produced their own tyrants, who also followed the standard pattern. Tyrants and their consistent styles go all the way back to Nimrod in the book of Genesis.
Here are two chief characteristics of tyrants.
The first is they come to power during times of chaos and anarchy. When the traditions and rules that hold together the invisible framework of social stability collapse, the tyrant seized his moment. We humans so yearn for predictability in our lives that even if it is offered by someone odious and suspect, we will often embrace it. Freedom run amok can be far more frightening to ordinary folks trying to raise their families and feed them than the cartoon figure with the moustache who insists on total power in order to restore our lives to the normality of our nostalgia.
The second characteristic of tyrants is they dominate the epoch within their cultures. They demand and obtain a worship of personality. Statues, parades and rallies are only symbolic of the total authority they exercise over their people. Women frequently adore them and babies are raised in their adulation. Almost never does history reveal good, wise, restrained and noble leaders who become idols to their nations in this way. Even Winston Churchill never achieved anything remotely resembling cult status in wartime Britain. Here in the United States, guffaws of ridicule would greet any suggestion of large public statues to George W. Bush. We even refrain from depicting living leaders on coins or stamps.
In other words, any time we see a leader aim for and achieve godlike status among his people, fear the worst. (Does North Korea suggest itself?) Ancient Jewish tradition identifies any epoch defined by one charismatic and powerful leader as an epoch headed for trouble.
The first time the Bible identifies this pattern of human history is the opening of Genesis chapter 14: "And it came to pass in the days of Amrafel king of Shinar ..." Jewish tradition identifies Amrafel as biblical history's first tyrant, Nimrod the same ruler who built the tower of Babel.
In every chapter of the Bible that begins, "And it came to pass in the days of ..." where what follows identifies one individual, know that you are about to read a story of tragedy and destruction. Sure enough, chapter 14 of Genesis continues to tell the story of history's first world war. The pattern continues reliably throughout the Bible all the way to the Book of Esther, with its story of impending genocide, and which begins with the same fateful words, "And it came to pass in the days of Achashverosh ..."
Stalin rose to power during the chaos following the Russian revolution. Lenin may have brought about the revolution, but it was Stalin who was able to convert mass street demonstrations and the terror of ordinary citizens into his own power base. He offered stability, and quickly created the same cult of personality that Hitler was soon to emulate.
Hitler exploited the moral, cultural, and economic chaos that plagued Germany after World War I and promised predictability and prosperity. This was an almost irresistible enticement to Germans baffled by the anarchy that had overtaken them.
Saddam Hussein rose to power between 1956 and 1968, while Iraq was being torn asunder by the end of their monarchy and the fierce struggles between pro-Western Iraqis and the nationalists, which made daily life for ordinary citizens all but unbearable.
In each of these stories, the cult of personality and total individual power followed mass erosion of civic predictability. We can be guided by the pattern we recognize in Genesis chapters 11 through 14. The predictability of ordinary life for ordinary people was eroded by the tumultuous Tower of Babel and this was followed by the rise to power of Nimrod (Amrafel) who ultimately brought complete destruction.
Yes, in our yearning for predictability, we can easily fall prey to evil. In the aftermath of Saddam's capture that very Sunday evening, during ABC's primetime special on Sunday night Peter Jennings declared that "there's not a good deal for Iraqis to be happy about at the moment. Life is still very chaotic, beset by violence in many cases, huge shortages. In some respects, Iraqis keep telling us life is not as stable for them as it was when Saddam Hussein was in power."
What helps destroy predictability?
One unintended side effect of the secular fundamentalism sweeping America is how it erodes the rules that hold together the invisible net of social stability. By encouraging unfettered personal license, secular fundamentalism helps collapse civilized norms. Then, when people dress with deliberately provocative vulgarity and they express themselves loudly and obscenely in public, hardworking, family-minded citizens are left with a growing feeling of unease.
When young people no longer see their maturation leading naturally toward marriage and when marriage itself becomes threatened by cultural ridicule and purported alternatives, parents feel unmoored. When public institutions depict religion as only for the emotionally needy and the intelligence-impaired, many Americans feel resentment and alienation.
This is obviously not to suggest that the hobby of shattering traditional rules that seems to delight so many journalists, academics and intellectuals is going to endow America with a future dictatorial tyrant. It can eventually, however, infect ordinary Americans with docility about further federal control beyond that necessary to protect us from our enemies.
In a desperate attempt to recover some sense of normality and predictability in our lives, we might be tempted to embrace expanded government influence over how we live, earn and worship. We would yearn for the predictability and normality that used to be supplied by those traditional rules that many Jewish and Christian Americans of faith remember increasingly nostalgically.
Biblically-based faith helps to maintain freedom by holding together the invisible framework of social stability. This might be one lesson that we Jewish and Christian Americans of faith can draw from the historic capture of Saddam Hussein.
Radio talk-show host Rabbi Daniel Lapin is president of Toward Tradition, America's leading bridge-builder, spanning the divide between Christians and Jews by sculpting ancient solutions to modern problems in areas of family, faith and fortune.
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