In those days there was no king in Israel. People did whatever they felt like doing. – Judges 17:6
I’m reading Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones right now. At the same time, I’ve been trudging chapter by chapter through the book of Judges in the Bible. The confluence of these two narratives is striking. Both books make me weep over humanity’s desperation.
The book of Judges begins with violence and dominion and ends in chaos. “At that time there was no king in Israel,” the last verse of Judges states. “People did whatever they felt like doing.”
Dreamland has a parallel feel to it. In an effort to ease our collective pain—the pain of poverty, the pain of oppression, the pain of addiction, the pain of illness, the pain of suffering—people will do whatever they feel like doing. There is no king, no governing sense of right or wrong that can stand up against the will of the people, who ultimately become slaves to painkillers, to the rush of wealth, to the hazy and unrealistic dream of a pain-free life. Dreamland is an incredible look at the complex roads that led us to the opiate epidemic in this nation. There is no one reason why we’re here. There are many. Some, maybe even all, of those roads looked altruistic and virtuous to the people who walked them. In the end, they’ve led to death.
The Book of Judges is a painful, violent cycle of dominance and war followed by rescue and order, for a time, until the next generation comes along. People do whatever they feel like doing and are left to their own devices. When suffering, oppression, and strife happen as a result, the people cry out for help from the Lord. A deliverer/judge/military leader rises up from the community to protect Israel, sometimes just, and other times unjust. Peace prevails for a time, and then the people forget about God and do whatever they’d like again, taking matters into their own hands.
The story is summarized in essence later in the Bible, in the first few chapters of Romans, capturing the same cycle from Judges in a more universal view: So God said, in effect, “If that’s what you want, that’s what you get.” It wasn’t long before they were living in a pigpen, smeared with filth, filthy inside and out. And all this because they traded the true God for a fake god, and worshiped the god they made instead of the God who made them—the God we bless, the God who blesses us. Oh, yes! (Romans 1:24-25 MSG).
The heart of Bible stories plays out over and over again throughout history. People who gain power seem to become addicted to power, are hungry for more and more, and are willing to sacrifice other people’s lives in order to acquire whatever they think will satisfy their desires, only to be left wanting even more. It’s happening in Russia and Ukraine right now. It happened in ranchos in the Mexican state of Nayirit. It happens the world over, generation after generation, in small towns and between nations and in our immediate families, my gain for your loss, my growth at your expense. The god we worship is the god we’ve made: our things, our source of security, our country, our national boundaries, our bank accounts, ourselves. The god we serve is a voracious god, a bottomless pit of need.
On the other hand, the God Paul says we’ve traded in for a false god describes himself as compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, faithful, forgiving, merciful, mighty, and loving, the wonderful counselor, the everlasting father, the prince of peace. When it comes to joy, his cup overflows. When it comes to love, it’s higher and wider and deeper than anything we can imagine. That very God made himself known fully through the God-Man Jesus, the one whose name forms the foundation of our religion’s name and ought to be the central focus of our faith.
The subversive message of Jesus—what gives life meaning—is not the acquisition of wealth, or power, or domination. It is love. If we place ourselves under the Lordship of Christ, we say that our lives are no longer ruled by our own gain. Our lives are no longer ruled by that voracious hunger. Our lives are no longer ruled by our own desires. Our lives are no longer ruled by our pursuit of a pain-free existence.
Our lives are ruled now by the rule of love: Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them”(Matthew 22:37-40 MSG).
When love leads, all else comes into alignment. You cannot covet and love. You cannot abuse and love. You cannot envy or slander or steal or kill or commit adultery and love. Any of these actions is outside the bounds of love and therefore against God, who has given us, in love, the Holy Spirit to guide the way to a meaningful life and a peaceful world, in communion with each other and with God, who sees our failings and faults and loves us back into relationship with God and with others.
Faith, hope, and love are the preventative measures against such things, and humility, justice, and mercy are the restorative measures when things have fallen apart.
It’s the simplest, hardest message to live out. The global challenges I find myself sucked into in the news cycle are beyond my control, but I can seek to live a life of love where I am at. I can seek to be a force for good in my family, in my home, in my church, and in my community. This is my sphere of influence, the place where my small act can make a difference to subvert the powers and principalities that oppress the marginalized, with the love and grace of the God-Man I have chosen to follow, who holds me in his grip and whose peace he promises to give.
Featured Image: Chaos during an earthquake by Jose Guadalupe Posada, ca. 1880-1910. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum.