David, Nathan and Freedom
In the Mass Readings last Sunday, for the reading from the Old Testament we had Nathan the Prophet denouncing King David for his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah the Hittite after Bathsheba became pregnant with his child. It is a familiar tale for us, and the familiarity conceals from us just how remarkable it is and how important for us it is, not just in a religious sense but also in our secular lives.
A forgotten masterpiece from Hollywood, King David (1951), helps remind us of the importance of the two great sins of David and their aftermath. David is well-portrayed by Gregory Peck. No longer the shepherd boy, he is now an increasingly world-weary King. God who was close to him in his youth now seems distant. Rita Hayworth gives a solid performance as Bathsheba, David’s partner in sin. The best performance of the film is by Raymond Massey as Nathan. Each word he utters is with complete conviction as he reveals the word of God to those too deafened by sin to hear it. In the video clip above we see this when David attempts to argue that the soldier who died when he touched the Ark of the Covenant may have died of natural causes. “All causes are of God”, Nathan responds without hesitation. He warns David that he has been neglecting his duties and that the people are discontent.
In the video clips above we see Nathan denouncing David by means of the parable of the stolen lamb. For his adultery and murder, David’s child with Bathsheba dies and, as Nathan relates, the sword will never depart from the House of David which will always be torn by internal strife. The movie, for dramatic purposes, adds a fictional element in Nathan calling for the stoning of Bathsheba in atonement for the death of her husband.
From a religious standpoint this story is very important. The House of David descends through Solomon, the second son of David and Bathsheba. In the centuries leading up to Christ most Jews firmly believed that the Messiah would come from a descendant of the House of David, as Jesus did through his foster earthly father Joseph, and perhaps also through the lineage of Mary. This is a prime example of the way in which God brings good from evil.
The condemnation of David for his adultery and murder in the Bible is truly remarkable. David is the great hero king of Israel. Having him condemned so utterly is in stark contrast to the boastful writings of middle eastern kings of the same time as David, usually depicted as favored of their God, and endlessly victorious and powerful. David is just as subject to God’s law as the humblest slave in his kingdom. Nathan the prophet reminds David that he is not above the Law that God gave to Israel. Throughout the Bible men of God stand in stark opposition to the rulers of their day: Moses against the Pharoah of Egypt, Samuel v. King Saul, Elijah and Elisha v. Ahab, and the list could go on at considerable length.
The conflict between David and Nathan, and other such examples in the Bible, placed into the Western mind the concept of a body outside the State always judging the actions of the State. This is an all-important development for Western notions of freedom. The Greek democracies and republics eventually collapsed into rule by divinized Hellenic monarchs after the death of Alexander. Those republics and democracies that were not directly ruled were rendered impotent and subject to constant threat of conquest by the sprawling absolute monarchies established by the Diadochi. The Roman Republic suffered the same fate, collapsing during the chaotic century before Christ into the rule by Augustus Caesar and his successors which eventually developed into absolute rule by divinized God-Emperors.
With the advent of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire, this changed. Emperors were now held to account for their actions, as Theodosius was after the massacre of Thessalonica by Saint Ambrose. The State could no longer be held to be all-powerful, even in theory. The Church stood as a constant reminder to rulers that they had to answer to God for the actions, and the Church often served as a rallying point against a ruler who was becoming a tyrant. It is interesting that the doctrine of the divine right of kings, came about only after the Reformation, when Luther made his new church an arm of the state in order to secure a break with Rome. In the Middle Ages, the idea that the King was head of the Church as well as the State, would have been regarded as blatant heresy. The coronation oaths that Kings took in the Middle Ages obliged them to protect the rights of the Church, and it was the Church that administered the sacred chrism necessary for the coronation ceremony.
The Orthodox churches in Greece, Russia, Bulgaria, etc, often came under heavy State control. In the West, however, the Catholic Church fought an endless battle against the idea that Caesar could control the Church. This struggle hammered home in the minds of men and women in the West that the State could never be all-powerful. This lesson even the Reformation could not destroy. Today this fight goes on as the Church combats efforts by the State to make it conform to the popular prejudices and intellectual fads of the day. The Western concept of the limited State owes much to the fact that the Church has succeeded in maintaining its independence. The totalitarian states of the last century all regarded the Church as their deadliest adversary from an ideological standpoint, and with good reason.
From Nathan the Prophet to John Paul II speaking of freedom in Poland when the country of his birth was still in Communist chains, the independence of the Church from the State has been a key component in the growth of political liberty.