A recent court decision regarding the legal rights of one of the American citizens found living among the terrorists in Afghanistan reminded me of the difficulties, legal and emotional, we still face in dealing with those who would betray our country. But it also reminded me that in the chronicles of our Judeo-Christian faith, we have a very similar story featuring one of our greatest heroes, a man with a central place among the pre-figurations of Christ. The story of David and the Philistines is deeply troubling, but even more troubling is the lack of attention it receives among churchgoers who rage against the American Taliban.
While we usually think of David as a man blessed by God for his great faith, we often forget that just before he becomes king, he lives among the enemy Philistines for sixteen months, during which time he so successfully convinces their king of his defection that the king makes David his bodyguard for life. David is even willing to fight against Israel for him, so much so that when the king accepts his commanders’ request to forbid David to join them in battle, David protests: “What have you found in your servant÷that I should not go and fight against the enemies of my lord the king?” To which the king reassures him: “÷to me it seems right that you should march out and in with me in the campaign; for I have found nothing wrong in you÷.” And so David returns to Philistia while the Philistines go to war against Israel. And God never seems to mind.
Of course, things are not exactly as they seem with David: he is a skillful liar who knows he must remain in the king’s good graces for an indeterminate time. Just as he had earned the king’s trust by lying about his “attacks” on Israel, here he is no doubt gambling on the distrust of the king’s commanders to keep him from actually having to fight his countrymen, who are in reality his own subjects. Still, on the surface his actions are scandalous, having the appearance of treason against his native land. And David’s behavior cannot be explained simply as self-defense against Saul, since Saul had made peace with him just prior to his defection; although this peace would likely be brief, David is not, at the moment he leaves Israel, a hunted man.
David, therefore, deliberately allows himself to appear guilty of high treason. Had he been captured by Israeli soldiers and taken back to Saul, he would have been in much the same situation as our American Taliban: a native-born citizen found within enemy camps during a war. His innocence would be hard to prove. This episode is shocking, both for what happens and for what doesn’t (namely, condemnation). So why is it getting so little attention among God-fearing, Bible-believing Americans? Perhaps because it points to two weaknesses in the American church: first, an unwillingness to face the scandals of scripture, and second, a refusal to accept that as Christians, we are no longer citizens of any earthly nation.
The truth is, David’s life is so scandalous that it would offend us were he living today. From the world’s perspective, not only is he God’s most socially inappropriate choice to be king, he is also an usurper to the throne whose faith in God costs innocent lives. Nor does his faith make things easier for him as monarch: he can never fully trust his ministers and friends, and his family life is a mess. As the Psalms make clear, David spent much of his life in anguish, even after God established his throne. Yet we ignore these harsh realities in favor of the rags-to-riches story of a boy who becomes a great king through his faith. Refusing to see how faith puts us at odds with our world, we blindly hope that it will bring about strong families, good political leadership, and a peaceful society.
It is bad enough that we fail to acknowledge the way David’s life disproves many of our cherished assumptions about the benefits of trusting God. But the fact that we can be so enraged by Americans working for our enemies while praising David as a model proves how idolatrous our patriotism has become: we can no longer see how this nation could be a snare to us. Yet the story of David and the Philistines, like that of Jeremiah with the Babylonians, should teach us that there is no such thing as God “and” country. At some point the two will be in tension, and we must be ready to abandon our land for the sake of our Lord. And that will mean that we will be considered traitors.
I am not trying to evoke sympathy for the American Taliban. My focus is solely upon us, upon our weird revisions of scriptural narratives and upon our unhealthy nationalism. Too often, we follow God only so far as God brings order to our circumstances, especially our nation. But this attitude fails to comprehend the biblical message: God brings order not to our circumstances but to our lives, which puts us in conflict with everyone and everything around us. He does all this in order to be the strength that gets us through those conflicts and makes us a blessing to our cultures. Yet we are no longer of those cultures. Like David, we can live anywhere we choose, even among the enemy, because no matter where we are, we are citizens of God’s holy nation, cities set on a hill providing light to all nations. We are no longer Americans, but royalty in a foreign land.
Let us look again at David, and allow the messiness of his own life, even his apparent treason, to provide us a truer model of how the life of faith will look. Perhaps then Christians will once again be America’s leaders, rather than its followers.
Steve Pearson is a Protestant mutt and failed theologian who has a Ph.D. in Literature and teaches at a midsize university in the South.