Chaos is swirling about in our public life.
Its troubling effects seem to be touching many dimensions of our communal life: education, religion, personal relationships and our capacity to maintain community.
This is one of the many challenges that face us in this current period of our history.
Our circumstances brought to mind a recurrent theme in the conclusion to the book of Judges and its portrait of leadership succession in ancient Israel (Judges 17:6 and 21:25): “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
For the editors of the stories of the judges, the symbol of the “king” was the guardian of the covenant that held the faith community together. “No king” meant there was no moral compass, and everyone pursued whatever interest served personal desire.
The refrain points to the absence of covenant faithfulness brought about by corrupted leaders and superficial religiosity, where a lack of collective integrity allowed greed and injustice to run rampant.
Commentators suggest this section reflects a later editing of stories to imply not only conditions at the time of the judges but also the perennial challenge for leadership in succeeding generations down through the centuries of the monarchy.
It has been hard not to think about the moral compass of basic integrity when daily reminders of its absence appear among those charged with the responsibility of being its guardians in the public arena.
Such reflection led me to a rather ironic observation.
We are quick to call out and criticize breaches of integrity. This suggests that, on a personal level at least, it is a virtue held in honor – something to be affirmed as a core value of living.
Those caught in its violation are just as quick to try to explain, rationalize or deny that such is what it appears to be.
We remember and admire those models of integrity in our own lives and honor their influence on our own character development, and we teach our children the importance of honesty and telling the truth.
Integrity is a good thing, and it is abundant in our lives, relationships and communities.
But here is the irony: When it comes to responding to appeals for leadership status, as in an electioneering season, integrity seems to have slipped down the scale in collective thinking as a criterion for leadership.
Even after affirmations that “character matters,” choices and allegiances seem to disregard indications of a lack of integrity in favor of other bases of appeal, such as the claimed positions on various issues du jour that have been raised as focal points.
A significant percentage of the population seems to think that if a petitioner for support can deliver on what we want – whether or not the person has integrity as a core value – then character (integrity) doesn’t really matter at all.
Personal commitment to integrity in relationships and decisions can apparently accompany a public loss of integrity as a criterion for choosing leadership in the realm of policy and governance.
When integrity ceases to be a criterion for choices of leadership and is replaced by the criterion of what will get for us what we want (regardless of impact and harm to others and the common good), the way is open for greed, power and privilege, through moneyed support, to be the controlling factors in public choices.
When integrity leaves the public square, as when “there was no king in Israel,” the moral and spiritual compass of a community goes missing, and the path forward is not a promising one.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).