As a person of faith and a member of a coterie of journalists who cover religion, I have been confounded by the moralizing in print this presidential election season has elicited from journalists and thought leaders.
Christian journalists and pundits have either struggled to reconcile their finely tuned moral sensibilities with a morally ambivalent candidate — or they haven’t struggled at all about it and have instead called down unequivocal condemnation and scorn.
“You are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.”
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Are Christians obliged to condemn moral imperfection of secular governing authors? Are they remiss if they support policies of those who are morally imperfect? These are the questions of the ages.
I have been helped, both as a journalist and as a person of faith, in finding a way to reckon with miscreant leaders while at the same time understanding that God (if we believe He is operative in this arena) does not see things as humans see them and does not judge as humans judge. I’ve come to this understanding by scrutinizing the life and misdeeds of one of the Bible’s most notable miscreants who, in addition to single-handedly consolidating the newly formed Kingdom of Israel through warfare, wrote psalms, and felled a giant, likewise committed two great sins — murder and adultery. Yet he was also deemed “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam 13:14).
I am referring to David — the Bible hero who picked up five smooth stones from the river bed and confronted the bully giant Goliath, flung the stones from his sling, and hit him between the eyes, felling him on the spot.
The young shepherd knew the stones, their size and weight, the rate of trajectory, the force with which they would find the target. He leveled the giant when everyone else, including his brothers, ran in retreat. But these heroics were not what made David the man after God’s heart.
That would be King David, whose true nature is laid bare in an interesting list noted in 2 Samuel 23:8–39. The list denotes a contingent of warriors who have been called King David’s Mighty Men, the best of the best. The text divides these men first into a group of three and then 30. (It should be noted that there are more than 30 on the list.) One name on that list, the one noted last, helped me understand why David could have done the things he did and still be “a man after God’s heart.”
The name I am referring to is that of “Uriah the Hittite.” He was Bathsheba’s husband whom David, after an illicit affair that impregnated Bathsheba, put on the front lines of battle to ensure his demise. He was listed as the last entry of the 30 Mighty Men, a notation that almost has the feel of the scribe not having planned on including him at all, as if he stuck the name at the end as an afterthought. Including Uriah’s name on that list, after all, would stand as a permanent reminder of the darkest part of King David’s heart and a testament to how far he was willing to go to cover his shame. David killed one of his best men, one of the 30.
Maybe at first the scribe had wanted to erase Uriah from the record, the way David erased Uriah from life. Maybe David saw the name was missing from the list and said to the scribe, “Where’s Uriah?”
“Uriah?” the scribe might say. “You want me to include Uriah?”
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Maybe the scribe wrote the name in disgust, loathing his king for the treachery associated with that name. Or maybe tears fell from his face onto the page as he scribbled it. Either way, Uriah’s was the last name entered into the permanent record of David’s mighty men, and this much we know: If his name appeared, David wanted it there.
How could he not include it? David knew before God and man who he himself was — what he had done and the treachery involved — and everyone else knew it, too. Nathan the prophet had confronted him about his crimes and David said, “You are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.”
“If I must boast, I will boast in the things that show my weakness.”
While we might tend to think that the giant-felling David is the one who won God’s heart, I demur. I believe the man after God’s heart would be the other David, the one who told the scribe to put Uriah’s name on the list. Before God, David knew it belonged there. And though he robbed Uriah of everything else, he would not rob him of his name, his legacy. For all his self-serving and truly heinous crimes, David understood Uriah belonged on that list, regardless of the shame it would carry for himself by being there.
What is in a man’s heart is the true measure of his character, even when he (or she) may have many stains to answer for. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “If I must boast, I will boast in the things that show my weakness” (2 Cor.11:30). Uriah’s name on that list was David’s boast of weakness. That is how he could do the things he did and still be a man after God’s heart.
It reminded me of Graham Greene’s whisky priest in “The Power and the Glory”: “They had a word for his kind — a whisky priest — but every failure dropped out of sight and not out of mind: somewhere they accumulated in secret – the rubble of his failures. One day they would choke up, he supposed, altogether the source of grace.” David did not hide his shame nor revile his Creator. David’s life is a record of one heroic deed followed by a despicable deed, followed by turmoil, betrayal, and loss, followed by searching for God, finding Him — ever searching, ever falling, ever finding.
It is a messy picture and one that captures everything about the complexity of the human story. All of us who grapple to interpret the human story of our current times, in its dissonance and tumult, would do well to remember that picture.
Wendy Murray served as regional correspondent for TIME magazine in Honduras in the early 1990s, and later as associate editor and senior writer at Christianity Today. She is the author of 10 nonfiction books and a novel.