Struggle for Power and Conflict Resolution in the Bible
Charles A. Mwihambi is an Assistant Lecturer at St. John’s University Tanzania, Msalato Theological College in the Diocese of Central Tanganyika. This article is a Study of David’s Succession in 1 Kings in Relation to the Ongoing Conflicts in the Anglican Communion
Struggle for power is a common phenomenon that surrounds every election in both the secular and religious worlds, most especially in Africa. Many hearts have been wounded beyond healing (at least from a human point of view). Blood has been shed by civil war, as well as genocide. Schism in the Church which forms many denominations has been a common practice in Tanzania, Africa and elsewhere in the world. If you try to trace the roots of all these conflicts, you will find that deep down the cause of these conflicts is power struggle.
In the Church in Tanzania we have witnessed tribalism rousing during the elections of Bishops or other high posts. Every group of people wants to put in the high post someone who is of their tribe or who can favor their interests. We see people go back to traditional practices of superstition in order to win elections. Bribes also take place during these times in different ways including promises of important rank.
Because of these practices, many elections have left permanent wounds on the contenders and, in many cases people remain divided even though they all preach the ministry of reconciliation and forgiveness. As a result, the ministry of the Church faces many obstacles. People form rival groups that hate each other and cannot sit together to agree about any means of development. Due to this violence, conflict erupts causing the boycott of elections and threatens the shedding of blood. What can be done to resolve this problem? How long should we continue to keep quiet while people suffer both physically and spiritually from hysterical hopelessness?
This paper seeks to join the ongoing Indaba conflict resolution that tries to explore a new and effective way of solving our differences as Christians. It will use the conflicts surrounding David’s succession as a background for teaching and warning. It has been a cultural norm to quickly turn to the Bible or to African stories of conflict to seek not solutions but hiding places. We encourage ourselves by saying these are normal issues in the Church as well as in any society. We justify everything we do in a false hope that this too will pass. We become blind; we do not see the casualties who have been knocked down on the way, those who die spiritually and silently deciding to remain at home—swallowed by the world.
It is for this reason that I have decided to break the silence, I want to confront those who engage in power struggle or those who support it. I confront those who cause Churches to split, families to disintegrate as well as societies to live with hatred and open enmity because of their greed for power. They cause people to fight, kill or destroy each other without feeling any guilt. I thus implore you to bring into the open what is boiling in the kitchen of African countries and Church elections—so that we talk and act, instead of shrugging it off with a sweeping statement that these are normal things that have been happening since Adam.
I want to start with the Bible which some people use it as their fortress to hide their evil intentions and so implicate God, all the while knowing that what they defend serves their own desires. I have chosen to discuss the story of King David’s succession because it is one of the earliest conflict resolution stories and because David is considered to be one of the most spiritual figures in the Bible. As people look at such stories with a preconceived idea that the main characters were humble men, so they think we should look at these stories positively. We forget, as Provan reminds us, the words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16 that these stories were given us for ‘teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’.
In most cases we utilize the teaching aspect little and do almost nothing on the rebuking and correcting aspects.
My intention in examining this biblical conflict story is to encourage people to look beyond the story; to step back and look at it from a distance and ask which side God would be on. In other words, does God sanction every action that biblical heroes take as leaders simply because they are doing it for his sake? Can we lift up our eyes, turn around and see what other people do in resolving conflicts and so come back with a fresh mind as we seek to interpret these biblical conflict stories?
Commentators on the power struggle which led to David’s succession begin with the story of David’s first son Amnon who committed a sin by raping his half sister after being advised by his shrewd cousin Jonadab and thus implicated his father by his failure to take firm action.
Rolf Rendtorff sees this as the result of individual sins, which is the underground source and hidden force that escalates power struggle.
This means that almost all conflicts have some hidden agenda and, unless brought out to the open, the two parties in conflict cannot live in peace with one another, therefore working and living together remain a formality.
From this unresolved injustice Absalom, another of David’s sons, decided to take the law into his own hands and killed Amnon in cold blood, then ran away from his father’s anger and stayed away for three years (2 Sam. 13:23-37). With the help of David’s Commander General, Absalom was reconciled with his father (at least from outside) and so came back home again.
It seems that something was going on in the mind of Absalom apart from revenging his sister’s rape, since in a short time after coming back from his hiding place Absalom started to plot a revolt against his own father (see 2 Sam 15:1ff). Amnon, who was David’s eldest son and possible heir to the throne, had proven himself unworthy to be a leader after that incidence of raping his own sister, even if he would have lived. More than revenge, Absalom saw that as an opportunity to grab the royal seat. He didn’t wait to get that in peace despite the fact he was now the most likely heir – so he organized a coup d’etat that cost him his life.
This power struggle does not end there, once Absalom was out of the way, another David’s sons, Adonijah, sought to manipulate that royal seat, so he also planned to take it by force (1 Kings 1:1ff). Conspiring with Joab, King David’s Chief Commander and Abiathar the priest, he went to a place of sacrifice at Zoheleth near En Rogel and invited all his brothers, the king’s sons and many royal officials to make a big party that was supposed to be a coronation – but it ended in dismay.
On hearing this shrewd plot, Nathan the prophet made a quick plan to save his own skin and the life of Bathsheba and her son. They went and informed King David, who ordered Solomon be anointed king over Israel immediately before Adonijah (1 King 1:15-35). This was followed by the reading of David’s deathbed will that said when he died Solomon should repay Joab’s sins and Shimei on his behalf (1 King 2:1-9).
In both these events blood was shed. In the first, Absalom perished with his army and in the second, although Solomon initially tried to be diplomatic when he was approached the second time with a request to be given their father’s maid Abishag for a wife, that was considered by him to be a grudge for power. So, he decided to eliminate his brother and Joab, the Chief Commander of his father’s army (1 King 1:23-33). Carol and Sharon argue that, ‘the executions of general Joab and later Shimei of Benjamin, though Solomon finds ways to rationalize these killings (1 King 2:28-46), they bear the mark of political assassination as does the murder of Adonijah.’
WHAT DO WE LEARN FROM THIS POWER STRUGGLE?
Looking back at what Solomon did to his brother and others in the background of such power struggle, what do we make of his actions? Do we see it as a brave move done by a young leader? Does God sanction what his beloved king is doing to establish his fame and his throne? Do we really need to implicate God in that way in our ministry simply because such is done under God’s omniscience?
Allow me to be a little cynical but, I need to know how was it that, such a young man like Solomon dares make such decisive yet gruesome decisions? Rendtorff rightly argues that ‘Solomon inexorably, often cruelly, and on unconvincing pretexts, eliminated his political opponents, beginning with his older brother Adonijah… thus the closing sentence “and the kingdom was secure in the hand of Solomon” … has a macabre ring.’
The message of these stories can be better explained in the story of the young children who played on the edge of the pond that was full of water with many frogs living in it. As the children were competing in throwing stones in the water exercising their skills of range, the mother frog said to the children, ‘your game is our death.’ This story of the frogs tells us that, as people seek to climb to power let them do it without wounding others.
Further more, ‘Adonijah conferred with Joab son of Zeruiah and with Abiathar the priest, and they gave him their support’ (1King 1:7). They wanted to secure their positions but gave little thought as to how many hearts would be wounded. Thus we could say Joab the commander and Abiathar the priest were the forces of falsehood, while Nathan the prophet, Bathsheba the Queen and later Zadok the priest were the forces of truth, even though they failed to stop Solomon from unnecessary revenge. Their Indaba did not seek to heal relationship but stopped after they won the throne. A good Indaba is that which seeks to heal relation between the two parties and help them come together instead of using power to eliminate the other.
These are the firewood or fuel that lit the fire, but cannot quench it when things went wrong. We should resist all suggestions that lead us to manipulate others or exert power against others and so hurt them instead of bringing reconciliation and promoting harmony. We should stop being fooled by others, instead we should wait until the flames die down so we can see things with our own eyes when the smoke weathers out before we act.
We also need to get rid of the spirit of suspicion which clothed Solomon and led him to exercise power brutally over his brother even when he had already secured the royal throne. This kind of spirit might cause a big schism among the Anglican world, so we should relent. It must be noted that our bad relations of the past between Britain and American and Britain/Americ versus Africa is still lingering in the minds of some Africans as well as Americans. There has been a fear of neo-colonialism emerging and swallowing the Church once again. The Westerners are like Solomon, they are on the advantaged side since they have power economically. The wounds of colonialism have not been fully healed and so, any little sign of dominance or exercise of power over Africans exacerbates the old pain.
I suggest that in dealing with conflict in the Anglican Church we need to let go of our historical background or geographical differences and stand as one Anglican community whether domestically or world wide. The Early Church was also faced with superiority of culture and economic power, but resolved it by love after every side relinquished their powers (Acts 15:22-31). Paul Mumo Kisau argues that there was freedom and fair debate to allow each participant to express his thought.
Ogilvie also sums up that ‘true fellowship is working through differences to the mind of Christ’.
A good model of using power constructively and humbly is highly demonstrated in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul says, ‘your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing…’ (Phil 2:5-8). This model corrects the attitudes of using force to resolve conflicts the way Solomon did to his brother. As Eshetu Abate argues, we have no rights to place our will over against Christ’s will.
I also think that the Indaba theory might work in many contexts, but only where truth is held and those in power work towards mutual reconciliation. The Wagogo people from central Tanzania also had something in common with Indaba or Baraza that was called Nongwa. This had full power to command and end conflict whether by punishing the offender and recompensing the victimized or acquitting the offender.
This Nongwa conflict resolution expected matters to be resolved and forgiveness to be sought. Ndesa was given to recompense the damage done. This could be a goat, cow or pombe (local brew) and could be eaten publicly or, in the case of injury, was given to the injured person as compensation. People were asked to shake hands and eat together as a sign of true reconciliation. The emphasis was put on healing the broken relationship, thus one who does not want to reconcile or seek forgiveness was seen as arrogant and could be expelled from the community. The community did hold the final decision that everybody was supposed to comply with.
The main problem with the Anglican governing power system is that it has ceded too much power to the individual or minority over the community. As such the voice of the community is weak, and not able to make any specific rules over the individual. Like Solomon bishops, once consecrated, become autonomous over matters concerning their dioceses and that makes it too difficult for a second opinion to be heard, whether from within or outside the diocese to correct what they decide even if it is not for the benefit of the body of the Church. A true Indaba system would be able to resolve such excessive use of power. The Anglican Communion should set a board that will reserve powers over matters of faith, and their ruling should be final and acceptable by the whole Anglican Communion.
I have pointed out that every election in Africa, whether in the Church or the secular world, is surrounded with this mist or fog of power struggle. I have tried to point out some of the conflicts that can emerge due to greed for power whether in the secular world or in the Church. This has caused many people to be wounded and killed both physically and spiritually. I also argued that such spirit permeated the succession process of David’s royal throne. Greed for power led to the shedding of blood and this was fueled by those who surrounded them: they were eager to guard or save their own skins or positions but not bold enough to teach, rebuke and correct, so that real reconciliation could be sought.
So I have suggested that we need to be careful in receiving advice and that our struggle for power should not cause others to suffer: as in the cry of the mother frog that tried to stop the children from killing them in what they perceived as a good game. I also pointed out that powers in the Anglican Church should be centralized instead of giving it to individuals. I fear that this kind of spirit that puts individual preference versus others like that of Herodias (Mark 6:14-24), can also possess the spirit of Anglicans who are well known to be a highly qualified diplomatic Church.
Like Nongwa ideology, conflict management should aim at bringing full reconciliation. To achieve this we need to let go of our cultural, historical and geographical differences and more especially superiority and economic power. We can’t solve our differences by eliminating others the way Solomon did. We need to talk until we reach agreement without condemning others. Paul says, ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21)’.
Moreover, we should also heed the Swahili saying that ‘bandu bandu humaliza gogo, meaning, little by little do finish a log. This means that the ongoing conflict in the Anglican Church and the Church at large needs to be solved now before it is too late – what we need is to find solutions at all costs to resolve the conflict. Meanwhile, let us believe in ‘unity in diversity’ and not in uniformity. Schism will not show us the winner only love will.
Adeyemo, T. Africa Bible Commentary, Nairobi: Word Alive Publisher, 2006.
House, P.R., The New American Commentary -1,2 Kings, USA: B&H Publishers, 1995.
Newsom C.A. & Ringe S.H., Women’s Bible Commentary, Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 1992.
Ogilvie Lloyd J., The Communicator’s Commentary – Acts, Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1983.
Provan I.W., New International Biblical Commentary – 1&2 Kings, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.
Rendtorff R., The Old Testament: An Introduction, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.
Wallace R.S., Readings in 1 Kings, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995.