In First Samuel, Achimelech was the high priest at Nob, an ancient city outside Jerusalem, during the reign of King Saul.
The fleeing young David who Saul, was jealous of, had sought counsel from this priest. Saul’s resentment of David’s increasing popularity among the Israelites led to a political act of murder. Achimelech shared with David the showbread from the sanctuary, offered a prayer to God for guidance and handed him the symbolic sword of Goliath.
When he learned of this hospitality, Saul became enraged at Achimelech and commanded a man named Doeg to capture him and bring him to Saul for punishment.
Saul then ordered Doeg to murder not only Achimelech but all of the 87 priests at Nob and their families for this one act of kindness — or betrayal, depending on which side the reader aligns.
Was Achimelech inserting himself in the political rivalry between David and Saul?
Was he stepping over the line from Temple officiant to political advocacy in the mind of the paranoid and insecure King Saul?
In our time, some clergy are equally vulnerable to the same kind of accusations for acting in humane ways. They can fall prey to politicians and lay leaders who feel nervous or threatened by clergy who speak truth based on religious values. The recently fired Roman Catholic priest — the Reverend Patrick J. Conroy — was serving in his seventh year as chaplain of the House of Representatives. He has become another casualty of today’s political wars.
News reports suggest that despite Speaker Paul Ryan’s claims that there were complaints about Conroy’s lack of attentiveness to the pastoral needs for House members, there have been allegations that Father Conroy, like Achimelech, supposedly stepped over the line between religion and politics.
Those reports claimed Conroy gave a typical invocation at the beginning of daily business in the House of Representatives on Nov. 6, 2017, when the House was debating the tax-cut bill. Supposedly, Conroy’s invocation was tantamount to Achimelech giving bread to David. It resulted in Conroy's firing.
Part of the invocation read, “As legislation on taxes continues to be debated this week and next, may all Members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great Nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle. May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”
Conroy told the New York Times that a staffer in the Speaker’s office warned him “we are upset with this prayer; you are getting too political.” Conroy also told the newspaper Ryan told him, “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”
Was Conroy also stepping over the line when he led a prayer session with Muslims and the LGBT communities in the aftermath of the Orlando nightclub terrorist murders in June of 2016?
Or is it possible that in both circumstances he was simply doing his job without considering political consequences?
Conroy is the first House of Representatives chaplain in American history to be fired so is it any wonder that bipartisan complaints are growing? This incident has stirred up a religious and political debate that casts Conroy as a modern-day Achimelech.
While we do not have the entire story from either side, it sure feels like the firing was based on politics rather than a job competency. Does it fit into a larger pattern in American religious life that penalizes clergy for speaking their minds and bringing real life values into the mainstream of American public and political discourse?
Whether it is an invocation, benediction, sermon or lecture, it appears there are voices in some circles in American politics and in our congregations who want to censure the clergy and will threaten them with job loss for speaking truth to power.
In the Bible, there were consequences for Saul’s decision to murder Achimelech and the priests at Nob. It ultimately led to the unraveling of Saul’s kingship and paved the way for David to ascend to the throne after Saul’s death.
Today, the question is who stepped over the line? Was it Reverend Conroy or Speaker Ryan?
Are the conflicts in today’s public discourse making clergy victims of brutal political infighting?
Is freedom of the pulpit dead?
Or is this episode just another example of collateral damage in the wars for America’s moral conscience?