DRIVING HOME from the office here in West Africa one evening, shortly after dark, I saw a car in front of us suddenly do a U-turn on a major road. Why do people drive like maniacs? I thought, as the other driver shouted out, "Fool!" I soon saw why. Suddenly, the road came to an end. An army truck blocked all further progress and seven soldiers were running around in an obvious panic. I braked to a halt. A soldier, shaking and panicky, thrust his standard submachine gun in our window, ready to shoot. Our hearts jumped and adrenaline flowed as we momentarily expected to be blasted into the resurrection. In the panic of the moment, we don't even remember what the soldier said. All we remember was being forced out of our car at gunpoint. The trunk was opened and checked for guns — all the while, threats of instant death were being mouthed at us. By now, there were three of them attending us. Cars behind us were all wisely doing U-turns, preferring an accident to possible death at the hands of trigger-happy soldiers. Suddenly, another soldier appeared. "Let them go," was his command. He repeated the words, "Let them go, I tell you!" And we were free to go. As we drove away, my foot began to shake. I lost control of the clutch. My wife and three children were beyond that army truck. How was I going to get home? What was going on? Street battles between various factions of the country's military? Another coup? It took a while to get home, along back streets so as to avoid further roadblocks, but we made it — to find my family unaware of the events. Quick phone calls to friends confirmed another coup was in progress. This wasn't our first experience of a coup. There had been others and there would be more. Although ours was the only incident involving foreigners reported in this particular disturbance, hundreds of local citizens were killed and much anxiety caused to thousands. And all to no avail — the coup attempt failed.
Coups are endemic to the African continent and all too familiar in other parts of the world, notably South America. A coup (pronounced koo, the shortened form of coup d'etat) is a French word defined in Cassell's English dictionary as "a sudden and violent change of government, especially of an illegal and revolutionary nature." Coups are usually led by factions of a nation's military. For every successful coup, there are two or three unsuccessful ones. Attempted coups, resulting in no change of government, often go unreported in the press, yet they can be more bloody than a successful coup. When a government is extremely unpopular, an attempt to overthrow it will usually succeed with little bloodshed. More casualties and greater damage result when a government still has support. Various factions can fight for hours, or even days, before anyone has complete control. Military coups d'etat are one human way of changing governments. Democracies change governments through the ballot, some countries through the bullet. One effect of sudden, violent change is economic chaos. Here in Africa, the extent of a country's economic problems is often directly proportional to the number of coups and attempted coups it has had to endure. Foreign investors shy away from politically unstable countries. Essential skilled expatriate workers from technologically more advanced Western nations become too afraid of incidents like that recorded above. Economic life is disrupted by curfews that close factories and offices, soldiers that loot businesses, and by rapid changes in economic policy. Local businessmen fear their assets being seized by a new government, so they keep much needed investment money in overseas banks, where it does nothing to develop the Third World. And, perhaps worst of all, how many soldiers coming up through the ranks are really qualified to rule a modern nation, to determine economic, foreign and social policy? Soldiers are trained fighters, not economists or diplomats. (Although sometimes they can provide the discipline necessary to help the technocrats run the government.) Coups are not a new phenomenon in the world. In the days of the European monarchies, it was usually a family member or court official who would seize the crown in a coup. In ancient Israel, King David foiled a coup attempt by his own son Absalom, a man he had only recently welcomed back to his palace with forgiveness and fatherly love — to be repaid by treachery and rebellion. (Read the account in II Samuel, chapters 13 through 19). What prompts people to want to overthrow their governments? The successful coup leaders give various reasons: "social justice," "to put an end to despotism and corruption," "redistribute wealth," etc. But the real reasons can be found in the biblical account of the first ever attempted coup in history, that of Lucifer's rebellion against the great Creator God.
This coup took place before the contemporary world as we know it even existed. Lucifer was a great archangel created by God. He was given rule over the earth, then inhabited by angels. After God the Father and Jesus Christ, it seems as if Lucifer was the next most important being in the universe, given his position with access to God's throne (Ezek. 28:14). He was "perfect in [his] ways... till iniquity [sin] was found in [him]" (verse 15, RAV). Lucifer wasn't satisfied with being No.3. He wanted to be No. 1, to take over the very throne of God (Isa. 14:13). "I will be like the Most High" (verse 14). So often world leaders are violently overthrown by senior members of their own armed forces, men they have trusted and placed in authority themselves.
Basic Cause of Coups
Lucifer took one third of the angels with him (Rev. 12:4). Yes, coups are often quite popular, with a sizable segment of the population supporting the rebels. Satan's attitude of vanity, jealousy, envy, lust and greed, resentment and rebellion are usually the basic motives behind attempts to overthrow governments. People want POWER, WEALTH and POSITION — and the quickest way to have them is to get them from somebody else. Satan's attitude is one of competition, not cooperation. He resents peaceful change. Ironically, the same people who choose violent change often end up victims of a similar coup a few years later. Just as Christ said, "... all they that take the sword [choose violence] shall perish with the sword" (Matt. 26:52).
A Christian's Responsibility
The apostle Paul, living under one of the most oppressive governments in history, that of the emperor Nero in ancient Rome (a man so evil he murdered his mother and two of his wives, plus countless other victims), instructed all Christians to respect government: "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers" (Rom. 13:1). In the same verse, he adds, "For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God." This does not mean that God approves of all the governments of man. God does not approve of any government that does not obey his laws. Rather, this verse tells us that God permits governments to exist — for a reason. Continue in verse 3: "For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil." Many governments considered bad still maintain a certain amount of law and order, permitting commerce and normal social life to continue. Frequent overthrows of governments lead to a breakdown of every facet of society until anarchy reigns — a situation summed up in the last verse of the book of Judges: "In those days there was no king [effective leader] in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes." People who cannot be loyal to their leaders will find it difficult being loyal to anyone or anything. A breakdown of government authority has character repercussions throughout society. King Saul of ancient Israel was not a good leader. He disobeyed God, consulted a witch and tried to have David, and even his own son, killed. Yet, when one of Saul's own soldiers claimed to have ended his life, King David's reaction was to have the man executed. "How wast thou not afraid to stretch forth thine hand to destroy the Lord's anointed?" (II Sam. 1:1-16.) David knew and understood why God attached so much importance to governmental stability. No human leader is perfect, but God permits rulers to rule because the alternative is total anarchy — no law and order, just chaos. The apostle Peter, echoing Paul's words, reminds us at whatever level in society we are: "Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward" (I Pet. 2:18).
Leaders Also Responsible
This doesn't mean that the world's leaders have got absolute authority from God to do what they wish. Too many leaders are like the Gentile rulers described by Jesus Christ in Matthew 20:25: "The rulers of the pagans exercise despotic powers (E.V. Rieu translation)." "Their chiefs likewise rule as dictators" (Norlie translation of The New Testament). This is not God's way of ruling. Christ continues, "But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister [servant]; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant" (verses 26-27 AV). "Even as the Son of man [Jesus Christ] came not to be ministered unto, but to minister..." (verse 28). Christ is the Son of God. He is to be crowned King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 19:16). His titles will far exceed and excel those of this world's rulers (Isa. 9:6-7; Rev. 19:12). His government will soon replace all governments of men, and his reign will never cease over the earth (Isa. 9:7; Dan. 2:44). Yet it will be a government dedicated to SERVING ITS SUBJECTS, with Christ the chief servant, having already died for us (Matt. 20:28). Having experienced firsthand the fear rebellion can bring, I know one of the first things Christ will do when he establishes his kingdom over this earth is to strip mankind of all weapons of war (Mic. 4:3). Humanity will certainly get the message. There will be no more coups d'etat. This is absolutely necessary before any progress can be made in any other area. Arms destroy economic progress, taking away in a moment all that people have spent their lives striving for. Only when people learn the way to peace will Micah's prophecy be fulfilled: "But they shall sit every man under his [own] vine and under his [own] fig tree; and none shall make them afraid" (verse 4). There will be no more fear of coups and wars, resulting in sudden loss of life and property. Even in today's world, the nations with the greatest political stability are invariably the most prosperous economies. In Africa, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Senegal are three nations that have not experienced a coup — and their prosperity and order are examples to more troubled neighbors. Coups breed more coups. Violence begets violence. The result is anarchy, chaos — a falling standard of living and increased suffering for all citizens. Far better to "Honor the king [or president]," be loyal and reap the benefits of governmental stability.