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A pathway to flames

The power of dictators cannot ultimately protect them

Does anyone remember when Kim Jong-un, the young and rotund Communist dictator of North Korea, died? I remember well, because it was only last month. As reported by respectable news outlets, death was all but certain, especially since Kim had not appeared at the obligatory celebration of his grandfather’s birthday in April. It’s also well known that the self-indulgent scion of his ruthless dynasty is morbidly obese and not in good health. Rumor had it that the surgeon who installed a stint in Kim’s heart was so nervous his hand shook and botched the operation, putting the patient in a coma.

Huge, if true, but apparently it isn’t. The “alive and well” leader showed up to open a fertilizer plant in May, dutifully cheered by his subjects. The latest rumor is that Kim faked his death (or did he?) in order to smoke out possible traitors. 

Whatever his organic state, Kim’s days are numbered, as are Xi Jinping’s and Nicolas Maduro’s. Democratic leaders as well as the world’s most notorious tyrants will make their final exit relatively soon. We’ve seen them come and go; no matter how evil a tyrant or how despicable his acts, death will come for him (or her) and it won’t be photogenic.

Whatever his organic state, Kim’s days are numbered, as are Xi Jinping’s and Nicolás Maduro’s.

In a contest for most ignominious death, that of Herod Agrippa I must be right up there with Jezebel’s toss from the tower to be eaten by dogs. The grandson of Herod the Great had been raised in Rome with future emperors, who were later to grant him pieces of his grandfather’s Judean territory. Eager to consolidate favor with the Jewish ruling class, he executed James the Apostle and planned to make a showy end of Simon Peter as well. But Peter miraculously escaped, leaving Herod to twirl his villainous mustache and vow to recapture the miscreant. But first he had unfinished business with envoys from Tyre and Sidon. 

Taking his seat in shining robes, Herod delivered a speech that probably didn’t warrant the praise his audience heaped upon him: “It’s the voice of a god, and not a man!” In the midst of his preening, “an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last” (Acts 12:23).

Nebuchadnezzar could have told him a thing or two about giving God the glory.

But dictators never learn. In The Death of Stalin, a very black comedy about Soviet-style succession, the 74-year-old tyrant suffers a stroke at his rural dacha. Discovered on the floor hours later by the chambermaid, soaked in his own urine, he is unable to move or speak as high-ranking toadies argue over protocol and try to name a doctor that Comrade Stalin hasn’t murdered. The man who oversaw the death of millions dies within earshot of sycophants squabbling over his terrorized empire. 

Within weeks, Lavrenti Beria, the most likely and most savage of Stalin’s successors, is vainly begging for his life before a drummed-up firing squad.

Hitler consumed in a burning bunker, Mussolini strung up by a mob, Saddam Hussein dragged out of a hole. Plenty of dictators die in bed at a ripe old age, like Castro and Pol Pot. But death stalks the evil and the good, with the ignominy of surrendering one’s legacy and reputation to others.

“No one is established by wickedness, but the root of the righteous will never be moved” (Proverbs 12:3). It was God’s mercy to keep us from the tree of life and limit our days to four score and ten; otherwise unbounded evil would have extinguished the human race long ago. Still, wickedness establishes no one. Like dry reeds, bloody dictators as well as petty domestic tyrants will be plucked up and tossed to the flames. Their end does not trivialize the tremendous damage they can do while living, but victims rooted in righteousness will see their hope rewarded.