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In these past posts I have been looking at issues which surround human freedom and power. Up to this point I have avoided drafting a thesis statement for the series. I will attempt one now but I may need to revise it before I am done. (As Julie Clawson has written, her blog, onehandclapping, is where she thinks out loud and gives other people an opportunity to further shape her thinking.) My posts often serve that purpose. So, here is a first draft of the overall point I am trying to make in this series.
Believing as I do that God always intended people to rule themselves in creation together within forms and structures similar to those used by herds and other groups of animals, I have come to believe that any loss of such power to rule ourselves is a movement away from God’s creative and redemptive design for society. Therefore, in our time I am worried because what was intended to be a government of, by and for its people in the US has become and is becoming more and more, an implicitly plutocratic government, one which is run by the wealthy, exists to cater to the interests of the wealthy, one in which administrations, courts and legislatures at the county, state and federal levels have become accountable only to the 1%, most wealthy persons in the nation, the persons who fund re-elections. This has occurred, I believe, because there has been a long-term, concerted effort by a few to:
1) substantially shrink the US middle class and
2) monopolize the electoral process so as to place effective participation in government beyond the reach of common, middle-class people.
Which brings me to an observation I heard recently from Chris Hayes:
The brilliance of democracy is that it provides a feedback mechanism whereby many people without much power can interact with and force those with power to respond to them. When you have representatives who feel they do not have to listen to the voters, they don’t have to listen to the people, they start making a lot of really terrible decisions. We have democracy so our leaders have to listen to us. And it makes for better leadership and for better outcomes.
It sure does! The basic problem with monarchy and other forms of authoritarian government is that the leadership has few if any short-term incentives for treating its people with anything approaching the biblical norm of justice/righteousness. I write, “short-term” because long-term thinking recognizes that every society where people are empowered and where the disparities between the rich and the poor are small are healthier societies in every way than their rich vs. poor counterparts. Thom Hartmann likes to quote what a German CEO said to a shocked Bloomberg TV host last winter, that he does not mind paying 50-60% of his income in taxes which strengthen the public commons of Germany because, “I do not want to be a rich man living in a poor country.”
Our Calling, by Whatever Just/Righteous Means
In the first century of our era, even without the systems and structures in place which allow us to participate in and shape public policy, St. Paul understood it was the plan of God that the tiny community of the Christian faithful would, over time, subvert the way things were done throughout the world, beginning in the brutal, bloody empire of Rome. The early church did not have republican democracy but they profoundly changed their society by transforming from the bottom up: the way food was served and to whom and when, the practice of exposing unwanted infants, relationships within homes and businesses, care for the poor and powerless.
Christians in Paul’s day began to bring to nothing the things which had been for far too long already. Surely, it is our job to continue together what they started. Work from the bottom up is still a means we can and must employ to improve the lives of all people. This is no game of either/or. It’s just that, in our time, because of those who have gone before us, we have even greater just/righteous means at our disposal.
Our New Powers for Changing the World
How did we get those new means? It was over 1500 years after the work of King Jesus on the cross that serious numbers of common Christians began to directly influence public policy in a few places in the world. First, in the protestant countries, common people began to serve on councils within their churches, then within their towns. Eventually in a few places like Switzerland, the Netherlands and Britain men of means, many of whom had previously been leaders in their towns and churches, began to serve in higher offices until over several centuries, the condition of rule through the consent of the governed came to exist covertly along-side the ancient mythology of the divine right of kings to rule. Then, beginning in Geneva and Switzerland and later in the new lands of America, the divine right was set aside forever.
Once Christians understood they needed no strong “Pappa” figure other than God to guide their way, new political forms developed: “constitutional monarchy” and republican democracy. Then, fully and for the first times in the better part of three thousand years, the people in those blessed nations, many of whom were by no coincidence also the people of God, came to be able to “choose their own magistrates.”
And then… It was still rare for the whole of a people to benefit from the deliberations of such early governing bodies. Yet, over the centuries in the few existing participatory democracies the franchise was extended to a greater and wider group of people. And once everyone above the age of twenty in England, for instance, could vote, it became recognized by Parliament that if even young men who owned no property were to vote and “flighty” young women were to vote, then the government ought to get busy “educating their employers” .
And so we Christians found ourselves with means beyond anything St. Paul could have asked for or imagined to make the world a better place.
Redemptive History If you have studied with me you have seen this heading/phrase before. How long did it take from the time when Israel threw down self-rule by God in favor of a monarchy until that creational gift was restored to a few human beings in a very few countries? Somewhere between 2300 and 2900 years. And the story continues. Do we understand that the story of God goes on, that God is nowhere, no-how done working out the redemption of his creation through us?
Next/Last: Where and what to do.
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1 Back to Post Ongoing studies of red deer herds in England find that they make decisions about crucial matters – like when shall the herd stop grazing and move to a pond for a drink – by voting. If there are three possible ponds, the deer will essentially caucus until 50% plus one deer all have their bodies facing one of the ponds. And as soon as that 50%+1 deer joins the others to form a majority, they all move to the pond, no-matter which way they were facing prior to that moment. Many other animal science studies are finding the same thing among herds/clouds/schools/flocks of “higher” and “lower” orders of animals. Go figure: God was always about what we call democracy. To fail to rule ourselves in community is to be fallen; or it is, as Paul says, to be caught in bondage to sin.
To research this begin with the names Roper and Conradt or even with “red deer and democracy.” You will find articles pertaining to findings on deer, gnats, fish, and birds, among others.
2 Back to Post Here I quote talk-show host Chris Hayes in full from a short MSNBC promo clip.
3 Back to Post This phrase comes from a quote from the writings of John Calvin who – the following is my paraphrase – wrote: ‘When any people receives, as Israel did, the right to choose their own magistrates, they have received a great gift from God. Such a people once they have such a blessing in their midst ought to resist any and all attempts to take it from them.’
I have long looked for the source of this quote in order to get it verbatim but without success. If any of you comes across it, I would consider myself twice blessed if you were to pass the reference along.
4 Back to Post Forgive me again. I remember this quote from a university course in British History but I have been unable to find the person then quoted. The British franchise was extended in a series of three reform acts in the 19th century and two in the early 20th century. We cannot overestimate the effect this had on the willingness of members of Parliament to defy the collective will of their constituents. Not!