The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Tag Peace in Babylon

Peace in Babylon (2): The trouble with democracy

Democracy don’t rule the world
You’d better get that in your head
This world is ruled by violence
But I guess that’s better left unsaid

\~ Bob Dylan, "Union Sundown"

All political systems share a common function: they provide a social framework for legitimating violence. The end of this is the determination of by whom and under what circumstances violence can be acceptably employed. This is a useful insight when analyzing political systems, because in almost all cases this core function is masked by ideology.

People who live in relative comfort and stability have a tendency to imagine that their society has embodied the culmination of history. How could there be a better political system than democracy? In the United States this opinion is compounded with nationalist pride because we are the birthplace of the modern republic.

I am not going to try to suggest a superior political system to democracy. But I think it is important for American Christians to know the practical weaknesses of democracy so that we can wisely navigate the politics of our society. If we tune out some of the ideology surrounding our system, it will help us to better act as salt and light in the world. I'll illustrate this issue with attention to economic class in the United States.

One weakness of democracy is evidenced by the fact that "populism" has a negative connotation. Why is it considered bad to cater to the will of the masses, when that is supposedly the basis of political power? The answer, partly cynical and partly realistic, is that popular will is fickle and not necessarily in line with the best interests of the community at large. The other side of this sword is of course that majorities are necessary for electoral success. So politicians must appeal to a majority of the electorate without appearing to be "pandering."

Of course politicians do not get the opportunity to pander until they have become successful candidates. This requires a lot of money, and exposes the perennial struggle for democracy: corruption. Politicians need money to get elected, and rich people and corporations want to receive some favor for their contributions. So while the people pick the winner, in most cases the elites pick the candidates.

So far as I can tell there is no ultimate solution for corruption. It will be a continual struggle for all democracies to reform themselves and fight corruption as it increases. But even in the absence of out-and-out corruption, the system does tolerate a disproportionate influence by the rich in terms of their contributions.

The notable absence from my discussion so far has been the poor and marginalized. The rich can set the agenda, and politicians appeal to the masses, and in the midst of this the poor can be completely overlooked. As a result we get rhetoric in a presidential election which is almost wholly fixated on "the middle class." This must be of particular concern to us as Christians because we know from scripture that God favors the poor.

So what does all of this mean for we Christians living as sojourners? Democracy has some systemic flaws which prevent it from addressing some issues which are most important to us. It is by no means a perfect system. Therefore we need to direct our political efforts with the knowledge of those flaws.

Note that by "political effort" I do not necessarily mean "vote." I believe in many cases it will be necessary for Christians to address needs in our society directly, without utilizing the formal political system. After all, we may be trying forever to convince a politicians chosen by the rich and focused on "the middle class" to attend to the needs of the poor among us, but we are free to take up the effort on our own right now.

There are other ways besides the class system to illustrate the drawbacks of democracy. We as Christians need to keep in mind that our politics is not nearly as perfect as the national ideology would have us believe. With this in mind, we can discern where to engage the political process and where to be more creative in pursuing our mission in the world.

Peace in Babylon (1): In exile

Yoder makes the point this way: prior to Constantine, Christians believed that God was active in the church, but they had to have faith that God was active in the world, since the world was beating the hell out of them. After Constantine, Christians had to have faith that God was active in the church because they now knew that God was active in the world, running the world through Caesar.

Another way to put it: before Constantine it took courage to be a Christian; after Constantine it took courage to be a pagan.

\~ Stanley Hauerwas, "Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Truth & Politics"

In the early church there was relatively little penetration of Christians in the centers of terrestrial power. As time went on, Christians gained influence in the Roman empire. This culminated in the conversion of Emperor Constantine, which launched a new epoch in the church. Now rather than being a sometimes-persecuted minority, Christians were running the largest empire on the planet. This meant that they had the opportunity to enshrine their values into law, and godly living was merged with responsible civics.

I draw a comparison between Constantinianism and the Kingdom of Israel. God's chosen nation had received its legal code via Moses the prophet. Through the Exodus, the wandering, the settlement of Canaan, the period of the judges, and finally in the monarchy, the Torah was the law of the land. In this way Israel was similar to the Roman Empire and what followed: the marriage of the church with the state. Of course Israel's life under the law of Moses was never perfect, and neither was the church's. Yet the basic framework ensured that people would feel at home in their country with respect to their religion.

The kingdom of Israel eventually split and was in the North dispersed by the Assyrians and in the South carried into exile by the Babylonians. This marked the end of the rule of Torah in a nation state. Jews had to transition from being at home in a nation which embraced their religion to being sojourners in a foreign land.

The end of Constantinianism, however, is not so clearly demarcated. In my lay analysis, the first cracks started appearing during the Radical Reformation, when church first started splitting from the state. The founding of the United States, with the explicit absence of a national church, was an important waypoint. However, no matter the impetus of religious freedom which brought so many immigrants to these shores, the generic "Christian" character of society persisted in the absence of a national church. Christians still ran the show and set policies which largely reflected their understanding of the scriptures and tradition.

And in this present day we have people decrying the loss of traditional values and the influence of Christianity in the public square. Future historians will be better equipped to make this determination, but I suggest that the end is nigh. When Constantinanism ends - when Christians are no longer running the show politically - it will be the beginning of our Babylonian exile.

I think many young Christians in this country have already adopted the attitude of sojourners. This is why two generations which largely share the same values sourced in Christianity can have such different opinions on politics. Young people are less likely to agree that Christian social values should be legislated. Why? Because we don't own the world, and we know that law cannot really change hearts (think of the Three Hebrew Children in the Fiery Furnace).

But shouldn't we Christians fight to retain control of the culture and politics of this country? No. The problem with the culture war is the metaphor itself. Jesus taught that our fundamental relationship with the world is one of salt and light. The light is the positive example we set by our own conduct (not born of our fear of the state, but of our affection for God). Salt is the preservative for when society does not heed the example of the light. Neither is coercive. It is in being salt and light that we Christians, like the Jews sent into exile in Babylon, seek the peace and prosperity of the city in which we are sojourning.

The end of Constantinianism requires Christians to be courageous once more. But we should not fear, since the examples of Jesus and the apostles were forged in a period when they had no influence over the politics of Rome or even the Sanhedrin. We do not need to win political contests in order to carry out the mission of being salt and light to our society. I will argue moving forward that bearing witness to truth and providing comfort to our broken neighbors is a more effective politics than winning elections anyway.

Peace in Babylon (0): Introduction

In my opinion, the only way to vote righteously is to vote self-righteously.

I wrote the above nearly four years ago in the culmination of my reflections on Electing Not to Vote - a collection of essays on Christian non-voting. I still believe  what I wrote then.

In this new US presidential election cycle we are again confronted with the question of how voting should reflect values, ethics, and faith. In the coming weeks I will reiterate the problems with Christian participation in our formal political system. I will also work to provide more constructive ideas for what Christians can do to live out our faith in the realm of politics.

I decided to call this series "Peace in Babylon" after God's instructions to the exiles in Babylon, as found in Jeremiah 29:7:

Work to see that the city where I sent you as exiles enjoys peace and prosperity. Pray to the Lord for it. For as it prospers you will prosper.

I think the Babylonian exile provides a helpful metaphor for our current political situation. In exploring this parallel I hope to find some helpful insights for our current political situation.