The Shortcomings of Democracy

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I’ve written before about the relationship between democracy and Christianity. The piece linked here was from about three years ago, wherein I wrote that democracy does not ensure inherently more moral outcomes than other forms of government, but rather is just as subject (if not more so) to the poor judgment of human beings, and thus just as likely to produce immoral and undesirable governing outcomes (see Trump, Donald.)

As I was reading When War is Unjust by Yoder last night, I came across this passage that struck me as making the same point, but in a more concrete and insightful way. Here is Yoder:

In order to gain a popular mandate and seem stronger than their adversaries, politicians may exploit nationalistic and xenophobic, even racist, enthusiasms of common folk, thereby putting themselves under pressure to perform in a way as “patriotic” as their campaign language. Once the battle has begun and lives have been given, it is far more difficult to contemplate suing for peace. The medieval vision of the prince as a responsible and wise decision-maker, able to lead his people because he knew more of the facts, had studied the craft of governing, and had the courage and also the power to make unpopular but right choices, is replaced be elected politicians who become captives of the patriotic sentiments and short-circuited analyses their own campaigning stirred up. The medieval monarch could, if wise, cut the losses and make peace. Democratic leaders may be less free to be wise, especially once they have cranked up the fervor for war. Whether we speak of the relatively genuine democracies, in which popular suffrage is effective, or of the many places in which the facade of an electoral process is used to cover less worthy policies and less valid processes of decision, it often appears that to involve the masses in decisions about war and national honor does not provide for more effective defense of the real interests of most people. The issues at stake are subject to rapidly changing moods and to deceptive rhetoric. Decisions about whether to have a war, about what, and how long are not made more wisely just because there are elections. Democratic forms may well work against restraint.

I don’t post this as an endorsement of a return to medieval monarchy as a government (or, even less, as some sort of theocratic technocracy bringing together Plato and Aquinas.) Rather, I read and share this as a reminder of my point in the earlier piece: democracy is not a cure-all for what ails the world and the nation socially and economically. Those of us who have stood opposed to Trump since early on should know this as well as any, and in fact, his election is what awoke this line of thinking in myself. The same democracy that elected a Barack Obama is just as likely and capable to elect a Donald Trump. It is also just as likely to turn around and elect an Elizabeth Warren next time, and who knows what after that.

I do think this passage is interesting in the sense of what Yoder points out specifically as the things democracy does less well. He notes the accumulation of facts, the art of governance, and the ability to use restraint as three things that the idea monarch could bring to bear that democratic forms of governance fail at more often. The depredations and downfalls of monarchy often impeded the exercising of these good points, but then again, the depredations and downfalls of democracy often override the positive elements of it as well. The use of restraint, and the making of hard decisions, stands out to me most as what the American project in democracy is failing at most often; we seem unable, as a democratic populace, to make hard decisions involving sacrifice or the giving up of privileges, in order to achieve a greater and broader good. Our democratic guidance seems all too often geared towards maximizing our own good in the here and now, at the expense of any longer-term vision. This is evident on the right in the denial of and refusal to deal with the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change; on the left, we see this in the drive for further atomization and individualization of the body politic, driving towards intensely personal understandings of cultural engagement at the expense of some form of national coherence and unity, something that is key to the success of any community of any size and form.

When I think about these shortcomings of pure democracy, it makes me think of how prescient were the Founders in this sense, in their writing in of checks and balances in our governing documents. Madisonian democracy, enmeshed in the Constitution, is representative and limited, for the purpose of ensuring some semblance of a ruling elite; I like to think that this ruling class could be one that is elite in it’s ability to make hard decisions for the greater good, in it’s knowledge of governing forms and policy, and it’s attention to facts and details. But again, the ideal runs up against the realism of human fallibility; history has shown us that any form of a ruling elite inevitably turns into a kleptocratic, oligarchic economic elite.

This all brings me around to the reminder I feel I am constantly banging away at for Christians, namely, that democracy is not a “Christian” form of governance, any more than any temporal form of human governance is. As we get closer and closer to the 2020 elections, we cannot lose sight of the fact that all the problems we face will not be wiped away by the election of more favorable candidates to higher office; even more importantly, we cannot forget that no matter who assumes (or retains) the presidency and Congress next year, our role as Christians is one outside the structures of coercive power. Even our friends need a robust voice of criticism pushing them on towards a higher vision of the Good, beyond the needs of the next electoral cycle. Christians are not democrats; we are Christians, first and last.

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A Migrant Mother’s Journey

Watch this video. See a mother trying desperately to find a new life for her children. See her tears because drug gangs in her home of Honduras killed her husband, took her home, left her boys in danger. See her anger when she tells her kids the government of Honduras did nothing because they are poor. See the blisters, the dehydration, the dangerous, desperate crossing of the river on a raft. See the young man describing his fruitless two year search for work. See that these aren’t violent and scary monsters that Fox News is telling you they are, but are human beings, mothers, children, young men, trying to get away from violence and unemployment and wrenching poverty.

For decades, we – you and I and America -have told them that America is the greatest, safest, richest, most compassionate and desirable place on earth. They took our words seriously, they believed our promises, they accepted the invitation on our Statue of Liberty as authentic, and not a cruel PR trick. Now, 6000 believers in the American promise – 2300 children! – are at our door and the question is, what are we going to do? Are we going to embrace fear? Are we going to tear gas them? Are we going to throw up our hands and decide the hard work is too daunting , that human lives aren’t worth getting our hands dirty and solving problems? Are we now outsourcing the promise of the Statue of Liberty to Mexico, too?

We have to find compassion. We have to stop being afraid. We have to stop believing the lies – the lies of our president, who tells us these people are evil; the lies of right wing media, who tells us they are dangerous; the lies of the rich and powerful, who tells us if we take in these people, we won’t be able to afford to take care of our own, when in fact we are rich enough and smart enough to do both, we just choose not to. We have to take their pleas for asylum seriously, we have to understand we have a duty, an obligation, because we are responsible for what is happening in Honduras and El Salvador and all across Central America. We have to live up to our own promise.

And, for those of us who are Christians, we must remember that Christ himself was a migrant, that Scripture and the tradition demands our compassion and sacrifice on behalf of the stranger and the immigrant. This isn’t an optional piece of the Christian faith, no more consequential than grape juice or wine at communion. This kind of love and compassion, put to work for others, is the very center of our commitment as disciples of Christ. That means that, no matter the reality of immigration laws or processes, we Christians have a calling to figure it out and respond to the pain of fleeing mothers and children and young men and old men and anyone. This isn’t a Democrat or Republican thing. Screw politics. This is a human being thing.

Jesus Was Tear-Gassed This Weekend

I don’t know exactly what the United States’ policy response to the migrant caravan should be, but I’m pretty sure it shouldn’t be this:

The first wave of men, women and children fleeing drug war-induced violence in Central America were met at the border this weekend by Border Patrol agents who proceeded to fire tear gas at them.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that those who are his disciples would be welcoming to the immigrant and the stranger. He tells us that as we do to the least, we also do to him. He implores us to love our neighbor. He is shown to us early in life as a migrant himself, fleeing with his parents across the border into Egypt.

If we believe Jesus us with us here today, then we almost certainly could find him in the caravan of people fleeing and looking for asylum.

If we really do think Jesus is found in the face of our neighbors, then he surely was subjected to tear gas this weekend at the border.

If we take seriously the Jesus we read of in the Gospels, then we know he is not found in the halls of power. He is not sitting in the Oval Office, and he is not blessing those who give orders to tear gas innocents, and he is not casting blame on those who are looking for a better life.

The Gospels show us that, time and time again, Jesus takes the side of the suffering, the poor, the convicted and the hurting. I have no doubt Jesus is fleeing back south, away from America, with tears streaming down his face, both from the chemical attacks he was subjected to, and because of the sorrow he feels for those who are victimized by the powerful.

Miguel de la Torre writes powerfully of the Jesus who was a border crosser and a migrant in The Politics of Jesus:

And while most border crossers today do so as an act of desperation, Jesus, theologically speaking, chose to be a border crosser as an act of solidarity with the least of these. The biblical text reminds us that, although divine, Jesus became human, assuming the condition of the alienated. Accordingly: “[Jesus], who subsisting in the form of God thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, in the likeness of humans, and being found in the fashion of a human, he humbled himself, becoming obedient until death, even the death of the cross” (Ph. 2:6-8). The radicalness of the incarnation is not so much that the Creator of the universe became human but rather that God chose to become poor, specifically, a wandering migrant.

Is it any wonder that the second most common phrase used throughout the Hebrew Bible exhorts the reader to take care of the alien among you, along with the widows and the orphans? For those who claim to be Christians, responsibility toward aliens is paramount; after all God incarnated Godself as an alien – today’s ultra-disenfranchised. Jesus understands what it means to be seen as inferior because he was from a culture different from the dominant one.

Politicians have used fear of immigrants as a tool for countless years to win power in this country, and we are at a point where those words are being translated into violent action against innocent people. Christians have a duty to stand with those who are in need, because that is where we find Christ. All Christians should find what is happening abhorrent, regardless of how we feel about immigration laws in this country. No law is more important than a person.

That is what our faith is all about: love before legalism.

Christians should consider it their duty to welcome the immigrant if America won’t. We must be the hands and feet of Christ, regardless of how hard the powers of the world try to exert control through fear of the other. Let us find the love for our neighbors that America is unwilling and unable to muster.