Democracy Is Not Always Right

My delve into Hauerwas’ Christian criticism of liberal democracy coincided very well with one of the most depressing electoral results, and everything since then, that I can imagine. What better time to contemplate the futility and utilitarianism of democracy that at the time when America is electing a woefully under-prepared proto-fascist to be the most powerful man on the planet?

elections_palestineI actually think the election of Trump reinforced the message I was getting from Trump; namely, that democracy is not inherently moral. This isn’t to say that it is immoral. Rather, democracy is a morally neutral system, a tool we humans use to order our governance of our selves. Self determination, self government: those are moral ideals. Democracy, as the tool used to achieve them, is not.

One of the ideas that so many people struggle with (and I admit I did for a long time) is that we expect democracy to produce the “right” answer. We expect, no matter our ideology or political party, that in the medium to long-term, regardless of the outcome of various immediate elections, that the democratic process will conform itself to Dr. King’s moral arc of justice. And sometimes it certainly feels that way; for me, 2008 was one of those times. It was hard for so many people to not perceive the election of Barack Obama as not just a good thing, but the morally inevitable thing that democracy promises us.

But this just simply isn’t the case. In and of itself, democracy is no more moral that any form we use to govern ourselves. Now, democracy comports itself better to the ideal of self-determination better than republicanism or oligarchy or even Plato’s rule of the elite does. But, in the end, democracy facilitates the ability of the mass of people to make a certain choice, regardless of the moral weight of that choice. Another way to say this is, we get what we vote for. And sometimes, that is a Barack Obama, or an Abraham Lincoln, or a Solon, or a Nelson Mandela. But, sometimes, it’s a Donald Trump. In democracy, the right choice isn’t always the moral choice. The right choice is just whatever we decide it is. Democracy is only as moral as we are as a people.

The equation of democracy with morality is one of the original sins of American political engagement. Because we have allowed our democratic experiment to so often be equated with the Kingdom of God – because we like to entertain the notion that American democracy is a divinely ordained institution – we accept the logical conclusion that American democracy must be a force for good in the world always. It’s not.

Democracy is another tool for ordering this world. And it is a particularly good tool, compared to so many of the others we humans have tried. Churchill’s rumination on the merits of democracy is quoted often today, but rarely taken to it’s logical conclusion. Those of us who identify ourselves as Christians have an obligation to not identify our faith with that of something as human – and thus as fallible – as democracy. Our hope is not found in such things. Democracy can be useful, and can do good things. But the redemption of our world – the coming of the Kingdom – is found in ideals beyond simply the logistics of choosing new leaders. Our hope is found in the radical love that is our God, and that was lived by the man whose example we follow.

That’s an important reminder in a world that just elected Donald Trump. His elevation to the White House is disheartening, frightening, and dangerous. We have a lot of work in front of us, in terms of standing with and for those who need our love and solidarity today. But, frankly, that would have been true, albeit on a less severe scale, even with the election of Hillary Clinton, or Bernie Sanders. This is what we would do well to remember in the heat of the next electoral cycle: the election of a candidate we favor doesn’t mean our work is needed less. On the contrary: the election of Hillary Clinton would have made our work just as important, because rather than working to hold ground (as we are going to be doing for the next four years), we would have been compelled to move justice forward – and that is just as vital and hard of work as we are facing now.

The promise of democracy is not the same as the promise of love. We shouldn’t forget that, and we should never equate the two. The right answer will never be the one supplied by democratic promises; the right answer is the hoped-for Kingdom, the one we have the power to bring here, not at the ballot box, but in loving those we meet everyday.

The Ordinary is where we meet up with Jesus

“The ordinary is where we meet up with Jesus, and he is more profoundly nowhere else.” – Romand Coles

ordinary-life1One of the most extraordinary things about Jesus, something that confounded and proved a stumbling block to even his closest disciples, was the sheer ordinariness of his existence. I don’t mean this in the sense of his teachings; clearly, he was extraordinary in the Way of Being of exemplified.

Rather, I mean the ordinary nature of the man Jesus. In him, we have a Palestinian peasant, born in a village we would not of if he had never lived, to an unwed teenage, at the very edge of empire. He was a day laborer, probably spending the majority of his life before ministry traveling to nearby Sepphoris, working long hours on Herod’s magnificent city.

But even after his entry into ministry, Jesus retained his essence of ordinary. Rather than the conquering king, rather than the over-thrower of Rome and second coming of King David, Jesus was an ordinary human, who communed with and loved other ordinary, flawed humans. He ate with sinners, loved unclean women, forgave extravagantly. He preferred the company of lepers to that of magistrates and priests. He was essentially homeless, living off the generosity and goodwill of ordinary Palestinian people. He was poor. He didn’t aspire to power or greatness. He was executed as a criminal, with no friends at his side.

Jesus was “radically ordinary,” to borrow a concept from Hauerwas and Coles. And thus, he calls us to a life of the same. Christians are not called to be purveyors of power and control. We don’t long for a seat at the table with the rich and powerful and beautiful. We don’t become insiders, and place our trust in electoral victories or temporal power. Instead, we are called to serve the “least of these.” We look for the blessings of the hungry and the meek and the forgotten. We are called to be ordinary, and thus, to be radical agents of change.

The one place where Jesus wasn’t ordinary was his extraordinary understanding of the power of relational living to change the world in a lasting and meaningful way. And so, he practiced the ordinary life of a man who meets and knows people. Simply that. And he knew that would be the key to the Kingdom.

This isn’t an ordinary that disengages. As Coles writes a bit later, “…all the arts of the ordinary that read patience as an invitation to escape from the tasks of large struggles against the gargantuan and fast-moving whirls of destruction are likewise highways of delusion.” We don’t embrace our ordinary in order to withdraw from the power of the world. Rather, we engage it as a practice oriented towards change on the macro level. The ordinary, when practiced in a way that is self-giving with no expectation of return, becomes the most powerful tool known to humanity.

So we are called to be relational beings. We make the world become the way we know it can be by changing lives, and we change lives by knowing people, talking to them, hearing them. Institutional power, political power, is important in it’s way. But the real way to change the world is to get to know the people near you, as Jesus got to know the people near him.

We meet Jesus in the ordinary. We bring the Kingdom by being ordinary.

The Fragile Brilliance of Glass: An Ethic of Glory in Trump’s America

Following-up last week’s post about Hauerwas and Coles’ Christianity, Democracy and the Radical Ordinary, I want to point out another passage from early in the book. The book, a series of essays and letters, was compiled in 2008, but this particular essay by Hauerwas was originally written in 2006. Despite being a decade old at this point, it feels especially relevant today, as another example of brokenglasswhere our American civil society is in 2016.

Hauerwas is writing about Augustine’s City of God, and his discussion of the glorification of Roman heroes juxtaposed against the glorification of Christian martyrs, and what each of these mean for their communities. 

Hauerwas writes (emphasis mine):

In contrast to the Roman desire for political glory, as the only way to defeat death, Dodaro calls attention to Augustine’s understanding of martyrdom. For the martyr, fear of death was overcome by faith in a reality that, from the Roman perspective, could not help but appear “invisible.” Yet the martyr’s victory challenges the Roman understanding of “politics,” because the martyr does not depend on memory secured by military or political glory. The martyr’s memory is secured, rather, in the communion of saints who dies victorious because they broke forever the fatal victim/victimizer logic¹. The martyr cannot be a hero – whose glory is his own – because the glory of the martyr is a reflected glory – a reflection of the glory of Christ – signaling an alternative political ethic…

…Accordingly, Augustine asks “is it reasonable, is it sensible, to boast of the extent and grandeur of empire, when you cannot show that men lived in happiness, as they passed their lives amid the horrors of war, amid the shedding of men’s blood-whether the blood of enemies or fellow citizens-under the shadow of fear and amid the terror of ruthless ambition?” The only joy such people achieve has the “fragile brilliance of glass” and is outweighed by the fear of loss. So the rich and the powerful are “tortured by fears, worn out with sadness, burnt up with ambition, never knowing the serenity of repose.” In contrast, the person of limited resources is loved by family and friends, enjoys the blessing and peace with his relations and friends; “he is loyal, compassionate, and kind, healthy in body, temperate in habits, of unblemished character, and enjoys the serenity of good conscience.”

The contrast here is between a political ethic that glorifies “winning” with an ethic that achieves lasting victory. And not victory in a political, temporal sense, but victory in a more cosmic, justice-oriented sense.

Think about it this way: we don’t remember the heroes of Rome; but many of us do celebrate the feasts of the martyrs and saints even today.

The politics of Empire – the politics of death – inevitably are driven by self-glorification and competition. American democracy is no different, and this competitive, self-centered  way of being is only grotesquely enhanced by capitalism’s ethos of winning at all costs and personal enrichment. There is no reflected glory of the Divine in our political ethic of Empire. Instead, it is a dull glory, quickly forgotten and with no lasting impact. And, in 2016, we have have wrapped our arms around it completely.

Martyrs, however, serve here as exemplars of a people who have rejected structures and strictures of being in the world in the way it says you must. In doing so, they have proven the futility of the world’s need to make scapegoats, a la Rene Girard. As Hauerwas points out so beautifully, they have overcome the logic of the victimizer. They cannot be seen as someone punished with death, because they have embraced death with open arms, showing it to be, not a punishment, but a glorification, a vindication.

This break is especially relevant in a modern political climate that has taken victimization to a level not seen since Nazi Germany. Political leaders – especially our president-elect – have played the victim card, which white Christian American has eaten up, and consequently, the supposed perpetrators of this victimization – immigrants, Muslims, refugees, gays, black nationalists, lefts – have been targeted.

Donald Trump, I believe, is the apotheosis of Hauerwas’ examples of everything wrong with liberal democracy, as shown here. We have a president-elect desirous of glory, willing to play to the masses by promising their safety through the death of others; a man so obviously eaten up with envy and ambition and insecurity, covered in fragile bluster and fear and anger. He is a reflection of the pathology of white Christian American. And the only way for him and them to cope with these insecurities is to project them outwards, on to others, to make themselves the victims and their enemies – the Others – as their oppressors.

Those of us who fall in these labels, or who know, love, and respect those who do, don’t have to play this game. Hauerwas continues:

In short, a community shaped by the memory of the martyrs makes possible a people capable of the slow, hard work of politics of place, because they are not driven by the politics of fear. Yoder’s “wild patience” assumes that such a people must exist if the work of nonviolence is to be a radical challenge to the way the world is. What the church contributes to radical democracy is therefore a people who seek not glory but justice. Such a people have been made possible because they have been formed through liturgical action to be for the world what the world can become.

There is a way out of the cruel logic of the scapegoat. It is the way of love, of radical acceptance and hospitality, of refusing the blame or live in fear and suspicion of those perceived as the Other. As we saw in my previous post, it is a way that sees what those different than us have to bring to the table, and respecting that.

The politics of glory and death is not the call of the followers of the Crucified One. We don’t “win.” We don’t get first place.

Instead, we reflect the glory of the Divine. We take a back seat. We are willing to lose so others may win. We embrace the possibility of death and loss, because of the promise of resurrection. And in so doing, we show the possibility of a different world, achievable right here on earth, if we only have the courage to see it.


¹From the (much-longer) book footnote: “Rome could kill Christians but they could not victimize them.”