Saturday, July 21, 2012

Does God favor Democracy?

Is it worth the (Western) church's effort to promote the democratization of nations that are currently under a different form of government? What does God think?

  • The church (understood as percentage of true followers of Christ of the total population) in (Western) Germany and Japan is still as small as before these nations' democratization after World War II.
  • The same is true for Eastern Europe after the fall of communism (including Eastern Germany after the re-unification with Western Germany in 1990).
  • The church in many parts of Africa has indeed seen exceptional growth over the last decades, but this explosion started before the 1990s, long time before the end of the cold war and the subsequent democratization of many sub-Saharan African nations.
  • Even more recently, the "Arab Spring" had many people believe that we would finally see an opening up of Muslim nations for the gospel - after 1400 years of them being pretty much closed to any open missionary/evangelism effort (and thus rendering them "creative access" nations), but so far there has been no measurable church-growth.
Obviously, these were/are all enormous political changes, and in many areas these changes went hand in hand with great economical and social changes. But more often than not, many negative things surfaced together with the apparent freedom as well: racism, unemployment, crime, chaos, fights between gangs and "warlords", all the way to civil war. Closing our eyes to these negative "side effects" of the prescribed medicine (democracy) is simply denial.

I am a missionay in Thailand, a somewhat democratic nation in Southeast Asia, in which, however, the old elites continue to clinch back to power whenever the powers-elected become too much of an inconvenience to them. Siding on one side necessarily makes one an enemy of the other side. But the scriptures tell us to honor every authority, independent from whether they suit our taste or not. It's the classic line of the angel of God/the Lord of hosts when he appears in Joshua 5:13-14 and is being asked whether he is on the side of the inquirer or with his opponents: "Neither," he replied, "but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come." From a missions-perspective, Christian support for democratic reforms has been and still is counterproductive in many non-democratic societies such as Laos, China (two communist countries), Myanmar (a military dictatorship), Afghanistan, Saudi-Arabia and many other Muslim nations. It's counterproductive because if Christians oppose or openly call for the replacement of leaders, parties or entire systems, these authorities will most certainly see Christians as a threat and deal with them accordingly. The point is not that democracy in itself is a bad thing. Of course not. But as far as the advancement of the gospel is concerned, it is simply irrelevant. The Kingdom of God advanced for thousands of years in the absence of democracy, and democracy is not the long-expected and longed for savior of the peoples of this world. Jesus is. In fact, democracy has become an idol for many people, including many Christians. But, like every idol, it is an idol that cannot see, cannot walk and cannot answer the cries of those who are calling to it for help. Indeed, democracy is impotent to solve the root problem of every society, sin. You see, communism could work great if it wasn't for the badness of the people living in that system. Obviously, this can be applied to democratic societies as well: If people were good (morally as well as well informed, unselfish and subjective when voting) democracy would certainly be the ultimate form of government for any people. But, in my opinion (based e.g. on my experience of living in a southeast Asian country with a constitutional monarchy), a good king is better for a country's people than corrupt, selfish or simply incompetent democratically elected leaders
In spite of its roots in ancient Greece, democracy is still a rather young form of government in most parts of the globe. Most societies throughout the history of mankind have had other forms of government. "Democracy" is not mentioned in scripture, and you could therefore call it unbiblical. Of course, that would be as ridiculous as calling cell-phones or computers "unbiblical" simply because they aren't mentioned in scripture. Technology, society, culture and political structures are constantly developing and changing. God's standards and His commands, however, are not. His word, under the New Covenant, is applicable to all of Christ's followers, at all times, independent from geographical, sociological, economical or political factors. I therefore find the prominence that democracy is given in the worldview of many Christians around the world hardly justifiable. Cell-phones and computers aren't unbiblical, but they can be used for either good or bad purposes. It all depends on the attitude and motive of the user. Rather than calling for a ban of cell-phones and computers because they, say, provide access to things like pornography, the body of Christ should appeal to users everywhere to use these tools wisely and for good purposes. I say "everywhere", but the emphasis should really be "in their own households" and "in their own nations". Trying to tell people in other families or even other nations what they should or shouldn't do with their electronic devices would have to be seen as prideful, bullying and over-stepping of one's own sphere of authority. In the same way, it certainly is appropriate to remind people everywhere that they should live godly lives, independent from their respective form of government at the current time. That's exactly what the apostle Paul did, and we should not go any further. To assume that we, in the form of democracy, have the answer for all the peoples' problems is not only prideful and possibly counterproductive. But it is also 180 degrees contrary to what scripture tells us to do, when it commands us to "pray for all in authority" (1. Tim 2,2). Notice it says "for", not "against". No government will simply be standing by passively and watch as Christians call for a change of leadership in their nation. A memorable exception to this is King David, who did stand by when his son rebelled against him - but then again David was of a completely different caliber than modern day politicians, kings or queens. And, not to forget, he was the leader of God's people of his time, not of some heathen nation who didn't know anything about the true God. Which brings me to my final point, and it is here that the parallels between the people of God in the Old and the New Testament reach their dramatic but unfortunate (and then again: not too surprising) climax: Not too long before David had ascended the throne, God's people had completely turned their backs on the form of government that God wanted them to live under, i.e. under the loving and caring counsel of god-appointed judges. But the Israelites, for whatever reasons, had become weary of this way of life. Instead, they wanted to be "like every other people" (see 1. Samuel 8 and 12:12ff). In those days, the political fad of the day was monarchy. Nowadays it's democracy. When the prophet Samuel was grieved by the desire of the people to change God's appointed system, he went and poured out his heart to the LORD, and the LORD answered him: "It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king" (1. Samuel 8:7). 
I fear that the body of Christ is repeating Israel's sin all over again, only this time the chorus goes like "we don't want to have a king/military leader/one-party system - we want to be like every other nation and elect our leaders". God's command to pray for all who are in authority, to honor and obey them are far too often brushed away just as easily as the command to love our enemies, and are only followed when they happen to be convenient. But that's not how they were meant, and thus a big part of the professing church today finds itself in the same shoes as the Pharisees, who put aside the commands of God for their traditions (Matthew 15:2). In the days of Samuel, God told the people that they would have to pay a price for their choice, consisting of things such as military draft and taxes (!) (see 1. Samuel 8:10ff). Unfortunately, a similar list of side-effects of democracy was not broadcast to the masses that demonstrated in Tripolis, Cairo, Kiev, Moscow or in Kabul and Baghdad. Instead, it was (and is still being) told to them that democracy would solve their societies' problems. It  is preposterous for any political leader to say this, but for the church to join this choir is blasphemy. Because in the final essence it is trusting in man and it is trying to bring about the Kingdom of God by the means and in the strength of men. But Psalm 2 applies: God laughs at the plans of the nations of this world. What the world needs is not calls for new forms of government (that aren't really that new in the first place), but a call to repentance and holiness independent from what kind of government one happens to live under. But: anybody noticed that the more political (and "religious") freedom a country has, the less popular those calls for true repentance become. Independent, "free" people tend to be the most rebellious, only that now they have a constitutional backing for their sinful actions. So, now here is something worth thinking about...

Here is the biblical account of the imminent change of government in Israel as recorded in 1. Samuel 8:6-20: 
"But when they said, "Give us a king to lead us," this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: "Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do."
Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, "This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day."
But the people refused to listen to Samuel. "No!" they said. "We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles."