Christian Theology and Democratic Politics: Part Two

My investigation of the links between Christian theology and democratic politics continues. It follows my exploration into the Bible’s emphasis upon the rule of law, and the contribution this emphasis has made to modern legal concepts in democratic states.

The law’s normative status over a community of people is one strand which links democratic political cultures and the Judeo-Christian ethic which has shaped them. But in exploring this link, I have also anticipated another crucial connection – namely, the idea that leaders are the servants of those they lead. The conclusions adduced in the first essay of this series suggest that within a biblical frame of reference, even pre-eminence in human rulership was relativised. Indeed, even if ancient Israel was no democracy (a point that was true of all its neighbours), we should not be distracted from this fundamental point.

The rule of law and the notion of leaders as servants are linked in a consequential way. The law’s supremacy is intended, in part, to constrain the power of any one individual or group. In this context, any such governor is still subservient to legal strictures maintaining an independent normativity. Even if he has amassed a great deal of power, he is nonetheless charged with the responsibility of upholding the law and maintaining the order and integrity of the community he rules. That represents a kind of minimalist version of the concept of the leader-as-servant. A fully-fledged account of democratic government would hold that leaders’ authority is grounded in the consent of a particular people. Of course, how that is parsed is often a matter of debate, but for modern liberal democracies, the usual mechanism is universal suffrage and regular elections.

This represents a unique arrangement in the history of human cultural and political evolution. For most of that period, the relationship between the governed and governors was one of utter asymmetry, with the former living in subjection to the latter. What democratic states seem to do is dramatically upend the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed. On this view, governors do not “lord” it over citizens; nor is their authority grounded in themselves. It is not intrinsic, but extrinsic. As an ideal, they are there to labour on behalf of the citizenry – for its betterment and security, and at its behest – and it is upon this that the legitimacy of governors rests. Democratic leaders are, in theory, restrained and relativized. On the one hand, they are restrained, because they are bound by the legal framework within which they operate. They cannot act with untrammelled power, because they are servants of both the people who have given their consent to be so governed, and because they themselves are susceptible to legal sanctions if they overstep the boundaries of their authority. On the other hand, leaders in a democracy are relativized, because they are not the ultimate ground of that authority. Again, the citizenry and the rule of law (which provides for consensual government) together ensure that this is the case.

As noted, those who steer the ship of state, at least in a democratic setting, are charged with the responsibility of providing for the betterment of others – not as an adjunct to their role as governors, but as the very essence of what they do. Indeed, the reason elected officials exist is so that (in the absence of radically participatory politics) the interests and wishes of the people may be carried out on their behalf. It is what one might idealistically designate other-regarding, as opposed to self-regarding, power. Democratic leaders are by definition servants of those they lead; they are agents and instruments of the public will. This partly explains the notion of accountable government: if those who lead are meant to do so for the benefit of the citizens of a particular political community, it is but a short step to argue that they ought to be answerable to the ones in whose name they claim to govern. Again, none of this springs forth spontaneously; equally, it cannot be sustained by the intrinsic virtue or good will of its practitioners. A whole web of checks and balances ensures that orientation towards service of the citizenry, and the fundamental conception of democratic governance, are upheld. By contrast, in many traditional dictatorships, leaders exercise power, and are free to do so, largely for their own benefit (regardless of the nature of that benefit). To be sure, they may pay lip service to the idea that the needs and interests of the citizens need to be attended to – if only to make the accumulation and preservation of power that much easier. According to democratic principles (if not democratic reality), ministers and elected officials exist chiefly for the sake of those who have chosen them; they are meant to serve.

Of course, these are ideal types; actual leaders invariably fail to neatly conform to them. Moreover, the reality frequently fails to match such lofty ideals: modern, Western politicians sometimes appear to be just as susceptible to venality and corruption as authoritarian ones; and democratic politicians can be very adept at using “pork-barrel politics” to cling to power, in a manner that is reminiscent of the crudest kind of populist strongman. Still, this should not distract us from the larger point, or the fundamental principles we use to judge such failings in the first place.

Servant Leadership in the Old Testament

One may discern the seed of such an idea in (amongst other places) the OT. If the (divine) law was “king”, then any human ruler, no matter how powerful, was obliged to defer to something greater than himself. He was, in some sense, a servant. He was not called to live for his own aggrandizement; rather, he was selected for the sake of the community, providing a focal point of obedience and devotion to Torah. At the same time, the king was appointed to his position by God. An OT theology of kingship presents Yahweh as the ultimate sovereign, from whose authority any Israelite ruler derived his own. Of course, one might assert that this simply upholds a theory of the divine right of kings. But, aside from the fact that arguing for royal absolutism on the basis of divine providence appears to be a medieval development, the counter-argument does not reckon with the way both Testaments portray rulership generally. In tandem with its insistence regarding the supremacy of law, the OT contains a germinal understanding of the leader-as-servant. We have seen how royal disobedience led to the activation of divine curses, narrated particularly in Kings and Chronicles – clear demonstration of the king’s relative, and indeed relativised, status. This is complemented by the fact that he was not viewed as the final ground of his own position of pre-eminence. The book of 1 Samuel presents this clearly: Saul, who had been chosen as king, becomes a “stench” to Yahweh due to his recalcitrant disobedience, whilst David’s parallel rise – and ultimate acclamation – as Yahweh’s true representative is depicted as the unfolding, not of human machinations, but of the sovereign designs of Israel’s god. On one level, the narrative presents David as the unique recipient of divine favour. However, on another level, it represents a subtle reminder that the king himself stood on authority that was in the hands of another. He was a leader, yes; but he was, in the final analysis, an instrument, used by Yahweh with the intention of mediating his just and wise order – inscripturated in Torah – to the community.

The New Testament and the Flowering of an Idea

Having been germinated in the soil of the OT, the idea of servant leadership blossoms in the NT. The basic resources for a democratic understanding of governance – one which reverses the relationship between those in power, and those over whom power is exercised – are to be found there. We may begin with one of the clearest “political” texts in the NT, Romans 13:1-7. It is a notorious passage. Commentators over the centuries have often interpreted Paul’s statements here in purely reverential terms: having traversed other topics in Romans 1-12, they aver, he now deals explicitly with questions of the believer’s relationship to governing authorities, and does so by counselling quietism and acquiescence. Countless interpreters, not to mention politicians, have dragooned this passage into service, as they have sought to substantiate the untrammelled, unquestioned power of the state. In more recent times (and in an example of religion frustrating the advance of emancipation and egalitarianism), the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa deployed Romans 13:1ff to argue for acquiescence towards the political structures sustaining that country’s apartheid system.

All this, however, fundamentally misunderstands Paul’s point. True, a prima facie reading supports a so-called “conservative” interpretation, such that the apostle is heard to be saying that it would simply be better for a basically oppressive system of government to remain in place, than for Christians to be seen as subversive. Indeed, he seems to simply enjoin submission, with nary a word (apparently) on whether or not the authorities to which one ought to submit are legitimate. However, probing its contents more deeply yields a very different conclusion. To this end, a few points may be considered. Whilst it encourages some degree of deference to the governing authorities, Romans 13:1ff is quite deliberate in the language its uses to describe them. This is particularly clear if we gather up vv.1-2, 4-6, which speak of the nature (as opposed to the activity) of governing authorities. In those passages, Paul quite clearly states that (1) those who govern have been instituted by God, and (2) they are God’s “servants”. What this means is that although the apostle encourages the Roman believers to eschew rebellion and subversion, he nonetheless betrays a relativized view of government and human political institutions, consistent with a Jewish view of God as the world’s sole sovereign. Caesar, according to imperial ideology, owed allegiance to no one, save perhaps for the pantheon of Greco-Roman gods (who could probably expect nothing more than superficial reverence). The emperor stood at the apex of a totalising system, which acknowledged no other authority, no other rival who might qualify or check his untrammelled power. Paul, on the other hand, argues that every governing authority, from Caesar on down, has been instituted by God (v.1b-c). The power and legitimacy they bore was rooted in an external authority. For all their pomp, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, et. al., were but instruments, whose positions, according to Paul, depended entirely on the largesse of the world’s true King. If not for him, we might hear the apostle saying, they would be nothing. The apostle exhorts submission to governors, certainly; but lying behind this counsel is the basic assumption that they in turn were subject to God. Underlying – indeed, overshadowing – their authority was an authority transcendent and unmatched (metaphysically speaking). Far from re-enforcing a totalitarian system, Paul significantly qualifies it.

That qualification is reflected in the apostle’s conviction that governors are “servants” of God (vv. 5-6), charged with the responsibility of bringing order to the political community. Not only have they been bequeathed authority (such that it is derived and relativized); neither the emperor, nor his legion of proconsuls, magistrates and provincial governors, were to wield power for its own sake. For Paul, they were merely agential figures, whose positions were only legitimate to the extent they discharged their duties as guarantors of justice and order (v.4b). The apostle is quite emphatic on this point, though it would be easy to miss, given popular (and facile) readings of the overall tenor of the passage. Twice he labels the governing authorities “servants”; once, he calls them “agents” – language that most certainly undermines pretensions towards universal sovereignty, particularly as that comes to expression in the figure of the emperor. On this view, power is circumscribed, for those holding it do so as instruments of the final sovereign. In Paul’s mind, governors occupy a demoted (though nonetheless important) position, such that their raisons d’etre rest on service to a purpose higher than the accumulation of power for its own sake.

Of course, it would be folly to suggest that in the wider Greco-Roman world, governors lacked any sense of what it meant to provide for those they governed, or that they had no obligations towards citizens and subjects (though this obviously excludes the massive population of slaves within the Roman Empire). What I think is distinctive about the NT portrait of leadership and power is the way it drastically re-draws the vocation – the benefits of which are so completely externalised that true authority is defined as, and manifested in, service to others. This is particularly so as it is embodied in the NT’s portrayal of the ministry and life of Jesus himself. Even in the absence of direct historical links, it is still possible to discern certain parallels between, and echoes of, a Christological ethos and later principles associated with democratic governance. Some of the key texts in this regard are Mark 10:40-45; John 13:1-5; and Philippians 2:5-11.

Mark 10:40-45: Of the three passages I have selected, Mark 10:40-45 draws perhaps the clearest distinction between worldly, secular expressions of power, and the kind of power Jesus counselled and exemplified. In that passage, James and John approach Jesus, and ask him to give them high places of honour on either side “in [his] glory” (v.37). Clearly, they want to be exalted alongside Jesus, to attain positions of primacy and acclamation. But the other disciples are little better, becoming indignant with the brothers’ request – not because they believe it to be wrong, but because they are angry their own opportunity for honour has apparently been robbed (v.41). Verses 42-45, however, form the crux of Jesus’ statement on power and authority. He explicitly contrasts the way in which earthly rulers wield their power, “lording” it as they do over their subjects, and the model he presents (cf. v.45). Indeed, he is categorical and his disavowal of secular convention, calling upon the disciples to eschew the haughtiness of secular rulers in favour of a servant’s approach to leadership. More than that, he states that if any of them aspire to such positions, they must adopt the posture of a slave (v.44).

Slavery in the Roman Empire was a mixed bag; some slaves were able to do quite well for themselves, accumulating property and even acquiring slaves of their own. Others, however, were treated shamefully, stripped of everything, and utterly dehumanised by the reigning economic system. For Jesus, the significance of this kind of language lies in its basic connotations: whether a slave enjoyed a relatively comfortable existence, or suffered under the crushing weight of constant oppression, his life was ultimately not his own; it was limited, corralled – inextricably bound to the expectations and whims of his owner. The slave was not his own person; he was, in many respects, an appendage of the paterfamilias. And yet, remarkably, it was this very image Jesus chose to use when describing the nature of true leadership. For him, the authentic expression of power could be summed up as a kind of servitude, as those who followed his example were enjoined to give up all rights as they sought to lead. He commanded them to yield everything in service to others, thereby upending conventional notions of power, and subverting long-established hierarchies between the governed and those who govern them. Jesus used himself as the exemplar of this attitude, offering up his own crucifixion as its climactic embodiment. Mark 10:45 has long been seen as a classic expression of the significance of the atonement. It is certainly that, of course, but as Anglican New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has said, this passage houses a political theology inside its atonement theology – namely, a critique of the shape and nature of contemporaneous articulations of authority via Jesus’ own explication of the meaning of his death. In place of worldly analogues, Jesus substituted a picture of leadership that was deeply, radically, centred upon the welfare of others (“…give his life as a ransom…”). On this view, the leader’s life was, in effect, “enslaved” – bound to the duty he had to the community he oversaw. The accumulation of power was not for the purposes of self-aggrandizement, but for self-emptying.

John 13:1-5: The Marcan Jesus’ presentation of himself as the epitome of servant leadership leads naturally into John 13:1-5. That episode is justly famous for featuring his rather surprising act of foot-washing in the upper room, only hours before his arrest, trial and execution. In John’s hands, Jesus’ determination to wash the feet of his disciples proleptically symbolizes the cross. Now, for the Fourth Evangelist, Jesus’ crucifixion is, amongst other things, an act of service, issuing in great benefit for others. We may deduce this from the deliberate link he makes between Jesus’ foot-washing and his later death. Christ’s references to cleansing plainly function on more than one level, where the concrete reality of feet being washed with water points to the greater reality of cleansing from sin by virtue of Jesus’ self-oblation. But of course, the responsibility for foot-washing lay with servants, who waited on the guests of a feast. Such a menial task would not have been conducted by the guests themselves, for it was utterly beneath them. However, what Jesus commanded didactically in Mark 10, he here offers up in visual, parabolic form. Moreover, he pairs his example with an exhortation to the disciples to do likewise (13:14-15), thus setting out the importance of his own life as an ethical paradigm for those who would claim to follow him.

What is important for our purposes, however, are the specific links between the passage and the notion of servant leadership. These have already been clearly intimated by the very fact of Jesus’ adoption of a servant’s posture. But the prelude to the act is a revealing comment from the author himself, which provides both a theologically rich portrait of Jesus’ identity, and a startling reinforcement of the radically unconventional expression of power and authority attributed to him. Verse 3 has the evangelist tell us that Jesus “knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God, and was returning to God”. This is crucial; the very next verse continues by saying, “so he [Jesus] got up…” in order to wash the disciples’ feet. The seemingly insignificant word “so” signals the consequential relationship between Jesus’ knowledge of his complete sovereignty (delegated, to be sure), and the subsequent act of humble service which he performed. For the Fourth Evangelist, the foot-washing was not an obstacle to Jesus’ comprehensive authority; it was a clear, if paradoxical, expression of that theological truth. Similarly, Jesus did not stoop to the level of a servant despite being the incarnation of the Father’s very wisdom (cf. John 1:1-2); rather, he did so precisely because of it. The message seems clear: true power is not expressed through tyrannical coercion, but through the complete abnegation of self and status. Via his surprising act, the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel taught the disciples that leadership in the redeemed community could not wielded in the same manner as earthly expressions, for it meant the complete reversal of expectations and convention.

Philippians 2:5-11: Philippians 2:5-11 seems to point in much the same direction as the foot-washing episode in John 13. As such, the passage also has important implications for a NT understanding of authority and power. In this chapter, Paul exhorts the church at Philippi to adopt the same mind and attitude as that of Christ Jesus (v.5). He then launches into a wonderful soliloquy about the various stages of Christ’s humiliation (completed with his exaltation): first, in taking on human flesh; and second, by walking the road to Calvary, and suffering a shameful execution in the manner of a criminal (vv.6-8). Verses 6-7 are particularly important, for they offer the reader a window into Paul’s paradoxical view of the identity and revelation of the world’s true sovereign. To be sure, there has been much debate as to how this pair of verses should be construed: did Jesus “make himself nothing” despite enjoying “equality with God”; or did he, rather, condescend because he participated in the divine identity? In other words, was Christ’s (two-stage) sacrifice a move away from the proper expression of divinity, or the culmination thereof?    

In his stimulating work, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, Michael J. Gorman argues that both interpretations are valid, and for that reason, proposes a synthetic treatment of the passage. He contends that they are really two sides of the same coin, and that Paul is working with both a “counterintuitive” stream and a “cruciform” stream as he rehearses the revelation God in the downward trajectory of Christ’s life. The apostle implicitly points to the paradoxical character of Christ’s incarnation, jarring as it did with conventional understandings of power and divine identity. For a king, emperor or god to stoop to the level of servanthood in this way – not to mention submitting to the dishonour of so humiliating an execution – was almost completely unthinkable. It was a category mistake of the highest order. The novelty of Paul’s depiction of godhood was to say that, contrary to expectation, the kind of self-abnegation seen in Christ’s humiliation was in fact a key moment in the disclosure of the identity of the divine. In sharp contradistinction to the prevailing norms of Greco-Roman culture, what the tenor and conclusion Jesus’ earthly life showed was not a tragic negation of power, but its true expression. We see here the present passage’s conceptual and theological connections with Mark 10 and John 13: the paradoxical – even polemical – depiction of what genuine authority actually looks like. Jesus’ descent into slavery was, according to Paul, the strange, yet climactic, unveiling of God’s character.

Moreover, as Gorman and others have plausibly argued, Philippians 2:6-11 contains a number of cultural echoes that strongly suggest a critique of imperial power, and all the pomp and arrogance associated with it. By implicitly pitting Caesar against Jesus, Paul is arguing that the “form of God” – which Augustus and others arrogated for themselves through military prowess and claims of universal lordship – was actually made visible in the voluntary servanthood of the man from Galilee. In that act, Paul seems to be saying, God in Christ turned imperial notions of power and leadership on their heads. The ethical import of the passage is properly contextualized by the opening verses of chapter 2, where Paul exhorts the Philippians to look out for the “interests of others”, and to tend to each other from positions of humility and deference. Philippians 2:6-11 caps the apostle’s exhortation by providing the church with the paradigm of humble, self-effacing service, of power wielded on behalf of, and for the benefit of, others.

Together, these three passages offer the reader a relatively clear picture of one key aspect of Christology. More to the point, they help crystallize the NT’s conception of leadership. In fundamental ways – seen implicitly in Philippians 2:6-11 and rather explicitly in Mark 10:40-45 – the resultant picture of Jesus constitutes a categorical rejection of the prevailing expressions and examples of power. It not only functions as a critique of empire and imperial arrogance, but also undermines all self-regarding and self-aggrandizing claims to power. The passages I have surveyed here all promote the idea – radical at the time – of servant leadership, where the hierarchy between governed and governor, leader and led, is dramatically blunted. That the subject of these passages is also seen as the very embodiment of God – the world’s true creator and sovereign – only adds to the significance of their complementary portraits of power. What they capture is the notion that leadership functions primarily as a form of service to the community over which one governs. On this view, positions of power do not exist for the ones who possess them; rather, a NT theology (and Christology) of leadership requires the bearers of such status to toil, labour – indeed, expend themselves – for the betterment of those they lead.

How does all this translate into the way power and leadership is conceived in modern democratic states? The relationship, like that between a biblical commitment to the law’s transcendence and evolving principles concerning the rule of law, is certainly not a direct one. And I don’t want to overplay my hand: Jesus was, according to the NT, the agent of God’s coming kingdom. He himself is depicted as God’s vice-regent, who rules the cosmos. This, of course, is not very “democratic”, if by that we mean a Lincolnian government “of the people” or “by the people”.

On the other hand, what I have examined is consistent with government “for the people”, the third leg in Lincoln’s democratic triumvirate. The idea of power and authority which came to expression in the figure of Jesus resonates at a deeper level with principles governing the exercise of political power in modern Western democracies. Moreover, given the deep cultural and philosophical shafts Judeo-Christian ethics have sunk into the bedrock of those communities, we should expect various features within those countries to bear traces – however faint – of that legacy. I think the example and ethos of Jesus is one such legacy. His embodiment of servant leadership upended the conventional and assumed power structures that prevailed in the Greco-Roman world. Similarly, Jesus articulated a new definition of power, one characterised by self-abnegation and self-expenditure in an effort to meet the needs of others. It’s difficult to overstate the massive, indeed tectonic, shift in the relationship between the governed and their governors that was generated by the singular influence of Jesus. Later developments concerning accountable government (which I have already touched on) are genetically related to the idea – exemplified so crisply in Jesus’ example – that power and authority are corralled by service, and ought to be measured against that standard.

None of this occurred in isolation, of course; other intellectual streams were powerfully important in the evolution of democratic leadership. Moreover, the mere example of Jesus could not become an influential source for the later flourishing of democratic culture apart from its preservation, transmission and adaptation in later Christian communities. It was here that the ethic of Jesus was “practised”, and where its social and communal utility could be tested. The early church, as seen in Acts, is seen as a radically egalitarian society (e.g., Acts 2:42-46; 4:32, 34-37), and the legitimate heir to the message and teachings of Christ. Later Christian history provides examples of participatory and communal living, presaging (by some centuries, to be sure) subsequent values associated with, and undergirding, democratic politics.

For instance, theologian and anti-apartheid activist John de Grucy has noted that fourth-century monasticism provides strong evidence for the presence of a proto-democratic culture in some streams of early Christianity. Monastic figures such as Basil of Caesarea (and later, Benedict of Nursia) formed equalitarian communities that sought to counter the highly-stratified worlds in which they existed. Class distinctions between aristocracy and the poor were erased (or at least dramatically muted), whilst members of the clergy from wealthier families, deliberately invoking the figure of Jesus, would take vows of poverty – the better to serve and identify with those they led. Political philosopher, Larry Siedentop, says this development heralded a remarkable transformation in the was authority was conceived. Under the aegis of people like Basil, monastic leaders were obliged to act humbly, meekly. Siedentop argues that this version of authority — existing as it did in a culture awash with hubristic notions of power — was “unprecedented”. The early centuries of the church witness to a formative matrix, which provided key cultural and structural resources for the development of democratic politics, and which can be traced back to the example and teachings of its founder. That matrix was to prove decisive for both later Christian communities and the societies in which they existed. As but one example, we may note the way sections of the Radical Reformation self-consciously sought to emulate the social egalitarianism that Jesus espoused and practised.

All this lies in the future, and I shall return to some of these points in later essays. For now, it is important to consider the historically and culturally mediated connections between crucial biblical themes related to leadership and government, especially as they are crystallized in the NT’s portrait of Christ, and the conceptualisation of leadership in contemporary democratic states.

Christian Theology and Democratic Politics: Part One

This piece is the first of a series of essays looking at the possible links between Christian theology and democratic thought. Not only does it contain the first substantive part, but also the introduction to the entire series.


“What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” This question, famously asked by the early church theologian Tertullian, was meant to interrogate the alleged relationship between Hellenistic philosophical methods (“Athens”) and a Christian-revelatory understanding of knowledge (“Jerusalem”). The implication of Tertullian’s rhetorical riposte to those who sought some kind of concord was that no such relationship existed; Christian theology and Greek philosophy were strangers on the road to truth.

The question came to mind as I pondered the relationship between Christianity and democratic politics. It’s particularly apt, since Athens is conventionally seen as the cradle of Western democratic thought – the place where the notion of participatory politics (variously defined) was first nurtured. Has Christianity – “Jerusalem”, in other words – contributed anything to that project? Is it possible to discern traces of Christian thought in the long, winding enterprise we call democracy? Or is the relationship characterised by antagonism and (mutual) misunderstanding? For my money, I think it is possible to uncover ways in which Christian theology has succeeded in shaping democratic political thought. To draw a straight line between the two is, of course, impossible; a number of influences, whether religious, philosophical, historical, economic, cultural or nakedly political, have contributed variously to the evolution of democracy, especially its liberal iterations in modern, Western experience. Although it’s unrealistic to think that those factors can be neatly distinguished, my concerns nonetheless lie with Christianity’s intellectual contribution to the democratic project. Here, I want to substantiate the proposition that Christianity has played an important – one might even say formative – role in the later development of democracy.

If it’s difficult to argue that Christianity did not give rise to democracy in simple, one-dimensional fashion, then I think it’s equally implausible to say that it had nothing, or little, to do with this most cherished of Western inventions. For starters, given that democracy evolved in precisely those nation-states that were, for many centuries, soaked in Christian teaching (however corrupted it may have become), it would seem reasonable to posit some kind of connection. More than that, Christian theology has provided some of the deeper philosophical and ideological resources for later democratic thinking: not the democracy of ancient Athens (which preceded New Testament Christianity by some centuries), but of later stages of thought composing the substructure of Western politics. To be sure, uncovering those resources might require some work, so much of it being latent. Rather than forming part of the democratic superstructure (like voting and fixed terms for elected individuals), Christian theology helped form the bedrock of thinking that eventually produced ideas, individuals and institutions explicitly committed to many of those features we normally associate with modern democracy. Instead of being responsible for any one element of democratic politics, it is truer to say that Christianity fostered a culture conducive to this kind of political arrangement in the first place. It was, in other words, the seedbed in which democracy, watered and nurtured by further streams of thought, came to flourish.

The complicated, circuitous (though nonetheless strong) relationship between Christianity and democracy is one caveat that I wish to include. There are, however, others. Whilst I will point out the multifarious connections between Christian theology and democratic thought – such that the roots of democracy could even be said to have been nourished by religious doctrine – I am also aware that the church has had something of a chequered history when it comes to the evolution of Western political systems. Far from being a champion of liberty and equality, it has seemingly been a purveyor of tyranny, oppression and rigid hierarchy. Rather than furthering the cause of democracy, it has often seemed to have a retarding effect on its advance. I am certainly aware of the criticism, and wish to take it seriously (often made by rabid atheists, who seek to divest Western culture of anything resembling positive Judeo-Christian content). I also want to take seriously the beneficial influences of other intellectual and cultural traditions upon the evolution of democracy. I do not intend to claim that Christian thought and theology is uniquely responsible for the modern Western system of democratic government that many of us enjoy today. Such an assertion is not only supremely arrogant; it is also patently false. That said, only wilful blindness – a consequence, perhaps, of the searing glare of ideology – could lead one to deny the bequests Christianity has made to Western political thought.

As yet another qualification, I must also acknowledge the ambiguous relationship between ideas and history generally. This phenomenon presents itself in the form of two main contentions, both of which are germane. First, one might argue that I am implicitly trading in abstractions of both Christianity and democracy, without attending to their diverse historical incarnations. Some might even argue that such “Platonic forms” do not exist at all; only the relative, and relatively messy, examples of what we have come to call Christianity and democracy have any purchase on reality, forever eluding universal definition. Second, I could be accused of failing to appreciate the complex historical circumstances surrounding the development of democracy. One might suggest that what follows ignores the myriad forces related to democracy’s evolution, as well as the vicissitudes of concrete historical experience, which blunts the otherwise marked influence of pure ideas. To be sure, I am cognizant of falling into the trap of some sort of idealism, without according due respect to history. And although my reflections will concentrate largely on the ideational structure of the connection between Christianity and democratic thought (whilst occasionally referring to the way it has manifested itself historically), I am sensitive to the ever-present influence of the often piecemeal, inchoate nature of so much of history. I certainly do not want to neglect the historical-cultural matrix, especially as it pertains to the development of Christian dogma and its relationship with democracy.

At the same time, however, I am no historicist, and I think that ideas – complexes of coherent intellectual concepts, formed with intentionality and deliberation – can, and indeed do, participate in the trajectory of the historical process. Similarly, it is possible, even advisable, to try and define Christianity and democracy (even at the risk of illegitimate abstraction). Unless we’re prepared to give up the pursuit and propagation of truth through language, then we must accept that words have limited fields of meaning. For present purposes, then, when I speak of Christianity, I am thinking of a religious and theological tradition that accords primacy to the Bible as a divinely-ordained witness to God’s ultimate revelation in Jesus Christ, and which holds to the major creeds of the early church. Furthermore – and despite its own diverse traditions – I think democracy (at least in its modern, Western, liberal guises) could be minimally defined as an institutional, political and philosophical concept that variously combines the following features: the rule of law; accountable government as an expression of the people’s will; legal and political equality; and the separation of political power, such that no one branch of government has unmitigated pre-eminence. Words, like suitcases, can carry a great deal, and these ones – “Christianity” and “democracy” – carry at least the kinds of contents I’ve just described.

Some Focal Images

So much for clearing the decks. How might the influence of Christianity upon democratic politics be detected today – if not in explicit statements of ideals, but in the marrow of Western political culture? I propose to examine this question through several focal images, each of which crystallizes the deep connections between Christian theology and dogma, on the one hand, and crucial features of later democracy on the other. Those images can be described as follows: the transcendence of law; servant leadership; human dignity in excelsis; a new way of social ordering; and the plurality of the triune God. Though distinct, they are, as we’ll see, deeply interrelated. In this first Part, I shall concentrate on the rule of law.

Part One: The Transcendence of Law 

Christianity has often appeared to have an ambivalent relationship to the concept of law, especially as it manifests itself in the various legal codes of the OT. In certain parts of popular evangelicalism, valuing the law means flirting with legalism; it was just such an attitude that saw the Jews reject Jesus (so it is argued), spurning the grace of God in an effort to merit their own salvation. Other streams of Christianity recognize, as the first Christians did, the ongoing relevance of the law. Thus, for example, the Gospel tradition preserved Jesus’ own declaration that he came, not to abolish the law, but to “fulfil it” (Matthew 5:17). The complexities involved in interpreting this statement are legion; but at the very least, it suggests the enduring importance of law, even in the new dispensation inaugurated through the ministry of Christ. Further, a letter like James indicates that the primacy of the law, however its appropriation may have changed as a result of the advent of Christ, was something to which the early church adhered. This is clearly seen in 2:1-13, where James’ condemnation of partiality in the church is grounded in an extended application of the OT law of neighbour love (Leviticus 19:18; cf. Jas 2:8ff). This and other admonitions reflect James’ broader dependence on Torah, particularly in the realm of social concern (cf. 1:25, 27; 2:8-12). How the notion of “ongoing relevance” is parsed remains a thorny issue, to be sure; but the theological and legal traditions the early church inherited when it appropriated the Hebrew Scriptures has ensured the enduring transmission of those texts – as well as the basic moral and political precepts they embody – throughout much of Western history. The influence of a Jewish – and subsequently Christian – understanding of law upon democratic thought extends, not merely to individual strictures or ordinances, but to the entire conceptual architecture of biblical legal thinking, and its importance to the ordering of a political community.

The transcendence of law is a necessary (though by no means sufficient) condition for the flourishing of a democratic political culture. It is certainly crucial to the establishment of a democratic framework that safeguards individual rights and substantiates equality of all citizens within a particular polity. Law’s supremacy ensures that people’s activities are judged and regulated, not according to the arbitrary whims of a capricious ruler or state system, but within the context of a transcendent and impersonal legal framework to which all are subject. It affords people predictability in their dealings with each other and with the state, where disputes and disagreements may be resolved with relative transparency. Meanwhile, it constrains behaviour (including governmental behaviour), which might otherwise undermine the basic aspirations of a polity that seeks to guarantee political equality and the integrity of its citizenry. Thus, the codification of an abstract body of law is absolutely essential to the ordered functioning of a community, holding together its diverse parts in relative harmony. As Hayek said, “Only the existence of common rules makes the peaceful existence of individuals possible”. Modern theories of constitutionalism owe something to this principle: a king or government that operates according to a prior legal structure (i.e., a constitution) is one whose behaviour is regulated. The rule of law tames governmental and state institutions, and the community itself is ultimately “constituted”, not by any one individual, or even by a cabal of individuals, but by an originating framework which stands supreme (even where it has been formulated by such a cabal).

Without the sovereignty of law, one of two states may prevail: either anarchy or tyranny, both of which are inimical to democracy. First, there is anarchy. The absence of a supreme legal code, siting above the diverse (and sometimes discordant) desires and goals of which a putative community is composed, can lead to the breakdown of civil order. Such a framework helps restrain and harmonise potentially conflictual interests that individuals seek to pursue. Remove it, and those interests are left to mutate, even metastasize, in a chaotic and wanton fashion. In such an environment, where law’s restraining power is non-existent, the powerful are able to dominate and exploit the weak, thereby destroying any aspirations towards political equality or individual liberty. All this may be news to devotees of anarchism, who naively believe that humanity’s fundamental goodness is such that the broad architecture of law is unnecessary, or even oppressive. But even a cursory glance at those states that have experienced the dissolution of law and order provides some evidence that apart from law, individual and communal existence rapidly descends into a Hobbesian state of nature. Here, the frail are preyed upon by the strong, and an enervating suspicion of one’s fellows (beyond, perhaps, family or kin) abounds.

Second, tyranny. A despotic ruler is well poised to use his power to establish himself as the embodiment, the very repository, of all legal wisdom. Law no longer possesses a transcendent reality apart from any one individual; on this view, it, too, it is subject to the impulses of a single ruling power (whether this is an individual or a clique of individuals). Again, empirical and historical evidence – not to mention a basic conceptual understanding of different political forms – suggests that despotic rule is antithetical to a democratic culture that affords each individual a degree of security, personal liberty, or the privilege of political participation. In those polities that are dominated by a single, tyrannical leader, the law is reduced to a plaything – the existence of which cannot be separated from those who claim to manifest it in themselves. Whereas anarchy represents the radical pluralization of law, such that everyone is a law unto themselves, tyranny substitutes that for a comprehensive legal monism, where all power to establish the boundaries of lawful (and unlawful) behaviour is focused in the person or body that rules. He, or they, sit atop whatever legal strictures have been enacted, untrammelled by any kind of institutional constraints. In either case, the suppression or contravention of individual rights, and the denial of democratic co-operation, is likely to swiftly occur.

* * *

Of course, the normative character of law cannot, by itself, quarantine democratic politics from Charybdis of anarchy and the Scylla of tyranny. Its mere presence is not enough to guarantee either adherence or harmony; here, an anarchic state of affairs is a constant threat. And, as noted, law itself is susceptible to use as a weapon by tyrants and dictators, and can become an unwitting agent in the attempt to legitimise the suppression of a person or people. Nevertheless, the rule of law – that is, the law as king – is of fundamental importance, providing a necessary pre-condition for successful navigation between these twin dangers. And it is this idea of law’s supremacy, to which every member of the community is accountable, that finds expression in the establishment and development of biblical law. There, the law maintained a pristine transcendence over every individual, and, as the Pentateuch has it, helped to constitute the very community of God. Both its identity and its status as a coherent entity were (in principle) safeguarded and substantiated by the law’s normative character. Here, we see the ancient stirrings that subsequently found expression in later constitutionalism. It was the law that bound the community together – an integrated body of people, drawn together through mutual deference to common rule. One only needs to glance at, say, Deuteronomy 4:1-14, to recognize the function of the law’s paramountcy over, beneath and within the redeemed community.

Importantly, even the king of Israel himself, who was otherwise well-positioned to test the law’s sovereignty, was subject to it. Deuteronomy 17:14-20, which functions as a kind of charter for kingship, is crucial to understanding this point. There, the people of Israel are told that if they desire to have a king rule over them upon entering the land, that man is to be selected by Yahweh (vv.14-15). After prohibiting any future regnant from accumulating too much wealth – lest he rise too far above his compatriots (vv.16-17) – Moses (assuming for the moment Mosaic authorship) commands complete royal devotion to the law he is propounding (vv.18-20). A prospective king is to assiduously study the law, so that he may come to know and obey it. However, what is most important is the assumption lying behind these strictures – namely, that the king does not create the law; he, along with every other Israelite, is to submit to it. The OT scholar Gordon Wenham suggests that this way of conceiving of the role and nature of law within a political community was unique to ancient Israel.

In contrast to the nations and kingdoms of Mesopotamia, where the king was the author of law (and, to that extent, the author of ethical reality), an Israelite king was himself a subject – subject to the overarching covenantal legal code instituted by Yahweh, whose character formed the basis for its own, enduring transcendence. In theory at least, biblical law was meant to regulate and restrain behaviour – even the behaviour of those residing in the upper echelons of power – precisely because they themselves depended for their authority on that which was both more fundamental and utterly supreme. Indeed, we witness the unfolding of the principle of law’s supremacy over the Israelite community – not to mention the king himself – in later OT history. Even a cursory glance at the books of Kings and Chronicles reveals that the various kings were evaluated, not by military prowess or territorial expansion, but by fidelity to a legal code that was greater than themselves. The king lived under the law, to the same extent as the sojourner or servant. The repeated cycles of royal sin and divine judgment testify to the outworking of the idea that not even one so powerful as the ruler of Israel was above it.

In a slightly different – though no less relevant – vein, we see the umbilical link between the absence of law, and the consequent trampling of the rights and dignity of the vulnerable, in the book of Judges. There, in chapters 17-20, we find the repeated refrain, “In those days Israel had no king [everyone did as he saw fit]” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25; I will examine this a little more below). At the time, Israel was operating in a liminal phase of its existence: constituted as a people, identified by its possession of the law, it was not yet a nation in a formal, institutionalised sense. One of the major themes of Judges concerns Israel’s attempts to struggle against both external enemies and internal discord. By the time we reach the end of the book – that is, chapters 17-20 – we are confronted with a poisonous mix of broad-based anarchy and the intimate, personalised tyranny, flowing from a general lawlessness. The twin dangers that inevitably result from the absence of law are on display in this section of Judges, to which the thematic refrain, quoted above, emphatically points. The author laments the fact that the nation had frayed, and the sovereignty of law had been abandoned – such that every man was a law unto himself.

The dark consequences of this chaos are plain, above all, in chapter 19. That passage – which frames the subsequent events by lamenting that Israel had no king (v.1) – sees a travelling Levite giving his concubine over to a group of rapacious men (19:22-26, esp. v.25). In response to her rape (and consequent death), he callously takes her body, dismembers her, and sends the pieces to the various tribes of Israel (vv.29-30). The meaning here is two-fold. First, the concubine’s broken body symbolized the fractured people of Israel, divided and without the unifying presence of the covenantal law. The author appears to be making a point, amongst other things, about the devilishly anarchic implications of the people’s abandonment of the law. However, the author makes a second, and subtler, point, critiquing both the prevailing situation and the Levite’s ruthless actions as a reflection of that situation. Indeed, there is no hint that whoever wrote Judges approved of what the Levite did. Quite the opposite, in fact. He implicitly condemns the priestly man’s actions as just one more example of what happens when anarchy, instead of God and his law, reigns (cf. v.1). Earlier, I spoke about the twin dangers of chaos and tyranny in the absence of a coherent body of law to restrain behaviour and harmonise the diverse members of a community. Here, they both find sad expression in the violent negation of one woman’s dignity and life.

But it should be noted that the author of Judges was not simply longing for a king who would put his despotic stamp upon the nation – thereby swapping the extreme pluralization and privatization of law for totalitarian legal monism. His sad refrain was not merely for the imposition of regal order, by whatever means, but for a righteous royal who would mediate God’s just and wise order to the community by devoting himself to obedience to the divine law. Even for the book of Judges, the law is pre-eminent, and a king is only desirable to the extent that he, too, submits to it. The writer stands against lawlessness and disorder, on the one hand, and the mere presence of a “lawless” ruler, on the other. Underlying his view is a firm belief in the normativity of law – an expression, he might say, of the transcendent God’s character – as something to which all are bound, and upon which the reality of an ordered society is possible.

Law’s sovereignty is incomplete, however, without the accompanying commitment to equal application to all citizens. Actually, it would seem that they go hand-in-hand, for the natural concomitant to an abstract body of legally binding rules is the narrowness of interpretation and application: only those features of a person’s behaviour that are relevant to the rule in question are to be taken into account. Thus, if someone is accused of murder (for example), it is simply irrelevant whether they have white skin or black, or whether they worship Jesus Christ or Vishnu. All that matters is whether they are guilty of breaking the identified rule. For all intents and purposes, legal subjects are abstracted subjects, and it is this abstraction – part of the same foundation upon which modern democracies are constructed – that also helps to protect individuals from arbitrary exercises of power, making predictable the consequences of one’s behaviour (whether for good or for ill).

How much this commitment owes to biblical thought is a question I can’t definitively answer. I merely observe that this, too, is an idea that finds some expression, however it is inflected, in OT legal codes. That is why, for instance, judges are commanded to determine cases with impartiality (Deut 16:18-20). Numbers 15:15-16, 30-31 also provides the raw ingredients for a fully-fledged conception of legal abstraction. There, we find Yahweh laying down instructions for offerings at the Temple. He declares that both native-born Israelites and foreigners are bound by the same rules, and in the same way. Notwithstanding other laws that reflect an imbalance between ethnic Israelites and non-Hebrew foreigners (for instance, some of the laws around slavery; foreigners appear to be a different category of people from aliens, in any case), it would seem here that ethnic and national differences are irrelevant to the duties prescribed for individuals living within the community of Israel. Equality before the law – and with that, equal application of the law – can be seen in verse 15: both types of people, Israelite and non-Israelite, will be the “same before the Lord”. It was precisely because of the law’s overarching role in regulating, prescribing and proscribing behaviour that there was no variance between an Israelite and a member of another tribe living within the confines of the covenant community. Anything less – say, if laws relating to Sabbath-keeping could be applied differently, depending on whether or not the individual was a Hebrew – would have meant the raw primacy of ethnic identity as the foundation of the community (as opposed to the law). Whilst OT law is not framed in so abstract or conceptual a manner, one may discern a relationship between Torah-inspired accounts of law, and later Western legal principles regarding equal application of rules and the fundamental parity of legal subjects.

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OT law operated in a political environment sharply different from what prevails in Western societies today. Ancient Israel was no proto-democracy; it was a theocracy, with the king acting as God’s appointed representative, upholding and exemplifying his law. Further, we must recognize other streams of legal thought, particularly those of Ancient Rome, which have subsequently influenced Western democratic thinking. Nonetheless, we ought to consider the power of the general importance of the biblical concept of law-as-sovereign as it has been transmitted through the various stages of Western political evolution. As but one example, we may cite the framers of the Magna Carta, that great landmark in the development of the Western political system. In an interview with, freelance researcher, Thomas Andrew, commented that the charter codified the concept of the rule of law, such that even the king himself was subject to it. But he also suggested that this emphasis had strong theological roots. Medieval thinkers drew on the reflections of St. Augustine, whose writings on law and justice found their way into a conception of human authority – even royal authority – that was subordinated to law. This principle was eventually enshrined in the Magna Carta, reflecting the influence of both Christian theologizing and ecclesiastical influence. But of course, the views of Augustine and others were shaped by, and soaked in, the concerns and emphases of Scripture. The esteemed place that law occupies in the OT was woven into the very structures of Western legal and political thinking as a result.

Even if it has shed its explicitly religious trappings (e.g., its identity as the expression of God’s character and will for his people), the concept of the law’s supremacy, when transposed into a secular key, provides the basis for an ordered community, in which no one individual – and no one body – may act with unrestrained power. To be sure, one may question the ultimate basis upon which a secular society constructs a transcendent legal framework in the absence of an ethical standard that is itself grounded in God. However, the notion of law’s normative status certainly bears the hallmarks of an OT (and subsequently Christian) understanding of the concept. Despite having moved away from an explicitly Christian view of the world, secular Western societies have nonetheless retained and developed the idea that law exercises sovereign influence over all people, and that an ordered political community requires adherence to a legal code beyond the reach of even the most powerful institution or individual (with the caveat that it may be changed only in accordance with a pre-existing body of law, and only in accordance with a strict set of rules that limit legislative caprice). Indeed, the normativity of law has engrained itself into the political culture and the collective consciousness of the West, providing a necessary plank in a foundation which undergirds institutional restraint and respect for individual dignity.

Free Musings on Free Speech

(This is an old post that I never got around to finishing. It’s largely complete now, so I thought I’d throw it up. Enjoy!)

As some of you may be aware, Nicola Roxon, Australia’s former Attorney-General, retreated earlier this year on the issue of anti-discrimination laws. Initially, these laws could have led to punishment for saying or writing things about a person’s ethnicity, religion, or even “social origin” (whatever that means), by which the aggrieved might have been offended or insulted. After admitting some of the legislation may have been clumsily worded, Ms. Roxon oversaw a modification of the proposed laws, removing the ambiguous references to “offence” and “insult”.

All well and good, I suppose; problems remain, however, and it is clear that the proffered changes did not go far enough. There are still elements of the legislation that are worringly vague, and all one needs to do is allege offence at something another person has said or written. The burden of justification lies with the so-called “offender”. Be that as it may, the campaign that sprang up as a result of the legislation’s proposal has been heartening, for two reasons. First, it demonstrated the ineradicable power of ideas; and second, it offered a rather timely object lesson regarding the value of the very intellectual processes these proposed laws sought to truncate.

The fact that disparate groups and individuals could create such a successful, and united, front against the onslaught of such pernicious laws is proof of the inherent power of good ideas. In this case, the power of the idea of free speech was upheld in the face of legislation whose intention it was to staunch the flow of ideas and free communication in the intellectual marketplace. A moment’s thought will reveal the value of ideas, and the concomitant importance of free speech.

Clearly, an unfettered right to free communication is fundamental to other, subsidiary rights. Freedom of thought, for example, would not truly be free if it was prevented from traversing intellectual lands that had been fenced off by laws seeking to de-legitimise certain forms of communication. A person who is not able to explore certain ideas simply because they have been deemed forbidden suffers from a rather diminishing form of incarceration. Similarly, freedom of religion is curtailed when adherents are not able to freely practice certain elements thereof, having been declared unlawful through legislative fiat. Religion, just like any other kind of belief system, relies on particular strains of thought that are inescapably animated through the liberality of unbound communication. Even something as seemingly unrelated to free speech as, say, welfare distribution policy, could not long survive if ideas surrounding that particular issue are not allowed to flow. Ossification of once-fresh ideas is certain if they can never be challenged, debated or sharpened. How else is a political community able to arrive at some approximation of the “truth” if certain ideas and opinions are ruled out of the public discussion through the oppressiveness of misguided lawmakers?

The organisations, groups and individuals who stood up for the idea of free speech were standing up for a valuable idea, one that undergirds so much else in the contemporary West – and indeed, upholds one of the West’s great innovations. What they proved was the value of an idea, whose inherent power was able to nullify a poor, yet oppressive, shadow. The ensuing debate was itself evidence that the free-flowing exchange of knowledge, ideas, thoughts and opinions (in this case, in the context of widespread opposition to draconian laws) is a vital cog in the large and complex machine we know as the democratic polity.

Labor’s Crisis

Tony Abbott was a pretty good amateur boxer in his day, so he knows a thing or two about the brutality of the ring. But even he must have been surprised by the pugilistic stoush that recently took place within the ranks of the Australian Labor Party. Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and their respective allies certainly engaged in one heck of a political humdinger, as the two principals went head-to-head on February 27th to decide who would lead the ALP to defeat at the next Federal election. Abbott, I imagine, would also be rubbing his hands with glee, since the government seems to be serving up some primo material for Coalition election advertisements. We may laugh, certainly; on some level, the soap opera before us acted as a (twisted) form of voyeuristic entertainment. However, that is precisely the problem: one may well argue – and with some justification – that this fight, this conflict between two political egos, was reflective of a wider malaise in Australian politics. I shall return to that theme in a moment, but not before reflecting on some of the other things I have learned as a result of the Labor Party’s leadership stoush.

The first thing I noticed about the ALP’s internal power struggle is that the two candidates who vied for leadership of this once-great and noble party seemed to have adopted the belief that the one who could heap enough verbal opprobrium upon his opponent would have the best chance of emerging victorious. Parliamentarians have nipped at the heels of sitting Prime Minister’s before: Rudd and Gillard, though occupying opposite roles in slightly different circumstances, have been here already. One also thinks of Paul Keating and Bob Hawke, way back in 1991. There, the Treasurer made a bold play for leadership of the ALP, and hence, the country. In doing so, he deposed a PM that had been in the position for over eight years. So, challenging the leadership – even if the leader is the prime ministerial incumbent – is far from unheard of. What distinguished this latest round of political infighting (to my mind, at least) was the barrage of criticism being hurled at the respective rivals. Ms. Gillard’s supporters seemed to turn this practice into a fine art, flinging verbal barbs at Mr. Rudd that, had they been offered elsewhere, could well have landed their authors in court defending themselves against charges of slander.

By contrast, the public heard very little about actual policy or contrasting political visions. That kind of intellectual acumen was noticeably absent in what had degenerated into a schoolyard scrap. If two people are going to vie for the leadership of one of Australia’s two major political parties (and the one that is currently holding the reins of power), then they need to offer far more than verbal abuse and crude epithets. As far as I can see, neither Mr. Rudd nor Ms. Gillard presented a coherent argument as to why either of them is fit to lead the ALP. It’s already quite clear that Gillard lacks a cogent narrative to carry her through to the next election and beyond (about which I will say more). Even more disappointing was the fact that Mr. Rudd seemed not to possess one either. Instead, he relied on a populist campaign in an effort to apply pressure on the Labor caucus.

Caucus members were in a bind – would they vote for the Prime Minister, whom they knew the public disliked and mistrusted? Or would they vote to re-instate a man whom they knew to be insufferable as a boss (as well as a major source of all their present ills)? In the end, they went with the former, but not because of superior ideas or policy wisdom. Indeed, one could argue that both candidates were afflicted with an acute case of political myopia: with sights narrowed and vision blurred, they were unable to see beyond the leadership bout and the caucus ballot. Granted the fact that such a stoush would have exercised the minds of both Mr. Rudd and Ms. Gillard to a great extent, it was disappointing (though unsurprising) to see them focus so much of their energies on the aggrandizement and subversion of personality – a poor and vapid substitute for the construction of a persuasive political-policy narrative and the intellectual rigour such a project requires. Stripped of these assets, the two rivals had only themselves to try and persuade their colleagues before the ballot. That, however, exposed one of the deep-rooted problems that presently besets the ALP, and one that seems to be an implicit part of contemporary Australian politics. Political egos and personalities loom so large, particularly in the Labor Party, that considered and rational policy positions, diligent attention to the minutia of government, and a commitment to a compelling ideological/philosophical narrative have been squeezed out.

Individual thirst for power and a consistent commitment to the unity of the party – two qualities that are both, sometimes in simultaneous and contradictory fashion, willed upon politicians – need to be held in a tight balance if a party is to thrive. Both are certainly necessary. Individual ambition is required from politicians, since it compels them to pursue excellence in their chosen field. Properly channelled, such ambition is a boon to party success. But, like an unpredictable river or waterway, which may be given to periodic flooding, individual ambition can become swollen – morphing into a turgid egotism that is interested in little more than personal glory. The very quality that brings life and verve to a party can, if unchecked, lead to its ruin. It is this phenomenon that has, shamefully, been on display within the ALP recently. I think especially of Mr. Rudd and his campaign to win back the leadership. He epitomised what I am referring to – namely, the unadulterated desire for power. His was a destabilising presence within the ALP, and has contributed to the impression that this is a party that is fractious and divided, filled with people who have gained skills in the arts of electoral management and political machinations. Mr. Rudd’s attempts to win back the leadership of the Labor Party were based, it seems, on little more than a thirst for the prize. But his plot was merely the latest episode in an ongoing saga for the ALP, marked as it has been by a consistent fixation on plain electoral advantage and the naked acquisition (or retention) of power.

*   *   *

One might have hoped that with Ms. Gillard’s comprehensive victory over Mr. Rudd, the business of government could go on, and Australia’s oldest political party would be able to emerge from its crisis with a new sense of purpose and unity. That hope, I suspect, is held in vain. Of course, it takes time for a party to recover from something as destabilising as what we have observed, but the signs are already ominous. The ALP, it seems, is characterised by “instability of…government, smallness of…vision and…mediocrity of…performance” (Greg Sheridan, “Carr Drive-by a Loss for Gillard”, The Australian, 1st March, 2012). It had already proved itself to be woefully inept before the leadership battle between Mr. Rudd and Ms. Gillard. Now that this latest chapter is over (for now), the public is left to believe that Labor is truly bereft of the very qualities that are required for good government. Individuals who are politically and intellectually naked are all that’s left. Far from rescuing the ALP’s image with the electorate, the recent leadership stoush has consolidated an already-accurate narrative regarding its current structural and philosophical problems (in other words, that it has no structure and is bereft of a unifying political philosophy). It has exposed completely the deep-rooted problems that have plagued it for several years now. Greg Sheridan’s words were written in reference to the damage wrought on Australia’s international image as a result of the leadership conflict. This is no doubt true. But I would also suggest that those words are equally apt in a domestic context. What the nation has witnessed over the past few weeks has simply laid bare the lack of any kind of substantive vision that would make Labor a compelling and attractive party. Its fallback position – the force of personality – has done nothing to counter the impression that present-day Labor is intellectually and politically barren.

Ms. Gillard’s bungled attempt to invite former NSW Premier, Bob Carr, to take up Mr. Rudd’s old post as Foreign Affairs Minister, demonstrates the party’s chronic ineptitude nicely. Although he has now been installed as Mr. Rudd’s replacement, Ms. Gillard made a hash of the process. After sounding out Mr. Carr on the possibility of taking over Mr. Rudd’s old portfolio, Ms. Gillard denied ever having proposed such an idea. But Mr. Carr, when asked directly, contradicted his (now) boss. Ms. Gillard continued to play with the truth in a cavalier manner, when all the while, senior ministers such as Stephen Smith and Simon Crean, threatened a revolt if Ms. Gillard were to press ahead with recruiting the former Premier. Now we see him in that very position, but only after a rather circuitous route that seems to confirm suspicions this current crop of politicians are – to put it kindly – amateurish. One may have thought that, with the leadership question settled, Ms. Gillard and her team would be able to work in a professional and unified manner; I mean, after such a protracted and rancorous affair, one might think that the ALP had learned its lesson. Sadly, the opposite appears to be the case. The ineptitude, chaos and artless politics that characterised the ALP before the leadership stoush are still present.

But it is not just the ALP generally that seems to be suffering from a certain kind of malaise. The Prime Minister herself seems to be afflicted with the same propensity to bungle the art of government and politics. If the apparently “answered” leadership question has done little to change the direction of the Labor Party (if initial signs are anything to go by), it has done little to transform Ms. Gillard. The “Carr-bungle” (oh the wit!) has underlined several elements that serve as themes for her leadership, and which were not excised by victory at the caucus ballot: the air of dishonesty that has clouded her tenure; a distinct lack of political nous; and an absence of authority.

On the first point, it seems that ever since Ms. Gillard stepped into the role of Prime Minister, the circumstances by which she did so have cast a pall over her integrity. Now, it isn’t the first time a sitting PM has been deposed (see above), so I can’t comment on the act itself. But recent revelations seem to suggest that Ms. Gillard knew of plans to oust Mr. Rudd when he was Prime Minister earlier than she initially suggested. If true, it is fishy enough. However, it appears that her obfuscation over what she knew of Mr. Rudd’s fate prior to his being deposed as PM is just one of several examples of what appears to be a consistent, and artless, form of political skulduggery. Think of her welching on a promise not to introduce a carbon tax, which has hung over her since its announcement. Fudging the details of what she said to Mr. Carr simply contributes to a sense that she lacks integrity. Nothing stemming from her victory last Monday seems to have changed that. On the second point, Ms. Gillard seemed to betray a certain lack of political finesse when handling her attempt to recruit Mr. Carr to the ministry. Her reaction to media questioning (this, after senior ministers threatened revolt if Mr. Carr were installed as Foreign Affairs Minister) suggested a lack of political maturity – not just dishonesty, but also to an inability to respond calmly under pressure. Her initial instinct to fudge the issue suggests she panicked, which in turn suggests that she is not a “good driver in heavy traffic” (to borrow a phrase from the late football coach, Alan Jeans). Again, this is not an isolated incident. From the aborted “cash for clunkers” scheme, to promises that the “real Julia” would appear, Ms. Gillard has, time and again, demonstrated a fundamental lack of sound political judgment.

Finally, on the third point, one might say that Ms. Gillard’s lack of authority is the source of her other problems. Or perhaps they form a vicious cycle. Who knows? But what is clear is that senior ministers felt able to openly contest her attempts to recruit Mr. Carr to the ministry, despite the fact that she had won a comprehensive leadership victory just days earlier. Moreover, Mr. Crean’s repeated calls for Ms. Gillard to be more “assertive” simply underline the depressing truth that she has been unable to exhibit this quality thus far.  True, she has now managed to force through Mr. Carr as foreign minister, but not before engaging in rigmarole that has subverted her leadership credentials. Once again, the stoush with Mr. Rudd, though ending in victory for our Prime Minister, has done nothing to enhance or galvanise her authority. Indeed, as Tom Switzer of the Institute for Public Affairs recently said, “authority is draining away from the PM as if from an open wound” (“Now Love Lost Between Rudd and Labor,” The Wall Street Journal, 28th February, 2012).

*  *  *

What has caused the incremental implosion of a once-great party? What has led the ALP, so long known for its commitment to the working class, to put power ahead of principles? And where to from here? One can offer all manner of answers, but in the end, it’s conjecture. In many ways, the problems afflicting the ALP seem to be symptomatic of Australian political culture generally. The endless news cycle, which can drain the life out of a government and compel it to rely on the vapidity of “spin” in order to hold the gaze of a relentless media, may be partly to blame. But one wonders whether this reliance on spin and appearance has more to do with the specific problems that are afflicting Labor at the moment than they do the profusion of media channels and the ceaseless glare of the spotlight.

Perhaps the rot set in years ago, and is now so deep that naked power plays are all that’s left. I mean, the ALP has been drifting further left for some years now, leaving behind its traditional working-class roots (which reflects a more fluid social and economic structure) and taking up inner-urban left-wing causes. The political marriage with the Greens after the 2010 election consummated a de facto relationship that had been gestating for some time. But with this change, tension was bound to arise between the old guard and the new – tension that has undoubtedly led to a loss of politico-philosophical unity and a corresponding increase in the reliance on spin, personality and power politics to survive. We should not forget, too, that the cynical application of such tactics to Federal Labor stemmed from a culture embedded in the NSW right faction of the party. I am uncertain why this strategy has been adopted at a national level, though I’m sure others more knowledgeable than me could answer that question. But it’s clear that short-term victory has been won at the expense of long-term political and philosophical ossification.

As to the question, “Where to from here?”, the short answer is, “I’m not sure”. It’s unclear what the latest developments within the ALP signify in terms of Australian politics. I can only hope that the party is able to quickly put aside these divisions and internal crises, and re-focus its efforts on the business of government. Taking a longer-term approach, I wonder whether Labor’s internecine conflict has simply reinforced the jaded opinion a lot of Australians have of their elected officials. The ALP, over the past few years, seems to be at the mercy of two, paradoxically juxtaposed, forces. On the one hand, so-called “faceless men” – back-room party bosses who seem unaccountable to no one – have wielded a great degree of influence over the direction of the party. On the other hand, however, the ALP has often reduced itself to the most artless and cynical form of electoral populism, allowing the caprice of polling data to govern its trajectory. All parties have to adopt a certain degree of pragmatism to retain (or acquire) power; the ALP, however, has taken this to new extremes. Our current Prime Minister seems to embody Labor’s current dilemma: she appears to possess few core convictions, and her shifting views and pronouncements only galvanise suspicions that she, and the party she leads, are without a unifying narrative. If Labor continues down the path upon which it currently finds itself, then I suspect the electorate will only grow more exhausted and cynical. And an exhausted, disinterested and cynical electorate is, I submit, the very antithesis of a robust and thriving democracy.

I said before that many might have laughed at the political soap opera of the past few weeks. It’s hard to deny them that opportunity. Nevertheless, the petulance and rancour on display is a blight on the character of one of Australia’s major political parties. We ought to be saddened – even those of us on the conservative side of the political divide – by the demise of the ALP. I am certainly not suggesting that it is dead; not at all. But failure to arrest the decline and stem the rot bodes ill for Labor and for the prospect of Australian democracy in general. Regardless of one’s political convictions, this should concern us all.

Social Networking: False Promises? – The Hope of Liberty (Part Two)

Although social media has been the target of much criticism (including on this site), one should not allow accusations – however legitimate – to obscure the equally important truth that this relatively new technology can be a boon to the much-cherished principle of liberty. Throughout history, new means of communication have widened the scope for freedom of thought and expression: the printing press, the television or the Internet come to mind. Is it any wonder that repressive regimes have sought to heavily censor these vessels of thought and ideas? So, in this post – Part Two of my exploration of social networking – I shall attempt to outline the precise nature of the connection I have just described. By doing so, I want to offer a counterpoint to my previous criticisms. But first, a recapitulation.

In my previous post on this subject, I attempted to describe and explain some of my concerns regarding social networking and social media. I spoke of the potential problems surrounding social networking’s corruption of the concept of friendship, the illusory (or at least superficial) nature of online knowledge, and the rather trivial uses to which the technology is often put. To be sure, much of what we witness on social networking sites reflects the present position and trajectory of contemporary culture (in the West, at least). That said, one has to acknowledge the so-called “Facebook” effect and how it has intensified many of the less-praiseworthy strands that compose contemporary society. The tendency has, in many ways, been towards mimicry, cultural cannibalism and the veneration of the trivial.

However, one cannot escape the fact that the entire phenomenon of social networking can have a more substantive effect on social relationships. This is something I also mentioned, by way of anticipation, in my previous post. Barriers to friendship are no longer such a problem, now that the digital age is well and truly upon us. Time and geography are compressed and ultimately overcome by technology that is not constrained at all by them. One thinks of the way friendships, which might have been ended by the “tyranny of distance” when one person moved away, no longer face this kind of hindrance. Social networking, by offering a digitized parallel to social connection, allows people to bypass conventional obstacles to it, both in terms of the maintenance of existing relationships and the construction of new ones. The phenomenon is thus a boon to individual liberty (something I shall explore below), supplying unprecedented access to a social world previously closed off, and giving individuals the chance to (potentially, at least) enter a digital environment that can offer surprising new connections, challenge one’s thinking, and broaden perspectives on issues – in other words, social networking can, if so-used, “expand one’s horizons” (to use an old cliché).

Now, it’s true that social networking is routinely used for things that elevate and reify the trivial. But the potential – occasionally glimpsed – to use this phenomenon in a much more expansive manner is present, even as a means of enriching human lives. Although most people are familiar with the more hum drum uses to which social networking is frequently (though not always) put, events over the past months and years have offered examples of how the phenomenon can actually function as a tool for social and political transformation. Many are using social networking sites as a means of self-expression; generating and disseminating ideas; influencing public debate; shaping political and social discourse; and even organising opposition towards dictatorial governments. In short, they contain within themselves the possibility for something much deeper and far more satisfying than what one routinely observes.

The revolutions in the Middle East, particularly those in Tunisia and Egypt are only the most spectacular examples of how social networking can change, in quite a dramatic and explosive way, political reality on the ground. In many respects, the upheavals we saw on our television screens and read about in our newspapers were partly (and crucially) youth-driven events, and given the often-close correlation between youths and technological savvy, it might be unsurprising that new social and communications technologies – including social networking – should have been a significant factor. I am not arguing that these revolutions would not have happened without Facebook, et. al. However, it is clear that the role of social networking – whether in relation to the organisation and galvanisation of opposition to the various regimes, or in regards to the posting of material that was able circumvent official security and inflame popular discontent – was very important. Images of regime brutality were posted on Youtube and Facebook, opposition groups were formed, and information widely and easily disseminated (see, for example, David Kirkpatrick, “Tunisia Leader Flees and Prime Minister Claims Power,” New York Times, January 14th, 2011).  Indeed, as Fareed Zakaria, an academic and journalist for Time magazine, commented, technology, “…has played a powerful role in informing, educating and connecting people in the region. Such advances empower individuals and disempower the state” (“Why it’s Different this Time,” February 28th, 2011). This is an important point, and shows how social networking can expand, rather than domesticate, one’s thinking and actions. Or, to put it another way, events in places such as Egypt have demonstrated the extent to which social networking can help expose people to, as well as actually transform, the political and cultural dimensions of life.

Perhaps a crash course in the theory of revolutions might be useful, in order to get a sense of how social networking can rapidly and drastically change the political landscape. In an essay on the theoretical underpinnings of popular rebellions, academics Ravi Bhavani and Michael Ross cited previous literature that argues for the prominence of what is called “threshold theory.” Briefly, this theory holds that uprisings or rebellions occur when enough people living under a repressive regime develop the need to voice their opposition. In particular:

“Once a sufficient number of aggrieved individuals openly criticize the government, the individual cost of dissent begins to drop, because dissidents achieve safety in numbers” (“Announcement, Credibility and Turnout in Popular Rebellions,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, June 2003, p.342).

Other models, which follow the main contours of threshold theory with slightly different nuances, suggest that citizens’ opposition to the regime is fomented by the release of previously hidden information about the “malignant quality of the government” (ibid, p.342). In any case, threshold theory provides a good model for how people living under a brutal government can eventually develop the courage to openly voice dissent, and – in some cases – actually rebel. Of course, it takes time to generate enough popular opposition to a regime, such that individuals are positively affected by a feeling of “safety in numbers.” And in years gone by, the dissemination of information detailing the malignancy of a despotic government would have taken some months (even years) before inciting opposition and disaffection, if at all. But social networking sites have compressed time and geography, such that they can be used to accelerate these processes, and often at an exponential rate. Disparate groups of people that would have faced seemingly insurmountable geographical obstacles (not to mention the repressive tactics of authorities) can now go online and coalesce at the speed of a mouse-click. Information regarding official repression – often hidden – is now recorded and disseminated at an alarming rate. Social networking, in addition to bypassing efforts to curtail popular opposition (it’s much harder to stop the spread of digital information than it is to imprison a flesh-and-blood person), expands and intensifies the formation of oppositional networks to a degree unmatched by more traditional methods of popular resistance and communication. Thus, the so-called “threshold” that has to be reached in order for popular anti-authoritarianism to erupt, is done so much more rapidly. Physical protests were still significant, to be sure; this discussion does not negate the crucial role they played in the downfall of the Ali and Mubarak regimes. And we should not ignore the fact that much of the discontent that we saw spilling out onto the streets had been bubbling away for decades. However, I think it true to say that the airing of on-line grievances allowed groups to form more speedily and open revolt to occur more boldly.

Repressive governments have so far struggled to maintain pace with these emerging political weapons; Tunisia and Egypt are only the most dramatic examples of the impotency of regimes in the face of such technology. In both instances, the lumbering machinery of state was unable to defeat the fleet-footed networks that sprung up amongst young Egyptian and Tunisian urbanites. What use are concrete methods of repression, such as beatings and imprisonment, against the viral omnipresence of organised, on-line antipathy? Authoritarian regimes rely on the appearance of being ever-present, having complete control over knowledge and reality, and retaining total power over the citizenry. With relative ease, clusters of social networks in both Tunisia and Egypt were able to overcome the tools of the police state. One study, conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, found that social media had played a “critical role” in the development and maintenance of the uprisings in the countries in question. People built extensive networks that crossed time and space in ways previously inconceivable; grievances and opposition that before was fragmented and diffuse was, almost overnight, galvanized into a seemingly monolithic whole (Kate Taylor, “Arab Spring Really was Social Media Revolution,”, September 13th, 2011). The result, as is well known, was the collapse of seemingly impregnable governments. Mr. Zakaria’s conclusion, quoted above, is certainly apt.

At this point, we should acknowledge the two-edged nature of the situation in both Tunisia and Egypt. In these nations, initial demands for freedom have been stymied, first by the inconsistency of the armed forces (in the case of Egypt), and second by inconclusive election results (which have seen Islamists win power in both countries). We should not be naïve about the current state of politics in this part of the world. Nor should we be naïve about any influence Islamist groups played in fomenting, and later driving, the revolutions. They may have been precipitated by the kinds of processes I have described, but Islamists have taken advantage of the prevailing situation. The heady days of expectation and anticipation have given way to greater uncertainty. As Roger Owen, a Harvard professor of history, has said, “The hard fact is that revolutions are lengthy and unruly…Creating a new political order takes many years” (“Little to Celebrate a Year After Mubarak’s Demise, The Weekend Australian, 11th – 12th February, 2012, p.11). This, of course, is true, with or without the influence of social networking. However, it is the case that those heady days were generated, in part, by genuine cries for freedom in both Tunisia and Egypt – aided and abetted by new social technology. If it can be argued that the revolutions have not (yet) deepened the freedoms of ordinary Egyptians and Tunisians, then it can be argued with equal force that demands for those very same freedoms were bolstered and maintained by social networking and media.

More prosaic, though no less significant, has been the role of social media in politics in the West. From social networking sites, to the many blogs that proliferate daily, political debate and action have been visibly changed. “Democratization” may be an apt description of the process, since the advent of social media has allowed an unprecedented number of people to enter into political and social discourse, to organise campaigns around issues in a more fluid and dynamic manner, and to engage with the ideas of political elites in a way that seemed unlikely – nay, inconceivable – a generation ago. A former digital guru in British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has said that social media are providing digital spaces for grassroots organisations to coalesce and grow (Fran Foo, “Politicans Should Not Ignore Social Media,” The Australian, October 26th , 2011). Whereas once these groups formed in physical space, the incorporeal nature of the digital world allows them to do so at a rapid rate. The American mid-term elections in 2010 showcased the power of social media to shape political discourse. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Forum found that 20% of people who used the Internet frequented social networking sites to find out about candidates and issues. One-third of those using the Internet said that what they had viewed influenced their decision when it came time to vote (Katie Kindelan, “Social Media in Politics: Positive or Polarizing?”, Social Times, March 18th, 2011). Clearly, social media has become part of the “standard toolkit” for many Americans engaged in politics, as one of the study’s conveners put it.

Some worry about such sites subverting the principles of democracy. The proliferation of social networking, they say, may actually separate people into ever-more polarized groups – hardly a recipe for a fully engaged and unified democratic polity. Such concerns need to be taken into account, for social networking may simply solidify the relationships and cultural environment people already inhabit. It’s certainly true that the comparative ease with which one may air one’s opinions in the digital age makes it much easier for extremist views to gain a public hearing. In such an age, a cogent argument can be made that a cacophony of voices (not always mellifluous) may militate against the quality of debate. Blogs, for example, may be ways of giving extremist views the veneer of legitimacy; however, they can also act as digital public spaces where intelligent and insightful views, which may have otherwise remained unsaid, are offered and debated. As The Economist pointed out in its report on Economics blogs (“A Less Dismal Debate”, December 31st, 2011), the use of such technology can be a boon to robust debate and exposure to a range of ideas – principles that are intrinsic to the democratic project. It has certainly widened the scope for participation in political discourse, and in that sense, social media has deepened political freedom and opened up new opportunities for a dynamic exchange of ideas.

Of course, there are many caveats when it comes to talking about such a subject. I have already noted some of them in my efforts to delineate some of the major themes regarding social media and politics. But my point stands – that technology of this sort can be used for projects and purposes that extend beyond the realm of the quotidian and the trivial, and which seek to enrich human life, challenge the status quo and deepen an appreciation for the fruits of human intellectual endeavour. Despite the obvious problems that often accompany the use of social media – which I explored in my last post on this subject – it is clear that such problems do not tell the whole story. This technology can, and does, bear within itself the potential for substantive change in people’s lives – which goes to show that even though the things we create can end up “creating” us, we still have the power to use them as we will. How we do so is an important thing to remember.

Questions about Libya

I’ve been following the situation in the Middle East as best I have been able to manage over the past couple of months. All attention is now on Libya (as if Egypt, et. al., had suddenly quietened down), given that western nations have decided to provide the rebels with air- and sea-support. However, lingering questions remain about this particular country, and the actions coalition forces have taken:

1) What is the western coalition’s ultimate goal in Libya? Is it merely the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime? Or is it paving the way for a full-blooded democracy? There seems to be a disconcerting lack of planning and long-sightedness going on in this operation. Following on from these questions, to what extent is the western response committed to defending the rebellion against Qaddafi? If the stalemate that seems to have developed endures for some time, what then?

2) Even if a flourishing democracy is the ultimate goal for western forces, can this be achieved via bombs from 3000m and Tomahawks from the decks of U.S. warships? At some point (assuming the goal is democratic change), much more will be needed. Are coalition forces willing to put boots on the ground, especially since the campaign thus far has failed to deliver a knockout blow to Libyan loyalist forces?

3) Who is actually being supported by western forces in Libya? Pure, blue-blood democrats? Opponents of Qaddafi who wish merely to see him gone? Radical Islamists? The answer is probably lies between these three groups, but a recent report in The Economist (“A Golden Opportunity?”, April 2nd, 2001) states that some in Libya who are cheering on the NATO-led bombing campaign are jihadists who have trained in Afghanistan. Islamism is apparently a diverse ideological community (stretching from the mildly Islamist AKP in Turkey to brutal and violent strains in places like Pakistan), but given its sectarian and authoritarian bent, it remains to be seen how a new polity in Libya would fair with such figures and groups in power.

4) What does this say about future interventions? Would western forces intervene in, say, Zimbabwe? And what of the horrors of a place like Darfur? Does that call for an armed response? The lack of consistency – even granting the complexity of international affairs and the constant need for flexibility – leaves one scratching one’s head over the apparent lack of an underlying philosophy.

5) A comparatively minor point, but a question raised nonetheless. Why is NATO taking charge of this operation? Of course, I know the answer – the U.S. was loathe to lead this campaign, lest its image in the Middle East be damaged. And none of the other participating countries have the power or the global reach to legitimate a supervising role. But NATO is a specifically European and North American organisation, founded for the purposes of collective defence during the Cold War. North Africa, as far as I’m aware, is not part of NATO’s remit. Its very involvement in this campaign raises more fundamental questions about its raison d’etre.

A final note: one may wonder why talk of secular politics is cropping up on a Christian blogsite. Well, aside from my natural interest in such matters, this blog is about wise reflection on all of God’s world. Last I looked, Libya and the Middle East were a part of it. But seriously, matters of justice, freedom, truth and life – biblical concerns all – are on display at the moment across North Africa and the Middle East. I believe that Christian wisdom does have something to say. But for now, I leave these questions to stimulate your thinking.