“Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. And for about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’ Of this man's offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised. Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’
“Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him. And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus…” (Acts 13)
Two more days, friends.
Two more days until the embarrassing, disheartening, revealing, divisive madness of the 2016 election cycle comes to an end. Of course, after it’s all said and done we still have to live with the results of that embarrassing, disheartening, divisive madness, but at least the yard signs and political advertisements will go away. And given the perpetually polarized, partisan gridlock that is our system of national governance, at least we can comfort ourselves with the thought that, no matter who happens to win the day, it’s unlikely that they’re going to be able to accomplish ANYTHING, anyway, for good or ill. Such is the wonder of American democracy in our time.
Now, I’m as much a fan of democracy as the next guy; this system of governance which in his Gettysburg Address Abraham Lincoln so eloquently described as “Government OF the people, BY the people, FOR the people…” But I do find it funny that, in our frustration with disappointing candidates and partisan gridlock, and in our rush to declare the global (if not eternal) importance of the American experiment, we often forget what the true, foundational genius of democracy really is. We don’t often think about it in this way, but the true genius of democracy is that it is intentionally, inherently, terribly INEFFICIENT. Democracy does not aspire to put the responsibility for governance in the hands of common people because it believes that people are GOOD enough to be trusted with it, but because it assumes that people, in general, are TERRIBLE - unwise, selfish, inherently destructive - and so seeks to mitigate that fact by, in theory, dispersing authority to as many people as possible, and thereby limiting the damage that any one person is capable of. This is the true value and virtue of democracy.
A pure dictatorship, by contrast, is a much more efficient system. Whatever the ruler wants, the ruler orders done, and the ruler gets. No balance of power, no bureaucracy, no red tape… Efficient. And, efficiency is wonderful, so long as the ruler in question is thoroughly GOOD; selfless, wise, caring, just. This simple efficiency means that if you’ve get a good ruler, you get a good government. But, vice-versa, If you get a bad, weak, or otherwise flawed ruler, then your government will likewise directly suffer from the same weaknesses or flaws.
So, what the founders of democracy observed is that 1.) That’s just a lot of responsibility and hope to pin on any one person, even an hypothetically ideal person and 2.) People are, as a general rule, NOT hypothetical or ideal; in fact, most people are far too flawed in one manner or another to be trusted with anything approaching absolute power. So, democracy was devised as a means of making government more diffuse, and thereby inherently LESS efficient; which, while it means the influence of relatively GOOD people/ideas can be frustrated and ultimately limited, the same holds true for relatively BAD people/ideas.
Simply put, since the one foundational thing we know about human beings is that we cannot be trusted with unconditional power, we thereby devise a system of government that limits and contains hedges against the amount of influence that any one person can have. So, while as Americans we can tend to get a little starry-eyed when discussing the merits and importance of encouraging the expansion of global democracy, we need to be clear in understanding this: there is nothing ROMANTIC about it. Democracy is the most pessimistic, pragmatic system of governance ever devised upon the earth. If it shares any foundational assumptions with the Christian faith, it has less to do with inherent human dignity, and more to do with the doctrine of total DEPRAVITY: the belief that people are by nature sin-bound and fundamentally, self-destructively flawed, such that we cannot be trusted to act or rule in wise, righteous, just, ways. Therefore, it is only prudent to seek to establish a human government that is built upon the basic distrust of human goodness.
All this to say: Democracy is a good system of government. It’s a SMART system, because it is honest with itself about the blessed mess that we human beings are. But in the end, it cannot be an wholeheartedly SATISFYING system, because it is ultimately little more than a bureaucratic, legislative insurance policy; limiting the overall potential for goodness, as well as evil. It is altogether SAFER than most other alternatives, but inherently unsatisfying when it comes to the deeper longings of the human heart for healing, genuine justice, and the restoration of all things. So, when you step into the ballot box on Tuesday and find yourself overcome with disappointment at the choices which present themselves, just remember that disappointment lies at the very heart of the democratic genius. Which, among other things, is the reason that our HOPE, as followers of Jesus, is not found in American democracy, but in the Kingdom of God.
To our ears today, in the 21st century, western world, the language of King and Kingdom feels pretty foreign. Politically and socially, we feel as if we evolved beyond the world of monarchs and dictators and kingdoms a long time ago. Our commitment to self-governance and the values of balanced, diffuse systems of power goes to nearly religious depths at this point. Which from the standpoint of human governance is all well and good; because as a general rule, human beings are a damned mess, and are not to be trusted. But the danger is that we project our inherent distrust of human leadership upon the canvas of God’s lordship, and in doing so, find ourselves incapable of receiving the Good News of Jesus as he presents himself; unable to truly embrace the invitation that the Gospel makes to us. Because at the heart of the Gospel is not a safe, representative, human government, but a King and Kingdom.
Make no mistake: When Jesus comes again in glory to judge and restore creation, you and I will not vote; we will BOW. Because the King will have returned, and to his power there will be no checks and balances. But we need not fear - in fact, our hearts will surely come near to bursting with JOY! - because this King is GOOD; he is wise and selfless and joyous and just, without flaw or weakness or vice. And in his courts, we will find life such as we have not yet imagined possible. But we must be clear: there is no Gospel, and there is no salvation to be found, apart from the embrace of this King and in submission to his kingship.
This is the Gospel, according to Paul and the Apostles: That in Jesus, God is once again King, calling us by his Lordship into the freedom that comes through forgiveness.
In the end, the Good News is good, because Jesus himself is good. In him, we encounter a Savior/King/God who would offer his very life in order to see us set free from the consequences of our own rebellion and sin. The proclamation of his now-and-coming Kingdom is Good News, because in his Lordship we find the very essence of life, joy, and freedom poured out for our nourishment and flourishing. Because in Jesus we stand before the one, truly, fully just-and-joyous, selfless and wise, all-powerful and all-righteous King of creation who loves, has died, and now lives for us, the news of his reign is truly and eternally GOOD. That’s what makes it the Gospel! And to receive this news, and believe it, will simply change us forever; brought to life, even as we lay ourselves down before him.
So, remember: Democracy has its merits. It does its best to mitigate the danger of our corporate brokenness. But in the end, our hope will never be found in a vote; our hope rests upon a KING!