My goal was to publish this for July 4th. Other things took precedence, but here it is now.
Of the [forms of government] the perversions are as follows: of monarchy, tyranny; of aristocracy, oligarchy; of polity, democracy. For tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy, of the needy: none of them the common good of all. Tyranny, as I was saying, is monarchy exercising the rule of a master over the political society; oligarchy is when men of property have the government in their hands; democracy, the opposite, when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers.
~ Aristotle (1)
Governments are by definition about “power over” others. In the words of Greg Boyd, Jesus is about “power under.” (2) This is exemplified in Jesus’ example as well as his teaching. The establishment of the United States of America was, on the one hand, about getting out from under the power of England’s ruling class. On the other hand, the U.S. government is another form of “power over” others. It is a government, certainly somewhat unique at its inception, but still a controlling “power over” force. Popular ideology sees U.S. citizens freely and democratically submitting to that power, and even partaking democratically in the continued creation of that power. However, if Aristotle is right, and the “founding fathers” where certainly reading him in 1776, then what was established on July 4th was an oligarchy, not a democracy.
One question for us is whether the U.S. government is still an oligarchy (parading as a democracy) or whether it is truly a democracy. The other question, one for Christians specifically, is whether it matters.
The answer to the first question is most obviously that we still live in an oligarchy. It is well known that the “founding fathers” championed democracy early on and then became fearful of having uncorked the scary bottle of democratic populism. They were scared of mob (indigent) rule and realized they needed to carefully craft a constitution that used the language of democracy to appease the masses, but created an oligarchy in order to ensure the already established relations of power continue. In this sense the U.S. Constitution was a masterful response to the Declaration of Independence. One declared freedom, the other made sure that freedom was appropriately allotted. The wealthy would remain free and rule over the lesser freedoms of everyone else. All citizens are free, only some are more free than others. Concentrated power remained so, protected from the masses.
Since that time more democratic forms have been established (hard won) for all regardless of race or gender. We can all vote. We don’t have to own property, be of European decent, and male, in order to cast a ballot. In other words, the U.S. has shifted towards democracy in spite of the intentions of the majority of its powerful and wealthy rulers, though that shift has been limited and specific. But what is that shift worth in the face of limited candidate choices, mass collusion between big business and government, and increasing monopolization of media. The powerful generally always remain powerful and work to keep it that way. The wealthy remain wealthy and are the ones with the power. The game we call the U.S. government is truly a game from which we are fundamentally excluded. When we read about U.S. military actions, or the Patriot Act, or Wall Street bailouts we, the people, have no say or control in any of those areas. Though we can cast ballots we are not really in power. The great promise of democracy is fundamentally an illusion in this country.
So then, for all intents and purposes we are living under and oligarchy still. Does that matter? Yes and no.
Christians are called to be servants, to give up their lives for the lives of others, to love their neighbors and their enemies, and to trust in God for their well being and ultimate destination. Christians know that the first (the rich and powerful in this world) will be the last in the Kingdom of God. Jesus also taught us that the wisdom of God is sheer folly to us. The world is truly upside down, on its head. Christians are supposed to have eyes to see this, to have hearts that long for the reality of the kingdom, and to live their lives in light of that reality. But Christians don’t do that very well, and many Christians have embraced the Kingdom of this World and cloaked it in Christian sounding language. I believe the religious right falls into this camp. So do many others; maybe the religious left just as much.
Of all forms of government democracies may have the most potential for equality and freedom, which may be a better situation for Christian “values” to flourish. Though both points are debatable. On the other hand, there is no form of government that can either truly challenge or suppress the Kingdom of God. Totalitarian governments may persecute Christians. Caesars may throw them to the lions. But Christians are still promised the Kingdom, and no government – democracy, oligarchy, monarchy – can either offer a comparable replacement or take the Kingdom of God from anyone.
So the answer is no, it does not fundamentally matter whether we (Christians) live under one kind of flavor or style of the Kingdom of the World or another. We should still be able to have our faith, trust in God, love others, and find contentment (sophrosyne) in what ever situation we find ourselves in. We should be comforted that God is both sovereign and trustworthy.
On the other hand the answer is yes we should care. To the degree that any government oppresses others it should be called to account. To the degree that any government lies it should be called to account. Christians, while not being particularly concerned with Kingdom of the World concerns, are very much concerned with love, mercy, and truth. We have a desire that the Kingdom of God should triumph, that it should over take the Kingdom of the World and turn it upside down. We are revolutionaries at heart, but our methods are not to violently smash the structures of power (though we might throw our bodies on the gears) but to overcome with Jesus as our leader and our example. We seek a “power under” stance that begins with loving our enemies, even if it means to die for them. That is not just different than the Kingdom of the World, it is not merely opposite, it is the most fundamental challenge to everything the Kingdom of the World stands for, or is capable of achieving. It is LIFE in the face of death.
To give up our lives for our enemies. That is what Christians are called to do. Unfortunately, I can preach it but I don’t do it.
We make a big deal of the freedoms we have in the U.S. We tend to be proud of our life, liberty, and happiness. (It has been said that the attacks on the World Trade Center happened because “our enemies” hate our freedoms.) But Christians are called to give up their life, liberty, and happiness. We are to hold lightly such things in the light of a different set of priorities. The very foundation upon which the U.S. is based, though noble is, in a way, also un-biblical. It is not un-biblical because life, liberty, and happiness are bad things. No, they are good things as far as it goes. We should want those things for others and appreciate them when we have them. As Christians, however, we are to set aside those things, to be bond servants of God and not merely to ourselves and our desires. To be thankful that one lives in the U.S. is fine, but to be proud to be an American is folly. We are to recognize that the Kingdom of the World, no matter the amount of flowery language with which it surrounds itself, cannot offer life, liberty, or happiness. Nor can it take it away.
We are, however, not to live our lives as though there is no real world, no physicality, no Kingdom of the World. People are suffering because of wars and famines, because of poor choices and sin, because of foolishness and faulty social structures. Christians should be the first in line to help others through their suffering. We should not shy away, though I tend to. The Kingdom of the World is very real even though it’s not eternal. How we respond to the realities of this world has a lot to do with our eternal destinies and shows us where our hearts are. Do we love God? Then we will love others. Do we trust God? Then we will not fear the world. Do we follow Christ? Then we will love God, love our neighbors, and love our enemies, yeah even give our lives for our enemies as did Christ.
So, really it does not matter if we live in a oligarchy or a democracy. What matters is that we live in the reality of the Kingdom of God – and act accordingly.
(1) From Book III of Aristotle. Politics. trans. Benjamin Jowett. Thatcher, ed., Vol. II: The Greek World, pp. 364-382. New York: Colonial Press, 1900. Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. Prof. Arkenberg has modernized the text. Online at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/aristotle-politics1.html
(2) See chapter two of Boyd, Gregory A. The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Question for Political Power is Destroying the Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.