God’s democracy

Evensong sermon 16 September 2018

Rev Dr Lynn Arnold AO

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.

I’m afraid I am going to take some licence with my sermon this evening by focussing on something other than our Lectionary Scripture readings for tonight. By way of partial excuse, I note that our Gospel reading is about the Transfiguration, which had been a focus of our services just a six weeks ago on Transfiguration Sunday  (August 5), and about which I preached that day during the morning services – I attach a link at the end of this sermon should you wish to read it, as I didn’t really feel that I could stand here and either simply repeat what I said on that occasion, or, for brevity’s sake, have simply quoted the shortest speech ever given in the South Australian Parliament by saying “Ditto.”

I had also considered preaching on our reading from Esther. Now the Book of Esther is a beautiful book and one that has a very especial place in Judaism. It is from Esther that the verse comes which should speak to each of us at different points in our lives. When Esther had the opportunity to stand up for her people in the face of dire threats, she at first doubted her capacity to do so. But then her uncle, Mordechai, said to her:

For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this? [Esther 4:14]

And to this day, because Esther took courage and did not stay silent, the Jewish people celebrate the Festival of Purim – the saving of the Jewish people. But I think that story is best told at roughly the same time when Purim is actually celebrated – namely in February or March each year; in other words, not tonight.

It was then that my eyes lit upon that portion of Scripture that we hear the choir sing every Evensong – the Magnificat. In particular these lines stood out:

For he hath regarded the lowliness of his hand-maiden …

He hath exalted the humble and the meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things …

I do understand that it is perhaps risky to excise just a few lines from this beautiful song of Mary, but those lines do echo something important from the very heart of the early church. At that time the prevailing Roman worldview accepted a limited version of the concept of democracy based on that which had first been developed by the Greeks. In this concept, there was anything but the exalting of the humble and the meek or regard being paid to those of low status, and there certainly wasn’t the provisioning of those in need. Greek democracy was the property and privilege of the very few – there was certainly no place within it for women, the poor or the enslaved. For their part, while the Romans gave some credence to the power of the mob – the plebeians to whom bread and circuses would occasionally be thrown – their understanding of democracy never really involved the principle of universal individual rights or of equality.

In the Magnificat, Mary had spoken those words on being told that she was to give birth to a son, who was to be Emmanuel – God with us. This son, Jesus, would later echo his mother’s words from the Magnificat when he gave the Inasmuch sermon of Matthew 25:31-46 – “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.”

Still later, the apostle Paul would further repeat the egalitarian spirit implicit in both when he wrote to the Galatians, who lived in a Roman province, and hence were Roman citizens some of whose males thus enjoyed the Roman take on democracy:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. [Galatians 3:28]

These sentiments which I have quoted from Mary, Jesus and Paul were very bold in the culture of the day but had not been out of place in Judaic writings of previous centuries; for we can find an abundance of references in the Hebrew Bible that state the same principles. Thus it has been said that the principles of Western liberal democracy owe more to Judeo-Christian thought than to the ancient Greek δημοκρατία [demokratia].

The atheist, Bruce Sheimann, is amongst those who while rejecting faith have nevertheless appreciated that religion, if not Christianity specifically, have contributed much to a better world. He wrote:

More than any other institution, religion deserves our appreciation and reverence because it has persistently encouraged people to care deeply – for the self, for neighbours, for humanity, and for the natural world – and strive for the highest ideals humans are able to envision. And there is no more eminent ideal than religion’s clear declaration of human specialness and the absolute sanctity of life.

At its best, it is the spirit of Judeo-Christianity that speaks into those ideals, and the best spirit of democracy that is their outcome.

Today is not Transfiguration Sunday, this weekend is not Purim, but yesterday was the UN International Day for Democracy. This international day was first so denominated in 2007, but evokes Article 21.3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.” However, in a statement to acknowledge the 2018 celebration of the day, UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, has said:

Democracy is showing greater strain than at any time in decades. That is why this International Day should make us look for ways to invigorate democracy and seek answers for the systemic challenges it faces.

His statement of concern was reflected in the very theme chosen for 2018 – namely “Democracy under Strain: Solutions for a Changing World.”  There is much global evidence that the concept of democracy, which had seemed to have such a promising future after the fall of the Berlin Wall, has indeed been under strain, perhaps even threat.

The Economist Intelligence Unit, which provides an annual survey of the world’s democratic health, reported that, between 2010 and 2017, seven countries had fallen from the classification of full democracies (26 down to 19), and while countries in the flawed democracy category rose (53 to 57), there had still been a net fall of three countries contained within both categories. Furthermore, the flawed democracies seem to be becoming ever more flawed. Take for example the targeting of minorities in some, such as the Rohingya in Myanmar, or the capricious reinterpretation of the rule of law in others, such as has been happening in the Philippines.

But we need not think that it is only elsewhere that there has been strain on democracy. The Anglican playwright, Tim Winton, was quoted in yesterday’s Weekend Australian as saying:

My hope is that our children and grandchildren will resist the drift to nihilism that our politics is helping to engender … What do I tell a teenager who understands the basics of climate change, soil degradation, ocean depletion and so on?  That her betters have this all in hand, that her elders are taking her future seriously, that our democracy is in good health and that there’s a place for her in the future?  Believe me, I try to argue this all the time, because I need to believe it, but you can understand why some young people laugh in my face.

In recent weeks, at the federal level, we have seen the latest act in a political melodrama that has run, with lead actors from both the major parties, for ten years and which the Prime Minister himself has called a Muppet Show. With all the challenges facing our country, Tim Winton’s comments focussed on the next generations and what lessons they might take from what seems to have been happening to democracy in this country.

In making his comments, Winton was no doubt aware of the evidence of a growing youth disenchantment with democracy. The Lowy Institute, in its most recent survey on the subject, found that while three quarters of people over 45 believe democracy is the preferable form of government that fell to only 45% amongst 30-44 year olds, with those 18-29 being slightly more idealistic at 49%. Furthermore, an earlier study done in 2013 found that young Australians (18-29) compared poorly in supporting democracy against the same generation in India, where 71% thought democracy preferable, and Indonesia, where two thirds felt the same way.

Why are young Australians turning away from the democratic dream? Quite apart from the federal political pantomime of the past ten years, it is also true that there are some contemporary problems in democracy that it would be naïve to ignore. Problems such as growing levels of inequality in our society, virulent arguments over free speech, and the hyper-individualism of the age.

What does all this have to do with us here today, worshipping in the cathedral? A lot really. If the premise is correct that historically the Judeo-Christian perspective gave human meaning to the democratic ideal, shouldn’t it still do so today? Of course, putting that perspective in a world that is not only avowedly post-modern but quite self-consciously secular, if not even anti-faith, will not be easy but surely we must not be silent?

Jim Wallis, of Sojourners International, has written about the Theology of Democracy. Starting with the statement “If humankind is created in the image of God, certain political facts follow”, he goes on to identify two ‘substantive’ qualities that “should shape both the theory and practice of democracy”. These are:

  • The absolute worth of every human person – of every citizen in every nation. People have value that comes directly from their being the children of God; and
  • Equality among all who are made in the image of God. One person or group of people is not politically more important than another.

If we accept these substantive qualities that Wallis proposes, how should we as Christians apply them to problems confronting the democratic ideal? Some Christians answer the question by calling for the creation of Christian parties, or for doctrinaire lobbying in the public square. However, I am not particularly taken with either of those approaches, as I feel they tend to shout at rather than communicate with the rest of society.

In each of the three problems I mentioned above, there are choices available to a Christian that may differ from those being considered by many in contemporary society. Let me take each in turn. First, growing inequality; society’s tolerance of this phenomenon is premised on a distorted appropriation of the idea of divine worth into a debased worldly concept of value. In the divine perspective, each person has divine worth; while in the world’s economy, their value is dependent upon their worth to others. So, many ask, if they are not valuable to us or society in general, why should we listen to them? Paul’s words to the Galatians speak right into this space, calling us to speak of divine worth.

On the question of freedom of speech – undoubtedly a fundamental democratic right, but one about which there is currently very great tension between civitas and civilitas; the tension between the right to say anything and the obligation to say something worthwhile. Of course, let people say what they will, but as Christians, what should we be saying? Consider Jesus’ injunction in Matthew 15:11:

What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.

In a world that delights in provocative polarisation, should we just demand our right to throw verbal grenades too, or should we seek to speak with grace into the arguments? Seek to be genuinely heard rather than just shout down?

Thirdly, the problem of contemporary hyper-individualism. Jim Wallis quotes Karl Barth on this point whom he wrote:

… said it was our human ability to make and maintain complex and intricate relationships that made us like God. That is also what makes democracy a successful relational system. Self-actualisation is a part of that, which democracy should enhance; but democracy’s existence also owes much to the human need for community.

Through the Christian idea of koinonia, we have the opportunity to understand the need for community interdependence as much as for personal independence. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus provided a role model for his disciples to follow his example of service rather than self-serving:

But I am among you as one who serves. [Luke 22:27]

Returning finally to the theme of the Transfiguration, the American Orthodox priest, Father Stephen Freeman, has written of the disciples’ witnessing Christ with Moses and Elijah:

When we are properly directed towards God, we behold the face of Christ. We see two things: Christ’s face (the truth of Who He Is), and our own selves (the truth of who we are).

It raises the issue about ‘the truth of who we are’ – and so the task for us becomes: as we come to worship each Sunday, to see Christ’s face, to see ‘the truth of Who He is’ do we take it as an opportunity to self-reflect? To find the truth of who we are? And in that searching, guided as it must be by the two greatest commandments – love of God and love of our neighbour as ourselves – do we consider to what role we might be called in promoting the well-being of our community, including of our democracy? Esther was given the task and the opportunity to speak up for her people; in this age of deep cynicism, will we take our opportunity to speak up for our strained democracy?

Link to my sermon on August 5 on the Transfiguration:

Transfiguration – 5 August 2018