Friday, January 25, 2008

vox populi, vox Dei

The election of leaders is a fascinating exercise of popular will: the Americans are preparing for Presidential elections with the expectation that the eventual winner will be welcomed by a “nation under God”. Closer to home the ANC has just has just elected a President, and we are asked to support him because he has been democratically elected. Implicit in such elections is an assumption that because this is democratic, it must be good. And to some, good equates to divine approval. Certainly Churches have led the way in this kind of thinking: we affirm bishops/ priests/pastors as having being called by God when the majority vote selects them for an ecclesiastical office.

But here is my point: Democracy is not the same as the Will of God.

This idea rests upon the fallacy that the vast majority of people cannot be wrong: the people have spoken, therefore God has spoken. It is helpful to be reprimanded by a voice from the past:
In 798 Alcuin wrote the following to Charlemagne:
And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the turbulence of the crowd is always close to madness.

Crowds elect people who are popular. But popular is not the same as good. This has been ably demonstrated in the democratic election of leaders such as Adolf Hitler, or Robert Mugabe. In fact, the all-sovereign American people often choose mediocrity over excellence, and vice over virtue in their Presidential elections; and we have just witnessed the populist elections of the ANC doing little better at choosing honest, Godly leadership.

Democracy is a tool that allows the people to choose the leader they want. But it cannot deliver moral, virtuous leadership. A democratically elected leader is always in danger of being held captive by the shifting mood of those who elected her, and so will submit to the will of the people – not the will of God. And the will of the people is notoriously fickle, choosing that which serves self-interest over that which is good.

But at the same time, while the voice of the many is seldom wise and good, it is irresistible. You might as well try to stop the tide of the sea as to resist the vox populi. It is for this reason that people of faith and moral conviction must participate in public debate and social engagement. The people of a nation must be enabled to reflect on the ethical and moral choices of the day. And it is this engagement that opens up space for the voice of God to be discovered. This is not some arbitrary pronouncement from a sacred text, but rather is found in the challenge to find ways for a nation to live with compassion for the widows and orphans, justice for the oppressed, and a sharing of resources with the poor.

Let us not confuse the voice of the people with the voice of God. The voice of God always challenges the voice of the people so as to create a society of justice, truth and compassion.

1 comment:

Wessel Bentley said...

Currie quotes Jabez Bunting, a Methodist leader in 1827, who declared, “Methodism was as much opposed to democracy as to sin”.

Robert Currie, Methodism divided: A study in the sociology of ecumenicalism (Faber, 1968), 165

I think the church has been ensnared by the ways of the State.