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ONE NATION UNDER GOD - by Stephen Noll

The Biblical Case for Democracy
Sermon by the Rev. Prof. Stephen Noll
Uganda Christian University Chapel

Sunday, 10 October 2004

On Friday, I sent an express mail letter to the USA for 60,000 Uganda shillings [$35]. Can you guess what it contained? It included my and my wife's ballots for the Presidential Election. You see, in a democracy, voting is a precious duty, believing that one has a real say in the future of one's country. This is the faith of Democracy - the idea of rule by the people.

Let me begin with a definition of democracy. The philosopher Aristotle identified three kinds of government: rule by one (monarchy), rule by a few (aristocracy), and rule by many (democracy). Aristotle went on to note that governments are either just or unjust according to whether they rule for the benefit of the rulers or for the good of the whole society.

In the case of rule by one, we can easily identify unjust rule as tyranny, where a ruler like Saddam Hussein is oppressing his people and enriching himself. Now here is the surprise: Aristotle says that democracy is unjust: that it is possible for the people, or a majority of them, to rule for their own benefit and not for the benefit of the whole society. The classic example of this was revolutionary France, where within a decade the masses overthrew the king and nobles and slaughtered them and then put themselves under a new Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

Is there a just form of popular government? Aristotle says that there is a kind of good democracy, one that is limited by a constitution. This kind of democracy is often called a republic or representative government. While there were famous republics in the ancient world, such as Rome before it became an empire, the most famous example today is the United States. Most modern democracies have patterned themselves on the constitutional government devised by the American founders two hundred years ago. And this is true of Uganda.

But is democracy actually a Christian notion? Is it found in the Bible? I think the answer is Yes and No. Certainly, Jews and Christians have lived for long stretches of time in societies that were not democratic. In fact, for almost least 1000 years, Christians seemed to believe that monarchy - the rule of one divinely appointed King - was the normal Christian political arrangement.

Over the past several hundred years, Christians have been in the forefront of promoting democracy. This is particularly true of Protestants, in England and the USA. Over the past 30 years, the present Pope in this writings has also given religious grounding for democracy. So it certainly seems to be true that Christianity can support and flourish along with democracy.

The really big question today is whether Islam can do the same. The record does not look good - almost all the Muslim countries today are tyrannies, but there are some interesting developments in Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq which may prove that Islam can allow the kind of free choice and dissent that is typical of democracies. The same question, of course, applies in Africa, where, one hopes, Uganda among others has embraced constitutional government and is moving toward a multiparty system of elections.

Does the Bible bring special insight into how to govern a democracy? I think the answer is Yes. I have tried to summarize the Bible's message under the phrase "One Nation under God," a phrase from the American Pledge of Allegiance. The Biblical model of government is a kind of constitutional monarchy: the people of God accepting God's rule through the covenant. The covenant that God gave Moses is a kind of constitution, and the people ratify that constitution at Mount Sinai. It is a monarchy in the sense that the people acknowledge God as the supreme power in the universe and over their lives. What is unique in this arrangement, of course, is that God is spirit, and His will is mediated through prophets and priests.

And then through kings. The Bible does not require kings, but it does make clear that kings are to be constitutional, i.e., they must be obedient to the laws of the covenant. Here is what Moses says: Deuteronomy 17:14-20 When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, "Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us," be sure to appoint over you the king the LORD your God chooses. He must be from among your own brothers. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not a brother Israelite. The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, "You are not to go back that way again." He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.

For the first 400 years of national life, the people of Israel lived without a king, under what we call the Judges. Unfortunately, the sinful nature of man caused this system of government to be corrupt and weak, as "each man did was right in his own eyes." This failure led to a regime change in the days of Samuel. 1 Samuel 8:1-22 When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as judges for Israel. The name of his firstborn was Joel and the name of his second was Abijah, and they served at Beersheba. But his sons did not walk in his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice. So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, "You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have." But when they said, "Give us a king to lead us," this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: "Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do."

You see, the people's motives for asking for a king were sinful. They wanted the security of human kingship and they wanted to be like their neighbours rather than the risk of following God's ways. This is the beginning of the monarchy in Israel. As Samuel warned the people, monarchy would become a burdensome bureaucracy and eventually lead the nation into ruin. But under David and Solomon it also became the model by which the Hebrews looked for the coming Messiah. Even at its best, this form of government was founded in sin and lack of faith in God. It was provisional at best.

The New Testament makes clear that all forms of human government are like this. They are the realm of "Caesar," whether Caesar is an emperor or an elected President. They may exist to preserve order and promote wealth, but they cannot mediate the truth about God or salvation. Jesus makes clear the divide between human regimes and his kingdom in his trial before Pontius Pilate. John 18:36-38 Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place." "You are a king, then!" said Pilate. Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." "What is truth?" Pilate asked. Jesus' kingdom is "spiritual" in the sense that it cannot be built by human designs, however wise and godly. For this reason, the Bible's ambivalence toward government is actually the foundation of Christian support for democracy. It is because constitutional democracy is limited in its authority that it allows Christians to give allegiance to it. Many other forms of government, e.g., traditional African kingships, modern ideologies like Communism, and Islamic "theocracies," claim absolute god-like authority; democracy does not.

Christians are not always free to choose their governments. Even in adverse situations, the New Testament exhorts them to respect the authorities, as Peter states: 1 Peter 2:12-16 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.

The Bible counsels Christians to be obedient *and* free. One way to do this is to accept the external restrictions of an unfree regime while living free within the local setting of family and church. This may be all that someone in a tyranny can do. In a democracy, Christians should be prepared to take on heavier responsibilities for their neighbours.

Now there is always a danger for democracies to appropriate to themselves the cloak of divine authority. One form of this is called civil religion. This is when rulers use religion as a cloak for their own designs. Christians need to be vigilant toward this kind of coopting of God's rule.

We must remember that "our citizenship is in heaven" as St. Paul puts it, and that the final godly government will only happen when the true Messiah Jesus Christ returns as judge and Saviour.

Finally, Christians look to a time when all the imperfect and unjust regimes on earth will be ended and replaced by the Kingdom of God and His Christ.

This moment is described powerfully in John's Revelation. Revelation 19:1-8. After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting: "Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments. He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries. He has avenged on her the blood of his servants." And again they shouted: "Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever." The twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God, who was seated on the throne. And they cried: "Amen, Hallelujah!" Then a voice came from the throne, saying: "Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, both small and great!" Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: "Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear." (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)

Having said this, the vision of Christ's kingly rule can promote good citizenship and good government on earth. One of the most powerful parables of this analogy of biblical truth and human government is the "Lord of the Rings" story, which was recently made into a long movie. I am going to show a film clip (scene 57) of the final part - "The Return of the King" -in which King Aragorn is crowned as the rightful ruler of Middle Earth. Aragorn is not God or Jesus Christ, but he is a great ruler who like Jesus has come through adversity, fought against evil and is now rewarded by his people with universal acclaim. Note that at the end of the clip he bows to the four little men - the hobbits - who by their courage and perseverance have made his coronation day possible. In other words, the little people and their faith and strength are crucial to the proper constitution of a good regime.

This is true whether the government is kingly, like Aragorn's or democratic like many today. Christianity and biblical religion can thus give good advice to rulers, even while keeping for itself worship of the one King of all the ages, Jesus Christ, whom we expect from heaven.

This weekend we mark 42 years of independence of the Government of Uganda. There have been good times and bad times. Many born-again Christians have been inclined to keep out of politics. Indeed President Museveni mentioned at the national Prayer Breakfast on Friday that it was the passivity of Christians in the Scripture Union which turned him away from Christianity.

Whether this is fair or not, it is true that we as Christians have a responsibility to use our citizenship for justice and peace, even while acknowledging that citizenship in this world is a passing thing. So I hope you students will take seriously your responsibilities for the future of this nation. Be sure to vote and be sure to have your say in the direction this country will take in the years to come.


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