Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Promise and the Perils of Democracy, Part 3

"Freedom has a scent like the top of a newborn baby's head."
-U2 in Miracle Drug

Political, social, and economic freedom or their prospect bring euphoria. We've seen that in recent years as the wall came down in Berlin, Ukrainians demonstrated for their Orange Revolution, and Christians and Muslims take to the streets in Lebanon.

It's exciting and heady stuff! As a person who lives in a country that takes political, social, and economic freedom for granted, I can identify with the euphoria felt by the advocates of democracy in lands that have never experienced it before. Particularly as political, social, and economic freedom blossom, it's so new and exciting.

In the first two installments of this series, I've addressed two perils that democracies face:

1. The disappointment we may feel over democracy's sluggish decision-making.

2. The disappointment we may also feel when democracy doesn't prove to be a panacea for all our ills.

Neither of these disappointments are warrant for throwing out democracy as a bad idea. It's this temptation that now confronts the people of Russia, it seems, and which Vladimir Putin may be willing to encourage in order to consolidate his power.

The privilege of democracy is worth the pain. But here is a phenomenon that can imperil the success of democracy: Putting too much faith in the freedom that it offers.

One of my privileges as a pastor is being able to teach sixth through eighth graders in Catechism classes, preparing them to become adult members of the Church. Occasionally, I'll say something like, "There are people in prison for life who are more free than multimillionaires who can do almost anything." Sometimes, the kids will snicker at the absurdity of that statement. But it's true!

True freedom must mean the permission to become our best selves. This is what I call our God-selves, the people God made us to be. I believe that we're only really free to pursue being that person when we have a relationship with the God Who made us.

Stick with me on this for a few moments, please. If you disagree with what I say, you can rave about that in the "Comments" section; that's why it's there.

Think about this for a moment. You buy a new lawn mower at Sears. It's got a sophisticated mulching system, unique engine requiring a particular mixture of fuel, and you have to assemble it all yourself. Now, maybe if you're a man, you'll try to assemble the thing without a look at the instructions. But if you're a member of the rest of the human race, you'll probably study those instructions for a time.

Why? Because the manufacturer spent thought on the engineering of your new mower. There are particular ways this piece of machinery can be operated optimally. That's why they also spent time documenting how to operate it optimally.

Human beings operate optimally when they strive to live in accordance with God's will. None of us achieve this fully. We all fall short of God's intentions for us. That's when we can thank God for the forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ and ask God for new beginnings as well as for help in paying attention to His will, revealed in His instruction manual, the Bible.

Fact is, we have an intrinsic desire to link up with God and His will for our lives. Anthropologists affirm that we human beings are inherently religious creatures. Absent a relationship with the true God Who sets us free to be our true selves, we will establish our own "gods," false deities that we believe will set us free. Just as history abhors a vacuum, we abhor a "Vacancy" sign on the hole in our souls meant to be filled by God.

Without the one true God in their lives, primitive peoples will worship a plethora of gods, superstitiously hoping to placate the gods' anger to get things like rain, sun, crops, a good hunt, and so forth.

More sophisticated people can worship themselves, thinking that they make their own good fortune; their own minds; their physical prowess; wealth; sex; power; good times; alcohol; or a thousand other things.

Whatever our deities may be, we follow them in order to be free in some way or another. The alcoholic or drug addict worships the object of their addictions because they feel, however fleetingly, that these things set them free from their pain, their disappointments, or their boredom with life.

Yet each of these gods will ultimately enslave us. Only the God made clear through Jesus Christ frees us of our dependencies on the finite, death-fated little gods we're tempted to worship.

Jesus says, "If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." [John 8:31-32]

The third peril of democracy is that it can delude us with the penultimate versions of freedom it offers. We may think that because we can live where we want, vote for our leaders, enter the professions of our choice, dissent from governmental action, make a lot of money, move to a big house, etc., etc., etc., that we can have true freedom without God.

That's why a prisoner who's turned from sin and let God into the center of his life might be freer than the wealthy guy. The prisoner may be totally dialed into making the most of each moment, loving God, loving neighbor, living in the moment, savoring the wonder of life and sharing that with others. The wealthy guy, thinking that freedom comes from his investment portfolio, is likely to live in constant fear, turned in on himself, unable to live for anyone but himself and his money god.

Over time, democracies are really good in creating middle classes and enhancing the general well-being of their citizens. That's all to the good.

But they can lull us into accepting less freedom than God intended for us. They can cause us to settle for less freedom in this life and absolute slavery to evil in the life to come. The fatherly words of John in the New Testament are good for those of us who live in the world's most prosperous democracy to consider:
"I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know Him Who is from the beginning. I write to you, young people, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one. Do not love the world or the things of the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world--the desire of the flesh [not sexual desire only, by the way, but every desire that makes us dependent on things earmarked for death], the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches--comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever." [First John 2:14-17]
And what is the will of God? Simply that we entrust our lives to the One Who made us and can set us free to move toward becoming our best selves. That happens through God the Son, Jesus. Jesus says of Himself, "...if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed." (John 8:36)

Democracy and the political, economic. and social freedom it affords are all wonderful. But democracy imperils our lives when we allow it to lure us into accepting less than all the freedom God has in mind for each one of us. Following Jesus Christ is the way to real freedom.

[If you'd like to read the first two installments of this series, you can find them here and here.]

No comments: