It was the German lawyer, politician and revolutionary Friedrich Franz Karl Hecker who came up with a quote that can be pretty disturbing. He emigrated to the USA – twice. He fought diligently for the improvement of the political systems of Prussia but he also ran into some frustration. It was after his second journey from Europe back to his new home Illinois when he summarized the United States as “the country where any donkey can become president“. (1)
Today we live in times where any statement including “president” and “donkey” only a few words apart from each other might let our jaws drop, making us secretly think something like “How rude!” or “How true!”, depending on your political stance. Friedrich Hecker, however, was far from insulting any president as donkey, let alone vice versa. Hecker had been fighting monarchies and political injustice for years. Nothing was more important to him than giving underdogs and the common man a voice. Therefore he was throwing his hat and celebrating the American freedom with its equal opportunities for everyone and anyone. No monarchies, no dynasties. Everyone, even donkeys can become president. That is quite something! (Although I fear that it might have changed slightly: Nowadays one needs to be at least a wealthy donkey to become president.)
My point is: We always read and interpret every information or statement through our current cultural glasses. In today’s world, however, we need the ability to move from our point of view to another in order to get new, different, and fresh perspectives.
Having that said I hope I have succeeded with making you sufficiently curious about my upcoming statement about heavenly politics:
I know. It sounds like “reintroducing slavery” or “welcome dictatorship”. That’s why I started with Hecker’s quote. After all, whatever we might think immediately, it could mean something quite different once we learn to see it in a different context. Since we’re at “Thinklings” (2), a place that welcomes and embraces thought provoking yet theologically sound contributions, I’d like to invite us to a thought experiment: What if a church had to build up a new society all over and start from scratch again? (3) If we’re truly convinced that the church is the New-Creation-Agent on this side of the Return of Christ, we’d need to think twice about democracy, as we can tell there won’t be democracy as we know it in the New Creation anyway.
Let me reiterate: This is a provoking yet hypothetical thought experiment in order to reveal and question some of the underlying assumptions most of our thinking and decision making is based upon.
The Value and Limits of Democracy
The rule of the people, what δημοκρατία (demokratía) actually means, is a wonderful alternative to form a government, as the people own the right and the authority to choose their governing legislation. Democracies usually guarantee a lot of freedom to their people and societies. They are therefore seen as the most desirable option out of other governmental forms like anarchism, aristocracy, or autocracy. Winston Churchill marked it in his famous quote as “the worst form of government, except for all the others”, and “the best agrument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter“.
In our current century, however, we are observing how all kinds of changes are speeding up. Globalization, digitalization, and the increasingly devastating consequences of climate change are a few dominant examples. Governments are already struggling to keep up with appropriate laws in an ever faster changing world. Large parts of the population itself, the voters, are often unable or unwilling to see these ongoing changes. “[E]specially when it comes to core political or religious values”, as Harari puts it, people “insist that our values are a previous legacy from ancient ancestors” that need to be conserved and protected. (4) The more change we have to cope with, the more the δημος, the people, are inclined to fall for right wing populism and vote for them, as several studies show, because they promise to protect people from those changes. (5) Therefore it is pretty safe to predict that in the decades to come our current democracies are running into several issues, as
- the speed of global and technological change will increase tremendously
- governments will be lagging behind with legislative processes, (once a law will be passed it will be already outdated)
- democratic societies will be increasingly split into “early adopters” and “laggards” (6)
In other words: Democracies will be put to the test anyway. In order to avoid ending up with worse governmental forms than what Churchill called “the worst”, we might want to think ahead and consider some options.
Where we came from
Although the Greek term democracy implies that it was invented in Ancient Greece – and Greeks are rightly very proud of it – there have been various forms of democracy throughout history, although democracies have always been the exception rather than the rule. The democratic forms as we know them today are a result of the enlightenment. The enlightenment itself was an aftermath of the devastating 30 year war which was fueled by different theologies triggered by the Reformation. The construction of modern democracies mostly during the 18th and 19th was therefore an attempt to abolish the rule of theology, as this had been proven to be a powerful monster. However, we can say that Europe never experienced a theocracy (the rule of God). Medieval Europe was actually under control of a fateful mixture between feudalism and ecclesiocracy, a symbiosis between nobility and clergy. Because of that I’d like to suggest to be bold enough for taking a look at something that has never been tried in Europe so far.
Again, the t-word feels as ridiculous as a serious attempt of introducing purgatory and the sharia at the same time to entirely civilized, highly educated, and secularized countries and societies. But maybe this is because we exclude the option before we even start thinking about it. And maybe we don’t think about it because we have learned that theocracy and abomination are synonyms. But maybe that is not even true.
It could be that theocracy turns out to be the better form of democracy. However, this would require a radical change of views on certain theological dogmas, convictions, and practices. I admit, this is probably where the real challenge lies. But I dare to dream. And I’m bold enough to give you some suggestions on what we need to change to live as if Jesus was really King on this earth. I mean really King – not just in our Sunday worship songs.
I am pretty doubtful that theocracy will become the new standard in our world. But I’m positive that churches would be able to build counter-intuitive, life-giving and challenging cultures that are much more influenced by the Kingdom of God than our surrounding world. So here are some suggestions of what needs to be done if we want to build societies in this world yet not of this world.
Notion of God
The first and foremost issue we need to work with is our own image of God. The main reason why “theocracy” has become such a dirty word is because we have managed to blemish our maker. God has become like filth in the eyes of a secular world, an embarrassment governments do not want to relate to anymore. On a private level, God is often seen as the one who looks at us distrustfully, waiting for opportunities to punish. In order to revise and correct the current image of the OT-warrior-God the church has to leave consequently all claims to power behind it. All and any entitlements for governmental support, public funds, and civil privileges have to be deleted in our budgets, constitutions and even our dreams, thinking, and vocabulary. The church has to become poor and powerless. There is no better way to reflect our Lord who was born homeless and powerless, who never owned a place to rest his head and who died the lowest way possible. At the same time we need to refocus on God as love, it maybe as our father or as our lover. The lover image is actually one of the main comparisons God uses to describe himself in the OT, a passionate sweetheart, prince charming who is rescuing a poor bride from the gutter. God’s unconditional love, mercy, and generosity have to be the ultimate, credible, authentic, and sensible center of our way of life – not just in theoretical theologies.
Notion of Humanity
To put it quite bluntly: Calvin was wrong. Total depravity is a lie. Of course, corruption, badness and evil are very serious realities, but the story of man’s utter and complete wickedness is a powerful falsification that has become a very destructive self-fulfilling prophesy for whole societies. It contaminates our mind with a destructive nocebo effect. (8) I do not know how many wars have been started, how many people had to die for no other reason than our conviction that all the others are assholes. The church has struck that drum far too often because we have learned to start our theological anthropology with Genesis 3. But when you are doing up your shirt, make sure you get the first button right lest the whole shirt turns out crooked. Genesis 3 is not the first one and we need to repeat it a million times: Genesis three is NOT the first button. Man and woman are created to reflect God himself. That is what always defines us the most: Mankind is capable to love, to care, to create. Yes, even the fallen version of us knows what love is. The Dutch author Rutger Bregman has collected countless stories proving that human beings are no cannibalistic zombies, just waiting to destroy each other. Instead, humans are rather curious beings, interested in the other, eager to help and support each other, especially in times of crisis. Bregman claims that a lot of evil has happened just because we have been taught we are evil. (7) It doesn’t mean we’re not in need of salvation. We are mortal, we get sick, we tend to be selfish. But salvation might mean we’re changing the story we believe in. And that is exactly how our Redeemer approached us: Jesus knew we are still able to love, and therefore he started with loving us even more.
Radical change of discipleship
A true theocracy would need a radical change of our view on discipleship, and I could not find a more radical word than “radical”: All the way down to the deepest root. (9) Every disciple has to learn what it means to love, as God is Love. Actually, that is the first and most important thing advocates and members of a theocracy need to be discipled in. Therefore, 1 Corinthians 13 is not just a beautiful reading for weddings anymore. It’s no optional decoration, actually it is a vivid description of the very rock the Sermon on the Mount is build upon, and the Sermon on the Mount is the Manifesto of the Kingdom of God. It’s a lens that makes the upside-down status of our fallen condition visible. Therefore, we all need to learn the Sermon on the Mount by heart, all 110 verses of it. Not just the words, that would be way too easy, mostly its way of life. Disciples need to be trained how to unarm ourselves, how to do constructive conflict resolution in mutual submission. We need to learn how to love the other unconditionally, no matter whether it’s a person with a different religion, skin, sexual preferences, political convictions. Loving God and loving our neighbor is the A and O of discipleship.
Reflecting God in all ways we can – except for one
Training ourselves to live out the Sermon on the Mount would already form a good New Testament theocracy, because we could not get any closer to Jesus’ statement about his ministry:
I can do nothing by myself; I can only do what I see the Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.John 5:19
We too can only do what we see the Son doing. And what is he doing? He is living among the people and he is loving unconditionally. There is no better way of loving God with all our heart and mind than by loving our neighbor as ourselves. Then we are fulfilling what he is calling us to do – and along the way we’re fulfilling everything the whole Bible is about (Mt 22:37-40). For God so loved the world. If the whole point of Jesus’ incarnation was to make God the loving King of a messed up planet again (10), there is no better way of establishing his rule than by living out the Sermon on the Mount, because there is no better way of reflecting God and his rule. And reflecting God is what we were created for, weren’t we?
However, we own one ability of God we are not supposed to reflect. Remember the crooked shirt? Apparently there is another one where our entire theology starts with the wrong button of Genesis 3. What again was that tree about we ate from? It was the tree of knowledge of good an evil. Now we know the difference – which must be the ultimate definition of sin. We were not supposed to know. In other words, we were never supposed to judge. We were supposed to love. Leaving all judgement consequently to God needs to become lesson number two in our radically changed discipleship curriculum. As humans we’re only able to love unconditionally as long as we make ourselves blind for any blemishes in sinners, tax collectors, or any other neighbor. This is the God way of giving underdogs and common people a voice by lifting them up to a perfect because forgiven status.
There is still a lot left to be said, like the role of suffering, but we cannot for the sake of time. So let me finish by saying this:
A theocracy is never supposed to replace or substitute any existing governmental form in the world. Jesus didn’t either. Wikipedia is right when it does not list theocracy among the rest of governmental forms in the world. (11) However, the writers of the New Testament chose a political word to describe the church: ἐκκλησία (ekklesía), the assembly of the citizens in the democratic city states of Ancient Greece. The members of the ekklesía of Greece were called out of their houses (ek kaleo) to discuss and decide on issues or political matters. The ekklesísa of God is called out of this world to discuss and represent heavenly matters in this world. It gives to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. But mostly it gives to God what belongs to God, ourselves, because we are bearing his image.
The ekklesía of God is supposed to reveal already now what is about to happen then, which is the loving rule of the King – in other words: the reunification of lover God with his bride, or the Father with his family. So if the church had to build a brand new society we should try not to rebuild any of these pagan or atheistic copies of this world and call it “church” just because we’ve put some pious lipstick on it and filled it with fancy programs.(12) We should rather focus on a discipleship that is build on unconditional and non-judging love.
In that type of society there would only be one king and no presidents. Consequently, it’s not only donkeys, but also monkeys, rats, and yes, even snakes who can become redeemed princes and princesses, children and representatives of the King most high. The behavioral training to become a worthy agent and ambassador of the heavenly family is admittedly pretty hard and long. Yet it is here (and only here) where the hidden treasure of unspoiled love and matchless freedom and unsurpassed equality is to be found. Therefore, theocracy is the better democracy.
Notes and remarks:
(1) as described on https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/us-wahl-donald-trump-friedrich-hecker-1.5108662, visited on Nov 15, 2020
(2) The content of this post was written for a presentation at “Thinklings” in November 2020. Thinklings is a theological convent for theologians and church planters, providing a place for reflecting theologically on trends, society, and environmental, sociological, or political developments. Thinklings is supposed to help cutting edge ministries to cope with their often challenging realities and is now hosted by Communitas Europa.
(3) I leave the reason why something like that would ever happen to your own imagination.
(4) Harari, Yuval Noah. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. London (2018): Penguin London House, 96.
(5) Like Koppetsch, Cornelia. Die Gesellschaft des Zorns. Rechtspopulismus im globalen Zeitalter. Bielefeld (2019): Transcript Verlag.
(6) Compare with Rogers, Everett. Diffusion of Innovation. Fifth Edition. New York (2003): Free Press.
(7) Bregman, Rutger. Im Grunde gut. Eine neue Geschichte der Menschheit. Hamburg (2020): Rowohlt Verlag. Original title: De Meeste Mensen Deugen / Humankind. Amsterdam (2019): De Correspondent Uitgevers.
(8) The nocebo effect occurs when negative expectations have a more negative effect than it otherwise would have. The opposite is known as the placebo effect: Positive expectations improve an outcome.
(9) from Latin radix = root
(10) as for instance NT Wright suggests in Wright, Nicolas Thomas. When God became King. The Forgotten Stories of the Gospels. New York (2012): HarperCollins Publishers.
(11) Wikipedia. Government. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Government, visited 17 November 2020.
(12) Many have written about the secularized church and the atheistic life style of its members, like Malm, Magnus. Som om Gud inte finns: En bok om sekularisering. Skellefteå (2015): Artos.