Reflections on Elections
Sitting around a table with six generals from the Russian military at the imposing Centre for Geopolitical Strategy in Moscow is not exactly a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. Yet along with my wife and a colleague in the ministry I found myself answering questions from these men about a world in turmoil, with political structures being cast off as disposable containers and a consensus of only one thing—that a whole generation has been led by a lie, and now, with a sense of betrayal, is in search of answers.
As numbing as the whole discussion was, I will never forget a statement made by the leading military philosopher present. He said, "The western world credits particular individuals and leaders with bringing about Perestroika and Glasnost—that is completely false." He continued with his expressionless, steely-eyed stare, "The fact is, the nation was on a collision course, and the country was changing so dramatically that the leaders had no choice." Somewhat taken back by his bold assertions and denunciations, I tried to rescue some credit for the leaders, for after all, even the masses need a point of representation and a voice that responds to and resonates their passions.
Since then I have reflected on the dialectical interplay between the masses and those who lead them, and have given much thought to our own setting as we enter the future which for some provokes vociferous optimism; for others, quiet apprehension.
To state the obvious, we do face a new technocracy in the entire electoral process. What we are mercilessly subjected to is the inescapable noise of information and opinion. With the barrage of news commentaries and talk shows (which more and more resemble the tabloids), we are certainly not kept in the dark.
But it is also a fact that too much light can be blinding, and that may well be the greatest peril of the present era. We are kept informed on the bedroom talk of monarchies and introduced to the telephone conversations of princesses. Above the sound bites that jeopardize families and control nations, I recall the words of the French philosopher Montesquieu who said, "Dictatorships are perpetuated by fear, monarchies by honor, and democracies by virtue." Even a quick glance intimates that with few exceptions all three modes of government art in trouble. Most dictators have made sudden and sometimes sordid exits. Monarchies have revealed their own feet of clay. Virtue is treated with open contempt in democratic debates. Wherein is the breakdown? Is it the mass mood that has toppled such institutions, or are the leading voices manipulating the masses?
Maybe the answer to this, as a Christian, is to be found by going the long way around. Certainly, the question arises more provocatively whenever there is a change in leadership, as supporters rise to their feet and antagonists bend the knee - the former in victory, and the latter in a plea to a higher power for mercy. From all accounts, the 1992 election in the United States has brought out more emotional energy from the electorate than any other in recent memory. That may not have died, for an interesting array of bumper stickers is already available, from triumphalist endorsements to vindicated disclaimers.
Whatever position any one of US holds to, three lessons are indisputable, and worthy of reiteration. First, the accession to power of anyone within the sovereign will of God may have everything to do with the spiritual temperature of the people themselves. And as we look around the world one has to wonder if any leader, however noble-minded, can really stop this mindless drift into more and more decadence. God's intervention in judgment is not always immediate and punitive. It may also be evidenced by the withdrawal of restraint, allowing evil to compound itself. Possibly, worst of all is the withdrawal of wisdom from a nation.
One of the most confounding aspects, as people go to the polls, is not merely to listen to the decisions that are made on a variety of issues, but to hear the reasoning behind those decisions. One is left feeling bewildered and sad. It is not so much that the "death" of God has occurred, as the death of reason. So handcuffed by momentary gratification and the tunnel vision of the so called Right or Left, we have forgotten there is an Up and a Down. Without understanding the responsibilities of freedom, we lay claim to it as an absolute. God may just be seconding our motion, that we might see the hell of autonomies in collision. Romans Chapter 1 clearly points to the landslide that ensues when the absence of wisdom gives way to an abundance of foolishness.
Second, there is a circle of influence in bastions of power within which voices completely unknown to the electorate emerge, that have the ear of the leader. In the Old Testament, we have the outstanding examples of Joseph and Daniel, who though never in the forefront, altered history because of their spiritual impact upon the rulers of their day. They were positioned in the inner circle by the sovereign grace of God.
Russian history records a dramatic moment in the nineteenth century. The promiscuous and self indulgent Czar had willfully appointed an archbishop by the name of Galitsin to take charge of the religious infrastructure so that the Czar could, with his "blessing," shake off all moral restraint. But God had other plans. Galitsin marvelously came to a point of conversion, committing his life to Christ. A short while later as Napoleon's armies were putting Moscow to the flames, Galitsin's spiritual impact upon the Czar made the difference. The Czar literally fell on his face before God at a church in St. Petersburg and God memorably answered his prayer by sending a minor, minor prophet—the winter. Czar Alexander's momentous conversion saved his nation: Galitsin was the instrument.
The historical landscape is punctuated by such conversions of men and women in power through someone lesser known. After all, Proverbs 21:1 says, "The king's heart[and the hearts of his appointees!] is in the hand of the Lord: He directs it like a watercourse wherever He pleases."Somehow God manages to place his Esthers and Neherniahs to stem the tide. We often think of the leader as changing the office, and history. But God repeatedly has used history and the office to change the leader.
In a volitionally pluralistic society that moves inexorably toward the lowest common denominator on moral issues, perhaps the most unrealistic expectation we foist upon a political leader is to find middle ground in mutually exclusive issues. How comforting to know that God in His ingeniousness may have set distributive power in place to provide the goads that keep leaders on track. This is what may have prompted Churchill's witty remark that democracy is the worst form of government-except for all other forms of government. It is pivotal for us to understand that there are many voices in places of power, not just one, and that God can find a yielded heart who can, in turn, make the difference.
Finally, one of the greatest lessons Christians can ever learn from any election is that the ultimate government is not established by human effort, but by the will and wisdom of God.
Hebrews 11 reminds us of the great heroes who did not live to witness the fulfillment of the promise to restore the kingdom. Augustine wept when he heard that Rome had fallen to the barbarians. As they climbed its walls, destroying the "eternal city," a life-transforming idea invaded his spirit and he penned one of the greatest books ever, The City of God. There are earthly cities, conceived and designed as eternal, whose fallen stones today speak of their temporariness. And there is the City of God that is indestructible, and cannot be brought down by human will. Perhaps it is important that every now and then we all remind ourselves that our citizenship is in heaven.
In The End of Christendom Malcolm Muggeridge stated it powerfully: The world's way of responding to intimations of decay is to engage equally in idiot hopes and idiot despair. On the one hand some new policy or discovery is confidently expected to put everything to rights: a new fuel, a new drug, detente, world government. On the other, some disaster is as confidently expected to prove our undoing. Capitalism will break down. Fuel will run out. Plutonium will lay us low. Atomic waste will kill us off.
Overpopulation will suffocate us, or alternatively, a declining birthrate will put us more surely at the mercy of our enemies.
In Christian terms, such hopes and fears are equally beside the point. As Christians we know that here we have no continuing city, that crowns roll in the dust and every earthly kingdom must sometimes flounder, whereas we acknowledge a king men did not crown and cannot dethrone, as we are citizens of a city of God they did not build and cannot destroy. Thus the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, living in a society as depraved and dissolute as ours. Their games, like our television, specialized in spectacles of violence and eroticism. Paul exhorted them to be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in God's work, to concern themselves with the things that are unseen, for the things which are seen are temporal but the things which are not seen are eternal. It was in the breakdown of Rome that Christendom was born. Now in the breakdown of Christendom there are the same requirements and the same possibilities to eschew the fantasy of a disintegrating world and seek the reality of what is not seen and eternal, the reality of Christ.
I think back upon the discussion with the generals as they bemoaned the loss of law and order in their newly freed society. Human leaders, however good, can at best prepare freedom for their people. Only Christ can prepare people for freedom. To that end, we are confident that with the ebb and flow of history it is not so much the one or the other—the people or the leaders-but that within this human dialectic, both bear responsibility. The Christian recognizes that while the present may point to the eternal, our optimism or dismay can never be entirely controlled by the present. For we seek a city whose builder and maker is God.—