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Democracy – and love for neighbour

by Archbishop Philip Freier, first published on Melbourne Anglican 

7 July 2024

In democracy, we express Jesus’ words of love for neighbour

A little more than a generation ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 seemed to prefigure the triumph of democracy over totalitarianism. Hopes were embraced that other places would embrace democracy and reject the rule of military or party strongmen. The Arab Spring that started with the forced resignation of the Tunisian president early in 2011 swept through North Africa and the Middle East over the next few years. Responses were complex, with some societies fragmenting into warring groups, others enduring foreign intervention and all causing a massive refugee crisis. Stability has returned to some countries like Egypt as a result of a military coup. The unrest has continued, with great cost to human life, in Yemen, Libya and Syria and most recently conflict has resumed in Sudan. A wider scan across the globe would reveal its own story but the optimism of the triumph of democracy that was imagined in late 80’s and early 90’s seems far less certain now than it did then.

On the positive side for democracy there have been successful elections in Indonesia, India and South Africa. Given that between them they constitute over 21 per cent of the world’s population, that is a weighty counterbalance to the failures of democratic aspiration elsewhere. If the recent elections for the European Parliament are added, 30 per cent of the world’s population have expressed their democratic choice just in these four polls. Democracy still faces headwinds in many places, even in the United States, the country that has long claimed to be its greatest exponent. Time will tell whether popularists make a headway in the forthcoming elections in France and the United Kingdom and what will be the result in the Biden-Trump Presidential rerun. Are the seeds of democratic aspiration only dormant in China, awaiting for the right time to flourish or has the heavy hand of the party eliminated them entirely?

Should any of this matter to Christians? After all, Christianity found its first legal acceptance in the Byzantine Court, hardly an example of democracy. While Christians have endured and even flourished under all kinds of human social organisation, it is at least arguable that our modern expressions of democracy are influenced by important Christian principles. The link between Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas is often made to account for concepts like the “common good” and the necessity of the governed to ultimately consent to those who govern them. Reformation thinkers reshaped the social value and thus political importance of the individual with their emphasis on the immediacy between the Christian believer and sacred Scripture.

The words of Jeremiah 29

… seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare”

speaks to a generous theological tradition spanning several millennia. Democracy is part of this generous response of faith-filled people to the world around them, an expression, in Jesus’ words of “Love of neighbour”.