27 Jan 2021 • From the Clergy
It is 48 hours, as I write, since we witnessed the disgraceful scenes which unfolded in Washington D.C. to accompany the confirmation of Joe Biden’s election as president. Twenty years ago, the world watched in horror as 9/11 unfolded on our screens, and once again this week we found ourselves scarcely able to believe what was happening in front of our eyes across the Atlantic. In a way, what occurred two days ago is even more disturbing than the terrible events of 2001. The latter was a naked act of evil by men outside the system. The events of 2021 were incited and encouraged by the man who theoretically represents the highest office of the system, in direct contravention of the oath he swore to uphold the constitution and protect the country. The Capitol was last stormed by the British during the War of 1812, by an enemy power in a very different era. For Congress to be attacked by a mob acting on the instructions of the president is a very different matter indeed, about as clear an example as one could find of a ‘high crime and misdemeanour’. This was not legitimate protest. It was violent mob rule intent on subverting the democratic process.
There are many questions arising from this, not least how a group of terrorists managed to take over what should be one of the most secure buildings in the world. Above all, however, this is the culmination of a presidency which has been grounded in lies and bullying, and especially of two months in which Trump has abandoned even the superficial presence of governance in order to stoke hatred, promote falsehoods and do whatever he can (no matter how desperate or illegal) to cling to power. The checks and balances of the system have always been far weaker than most Americans like to imagine, but it is truly terrifying that the man charged with protecting the state has created a culture in which an enormous number believe that a transparently fair election was rigged, and resorted to violence to try to overturn the result.
As this should remind all of us, there is nothing natural or easy about democracy. It requires laying aside notions of individuality and social Darwinism to accept being part of a complex society, accepting the rights of others and the validity of different opinions. Crucially, it requires agreement on the legitimacy of the system, a willingness to accept defeat. It requires constant vigilance to avoid descent into mob rule or what Tocqueville so presciently warned of when writing about the USA, the tyranny of the majority. Democracy is imperfect, yet as the quote attributed to Churchill says, a better system than any other yet tried. Because it is imperfect, because it goes against human instincts of selfishness and control, democracy is hard work. It requires a concerted will to make things work, to help everyone have a stake in the system; that is the reason naive, arrogant western attempts to impose democracy through warfare are doomed to failure. What happened in Washington should remind all of us of the urgent need to work together to preserve the values of a system which defends human rights, helps the weak and vulnerable, accepts the role of all people. It is not just in the United States that these values are under threat. We cannot look critically across the ocean if we ignore the dangers here.
As Christians, this working together for the common good is at the heart of our faith. The commandment to love everyone, including enemies, is a radical and novel one which put
Jesus at odds with the self-interest of his world. The message of love, justice and peace put him on a collision course with powerful, wealthy elites who wanted to preserve their riches, status and control. The very fact that he and, by tradition, so many of his early followers ended up brutally executed demonstrates how threatening the powerful found the Christian message. Much like democracy, the values of the kingdom are not those which necessarily come most naturally to humanity. We have to recognise the importance of working together for those values, to share the love of God in word and deed in a way which shows everyone that they too are a part of that kingdom. It is hard, it is painful, but to follow our calling to bring about God’s kingdom on earth is something we can do only by working together, in truth and love, for a greater good.