Monday, 29 April 2013


Then Nathan said to David, "… Thus says the Lord God of Israel: 'I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your master's house and your master's wives into your keeping, and gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if that had been too little, I also would have given you much more! Why have you despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil in His sight? You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the people of Ammon.' " 2 Samuel 12 vv7-9

The ancient kings and emperors who became the image for God as King were regarded as all-powerful; their will was to be obeyed, their desires were to be satisfied. They didn’t like being told that their desires didn’t define rightness, which is what Nathan boldly told King David when he used his power to have Bathsheba’s husband killed in battle so he could have her himself. What Nathan was telling David was that it was wrong for rulers to use their power to satisfy their private desires, which you might think is a fairly obvious requirement of good government. For well over 2500 years, most religion in Eurasia has insisted that government is divinely appointed in order to benefit ordinary people; in saying this religious teachers have had to challenge the majority of rulers, who have tended to take a very different approach. There have of course been episodes when religious leaders have confused their own interests with those of the people, when secular rulers have manipulated religion for their own ends, and when the interests of different peoples have conflicted. We have to be careful not to allow such episodes, however common, to blind us to the thrust of religious teaching down the centuries: government is meant to benefit ordinary people, to make it possible for their lives to flourish.
                Over the last century it has become increasingly common to rely on voting as the means of ensuring that government does benefit ordinary people. And by and large voting hasn’t done a bad job; it certainly hasn’t produced worse results than other systems we’ve tried. In fact, so successful has voting become that we tend to think of it not as a means to an end but an end in itself. We tend to think that having a majority voting in favour of some policy or other makes it right. In other words we have come perilously close to the position Nathan had to criticise: we have come to think that the ruler’s desires – now meaning by that a majority of the people – define what is right.
But while democracy may be the least-bad way of deciding what is going to be done, it is not a way of deciding that what is going to be done is right. Like the rulers of old, we seem to have come to think that we can properly use our power, meaning these days our votes, to satisfy our private desires; the largely value-free appeals of competing political parties at election time suggest that they at least assume that voters – we – take heed mostly of exactly those self-centred considerations that motivated the less savoury non-democratic rulers. The coming of democracy, valuable as it is, does not free us, the new rulers, from the ancient requirement that Nathan insisted on: power must not be used to satisfy private desires. So it is that in a democracy, the tradition lays on all of us responsibilities that most members of earlier generations escaped, for we too are now rulers, and the requirement for rulers not to use their power to satisfy their private desires is one we all need to consider whenever we take part in the political process, even just by voting. The tradition does not smile on those who decide how to vote principally on the basis of how they personally would benefit if this or that party took power.
            And like ancient rulers we electors won’t always find the admonition of Nathan’s successors easy to accept – which is why it’s so important that they keep insisting on the need to pay attention to the common good and high standards in public life. Their insistence will face resistance. They will be told that we need to debate what the common good really is; fair enough, but such discussions can be cleverly used as an effective way of avoiding the issue. They will be told that they should keep religion out of politics, that politics is no business of theirs because religion is really just about personal morality; but notice that Nathan was admonishing David as an unscrupulous ruler who abused his power, not as a private man of faulty morals. They will be told to be realistic and admit that what the powerful want, they will get, be they ancient kings or a democratic majority, and there’s not much point in going along with Nathan’s denunciation of them; but real progress – of any kind but especially moral and spiritual progress – is achieved by people who dare to challenge the powers that be, not by those who go along with what those powers want. They will be told that making a nuisance of yourself by demanding that those in power do what’s right will not succeed; but Jesus’s story of the widow who pestered the judge until he unwillingly did the right thing reminds us that making a fuss is often the only way to achieve justice.
                Challenging ourselves and other electors to support the common good with our votes involves asking us all to understand that democracy can only thrive if we do. If as electors we don’t prioritise the long term common good over our own short term private interests, the governments we elect will inevitably take systematically wrong decisions – wrong not only for the common good but wrong even for our own long term interests. In the end we might even welcome dictatorship in the hope that a dictator, not in hock to an electorate that votes only on short term self interest, might take a longer view of the common good. But the most desired of dictatorships eventually goes sour; the temptation for even the best of us to use absolute power to satisfy our own private desires is practically impossible to withstand in the long run: in the story, David was not a bad man, just an ordinarily good man who had been given despotic powers. Far better, therefore, for us to mature as electors and not demand that our politicians pander to our cupidity – in other words to hear the admonition of Nathan as being addressed to us.

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