Vinoth Ramachandra

Direct Democracy?

Posted on: July 4, 2011

It is difficult to decide which was the most depressing piece of news last week: the huge trade deals signed by Britain and Germany with  the Chinese government, the grand reception accorded Omar al- Bashir in Beijing, or the helpless rage of the Greek populace before a corrupt global financial order.

Of course, no decision is necessary; and, in any case, they are all inter-related. Truth and justice have been banished from the global public square. The gods of “ limitless growth” and “consumption” brook no rivals. For all the posturing of Western governments on human rights and human dignity, we know how deeply they have become indebted to repressive political regimes such as the Chinese and how deeply enmeshed they are in exploitative financial systems from which they cannot extricate themselves, even if they wished to. Like the client-kings of Rome, depicted in the Book of Revelation, Western governments have capitulated to the Beast and do his bidding (while pretending to be politically sovereign).

Still, I had hoped that significant numbers of the British and German population, especially Christians who care about freedom of thought and religious worship, would have protested outside their parliaments. For those of us who live under dictatorships and military states, the visible support of the so-called international community is vital. The British government promotes the interests of its business corporations, even its arms industry, over the lives of human beings. India is one of the biggest purchaser of British weapons, which the Indian government uses against its own citizens. And until the recent NATO strikes and the condemnation of Gaddafi as a tyrant and war-criminal, British firms were doing business in Libya with the tyrant’s blessing.

As for the latest Greek tragedy, it simply illustrates what I have been writing about on my Blog ever since the so-called “financial crisis” of 2008. If Greek coffers are empty, it is not because of social benefits given to the sick and the poor; but, rather, the irresponsibility of Greek business corporations who hid their profits in off-shore tax havens. Rich Greeks, with the blessing of their politicians, enjoyed public services while not paying for them. (And the Greek Orthodox Church, owner of vast assets, has also been exempt from taxation). But it is the middle-and working classes who are now being forced to practice “austerity” to rescue Greece from bankruptcy. Moreover,  Greece is being charged interest  higher than the eurozone rate. Like global warming and subprime mortgages, it is the poor who forced to pay for the sins of the rich.

Reforms in the financial sector, whether in the US or Europe, are purely cosmetic. None of the institutions and individuals who were responsible for the foreclosures of peoples’ homes have been brought before courts of law. Banks seem to be exempt from the bankruptcy procedures that apply to ordinary people and small businesses.

All this speaks of political failure. The racists, the corrupt, and the mediocre have taken over parliamentary assemblies. Even highly intelligent and moral leaders like Barack Obama have their wings clipped by financial elites. Politics in Canada and Italy is no different from India or Thailand. Given these failures of governments all over the world, isn’t it time for more of us to be get out on the streets like the courageous  men and women in Athens, Damascus and Bahrain? Direct democracy is when the people themselves directly claim the right to decide the laws and policies that will shape their collective life. Their chosen representatives have betrayed them in favour of unelected business and banking tycoons.

Oh for a summer of public discontent all over the Western world! And for more Church leaders like the Hindu guru who fasted publicly in protest against political corruption in India.  Civil society needs to be renewed and activated all over the world.

I recently came across an account by Richard Hughes, an American college professor, which many of those educated in conservative Christian circles will identify with.  Hughes was an undergraduate student at a church-related institution in the American South between 1961 and 1965. During those years he was living and studying no more than 250 miles from most of the great events of the Freedom Movement/ Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, midway through his undergraduate experience, Martin Luther King led hundreds of children through the streets of Birmingham, protesting racial segregation. The city responded with fire hoses and police dogs.  In 1965, the year Hughes graduated from college, blacks sought to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery, but Alabama storm troopers stopped them in their tracks with shockingly brutal force.

Hughes writes:

“Unbelievably, in spite of the fact that one of the greatest moral dramas in the history of the United States was unfolding under my nose, I missed it. I missed it almost entirely. I didn’t fully discover what I had missed until I enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Iowa in 1967. I blame myself, but I also blame that church-related college and its professors, for not one of my teachers said to me, ‘What is going on today is important. Take note.’ Or, better still, ‘Get involved.’”  [Richard T. Hughes, The Vocation of a Christian Scholar: How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind, 2005]

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15 Responses to "Direct Democracy?"

God bless you, Vinoth. Seriously. Thank you. I wish my fellow American Christian leaders could have the foresight to see with your clarity. too muddled, too complacent, only too eager to distract between the “spiritual” and the “material” here.

[…] is more optimistic, he imagines Christians across the Western World taking to the streets in Direct Democracy like the rather braver Muslims across the Arab world have been […]

Dear Vinoth,
thank you again. After six n 1/2 years chatting to you was a great pleasure.
As you have pointed exactly, the distance between the disturbed world and disciples of Jesus is the ‘deficit’ that direct democracy cries for.
My efforts are to find how we make this a ‘glocal’ phenominon starting from my own believed land- Sri Lanka?

We need an army of activists. Such platoon will be created not only by public call, but by systemic development of grass root movement/s. What what we now need is the Mao type small village group who will be activists non-violently to claim what is ours. what is human, what is universal , what is God given!

Hi Vinoth

Once again your blog has left me (rightly) ashamed at my all-too-frequent ignorance and apathy with regard to significant global events of which (in addition to prayer) I have a measure of power to influence.

Whilst there is much that can I can still do – in terms of engaging with the issues you raise here – I wonder if there is a way your blog can also raise issues ahead of time, calling us to future action, rather than just lamenting past omissions. We need your prophetic voice to call us to the action we can take today and tomorrow, not just admonish our failings of yesterday.

Thanks for your regular challenges.

Andy

Hello Vinoth,

I am half finished “Subverting Global Myths” and enjoying it greatly. I do have a couple of questions for you related to the value of every human in relation to being made in the image of God and the death of Christ for humanity. If you are willing, please send me your email address. Thank you again for writing.

In God’s grace,
Chet

hi vinoth – i wonder if this is not only a case of political failure, but, more profoundly, a philosophical / ideological failure. what struck me most in watching the riots in athens was the complete lack of alternative vision.
the ‘left’ right across europe seems to be pretty ideologically brankrupt (see the progress of the centre right in scandanavia of all places!) certainly in britain, post the new labour project, the left seems pretty moribund.

it seems we have indeed reach the end of history, not in triumphalism a la fukuyama, but in resignation from a lack of viable alternative. so i wonder what ‘a european summer of discontent’ without a renewed social – political imagination might achieve, beyond smashing up a few cities?

i would be interested to hear if you know of any movements, or political philosophies which you think are capable of moving the debate forward beyond the dominance of the market….(red tory, blue labour?)

Andy, I am surprised- there is nothing really new in this post. I have been saying these things for many years now, including in posts going back two years and in talks available on the Internet. It’s only the specific examples that change- Indonesia one moment, Greece the next. But the underlying realities remain the same. And of course I can’t predict when the next leader of a repressive regime is going to visit the UK!

Chris, while I agree with you I think the examples I give are of a fundamental moral failure. One can easily become paralysed into non-action by debating the pros and cons of “left” and “right” economic ideologies. But surely Christians can get out on the streets with communists and others to protest policies that protect the rich at the expense of the poor. Or at failure to investigate war crimes and human rights abuses by one’s own government. We can also write to newspapers challenging the myths about immigrants and “our cultural values” (such as is spread about by the Danish and British governments). Sadly, there are many evangelical Christians involved in high finance and the mass media but who seem to keep their “faith” under wraps.

Many “summers of discontent” may be what it takes to force even incremental change. Until we suffer ourselves (and that includes Christians), we do not take the plight of others seriously. The Bali bomber said at his trial, “The only language the West understands is violence”. Shocking, but sadly it is true for a large number of the well-to-do (not just Westerners). Also, as Paolo Freire pointed out, violence never begins with the poor. It is always a reaction to the violence of the rich and powerful.

Simply saying “No”, on moral grounds, is political action; and one mustn’t be conned into thinking that until we can articulate alternative scenarios we must not protest at blatant untruths and injustices. Bankers and economist always want to tell us that things are so complicated that we must not question the system. That is how we are held in their thrall.

And there are plenty of alternative social visions, emerging from secular activists like Susan George (mentioned in my last post) and many Christian thinkers, Protestant and Catholic. The Vatican encyclical Caritas in Veritate (2009) addresses globalization in the long tradition of Catholic social teaching. Karol Wojtyła (later Pope John Paul II) called peoples in Central and Eastern Europe to religious and moral conversion, giving them the tools with which to resist communism. He laid the ground work for the 1989 revolutions, non-violently. Evangelical institutions like the Jubilee Centre in Cambridge have prepared and articulated alternatives to a whole range of economic and political practices taken for granted in British society. And so on…

Hi Vinoth – I think that was exactly my point, that this post wasn’t new – either in its content or in its prompting me to feel shame at my inaction.

I think my overall sentiment was a desire to be called to positive future action, not just to be reminded of how we have failed, though that is important. Sites like avaaz.org, for example, help bring to my attention significant global issues, but also direct me towards positive action I can take now.

Thanks for the avaas.org link Andy. I must check it out in more detail.

Vinoth, I wonder if you see any possibility that Christian leaders would gather together to speak in a unified voice? It’s all very well when a leader/ figurehead of on individual denomination decrys injustice – but anything said is soon lost in the slew of noise and information that bombards us every day. There is force in numbers and in the choreographed movement of people. Surely there is enough will and common belief between Christian denominations (Jesus for start! Not to mention the multiple verses from the Bible (OT and NT) that condemn injustice) to agree on a manifesto of core concerns. Or am I being naive?

Luke, if it’s evangelicals and if it’s New Delhi, I am very sckeptical though efforts are there.

Religious sentimentalism or pietism and a misplaced understanding of what the Gospel is with the extraordinary zeal to defend that (erroneous) understanding from being diluted is the main stumbling block. Next will come question of personal egos and fiefdom.

Luke, it is something I long for but, frankly, don’t see it happening. There are plenty of common mission Statements and Declarations floating around. But when it comes to specific, prophetic speech by the Church – unmasking the gods that perpetuate injustice- it is individuals and small groups that we have to turn to. Leaders and denominations are often so enmeshed in the system themselves that they are cannot organize collective protest for fear of the consequences.

Vinoth,

I too am very encouraged and inspired by this post. As an American graduate student learning about International Affairs I am trying to expand my worldview (always) whilst trying to find what ministry God might be calling me. For me, like Mr. Hughes, it was not until my undergraduate years at a Christian University (and the Sociology/Global Studies department/professors who did speak up!) that my eyes were opened to the social problems and injustices of this world that I might have the good fortune of intervening and reconciling with.
Subverting Global Myths was instrumental for me too. Actually I was in Sri Lanka for a time; I worked with and learned from a great Christian leader there, perhaps you’ve heard of him-Adrian De Visser-and it was amazing to see a church that was involved in radical social development of course always in direct persecution and opposition to the theocracy there. One of my greatest challenges living there, and I’m sure that I can never even begin to fathom the depths of this challenge for the native Sri Lankan, was how to live underneath such an oppressive and dictatorial regime. How do you do it and what do you say to others who must endure it?

I wonder if the Circle of Protection effort from religious leaders in the US is the type of joint statement Luke has in mind. http://www.circleofprotection.us/
I was impressed by the effort to call attention to the injustice in the ways the debt discussions have been handled. But there is little conversation about the underlying economic issues and monolithic economic system. Maybe the first step for many of is to become informed enough to challenge our Christian friends when they give simplistic answers, and to find ways to call attention to the deeper clash of kingdoms.

Carol, thanks so much for referring me to this joint Christian statement. It is indeed the kind of thing that American Christians should be saying together. I hope it circulates widely among evangelical churches, seminaries and parachurch organizations.

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