Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Democracy in action

Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, and said to them, "You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him."

Then they all shouted out together, "Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!" (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, "Crucify, crucify him!" A third time he said to them, "Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him." But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.

- Luke 23.13-25

It struck me tonight that this is one version of democracy in action. The many declare their will and it is implemented by the appointed authorities, despite personally disagreeing with the decision.

It is, however, an unmitigated disaster. The mob's irrational hatred* drowns out the one voice of reason and a gross injustice is perpetrated.

Not that the alternatives to democracy fare much better on this dark day. The entire chapter can be read as an unmasking of the beastliness of human authorities (cf. Daniel 7: obviously not a randomly selected passage, given the number of times Jesus refers or alludes to it while in Jerusalem). There is far more to say about a biblical attitude towards authority than Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 (i.e. "obey!").
*The problem of why the crowd suddenly turn upon Jesus may be solved if it is assumed that this group is largely co-extensive with "the assembly of the elders of the people" (22.66; cf. 23.1). Although this group may have grown a little (justifying the inclusion of "the people" in the list of verse 13), it may well have still be largely those who had tried Jesus the night before. Notice in verse 14 that Pilate can say to the crowd that "you brought me this man", implying a high degree of continuity between the assembly and this group before Pilate. Also notice that the multitudes who had been praising Jesus a week earlier as he rode into Jerusalem were not Jerusalemites, but a rent-a-crowd of disciples (i.e. they had already been travelling with Jesus). Therefore, there is no need to explain a sudden change of mind on the part of the Jerusalem populace.
Ten points for correctly identifying this building and fifteen for briefly explaining its connection to the history of democracy.


Anthony said...

It's the Doge's Palace in Venice (Palazzo Ducale di Venezia). Probably the significance to democracy is in being the base of Venetian government during its heyday, when they ran a pretty sophisticated republican system of government - though they did crown the elected duke. And they had lots of fun along the way with choosing him, using a system that makes the US electoral college seem immediately transparent and reasonable!

And given that the system lasted largely unchanged for half a millennium or so, I think that makes it the most robust republic the world has yet seen...

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

This is why good democracies are always representative, with checks and balances to prevent "mob rule." Parliamentary democracies have some kinds of checks and balances and congressional ones have others. Deeply embedded in the history of modern, Western democratic republics (at least back to the Magna Carta) is the idea of fundamental human rights--that cannot be trumped by simple majority will. The creative tensions between majority rule and inalienable human rights are usually messy--and may not have prevented Golgotha!--but they usually work better than either idea would without the other.

byron said...

Anthony - twenty-five points! You hit the lead - congratulations. I wonder how long it will take Pete to strike back?

And MWW - indeed, you've anticipated the main point of my next post (which was going to be a qualification of this one). Nonetheless, I do think it's interesting that in this passage all the various human authorities get it so disasterously wrong. We can put in place better safeguards, but there is a deeper point being made than simply political reform.