Friday, February 25, 2011

Middle East Democracy?

Many voices across the political and media spectrums have hailed the recent protests and changes in governments across the Middle East as welcome democratic advances into a largely totalitarian region of the world. With Tunisian President Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak overthrown, protests have spread to Yemen, Iran, Jordan, Bahrain, and most recently to Libya, where Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime teeters on the edge of collapse. These revolutions-in-the-making are the agitations of mostly restless young men who are tired of low wages, few prospects for advancement, and stifling government control over just about everything. In other words, these are rebellions like most others in history.

Seen from the West, the protests, the calls for new elections, and the forcing of longtime leaders out of office seem to be the perfect setup for the progress of democracy. To those of this mind, this is the formula for a more peaceful world. Perhaps if all nations were democracies, the peace quotient would indeed be higher than today, but would it necessarily be significantly higher? A better but more general question would be, "Would global democracy ensure peace?" And the answer would be a resounding, "No!"

No form of human government can ensure peace, and the reason is found in the word "human." People have human nature, and no matter how they are governed, people will come into conflict with each other because human nature is essentially selfish (see Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 15:19). When two people—or two nations—want the same thing badly enough, they will do whatever it takes to get it, including going to war. The only real advantage of a democracy over monarchy or totalitarianism is that more people have to agree to take the road to war or to any other evil, yet these things still happen with regularity. As former British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill remarked, "Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

In his most recent column, "Democracy Versus Liberty," Dr. Walter E. Williams, an economist at George Mason University, reminded his readers that "democracy and majority rule [are] a contemptible form of government." He went on to quote a handful of the Founding Fathers—from James Madison and John Adams to Alexander Hamilton—illustrating that they held democracy in low regard and therefore did not saddle the fledgling United States of America with it. In fact, they called democracy "turbulent," "folly," "extreme," and "suicidal"! Hamilton wrote, "If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy, or some other form of dictatorship."

As Dr. Williams points out, our nation's two most fundamental documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, do not contain even one instance of the word "democracy." The Constitution of the United States establishes the government of this nation as a republic, which dictionaries define simplistically as a government comprised of elected representatives of the people and usually presided over by an elected president. Likewise, they say a democracy is majority rule by the people, whether directly or through representatives.

While these spare definitions sound very similar, the similarity ends here. The primary difference, as seen through the Founders eyes, is the origin of rights: In a republic, they are the natural rights that spring from a loving God, and the government is constitutionally bound to protect them. In a democracy, rights have their source in the people, and the government imposes them through the force of law. Thus, citizens of a republic have a divine assurance of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" that no just law can supplant, whereas those in a democracy have no such guarantee. The majority can change or annul their rights at its whim.

Unfortunately, the United States discarded true republicanism a long while ago, transforming itself into a representative democracy, and this is the form of government that it has been pressing on the nations of the Middle East for many years. The consequences of this are troubling. If these nations are successful in forming democratic governments, they will not ally or even collaborate with the liberal West but with their Muslim brothers in the Islamic world—and increase the possibility of world war, not diminish it!

The strongmen currently being overthrown are the "devils we know," as it were, and they have maintained a degree of peace in the region for many years, albeit with sporadic flare-ups and threats of terrorism. Egypt's Mubarak, especially, has respected the peace treaty between his country and Israel that he inherited from his predecessor, Anwar Sadat. While the Egyptian military regime has not fallen (only the head of state has been removed), the new government has promised to share power with more radical elements who may not honor the treaty in the same way. Should the Muslim Brotherhood become more influential, it will surely renounce it, and a new Arab-Israeli war would not be far behind.

The situation in Bahrain, whose population is 70% Shia like Iran, contains another factor that will undermine keeping Middle East peace if the current government falls to a "democratic" revolution. For many years, the U.S. Navy has headquartered its Fifth Fleet in the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom under a deal that has been maintained since World War II. The ships and their attached air forces are stationed there to ensure the free flow of oil, to contain Iran, and to monitor and prevent terrorist organizations like al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah from strengthening and expanding across the region. Its mere presence deters these radical actors on many levels.

Finally, Yemeni President Saleh, who has been an ally against al Qaeda, has pledged—under the duress of demonstrations—that he will not run for office again in 2013, nor will his son, whom he had hoped to succeed him. Yemen, itself a hotbed of radical Islamism, lies just across the Red Sea from Somalia and all of its turmoil. A radicalized Yemen would virtually guarantee heightened tensions around the Horn of Africa and disrupt sea traffic between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.

The situation across the Middle East could change swiftly if these dominoes begin to fall. Certainly, the nation of Israel will begin to feel even more encircled by enemies, and its only real ally, the U.S., handcuffed by distance and shrinking logistical options, may be unable to come to its aid with strength as it now can. Could we be seeing the region reconfigured to instigate the King of the North's whirlwind invasion, as Daniel 11:40-43 describes? Perhaps, but would it not be a great irony if this world's great hope, democracy, played such a central role in bringing on the crisis at the close of this age?

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Unique Greatness of Our God (Part Six)

In Part Five, we saw that the Bible takes a rather dim view of man, from Jesus calling us evil (Matthew 7:11) to God counting all of the nations as "the small dust on the scales" (Isaiah 40:15). Though God created us "very good" (Genesis 1:31), our sins and the resulting human nature soon spoil us to the point that we often behave like beasts and readily deserve the comparison to worms and maggots (see Psalm 73:22; 22:6; Job 25:5-6).

Even so, God has tendered us the opportunity to transcend that baseness—to be transformed into the very image of God (see Romans 8:29; I Corinthians 15:49; II Corinthians 3:18)! He offers us the chance to metamorphose like the proverbial caterpillar into a butterfly, but in this case, the potential is far higher: from human to divine! Notice Hebrews 2:5-8:
For He has not put the world to come, of which we speak, in subjection to angels. But [David] testified in a certain place, saying, "What is man that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You take care of him? You made him a little lower than the angels; You crowned him with glory and honor, and set him over the works of Your hands. You have put all things in subjection under his feet." For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him. (Emphasis ours throughout.)
As Paul writes in I Corinthians 2:9, "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him." At the resurrection, we will be given the very nature of God and crowned with glory and power. The apostle John confirms in I John 3:2 that "when He is revealed, we shall be like Him." Thus, when our glorification comes, we will have an incorruptible, heavenly body (see I Corinthians 15:50-54). God will give us our inheritance, and it is no small thing—indeed, the author of Hebrews says it will be everything! We will go from nothing—less than nothing—to having "all things put under [us]"! Without doubt, the incredible human potential in God's plan is the ultimate "rags to riches" story!

The huge gulf—that massive chasm between God's awesome greatness and our shameful insignificance—will be bridged. We will be full-fledged sons and daughters of God, presented "holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight" (Colossians 1:22). We will be one with God, never to be sundered by sin and death from God the Father and His Son.

Understanding this fact of our astounding potential, combined with the humility to recognize our current inadequacy, should motivate us to do as Hebrews 12:14-15 urges: "Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one shall see the Lord; looking carefully, lest anyone should fall short of the grace of God. . . ." In addition, Hebrews 2:1 advises us, "Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away." Clearly, we could fail to reach the goal that God has set before us, so we cannot simply rely on God's mercy and grace to allow us to slip across the finish line. Notice that the apostle uses such action words as "pursue," "look . . . carefully," and "give . . . earnest heed."

Jesus gives us a template of godly virtues in Matthew 5, which we know as "The Beatitudes." They are each made up of two clauses, the first being a blessing on one who exhibits a certain virtue, and the second, a reward that results from the virtue. Each of the virtues contains an element of humility, whereas each of the rewards is part of our glorification. Our Savior, in showing us the way, emphasizes first humility, then glorification. This principle is reflected elsewhere. Proverbs 15:33 reads, "The fear of the LORD is the instruction of wisdom, and before honor is humility." The apostle Peter writes, "Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time" (I Peter 5:6). Notice the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3-10)

He ends where He began, with the promise of inheriting God's Kingdom. If we want to live and rule with God for eternity, we need to develop these holy, righteous character traits, and we start with knowing where we stand in relation to Him: We are nothing, and He is everything (see Colossians 3:11). Once we have this firmly, unshakably anchored in our minds, then with God's help, we can begin building the character necessary to live as He does. In Hebrews 6:1, the apostle calls this challenging and life-consuming work "go[ing] on to perfection" (see also Romans 12:1-2). This is the period of our sanctification—our being made holy.

The final five psalms praise God for all that He is and does, revealing just how wonderful He is. They remind us of His power and majesty, helping us to realize how small we are by comparison and putting us in the proper attitude of humility before Him. With its setting in God's Kingdom, Psalm 149 in particular focuses on the future relationship between God and His people:
Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song, and His praise in the congregation of saints. Let Israel rejoice in their Maker; let the children of Zion be joyful in their King. . . . For the LORD takes pleasure in His people; He will beautify the humble with salvation. (Psalm 149:1-2, 4)
Why is He so happy with His people? They are with Him in His Kingdom! They have transformed into godly children, and He has bestowed on them salvation and glory. He is looking forward to spending eternity with them. The psalm now turns to the saints:
Let the saints be joyful in glory. . . . Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hand; to execute vengeance on the nations, and punishments on the peoples; to bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron; to execute on them the written judgment—this honor have all His saints. Praise the LORD! (Psalm 149:5-9)
As Jesus promised in the Beatitudes, God's children will reap the rewards of humility: glory, power, judgment, honor, and much more besides! All of this will happen because we have an awesome and magnificent God whose purpose is to give His Kingdom to His children!

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Unique Greatness of Our God (Part Five)

In these essays, we have tried to grasp a measure of how wonderful God is, and while some of the things we have seen are awe-inspiring to consider, we realize that they are inadequate attempts to describe an infinite God. On the other hand, realizing God's greatness makes us all too aware of how far short humanity falls. What does the Bible say about man's true state?

David asks the same question: "When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained, what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him?" (Psalm 8:3-4). The king of Israel gazed into the heavens, as we did in Part Three, and wondered, "Why God? You are so vast and Your mind is so incomprehensible. Why do you deign to think about us, much less care for us?" He obviously does not have a very high opinion of mankind in comparison to God.

Matthew 22:39 may seem a strange place to look for man's place before God, but consider what Jesus teaches: "And the second [great commandment] is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself." For our purposes, we can paraphrase this to imply a kind of equality among human beings; we are to treat everyone equally with the same love that we show ourselves. Note that His command does not suggest our neighbors' worthiness, but only that we should express godly love toward them.

Philippians 2:3 ups the ante significantly: ". . . in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself." The apostle Paul urges us to respect other people as better than ourselves. This is the spiritual attitude we, in humility, are to have toward others. As in the previous example, this approach could make a person think more highly of mankind than is deserved, but God provides other instruction to give us the balance we need to gain a proper perspective.

What Paul writes in I Corinthians 1:26-29 is one of these balancing points:
For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence.
Though we are to have love and esteem toward fellow men, Paul tells us plainly that members of the church—representative of the majority of mankind—are not wise, mighty, or noble but foolish, weak, base, and despised. Matters have begun to look a little grim for humanity; we do not have much of which to be proud.

To make it worse, our own Savior says in Matthew 7:11 that mankind is evil! We will find, as we take a short tour through the Old Testament, that Jesus' statement is a summation of the Bible's view of man. Be warned: This may get personal.

What is written in Proverbs 30:2-3 seems contradictory to fact, especially as it appears in a book of wisdom collected by Solomon: "Surely I am more stupid than any man, and do not have the understanding of a man. I neither learned wisdom nor have knowledge of the Holy One." The next verses reveal that the author's declaration of stupidity is to be understood in comparison to God, so verses 2-3 are universal in nature. Every person is stupid. Everyone lacks understanding and wisdom. Before God, every individual seems unlearned and thickheaded.

Psalm 73:22, a psalm of Asaph, concurs and piles on: "I was so foolish and ignorant; I was like a beast before You." The word "like" is not in the Hebrew text; it should read, "I was a beast before You," making it less of a comparison than actual fact. In Asaph's estimation, we sometimes sink below the level of human, resembling animals in our behavior, giving ourselves over to beastly urges rather than exhibiting self-control.

In Job 25:5-6, where Bildad is speaking to Job, humanity descends still further: "If even the moon does not shine, and the stars are not pure in His sight, how much less man, who is a maggot, and a son of man, who is a worm?" Could there be a worse comparison? Humans are like the slimy, creeping creatures of the earth that exist to break down rot and refuse. What makes this worse is that our Savior says the same thing about Himself in a prophecy in Psalm 22:6! "But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised by the people." As a man, Jesus Christ was God in the flesh, and if He considered Himself a worm, what does that make us mortal, corrupt, ignorant human beings?

It may be hard to believe, but the Bible's comparisons cut us down even lower:
Behold, the nations are as a drop in a bucket, and are counted as the small dust on the balance; look, He lifts up the isles as a very little thing. And Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor its beasts sufficient for a burnt offering. All nations before Him are as nothing, and they are counted by Him less than nothing and worthless. (Isaiah 40:15-17)
Notice how this comparison proceeds. We begin as mere water molecules among the nations, which are just a drop in the bucket, and as tiny dust particles, as the nations are leftover dust in the pan of a balance. However, on second thought, that is not nearly insignificant enough. We are nothing—no, less than nothing and worthless on top of that!

By this point, we should feel thoroughly inconsequential and small, and this is the proper attitude to have when comparing ourselves with God. If we feel this way, we are well on the road toward the godly attitude that Jesus describes as "poor in spirit" (Matthew 5:3), whose bearers will possess the Kingdom of God.

In the book of Job, God is trying to teach Job something very similar to what we have come to understand in this essay. When Job finally grasps the lesson, he says to God, "Behold, I am vile. What shall I answer You?" (Job 40:4). The Hebrew word behind "vile" literally means "light" in terms of weight. Job may as well be saying that he feels so insubstantial that a breeze could blow him away at any moment. This word could also be rendered as "utterly insignificant." He had grasped the lesson. Later, he tells God, "Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:6). So, finally understanding the massive difference between God and himself, he would be wise to shut up, as God had every right to do to him whatever He pleased.

Fortunately, God does not leave us as nothing and less than nothing. Without Him, that is indeed what we would be: We would be without hope and without purpose. But when God enters our lives, when He initiates a relationship with us, everything changes. We are still worms and maggots, but when God is working with us and in us, helping and guiding us, we are more like caterpillars that can become butterflies. We just need to persevere with Him.