9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14
Theocracy is the great bogeyman of the American secularist. Any time a law is proposed that has an inkling of “moral code” in it (particularly when it is Christian morality) there is a great cry from the secularists that this is a drive toward theocracy.
Instead of attacking these claims as “over the top” or “reactionary” I will instead move to broaden the definition or interpretation of theocracy and get (hopefully) to its roots. (Thus the title.) To my mind, there are many ideologies that lead to theocracy – and not all of them would be considered historically religious, but they do share some common traits.
The first trait in theocracy, and the first trait in so much of human folly, is pride. We see in Luke 18:9-14 above the difference between the Pharisee and the sinner. The Pharisee stood proudly before God extolling his own virtue, while the sinner stood far off, asking only for mercy.
It is useful to note here that what the Pharisee missed was the difference between himself and the tax collector, but the difference between himself and God. He missed what Amos would call the plumb line (see Amos 7). The Pharisee felt that he was more righteous than the tax collector … and maybe he was right. Maybe he was more “just” by some measure than the tax collector. But he was not just by the measure God uses. The Pharisee wanted to be measured on a relative scale – “as long as I’m more righteous than that man, then God has to pick me first” as though the kingdom of heaven can be reduced to choosing dodgeball squads.
It is this measure of pride that we find in so many theocratic bents. “I am smarter, wiser, more righteous, better in every way than ‘you people’ – it’s best that I make the decisions around here. You guys will only get it wrong. If left to your own devices you will just mess things up. Best to trust in a righteous one like myself to rule for you. And even if you protest, I’ll still do it … because it’s in your best interests and I am righteous and benevolent.” This measure of pride readily acknowledges the weaknesses of other men, but ignores the weakness of ones-self. It readily acknowledges that people in general will mess up, but it ignores the simple notion that I am “people” too, and that I can mess up on their behalf just as easily.
Once formed and coalesced, pride leads invariably to the hierarchy. Here we mean that people (the theocrats) place themselves as higher in the structure than “the people” and insert themselves between the people and God. For religious theocracies this takes the form of what I call “team God”- where it is the theocrats and God who form the ruling coalition (so they think) and the masses who form the subjects. (Not unlike the cases where the oldest child will scold the younger ones in place of the parents who are in another room.)
If the aim of the theocracy is not historically religious, the “team God” paradigm moves from “me and God” to “me instead of God.” The theocrat will rule as a wise, powerful, and benevolent dictator of sorts, showing compassion for these poor masses who could not tie their shoes or wipe their backsides properly without such a good and kind ruler.
Of course hierarchy is nothing but pride manifest with power.
For the Love of The System …
We’ll stay in Luke for a bit here and consider the system-before-people aspects of theocracy. Consider Luke 13:10-17:
10 On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” 13Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God. 14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” 15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.
In 1 John 4:20-21 we see that in order to love God one must also love his brother, who is created in the image of God. Yet in Luke 13 we see that the theocrat is far more concerned with the system than the people that the system is intended to bless. Here comes this woman who is oppressed and crippled, and Jesus sets her free miraculously. Instead of responding with joy at the deliverance in the lives of the people, the Pharisee responds with chagrin that the system has been offended (at least his interpretation of the system).
This is the nature of theocracies. It is closely linked to the “team God” mentality. The system is what God has decreed (well, me and God, you see – we’re on the same team). Unable to see through to true benevolence, true love for the people, the theocrat holds fearfully to the only thing that makes him more important.
Unable to accept feedback or correction, the theocrat holds dearly to the system. “It may not be working right now, but we’re going to do it anyway because it’s right.” This is brazen self-confidence and pride. I find little distinction here between the North Korean Juche cult, the Iranian mullahs, and the central planners at the Federal Reserve. If what you’re doing is not blessing the people, but you hold onto it anyway because you cannot conceive of a world in which your system is not right, then you are a theocrat.
You Don’t Change Horses Mid-Stream …
Pragmatism has an important role – and the Christian religion is not opposed to it. Consider 1 Cor 11:19 “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.” Or how about Haggai 1:6 “You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.” We fundamentally allow for a “this is not working … perhaps we’re wrong” moment.
Not so the theocrat. He will see failure as evidence that we have not fully submitted to the dogma – perhaps even evidence of some secret sin. I’m not talking here about legitimate arguments over the causes of failure, but rather defensive justifications in the face of failure.
Let’s consider some examples. Back in 2004 when a powerful tsunami struck Malaysia there were claims by local muslim theocrats that the tsunami was God’s judgment and clear indication that the Malaysians were not fully committed to being good muslims. No evidence other than “something bad happened” is needed to justify “you have run afoul from the system.” After all, if we fully followed the system, then everyone would be blessed. Since they’re not blessed, they must have not followed the system. Is there any other way to see it?
Or how about the U.S. unemployment rate. In the face of impending collapse we passed a massive “stimulus plan” and were told that it would keep the unemployment rate under 8.3%. It didn’t. (Unless the teleprompter broke and “under 8.3%” should have been followed by the caveat “by election day 2012.”) What is the response of Paul Krugman and other Keynesian economists? “We didn’t do enough stimulus and should poor more money on.” Got that? When the plan fails, when we do exactly what the theocrat calls for and it fails, his only response is “it must not have been enough of a good thing.” The theocrat cannot conceive of a world in which his system isn’t right – even if he had total control and feedback was undeniable.
So there you have it, what I see as the seeds, the starting points for theocracy. The theocrat is prideful in his own righteousness, or his own wisdom. It is a relative pride, but it is pride that blinds the theocrat from his own ability to err – particularly in his ability to make decisions about how to live others’ lives. The theocrat forms (in his own mind anyway) “team God” in which he either inserts himself between the common man and God, or puts himself in the place of God. The theocrat holds dearly to his system, even if it begins to hurt the very plebs he claims to love. And the theocrat is blinded to feedback that exposes flaws in his conception of a governing system.
We also note that there is a system of government that is antithetical to theocracy – and that is limited government. This does not outlaw the existence of theocrats, it merely limits their ability to rule the lives of men.