Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Honduras, Iran, Democracy & Nonviolence

Recent events in Honduras and Iran sparked a few thoughts.

It's interesting how completely and uncritically we've come to accept the association "democracy = good". When political events occur in foreign countries our press, our politicians, and our public seem to immediately decide that the side which appears more democratic is obviously in the right. I don't disagree that democracy has a lot going for it, or that dictatorships have a lot of flaws, but it is worth it to point out that the historical examples of Athens, Rome and even America prove that democracies are plenty eager to engage in imperialism, militarism, and all sorts of horrors we usually associate with dictatorships.

From my theological perspective all government is doomed from the outset. It relies on the use of force to maintain control. A democracy is just as much a part of the world of nations that God will abolish with the coming of his kingdom as a dictatorship is.

Does that mean these things are equal? Not at all.

I think, if there is a reason to preference one side or another it is about that issue of coercion and force. A democracy, at the very least, voluntarily restricts itself in the ways it will use force over its own people (not over other peoples though). If I were to support one side over another in Iran or Honduras it would be in the end a choice about which side were willing to set aside force the most.

When the President of Honduras was captured he immediately issued a statement urging the people of Honduras to protest nonviolently. In Iran, much of the focus on the resistance has been on the degree to which it has been nonviolent. There seems to be a consensus that the refusal to employ force is the very quality which bestows legitimacy on the movement. The moment that protesters start throwing molotov cocktails is the moment that Ahmadinejad or Vasquez will look less like villains for "squashing" the rebels.

The question of proportionality still comes into it. Most people will probably still side with the green movement in Iran even if it turns violent just because it will be significantly weaker than the military might of the establishment. There is no question, though, that a violent uprising would lose some legitimacy in many people's (including mine) eyes.

Taking a long view, democracy or dictatorship, it doesn't really matter. All governments are fading institutions doomed to extinction by God's reign of peace. In the interim however, there is a reason to preference democratic governments where those democracies are self-limiting in their use of coercive force. The legitimacy of a political movement comes from its willingness to refuse to achieve its ends by violence.

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