Above the Courts of Justice in London stands a statue of Jesus. It is there to signify the Common Law’s origins in Christianity. When the Queen is presented with the Bible, the words, “To keep your Majesty ever mindful of the law and the Gospel of God, …. we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing this world affords. Here is wisdom; this is the royal law; these are the lively oracles of God”, are spoken. Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury (1207-1228) helped write the Magna Carta, the world’s pre-eminent document on human rights which forms the basis of so many of our laws.
Today is September 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Centre. The Al Qaida terrorists who brought down the Twin Towers were based in Afghanistan which was under the control of the Sunni Muslim Taliban. As of last week, Afghanistan is again under Taliban control.
When the system of government we call democracy is being questioned, it is timely to consider some of the world’s alternatives. Writer Evan Thompson provides a useful summary:
- Theocracy. A form of government in which a specific religious ideology determines the leadership, laws and customs of the country. Iran is the world’s largest theocracy in which the Ayatollahs — Shiite religious leaders — rule the country and implement Islamic Sharia law. Iran has immense influence on countries such as Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.
- Military Dictatorships. Rule by a single authority with absolute power and no democratic process. Installed by the nation’s armed forces, military dictators dismiss due process, civil liberties, and political freedoms. Dissent or political opposition is banned by the ruling military junta. Examples include Myanmar, Sudan, Chad and Mali.
- Monarchy. Not to be confused with Constitutional Monarchies like our own, ruling monarchies have a person as head of state for life, a position passed down through a succession line related to one’s bloodline and birth order within a ruling royal family. Today’s monarchs include Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Oman.
- Communism. A centralized form of government headed by a single authoritarian political party. Total control of the economy and of production, labour, goods, property and natural resources. Communist countries include China, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam.
- Totalitarianism. A form of government in which the ruling party sets no limitations whatsoever on its power. Its citizens are completely subservient to the state. A single figure often holds power and maintains authority through widespread surveillance, control of the media, intimidating demonstrations of military or police power, and suppression of protest, activism, or political opposition. North Korea is an example of a totalitarian state. Any criticism of the supreme leader is punishable by death.
- Authoritarianism – a lesser form of totalitarianism in which an authoritarian government rejects political plurality and uses strong central power to preserve the status quo. Authoritarianism pays little regard to the rule of law, the separation of powers between parliament and the courts, or democratic voting. Much of Central and Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean falls into this category.
Of the 193 countries in the world, 153 of them are governed by one of these systems. Barely 40 countries in the world are proper functioning democracies. Of those 40, 36 have Judeo-Christian heritage and the other 4 (India, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan) had strong Christian/Western influence that led them to democracy.
The link between Christianity and stable democracy is obvious and sometimes we need to remind ourselves of Christianity’s great contributions to the world. Most of the world’s languages for example were put into writing by Christian missionaries. More schools and universities were started by Christians than by any other group. Motivated by a sense of concern for others, Christians established hospitals, aged care organisations and welfare agencies. The elevation of women was a Christian achievement, as was the abolition of slavery, cannibalism, child sacrifice and widow burning. Before Christianity came along, almost every civilisation and culture practised slavery and human sacrifice. Countries which today enjoy the greatest civil liberties are generally those places where the Christian gospel has penetrated the most.
There is a Chinese proverb, “The tears of strangers are only water”. When there is famine or genocide in Africa for example, Christianity says, “Those people are human like us, we need to help them”. Other cultures say, “Yes, it’s a problem but it’s not our problem”.
The ‘equality of human beings’ is a Christian idea which led to the abolition of slavery and international human rights. US Founding Father Thomas Jefferson said, “That all men are created equal is self-evident”. Most cultures throughout history reject this. ‘Inequality’ is what is self-evident they say – height, weight, strength, intelligence, truthfulness, talent etc. What Jefferson was referring to of course was ‘moral equality’. Each life is as valuable as any other.
Closer to home, the Reverend John Flynn founded the Flying Doctor Service and the Australian Inland Mission. His Presbyterian Ministers were known as ‘the boundary riders of the bush’ and were responsible for establishing communication through the inland pedal wireless. Early colonial Governors Macquarie, Hunter and Brisbane were committed Christians. Governor Macquarie personally promoted the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Sunday School Movement. And Australia’s Constitution begins with the phrase, “…. humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God ….”.
The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, “To defend a country you need an army. But to defend a free society you need families, schools and an educational system in which ideals are passed on from one generation to the next, and never lost, or despaired of, or obscured. It is not difficult to gain liberty, but to sustain it is the work of a hundred generations. Forget it and you lose it.”