Libya: Why democracy alone can’t work

The modern belief that democracy alone will solve the problems of undemocratic nations is naïve and overly simplistic. We need to understand western history to discover what made democracy work the way it does in the USA and Europe. The UN and many NGOs campaign for free and fair elections as if this in itself is enough to solve national issues around the globe. The solution is far more complex than simply letting people put an “X” or “1,2,3” in boxes on a piece of paper. Democracy requires at least two other overarching beliefs to be in place for it to work.

First, the people who vote must agree to abide by the results of the vote. There must be a belief that the minorities who lose the vote will submit willingly to the will of the majority. This is difficult when minority interests are overlooked or even opposed by the majority.

Second, the people in power must not exercise that power in such a way as to influence the outcome of elections in their favour. In many “democratic” countries the votes are rigged, ballot boxes and counting tampered with, opposition leaders arrested or scared out of politics. There needs to be a willingness in the ruling party to submit to the democratic will of the people.

To secular western thinkers these two beliefs seem natural or instinctive but that belies an ignorance of western history and of opposing worldviews. The teaching and example of Jesus Christ is what made western democracy work the way it does. If democracy is to flourish around the world, world leaders need to listen to Jesus.

With respect to power, national leadership must be a public service. Democracy works when leaders see themselves as servants of their people. It’s clear to the world that Ghadafi is not serving his people at present.  When Jesus’ disciples asked to sit next to him in positions of authority, Jesus asked them if they were willing to make the same sacrifice as he would make. He then says:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave– just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

Christian leaders are always servant leaders, public servants.

Then, in his parable of the vineyard tenants (Matthew 21:33ff), Jesus sets out further teaching for national government:

  • God is the lawful owner and landlord of Israel and Israel is a model for the rest of the world.  God owns the nations because God created the world.
  • God has rented the land and the rental agreement is his law and the sacrificial system.
  • His people are to rule according to the law of God.
  • The tenants rebel against God’s rule.
  • God sends his lawyers, the prophets, to tell the tenants that they face eviction.
  • The tenants beat and kill the prophets.
  • The landowner then sends his own Son, Jesus, but they kill him too.
  • The tenants are evicted and punished in hell.
  • New tenants are appointed and are expected to bear the fruit of the kingdom of God.

As the west sits back and dithers over Libya, as it did with Zimbabwe and North Korea, and as it uses force in Iraq and Afghanistan to try to impose western style democracy, leaders  are learning that the instinct for justice and democracy is not universal. War has not worked and doing nothing does not work, and so there needs to be a third way.

The solution is not to seek to impose democracy alone. The people of Malaysia and Singapore, just to name two places where I have lived, know that democratic votes do not secure democratic rule. The solution is the teaching of Jesus Christ, for all submit to his will to love God and neighbour and to seek the common good.

And the ultimate motivation for doing so is not temporal but eternal as Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes’? “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.” Matthew 21:42-44

To fall on Jesus means to be humbled by and devoted to him. He gave his life to save sinners from hell. There is no other way to escape. For anyone who refuses to fall on Jesus, to be humbled and to serve, Jesus will crush them like a fly on the windscreen in his perfect, righteous justice.

Secondly, citizens of nations must recognise the legitimacy of the government. The will of the people is the will of God.  As Paul rights to the Christians in Rome and in Crete:

Romans 13:1-3 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgement on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.

Titus 3:1 Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good.

Jesus himself said: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Matthew 22:21

In short, post-Christian nations must not seek to impose a naïve democracy, but rather turn back to Christ as teacher and head and then seek to win the nations for Christ.

About neilrobbie

I am a 6'6" formerly ginger Scot, in a cross cultural marriage to my lovely Londoner wife. We've lived in SE Asia and since 2005, I have served as an Anglican minister in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.
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2 Responses to Libya: Why democracy alone can’t work

  1. I. Malevich says:

    So. Basically, the only good leader is a Christian leader. Hey, George W. Bush is “Christian” isn’t he?

    The problem isn’t that the other pagan cultures of the world are barbaric and can’t understand alien concepts like mutual respect or love for one another (hmmmm). The problem is that a certain Western paradigm(s) continues to think such and attempts to impose its ideas (and narrow interpretation of scripture) on these other cultures simply because it rides on a high(er) horse. If it’s about Jesus, it’s about Jesus. Don’t make Jesus a weapon for “democracy.”

    • neilrobbie says:

      Hi I. Malevich, welcome to TG and thank you for your comment. George W. Bush is also human, flawed and presided in a time when the prevailing culture said “faith is a private matter” and so Christian principles are not applied in state afairs.

      With respect to “Western culture” my post stated that we can’t understand that culture without knowing how it developed. Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex was a foundational work in developing democracy as we know it. You can read a reduced version at

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