Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
The past two weeks, Juan Gattinoni of Argentina and Norma Dollaga of the Philippines have written two excellent pieces on the relationship between Methodism and democracy. I am grateful for their wisdom and generosity in sharing their insights on this topic. As a show of appreciation, I wanted to reflect publicly on what I have learned about the topic from them.
The connection between democracy, civil rights, and economic justice
Living in the United States, I have tended to think of democracy as a self-evident good—of course democracy is important for its own sake! Both authors showed me, though, that democracy is not just a good in its own right. Democracy is important because it is part of a broader framework that emphasizes human rights and economic justice, both of which are connected to God’s justice.
Gattinoni quoted the Southern American Annual Conference saying, “We must fight for democracy, so that within this regime of coexistence, men can use their freedom to obtain economic justice for all.” He added in his own words, “It is not only a question of pronouncing oneself in favor of democracy, but of having an action/mission that has to do with the needs of the people.”
Throughout her piece, Dollaga emphasized human rights and care for the poor. She noted the connection between the two, writing, “The violation of human rights … began when the powerful few accumulated, stock-piled and privatized the resources, wealth and property of the people and calcified their strength through social-economic-political order.”
I have been reminded that Christianity has survived under many political systems, but the emphasis on just treatment of the poor and the oppressed is an essential thread of the faith in all contexts and under all political systems.
The connection between democracy and the law
I have tended to think of democracy and the rule of law going hand in hand. Dollaga and Gattinoni reminded me that the law can be perverted by injustice and end up subverting democracy.
Dollaga wrote of the Philippines, “The weaponization of the law has exacerbated the narrowing of democratic spaces.” In a similar vein, Gattinoni said of Argentina, “The concern for the decline of democracy in recent times fundamentally goes through the judicial power.”
When I taught college students, they struggled with the distinction between legal and moral. Surely, they thought, if something is legal, it must be okay? Dollaga and Gattinoni emphasized that legal does not always mean just. We must pay attention to the effect of laws: How do they impact the poor and marginalized? Do they increase or decrease people’s ability to shape their own government?
Methodism as model of and advocate for democracy, even in undemocratic situations
I was struck in both of their pieces by the ways in which Methodism in Argentina and the Philippines has historically and today served as a model of democracy in its own structure and an advocate for democracy within wider society.
Gattinoni noted that Methodist polity “is conceptually democratic,” relying upon a system of elections and representation.
Both authors shared stories of Methodists engaged in advocacy for democracy on behalf of the rights of the poor and marginalized, even in the face of repressive and undemocratic regimes. Indeed, the Methodist witness was that much more dramatic in the face of government injustice. Often, that witness required a great deal of courage.
Gattinoni related the story of an Argentine Methodist church that was bombed in 1975 for its work with refugees fleeing from dictatorship in Chile. Dollaga wrote of current work in the Phillipines, “Red-tagging, maligning and persecution of prophetic voices in the Philippines continue. The democratic space and the mission and ministries of the Church with poor and marginalized communities are endangered.” She added, “Doing relief work used to be a ‘safe’ ministry. You would not get into trouble if you give soup to the hungry. Today, you become a suspect, and you can even be jailed.”
I can only be impressed and humbled by such courageous witnesses to God’s justice and wonder whether I would be similarly courageous if need be.
Biblical grounding for justice work
I noticed that both Dollaga and Gattinoni included scripture near the close of both of their pieces. Gattinoni quoted Psalm 85:10-13, and Dollaga quoted Amos 5:24. I took this as a sign that for both of them, this work is rooted not merely in abstract reflections on concepts of justice, but in justice as a quality of God, as revealed in the Bible.
That pushed me to do a bit of biblical study of my own on government and justice. I observed that the Bible repeatedly makes the connection between good government and treatment of the poor, as Dollaga and Gattinoni did.
In Psalm 72, King Solomon prays about himself, “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” In Isaiah 3:13-15, God judges the “elders and princes” because of their treatment of the poor. Proverbs 29 asserts in v. 2, “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked rule, the people groan,” and then clarifies a few verses later that “the righteous know the rights of the poor; the wicked have no such understanding.”
One of the fundamental convictions of this blog is the importance of learning across cultures and contexts. There has been a lot of recent conversation about democracy within my country (the United States). Reading Gattinoni’s and Dollaga’s pieces about the relationship between Methodism and democracy in their contexts has deepened my understanding of the topic and has helped shape how I think about the connection between Methodism and democracy in my context.