Anocracy – an unfamiliar word becoming ever more common. It is used by those who study the health of democracys. Anocracies are places where democratic institutions are being diminished and autocratic practices are growing. In such states legal, electoral, economic and legislative functions shift to more and more autocratic behaviors. Sometimes referred to as illiberal democracies or reduced democracies, such governments, without countermeasures, move inevitably closer to full blown dictatorships and in many places civil war ensues.
I carry in my mind a 2017 image of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Czech Foreign Minister Ivo Sramek rowing a small boat on a lake in Kent. Considering the anocratic tendencies in Czechoslovakia of late — and for that matter Great Britain — one wonders if these two men at the time were pulling together or against one another as the currents of illiberalism were surging? The strength of democratic institutions is being challenged the world around. We see it up close in the United States.
An insurgent mob attacks the Capitol building a year ago seeking to block the installation of a new president; state legislatures pass measures to challenge voting rights and favor one set of citizens over another in electoral districts; school board meetings turn ugly with threats and name-calling substituted for honest debate; the ideological divisions evident in our media grow; health measures like vaccinations and wearing face masks to protect from the Covid-19 virus are turned into political wedge issues; and, even (especially) one’s religious perspective is tied to one partisian political agenda. Barbara F. Walter, political science professor at UC San Diego has studied the emergence of anocracies for years. She says “the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.” (See Dana Milbank, The Washington Post, 12/16/21)
Perhaps you have heard of the illustration of a person in a row boat who will only pull on one oar. Yes, as the metaphor goes, the rower will simply go around in circles. If one is to make it to a distant shore, both oars are necessary. In healthy governments, there needs to be the safe and secure contribution made by those who are in power balanced by the safe and secure participation of those who are being governed.
For years I have been troubled by the tendency to turn every issue into a dichotomy, a binary choice with little room for hearing, seeing or learning from another side. This is common in anocracies — forcing complex issues into simplistic either/or choices. My guess is that in times of change, fear or unrest, there is a tendancy toward this inability to see another view. In the process divisions increase and become even more accute. My brain scientist friends tell me this is the case. The prefrontal cortex takes over. The ability to see more broadly or think more clearly is reduced. It is fight or flight time.
What is true in nations, large systems, and community institutions is also true within persons. I recall the Joni Mitchell song “Both Sides Now.” Many singers recorded the song — my favorite was Judy Collins’ rendition. The lyric closes with:
Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say, “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way
But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well, something’s lost but something’s gained
In living every day
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all.
For people of faith, especially for Christians and Jews, our scriptures are full of images that call us beyond simplistic illusions. Dualistic thinking tempts us to miss the mark. For example, there is the illusion that religion is primarily an individual’s experience and option. Others suggest it is soley a social engagement. Some seem to proclaim that faith is sufficient as a guide toward piety, while others see faith as only valuable if it focuses on social justice. Healthy, whole, and wholesome religiousity moves beyond such simplistic patterns of either/or toward the richness of inclusion, paradox, and a welcome to ever-new-unfolding-understandings of transcendence.
I was struck then, and deeply saddened, by a news article last fall of my alma mater joining in the efforts against a national vaccine mandate proposed to curb disease and death. As Kate Shellnutt writes in Christianity Today, Novmber 5, 2021 (Updated 12/20/21). Asbury Theological Seminary (joined Southern Baptist Seminary) in a legal challenge seeking emergency relief “from enforcement of the mandate, which asks businesses with over 100 employees to require COVID-19 vaccination, with any unvaccinated workers required to wear mask and undergo regular testing.”
Such “one-oared perspectives” endanger and misslead. They seem to miss entirely the gospel’s call of caring for the neighbor. One can almost overhear in this legal challenge the question of the young man to Jesus, “And, who is my neighbor?” One wonders if the seminary should not be returning the more than $780,000 from the federal government in the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) received during the pandemic.
No doubt, were the issue about “government interference” related to scholarship aid for the students or receipt of federal funds to keep the community roadways and railways safe, the seminary might decide there is a “greater good.” Did the seminary speak up when, only a few years ago, medicaid relief was denied the poor in Kentucky? Or, what about the current challenge to the child tax credit that has lifted millions out of poverty? Surely the seminary has spoken out about this injustice. Crickets… nothing on such “federal interventions” related to how our society treats the poor.
Sadly, it is transparent that Asbury Seminary’s opposition to public safety and the commonweal are more about joining school’s mission to that of the Republican Party. In the likelihood that Row vs. Wade abortion laws are overturned or made moot by upcoming Supreme Court decisions, the seminary’s support for individual freedom will no doubt melt away.
The seminary’s choice to prefer a political stance, “masked up” as individual or institutional freedom displays a tragic disregard for the health of the larger community. At a time when a witness could be offered to the love of neighbor, it is rather set aside for a political agenda. In so doing, the whole gospel becomes an illusion. A great opportunity has been missed — and a disregard for sharing and living the wider Biblical narrative is lost. A one-sided, dualistic choice, this political stance is evident. Sadly, such a narrow view is put to use by those who seek to diminish our democracy. It no doubt pleases many constituents whose theology and politics are shaped by believing the scriptures are simply about individual sin and salvation. It causes one to wonder where the wisdom of Luther or Wesley, who spoke of choosing the common good in times of pandemic, has gone. It is, to my great sadness, a contributor to the anocracy apparent in our nation.
There have been many in this Asbury family who taught that individual freedom always comes in clear linkage with social responsibility. I think of beloved professors like Gilbert James and Bob Lyon — and before them Claude Thompson and Bob Shuler II. (I will be sharing more about Gilbert James in the next blog.) In my time as a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we were still suffering from the de facto racial segregation that had kept Asbury institutions rowing around in circles — an important witness to the wider world lost. Only a handful of African American students were welcomed. Many at the time felt it was not the government’s role to encourage racial integration in schools. Fortunately, others at the school and in society saw a larger vision, one that cared for the whole and not just for the political advantage of the segregationists.
My prayer is that God’s spirit will allow the faithful at Asbury, and in other such settings where options are narrowed to simple dualistic choices, to remember and revise their message announcing the breadth of God’s care for all people, communities and creation – personal and social – Both Sides Now.