Democracy: Debate, Dissent, Discussion and Decision
In the life of States, organizations and movements decision making is an ongoing life process. History has witnessed many forms of governance and decision making. Kingship, autocracy, oligarchy, and democracy are some of them. The world has suffered from tyrant kings and reckless autocrats. Kingship has disappeared from many nations though many of the Middle Eastern countries are even now ruled by Kings and Sheikhs. For that matter, our own country emerged as a union of many small kingdoms.
Of all the forms of governance, democracy has been tested and found the best form of government. Democracy is government of the people by the people for the people. Our country is world’s largest democracy.
However, early church had a much simpler form of governance. They gathered together spent time in prayer and made decisions in one mind, probably guided by the elders. Their appointments and nominations were by casting lots. As the church grew up most of the mainline churches adopted democracy as their form of governance. Now CNI, CSI, MarThoma and many other churches are fully democratic. Yet, we cannot boast that our democratic process is without flaw. In many cases we fail to observe that salient features of democratic decision making process.
In order for us to make well informed choices, we need to be able to:
• engage meaningfully in open dialogue and debate, respecting and listening the views of others even if they are in the opposition.
• access relevant and objective information so that our views are well informed.
• feel safe and protected to express our own views. No one’s life should be threatened while making free expression of views including dissent.
• making a free decision without suffering or fearing harm to our lives.
Sri Pranab Mukherjee in his farewell speech as the President of India said,
“With the heightened complexity of administration, legislation must be preceded by scrutiny and adequate discussion. Scrutiny in committees is no substitute to open discussion on the floor of the House. When the Parliament fails to discharge its law-making role or enacts laws without discussion. I feel it breaches the trust reposed in it by the people of this great country.”
“…both Houses of the Parliament used to reverberate with animated discussions and illuminative and exhaustive debates on social and financial legislations. Listening to the stalwarts for hours and days in Parliament sitting in the Treasury or Opposition Benches, I felt one with the soul of this living institution. I understood the real value of debate, discussion and dissent. I realized how disruption hurts the opposition more than the government as it denies them the opportunity to raise the concerns of the people.”
Amartya Sen says,
We must not identify democracy with majority rule. Democracy has complex demands, which certainly include voting and respect for election results, but it also requires the protection of liberties and freedoms, respect for legal entitlements and the guaranteeing of free and uncensored distribution of news and fair comment. Even elections can be deeply defective if they occur without the different sides getting an adequate opportunity to present their respective cases, or without the electorate enjoying the freedom to obtain news and to consider the views of competing protagonists. (Sen, 1999, pp.9-10)
In Democracy Debate, Dissent and Discussion are inevitable parts of Decision making.
Now let us examine two cases from the Bible where discussion and debate have helped to make decisions.
1. Let us look at an instance of discussion. Mark 27-30. Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi.
On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
This is a short summary of a discussion among Jesus and his disciples. Theologians say that this was an occasion of developing Messianic consciousness in the mind of Jesus. Probably he wanted to use his disciples as an echo-board and hence this question to them. The Biblical narrative is limited in few words. We are sure that there were long discussions about this issue before Peter made his famous faith declaration. The disciples were free to make their opinions and Jesus listened to all of them. Then, Jesus elicited his own disciples’ opinion. This discussion helped to conform the messianic consciousness in the mind of Jesus and to share that great truth with his disciples.
2. Let us take another case of debate, dissent and discussion which led to a very meaningful decision in the life of the Church. It is the Jerusalem Council. Acts 15:1-35. The Church had to make a serious theological decision and a change in their “constitution” regarding membership of the church. We all know the context. It was about circumcision. The Jewish converts in the Church insisted that even if the gentiles want to be members of the Church they have to be circumcised first. Peter originally was with them. However, after the vision of the big basket from heaven and God’s admonition that he should not consider anything unclean which God has cleansed, Peter changed his view and faith. Paul from the beginning preached that salvation is not by circumcision but by grace and for that matter gentiles had direct access to salvation through faith, not needing circumcision. This issue would have broken the church.
Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. They expressed their dissent. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. They travelled to Jerusalem.
The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are. The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.
When they finished, James spoke up: “Brothers, listen to me. Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.
They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, two men who were leaders among the brothers. With them they sent the following letter: “The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul – men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these thing. Farewell.” The men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message.
Here, we see how dissent was contained amicable through debate and discussions which ensured the participation of all concerned. It resulted in changing attitudes, reaching agreements and resolving a complicated problem.
The Lessons we need to learn
In the administrative bodies of our churches and institutions we must make best use of the four Ds” – Debate, Dissent, Discussion and Decision-making. These four “Ds” are based on the dignity of all people, space for all people, freedom of expression for all people and conscious participation of all in making decisions that affect our lives. It will be ideal to reach consensus and not to engage in divisive voting. We must recognize the fact that “dissent” help us to understand the “other side” of the issue. Consensus is now practiced in all meetings of WCC and other international organizations.
Why do we fall in our democratic process?
1. Lack of information and awareness. We can actively participate only if we are well informed. Information is power. Those who want to manipulate always withhold vital information and keep people in darkness.
2. Personal agenda and greed. Those leaders who come with their hidden agenda and greed prohibit people from debate and discussion. They would use all kinds of pressure tactics to keep people silent.
3. Money and Muscle power. Members of the decision making bodies are often threatened by money and muscle power of a few. Many are bought with money. Those who do not fall to such temptations are kept under pressure of various kinds of threats. The list can go on…
The Challenge before us
We have to train ourselves by practicing these three “Ds”. For that, we need to have some pre-requisites in our leadership. They have been mentioned earlier. Respect for all people, willingness to listen to the opinion of others, especially those who hold opinions different from ours and above all, a just, truthful and transparent approach. Let us make a new commitment to practice and develop a leadership which is pleasing to God and beneficial to all God’s people.
Rt. Rev. Dr. P.C. Singh
President, National Council of Churches in India (NCCI); Deputy Moderator Church of North India (CNI); Bishop of Jabalpur Diocese – CNI.
Note: This was one of the messages delivered by Rt. Rev. Dr. P.C. Singh during the annual meetings of NCCI and CSA which were held in Ranchi on August 22-23, 2017.
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