That government is best which governs the least,
because its people discipline themselves.
– Thomas Jefferson
I contend that good national government is due to
the constitution of the people, not to the constitution of the government.
– Judah Freed
This post continues my reflections on freedom, exploring the topic from an evolutionary perspective. I am finding this perspective helpful, especially as we struggle today both globally and personally with finding a proper balance between individual rights and the common good.
I am relying primarily on the insights of Judah Freed, from his book, Global Sense: Awakening Your Power to Save the World . Freed’s book was inspired by the essay by Thomas Paine, Common Sense, published in the British Colonies in North America in January, 1776. Historians credit Paine’s essay with galvanizing the colonials to rebel against the British.
In the essay, Paine explores the nature of government and encourages the colonials to embrace self rule. Freed updates Paine’s arguments using contemporary challenges and information from modern sciences, especially psychology. He applies Paine’s reasoning on a global scale, laying out a plan for the establishment of global democracy while also calling each of us to our own self-liberation.
Freed’s (2008) viewpoint attracts me largely because of its focus on the relationship between global democracy and personal psychological and spiritual growth. He writes: “Changing our world must start with changing ourselves” (32)
Lately, I have been to several presentations where the speaker blamed one or another of our current world problems (e.g., the economic crisis, or global warming) on “The Government,” or “Wall Street,” or “Multi-national Corporations.” For as long as I can remember, I have resisted such a collective labeling. “Don’t tell me about ‘The Government,’ or ‘Wall Street,’ or ‘Corporation such and such,’ ” I have found myself saying. “There is no such thing. There are only people. People making decision based on who they are and what they want.” I know now to say, “There are only people. People whose consciousness has been shaped in a certain way. The only way things will change is if we change that consciousness.”
Mindful self rule and personal democracy
Freed suggests that it will only be through our own individual efforts at “mindful self rule” and “personal democracy” that we will achieve the global peace we seek. “Our goal is self liberation and inner peace. A free society and peaceful world follows” (12). This is how he connects the global with the local.
Freed defines mindful self rule as “the art of making ethical or moral choices about how we live.” When we move beyond choices that affect only ourselves, we enter the realm of personal democracy, bringing our mindful self rule into the world. Freed writes:
When I offer amends to anyone I’ve treated badly, that’s an act of personal democracy. When I buy organic food grown close to my city, that’s personal democracy. When I go to a peaceful rally to protest rights abuse, that’s personal democracy. When I vote my conscience on election day, that’s very definitely an act of personal democracy” (10).
Freedtakes his approach to government from Paine, whom he quotes: “Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence. The palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of [our] conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, we would need no other lawgiver” (13).
Losing our self rule to government
Writing in the 18th century, Paine offered an evolutionary approach to the rise of tyrannical governments using a parable about a small group of people who settled together on an island. In his view, it is the problem of size which eventually leads this small group to the problem of tyranny. Initially, he explains, when the group is small, it practices inclusive democracy (one voice, one vote). This requires everyone to be self aware and to practice the kind of self rule and personal democracy that Freed describes.
Eventually, the group grows in size to a stage that requires representative democracy in order to accommodate those who can not travel the distance or do not have the time to enter into decision-making. It becomes known as a republic. As time goes on, a full nation is born. However, its process of government begins to take a toll on individual freedom and self rule. As Freed summarizes:
Life in a republic diverts people from recalling their earlier life in a direct democracy. They forget about once being joined in making every decision together. Their memories of living without a government vanish. They forget all about once practicing self rule.
Eventually, “access to leadership becomes tightly controlled. The government loses all accountability.” The people become caught in feelings of apathy and powerlessness, as more and more decisions seem to be made without any feelings of community. This goes on until the loss of freedoms slides into tyranny. At this stage, the people’s only choice is to allow the government to continue to enslave them, or revolt.
Paine’s parable, as I have said, relies on the assumption that it is the growing size of the group settled on the island which is at the heart of the problem of loss of freedom. However, I look at it another way. Reading Paine’s parable in Freed’s book reminded me of a lecture I gave at a conference last summer in Ireland. In the lecture, I used a similar story about a small group that evolved in size and structure, but drew a different conclusion. First, I’ll share the story as written for the lecture, and follow with my insights.
The story is from the Bible, and we take it up in the Acts of the Apostles just following the description of Jesus’ final leave-taking. His followers are returning from Mount Olivet to Jerusalem:
Entering the city, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying: Peter and John and James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alpheus; Simon, the Zealot party member, and Judas son of James. Together they devoted themselves to constant prayer. There were some women in the company, and Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers (Acts: 1:12-14).
Like Paine’s island settlers, we have in this story a small group of people who know one another well – they know each other so well the writer is able to list them by name, even some of their family members.
What follows next in this story from Acts is the Pentecost event, which drives this little company out of their place of hiding and into the streets to preach the message of Jesus. Those who hear the message and accept it are baptized. Those who join the community that day, we are told, numbered “some three thousand” (Acts 2:41).
A few verses later, we hear more of the story of this new community:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need….There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought up the proceeds of what was sold (Acts: 2:44-45).
In this passage, we see that this community of people, despite their growth in numbers, is still able to come in the egalitarian and inclusive spirit of their leader and teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, whom they seek to emulate. Somehow, despite even now numbering in the thousands, they still know each other well; they must, for they are aware of one another’s needs. They attend to those needs through their generous spirit.
However, very soon, we hear in the story that a problem arises, initiating an interesting response:
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “…select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word. The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem” (Acts: 1:12-14, 2:44-45, 4:34, 6:1-4, 7).
What are some of the things we notice here? First, the community is still increasing in size, and second, a dispute arises. We know that it originates with the Hellenists, who presumably are some of the newest members of the community, and therefore perhaps less known by the Hebrew members. They complain that their widows are being overlooked. Lastly, we learn of the naming of the “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” who are now given the responsibility to oversee the distribution of the community’s goods.
Like Paine, one might want to say that the problem for our early Christian community began with its growing size. There is no way, apparently, to avoid the slippery slope, as Paine suggests, from self rule to representative government, to tyranny. Yet, is there another possibility? Let me offer one, from the viewpoint of the New Cosmology and our dynamics present in our Universe.
How our Universe organizes
We are realizing today that our own Milky Way Galaxy contains perhaps 100 billion stars, not to mention countless planets and their moons in orbit around them. Our Universe, so the scientists say, holds perhaps more than 100 billion of these galaxies. Our minds can barely conceive of these numbers. Still, all those billions of galaxies seem to hold together and the whole thing appears to function very well indeed; and strangely our scientists have yet to discover any bureaucracy keeping it together and running smoothly.
Evidently, when it comes to how a collective of galaxies, planets, or people organizes itself, size is not the single factor about which we need to be concerned. If not size, then that leaves us with issues of process, structure and function.
It was, I would suggest, not size but the institutionalization of the early Christian community, and especially the form that institutionalization took, that led us on the path to where we are today.
For, we need to note that there were other elements operating in our Acts community besides size. One of them has come to be called patriarchy (rule of the fathers). Essentially, patriarchy is the systematic power and privilege given by certain societies to males and to so-called “masculine,” self-assertive ways of thinking and behaving.
Sally Helgesen, a leadership consultant and the first to write about women’s alternative ways of organizing, invites us in her book, The Web of Inclusion, to consider an alternative way to think about organizational structure and function. She suggests a pattern of structure and processes for communication and decision making that is not hierarchical, but circular. As in the image of a spider’s web, Helgesen notes, the women’s organizations she studied place the leader not at the top, but at the center, always working to know and include those on the margins. These women communicate constantly in order to build consensus. They focus on “what needs to be done rather than who has the authority to do it” (p. 20).
I would suggest, then, that rather than size, there may be a connection between patriarchy and the loss of our ability in contemporary nations to practice self rule and personal democracy. There also may be lessons we can learn from Our Universe in recognizing this connection, and creating news ways of being together in freedom.
Freed raises the issue of patriarchy in a chapter of his book called, “The Hazards of Male Rule.” I address this topic in another post.
Freed, J. (2008) Global sense: Awakening your power to save the world. Denver, CO: Media Visions. [3rd edition.]
Helgesen, S. (1995) The web of inclusion: A new architecture for building great organizations. New York, NY: Currency