Democracy, Disillusionment, and Glimpses of Hope….Oh My!
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To be honest, democracy has got me down these days. The overarching driving force of this down-ness is the bedlam of national elections in the United States and Zambia this year. Demagoguery crosses the world and mixes with ideologuery, creating a mess of roguery and violence—social, emotional, and physical—sometimes strategically targeted and sometimes aimlessly indiscriminate. It’s frightening and exhausting in a global sense.
The more specific democracy blues I have, though, are the result of TEEZ’s biennial organizational meeting this past weekend. We have been facing some significant mountains in the office over the past several months (financial woes, a botched leadership transition, and subsequent loss of confidence by stakeholders), and we had perhaps naively placed our hope in this meeting to move those mountains, or at least help us to summit them. This meeting was attended by high-level leaders from our member churches as well as a couple of former TEEZ directors and training managers. In other words, these should have been the people most aptly placed to help us work through our difficulties and come to some healthy resolutions.
It quickly became clear, however, that the scourge of institutionalism would plague this institutional democracy. There was a lot of passion in the room to tackle the aforementioned mountains by debating what had befallen the organization in order to address the causes and develop solutions. The chairperson of the meeting, though, had a direct interest in blocking this conversation; the botched leadership transition and loss of confidence by stakeholders could ultimately be laid at his feet. So, masterfully exploiting parliamentary procedure, he stopped the debate in its tracks. He used a strategically vague agenda to punt contentious questions to other parts of the meeting and then used time constraints to cut them short in those punted-to other parts. When debate did break through his barriers he maintained a strict “speak through the chair” method that silenced natural conversation. He would listen, nod, and then say that there were no motions presented and therefore no actions to be taken.
In my life I have been to many such meetings in which the exact same thing happened. Rules that are meant to ensure equality of representation and input for the sake of a just and fruitful discussion in a meeting with the sole purpose of serving the mission of a certain institution are manipulated to do the exact opposite. The result is that those with regularly disproportionate power control what is presented and what is resolved. Other voices are marginalized and brushed off. The status quo is maintained. The leaders insulate themselves from criticism and blame. All others feel trapped by the rules but don’t know how to respond because we place so much faith in these rules. Unreasonable plans and demands are placed on the implementers of the organization’s mission by those who make decisions but have no clue whatsoever about the actual goings-on of the organization. The real issues go unaddressed. Afterwards everybody smiles and congratulates each other on the success of the meeting. It frustrates me to the point of rage every single time.
This time was no exception. I was furious. Weeks of hard work by our office to facilitate this meeting seemed wasted and unappreciated. It was a slap in the face for our staff who have dedicated themselves to this ministry for decades. And all of this was so that those with power could dodge responsibility and still maintain their power. At the end of the meeting the quorum nearly unanimously voted to keep him as chairperson for the next two years. Ouch.
Obviously I am still riled up about this meeting. I recognize that this is so because I feel such deep passion for this organization, its staff, and its mission. It is also so because it is a microcosm of what goes on in the macrocosm. Disenfranchisement and impunity are very real phenomena in all democratic institutions. People with institutional power exploit the system for their own gain. The voices of those without power are drowned out or even stopped before they can be vocalized. We have given the name “democracy” to a process that is fundamentally undemocratic. Because we have idolized and idealized democracy, we then see any challenge thereof as blasphemous. Such is the case even though the thing as it is practiced is not actually the thing that we have christened it to be.
My disillusionment is all the more potent because the democratic institution is what makes Presbyterian polity…well, Presbyterian. Our distinct form of governance is exactly this system of committee and assembly meetings that make decisions for the implementation of the mission of the Church. So, in order for me to exist in this specific expression of the body of Christ, I will need to come to terms with the polity. It is something in which I deeply believe theoretically. My lived experience, though, makes me doubt the possibility in practice.
I am thus learning that I need to explore creative expressions of true democracy. I need to seek out the Holy Spirit’s movements through and in spite of current democratic systems. I need to find more examples of people breaking through the exploitations and manipulations of those with power. I need to experience rules of discussion that maintain equality rather than reinforce power relationships. Maybe this will require a radical restructuring of the very institution of a meeting. Maybe it will simply mean getting back to the spirit that created the rules to begin with…before they were mastered and monopolized by an oligarchic few. Maybe it will be an entirely new creation.
And I have had glimpses of hope. In the U.S. movements like Black Lives Matter are challenging the very systems of democratic institutions, breaking through inscribed barriers. Judges are finally striking down draconian attacks on voters’ rights in many states, re-enfranchising thousands. In Zambia there is a history of single party rule moving to a multiple party system. This year there will be more positions chosen by popular election than ever before. In the Presbyterian church our assembly-based decisions are slowly marching us towards progress. I have seen Sessions and committees that operate with love as a foundation rather than power. Even in this TEEZ meeting I saw hope in a few individuals who refused to back down from challenging the chair. I saw hope in especially the women representatives who stood up and said, “Nope. We know what is happening and we know what should be happening. This isn’t our first rodeo. We will make this organization great again.”
I pray that these glimpses of hope along with exploration of effective and creative action will get me through. Please do let me know if you have experiences of democratic systems that work for all the people involved, especially in the Church.