In the struggle for democracy, the world should not forget the voice of Prophets

March 19, 2011
Published in The Times, 19th March 2011

Although this Credo on minority rights was first written as an article for The Times newspaper in March 2011, Rabbi Sacks also took the time to film a video recording, which you may like to watch here, or you can read the written piece below.

As political turmoil continues in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, it is worth reflecting on the nature of politics and the fundamental values it aspires to.

The West was shaped by two profoundly different civilisations, brought together in creative tension by Christianity. One was ancient Greece, the other ancient Israel: Hebraism and Hellenism as Matthew Arnold called them. Each gave us a political value but they were not the same.

The Hebrew Bible gave us the idea we call rights. A classic example occurred during the reign of King David. David, gifted warrior and religious poet, is guilty of a serious sin. He commits adultery with a woman called Bathsheba. To avoid detection he sends her husband Uriah to the front line of battle, where he dies.

The prophet Nathan is faced with the challenge of how to get the King to understand the wrongs he has done. He comes to David asking his advice. There is a town, he says, where there is a rich man and a poor man. The rich man has large flocks. The poor man has only one lamb, which he cares for as if it were one of his children. He shares his food with it and lets it sleep in his lap.

A visitor came to stay with the rich man, who was too mean to slaughter one of his own animals and instead seized the poor man’s lamb, from which he prepared a meal for his guest. What does David think of his conduct? Is it excusable?

David is righteously indignant. “The man deserves to die”, he says. “You”, says Nathan, “are the man.” David, to his credit, instantly understands and says, “I have sinned.” Note what is happening here, politically rather than morally.

Nathan is saying that the king has offended Uriah’s rights. He has taken his wife. One wrong leading to another, he is also responsible for Uriah’s death. The idea, common in the ancient world, that a king can seize what he likes, that might makes right, has no place in this story.

Uriah had rights, to his life and to the integrity of his marriage. Uriah was not an Israelite. He was a Hittite, what today we would call an ethnic minority, but that too does not affect the story. Its principle is that human rights set limits to the legitimate use of power.

To the Greeks we owe a different value, that of democracy, instituted in Athens twenty-six centuries ago by Solon. Like rights, democracy is a massive gain for human dignity, giving the people a share in power and turning rule into collective self-rule. But it did not last long. By the time we reach Plato, in the fourth pre-Christian century, he is already expressing his doubts, calling democracy a prelude to tyranny.

Democracy is rule by the majority, but it can lead, as John Stuart Mill put it, to the tyranny of the majority. Lord Acton, the great nineteenth century historian, explained what went wrong. It is bad, he said, to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. When a minority becomes corrupt it can be resisted by the majority. “But from the absolute will of an entire people there is no appeal, no redemption, no refuge.”

The Athenians, he said, were brave, patriotic, pious, tolerant and humane. They were the only people of antiquity to grow great through democratic institutions. Then he adds: “But the possession of unlimited power, which corrodes the conscience, hardens the heart, and confounds the understanding of monarchs, exercised its demoralising influence.” The emancipated people of Athens “became a tyrant.”

We tend to associate democracy with human rights and vice versa as if the one inevitably led to the other. But there is no necessary connection between them. The fact that for us they grew together has to do with the specific history of the West and the way it combined two different traditions.

Lord Acton drew an important conclusion. “The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.”

Minorities have rights, “inalienable rights” as Thomas Jefferson put it, but in a democracy they do not necessarily have power. The question then is: which prevails, rights or power?

I pray that in pursuit of democracy the world does not forget the voice of the prophets and the rights of minorities.