Almost without regard to the actual form some human government takes, the leaders of the governed population maintain that they rule in the manner in which they rule because that is what the people want. Even tyrannical dictators will typically claim they do what they do for the benefit of the people or because the people want it that way. Regardless of the mode of their accession to power, the claim is still made that all is “for” the people. One of the most stark examples of this phenomenon is the modern title “People’s Republic of” some nation.
The “vox populi,” which just means “voice of the people” in Latin, is a powerful force. In this blog I want to look at the vox populi from a fairly broad perspective. One underlying motivation is that what some often claim to be the vox populi is a very carefully orchestrated outcome produced by persons who wish to have power over the very people they claim to represent. When political leaders say, “the people want this” or “the people want that,” they often refer to something the leaders want the people to want. When the people want what the leaders want the people to want, then the leaders will become voices (voces is the Latin) for the people themselves in many cases. Such voices can take what is perceived to be the will of the people and package it in such a way as to bring power and control to the leaders in question. In the long run, this is inevitable in fact.
Don’t get me wrong. We are social creatures. As such, we find a great deal of comfort in the impression that what we want is what everybody else wants. We will, as individuals, typically go a long way to accommodate the desires of others when they are similar to our own desires – often even changing our ideas to match those of others. Conversely, we will look for company when we dissent from some otherwise popular desire. This is in the nature of human beings. It is typically also the stuff of the arguments of political leaders and movements.
Typically nations come into being because some segment of the population desires that it be so. Perhaps a particular ethnicity, that feels dis-enfranchised, militates in a way that causes a new nation to come forth. Such groups of people do have a rudimentary collective will or at least some elements of a collective will derived from some variety of causes. This collective will often exists regardless of the mode of political governance.
Because the vox populi is often quite ambiguous and fluid, it needs champions. The champions, political or otherwise, are useful in that they give some consistency to the vox populi. Typically we would expect the champions to be in fairly clear agreement with whatever the issue is. Of course, any given champion might be quite passionate about a related issue and try to move the current issue under consideration to a position it might not otherwise occupy. The point is that champions of some cause need some sense of the power given by vox populi but may reshape things to some extent in a way that the people might not have had in mind. In other words, these champions might try to shape the vox populi to reflect what the champions want and to influence the people who hold to the cause to believe they want what the champion wants.
An inherent assumption for examination of the vox populi is that a relatively large number of persons are included in the definition of the populus (people). Champions/leaders often go to quite extraordinary lengths to convince (even themselves) that the relevant populus is a very large proportion of the population in question. In particular they will try to convince the members of the greater population that the relevant populus represents nearly all of the whole population. The vox populi is, therefore, appealed to in order to convince the whole population to cede power of representation to the champion/leader.
It is unfair to suggest this is all a matter of malevolence on the part of champions/leaders. Much good can come of cooperative action in solving problems. The previous paragraph was intended to be morally neutral in this regard. The phenomenon is virtually the same whether the goal is laudable or reprehensible.
Obviously, the preceding discussion strongly implies public policy may be the target. I’ll plant a question here. Does God need the support of public policy to achieve His agenda? Is God’s agenda in some way inferior? Much modern political activity suggests that many people think so. This is not to say they intentionally want God to be sensitive to the vox populi but that the methods used are the same. This begs another question. Can the vox populi be generated by one or a few persons in order to promote their own agendas? If so, is the resultant argument really the vox populi?
Let’s move away from the political sector. I want to focus on the usefulness of the vox populi to God. Is He interested in the vox populi in terms of the Kingdom of God and its policies? Does He need to conduct a poll of the people in order to determine the courses of action He may take? Will He be overwhelmed by public sentiment as He goes about ruling His universe? These are important matters. Let’s examine a few instances from scripture to gain an understanding of His position on these questions.
Consider that many people were visiting Jerusalem from out of town during the Passover holiday season at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. The journey was often quite long and might be made only once, or very few times, in a lifetime. The whole family would likely have journeyed together, and it would be a perfect occasion to “show the kids around” in the central location of their identity as Jewish. Furthermore, they would be staying in crowded quarters. Likely, then, very large numbers of them would be in the streets of the city, during daylight hours in particular. The locals might well stay at home to avoid the crowds. Many of the visitors would have arrived near where the Roman trial of the “eccentric prophet” was being held. Others would be drawn by the ruckus as the trial proceeded. And would they then say “crucify him” because they knew anything, or would they be swept up to agree with the loudest voices? The vox populi was in action that day.
Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem took place because a mob formed in the temple area. Do we suppose most of the people there knew who Paul was? Do we assume that most of them even knew what the issue was that day? But Paul was quickly in danger of being killed when the Romans arrested him. The vox populi was in action that day.
Do we suppose that the people were being rational in the collective when they decided to return to Egypt after the spies report came back from Canaan? Do we believe the stirred up crowds were hearing from the Spirit of God when they attempted to hold an election to replace Moses? The vox populi was in action that day.
Of course there are alternatives to the vox populi. Maybe vox spiriti (voice of the Spirit) or vox dei (voice of God) would be better than vox populi? We’ll look at those things on other occasions. We might even find that the vox populi often stands in opposition to the vox dei.