Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

22 April 2014

Defying authority in obedience to authority: Milgram's experiment

Half a century ago, a junior faculty member at Yale University undertook a notorious experiment familiar to anyone who has taken an introductory psychology course. Stanley Milgram set up the experiment to find out the extent to which people will obey authority. This was motivated, in large measure, by the horrors that had taken place scarcely two decades earlier in Nazi-occupied Europe, where large numbers of otherwise decent people were caught up in an effort to eliminate entire categories of humanity.

In the experiment, two persons came into the laboratory. One of them, designated the “teacher,” believed he would be taking part in a study of learning and memory. The other person, designated the “learner,” was an actor privy to the real aim of the experiment. The learner was brought into a room, strapped into a chair, and attached to electrical wires. The teacher was put before the console of a formidable looking machine which, he was told, controlled the amount of electricity flowing through the wires into the body of the learner. The teacher was to ask questions of the learner, and each time the learner made an error, was instructed to administer successively higher doses of electricity to him.

In reality, of course, no shocks were ever given or received. The real test was to determine how far the subject/teacher would go in carrying out orders, even when hearing the agonizing cries of the victim/learner at the end of the wires. Would the subject break off the experiment, thereby defying authority, because he believed he was being commanded to do something wrong? Or would the subject, upon being assured by the white-coated experimenter that he assumed full responsibility, continue to administer “shocks” even up to the dangerous level of 450 volts?

Read the entire article here.

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02 April 2014

The Niagara Psalter

I have now found a provisional title for my second psalter project: The Niagara Psalter. Read all about it here.

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28 March 2014

Solzhenitsyn on Russia and Ukraine

The late novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn comes as close as anyone to being one of my heroes. In the midst of the darkest days of the Soviet regime, he stood fast for his convictions, explicitly rejecting Marxism-Leninism and embracing the Christian gospel. Yet he was also very much the Russian nationalist, which prompts me to wonder how, if he had lived a little longer, he would have responded to the recent crisis in Ukraine and Crimea, which came to a head earlier this month.

We cannot know this for certain, of course, but based on his writings, I rather think he would not have taken the side of the West in arguing for the inviolability of interstate boundaries. This is from his book, The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century:
Russia has truly fallen into a torn state: 24 million have found themselves “abroad” without moving anywhere, by staying on the lands of their fathers and grandfathers. Twenty-five million – the largest diaspora in the world by far; how dare we turn our back to it?? – especially since local nationalisms (which we have grown accustomed to view as quite understandable, forgivable, and “progressive”) are everywhere suppressing and maltreating our severed compatriots.

Along with this awareness of the ethnic Russian diaspora in the so-called Near Abroad, Solzhenitsyn had already expressly favored a political union of the three Slavic republics in his Rebuilding Russia. Ukrainians, he opined there, should not be forced into such a “Russian Union,” but separation of Ukraine from Russia, if it were to come to that, should be settled only on the local, rather than the republican, level. One assumes this would entail allowing those parts of Ukraine, including Crimea, that feel themselves to be more Russian than Western, to stay with the larger Russian Union, if they so desire, while permitting the more nationalistic oblasts in the west to go their own way.

Solzhenitsyn explicitly addresses the plight of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, calling attention to what he sees as their mistreatment at the hands of those who would proclaim: “Ukraine for the Ukrainians!”
A sizeable portion of the ethnic Ukrainian population itself does not even use or have command of the Ukrainian language. (The native language for 63 percent of the population is Russian, while ethnic Russians make up only 22 percent of the population; i.e., in Ukraine, for every Russian there are two “non-Russians” who nonetheless consider Russian to be their mother tongue!) (Russian Question, 91)

Add to this his reference to “the false Leninist borders of Ukraine (including even the Crimean dowry of the petty tyrant Khrushchov)” (90), and we can be reasonably confident that the famed Russian author would be squarely on the side of Vladimir Putin.

I am reluctant to conclude too quickly that Solzhenitsyn would be guilty of the sin to which his colleague Evgeny Barabanov pointed decades ago when he stated that “we shall be obliged to acknowledge that in Byzantium and Russia ideas about the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar too often merged and became interchangeable.” But Solzhenitsyn’s nationalism was his great blind spot.

The late Orthodox theologian, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, had wide-ranging discussions with the novelist in the mid-1970s and made some revealing observations on this encounter in his personal journals. Among other things Schmemann wrote of
Solzhenitsyn’s “idolizing obsession with Russia” (p. 65). “For [Solzhenitsyn] there is only Russia. For me, Russia could disappear, die, and nothing would change in my fundamental vision of the world. ‘The image of the world is passing.’ This tonality of Christianity is quite foreign to him” (p. 61).

While one can understand Solzhenitsyn’s concern for ethnic Russian minorities, his nationalism is off-putting. Changing interstate boundaries at the whim of the powerful, however strong the justification might be for territorial adjustments, is a recipe for the sort of irredentist bloodletting that marred the first half of the twentieth century, in which Solzhenitsyn himself was caught up.

Yet even our greatest heroes usually distinguish themselves in one area for which they properly earn recognition. Much as we do not look to the great scientists and inventors to produce great poetry or art, so we read Solzhenitsyn, not for his expertise in international relations, but for his considerable insight into the human condition and into a world that has largely forgotten its dependence on God.

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27 March 2014

Sweetness and power: reflections on nationalism


Honey from the Lion: Christianity and the Ethics of Nationalism

BOOK REVIEW:
Honey from the Lion: Christianity and the Ethics of Nationalism 
by Doug Gay. SCM Press, 2013. 192 pp.

Later this year, citizens of Scotland will vote in a referendum whether to continue their country's 300-year-old union with England or to go it alone. For author Doug Gay, the possibility of Scottish independence provides an occasion for reflecting on the larger issues surrounding nationalism. Is nationalism a good thing? Or is it, as many Christians have historically believed, an idolatrous overestimation of one's nation at the expense of other image-bearers of God elsewhere? Gay's project here is to defend nationalism based on his Reformed tradition of Christianity, an admittedly tall order, given nationalism's dark history.

The title comes from the Samson cycle of stories in the biblical book of Judges, in which the flawed Israelite hero scoops honey from the carcass of a lion he has earlier killed (Judges 14:5-9), and from the Tate & Lyle syrup cans familiar to Scottish households from the late nineteenth century. "The relationship between lions and honey I read (freely) as a metaphor for the central question of political theology and political ethics—the relationship between power and virtue." Although nationalism has indeed led to grave injustices and oppressive polities, it need not do so. Accordingly, Gay undertakes to defend a modest and "sweet" vision of nationalism that is more compatible with the Christian faith than, say, the version in Quebec, which aims to snuff faith from the public square.

Gay defines nationalism as "the making of combined claims, on behalf of a population, to identity, to jurisdiction and to territory." His use of the word claim is significant in that it points to the need to weigh and assess something, particularly against contrary claims in a public forum. What I read him to say here is that there is nothing automatically right and salutary in Scottish independence. Whether or not Scotland should be a sovereign nation-state is ultimately a prudential judgement about whether justice for its people would be better served in a United Kingdom or in a separate country. After weighing the relevant factors, he believes a separate Scotland is a defensible goal for the serious Christian.

Read the entire review here.

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26 March 2014

We Answer to Another: latest news

My fellow Canadians may be interested to know that my book is now posted on amazon.ca, although actual copies are not yet in stock. Be patient.

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The Court has spoken: the Nadon decision

The Supreme Court of Canada has handed the Harper government a setback over his attempt to have Marc Nadon appointed to that same court: Supreme Court says non to Nadon; federal government 'genuinely surprised'.

By rejecting Justice Marc Nadon, Harper's sixth and most recent pick for the nine-member bench, the remaining Supremes laid down constitutional markers that could proscribe the government's future plans for Senate reform, electoral changes and the appointment of judges.

Not only was Nadon, a semi-retired Federal Court of Appeal justice, found to not have the proper qualifications laid out in the Supreme Court Act for a Quebec nominee to the top bench, but the government's efforts to rewrite the rules were thwarted.

The government does not have the authority to amend the Act, wrote six of seven judges, saying "the unanimous consent of Parliament and all provincial legislatures is required for amendments to the Constitution relating to the 'composition of the Supreme Court.'"

Unlike its American counterpart, the Constitution Act, 1867, originally titled the British North America Act, did not establish a supreme court for Canada. Section 101 of that act went only so far as to authorize the federal government to establish a "General Court of Appeal for Canada." Even when a Supreme Court was established eight years later, it was not technically supreme at all, since it was still possible to appeal its decisions to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, in effect the highest court of appeal in the British Empire. It became supreme in reality only in 1949, when all appeals to the JCPC were abolished, under the authority granted to Parliament by the Statute of Westminster of 1931. Even then the last JCPC decision relevant to Canada was handed down as late as 1959, because the appeal at issue was initiated more than ten years earlier.

Andrew Coyne believes the Nadon decision was a bad one based on a strained reading of the Supreme Court Act, which requires that three of the nine justices be appointed from the bar of Québec, because of that province's unique civil code which is based on the Roman law rather than the English common law. I will not comment on that particular angle, as I am more interested in what the court's decision does to the Supreme Court Act itself. According to the text of the decision:

The Supreme Court Act was enacted in 1875 as an ordinary statute under the authority of s. 101 of the Constitution Act, 1867 (S.C. 1875, c.11). However, as we explain below, Parliament’s authority to amend the Act is now limited by the Constitution. Sections 5 and 6 of the Supreme Court Act reflect an essential feature of the Supreme Court of Canada — its composition — which is constitutionally protected under Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982.

Canada's constitution is not embodied in a single document, as in the United States. In general, there can be said to be four sources of our constitution. First and most obvious are our Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982, which are entrenched documents protected by more than one amending formula necessitating a qualified majority or, in some cases, unanimity to change. Second are so-called organic statutes, ordinary acts of Parliament whose subject matter is of a constitutional nature. These would include the Supreme Court Act, the Canadian Bill of Rights and the Canada Elections Act. The third source can be found in court decisions made under these acts, and the fourth in the unwritten conventions crucial to the functioning of parliamentary government in a Westminster-style political system.

As mentioned above, the Constitution Act, 1982, makes provision for amending our Constitution Acts. In general, amendment requires the approval of both chambers of Parliament and the provincial legislatures of at least seven provinces containing at least 50 percent of Canada's population. However, some matters, including "the composition of the Supreme Court of Canada" (41[d]), require unanimous approval by the two federal parliamentary chambers and all ten provincial legislatures.

Not knowing the history of judicial interpretation of this section, I cannot say whether this current reference decision represents something new, but what stands out for me is that it appears to elevate the Supreme Court Act to the status of an entrenched constitution act rather than a mere organic statute on a par with other statutes. On the other hand, if the unanimity requirement applies only to "the composition of the Supreme Court of Canada," then perhaps only that part of the Supreme Court Act that touches on that issue can be said to have entrenched status.

Better legal minds than mine may already have weighed in on this issue. I've not researched it myself, and I probably will not be doing so in the near future, but I thought I would at least raise it here to see what sort of response, if any, it might elicit.

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24 March 2014

Interview posted

On his Accidental Blog, Steve Bishop has posted an interview he conducted with me on the occasion of the publication of my new book. Here's an excerpt:

So, why should we read it?

Because it treats a phenomenon that is absolutely central to human life in God's world. Even when we think we are evading authority, we really do nothing of the sort. Each chapter begins with a story relevant to its subject matter. The introductory chapter starts with a day in the life of Michael, a university undergraduate who is engaged in all of the typical activities of the student. I've read this story to classrooms and audiences and asked them to describe each encounter Michael has with some manifestation of authority. It quickly becomes apparent that authority is ubiquitous. It is apparent at every turn, for example, in the calendar that governs his life, the professor's teaching authority and even in his own authority as student.

In our contemporary society, it is almost automatically assumed, primarily under Immanuel Kant's influence, that the mature adult must attain moral autonomy and question critically every directive that authority makes. When I was much younger, I think I would have found this a persuasive position, especially in the wake of the civil rights revolution, the Vietnam War and, of course, Watergate. Yet in the real world this is impossible. It is impossible to question authority in general. If we see fit to question specific manifestations of authority – as indeed we must – then we necessarily do so based on some other authority which we accord priority. This is what the apostles did in the book of Acts when they claimed to be obeying God rather than mere human beings (e.g., Acts 5:27-29).

Sometimes I'll ask my students who they think has authority in the classroom. Invariably they will point to me. Yes, I tell them, but I'm not the only one; you have authority too! Not the same authority, but authority no less. Everyone has an authoritative office within the classroom. Koyzis has the office of professor, while those responding to my question possess the office of student. Each office bears authority and is worthy of respect accordingly.

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23 March 2014

Too much democracy?


A century ago, during the Progressive Era in the United States, would-be reformers went about trying to democratize more thoroughly an already democratic political system. In 1913 the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution provided for direct election of Senators, who had previously been appointed by the several state legislatures. Even the method of selecting a presidential candidate was reformed to bring more popular participation to the nomination process.

In 1933 one-time presidential aspirant Al Smith observed that the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy. But might it be possible to over-democratize a political system to its detriment?

Here in Canada our head of state inherits her office. The Queen has been an exemplary public servant during her lengthy reign, but no one can pretend she was chosen according to the merit principle or by popular acclamation. Our Senate is similarly filled by appointment, despite abortive efforts at reforming the upper chamber of Parliament. Yet we too were influenced by Progressive Era reforms of a hundred years ago.

Prior to 1919 a party leader in the House of Commons was chosen by the party’s parliamentary caucus. However, that year saw the death of long-time Liberal leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier just prior to the beginning of a convention to restore unity to a fragmented party after the divisive conscription crisis of 1917. Because delegates from across Canada were already scheduled to meet later that year, Laurier’s unexpected passing provided an opportunity to hold an American-style leader selection convention, which chose William Lyon Mackenzie King as his successor. The opposition Conservatives followed suit a few years later.

Since then the selection of party leaders has been even more thoroughly democratized, with ordinary party members and supporters playing an increasing role in the process. This is a good thing, right?

Well, perhaps not. In 1990, after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher foolishly imposed a poll tax in Scotland, where she was least popular, her Conservative caucus were able to unseat her precisely because they had put her there in the first place. When she was no longer able to govern effectively, it was a simple matter to remove her and replace her with someone else. Even Tony Blair had to fend off revolts in his own Labour Party back benches.

By contrast, here in Canada such revolts are almost impossible to carry off, thereby preventing a potentially effective check on the Prime Minister’s insufficiently accountable power. In their award-winning book, Democratizing the Constitution, authors Peter Aucoin, Mark Jarvis and Lori Turnbull point out that making the party’s leader dependent on its rank and file has inadvertently strengthened the hand of that leader over his own parliamentary caucus. Because the party faithful are too diffuse a body to exercise effective control over their leader and because the parliamentary caucus cannot go against the rank and file, the leader’s – and, if the party forms the government, Prime Minister’s – position is enhanced within the system as a whole. The former Canadian Alliance discovered this problem just over a decade ago when their leader, Stockwell Day, proved unable to command the loyalty of his party caucus despite having won the support of the grassroots.

Philosopher Yves R. Simon once wrote that, for a democracy to function properly, it needs healthy nondemocratic institutions. Indeed there is a small but growing movement south of the border to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment to restore what they see as the integrity of the American federal system against an overly intrusive central government in Washington. In fact, for much of the past two and a half millennia in the west, the most thoughtful political philosophers favoured something they called a mixed constitution – one that would combine the best features of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy in a single composite constitutional framework.

Here in Canada it may be that we have the worst features of monarchy in its pure form. The office at issue, however, is not that of the Queen, but of her Prime Minister, whom Parliament, under most circumstances, seems incapable of reining in. Perhaps it’s time to reverse the reform of 1919 and allow the party’s parliamentary caucus to choose its leader. Yes, it may sound undemocratic, but over the long term it may serve to make the Prime Minister more accountable and to restore a badly-needed balance to our own otherwise resilient constitutional framework.

David Koyzis is the author, most recently, of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. This appeared as his monthly "Principalities and Powers" column in Canadian periodical Christian Courier.

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19 March 2014

Book now available: We Answer to Another

My new book is finally out. We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God is now available from Pickwick Publications. It is also available from amazon.com, although it is listed as temporarily out of stock, undoubtedly because they have not yet received copies of the book. Thus far it is not listed on amazon.ca, but I will let Canadian readers know when it appears there. In the meantime, your best bet would be to phone the publisher at 541-344-1528 or email them at orders[at]wipfandstock[dot]com.

Here is the description of the book from the back cover:

The quest to escape authority has been a persistent feature of the modern world, animating liberals and Marxists, Westerners and non-Westerners alike. Yet what if it turns out that authority is intrinsic to humanity? What if authority is characteristic of everything we are and do as those created in God's image, even when we claim to be free of it? What if kings and commoners, teachers and students, employers and employees all possess authority?

This book argues that authority cannot be identified with mere power, is not to be played off against freedom, and is not a mere social construction. Rather it is resident in an office given us by God himself at creation. This central office is in turn dispersed into a variety of offices relevant to our different life activities in a wide array of communal settings. Far from being a conservative bromide, the call to respect authority is foundational to respect for humanity itself.

Here are endorsements:

"In this timely and highly valuable book, Koyzis exposes the problems and points the way to solid, balanced answers. The subtitle of We Answer to Another sums it up: 'Authority, Office, and the Image of God.' Humans have been created in the image of God and called to serve the Creator—the One to whom we are ultimately accountable. To exercise a responsibility is to hold an office of real authority as servant-stewards of one another. We can thus participate in holding one another accountable to the responsibilities of those offices. Sound old-fashioned? It's the most contemporary word of wisdom we and our neighbors throughout the world need to hear today!"
—James W. Skillen, President Emeritus, Center for Public Justice

"Liberal societies, regarding themselves as premised on the generative moral autonomy of the individual, have a constitutive problem with authority—freedom needs no justification, only authority. In this highly illuminating, wide-ranging, and exceptionally clear book, David Koyzis shows how this view not only destabilizes authority but actually diminishes our humanity. Authority is not autonomy but 'responsible agency,' exercised individually and corporately in many diverse human settings—'offices'—that arise from our being created in God's image. Recovering authority as 'answering to another' makes us more, not less, human."
—Jonathan Chaplin, Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Cambridge

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06 March 2014

Emotion and evangelicalism: knowing and loving


To be an evangelical is to profess that one’s highest allegiance is to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is to confess that salvation is in Christ alone and that we do not save ourselves, no matter how good we may be. It is to recognize that God’s grace is freely given and that we can do nothing, not even deciding to follow Jesus, to merit it. That is evangelicalism at its best.

All the same, there are many elements of the North American evangelical movement with which I find it difficult to identify. I am not keen on some of the subcultural distinctives, including the celebrity culture associated with the television preachers and Christian contemporary music. If the gospel becomes a marketable commodity, Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him, and even to suffer the consequences of so doing, loses its urgency and may be ignored altogether. No longer does the gospel shape our lives from the ground up and in their totality; it becomes a mere add-on to whatever lifestyle choices happen to appeal to us at the moment.

Many evangelical leaders are bemoaning what they see as the loss of Christian commitment in the millennial generation. But what if millennials are slackening in their church attendance and other markers of observance because they simply are not being challenged to take up their cross? Rod Dreher has posted something worth reading for those concerned for the future of the church. Dreher believes emotivism is at fault:

This dumbed-down emotivism is the way many, many churches — not just Evangelical churches — present the faith to its young people. It’s that “Jesus is my best friend” stuff that adults think will make the faith more palatable to young people, but which just sets them up for collapse when they step outside the bubble of church culture and find pushback. Specifically . . . if emotions are the foundation on which you build your faith, what happens when your emotions don’t line up with the teachings of your church? We Orthodox, Catholics, and Reformed Christians can look down our noses all we like at charismatics and Evangelicals for not having a strong and systematic theology, but what good does our theological depth do us if we don’t teach our young people how to think as Christians, and how to discipline their feelings with reason?

Dreher is quick to emphasize that he is not advocating a rationalism incapable of speaking to the heart. Nevertheless, an evangelicalism detached from solid confessional moorings and incapable of teaching its young people to think christianly about larger cultural trends will not survive over the long term. In short, it’s a matter of teaching truth, not just eliciting feelings.

To be sure, feelings cannot be ignored. I rather like Corey’s comment on Dreher’s post: “Yes, deeper theological and historical teaching might slow the Millennial egress, but, to speak like Augustine, the truth must be loved if the truth will be believed.” If love is not reducible to mere emotion, there is nevertheless a substantial emotional component to it. Where the emotional side is missing, love becomes pro forma, incapable of eliciting anything deeper than intellectual agreement. Similarly, if truth is a matter of head knowledge only, it will not carry the day, no matter how many reasons are adduced in its favour.

I think G. K. Chesterton is on to something in speaking of the romance of orthodoxy. Romance is something winsome, attractive and capable of drawing people into a narrative in which they come to see themselves playing a part. If sound teaching is viewed only as so many discrete dogmas to be imposed on the otherwise critical mind, it will fall flat. If, on the other hand, we affirm, with Lesslie Newbigin, that, as Christians, we indwell the biblical story, recognizing that the truths it conveys are really a single Truth, our highest love, demanding, not just intellectual assent, but heartfelt commitment, we might just be able to pass on something of inestimable worth to the next generation. If so, this will amount to evangelicalism at its very best.

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21 February 2014

Missionaries, Democracy, and Political Culture

Missionaries are out of fashion these days, especially in the more secular Western societies. The negative stereotypes often find their way into film. The 1991 drama At Play in the Fields of the Lord tells the story of naïve young American missionaries sent to evangelize an aboriginal community in the Amazon jungle of Brazil, with tragic consequences for everyone. As one of the characters in the film puts it, “The Lord made Indians the way they are. Who are you people to make them different?”

Perhaps missionaries are cultural imperialists, imposing the culturally specific ways of the sending country on others to their detriment. Yet what if it turns out that, in bringing the life-giving message of salvation in Jesus Christ to unbelievers, missionaries were inadvertent catalysts of progressive change in those very countries where they ministered? This is precisely the conclusion of sociologist Robert D. Woodberry's research in his 2012 article in the American Political Science Review, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy.” Christianity Today reported on Woodberry's research in a major story in January of this year.

Read the entire article.

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20 February 2014

Fatherhood: an 'alternative lifestyle'?

My parents were in their early to mid 20s when I came into this world. By contrast, I was 43 when my daughter was born, having married late, like so many in my own boomer generation. However, even when I was single, I never thought of marriage as just one more lifestyle choice. To be sure, many people decide to pursue the vocation of singleness for which there is an ancient and honourable tradition within the Christian church. Yet marriage and childbearing are so central to the ongoing human prospect that they cannot be reduced to one more option in the vast smorgasbord of choices that our postmodern world has laid before us.

This stubborn reality appears to be lost on the writer of this report: David Wise’s alternative lifestyle leads to Olympic gold.

At only twenty-three years old, he has a wife, [Alexandra], who was waiting patiently in the crowd, and together they have a two-year-old daughter waiting for them to return to their home in Reno, Nevada. At such a young age, Wise has the lifestyle of an adult. He wears a Baby Bjorn baby carrier around the house. He also attends church regularly and says he could see himself becoming a pastor a little later down the road. Not exactly the picture you had in mind while watching him nail two double corks wearing baggy pants.

At the risk of sounding cantankerous, I will take the occasion to point out that a twenty-three-year-old is an adult, although I freely admit that not everyone who has reached the legal age of majority is ready to assume every adult responsibility. Many young people delay marriage to pursue career, travel, sport or education. The quest to develop oneself and one’s skills as a person is a legitimate one that I have encouraged in my own students over the decades.

But the fully-lived life is one that sees us assuming a variety of offices each of which bears God-given authority. Keeping them in balance is not always easy, but we are called to do so all the same. For most of us this means that, in addition to our work-related responsibilities, we will also be wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, and daughters and sons to our ageing parents. None of these can be considered mere lifestyles, much less alternative ones, the very word alternative implying that they depart in some fashion from the norm.

If David Wise is able to keep his home, work and sporting responsibilities in balance, then more power to him. But let us not suggest that, in so doing, he is embracing an “alternative lifestyle.”

David T. Koyzis teaches political science at Redeemer University College in Canada and is the author of the forthcoming book, We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (Pickwick Publications).

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19 February 2014

The Bible's vantage point

Brian Zahnd confesses to having had a problem with the Bible. He hasn't been reading it from the correct vantage point.

Every story is told from a vantage point; it has a bias. The bias of the Bible is from the vantage point of the underclass. But what happens if we lose sight of the prophetically subversive vantage point of the Bible? What happens if those on top read themselves into the story, not as imperial Egyptians, Babylonians, and Romans, but as the Israelites? That’s when you get the bizarre phenomenon of the elite and entitled using the Bible to endorse their dominance as God’s will. This is Roman Christianity after Constantine. This is Christendom on crusade. This is colonists seeing America as their promised land and the native inhabitants as Canaanites to be conquered. This is the whole history of European colonialism. This is Jim Crow. This is the American prosperity gospel. This is the domestication of Scripture. This is making the Bible dance a jig for our own amusement.

There can be no doubt that the Bible addresses issues of oppression and injustice. My own growing awareness of this in my youth had a huge influence on me and served to move me to the study of political science. However, I am not altogether certain that Zahnd correctly understands the principal vantage point of the biblical narrative.

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I saw the animated film, Prince of Egypt, at a church function. At the end of the film, (spoiler alert!) as the Israelites were standing on the opposite bank of the Red Sea, having miraculously crossed on dry ground, Moses' wife Tzipporah says: "Look at your people, Moses. They are free!" I didn't wish to ruin the film for the other people watching it, but I couldn't help but think that, yes, they were free from the Egyptians, but most of them would, of course, die in the wilderness over the next forty years because they disobeyed God's commands. Although cinematic versions of the Exodus story tend to place the emphasis on liberation from oppression, they miss the point of the biblical book of Exodus, which is that God has graciously chosen a peculiar people whom he has brought into a covenant relationship with himself. God's calling them out of Egyptian slavery was due, not to a general concern for human rights, but to his long term plan to bring redemption to humanity through the Israelites and ultimately through the person of Jesus Christ.

If the Bible has a vantage point then, it is not simply that of the oppressed, as if this were a readily identifiable class of persons. As Lesslie Newbigin points out, "the shocking thing [about Jesus] was not that he sided with the poor against the rich but that he met everyone equally with the same unlimited mercy and the same unconditional demand for total loyalty." Sin is not just that which oppresses me from without; it is something that wells up in each of our hearts, making it impossible finally to separate the human race into discrete categories of oppressor and oppressed. Each of us is simultaneously oppressor and oppressed. It is precisely when I am most persuaded that I am one of the oppressed that I am most likely to oppress others. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among many others, is a tragic example of this phenomenon at work.

The Bible takes the perspective of oppressed and oppressor, of sinner and sinned-against, recognizing that the covenant community is made up of people who are both – and often at the same time!

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14 February 2014

The centenary of a troubled century: 1914-2014

This year marks the anniversary of more than one significant event, including the 450th anniversary of the death of John Calvin. But the 100th anniversary of the beginning of what is variously called the Great War and the First World War holds special significance for many of us, because, on a personal level, it affected our own families and, on a global scale, inaugurated a protracted period of nearly unprecedented horrors that uprooted and eliminated entire populations.

After the boundless optimism of the post-Napoleonic period, in which even many Christians were caught up, the old order came crashing down in an orgy of blood-letting and hatred that would last, in some fashion, until 1989, with the opening of the Berlin Wall. Prior to 1914, my father’s family were nominal subjects of the Ottoman Sultan in Cyprus, albeit under British administration from 1878. (In fact, the first appointed British High Commissioner to Cyprus, Sir Garnet Wolseley, had commanded the expedition here in Canada to put down Louis Riel’s Red River Rebellion eight years earlier.) When Britain and Turkey became combatants at the outbreak of the Great War, Britain had to annex Cyprus outright lest its residents, including my relatives, become enemy aliens.

On my mother’s side of the family, my 19th-century ancestors were subjects of the Russian Tsar in his capacity as Grand Duke of Finland. A remote ancestor even fought for the King of Sweden against Russia’s Peter the Great three centuries ago. They came to America, probably via Halifax, Nova Scotia, for a variety of reasons, one of which was to escape conscription into the Russian-controlled military.

At the beginning of the 20th century, much of the world was presided over by an interlocking network of the descendants of Queen Victoria and Denmark’s King Christian IX. Although this made Europe appear on the surface to be a big cosy family, such blood relationships did little to curtail the increasingly intense rivalries amongst the major powers of the day.

In fact, by 1914 this grand European royal clan looked more like a dysfunctional family, with tensions bubbling furiously below the surface. It took an assassin’s bullets to bring it into the open, and by August of that fateful year Europe, and much of the world, was at war.

There is, of course, no need to recount here the history of the 20th century, whose contours are familiar enough to us. But it is worth pointing out that the outbreak of war in 1914 unleashed a decades-long chain reaction that left millions who survived two major global conflicts uprooted and exiled. Greek Orthodox Christians and Armenians were forced to leave Asia Minor after nearly two thousand years of residence. Ethnic Germans were compelled to leave East Prussia and other eastern provinces where they had lived for centuries. And, of course, many Europeans decided to leave their troubled continent altogether to seek better lives in far-off Canada, the United States or Australia. The very existence of Christian Courier, Redeemer University College and the Christian Labour Association of Canada is a testament to one such migration. And my own presence at Redeemer – and even in this world – would not have come about were it not for at least three migrations over the last century and a third. The Great War played a pivotal role in two of these.

How then do we mark this tragic and momentous anniversary? By remembering. Remembering, among other things, the dangers of rampant nationalism, of reckless arms races, of political orders that neglect the lives of the poor and vulnerable. But also by remembering with humility that many of us might not have existed at all apart from the events unleashed by this conflict.

Platitudes are of no help at this point. We cannot, and perhaps dare not, try to fathom the mystery of evil, which has puzzled humanity down through the millennia. Yet I myself am grateful that God’s grace has come to us even in the midst of a less-than-perfect world. When next I attend our family’s church, and see the tattered century-old Union Jack mounted under glass on the wall in the entryway, I will thank God for his faithfulness and then pray that we who live today will have learnt the lessons of that terrible conflict of a century ago.

David T. Koyzis has taught politics at Redeemer University College in Canada since 1987 and is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions. This article appeared in the 10 February issue of Christian Courier.

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07 January 2014

Liturgical revision: 'sin' versus 'evil'

Baptism marks the Christian's entry into the covenant community. At baptism the recipient's sponsors make promises on the candidate's behalf, as does the community witnessing the baptism. Baptism itself does not save in an ultimate sense, but it is a proximate means of grace which God is pleased to use to bring the baptized child or adult to salvation. However, a Reformed understanding of baptism emphasizes that word and sacrament are inextricably linked. The primary meaning of word is, of course, the Word of God as communicated in Holy Scripture, which is read and preached in the course of the liturgy. But it also includes the words spoken at the administration of the sacrament. Without, for example, the invocation of the trinitarian formula: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit," the mere washing with water does not constitute a valid baptism. What we say with our lips matters, which explains why efforts to change liturgies can be so divisive.

It comes as no surprise then that efforts in the Church of England to modernize the language of the Anglican baptismal rite should cause controversy. Jonathan Petre reports for the Mail Online: Welby casts out 'sin' from christenings: Centuries-old rite rewritten in 'language of EastEnders' for modern congregation. Of particular note is the proposed elimination of references to sin and the devil from the rite, to be replaced with a general rejection of evil.

There is, of course, something to be said for updating liturgical language to make it speak more clearly to contemporary Christians and seekers. The Reformation emphasis on vernacular liturgies was an improvement over prayers said "in a tongue not understanded of the people," to quote Article XXIV of the Articles of Religion. The Second Vatican Council moved the Roman Catholic Church in the same direction a half century ago, belatedly recognizing that the Christian life depends on hearing and understanding the Word of God in public worship.

Nevertheless, efforts at updating liturgical language, however necessary, always carry a certain risk: rather than further clarifying the faith, it could end up obscuring it or even falsifying it. When does "updating" language effectively cross the boundary and change the substance of the faith? For example, with the use of "gender-inclusive" plural form in Psalm 8 for man and son of man in the New Revised Standard Version and in the latest revision of the New International Version, the christological interpretation drawn out by the author of Hebrews is inadvertently masked.

Of course, revising a Bible translation is not precisely the same as revising a liturgy, because the Bible is a fixed text (albeit with textual variants) requiring proper translation from three ancient languages. A liturgy may contain large portions of Scripture, e.g., the words of institution in 1 Corinthians 11 during the Lord's Supper, but the liturgical use of Scripture, including its homiletic proclamation, is at a further remove from the task of translating. Thus updating liturgies is always more than a matter of updating language.

This is where matters get more dicey. Does it make a difference that the word sin might be replaced with evil in the proposed revision? I believe it does, yes. To oppose evil does not necessarily entail recognition of its presence within myself. I can reject the evil found in oppressive systems out there or in the pettiness of my neighbour next door. But I needn't look into my own heart. I can, if I like, but the altered rite itself seems not to require it. By contrast, if I am asked, "Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?", I am compelled to look within, to weigh my own heart in the balance and actively to renounce certain destructive tendencies within myself.

This may not comport with a modern or postmodern worldview, but it nevertheless flows out of a biblical framework within which repentance from sin brings divine forgiveness and is tied inextricably to salvation in Jesus Christ. No liturgical revision should obscure this central element of the gospel message.

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21 December 2013

'Orange States' and 'Tricolor States' in Post-Soviet Ukraine

The last several national elections have revealed the United States to be nearly permanently divided into “red” and “blue” states, labels originating in the electoral maps posted by television networks as they cover presidential campaigns. But few Americans are aware that Ukraine is similarly, and more intractably, divided along political lines.

In the United States, the red states tend to support the Republican Party while the blue states support the Democratic Party. But, as more than one observer has pointed out, every state is actually a slightly different shade of purple, with blue counties concentrated in the metropolitan areas and red outside these regions. In other words, red and blue appear to represent not so much separate cultures and ideological commitments, but rather a traditional rural-urban split, exacerbated by considerable partisan petulance. While antagonism between Republicans and Democrats has engendered stalemate in Congress, the difference is actually not one of deep principle, opinions to the contrary notwithstanding. Rather, the difference is a contest over who better represents the larger liberal tradition on which America was founded over two centuries ago.

The divisions in Ukraine are even more stubborn. Unlike the United Sates, Ukraine does not have a revered common heritage of founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution. There is no founding generation to be mythologized along the lines of George Washington or Benjamin Franklin. There is no sense of national mission to hold the country together.

Read the entire article.

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20 December 2013

'To you belong all the nations'

Although the biblical Psalms are a product of the old covenant, for centuries the Christian Church has sought and found Jesus Christ in its historic song book. A number of Psalms have been designated messianic in character, including Psalms 2, 22, 30, 69, 72, 110 and 118. This is due either to their explicit reference to the LORD’s Anointed (Messiah) or to their anticipation of an event related to Jesus’ life, suffering or death.

Psalm 82 is not always placed in this category, although it does anticipate God’s judgement over the nations of earth in the person of Jesus Christ. In the Revised Standard Version, the Psalm begins, “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” The footnote to this verse in the New Oxford Annotated Bible tells the reader: “Making use of a conception, common to the ancient Near East, that the world is ruled by a council of gods, the poet (presumably a priest or temple prophet) sees, in a vision, the God of Israel standing up in the midst of the council and pronouncing judgment upon all other members.”

Such an interpretation owes much to an evolutionary worldview which treats religion as merely an artifact subject, like all other products of human culture, to growth and development. Within this worldview, the ancient Israelites’ primitive polytheism developed under various influences into henotheism (in which YHWH is chief among the gods) and finally into monotheism (no God but YHWH) around the time of the Babylonian exile. By contrast, the biblical narrative itself portrays the Israelites repeatedly abandoning fidelity to the one true God and worshipping false gods for which they were punished throughout their history.

There is another interpretation of Psalm 82 less beholden to this evolutionary worldview. The translators of the New International Version place “gods” in inverted commas, as if to indicate the improper assumption of divine status by these beings. But who are these beings? I believe a good case can be made for their identity as earthly rulers who have come to esteem themselves as gods.

The key to this can be found in verses 2-4: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” All of these imperatives are ordinary tasks undertaken in the course of political rule. The setting is not a mythological council of gods, but the one true God calling those to whom he has given political authority to do justice as they discharge the weighty responsibilities of office.

A decade and a half ago, I set Psalm 82 to verse to be sung to the proper Genevan melody. My own versification draws on the interpretation set forth above:

Judging among divine pretenders,
in council God his verdict renders:
“How long,” says he, “shall wickedness
be favoured over righteousness?
Give justice to the poor and needy,
rescue the helpless from the greedy.
Treat widows as is right and fair,
defend all orphans in your care.

“Blindly you grope about and stumble,
while earth's foundations start to crumble.
Gods you may think yourselves to be,
yet you shall taste mortality.
Like earthly kings whose days are numbered,
death's claim on you will not be cumbered.”
Rise up, O God, and judge the earth,
to you the nations owe their birth.

During Advent and Christmas we do well to pray Psalm 82 acknowledging that its ultimate fulfilment is in the person of Jesus Christ, who, in the words of Isaiah 9:7, will sit upon the throne of David and establish his kingdom of righteousness and justice for ever.

David T. Koyzis teaches politics at Redeemer University College. His next book, We Answer to Another: Authority, Office and the Image of God, is forthcoming from Pickwick Publications.

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04 December 2013

Bob Goudzwaard

Readers of my first book, Political Visions and Illusions (the second should be out early in the new year), will recall my mentioning three mentors who have shaped me in my journey, especially with respect to grasping the spiritual nature of political ideologies. One of these is Dr. Bob Goudzwaard, emeritus professor of economics at the Free University of Amsterdam and former member of the Dutch Parliament. His argument in Idols of Our Time provided the central thesis for my own book. I owe a debt of gratitude to this wise servant of God's kingdom.

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02 December 2013

Keep calm . . .

Good advice at any time:

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01 November 2013

Justice versus justice

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates’ conversation with his friends over the nature of justice takes a startling turn when Thrasymachus drops a bombshell. It is more profitable, he argues, for people to be unjust than just, if they can manage to get away with it without incurring a bad reputation. Of course, no society could function on this principle for very long, as individuals would seek to exempt themselves from the rule of law and to gain at others’ expense. Criminal activity is universally condemned as an obvious violation of justice. Here justice is evidently set against injustice of the worst kind.

However, most political issues do not have such a simple dichotomy between justice and injustice. In the real world, conflict is likely to lie not between just and unjust, but between different visions of justice. Partisans everywhere often have difficulty understanding this.

A good example of this is the debate over the closed union shop, an issue that goes back to the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 which legalized collective bargaining in the workplace. Those of a more conservative mindset argue for so-called right to work laws, which would free prospective employees from the obligation to join a union if they prefer not to do so. After all, the Constitution guarantees freedom of association, which the closed union shop appears to violate unjustly.

On the other hand, those of a more liberal bent argue that the closed union shop is necessary to enhance the power of potentially disadvantaged workers against management, who would otherwise unilaterally dictate the terms of their employment. Justice in the workplace requires worker solidarity, which the union guarantees. Requiring employees to join and pay dues to the union is thus very much in accordance with justice.

Read the entire article.

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22 October 2013

The fate of two ghost cities

Over the decades, my extended family's experience has been shaped by the sorry fate of two ghost cities nearly 10,000 kilometres apart.

In July 1974 the military government in Athens engineered a coup d'état in Cyprus and installed a puppet dictator expected to annex the 14-year-old island republic to Greece. This reckless escapade came crashing down when Turkey sent a military flotilla to the north coast of Cyprus on the pretext of protecting the country's ethnic Turkish minority. Greece's military régime went down with it, along with relentless aspirations in some quarters to unite the two countries in a greater Greece.

In August, while the United States' attention was focussed on the transition from a discredited president to his inexperienced successor, Ankara took advantage of its presence in Cyprus, expanding its foothold and occupying 37 percent of the island. One of the casualties of this venture was the prosperous Varosha district of Famagusta on the island's east coast. Varosha is located just south of the old walled city of Famagusta, built by the Venetians in the 16th century and the setting for much of Shakespeare's Othello. Varosha was largely inhabited by Greek Cypriots and became the centre of the island's tourist industry in the 1960s. Boasting the best beaches in Cyprus, high-rise hotels were built there to accommodate the influx of foreign visitors on holiday. My father had spent his youth there, and by 1974 most of my relatives on his side were still residents, including my elderly grandparents.

This all changed during that terrible summer. As Turkey moved to take the northern part of Cyprus, Varosha's residents fled hurriedly, leaving dishes on the table and laundry on the lines, assuming they would soon be returning after the crisis had passed. But this never happened, and my relatives and so many others became refugees in their own country. I was a young man at the time, and this traumatic event was one of the precipitating factors in pushing me towards the study of political science.

Twenty-one years later I finally got to Cyprus and was able to gaze from a distance on the eerie sight of an abandoned city, caught in a United Nations-monitored buffer zone, with homes, cafés and hotels crumbling into disrepair (see photograph above left).

Now to this side of the pond.

For just over a quarter century I have regularly driven the stretch of road between Hamilton and Chicago to visit family. This usually requires a drive through Detroit, once a thriving metropolis but now a dilapidated city with large tracts of land simply abandoned by its one-time residents. Crossing the Ambassador Bridge from Windsor into the Motor City brings into view a tall, eerily empty building that used to be a transportation hub for the region. The historic Michigan Central Station (above right) saw hundreds of trains arriving and departing daily during the railways’ heyday in the first half of the 20th century. Last used in 1988, this formerly magnificent building has fallen into an advanced state of decay, along with so many other landmarks of a once great city.

I personally greeted the news that Detroit had filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy with considerable sadness. My mother grew up less than an hour away, and I still have relatives on her side living in the Detroit metropolitan area. Once the centre of North America’s now vastly diminished automobile industry, much of Detroit is now a ghost city, its former residents having long ago fled to the suburbs or to America’s Sun Belt. It might be a stretch to label them refugees, yet for those who were born and grew up there and can no longer safely return, the loss of their “homeland” must still be difficult to accept.

Of course, conquering armies did not literally expel Detroit’s inhabitants from their homes, as occurred in Varosha. Yet the fate of both cities is due in large measure to political authorities pursuing ill-considered and short-sighted policies at the expense of ordinary people.

Like individual persons, cities are born and die. But unlike persons, cities can be revived and become livable again. The last book of the Bible tells us that the redeemed creation will be centred in a city, the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2). Whether Varosha and Detroit become signposts to this city, attaining their former prosperity and becoming home to new generations, depends on God’s will and timing. In the meantime, though some of us will continue to mourn these cities’ current sad circumstances, we do so as those expecting the ultimate fulfilment of urban life in Jesus Christ and his redeeming grace.

David T. Koyzis has taught politics at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, for just over a quarter of a century. This appeared in the 14 October issue of Christian Courier as the latest instalment of his "Principalities & Powers" column, which has been running monthly since 1990.

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06 September 2013

The Perils of Taking Sides

In Malcolm Magee’s fascinating book on Woodrow Wilson’s “faith-based foreign policy,” What the World Should Be, the author notes that, in the two major conflicts during Wilson’s administration, the president took sides largely out of a desire to divide the world into obvious “good guys” and “bad guys.” In the Mexican civil war, Wilson intervened on behalf of the faction to which he ascribed the most righteousness, although the murky realities of that country’s politics should have elicited a more cautious response. Similarly, during the First World War, Wilson’s admiration for British political institutions and his instinctive distrust of “German theology” predisposed him to commit the United States to the cause of London and Paris against Berlin and Vienna.

A century later, we face similar complexities in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, a series of popular uprisings which began with high hopes of a smooth transition to democracy but whose tragic reality has been civil warfare. The rhetoric of the Arab Spring fits into a larger narrative with which Americans are familiar: Subjugated people living under tyranny finally tire of oppression, rise up, overthrow their despotic rulers, and claim liberty for themselves and their communities. Having overturned a self-serving oligarchy, they set up a government more responsive to their own needs and aspirations.

Yet this narrative does not entirely fit the current situation in a region where there are no obvious good guys and bad guys.

Read the full article here.

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