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.

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).

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!

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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can be contacted at: dtkoyzis@gmail.com