19 August 2015

Interview by Yago Martins

Yesterday I was interviewed by Yago Martins, a director at the Academia de Formação em Missões Urbanas in Fortaleza, Brazil, and a student at Sibima (Seminário e Instituto Bíblico Maranata), on the subject of political ideologies in the Brazilian context. The interview is posted here: Entrevista exclusiva com David Koyzis sobre ideologia política e o cenário brasileiro. Here is the interview in English:

Martins: Among Christians in Brazil the most popular view is that Christians do not need to think about or be involved in politics. Some religious groups even think that it is a sin to be a politician. Can we be politicized (or politicians) and still be Christians?

Koyzis: Many Christians in North America think the same thing, but during my lifetime their numbers have decreased. And that is a very good thing. This reflects the biblical understanding that those who are granted political authority have a high calling to govern according to God's laws, especially those laws mandating the doing of justice. For example, Deuteronomy 17:18-20 says:

When [the ruler] has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.

Furthermore, if you read John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, you will see that the very last section of the book treats the civil magistrate, of which he speaks in unusually glowing terms: “Its function among men is no less than that of bread, water, sun, and air; indeed, its place of honour is far more excellent.” Politics is an important part of life, and our walk with God extends to the whole of life, including politics.

What is a political ideology and how does it differ from a simple political vision?

Everyone is animated by a vision of life, or what might be called a worldview (cosmovisão), which governs the ways they live out their callings before God. Even pragmatists, who claim to reject visions altogether, are living out a vision that privileges results over principles. We cannot avoid these visions, even if we fail to recognize them or admit their influence on us.

An ideology, as I see it, is a particular vision that fastens on to one element in life and improperly raises it to a position of preeminence above the rest. As such, an ideology is inescapably idolatrous. St. Augustine said that virtue is the right ordering of things loved. Those who are in Christ love God above everything he has created. But an ideology takes something good out of God's creation, e.g., individual liberty, national solidarity or popular participation, and effectively makes a god out of it. This leads to a distorted vision that is fundamentally out of touch with the realities of God's world. Such a vision may endure for a while, but eventually people lose their faith in it and seek something better. One hopes they will find the true God who is already seeking them, but they are just as likely to pin their hopes on another ideological vision. In other words, people tend to move from one idol to another.

As a young man I visited what was then called Czechoslovakia while the communists were still in charge. I quickly discovered that virtually no one believed in the official ideology anymore. So when the end came in 1989, I was not all that surprised. As soon as the Soviet Union relaxed its grip on the country, the people went their own way. But with what have they replaced the old idols? New ones, sad to say. That is good enough reason to pray for wisdom to see and love the truth, not only for Czechs but also for Brazilians.

In your book, you propose a supra-ideological perspective on politics. But is that really possible? Might not your critics say that you're proposing a christian ideology, but an ideology just like the others?

Yes, they could easily say this. It is certainly true that Christians have followed these distorted ideological visions, despite their faith. Animated by an idolatrous nationalism, for example, the Afrikaners in South Africa established the destructive apartheid policy between 1948 and 1994. And they did so for what they thought were good christian reasons. But, as the Bible says (Matthew 7:20), by your fruits you will know them. Apartheid led to obvious injustices against nonwhite South Africans and effectively destabilized the entire society.

There has never been a society which has followed a biblical way in its entirety. But I believe that there are at least two Christian traditions that have articulated an understanding of what I have labelled societal pluriformity, which, at least in principle, avoids the distortions of ideological thinking and practice. These are the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, as set forth by Popes Leo XIII, Pius XI and John Paul II, and the notion of sovereignty in its own sphere as articulated by the great Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper. The advantage of these approaches is that they recognize that the state is the state, the church is the church, the family is the family, and so forth. In other words, they recognize that the various communities cannot be reduced to the wills of individuals or to arms of the state or nation. They accept the legitimate diversity of God's creation, including his human creatures, and work with it rather than against it. 

Our politicians in Brazil are almost all Marxists in some sense, even if they don't explicitly appeal to Karl Marx's ideas. Our public and private universities, even our schools, are dominated by Marxists and adherents of the Frankfurt School. How can Christians behave in this political context?

It is not easy to have influence in a hostile political environment. Ideally, it would be good for Christians to organize for political purposes. A christian political party? It's been tried in some countries, such as the Netherlands. But in a country like Brazil, I think the best approach for now is probably to build a culture animated by the biblical story of creation, fall and redemption in Jesus Christ. This would entail establishing and nurturing institutions to carry the story, to explore the implications of the story for the whole of life, and to see it handed down to the younger generation. This means that both education and evangelism must be top priorities for the christian community.

In response to marxist hegemony, a lot of groups have popularized the thinking of the Chicago and Austrian schools of economics, with men like Milton Friedman, Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises and F. A. von Hayek. Is this a good thing for Brazil? Can Christians embrace this political view as a christian approach?

The virtue of the Chicago/Austrian school is that it understands in some fashion the limits of politics. There are many things that the state simply cannot do, and if it tries to do so, it risks doing harm. On the other hand, the Chicago/Austrian school is not very good at understanding the normative character of the state as a political community of citizens and government under the divine mandate to do public justice. Like Marxists, libertarian economists tend to be anti-political and assume that economics drives politics. But the reality is more complicated than that. Here in Canada, for example, we have the recurring issue of Québec separatism, which does not fit comfortably into either a marxist or Chicago/Austrian framework. The separation of Québec from the rest of Canada does not make much economic sense, yet it is a political reality in that people in the province genuinely believe in it.

Moreover, the Chicago/Austrian approach is really a variant of the larger liberal ideology, which privileges the individual and his wants above all else. Consistent liberals wish to expand individual freedoms at the expense of the communities of which these individuals are part. They try as much as possible to reduce communities to mere voluntary collections of individuals. And these collections are to be governed by John Stuart Mill's famous harm principle: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

This sounds good at first, but in the real world no society has ever operated on this principle. A society such as Brazil's or Canada's consists of multiple communities of all kinds, each of which has its own identity and standards for membership. There is a wonderful article by Douglas Farrow called “The Audacity of the State,” which shows how this libertarian principle, far from producing liberty, actually empowers the omni-competent state. This is something I address in my second book, We Answer to Another (which is only in English thus far). So, no, over the long term the Chicago/Austrian school is definitely not the solution. It simply tries to turn back the clock on the development of liberalism, but it does not break with the underlying assumptions of the larger liberal project.

It may be possible to make common cause with Chicago/Austrian libertarians on some issues, such as parental choice in education, but it would be most unwise to adopt their approach wholeheartedly. In the long term it will backfire on us.

In the end, do Christians need to abandon the identification with any political ideology to propose a true christian view of politics? In your book, you note that some conservatives have rejected ideologies. Should we then maybe propose a christian conservatism and be supra-ideological on this?

Here again we need to be cautious. Conservatism is too vague a label and can mean a variety of different things depending on context. If it simply means to stick with institutions and customs that have served us well over the course of history, then there is obviously much to be said for it. But traditions are multiple and contradict each other. We necessarily have to decide which traditions to maintain and which to modify or even abandon. And this means further that we need principles to enable us to choose wisely. This is what I try to articulate in my Political Visions and Illusions, especially in the final chapters.

We have a lot of protests taking place in many cities against our president, Dilma Rousseff. Her approval rate is now below 8%, the worst since the end of the military dictatorship. A lot of people are calling for her impeachment. Someone has called this a “Brazilian Spring,” which is, of course, a reference to the Arab Spring. What message can you bring to Brazilian Christians who are living through this moment in our history?

It is remarkable that Ms Rousseff has become so tremendously unpopular so soon after winning last autumn's presidential election. If this is indeed a “Brazilian Spring,” we can only hope and pray that it will not lead to the instability that has plagued so many Middle Eastern countries in the wake of the Arab Spring. As for a message to my Brazilian brothers and sisters, I suppose the place to begin is with the book of Daniel:

Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
to whom belong wisdom and might.
He changes times and seasons;
he removes kings and sets up kings;
he gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those who have understanding (2:20-21).

Moreover, a refrain repeated throughout Daniel tells us that, despite the troubles we see around us, God is still in charge: “His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation” (4:3, cf., 4:34, 6:26). This doesn't mean we don't have to work for justice in our political communities; we definitely must do so. But we do so as those whose ultimate hope is not in our fallible political leaders or even in our own purported wisdom, but in the God who has redeemed us in Jesus Christ.

1 comment:

Suzanne den Boer said...

Great to read your thoughts, Dr. Koyzis. I have yet to finish your newest book. I hope to get back to it soon!

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