29 January 2016

What now? Ashford on the future

Bruce Ashford asks:
At the time I am writing this essay, the [2016] presidential primary candidates are taking part in a series of televised debates. Among the Democratic candidates, one is a socialist, another is a liberal progressive, and yet another a political moderate. Among the Republican candidates, there are moderate conservatives, libertarians, nationalists, and perhaps even a fascist. In the midst of this sort of diversity, what should be said about the path forward for American politics?
Read this final instalment to Ashford's seven-part series to find out: A (Religious) Alternative for American Politics.

27 January 2016

Ashford on nationalism

Bruce Ashford continues his series with this contribution: The (Religious) Problem of Nationalism. Here is a sample:
Nationalism tends to seek justice for its own tribe or citizenry, which is reasonable. But it does so while neglecting to value or protect others—either outsiders within the nation or outsiders in neighboring nations. A Christian view of politics, while recognizing that we have a unique responsibility to love and care for our immediate neighbors, will not therefore consider others to be enemies. We may and must love our nation, but it is hardly loving to place divine expectations on something or someone that is not divine.
We look forward to reading more in Ashford's series.

22 January 2016

The (Religious) Problem with Conservatism and Progressivism

As the presidential election campaign heats up in the United States, we would do well to read the following post by Bruce Ashford: The (Religious) Problem with Conservatism and Progressivism. In the midst of an increasingly polarized political landscape, Ashford offers some sorely needed wisdom and trenchant analysis. An excerpt:

Politics in the United States has, for some time, assumed a binary structure. On one side stand the Republicans, who represent conservatism. On the other side stand the Democrats, who represent progressivism. But what most Americans fail to see is that conservatism and progressivism are similar in one significant respect. Both ideologies are “moving targets” that lack transcendent norms, which leads to a nearly endless variety of social ills. It may, at times, be appropriate to be conservative, and at others progressive. But when these designations become normative, they become idolatrous.

Excellent! Ashford is co-author with Chris Pappalardo of One Nation Under God and is Professor of Theology and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

19 January 2016

Kuyper in the Windy City: Chicago lives up to its name

The best known work in English of Abraham Kuyper is, of course, the Stone Lectures delivered at Princeton Seminary in 1898. These took place during his lengthy American sojourn over the latter half of that year in which he also visited the city of Chicago. From the Auditorium Hotel he wrote to his family in the Netherlands a letter dated 11 November 1898:
The weather has been awful. Chicago is situated on the shores of Lake Michigan, a body of water as big as a sea, where yesterday, just outside the city, three steamships were shipwrecked.
Curiosity prompted me to search for accounts of these shipwrecks, and I have found a few possibilities. One candidate is the Lena M. Neilson, which sank on 10 November of that year, but on the other side of the lake north of New Buffalo, Michigan. It was carrying lumber and was headed for Benton Harbor, when it was lost in a storm.

One source tells us that 1898 was a bad year for shipping in the Great Lakes:
Heavy Marine Losses. - An unusually large number of losses occurred on the lakes during the season of 1898. The loss to the underwriters is estimated at $2,600,000, and the season is said to have been the most disastrous in the history of the lakes. The number of boats which passed out of existence was 58, with an aggregate tonnage of 29,194 tons. Total and partial losses amounted to 569, and the causes assigned were as follows: Ashore, 123; aground in protected channels, 126; fire, 40; collisions, 90; ice, 16; storm-beaten, 96; foundered, 8; miscellaneous causes, 116.

Severe Storms. - There were three severe storms late in the season. The first began October 25 and continued 36 hours. The second occurred November 9, and the third November 18.
One may assume that the second storm is the one Kuyper experienced during his time in America's fabled Windy City. Here is an account of the losses:
Loss of the Thol and Other Vessels. -- during a fierce gale November 10, the schooner S. Thol, laden with Christmas trees for Chicago went down off Glencoe with all on board, a crew of five men. During the same storm the schooner Iron Cliff sank off Chicago harbor. Her crew of seven men were with great difficulty rescued by the Chicago life-saving crew. The schooner Sophia J. Luff was waterlogged off Gross Point, and the schooner Lena M. Neilson went ashore at Lakeside, Mich. The schooner Fossett was stranded at Sand Beach, Lake Huron, and the schooner Minnehaha was broken up at Sheboygan.
It is safe to assume that the Thol and the Iron Cliff are two of the vessels to which Kuyper refers. The third could be one of the other four cited here, but no obvious candidate presents itself. However, two weeks earlier the L. R. Doty was lost in Lake Michigan in that first storm, though not near Chicago. Here is an account from the source referenced above:
Loss of the Doty. - The most disastrous event of the season, in loss of life, was the foundering of the steamer L.R. Doty, on Lake Michigan, with her entire crew of 17. The Doty left Chicago, Monday, October 24, with the Olive Jeanette in tow, both loaded with corn, for Midland, Georgian Bay. They encountered a furious gale the following day. The towline parted, and the manner of her loss remains unknown. Indications were that she drifted a considerable distance before she went down in midlake. Her wreckage was picked up 25 miles off Kenosha. The Jeanette was sighted on the 27th and towed to Chicago, in a crippled condition. The Doty was a stanch wooden propeller, built at West Bay City, in 1893. She was in command of Capt. Christopher Smith. The crew of the Jeanette could throw no light on the fate of the Doty. The vessels were struck by the northeast gale on Monday, when below Milwaukee. Tuesday afternoon the steamer parted from her consort.

Forecaster Cox, of the Chicago weather bureau, says the storm was not at all remarkable for the violence or the continuance of the wind, and yet it was remarkable for the damage it did on sea and land. He accounts for this by the fact that the storm center moved so rapidly across the lake, so that there was not only the gyratory force of the cyclone but a rectilinear motion to the northeast. It was this combination of forces, he says, which lashed Lake Michigan into fury and produced such devastating effects on the lake and on the shore. Chicago, he says, had a wind, August 16, that blew seventy-two miles an hour. Tuesday, October 25, the greatest velocity was forty-eight miles, and that only from 7:50 to 8:15 P. M.
The L. R. Doty
It is possible that Kuyper heard of this earlier loss during his visit, as it would still have been fresh in people's minds. In any event, the Windy City lived up to its name during Kuyper's famous visit in 1898.

'Ethics for Caesar'? The Good of Political Office

Some Christians argue that we should not be in the business of “doing ethics for Caesar”-- that is, formulating principles that would guide our political leaders in their efforts to do justice within the context of political community. For such believers, the church is an “alternative polis,” a signpost to the coming kingdom of God against the rulers of this age, which is passing away. After all, does not the apostle Paul assert that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12)? Our world is full of tyrants who esteem themselves too highly, assuming godlike claims on their people’s loyalties. Doesn’t this prove that the church is perpetually in a position of opposition to the political authorities? Or, if not in opposition, should we perhaps live as though they didn’t matter over the long run?

There is a measure of truth in this. Certainly we are called to the life in Christ, which sometimes requires us to stand against the spirit of the age. In those countries where Christians are being persecuted for their faith, they daily confront hostile neighbors and governments actively serving the idols of our time, whether in the form of radical Islam or of a totalizing secular ideology. In such contexts, we can understand why many believers despair of receiving justice from their governments and turn their hopes instead to an eschatological future when government will supposedly cease to exist.

Many who possess political office are prone to misuse it, thereby perpetrating injustice on the people over whom they are set. Some think that this inevitably accompanies any exercise of authority over others, and they can apparently cite scripture to this effect: “Jesus called [his disciples] together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’” (Matthew 20:25-28, NIV, emphasis mine).

This passage recounts the episode in which the mother of James and John requests that Jesus give her sons vice-regal positions in his coming kingdom. Jesus responds that, not only are such positions not his to give, but those who follow him must be servants above all. The more literal translations of the Bible, including the Revised Standard Version, the English Standard Version and New American Standard Bible, seem to agree that Jesus is contrasting servanthood to the exercise of authority, which the disciples are called to reject. If so, that would seem incontrovertible evidence that Christians are to put aside political life, which lies, at most, within the realm of God’s providential care and is not an active calling for those who are in Christ.

But there is another reading of this passage, found in the New Revised Standard Version and such paraphrased versions as the New Living Translation and The Message and based on a more accurate translation of the Greek. The NRSV renders verse 25 thus: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them” (emphasis mine). In other words, Jesus is not calling his disciples to avoid assuming authority, which, I would argue, is impossible in any case. Rather, he is contrasting the abuse of authority, i.e., tyranny or authoritarianism, with servanthood, which is fully compatible with authority rightly understood and properly exercised.

The Unique Tasks of Political Authority

The Center for Public Justice’s Guidelines for Government and Citizenship are clear in emphasizing the good of political office: “Those who disdain government and the political process dishonor God and their own humanity. It is legitimate – even a duty – to criticize unjust and bad government policies and public officials, but this should be done by calling government to fulfill its proper task and high purpose.”

What is this purpose? First, government must maintain “a healthy public commons” enabling the achievement of such ancillary goods as freedom and prosperity for every individual and community within its jurisdiction. Public safety on the highways is not a benefit that can be divided among individual citizens but is enjoyed only as a whole – as a genuinely common good. Similarly, protecting and maintaining a clean environment takes concerted action among a number of authoritative agents, with government best positioned to take the lead in coordinating such efforts. More than two millennia ago, Aristotle already understood that “that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it,” implying that care for the commons calls for a specialized institution charged with this responsibility.

Second, and just as important, human beings engage in a huge variety of endeavors, from eating, drinking, and reproducing, to writing poetry, singing, and building cities. In our society, such activities have come to be dispersed into a variety of communal contexts, such as marriages, families, church congregations, museums, schools, businesses, and trade unions. Government has the task of justly interrelating the various spheres of human activity, whether individual or communal in character. Along with caring for the commons, this task is unique to political authority and cannot be replicated by the institutional, or gathered, church, whose normative task is quite different.

This differentiation of authoritative offices means that one community simply cannot do the work of all the others. Unable to recognize this, the twentieth-century totalitarian régimes actively subordinated the rich variety of social institutions and activities to the whims of a single party-dominated state. Authoritarian governments, while making no grand effort at wholesale social engineering, definitely monopolize political life for themselves, permanently keeping citizens in a state of political immaturity, something which most of us recognize to be unjust.

Sharing the Office of Caesar

Even those viewing the institutional church as an “alternative polis” cannot quite refrain from criticizing governments when it seems warranted. Condemning a state for launching an unwise or unjust military action presupposes the tacit acceptance of norms for wisdom and justice uniquely applicable to political life. Calling the state to treat all citizens in an equitable fashion assumes the existence of a public equity which governments are called to advance. No, the church as a differentiated institution cannot take the place of government and should not try to do so, something which the language of “alternative polis” does not adequately recognize.

It is time to abandon the notion that we ought not to “do ethics for Caesar.” Especially in a democracy, where citizens share in the task of governance, there is a profound sense in which all of us share the office of “Caesar,” called to seek public justice in a way for which political authority is uniquely equipped. This means that we cannot be content only to criticize, as if we were outsiders to the business of governance. Rather, we must take our citizenship seriously, recognizing that insofar as we are active members of the body politic, we bear an authoritative office whose responsibilities we must discharge as servants of God and of our neighbors.

David Koyzis is the author of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. This piece was published in Capital Commentary on 4 January 2016.

13 January 2016

The right side of history: abortion and 'progress'

In this election year many of us find ourselves disappointed with the deteriorating tone of political debate in the United States. The Donald Trump phenomenon is only the most obvious indicator that all is far from well. Yet even on the “progressive” side we see an effort to belittle those who express opinions deemed to be “on the wrong side of history,” the assumption being that Americans—and perhaps the world—are caught up in larger historical forces moving in a single direction evident to all. However, Daniel K. Williams' new book, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade, complicates this picture by showing the extent to which the movement to limit abortion was once regarded as genuinely progressive. Reviewing the book for The New York Times, Kristin Dombek paints this surprising portrait of a vanished world of two generations ago:

From the perspective of our historical moment, it’s hard to imagine a country where the most prominent voices against abortion were Catholic physicians, and evangelical Protestants were either in favor of lifting restrictions on abortion, or didn’t really care. A country where Democrats and the Black Panthers opposed abortion, and Ronald Reagan, like most conservatives, supported it. Where more men than women supported legalizing abortion, and Hugh Hefner was one of those men, leading one activist to call legalized abortion the “final victory of the Playboy philosophy.” Where opposition to abortion found common cause with opposition to the exploitation of women, to the abandonment of the poor, to big business and to the Vietnam War.

While Dombek acknowledges that contemporary progressives find the language of abortion-as-genocide unpersuasive, she recognizes that, in the context of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, “liberals were understandably suspicious of any policy or law that seemed to promote population control funded by a government they suspected of systemic racism.”

Though Williams' book is unlikely to bring the pro-life cause back into the progressive camp, it should serve as a cautionary note on the use of political labels and as a needed counsel of humility for those with the cultural power to assign them. Fashions come and go. One generation's progress may fall victim to the next generation's very different agenda. If there is a lesson to be taken from this, it is that history is not, after all, a singular progressive movement along some grand Hegelian trajectory.

Yet Christians confess that history is in God's hands. It is not just a meaningless “one damn thing after another” but is a genuine movement from creation and fall to redemption and consummation, as laid out in the biblical narrative. Ideological agendas tend to fail over the long term because they are based on faulty understandings of the workings of God's world. Or, to paraphrase Marx, they carry the seeds of their own destruction, something we witnessed with communism's collapse a quarter of a century ago. If history should appear to be following a particular path at the moment, rather than getting on board, we have every reason to be cautious, discerning the spirits at work and remaining faithful to the God whose redemptive plan is at the very center of history.

Cross listed at First Thoughts.

11 January 2016

David Steinmetz (1936-2015)

As I am not a professional theologian, I cannot say that I follow developments in theology very closely. Nevertheless, I was taken by this moving tribute from Timothy George to the late David Steinmetz, who was a church historian at Duke University Divinity School. An ordained United Methodist minister, Steinmetz was deeply respectful of an older, pre-critical tradition of biblical exegesis. As such, he valued faithfulness over originality, a tough sell in contemporary academia, where innovation is expected even of aspiring candidates to the parish ministry. This excerpt from Steinmetz' baccalaureate address to the Duke graduating class of 1997 illustrates his emphasis rather well:

The good news for the members of the graduating class who plan to enter the ordained ministry is that you don’t have to invent your own Gospel. All of the church hopes you will be imaginative and resourceful. It doesn’t expect you to be original. Actually, it rather discourages originality with respect to core convictions. The Church will authorize you to preach an ancient Gospel you didn’t cook up and that is true whether you believe it or not. You will be commissioned by bishops and elders who have done it before you to preach the whole counsel of God, including the awkward bits we don’t understand very well. What you will not be ordained to do (though some of you will yield to the temptation to do it anyway) is to preach only those parts of the Christian tradition you have found personally meaningful. God doesn’t intend to mold the church in your image, you’ll be relieved to know, but in the image of the crucified and risen Christ.

May Steinmetz rest in peace until the resurrection, and may we all remain faithful in everything we do to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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can be contacted at: dtkoyzis@gmail.com