13 November 2017

A troubled anniversary

Next year we observe – perhaps “celebrate” doesn’t entirely fit – the 370th anniversary of the modern state, which is generally said to have resulted from the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the devastating Thirty Years War and reshaped the map of Europe. According to this agreement, the European powers would henceforth accept the principle of state sovereignty, namely, that the state is sovereign within its own territory and exempt from interference from its neighbours. This new international order would replace the messy patchwork of feudal fiefdoms that had lasted for centuries in the western part of the continent.

Since that time we have come to see the state, not as a domain of a particular ruler, but as a community of citizens led by their government. But settling its territorial boundaries has been the tricky part. Where does France end and Germany begin? And what of the German lands where, say, Polish is the majority language? For as long as the modern state has existed there have been quarrels over its jurisdiction. Attempts to settle these quarrels have not always succeeded, with the two world wars of the last century among the most tragic of the failures.

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson thought it possible to establish a postwar order based on the principle of national self-determination, which would grant all nations the right to decide their own fates. If the Czechs no longer wished to be part of Austria-Hungary, they would be permitted to go it alone. If the Poles wished to recover their ancient independence, then Russians, Germans and Austrians should allow this.

However, Wilson, ever the political idealist, underestimated the lethal consequences of what he had unleashed, as competing claims to nationhood set the stage for the resumption of armed conflict only two decades after the Treaty of Versailles had ended the first war. We are still living with the consequences today.

First, the Middle East. The Kurds are an ethnic group speaking an Indo-European language and straddling the borders of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. At the close of the Great War, the Kurds were promised an independent Kurdistan, something the Kurds are still awaiting a century later. With the defeat of Saddam Hussein in Iraq more than 25 years ago, the Kurds established a Kurdistan Regional Government, currently led by President Massoud Barzani. With the seemingly inevitable breakup of Iraq, the Kurds hoped finally to have their own state – something understandably opposed by Damascus, Ankara and Tehran.

However, as the Iraqi military has been fighting to defeat the Islamic State and other insurgents, it has pushed well into Kurdish territory, ousting the Peshmerga, the Kurdish armed forces, from the key city of Kirkuk last month. Does this spell the end of Kurdish hopes for independent statehood in the region? Possibly, though the U.S. has called for dialogue between the disputing parties.

On the far western end of Europe, the territorial integrity of another state is threatened by secessionists, this time in the Spanish autonomous region of Catalunya, whose citizens voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence. After the vote, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont stopped just short of declaring full independence. As I write, Madrid is acting quickly to disband the regional government in Barcelona and impose direct rule before independence can be asserted. Readers will have the benefit of hindsight that I currently lack, but historical precedents compel us to recognize that this is a potentially dangerous situation. No state can acquiesce in its own dismemberment. At the same time, it seems unwise – possibly even unjust – to force Catalonians to remain part of Spain.

What does justice require in such situations? State borders are not sacrosanct, yet dismembering an existing state is a messy business fraught with great potential for injustice. True, the modern state has its flaws, but at its best it has managed to create a secure public zone of peace, justice and prosperity within its jurisdiction – something we take for granted until it’s gone. If we are unlikely to see many celebratory events next year, we can nevertheless be grateful to God for the admittedly imperfect blessing of the state.

Originally published for Principalities & Powers, Christian Courier, 12 November 2017.

One Year of Trump

Nobody expected him to win. He was too boorish and crude. He couldn’t hold his own in a debate, even as, by his sheer presence, he seemed to be trying to intimidate his opponent. He thumbed his nose at people he thought weak and made fun of the handicapped. Far from being a polished orator like his predecessor, his rhetoric consisted of monosyllabic words spat out with tremendous ferocity, coupled with monotonously repetitious outbursts of braggadocio. Read more.

08 November 2017

The Queen would not be amused: Julie Payette’s ill-considered remarks

Governor General Julie Payette
As one of the Queen's Canadian subjects, I personally doubt she would approve of the remarks her freshly-minted representative made last week. Some months ago Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had advised Her Majesty to appoint Julie Payette, a former astronaut, to the post of Governor General, an office which she assumed at the beginning of October. In a Westminster parliamentary system, the Queen and her representatives must remain impeccably nonpartisan and avoid even a hint of partiality. The monarch is the guarantor of the constitution and a symbol of unity for the entire nation. In her sixty-five years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II has discharged her weighty responsibilities admirably, more than living up to the vow she took in South Africa on her twenty-first birthday.

Sadly, not all of her representatives have managed to follow her example. Last week, Payette addressed the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa, and in the course of her speech appeared to belittle her fellow citizens who have the temerity to believe in a transcendent God:

Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately, we’re still debating and still questioning whether humans have a role in the earth warming up or whether even the earth is warming up, period? And we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.

The tone of incredulity can only be taken as a put-down of people of faith. Or, perhaps more accurately, of people whose faith differs from her own.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, apparently a practising Catholic, weighed in on the controversy with these words, inadvertently affirming that Payette herself is a woman of faith:

I am extraordinarily proud of the strength and the story of our Governor General, Julie Payette, who has never hidden away her passion for science and her deep faith that knowledge, research and the truth is [sic] a foundation for any free, stable, successful society. And I applaud the firmness with which she stands in support of science and the truth [emphasis mine].

No one can quibble with the Governor General and the Prime Minister in their recognition that the standards associated with the scientific method have led to greater knowledge of the universe and produced huge benefits for humanity. But there is a tendency among some, when this appreciation is not tempered by the recognition that our world belongs to God, to invest science with redemptive expectations. Those with a more modest appreciation for science might challenge Payette’s rather naive belief that natural processes somehow rule out the existence of a creating and sustaining God.

Nearly a year ago, the Queen spoke these words in her annual Christmas speech:

Jesus Christ lived obscurely for most of his life, and never travelled far. He was maligned and rejected by many, though he had done no wrong. And yet, billions of people now follow his teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love, whoever does them and whatever they themselves believe.

What she thinks of Payette’s speech we likely will never know. If I were in Her Majesty's position, I would send the governor general a sharply worded reprimand, perhaps accompanied by a revised job description. It would serve as a warning that the authority of the governor general’s office does not extend beyond the limits of the monarch’s own authority relative to Canada. Payette is not entitled to establish scientism as the state religion. Let us hope she comes to see this better, as she becomes more accustomed to her official duties.

David Koyzis is Fellow in Politics at the St. George's Centre for Biblical and Public Theology. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another.

07 November 2017

Commemorating a revolution

Exactly one-hundred years ago, a small cadre of revolutionaries seized power in the then Russian capital city of Petrograd. After the Tsar's abdication earlier in the year, a provisional government had attempted to run the fractious country, unwisely attempting to continue the war against Germany that had brought down the imperial régime. While Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein would immortalize the storming of the Winter Palace in his famous re-enactment three years later, the actions that brought the Bolsheviks to power were much less dramatic. Nevertheless the long-term consequences of the Revolution would reverberate throughout the twentieth century, leading directly or indirectly to the deaths of scores of millions of people in the interest of implementing a political illusion based on a fundamental misreading of human nature.

On this anniversary we do well to acknowledge that human efforts to reshape the world according to the demands of the gods of the age are not without consequences. In particular, when human beings deny the one true God, they don't cease to believe. They simply redirect their beliefs elsewhere. While there is little to celebrate on this solemn occasion, it is appropriate to remember those who lost their lives to the scourge of Marxism-Leninism in the decades following the Revolution. Господи, помилуй! Lord have mercy!


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