28 January 2013

Authority and office: the witness of Dr. Sietsma

The following piece appeared in the 14 January issue of Christian Courier as the latest instalment of my "Principalities & Powers" column. The story related therein is based on Constantijn J. Sikke’s book, Een waarlijk vrije: levensschets van Dr Kornelis Sietsma (A Truly Free Man: A Sketch of the Life of Dr. Kornelis Sietsma) (Amsterdam: Kirchner, 1946).

On a Monday early in 1942, the Rev. Dr. Kornelis Sietsma was arrested by the German Sicherheitsdienst (SD) at his home in Amsterdam. The previous day he had preached a sermon on Luke 4:1-13, the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, in which he emphasized the temptations that come with power. This was at his own congregation, the Schinkelkerk, which worshipped in a 50-year-old building in the Dutch capital city. At the offering he announced that a collection would be taken for the denomination’s mission to the Jews, something that had come to the attention of the SD, whose agents had attended his church that day.

German troops had occupied the Netherlands for not quite two years. Queen Wilhelmina and her government had taken refuge in London and the occupiers set up a pro-nazi régime in its place. All of this occurred despite the Dutch declaration of neutrality at the beginning of the war in 1939. However, only months later Germany violated Dutch neutrality and invaded the country. Now German soldiers patrolled the streets, and the Jewish population was beginning to receive discriminatory treatment at their hands, with much worse to come.

The Schinkelkerk was part of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, a denomination that began as a merger of two Reformed denominations dissenting from the established church. This union was brought about in 1892 by Abraham Kuyper, who would go on to become Prime Minister of the Netherlands shortly after the turn of the 20th century. In his own political thought Kuyper had recovered an emphasis on something he called soevereiniteit in eigen kring, or sovereignty in its own sphere – a principle in sharp contrast to state absolutism and certainly to the pretensions of any totalitarian régime.

A week and a half earlier, Sietsma had presided over the meeting of the Schinkelkerk consistory, which was faced with two issues of political significance: the status of liturgical prayers for the exiled Royal Family, and the Arbeitsdienst, or the mandatory service imposed on young people by the Germans. These had been raised in a letter issued by the General Synod of the Reformed Churches which was communicated to the congregations, calling them to discourage their young men from participating in the Arbeitsdienst and to remember the Royal Family in worship services. Sietsma commended the courage of this synodical letter at that meeting.

Sunday, 1 February, would mark Sietsma’s final sermon. SD officials were in the congregation that day when the special collection was taken. During his prayers, Sietsma recalled the fourth birthday of Queen Wilhelmina’s little granddaughter, Princess Beatrix, which had occurred on Saturday, and asked God for the safe return of the Royal Family to the Netherlands. All of this was duly noted by the visitors, who took this incriminating information back to their superiors.

Following his arrest, Sietsma was put on trial for provoking resistance to the governing authorities, collecting funds for the Jews, and praying for the royal family’s return. During his trial he admitted, under questioning, that the lust for power, on which he had preached, was present also in national socialism. Sietsma was held in prison until July and then transferred to the concentration camp at Dachau. Two months later, at only 46 years of age, he was dead, having paid the ultimate price for his courage in the face of his persecutors.

Prior to the outbreak of war, Sietsma wrote a little book called, Ambtsgedachte, which was published posthumously and translated half a century later as The Idea of Office (Paideia Press, 1985). In this brief volume the author ties the exercise of authority to the possession of office, arguing that “office is the only justification and the proper limitation of any human exercise of power and authority.” Apart from office, there is no obligation to obey another person. There is no natural right for one person to rule over someone else. Whether the German SD ever saw this book is unknown, but if they had done so, they could not have failed to recognize the implications of Sietsma’s approach for the nazi claim to Aryan racial superiority over other peoples.

Only office, and not the mere possession of power, can confer authority. The principal office we exercise in God’s world is that of divine image-bearer (Genesis 1:26-27). All the other authoritative offices we hold find their ultimate point of origin in this central office given by God himself. Sietsma understood this and willingly accepted the consequences of living it out before the face of the God he loved and served.

25 January 2013

Roe Plus Forty: Where Now?

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe vs. Wade, which effectively invalidated the 50 states’ abortion laws, asserting for the first time a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion. Although the court undoubtedly saw itself settling a contentious issue for a divided polity, we know now that Roe did nothing of the sort. Instead, it only increased the divisive nature of the issue, further polarizing a population into pro-choice and pro-life factions, each of which has taken apparently irreconcilable positions.
Earlier this month TIME Magazine carried a cover story whose author argues that, since the Roe ruling, the pro-choice side has been gradually losing the battle for abortion rights. Why? Physicians are less willing to perform abortions, and pro-lifers have succeeded in persuading their respective state legislatures to tighten up restrictions on the practice, which effectively places hurdles in the way of those who would procure the procedure. Some of these have a primarily psychological deterrent effect, such as requiring the mother to have an ultrasound of the child, thereby impressing on her the reality of the human life growing in the womb. There may also be something to the observation that, because pro-lifers have more children, their beliefs have a certain demographic advantage over those of pro-choicers. For these and other reasons, pro-lifers have reason to think that their long-term prospects are bright, even in the current absence of a sympathetic political climate in the highest places.

24 January 2013

Bartók's Romanian Dances: two versions

The Romanian Dances by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók have long been one of my favourite pieces of music. Decades ago I heard pianist Gellért Módos play this near Chicago, and it was an electric experience, perhaps not unlike that generated by violinist Janine Jansen in this video:

Jansen's performance is, of course, in the classic western tradition. Compare hers with the following performance by the Romanian gypsy band Taraf de Haïdouks, known in Romanian as Taraful Haiducilor. This is a remarkable performance that situates Bartók's famous piece clearly within the native folk tradition. Why the audience did not roar with approval at the end I don't know.

23 January 2013

Happy 40th anniversary, baby

If pro-lifers had come up with something to make the pro-choice position look bad, they could not have done better than this. I shrink from posting this video, because it is in such magnificently bad taste, but it is indicative of the level to which certain trends in our society have sunk.

22 January 2013

Reclaiming the Human Center of the Abortion Debate

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the US Supreme Court's notorious Roe vs. Wade decision, which effectively legalized abortion by declaring it a constitutional right. As we remember this event, we would do well to watch the following video from the Susan B. Anthony List:

17 January 2013

Religious Freedom Day

Some of us may have missed it, but President Obama declared yesterday Religious Freedom Day in the United States. Here is an excerpt from the presidential proclamation on the White House's website:

Today, we also remember that religious liberty is not just an American right; it is a universal human right to be protected here at home and across the globe. This freedom is an essential part of human dignity, and without it our world cannot know lasting peace.

As we observe Religious Freedom Day, let us remember the legacy of faith and independence we have inherited, and let us honor it by forever upholding our right to exercise our beliefs free from prejudice or persecution.

While it is good to know that the US government is doing something to recognize so fundamental a right, it would be good if it could acknowledge the injustice of forcing Hobby Lobby and other businesses to act against their owners' consciences on pain of crippling fines. Otherwise such a proclamation sounds empty indeed.

15 January 2013

Setting political philosophy to music

This is almost worth crossing the pond to see: John Rawls's A Theory of Justice: The Musical. Here is a description:

In order to draw inspiration for his magnum opus, John Rawls travels back through time to converse (in song) with a selection of political philosophers, including Plato, Locke, Rousseau and Mill. But the journey is not as smooth as he hoped: for as he pursues his love interest, the beautiful student Fairness, through history, he must escape the evil designs of his libertarian arch-nemesis, Robert Nozick, and his objectivist lover, Ayn Rand. Will he achieve his goal of defining Justice as Fairness?

A former student suggests that I should audition, but only if I get to sing this song by none other than Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Everywhere in Chains.

14 January 2013

At home and abroad: religious freedom under threat

The Guardian's Rupert Shortt reminds readers that Christianity is by no means foreign to the Middle East: In the Middle East, the Arab spring has given way to a Christian winter.

The line about the American general meeting the Arab Christian isn't as familiar as it should be. "When did your family convert?" the general asked. "About 2,000 years ago," the Arab answered wryly.

The general's ignorance is widely shared. Take but one example from closer to home. Over-zealous teachers in London have recently been pulling Syrian Orthodox refugees out of school assemblies in London, on the basis that Arab children must by definition be Muslims. The truth, of course, is that Christianity is an import from the Middle East, not an export to it. Christians have formed part of successive civilisations in the region for many centuries – they were, as Rowan Williams has pointed out, a dominant presence in the Byzantine era, an active partner in the early Muslim centuries, a long-suffering element within the Ottoman empire and, more recently, "a political catalyst and nursery of radical thinking in the dawn of Arab nationalism".

Today, though, the religious ecology of the Middle East looks more fragile than ever, as the Arab spring gives way to Christian winter. [Emphasis mine]

Sad to say, the numbers of Christians in the region have steadily declined over the centuries, with emigration accelerating over the past decade. Threats to Christians continue, not only in Egypt, but also Syria, Pakistan, Nigeria, China and many other countries.

Here in North America, the threats to religious freedom are not as overt, and most people appear not to recognize them as such. Nevertheless, well-known author and pastor Rick Warren has come to the defence of a beleaguered Christian-operated business, as indicated in this report: Hobby Lobby Delays Obamacare Fines for Now; Avoids $18.2 Million Penalty.

Warren, author and pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., has described the company's battle against Obamacare as "nothing less than a landmark battle for America's FIRST freedom, the freedom of religion and the freedom from government intervention in matters of conscience."

Warren said in a statement earlier this month that every American who loves freedom should "shudder at the precedent the government is trying to establish by denying Hobby Lobby the full protection of the First Amendment."

He blasted the government for trying to reinterpret the First Amendment "from freedom to PRACTICE your religion, to a more narrow freedom to worship, which would limit your freedom to the hour a week you are at a house of worship." This, he added, is not only a subversion of the Constitution, "it is nonsense," because "any religion that cannot be lived out … at home and work, is nothing but a meaningless ritual."

Warren predicts that "the battle to preserve religious liberty for all, in all areas of life, will likely become the civil rights movement of this decade."

We have an obligation to support our Christian brothers and sisters, with both prayer and political action. If we are serious in our confession that our whole lives must be lived obediently to God's will in gratitude for our salvation in Jesus Christ (Col. 2:6-7), we dare not acquiesce in either an artificial narrowing of the scope of religion at home or in overt attacks on religious freedom abroad.

07 January 2013

The sexual revolution: a change of mind

Andrew Norman Wilson, better known by his initials, A. N. Wilson, is an on-again, off-again atheist who has written books on C. S. Lewis, Leo Tolstoy, the Victorians, and many other subjects. At the beginning of a new year, the Daily Mail has published Wilson’s retrospective on the sexual revolution half a century after its inauguration: I’ve lived through the greatest revolution in sexual mores in our history. The damage it’s done appals me. Although the less-than-snappy title tells it all, the entire piece is worth reading, as can be judged from this excerpt:
The truth is that the Sexual Revolution had the power to alter our way of life, but it could not alter our essential nature; it could not alter the reality of who and what we are as human beings. It made nearly everyone feel that they were free, or free-er, than their parents had been—free to smoke pot, free to sleep around, free to pursue the passing dream of what felt, at the time, like overwhelming love—an emotion which very seldom lasts, and a word which is meaningless unless its definition includes commitment.

How easy it was to dismiss old-fashioned sexual morality as ‘suburban,’ as a prison for the human soul. How easy it was to laugh at the ‘prudes’ who questioned the wisdom of what was happening in the Sexual Revolution. Yet, as the opinion poll shows, most of us feel at a very deep level that what will make us very happy is not romping with a succession of lovers. In fact, it is having a long-lasting, stable relationship, having children, and maintaining, if possible, lifelong marriage.

Wilson cites statistics concerning abortion, sexually-transmitted diseases and divorce to bolster his case, none of which will come as a surprise to most of us. What is surprising is that a prominent newspaper in postchristian Great Britain has chosen to publish this piece, and that the readers’ comments are as positive as they are. I find this moderately encouraging as we head into 2013.


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