Monday, March 23, 2015

The idolatry of the nation state

In the theology reading group on monday we will be discussing Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church by William Cavanaugh.

I found it refreshing, stimulating and provocative.

Christendom and Constantinianism [the close identification of church and state] has declined in the Western world. Overall this is a good thing as the church should be on the margins and stand again power, coercion, and violence. On the other hand, the hope and worship of many has shifted from God and the church to the nation state. It is their hoped source of security, identity, protection, and prosperity. This is idolatry.
Some Christians "tend to assume that the only solution to any given cultural problem is state enforcement".

The first chapter relates to the classic quote of Alisdair MacIntyre
The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf . . . [I]t is like being asked to die for the telephone company.
One chapter makes a highly creative analogy between the Richard Strauss' opera, Ariadne auf Naxos,
which combines tragedy and comedy simultaneously, with Augustine's City of God. (p.63, 64)
"The earthly city and the city of God are two intermingled performances, one a tragedy, the other a comedy. Thee are not two sets of props, no division of goods between spriticual and temper oral, infinite and finite. Both cities are concerned with the same questions..."

Some essays/chapters focus on the case of the USA. One "Messianic Nation" is a trenchant criticism of American exceptionalism, particularly the views of Stephen Webb, who attempts to justify this on (shaky) theological grounds. I found Webb's arguments pompous, bizarre, and scary.

The chapter "Migrant, Tourist, Pilgrim, Monk: Identity and Mobility in a Global Age" provides some nice contrasts between the past (Pilgrims and Monks) and the present (Tourists) which is concerned with the exotic, escape, restlessness, pleasure for the wealthy, and lacks hospitality for the needy (Migrant). Monks have a vow of stability.

The best line in the book is in the following (p. 135)
Metz is concerned that the legitimate separation of the church from the political sphere not result in the mere privatisation of the church, the handing over of the gospel to the anemic embrace of bourgeois sentimentality. Metz's solution is that the church take its place in civil society as an "institution of social criticism"..
Overall, I found the book a bit depressing because I agree with it, and yet I feel the views therein, are so outside the "mainstream".  I think the book would have been more hopeful if some concrete examples were given of churches and Christian organisations who are living in the "intermediate" political spaces he advocates: combining local social action, community development, and political advocacy.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Facing evil and moving on

There is a fascinating op-ed piece in the New York Times
Can an Evil Man Change?The Repentance of Eugene de Kock by Antjie Krog

If more than 30 years ago you had told this story many would say it was a fiction or a movie script: that apartheid would end peacefully in South Africa,
that rather than violence and retribution, there would be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where perpetrators of human rights violation could confess and receive amnesty,
that one of most evil perpetrators, Eugene de Kock, would co-operate with the families on his victims, ...

Yet it is true.

The following is particularly disturbing.
After the famous black-consciousness leader, Steve Biko, died in jail in 1977, opposition to apartheid grew. The National Party government realized it could no longer afford the political and economic consequences of activists dying in police custody. So, to continue its dirty work invisibly, a secret counterinsurgency unit was established on a farm called Vlakplaas. In 1983 Mr. de Kock became its commander, and it was from here that he and his men planned the deaths, kidnappings and torture of many anti-apartheid activists. 
When former President F.W. de Klerk released Nelson Mandela and lifted the ban on the black opposition parties in 1990, Mr. de Kock was secretly ordered to increase the appearance of black-on-black violence in order to discredit the liberation movements. His squad killed black activists with Russian weapons to implicate the military wing of Mr. Mandela’s party, the African National Congress. They captured black liberation movement soldiers, torturing them until they “turned” and could be used as hit men. This led to a sudden escalation of deaths of black people.
It worth reading the rest of the article to see what then unfolds.

Can such a person be forgiven? Should they ever be released from prison?

There are many complex issues here.

But, it brings to mind the most shocking "injustice" ever, something some can never accept, that God will forgive any sin or anyone.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Think before you move

My family enjoyed watching the movie Life of a King. It is based on a the true story of an ex-convict who starts a chess club in the inner city for disaffected youth in Washington D.C.
It is quite moving, inspiring, while highlighting the considerable challenge and lack of hope when growing up in an inner city neighbourhood. Under-resourced schools, violence, drugs, lack of community, few employment opportunities (outside crime!), broken homes, ....
Confronting this and contributing to positive change seems almost impossible. Yet the hero does.

Chess provides a focus for community, for change, and a metaphor for life in the hood. Think before you move. Protect yourself. Think of the long term consequences of your actions....

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Fighting for equal opportunity

My family watched The Butler. It is a moving portrayal of an African-American who serves as a butler in the White House, from Presidents Eisenhower to Reagan. This is set in the context of great social changes and the struggle against racism, discrimination, and injustice. The complex issue of finding the best political and social strategy to achieve equality is explored through the tense relation between the butler, and his son. The latter embarks on a more radical strategy, moving between non-violent resistance, the violent Black Panther movement, running for congress, and campaigning for sanctions against South Africa.

One sad thing was to see how long it took the actual White House to provide equal pay and equal opportunity for their own staff. This was still an issue as late as the 1980s.


Saturday, February 28, 2015

The end does not justify the means

My family is watching the final season of Foyle's War as it is currently available on ABC iview.
Foyle was a police detective in WWII, but after the war he works for the security agency, MI5. The cold war has begun and the UK government is trying to position itself in the Middle East. Besides the entertainment I like the show for several reasons.
It usually teaches some history and highlights diverse issues one may not hear much about: housing shortages after WWII, the difficulty of the Labour party of delivering on its promises of post-war construction, retrenchment of women who worked during the war, UK businessmen who supplied the Nazis, Nuremberg trial for German industrialists, anti-Semitism in the UK, ...
The show raises moral conundrums and ethical dilemmas.
It shows how Western governments get involved in or overlook dubious activities in order to promote their national interests, where business, oil,  or "security", ...

But, in the end, in the midst of all the complexities, I think Foyle does have a valuable and important message: "the end does not justify the means".


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Deconstructing the Trinity

I have found reading Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Toward a Fully Trinitarian Theology by Colin Gunton rather challenging. On Monday we will discuss it at the theology reading group.
It is not easy reading, but at times I struggle to see why it all matters.
Here are a few rambling reflections.

Gunton mentions that the struggle to put something as profound at the Trinity into words can be constructive. It stretches and clarifies our thinking. But it pushes the words and concepts to their limits.

Yet, it can also be dangerous. First, we can delude ourselves that we actually fully understand something. Second, it can become unnecessarily divisive. History has certainly shown this to be the case. The words can mean different things to different people. Different emphases and balances take different priorities to others. Pride and misunderstanding can lead to confusion, conflict, and hostility.

After struggling through the opening chapters of the book I found it helpful to re-read the chapter on the Trinity in Alister McGrath's textbook Christian Theology: An Introduction.
Here are a few details I found helpful, particularly in understanding some of the key terminology.

homoousios vs. homoiosious
same substance vs. similar substance
The Father and the Son are of the same [similar] substance.
The former was adopted in the Nicene Creed [325 A.D.] after much debate.

Aside: The two terms only differ by an "i" or "iota", the smallest object in the Greek alphabet. Amusingly, this may be the origin of the phrase, "it makes not one iota of difference."

Filioque [and from the Son]. There was controversy about whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father and the Son.
This is one of the main differences between the Eastern vs. Western conceptions of the Trinity.

perichoresis. This describes the relation between each person of the Trinity.

The Economic Trinity. I tend to think "economic" means frugal or minimalist, but here it means "how the different parts relate to and interact with one another", just like economic/business relations between individuals, societies, and companies. It relates to the acts of the different persons of God in creation, redemption, salvation, and the personal experiences of believers.
It is the manner "in which we experience the diversity and unity of God's self disclosure in history".

The immanent trinity reflects the unity and diversity of God as it is in God.

The Cappodocians played a key role in the acceptance of the full divinity of the Holy Spirit, which was formally endorsed in AD 381 by the Council of Constantinople.

Karl Barth was influential in stimulating renewed interest in the twentieth century in the Doctrine of the Trinity. He placed it at the beginning of his Magnus Opus, Church Dogmatics. He argued that it "undergirds and guarantees the actuality of divine revelation to sinful humanity."

Karl Rahner also played a key role, with the axiom, "The economic trinity is the immanent trinity, and the immanent trinity is the economic trinity.
I still don't really understand this.

It is all about balance. [page 79].
As in all theology, we are on a knife edge, or, we might say, a narrow path with precipices on each side. On one side, we deny the unity of God, and make it appear that there are three gods; on the other, we cause the distinctions of the three to disappear into some underlying undifferentiated deity.
What is the relation between God and the world? On the one hand God is sovereign and ruler of everything. All creation is completely sustained by God and completely dependent. Yet, on the other hand, human agents seem to be autonomous and can act independently. And the material world [ostensibly the creation] can be described and understood scientifically without reference to God. Is there a tension and/or contradiction? Gunton responds to the interaction of Robert Jenson [his Ph.D supervisor] with Jonathan Edwards. [page 95]
in connection with Jenson's query to Edwards' theology of Creation. `T[o] say that "God himself, in the immediate exercise of his power" is the creature' sole support and coherence, were we to take the proposition without trinitarian differentiation would cursedly threaten the distinct reality of creation' [Systematic Theology 2, page 41] The reason is that an authentically Christian theology must make two affirmations which so easily slip into contradiction of one another: that, First, God is the sole creator, and indeed, sole lord of what happens within that creations' history subsequent to its creation; and that, second, as creator and redeemer he is at the same time the one who gives to that creation its ... relative independence, ....
It is one reason of the modern world's rejection of the gospel that it has come to the conclusion that this is indeed the case. To affirm the world, and especially to establish the freedom of the human agent with in that world, it is has been thought necessary to deny God. That is almost an axiom of modern atheism, and indeed of much that affects to be a Chrsitain response to it.
Thus, a Trinitarian theology allows one to at the same time affirm the complete sovereignty of God the Creator and the independence of the creation.

Why does it matter? Should we care? Is it just word games?

Gunton has helped me see there are practical implications that do matter.

First, who are we? What is the meaning of a human person?
"God is one who has his being in communion" [page 15], following John Zizioulas. Similarly, with many careful qualifications, we only have our true being as persons in relation to others, in community. We do have a distinct individual identity but that cannot be defined or meaningful out of the context of relationships.

Second, the Trinity is all about balance. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are of equal importance. Yet in the church today things tend to bifurcate to extremes. [page 79]
Conservative Reformed types barely mention the Holy Spirit, and focus solely on the Son, particularly on his redemptive death.
At the other extreme are Pentecostals, who are preoccupied with the Holy Spirit, often with little reference to the Son.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

When democracy and freedom are a sham

I highly recommend the movie Selma, based on the Selma to Montgomery marches that were key events in the USA civil rights movement, leading to passage of the Voting Rights Act, 50 years ago. It is moving, disturbing, and inspirational.



It seems hard to believe that only fifty years ago, it was virtually impossible for African-Americans to register to vote in southern states such as Alabama. Furthermore, peaceful protests were met with brutal violence. Yet that is true and so it is good to be confronted with it.

On the one hand, one can take comfort and encouragement from the fact that such blatant and systematic racial discrimination, intimidation, and violence no longer takes place. Furthermore, many African-Americans now hold political office, even President. On the other hand, it is very disturbing that there are still systematic/subtle attempts to stop certain social groups [mostly poor] from voting, through programs such as mandatory voter ID. And then there is police brutality, ....

Like any movie, based on historical events, the directors and writers have taken "creative" license to change some details, listed in great detail here.

The movie nicely captures how Martin Luther King Jr. was an inspirational figure, but human and struggling with fear, anxiety, relationships, and strategy. It also highlights the key role played by other leaders, such as Diane Lane, Andrew Young, John Lewis, and James Bevel.

Selma also highlights the dubious role played by the FBI who kept King and the movement under surveillance, including bugging their phones and sending intimidating letters and phone calls to King's wife.

The best quote in the movie: John Lewis says
‘I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam … and can’t send troops to Selma.”