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.