Principled Tolerance

PRINCIPLED TOLERANCE BY PETER CORNEY
Tolerance, as it is being understood and practiced in Western culture today, is in danger of becoming oppressive and undermining its own good intentions.
As Western culture becomes less uniform in its cultural influences and drifts from its historical roots in its Judeo – Christian heritage, the way we understand and practice tolerance of difference in belief, values and life style is crucial to our common good.
My proposition is that true tolerance is only possible if one also holds to other convictions such as truth, goodness and freedom of speech as well as respect for others. What we might call a ‘principled tolerance ‘.
Tolerance can be elevated to the place of supreme virtue so that it obscures or overpowers all other virtues. Without a ‘principled tolerance’ it can easily slip over into any or all of the following negative outcomes:
1. An oppressive political correctness that gradually, through overzealous legislation, creates a raft of social restrictions that diminish our freedoms and stifles the public discussion that is crucial to a healthy democracy and, inadvertently, creates an underlying resentment that is counterproductive to the very aims of the spirit of the legislation. The frequent outbreaks of irreverent and politically incorrect humour are signs of, and blessed reliefs from, this oppressiveness. We so easily forget that laws do not make people good or kind; at best they may only restrain the worst among us. Goodness and kindness come from deeper convictions.
2. The development of a cultural blandness that can lead to indifference about deeper issues of value and questions about the meaning and purpose of human existence and the goal of human flourishing. This is a particular danger in in our prosperous Western societies. Economic hardships have a tendency to inspire deeper questions both politically and spiritually.
3. An intolerant secularism that rejects or seeks to dismiss and marginalises from the public square all religious convictions. Ironically secularism is of course a strongly held conviction in itself and a very narrow and often intolerant one. It is experienced today by people of faith as a kind of ‘hostility creep’ in many areas of life. The most recent being the change to Religious Instruction in Schools in Victoria. Another example is the strange way much current media commentary in Australia works in relation to ‘conviction politics.’ Commentators criticize the blandness and lack of convictions in our politicians and their ‘spin speak’ but as soon as one expresses their religious convictions or personal values strongly in public they are painted as bigoted, and ridiculed as out of step with the ‘assumed majority!’ Only those ‘convictions’ that are listed in the currently acceptable moral lexicon are protected from their derision.
4. A sceptical tolerance: this is when tolerance is driven by a sceptical relativism and anti-foundationalism. “We must tolerate everything because no one knows what the truth is, in fact there is no ultimate truth or objective set of values any way!” This leads our culture to become an empty shell without any deeper purpose than the utilitarian one of keeping social harmony at all cost.
5. Cultural relativism: this is where tolerance is driven by the idea that all cultural practices and beliefs are of equal value and legitimacy and are therefore immune from critique by any other objective standard or set of values. Three examples are sufficient to illustrate the shallowness and inconsistency of this widely held view: The treatment of woman and the abuse of their rights and equality in a number of cultures. The practice of cast inferiority systems endemic in some parts of the Indian sub-continent and other places. Endemic corruption in Asian business and political cultures where business is regularly smoothed by bribery. While corruption in business and politics exists in Australia it is generally seen as unacceptable and destructive of the common good. It is also illegal and you go to jail if you’re caught. We currently have a series of Royal Commissions vigorously investigating corruption. Very few if any Australians would support these three practices indeed most would condemn them. This simply illustrates that most cultural relativists are deeply inconsistent and have their own set of standards by which they judge other cultures. All societies have intolerances to certain practices and ideas like our intolerance of paedophilia, child abuse and violence against woman. Certain “intolerances” are in fact considered virtues. Of course any form of valid critique assumes some objective set of values, some moral convictions. It is at this point that much contemporary thought is hollow, inconsistent and evasive.
The only way to avoid these negative outcomes of a very thin view of tolerance is to hold a “Principled Tolerance”.
(Two excellent books for further reading are “The Intolerance of tolerance” by D A Carson Eerdmans 2012. “The Cube and the Cathedral” by George Weigel Basic Books 2005. This book explains and describes the crisis in the European Union of a spiritually and morally hollowed out culture.)
Peter Corney


Islamic terrorism challenges the West to renew its moral and spiritual vision

ISLAMIC TERRORISM CHALLENGES THE WEST TO RENEW ITS MORAL AND SPIRITUAL VISION
by Peter Corney.

Frank Ferudi the English sociologist has made the very insightful point that the efforts of Western countries to stem the flow of young men from Western Islamic communities to fight under the ISIS flag will not be successful until the West renews its own moral and spiritual vision. He writes “Until Western society articulates its own moral vision of a good society, it will struggle to contain the influence that Jihadist political theology exercises over its target audience.” He points out that political arguments about the superiority and virtues of liberal democracy rarely succeed in overcoming the recruiter’s claims that in fact the effect of the Western way of life is actually morally corrosive on young people of Islamic faith. That’s an argument that it’s very easy to find evidence for in the present state of our culture, not only among Islamic young people, but among Western young people in general! As Ferudi puts it “The language of good and evil appears more convincing than arguments based on secular logic and reasoning.” (The Australian July 25/26 2015)

Long before the rise of Islamic terrorism and ISSIS there have been a number of voices in the West calling for a renewal of our moral and spiritual vision. George Weigel’s book “The Cube and the Cathedral” (2005) is an articulate example among many. The social fabric of our culture is under enormous strain as the stability of the family and our experience of community has eroded and substance abuse has escalated. While we have never been so prosperous, never had more people in tertiary education and never had better health care, we now have more dependent children in state care than ever before, a third of our marriages end in divorce and we are experiencing escalating family violence. One woman per week is killed by her partner in Australia today! Our state institutions that are tasked with providing child and family welfare, and the justice system that attempts to administer intervention orders, are all in a constant state of crisis. In 2013 Mark Latham wrote a very insightful essay in the Quarterly (QE 49 2013). He spoke about the rise of an ‘entrenched underclass’ in Australian society who are trapped in a repeating cycle of generational family dysfunction and unemployment, they have lost the skills and habits of healthy family life, without the motivation to take advantage of the many schemes that are available for personal development, rehabilitation, job retraining and education. Fortunately, due to our generous welfare system, they do not live in the physical poverty and hunger of ‘The Great Depression’ years, but they live in a social, psychological and spiritual poverty. He describes them in this way: “….this group has gone feral, leading lives of welfare dependency, substance abuse and street crime.” Political parties of both left and right seem unable to solve this.

The problem with using the virtues of democracy in our arguments is that we have drifted away from many of the values that contributed to shaping it and the idea of a “common good”. These were largely Christian ideas and values; remember Western culture is the product of 2,000 years of Christianity.
For example: out of the Christian belief in our creation in God’s image and the incarnation of Christ we derived the idea of the value of the infinite value of each person and their human rights and individual freedoms. The political expression and evolution of these was a great step forward in our social and political life. (The origins of this process go right back to the struggle in England by the Christian Protestant Dissenters to be free to decide their own religious affiliations and places of assembly. That struggle resulted in “The Act of Toleration“ in 1689, a milestone in the development of human rights. Interestingly those struggles were about both the individual’s right to freedom of belief and the group’s right, in their case the small Christian communities dissenting from the State Church.)
One of our difficulties now is that the right of individual freedom has developed into a hyper individualism where the individual feels there should be no restraints on their right to choose or decide on any particular life style, and no restraint on saying what they think or feel regardless of others feelings. The old Christian idea of personal freedom was that we were made both free and responsible by God, free to overcome our weaknesses and self-interest so we might responsibly accept our duties and serve others – free for service. This is long gone and replaced by the idea that we are free from any restraint on our choices. This idea is daily reinforced by the market and consumerism. When freedom or equality or tolerance is elevated to the place of supreme virtue they tend to overpower all other virtues that could moderate their excesses. Unfortunately our fallen human nature makes excesses inevitable.
If we take the three classic political virtues of “freedom, equality and fraternity (or community)”, which as Charles Taylor has pointed out in his writing on ‘Secularism’, currently seem to be the only ‘moral virtues’ of modern liberal democracy, then clearly this new idea of freedom has overpowered one of its own virtues – ‘fraternity’ or the ‘common good’ of the community. A commitment to the ‘common good’ requires Hobbes’ ‘social contract’ – that citizens must be willing to sacrifice to the community and its governance some freedoms in exchange for the community’s protection of their other freedoms .If our hyper individualism continues on its current trajectory and the erosion of the commitment to ‘the common good’ continues then liberal democracy will become difficult to govern and may in the end founder. It cannot survive without this commitment, nor can it survive without a common moral and spiritual vision, indeed the two are intimately connected. As many of the framers of the American Constitution believed – “Freedom requires virtue and virtue requires faith.”

A common moral and spiritual vision that is informed by ideas and values that transcend our human self-interest is necessary precisely because of human frailty and selfishness. These values have almost always been informed by religious faith. When the discussion is moved into categories of moral corruption, good and evil, as Islamic extremists will do, the possession of a vital moral and spiritual vision for our society is critical. While the strength of secularism is that it can protect us from the excesses and oppression of religious fundamentalists its great weakness is its rejection of any transcendent values. At its best, liberal democracy in the West has enabled us to value and include the contribution of religious faith in the democratic process while at the same time maintaining a separation or healthy distance between Church and State. This is largely due to the historical evolution from established Churches and the influence of Christian values on Western democracy. With the knowledge of this history now a distant memory, or completely unknown for many, we are in danger of losing the valid place for faith in the public square under the pressure of a new secularism suffering from historical amnesia.

As Ferudi explains this state of mind renders us very vulnerable to the sense of moral and spiritual superiority that underlies and is expressed in Islamic fundamentalism and Jihadist terrorism.


The Future of Democracy in a Post Christian West.

More people attend an AFL round over a weekend in Melbourne than the combined membership of all Australian political parties. In the 90’s ALP membership was around 50,000, it is now about 30,000 and still falling, and in the last national party elections only 12,000 voted. A similar pattern affects the Liberal party. The late Don Chip’s Democrats, that began as a high member participation party is now a tiny shadow of its former self.

Some people say that the greatest threat to democracy today is voter indifference and voter cynicism with politics and politicians.

This year a Lowey Institute survey polled Australian’s attitudes to democracy. They found that – 60% preferred democracy to any other form of government. But most disturbing was that of 18-35 year olds only 39% answered yes to that question and 15% said “It doesn’t matter what kind of government we have.” [i] Currently it is estimated that about 1.4 million young Australians eligible to vote have not registered.

Our English word democracy comes from a Greek word meaning “the rule of the people”, from demos = people and kratos = power – “the power of the people”. Well, if that is how we are to define it then we might be in trouble because the people are switched off, or in the case of party members, ‘ticked off’ by being shut out of the political process by an increasingly professionalised and remote party machine.

Commentators point to other issues like:

–         The over influence of the Media and the relentless reporting cycle that politicians seem to allow to control them, and the media focus on the internal political conflict rather than policy – politics as entertainment rather than real debate over ideas and vision.

–         The obsession with minority issues and special interest groups that affect only a tiny proportion of the electorate.

–         The tendency of governments to attempt to intrude further and further into areas like freedom of speech.

–         The creeping surveillance and data collection culture that threatens our privacy and freedom.

–         Etc.

These are all important issues but I have chosen to focus in this lecture on what I believe to be three critical threats to modern liberal democracy today.

(1) The diminishing influence of Christianity in the West and the rise of an aggressive secularism.

(2) The growth of hyper individualism and the new understanding of freedom.

(3) The threat to democracy from religious extremism.

The first threat comes from the diminishing influence of Christianity in the West and the growth of an aggressive secularism that believes that it alone has the right to occupy the public square.

Almost everyone knows Lincolns description of democracy that was part of his famous Gettysburg speech on Nov. 19th 1863. “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

But where did that phrase come from? Did it originate in Lincolns mind? Well, No! Thirteen years before Gettysburg it was used in a speech by the Rev Theodore Parker at an anti-slavery convention in Boston. In his speech urging Americans to abolish slavery Parker described democracy and freedom in these words: “ A democracy, that is a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people…..a government after the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God…..I will call it the idea of freedom.”  [ii]

But where did Parker get it from? Well it turns out that the first occurrence of this phrase is found in, of all places, the preface to the first translation of the Bible into English by John Wycliffe in 1384. Where it says: “The Bible is for the government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”[iii]

Now I mention this obscure bit of history to illustrate how powerful the influence of Christianity and the Bible has been on the development of Western liberal democracy.

The quote from the preface to Wycliffe’s Bible also illustrates the inextricable link between democracy and freedom and the part that the Reformation and Protestant ideas played. Wycliffe is known as “the morning star of the reformation” and, like Martin Luther who translated the Bible into common German, they were concerned to make the Bible accessible to ordinary people so that they would be free to make their own judgements unfiltered by authoritarian Popes or controlled by priestly mystification. This thread of influence weaves its way through the development of democracy.

In the long struggle for democracy and its evolution in England from Magna Carter on, Christians and biblical ideas played a key role. For example: the key idea that God has established the state as a delegated authority, not as an autonomous power above God’s law. Laws made by the State should not contradict God’s law. English jurists from Bracton (1210-1268), to Edward Coke (1552-1634) and William Blackstone (1723- 1870) repeated and upheld this idea. [iv] This concept lies behind the trial of King Charles I. for “crimes against the people of England” by the English Parliament in1649. He was the first European monarch to be tried and sentenced in such a way. Even the King is not above the law. This is the principle on which the International court of justice in The Hague now operates in judging crimes like genocide by leaders of states.  [v]

In the 16th and 17th C’s  and the formation of the English Parliament and the Commonwealth, the Puritans were a driving force. They sought to model their ideas about community and government on the Bible. James Harrington a Puritan scholar developed a concept of republican government with popular ownership of land based on Israel’s God given agrarian land laws. [vi] They were greatly influenced by the NT ideas that all Christians are one in Christ and all people are equal before the Cross and God’s grace. Radical elements like the “Levellers” challenged the whole aristocratic arrangement of inherited land and privilege. They were heavily persecuted for their ideas. All the Protestant Dissenter’s Confessions of faith in the 17th C. contain strong statements about freedom of conscience and the moral limits of the state to compel people in matters of faith and belief.

These ideas were then transported to America with the Pilgrim Fathers and the first English settlers who were seeking religious and political freedom and were foundational in the new political experiment in the ‘new world.’

Tom Paine who wrote “The Rights of Man” and greatly influenced American democracy and human rights thinking began his public life as a Methodist lay preacher in England in the 1760’s. [vii]

When we come to the late 18th and early 19th C, the beginnings  of organised labour, the early union movement and workers’ rights were dominated by Methodism and people affected by the Evangelical revival in England. [viii]

Human rights are intimately connected with democratic values and Christians have been closely involved in their development and codification from the very beginning. Key figures in this process like the anti – slavery campaigners: Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce and the French Huguenot and Quaker Anthony Benezet, were all motivated by their Christian faith.[ix]

The first country to give woman the vote was New Zealand, closely followed by South Australia, in both cases Christian woman’s organisations like “The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union” were a driving force.

So from these few brief highlights we can see  the profound influence of Christian and Biblical ideas on freedom and democracy. The key point here is to recognise that modern democracy has  a cultural foundation developed in the Christian West.

I said earlier that freedom and democracy are intimately connected but as the framers of the American Constitution stressed “freedom requires virtue and virtue requires faith”. [x] It is striking in their writings and speeches to see how clearly they understood this. While many were Christians, others were Deists and free thinkers, but they all understood the essential connection between freedom, virtue and faith. Let me give you just three quotations from the many I could have quoted:

“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom” (Benjamin Franklin)

“To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a fantasy.” (James Maddison)

“It is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.” (John Adams)

The social and cultural critic Os Guinness has recently published a new book provocatively titled “A Free Peoples Suicide – Sustainable Freedom and the American Future”. [xi] He makes the point that while freedom can be a long and tough struggle to achieve; sustaining freedom is an even greater challenge because freedom is its own worst enemy. When freedom becomes unmoored from virtue and faith it tends to become license and undermines liberty. We begin to believe that whatever life style we desire we can choose without any cost. Inevitably we begin to impinge on the freedom of others as we lose our sense of obligation to the common good. He writes “only those who can govern themselves as individuals can govern themselves as a people. As for an athlete or dancer, freedom for a citizen is the gift of self- control training and discipline not self- indulgence. The laws of the land may provide external restraints on behaviour, but the secret of freedom is what Lord Moulton called ‘obedience to the unenforceable’, which is a matter of virtue, which in turn is a matter of faith. Faith and virtue are therefore indispensable to freedom” [xii] This is a most perceptive insight.

The Classical virtues are: Temperance, Prudence (Wisdom), Courage and Justice; the Christian virtues are: Faith, Hope and Love.

But these virtues can only be sustained by belief in and a commitment to a source of transcendent values. Hence the formula “Freedom requires virtue and virtue requires faith..”

It is no accident therefore that the two outstanding English speaking examples of modern liberal democracy are Great Britain and the United States, both profoundly influenced, as I have shown, by the Christian faith and world view that also incorporates the classical virtues. In the case of the British example it has now been successfully adopted by Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and a large number of countries in the British Commonwealth of Nations, including the largest democracy in the world, India. (Japanese and Korean democracy were the gifts of America.)

To dismiss this influence on world democracy on the grounds of personal or ideological prejudice towards the Christian faith, as many aggressive secularists do, is to say the least, curious. But to ignore it as a result of historical amnesia is just irresponsible. To fail to ensure that this history is taught in our educational institutions is to fail to nurture and sustain the foundations of our culture and identity and to sustain our democracy. The question people in the West need to ask is, how long can the flower of democracy last once it is cut from its roots?

The second threat is from the growth of hyper individualism and the redefining of freedom.

Democracy like community requires the commitment of its individual members to the common good if it is to flourish. Indeed democracy is a form of community. It can only remain healthy if its members have a sense of obligation and duty to the good of others. Rights must be accompanied by responsibilities.

In Pre- Modern traditional societies the good and the authority of the community is placed above that of the individual and their rights, conformity is required, often in ways that are oppressive of individual freedom.

In Modern societies the rights of the individual are more strongly asserted and a balance or accommodation is sought with the authority and good of the community. This is ‘the social contract’ struck between the state and the individual.[xiii] Many of our current public debates arise from this tension, like the issue of freedom of speech.

In contemporary Post – Modern society the emphasis on the individual’s freedom and rights has now overbalanced so far towards personal autonomy that obligation, duty, commitment to the family, the community and the greater common good is falling away. This is ‘hyper individualism.’

In a recent essay in The Quarterly, Mark Latham has produced a very insightful essay into not only the future of the A L P but Australian politics in general. He makes the point that liberal democracy with its emphasis on individual rights worked much better in the early 20th C. when citizens were tied together morally much more strongly, by tradition, common culture, religion, family and locality. But such a society has now passed. He writes “This is the price of modernity: instead of being heavily inculcated in traditional social norms, our obligations have become optional. The challenge for progressive government is to maintain the benefits of pluralism and personal freedom while encouraging solidarity among its citizens…… Rights alone are not sufficient to create a good society. Having the right to do something does not always make it the right thing to do. More is needed: a collective recognition of right and wrong.” [xiv]

This is not an entirely surprising view from the left for those who know its history. The ‘ethical left’ in English and Australian politics was heavily influenced by the early English Christian socialists. [xv]

In this process of social change another critical shift has taken place: the idea of freedom has been unconsciously redefined.

The new Post Modern view of freedom is located in the idea of the right of the individual to the unhindered power of spontaneous choice. On this view an act is free when it is in defiance of any restrictions, even of any objective values or duties. The only absolute is “the triumph of the will”. [xvi] Once freedom in this sense becomes an absolute we arrive at the tyranny of the individual – this is ‘hyper individualism’.

This expresses itself trivially in the social media by unpleasant people who feel it is their right to say whatever they like and express however they feel without concern for others feelings.

At the most serious and destructive end of the spectrum it reveals itself in the desertion of family and community. As one writer expressed it: “This kind of freedom is really just abandonement. You might start by throwing off religion, then your parents, your town, your people and way of life, and when later on, you leave your partner and your child too, it seems like a natural progression”  [xvii]

I argued earlier that freedom requires virtue or it descends into selfish individualism or moral license. But virtue cannot stand alone in its task of guiding freedom. Virtue requires faith if it is to be strong enough to resist our selfishness. It requires a foundation in a transcendent moral source beyond ourselves.

Until recent times the Western idea of freedom was greatly influenced by Christianity. In Christian thought freedom is about becoming free from the negative and selfish aspects of my nature so I might become what I was created for – to love and serve God and others. The model was the self-giving of Jesus in the sacrificial act of servant hood; “I have not come to be served but to serve and to give myself as a ransom for many” [xviii]

This idea also drove Christians to work for the social and political freedom of oppressed people so that they also could become and be what God had made them to be. This is why Christians have so often been at the fore- front of human rights movements.

But once this core idea is lost freedoms end becomes fixed on the self, on the individual, on my rights, my choice and my freedom from any restrictions on those choices, including any transcendent or objective values, there is now no limits to my freedom.

So duty to others, to the community, to family, to service, to kindness and respect for others falls away. People are then trapped in a destructive narcissism, imprisoned in the service of the self. As the NT expresses it:

“They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for people are slaves to whatever masters them” [xix]

Also the positive side of Enlightenment liberal thinking about human rights and freedoms is corrupted into a culture of entitlement, ugly selfism and hyper individualism.

These attitudes weaken democracy at a fundamental level. The positive “power of the people” rests on a virtuous vision and that rests on faith. I believe this can only be renewed in Western culture by a return to its Christian roots.

The third threat comes from religious extremism:

National and cultural identity and forms of government have historically been inextricably bound up with religion. Europe, North America and Australia have been shaped by Protestant and Catholic Christianity. After the collapse of the Christian Byzantine Empire the countries of the Middle East were reshaped by Islam. India has been shaped by Hinduism and Buddhism, and so on.

For centuries these cultures were separated by distance, geography and limited communications but we now live in a very different world. Our world has shrunk through globalisation, large people movements and modern communications. As a result the old cultural boundaries have become porous or weakened and in some cases broken down altogether. Very different cultures, religions and world views now find themselves living together. Almost all the great cities of the world are now multicultural. One of the results of this is a growing sense of confusion and anxiety about our identity. Assumptions about values, beliefs, rights and forms of governance are challenged.

Xenophobia, (the fear of difference), and racism, (the sense of racial superiority) have been with us ever since the fall and the tower of Babel. But these human weaknesses are exaggerated by the current changes we are experiencing.

One of the most dangerous developments of our current situation is the growth of religious extremism and ultra-Nationalism. Some examples: [1] The first and most obvious is Islamic fundamentalism and its deep hostility to the West and Christianity. Inherent in its core beliefs are (a) the goal of a world wide universal rule of the Islamic faith and law, (b) the union of the state and the Islamic faith and Sharia law, (c) the submission of all other faiths and beliefs to this rule, (d) the principle of ‘Jihad’ or holy war understood as both an internal spiritual war against evil within the individual and also the legitimate use of war against any external opposition to Islam. When these core beliefs are held without compromise or liberalisation they become an ideological foundation and justification for the use of violence, armed conflict and terrorism to advance the cause.
The resort to violence to advance their cause is inflamed by certain social and historical factors such as the Wests colonial past and the present high levels of unemployment and poverty among young adults in many Muslim countries and their marginalisation in immigrant and refugee communities in the West. Also the threat of modernity to conservative, authoritarian regimes in some Islamic states and their perception that the West has an insidiously permissive and moraly corrupt lifestyle are contributing factors. [2] The second example is the unease that is felt by many Europeans to the large influx of Islamic immigrants and refugees to Europe and the EU. This has created an anxiety that has fed a revival of the old ultra nationalism that the EU was designed to counter. With Europe’s present economic difficulties and high unemployment levels this is a dangerous mix. [3] Third, is the growth of Hindu nationalism in India represented by the BJP party that threatens to distort democratic politics and religious tolerance in India. There are now regular serious attacks on religious minorities in parts of India. [4] Fourth, is the growth of a militant and politicised Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Myanmar which has partcipated in numerous violent attacks on racial and religious minorities in those nations.

There is a long and depressing history of Nationalism in its extreme form seducing religion to its cause. This is a great danger to modern liberal democracy. In the tragic story of ethnic cleansing in the recent conflict in The Balkans in the 1990’s, the ambitions of Serbian nationalism was supported by elements of The Serbian Orthodox Church. This conflict is built on historical tensions between Islam and Christianity going back to the Islamic invasions of the 17th C. The emergence of fascism in Europe in the 1930’s that led to the rise of the extreme nationalism of Hitler and the Nazis, Franco’s Spain and Mussolini’s Italy was supported by parts of the Christian Church. In Hitler’s case he managed to recruit the official German Lutheran Church to bless what was really his Pagan cause. Only the courageous opposition of the minority Confessing Church formed by Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonheoffer stood against Hitler.

Many wars have been fought under the false flag of religion. A tragic example is The 30years War that devastated Europe from 1618 – 1648. It is often explained as a Protestant verses Catholic conflict but in fact the underlying force was the emergence in Europe of the ambitions for independence and power of the sovereign Nation state. Catholic France with its messianic pretensions actually made alliances with Protestant armies to defeat and ruin Austria and defeat Spain, both Catholic countries. [xx] The Treaty of Westphalia that ended the conflict in1648 created the idea of independent national sovereignty and what is now the basis of modern Europe. Some historians believe that it also paved the way for the national ambitions and power conflicts of the 19th and 20th C’s, it certainly didn’t solve them. [xxi] Whatever the weaknesses of the current EU it is at least a genuine attempt to create a unity that will diminish these old temptations to national pride and megalomania.

Underlying extreme nationalism is the ancient pagan and tribal marriage of “blood and soil” – the linking of race and land in a kind of exclusive covenant of difference and superiority. Christianity challenged this with its doctrine of all nations and tribes being one in Christ. The great prophetic visions of the Bible speak of a day when every tribe and nation would be united and living in peace, where, in the words of Isaiah “they will beat their swords into ploughshares”.[xxii] If you visit the United Nations headquarters in New York and go to the courtyard garden you will find a powerful bronze sculpture of a man beating a sword into a ploughshare and on it are inscribed Isaiah’s words. The Biblical dream is of the Tower of Babels confusion being transformed into unity and peace on the Mountain of the Lord.[xxiii]

The thirty years War broke the influence of that unfulfilled Christian dream in Europe, although it did not entirely snuff it out. In a sense the EU and the UN for all their weaknesses are reflections of that dream.

We cannot turn the clock back on globalisation and multiculturalism. To support liberal democracy and to make it work in this context we need to do the following five things:

(i)                We need the commitment and cooperation of faith communities who support liberal democratic values and who understand that it is not necessary to have a state sponsored religion or church to preserve these values. And of course we need religious freedom.  (eg: Muslim intellectuals who support a ‘middle way’- a pluralism that rejects both ‘assertive secularism’ and ‘radical Islam’ – and accept the idea of a ‘secular Muslim democracy’ or what is sometimes called ‘proceedural democracy’ are to be encouraged. Although it should be understood that these ideas are not accepted among traditional Muslims. See the recent book by Sydney University academic Lily Z Rahim “Muslim Secular Democracy – Voices from within”  pub. Palgrave Macmillan 2013.)

(ii)              We need a consensus and acknowledgement from the general community about the importance of religious faith in the sustaining of democratic values and the virtues that make them work. Aggressive secularists need to understand and accept that the overwhelming majority of people in the world have strong religious attachments and commitments and have a rightful place in the public square. Globally secularists are in fact the minority.

(iii)            In my personal experience of working with refugees it has become very clear that democratic governments need to take far more seriously and intentionally the process of integration and the education of new settlers. People from very different cultures and value systems who have almost no experience of democratic values and governance need special assistance. As I mentioned earlier education in democratic values and the history of their development should also be a compulsory part of the general school curriculum.

(iv)            We also need to begin an open public conversation about our current problems in this area.

When new settlers fail to adapt to or embrace democratic values and become isolated cultural islands, or their young people are marginalised by poor education, discrimination and unemployment serious social problems emerge. For example: If the new settlers come from a pre modern culture, as they engage with modernity in the new culture the gap between young people and their parents’ traditional values grows to a chasm and the parents lose control. The young person’s identity becomes confused; they then become vulnerable to the extreme religious voices as well as petty crime, drugs and street violence. The internet provides all the radical resources they need to forge a new identity that seems empowering. This can also be exacerbated by the xenophobia, fear and right wing extremism they may find in the host culture.

In March this year the UK scholar and member of the UN’s special committee on intercultural engagement Dr Aftab Malik spent a month in Sydney’s Lakemba community which has the highest concentration of Islamic people in Australia. He reported that the identity crisis for young Muslims in Australia is a “growing disease”. He urged us to begin a public discussion of these issues.

He said: “Unfortunately for British Muslims it took a terrorist attack for us to have that discussion…. You need to pre-empt this. Don’t wait till something tragic happens.” [xxiv]

(v)              We need to understand that multiculturalism is an important part of modern democracy but that its definition and limits have sometimes been subject to naïve views and overly influenced by the philosophy of ‘cultural relativism.’[xxv] A view that ignores the reality that every culture has some features that are destructive and morally wrong. Our naiveté in Australia is partly due to the success we have had with our post WW2 immigration and the cultural enrichment it has brought. But we forget that the majority of those immigrants were from Europe, including a large group of Jewish refugees; all had a similar Judeo / Christian world view and culture to Australia. The second wave after the Vietnam War was also a success as the Vietnamese immigrants were fleeing communism and enthusiastically embraced our democratic values. Within the current wave are many people from traditional, authoritarian and Islamic cultures whose experience, values and world view are very different to that of a liberal democratic society like ours.

As Christianity continues to make, the sometimes painful journey from the pre – modern to the modern world, it continues to negotiate and adapt its relationship with the state. From its beginning as a persecuted minority, to controlling Europe’s Holy Roman Empire, to a separation of Church and state in some western nations,[xxvi] to conflict with totalitarian states like the former Soviet Union, to embracing representative democracy today, the relationship continues to change. Christianity has at times, in disobedience to the clear teaching of Jesus and the New Testament, descended into the use of force to forward its mission and discipline its members. It has at times persecuted minorities. It has at times confused the Kingdom of God with the Church or the Kingdoms of this world. It has had to adapt to scientific and Biblical criticism, to secularism, to philosophical materialism and now to consumerism and aggressive atheism. Therefore Christians, as a result of their sins mistakes and successes, have much to bring to the conversation that other religions and cultures need to have with the Enlightenment, modernity and liberal democratic values. Indeed there are some sections of the Christian community who are still to make that journey. Some sections of the Christian community are still hoping for a return of Christendom!

Of course for us all it is a continuing journey as our society continues to change. Maintaining an intelligent and relevant orthodoxy and holding on to the essential core beliefs and values of the Christian faith in a rapidly changing culture is a challenge but we must not shrink from it otherwise we concede the ground to secularism, extremism or authoritarianism.

CONCLUSION

Christianity has many unique and rich things to bring to the process of sustaining democracy:

(a)  As I have mentioned, our past and present experience in responding to the challenges of The Enlightenment and modernity. This should equip us in our conversations with some other faiths who have yet to constructively respond to these challenges.

(b) Our long history of involvement in the struggle for freedom and human rights.

(c)  Our theological commitment to the following core ideas that are a great underpinning for democracy:

–         The primacy of love.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart… and your neighbour as yourself”, “Love your enemies”, “Whoever loves God has fulfilled the law.”

“God is love. Those who live in love live in God and God in them” [xxvii]

–         The key doctrines of grace and forgiveness commit us to reconciliation in all our relationships.

–         The infinite value of every person because they are made in Gods image, and because God in Christ took on human flesh. This value propels us to champion human rights and protect the sacredness of every individual.

–         The community of equality. In Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you all are one in Christ Jesus.” [xxviii]

–         An international community that embraces all races – we are saved by grace not race. We have no sacred language, everyone prays in their own heart language and we are committed to the provision of the Bible in every person’s language.

–         Servant hood and following the example of Jesus is our goal.

–         The three great Christian virtues of ‘faith hope and love.’ [xxix]

These ideas and commitments fit us most aptly to be in the vanguard of actions to forward and sustain democracy’s cause.

All of us need to ask ourselves the following questions: (i) Is my current engagement with the democratic process sufficient to claim my rights as a citizen? (ii) How can I be more engaged at a level appropriate to my abilities and stage of life? (iii) As a Christian how can I apply the core Christian values listed above to the various activities and involvements of my daily life, especially where I might be involved in decisions that affect professional or business standards, public policy and social structures? (iv) Given that the foundation of my life is my relationship with God in Christ how can I bring prayer to bear on this task?

Peter Corney 17/6/13 St Hilary’s Annual Lecture series.


References

[i] The Lowy Institute poll 2013 on Australian attitudes to democracy.

[ii] From a speech delivered in Boston 29th May 1850 “The American idea”

[iii] From the Prologue to the first edition of the Bible to be translated into English by John Wycliffe in 1384. The prologue is thought to have been written by John Purvey.

[iv] Augusto Zimmerman “Christian foundations of the rule of law”  News Weekly June 4, 2005 (www.newsweekly.com.au)

[v] See “The Tyrannicide Brief” by Geoffrey Robertson, Chato and Windus 2005.

[vi] James Harrington (1611-1677), who wrote “The Commonwealth of Oceana” in 1656. It was dedicated to Oliver Cromwell. See Gai Ferdons article in ‘Engage’ p.6 Spring 2006 from The Jubilee Centre UK.

[vii] Tom Paine (1737-1809) “The Rights of Man and the Age of Reason”. From “Tom Paine – A Political Life” by John Keane p. 46-48 1995 Bloomsbury Press.

[viii] See “Christian Social Reformers of the Nineteenth Century” Ed. by Hugh Martin, Torch 1933. “Saints in Politics – the Clapham Sect and the growth of freedom” by E. M. Howse, Allen and Unwin 1976.

[ix] A. C Grayling “Towards the Light” Bloomsbury. See chp 5.

[x] Os Guinness “A Free Peoples Suicide” IVP 2013 p. 108

[xi] OS Guiness ibid

[xii] OS Guiness ibid p.106

[xiii] The idea of ‘the social contract’ originates with Thomas Hobbes (1588- 1679) who wrote “Leviathan’. His theory is the basis of much western political philosophy – the idea that individual citizens surrender some of their freedoms and rights to the state in exchange for protection of their remaining rights.

[xiv] The Quarterly Essay issue 49. 2013 “Not Dead Yet – Labor’s post left future” By Mark Latham p.61-62

[xv] See “Christian Socialism – Scott Holland to Tony Blair” Alan Wilkinson, SCM press 1998.

[xvi] F. Nietzsche “Beyond Good and Evil”

[xvii] Larissa Mac Farquhar in The Age Good Weekend 11/8/13.

[xviii] Jesus, Mark 10 :45

[xix] 2Peter 2:19

[xx] David  P Goldman “How Civilisations Die” Regnery 2011 Chap.11.

[xxi] Ibid Goldman chap 11

[xxii] Isaiah 2:4,

[xxiii] Micha 4:1-4

[xxiv] The Weekend Australian 13-14  April  2013 p 6. See also the article “Between Two Worlds” by Trent Dalton on Lakemba NSW in The Weekend Australian Magazine.

[xxv] See the article “Christianity’s Radical Challenge to Cultural Relativism” at <petercorney.com>

xxv The separation of Church and State is still in a process of evolution in liberal democratic countries like The UK where the Bishops sit in the Upper House, although the powers of the Upper house are limited and subject to those of the Lower elected house “The Commons”. The Church of England is an established Church and the Archbishop of Canterbury has considerable moral authority and influence in national affairs. The balance of ‘powers’ in this case is as much custom and culture as it is law and its effectiveness is only as significant as the general citizenship accept its place and level of influence. This idea hangs over in a more vague way in Australian political life although it is being challenged by aggressive secularism.

[xxvii] Mathew 5: 44., Romans 13:8-10., I John4:7-12.

[xxviii] Galatians 3:26-28.


Christianity and Islam – Alternative Visions for Society and Government.

CHRISTIANITY AND ISLAM – ALTERNATIVE VISIONS FOR SOCIETY AND GOVERNMENT

By Peter Corney

There are similarities between Islam and Christianity; they are both missionary faiths with the stated goal of bringing all nations into the fold of the one faith.

But there are also major differences in their goals and the way the outcome is achieved, particularly in political terms.

For Christians the goal is stated by Jesus in his command to the disciples recorded in the Gospel of Mathew 28:19-20 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefor and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Disciples are ‘made’ by proclaiming the Gospel so people may understand its message and be able to respond freely and so choose to enter the Kingdom or rule of Christ. Coercion or force must not be used. Christians in the past have at times used force but this is diametrically opposed to the spirit and teaching of Christ and is to be condemned. The way of Jesus is the way of love not violence. The final universal and complete rule or Kingdom of Christ will be ushered in by God’s power and actions. The Kingdom of God is not brought in by human worldly power or force. (See  John 18:36-37 and Mathew 26:52-54)

Islam believes that the Kingdom or rule of God should be expressed now politically in a universal and international Caliphate (or rule) under the one supreme Islamic leader. [i] Under the authority of this order all people whether believers or not are subject to the one Islamic government and one legal system, sharia law. Some, but not all, minorities may be tolerated but not on an equal footing with Islamic believers. Other branches of the non dominant Islam in a particular state may also be treated with intolerance and oppression as in the current case of the treatment of the  Has-aria Shia minority in Afghanistan. In such a State apostasy or leaving the Islamic faith is a punishable offence and converting someone from Islam to another faith is also a punishable offence. As well as preaching and persuasion Islam’s rule or ‘Kingdom’ can be achieved by force and by waging war, and in some current expressions of radical Islam, terrorism, suicide bomings, kidnapping and deception are seen as legitimate means.

Christianity, believes that the Kingdom or rule of God is established through Christ. It has become present now through Christs life, death, resurrection and ascension but will only be fully realised when Christ returns and God finally and fully consummates it in a renewed and transformed creation set free from the destructive effects of the fall.[ii] A person enters the Kingdom by personal faith in Christ and freely accepting his lordship over their life. Christians do not believe that the Kingdom is a political rule that can be imposed or fully achieved now. Our present political and cultural orders can be and have been influenced by Christians, particularly in Western culture, and so may reflect, more or less, some of the values of Christs Kingdom.

The Kingdom and the Church are not one and the same; the Kingdom is a much bigger and more encompassing reality than the Church. The Churches role is to bear witness to the Kingdom, to live out its values and to be a signpost to it. At times the Church has been very influential in social reform, education, health care and a powerful voice for human rights and the unique value of every human person, but it is an imperfect body and has often failed in its role and witness. [iii]

Christians have lived and continue to live in many different political orders in which they seek to be good citizens. The limits to their co-operation with or obedience to any current political order is determined and framed by their allegiance to Christ, for them Jesus is Lord not Caesar. (Math 28:19 See above) If the current political order requires of them actions or beliefs that are contrary to the teaching of Jesus then they will peacefully resist or disobey and take the consequences. Recent examples are Christians in communist countries and the Confessing Church under the Nazis in WW2.

Christians are charged by Jesus to be salt and light in the world [iv] and so seek to influence the values and public policy of the current order in which they live. They do this by the witness of their life, by reasoned argument in the public discourse, and through legitimate political avenues where available.  This has meant, in the case of the evolution of Western liberal democracies, the significant shaping of that political and civic order. For example it can be shown quite clearly that in the development of codes of Human Rights right up to the UN Declaration the process was significantly influenced by Christians, particularly in the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. [v] The Evangelical revival in England in the same period coincided with and strongly influenced the political organisation of labour and the rights of ordinary workers, the factory acts, the child labour laws and many other social reforms during the industrial revolution. Christians were leaders in all these initiatives. Christians also seek to commend and explain the Christian faith to others and invite them to faith in Christ. They believe that people should and must be free to make their own decision without coercion or civil penalty. In these ways the Kingdom of God makes its presence felt in the world through the Holy Spirit in Christ’s disciples. But the final realisation does not come till Christ returns.

This understanding of the role of Christianity in the political order is clearly much more compatible to liberal democracy than Islam’s goals and methods.

Peter Corney


END NOTES

[i]  “The international system built up by the west since the Treaty of Westphalia will collapse and a new international system will rise under the leadership of a mighty Islamic state.” This statement was made after the Madrid terrorist attacks in 2004 by an ‘al Qaeda spokesman. Posted in the ‘Global Islamic Media Internet Forum’ under the name of L. Atiyyatullah and reported in ‘The Media Line’ April 2004 by Yaniv Berman.

[ii] See Romans 8:18-25

[iii] The history of Church and State in European history is complicated, there were periods when the two were joined and when the Church identified itself with the Kingdom of God. The Reformation gave impetus to the idea of the separation of Church and State; it also coincided with the emergence of nationalism and the nation state in Europe. Lutheran theology emphasised the idea of two separate kingdoms or spheres of responsibility, the Enlightenment reinforced this further. The Treaty of Westphalia (1647), which brought to an end the 30 years’ war over religious and national issues, established the basic principles of our current arrangements of sovereign nation states. These principles are now under some revision as a result of the formation of the EU, the UN and the growing acceptance of the ‘doctrine’ of human rights intervention where foreign states feel obliged to intervene in another states internal affairs when human rights are seriously infringed, e.g.; Kosovo, Libya, etc.

( Note: The gradual evolution of the liberal democratic state in England is seen by many as a good example of the development of a successful model of the relationship between Church and State. The observation could also be made that the Church is now so weak in England and the majority of the population so secular and pluralist that the current expression of the relationship is unrepresentative and unbalanced. This view is disputed by those who believe that the current order is a true reflection of England’s history, inheritance and core culture and should be preserved and that the present level of unbelief is a phase that may well change in the future.)

[iv] Mathew 5:13-16

[v ] See A C Graylings “Toward the Light” (Bloomsbury Press 2007) for a survey of the immense influence of Christians like Anthony Benezet, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce on the development and eventual adoption of Human Rights charters and declarations. (Pages 164 f). It should also be remembered that the very influential Tom Paine who wrote “The Rights of Man” began his public life as  a Methodist lay preacher.


Will the Arab Spring be the Middle East Christians Winter?

Will the so called Arab spring be the Middle East Christian’s winter?

The future for Christians in the Middle East is not looking good. Consider the following developments:

The ongoing violence towards Christians in Iraq since the ‘liberation’ and the large numbers leaving the country. Thousands have fled into Syria where the Alawite controlled Baathist’s have respected the minority Christians, but if Assad’s regime falls the upheaval in Syria may leave them in a very precarious situation with a majority Sunni Muslim population.

The recent violence towards the Christian Copts in Egypt since the overthrow of the Mubarak government does not bode well there for Christians. On October 9, 2011, a peaceful protest in Cairo by Coptic Christians and some moderate Muslims against religious discrimination was violently broken up by the Army and police. The army fired into the crowd and armoured vehicles ran people down. This resulted in 27 deaths and 300 injured. A Christian church was also burnt recently by a Muslim mob.

The recent statement by one of the leaders of the provisional liberation government of Libya, Mustafa Abdel Jalil is not reassuring, he is pledging to replace Gaddafi’s dictatorship with a more ‘democratic’ but more strictly Islamic legal system and reintroduce polygamy. (1)

The recent election in Tunisia has just elected an Islamist party the al-Nahada, much to the alarm of woman’s rights groups and those who fought hard to overthrow the previous oppressive rule. (2) It is interesting to note that the leader of the Islamist party, Rachid Ghannouchi, spent 22 years in exile in the UK under the protection of British democracy! It will be interesting to see if he returns the compliment to minority religious groups in Tunisia.

The fact is that Islamic organisations and particularly the more strict ones are the most well organised political groups in these countries and so are likely to have the most political influence in the chaotic situation that follows the overthrow of oppressive regimes. With Islam’s commitment to the fusing of religion and the state and the introduction of Sharia law it means that what the West understands by democracy is by no means the same as what may emerge. Islam has a bad track record of marginalising and frequently persecuting religious minorities and repressing woman. This so called Arab spring may not be the budding of real democracy but a very limited and restricted form.

The Islamic government of Iran has recently arrested a well known Iranian female documentary film maker Mahiraz Mohammadi and a female photojournalist Maryann Majd, both are woman’s rights activists. No reason has so far been given for their sudden arrest. (3) An Iranian actress, Marzieh Vafamehr, has also been sentenced to one year in jail and the medieval punishment of 90 lashes for acting in an Australian made film that is a social critique of life in Iran – “My Tehran for sale”. Iran has had a long and distinguished film industry but currently suffers under very restrictive laws. (4) A Christian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, is also currently in prison there and likely to be sentenced to death for alleged breaching of the Islamic Apostasy laws. (5)

Christian are regularly sentenced to imprisonment or killed in Pakistan, an Islamic ‘democracy’, by local courts and Islamic groups for Apostasy. (6)

Peter Corney

(1) The Age Oct 25th 2011.

(2) The Age  Oct 28th 2011

(3) The Guardian June 30th 2011

(4) The Envoy Oct 10th 2011

(5) The Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin Oct 26th 2011

(6) The Islamic Apostasy laws forbid Muslims from converting to another religion on pain of death. Also encouraging a Muslim to change their faith is also forbidden under the Apostasy laws.


Human Rights and Christian influence

By Peter Corney

humanrightsWhen English Christians in the late 18th and early 19th C. began the process of sensitizing their nation’s conscience to it’s involvement in the Trans Atlantic slave trade they chose a very significant campaign logo. The logo was a picture of an African slave in chains, his hands raised in pleading, surrounded with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?”

This logo and these words captured succinctly two fundamental Biblical and Christian ideas that deeply influenced the Abolitionists and have profoundly shaped the development of international charters of Human Rights. “Am I not a man..?” implied for the Christian abolitionist  the Biblical idea that because we are all made in the image of God we are all equal and precious and should be treated as such. The second part; “.. and a brother?” conveyed the idea that we are brothers and sisters, not only in the sense of  ‘the universal brotherhood of man’ but also in the NT sense that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one.” (Gal.3:28). How can one oppress and enslave a brother or sister?

These ideas are further underlined by the Christian belief in the incarnation; that God in revealing himself in Christ took on human flesh. This belief reinforces the dignity, the precious and sacred nature of every human person and therefore their inalienable rights.

Jesus applied the point sharply when, speaking about either our neglect or care for another person in need, said: “In that you did it unto the least of these you did it unto me.” (Math 25:40)

The early organizing committee of the English anti slavery campaign was made up of Anglicans and several Quakers. A number of the key members were also members of the Evangelical Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS), they formed a sister society to pursue the campaign known today as “Anti Slavery International”. Historically there is a direct line of descent and influence from these organisations to the later developments of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) working for the rights of workers, campaigns for the Rights of Children and eventually to the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948). It was not the only influence but a large slice of the activist gene pool that eventually produced the UN Charter can be traced back to the English Christian anti slavery campaigners.

It seems strange to me that today some of the heirs to this tradition seem reluctant to support a charter of Human Rights in Australia. I must say I would prefer to stand with the great tradition of William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and the 19th C. Evangelical Christian social reformers than against.

The influence of Christians on human rights goes back much further than the 18th and 19th C. in England. It goes back to the radical Puritan Christians of the 16th and 17th C. like the Levelers and the Diggers and later the Quakers. They argued from the Bible against inherited privilege that made certain rights an accident of birth. Rights like land holding and positions of power in government associated with the aristocracy. Their ideas fed into the brief but influential period of The Commonwealth (1649-53). The dramatic events that followed influenced “The Bill of Rights of 1689” an early statement of political and legal rights in England.

It should be remembered that it was a Puritan lawyer following his conscience and sense of moral duty who accepted the brief to be the prosecutor of Charles I for crimes against his own people (1649). He was the first lawyer to prosecute a Royal European head of state for such actions. (1)Up till this time it was accepted that a king made the law or was the law, he certainly was not subject to the law. The brave John Cooke argued that even the King was subject to the law. The notion of command responsibility under which war criminals today like S. Milosevic have been tried and found guilty by the International Court can be traced back to John Cooke’s ground breaking act of courage and pioneering justice. This can be seen as an early advance for the rights of victims of crimes committed by those abusing power over them and an early legal argument for calling tyrannous regimes to account. It’s influences can be traced to the radical Christian values of the early Puritans.

Footnotes:

(1) See “The Tyrannicide Brief”  by G. Robertson (Chatto and Windlus 2005)


The politics of God

Peter Corney, May 2004

(Parts 1&2)

Part 1.

” Glory – and a culture without weight.”

(Summery: The relationship between the Glory of God and culture. Once a culture looses its faith foundation it has a tendancy to hollow out and loose ‘weight’. Is this now the state of  Western culture?)

Psalm 24 describes God as “The King of Glory”

Lift up your heads, O you gates;
lift them up, you ancient door
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is he, this King of glory?
The Lord Almighty –
He is the King of glory.
But what is the glory of God?
What is God’s glory?

  • The word glory summons up for most of us the ideas of radiance, brilliance, shining splendor, and indeed that’s an aspect of God’s glory.
  • In many of the encounters that people have with God that are recorded in Scripture this is one of the overpowering physical impressions.

Eg. In the Old Testament, On Mt Sinai, Exodus 24:15-17

When Moses went up on the mountain the cloud covered it, and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud. To the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain.

Eg. Ezekiel’s Vision of God : Ezekiel 1:27

I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell facedown.

Eg. New Testament: The Transfiguration account in Luke 9:28

Jesus took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.)

While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”

These experiences and encounters with God’s Glory in this very physical and visible form produce responses in people of :

  • fear and awe
  • astonishment
  • it draws people to their knees in a deep sense of unworthiness
  • it draws out adoration, praise and worship
  • and the history of our culture shows that it inspires our aesthetic and creative dimension, music, poetry and art flow out of people. The Glory, its beauty once glimpsed ,triggers the most profound creativity in people.

But this does not exhaust the depth of meaning of the Glory of God.

In Exodus 33 when Moses makes his anxious, but audacious, request of God, “Show me your glory”? God says and does this:

Exodus 33:11-28

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”  And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. “But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

Then early the next morning on the Mountain: Exodus 34:5-7

Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generations.”

Now do you notice what is surprising about God’s response?

Yes , the physical manifestation of Glory is given , the cloud envelopes Moses and God hides him in a crack in the rocks to protect him from the blazing purity of his radiance, but the primary emphasis in the encounter is what God says about his own character!

In answer to Moses’ question, “show me your glory!” God describes his own character. The substance of this revelation of his glory is relational! God says, my glory is that I am:

  • compassionate;
  • gracious;
  • slow to anger;
  • abounding in love and faithfulness;
  • maintaining love to thousands;
  • forgiving sin;
  • yet, he does not leave the guilty unpunished – there is accountability because sin is so destructive of all the things that compose goodness and loving relationships. It must be judged.

The fullness of the Glory of God is revealed in his actions towards us of love, grace and forgiveness. Ie. His saving actions, his actions towards us that rescue us from ourselves.

The other interesting thing about the concept of God’s glory in the O.T. is that the Hebrew word ‘Kabod’ literally means ‘weight’.

The glory of God is heavy with truth. It is the radiance of true reality, the way things really are. It is the solid reality of how God relates to us, and we to him, and so in turn we to others. It is the gravitas of real love.

Now when we come to the New Testament we find the revelation of God’s glory is perfectly consistent with the old except that it is concentrated and focussed on Jesus!

His birth is accompanied by glory: Luke 2:8-14

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were terrified …

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

John’s Gospel begins with this description of Jesus : John 1:14

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

As John’s Gospel progresses, ‘glory’ becomes associated with Jesus’ death!

At the Last Supper, as Judas leaves to betray him, Jesus says, (John 13:31)

“Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him.”

And a little later in his prayer to the Father in the upper room, just hours before his arrest, he says (John 17:1):

“Father, the time has come. Glorify your son, that your son may glorify you.”

In the transfiguration account the topic of conversation between the two great figures of the O.T., Moses and Elijah, who appear in glorious splendor as Jesus is transfigured with brilliant light (Luke 9:30) is about Jesus’ ‘departure’, which he was about to fulfil at Jerusalem – ie his death, but the Greek word is Exodus! Jesus is about to accomplish another liberation from slavery, but this time for everyone.

And so God’s revelation of his glory in Jesus is also relational. ie. In his death and resurrection, Jesus acts to rescue us to reconcile us to God, to make forgiveness and restoration available to us. To bring us back to the Father.

Finally, in that mind-boggling, symbol-laden scene of the Throne of God in Revelation 4 and 5, the one at the centre of the stupendous praise is the Lamb, “looking as if it had been slain”, and the countless ranks of angelic beings, and every creature in heaven and on earth are singing:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour, and glory and power, for ever and ever.”

Now you might say – “that is all very interesting, but what does it have to do with politics and culture?” Well let me explain!

You may have heard of the 19th Century philosopher, Nietzsche. Nietzsche was a dark prophet, a promoter of the human quest for personal autonomy and power unrestricted by any divine authority.

Some say Nietzsche laid the philosophical groundwork for the rise of facism and the Nazi party’s pagan idea of the German Superman. He also predicted the gradual death of the belief in God in European culture. He was a brilliant but dark influence in modern European thought.

Nietzsche made this insightful observation. He said: “When cultures lose the decisive influence of God and God dies for a culture they become weightless.” (Remember the Hebrew idea of God’s glory as weight, gravitas.)

Cultures become weightless because they become hollow. And they become hollow when:

  • their core ideas, their beliefs, their fundamental view of reality is sucked out;
  • the thing that drove their aesthetic and creative passion is eroded away;
  • the beliefs that undergirded their ethical and moral vision are drilled out;
  • the ideas that gave energy to the culture are eaten away;

When this happens the culture becomes hollow, spiritually, ethically and philosophically empty – weightless!

Remember T.S. Elliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men” – it was written in 1925 as the first signs of Nietzsche’s predictions were revealing themselves in European culture.

In art – the French artist Marcel Duchamp in 1917 displayed a ceramic urinal as a work of art. It was his attempt, not just to shock, but to say that all norms for art, along with all our traditions are now absurd and meaningless.

At the same time in Zurich, the Dada movement was formed. An iconaclastic group of young artists using irony and black humour to show the state of emptiness, the weightlessness of western thought, art and morals.

This is the beginning of ‘the Junk’ installation. Strange juxtapositions of fragments of the consumer society randomly placed together.

Dada’s creed of meaningless disintegration was partly a reaction to the absurd and senseless slaughter of WW1 and the sense that the philosophical and moral foundations of European culture were exhausted. (A direct line of descent can be traced from Duchamp and Dada to Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and Pop Art.)

This is the context in which T.S. Elliot wrote his poem, “The Hollow Men”

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us – if at all – not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men …

The poem concludes with these words:

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper

Once a culture hollows out or becomes weightless a process begins that can be described as generational value decline:

  1. The first generation has strong beliefs, out of which come a set of values. But if they fail to pass the beliefs on as vital faith then …
  2. The second generation retains the values but loses the beliefs. The culture is beginning to hollow out.
  3. The third generation actively rejects the values and their foundations.
  4. The fourth generation now find themselves stumbling around in the wreckage of their culture searching for a new foundation on which to live.

Douglas Copeland is the author who coined the phrase, “Gen X” and wrote an influential book called “Generation X”. He is a 4th generationer!

He also wrote another book called “life after God.” Here is a quotation, it the honest cry of a 4th generation lost in the wasteland that is now western culture.

“My secret is that I need God – that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love as I seem beyond being able to love.”

Copeland’s statement reflects one of the most devastating results of a weightless culture – it turns in on itself. Because there is now no splendid vision to focus on, because they have turned away from “the weight of Glory”, their focus is subjective, turned in upon themselves.

Robert Cole, the Harvard Professor of Psychiatry and Social Ethics made this telling observation, “A culture not dedicated to the sacred has only itself to take as object. The self becomes sovereign.” This leads to a culture of narcissism.

Narcissis you remember was the young man in the Greek myth who was so captivated by the reflection his own beauty in the water of a stream that he lay gazing at it till he died of starvation.

Anne Maun the Australian writer talks about the loss of the ‘obligated self’ that feels obligations to others and the growth of the ‘autonomous sovereign self’ that leads to a society full of self-interest and self-pity – ‘duty free!’.

These trends lead inevitably to:

  • relational and family dysfunction;
  • loss of community;
  • insensitivity to injustice and inequality;
  • The privatising and individualising of sexual morality;
  • The obsession with personal rights and personal compensation by legal means.
  • The culture becomes enslaved by the ideology of personal autonomy.
  • Reality TV is emblematic of this, it’s a gross visual symbol of a hollowed out and weightless culture.
  • A culture that has reached this point has only three ways to go:
  1. Continue its gradual decline to the point where it is overpowered by another culture that has weight.
  2. God may be pleased to bring revival to us so that we might renew our culture
  3. A new generation rises up that is so appalled by the cultural wasteland we have created that they rediscover “the rock from which we were hewn”.

Finally let me close by making this very personal!

Just as a whole culture can become weightless if it loses its vision of God’s glory, so the same can happen to an individual, to you, to me!

Questions:

  • Where is the actual rather than theoretical focus of your life?
  • Is it on the glory of God?
  • Do you detect a drift in the focus of your vision?
  • Remember a core aspect of God’s glory is his desire to be in relationship with us and what he has been willing to do in Christ to accomplish that.
  • Are you paying enough attention to your relationship with God?
  • Are difficulties and troubles deflecting you?

To conclude:

Listen to the words of Paul (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Where we fix the attention of our lives is crucial if we are to be part of the eternal glory that far outweighs every transient trouble and difficulty.

Amen.

The politics of God Part 2.

“ Grace– the foundation for a free society”

(Summery: How the Christian idea of grace is a strong foundation for a free and democratic society. Can Western democracy survive without a renewal of one of its key  formative influnces ?)

The idea of Grace is at the heart and core of the Christian faith. It is a key foundational idea. In fact it would not be going too far to say that if someone has not understood Grace then they have not understood the Christian faith.

In fact you could go further and say that if they have not accepted and experienced God’s grace to us in Christ they are not yet a Christian.

Grace is the free unmerited favour and forgiveness of God to us. It comes to us, not because we deserve it, but because God loves us and has mercy on us.

The New Testament tells us that God took the initiative, came into our world – the world of immensely destructive selfishness and evil. He came, and instead of us, in our place, he bore our guilt and punishment so that we could be acquitted before the bar of God’s holiness and set free.

That’s the amazing grace of God and that is the glory of God – His love and compassion and mercy towards us, inspite of us.

As U2 express it in their song: ‘Grace’

“Grace she takes the blame
She covers the shame, removes the stain …
What once was hurt, what cone was friction,
what left a mark no longer stings, because
grace makes beauty out of ugly things.”

Paul’s words in Ephesians 2 make it crystal clear how the New Testament understands the way grace works. Ephesians 2:8-10:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is a gift of God – not by works, so no-one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works that God prepared in advance for us to do.

Note that Paul describes the new person that emerges from the experience of being touched by grace as “God’s handiwork” recreated by God in Christ. The Holy Spirit flows from God into our hearts and minds to renew us at the very core of our being. This is not something we can do, it is done for us and to us.

Now this Grace once experienced and understood and lived by, not only restores our relationship with God, but it has another wonderful spin-off – it provides the strongest and most profound foundation for a free and democratic society, the way we can live together justly and fairly and caringly.

There are compelling reasons why grace is a key foundation for a healthy, democratic and free society:

1. Because grace makes us all equal

It transcends race, gender, tribe and class. In Ephesians 2, immediately following his classic statement on grace that we read earlier, Paul goes straight on to draw out one of its radical implications that Jew and Gentile are now one. (2:14-21).

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.”

Christianity of all faiths is the most culturally pluralist. (Not philosophically pluralist but culturally pluralist.) Christianity attacks tribalism, racism and xenophobia at its roots. In Christ we have a radically new identity that transcends all the other communities of identity that we have been shaped by: ethnicity, family, gender, employment, class, etc,. Paul expresses it this way in Galatians 3:26-28.

“You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you all one in Christ Jesus.”

People who understand grace do not feel superior or inferior. This is a great foundation for free and democratic society.

2. Grace produces the inner attitude of gratefulness and humility. Before God’s mercy we are all the unworthy but grateful recipients of grace. Deep in the hearts of those who have experienced grace is the awareness of the brokenness, darkness and dysfunction that lurks below the surface in all of us. We know deep down that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

eg. I have a friend who is a recovered alcoholic. He lost his marriage and his children through alcoholism, but AA rescued him.He is now very honest about his life and weaknesses. Recovered alcoholics (or sober alcoholics) are some of the most honest , unpretentious and humble people I know. And that’s because they have been to the bottom. They know how low we humans can stoop and yet they found grace and came back and now live everyday by grace. They are frank and tough but very slow to judge others, very humble.

3. Because forgiveness is at the heart of grace and the experience of grace it produces people who realise the crucial importance of forgiveness and reconciliation in all our relationships. Forgiveness and reconciliation are crucial values for a free and harmonious society

4. Because grace proceeds from love – Grace is God’s love in action towards us, when experienced it produces people committed to the ethic of love in all our social relationships. Because we know we were loved by God even when we ignored or rejected him we realise we must love even those who reject us, even our enemies. This is a powerful and positive value for a healthy society.

5. Grace places an enormously high value on the individual’s life. People are of supreme value because each one has been redeemed by Christ’s death. The cost of grace – the price – was incalculably high. So the weakest most powerless individual is precious.

6. Grace also heightens the importance of community. It is to the Christian Community that God gives his ‘graces’/ ‘charisms’ or gifts of ministry to strengthen and grow us to reach out beyond ourselves to others. We understand ourselves as a mutually interdependent ‘body’ where each part or limb needs and depends on the other.

Our understanding of Christian community makes us people who value and see the importance of community and mutual responsibility throughout the whole society. It is no accident that many of the great social reforms that we now enjoy in western society had their origin in the Christian social reformers of the 18th and 19th Centuries in England. English society went through a tremendous social upheaval with the Industrial Revolution. As well as producing wealth, it also created enormous social problems with the growth of the vast new industrial suburbs. England changed from an agrarian village society to an industrial urban one in a relatively short period of time. The social challenges were great. A group of Christians, motivated by God’s grace to them tackled the social challenges of this period.

  • John Howard pioneered prison reform.
  • Elizabeth Fry and Anthony Ashley Cooper tackled factory reform and worked to abolish child labour.
  • William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson led the long battle to abolish slavery in the UK and its colonies.
  • John Ludlow pioneered the Friendly Societies, out of which came modern insurance and medical benefits schemes.
  • George Cadbury turned his factories into model workplaces. He introduced labour reforms and the forerunners of workplace accident insurance, superannuation and decent housing for workers. He created model villages around his factories.
  • James Kier Hardie created the modern labour movement. He had a strong influence on the first Australian Labor Prime Minister.

These were all deeply committed Christians.

Listen to this prayer by John Howard the prison reformer. His life work began with his conversion at 45 years of age. This is the prayer of commitment he recorded in his journal. It reveals the motivation of deep gratitude to God.

“Oh compassionate and divine Redeemer, save me from the dreadful guilt and power of sin and accept my solemn, free unreserved surrender of my soul, my spirit, all I am and have into your hands, unworthy of thy acceptance.”

His experience of God’s grace motivated him to travel 42,000 miles by horse during his life in the pursuit of the reform of prisons.

The experience of grace heightens the importance of community , an incredibly important value for a free and democratic society.

7. Experiencing and receiving of the generous grace of God produces generosity in us and the whole idea of sharing our wealth and abundance.

In 2 Corinthians 8 & 9 Paul is writing to the Corinthian church about their giving to the struggling Christians in Jerusalem. In 8:9 he sets up the generosity of God’s grace as the basis for our generosity.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

This is “the Christian generosity principle”. Our generosity is motivated by Christ’s generosity to us.

Then at the end of chapter 9 he tells the Corinthian Christians that their giving will produce great thanksgiving to God – and the reason for that is not just their financial generosity but the source of it – the surprising grace of God given to them. 2 Cor 9:12-15:

This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, people will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

Notice verse 14: “the hearts” of those receiving the Corinthian church’s gifts “will go out to them” because they realise how powerfully God’s grace has worked in them. They realise that the origin of the Corinthian’s generosity was the generous grace of God to the Corinthian Christians.

This example of generosity from God flows over into our role in society. The willing sharing of our wealth by reasonable taxation is something that “grace receivers” support as necessary for a fair and caring society.

The weak, the frail, the poor, the disabled must be cared for by generously sharing our resources through taxation.

8. Grace is more morally powerful than legalism. P.T. Forsyth, a great Christian thinker and writer from earlier times said, “Public liberty rests on inward freedom.”

Forsyth’s point was that those enslaved by fear or prejudice or anger or resentment or selfishness or greed are much more likely to enslave others than those who have found the inner freedom that comes from experiencing grace and forgiveness.

Nothing can ever be totally guaranteed but the modern liberal democratic state will rest far more safely on this inner freedom than anything else. The experience of grace is always more morally powerful and personally transforming than laws or legislation.

There is a world of difference between someone who keeps the law because they have to, or are afraid, and those who keep the law because they want to, whose hearts tell them it’s good and right.

The author of “Amazing grace” was John Newton a sea captain and slave trader. After his conversion he not only gave up his terrible trade but worked tirelessly with William Wilberforce for the abolition of the slave trade.

Grace is not opposed to law, but it is opposed to legalism. Legalism assumes that you can develop a good society with laws. Good laws are important but they do not change the heart or form inner values. Good laws can express and help support good values and be a signpost to good and fair behaviour, they can protect the weak and restrain self interest and evil but they cannot provide inner motivation or change the heart.

Jesus confronted this very issue in his own society – a society with a deep respect for the Law, but one that constantly descended into legalism and casuistry with the Law. eg. The pedantic resistance to healing on the Sabbath because it could be defined as work! Jesus lashed the teachers of the Law who justified this. He described them as blind guides, who ‘strained at gnats and swallowed camels!’ Who laid burdens on people too great to bear, hypocrites who kept the letter but missed the Spirit of the Law. He constantly went for the heart, the motive. ‘The Law says, do not murder but I say watch out for anger and hatred.’  The Pharisees were constantly on about the purification rules and hand washing. ‘I’ll tell you what makes someone unclean, it’s what’s in his heart and what’s in his heart will spill out of his mouth.’

Jesus was of course just continuing the tradition of the great Hebrew prophets – they understood and expressed with the clarity of desert light that the heart must be changed. No amount of observance , if your attitude or reasons were wrong, was acceptable to God.

They thundered out: “Rend your hearts and not your garments”. In other words truly repent don’t just observe the outward sign. “Circumcise your hearts, not just your bodies”  Bear the sign of separation from God in your heart not just your bodies.

Because our legislators today have lost touch with these foundation ideas of our culture they have fallen into the legalism trap. We have more legislation than we have ever had and yet a moral and ethical vacuum continues to grow at the heart of our society. We have legislation enacted with good intentions like the Victorian Racial and Religious Vilification Act that in its enthusiastic political correctness  is poorly drafted and has the potential to undermine the fundamental democratic value of freedom of speech, particularly in relation to freedom of religious expression and debate. It’s intention may have been good but the result is a flawed piece of legislation.

Grace changes hearts, not Law!

9. Grace produces hope

When a person experiences the grace and forgiveness of God they know they have a new start, a fresh future. When someone is at a point of emotional, spiritual and moral despair and they find that God loves them, is still extending his hand to them, and is saying to them – “Come on, lift your head, stand up, you can be forgiven, I can give you the strength to go on” – at that moment hope springs alive again. Societies must have hope to be healthy, to have energy and creativity. Grace produces hope!

The following is a list of the core values of a modern democratic society like Australia.

  • The separation of powers, church and state, parliament and courts.
  • Universal suffrage – one person, one vote
  • Representative democracy elected by the people
  • Equality of men and women
  • Equality before the law
  • The freedom of the individual to choose who they will marry, where they will live, work etc
  • Trial by jury
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of religion
  • Freedom of assembly and association
  • Equal rights to own property
  • The protection of and care for the poor, unemployment, vulnerable, sick and aged.
  • The sharing of wealth via taxation as well as voluntary charity
  • Protection of the rights of lawful minorities
  • The provision of non-sectarian education by the State
  • The freedom of people to also provide independent education for their children.

A cohesive society can only be constructed out of culturally diverse groups if there is a core of shared values to which everyone is committed.

It is a matter of historic fact that these values have evolved and developed primarily within and out of those nations who were most influenced by the Christian faith and the gospel of grace. Subsequently they have been adopted by others like India, now the world’s largest democracy, but they were nurtured in cultures influenced deeply by grace.

Classical Greece receives far too much credit for democracy! In fact they were slave states. Democracy was only for a small aristocratic elite, quite unlike a modern liberal democracy. If modern democratic principles they are to be protected, then the message of grace must be maintained at the heart of our society.

So if grace is a key foundation stone for building and sustaining a free democratic society, how can we and how should we promote grace?

Well, not by law or power or force, but by:

  1. promoting the message of grace – i.e. Spreading and sharing the Gospel
  2. living graciously among others in our society
  3. not being apologetic in our culture about our Christian faith, but being very confident and positive about its value to our society. Promote grace – argue its case as I have done here.
  4. By promoting politically and legally the core values of the modern democratic state like freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

Grace is a far better basis for a free and good society than secularism or paganism or a relativistic pluralism – the three current boys on the ideas block these days! Secularism is such a closed circle that shuts out so much that the human heart longs for. Paganism has a nasty history and has been the seed-bed for facism’s many forms in the past. Relativistic Pluralism is so anti-foundational that it produces a confused and ethically empty culture focussed on the individual’s self fulfilment and their subjective interior world with no objective moral compass point.

Remember P.T. Forsyth’s statement: “Public liberty rests on inward freedom” and that freedom is found in the experience of grace.

Australia was first discovered by a European explorer in 1606, Pedro Ferdandez de Quiros – he named his discovery “Terra Australis del Espiritu Santo” – the Southland of the Holy Spirit. Let us pray that we will indeed be a nation guided and influenced by the Holy Spirit, the one who leads hearts to the grace of God. Amen


Wilberforce – a model for today

William Wilberforce (1759 -1833)

By Peter Corney

This year is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in British territories (1807), an achievement due largely to the tireless efforts of William Wilberforce. By any measure Wilberforce is an outstanding example of Christian leadership and a model of the way a Christian should be at mission in the world today. Indeed many of the issues he applied himself to like slavery and the exploitation of labor have re-appeared in new forms today and demand our attention again. It is estimated that there are some 27 million people in some form of slavery today – bonded and forced labor, children in third world sweat shops, human trafficking, woman and girls trapped in forced prostitution and children kidnapped or sold into domestic slavery, the list goes on.

Wilberforce’s motivation came from a deep Christian commitment. His Christian formation was profoundly influenced by the Rev Isaac Milner his tutor and life long mentor and John Newton the ex slave trader and author of “Amazing grace”, both Evangelical Anglican clergy. It was Newton that convinced him to pursue his vocation as a Christian in politics and not be ordained. He was elected to the British Parliament in 1780 at the age of 22 years!

Wilberforce became part of a group of Evangelical leaders known as “The Clapham group” after the suburb of London where they met. The Rev John Venn, a member of the group, was the Rector of Holy Trinity Clapham. This group, made up of influential lay people like Lord Teignmouth the Governor General of India, MPs, bankers, writers, government administrators, philanthropists and clergy, deeply influenced English society, politics and the development of Christian missions in the early 19th C. Wilberforce and his friends formed CMS and the BFBS and various missions in India. Today’s influential “Anti slavery International” began as a sister society to CMS at this time. Thomas Clarkson, Wilberforce’s lifelong collaborator, was a key member of this group and the quiet driving force behind much of the abolitionist research and strategy.

While known today primarily for his leadership in the abolitionist movement he was also very influential in a wide variety of other social reforms: the reform of factories, child labor, prisons and the provision of primary education for children of the poor. It must be remembered that at this period there was no public education, no public health programs and no industrial relations laws protecting workers.

The English upper classes of the late 18th and early 19th C were not known for their piety and ridiculed the growing Evangelical and Methodist revival. Methodism had taken root mainly among the working poor which further alienated it from the moneyed and landed classes. Another of Wilberforce’s goals was to renew the faith of his peers and he set about this task with the same energy and wisdom that he brought to the abolitionist movement. He wrote a book, “A Practical View of True Faith…”, which was widely read and made a great impact on English family life. He encouraged the pattern of family prayers in which the whole household took part, this became a feature of many large households in the 19th C. These many interests were pursued at the same time as he continued to press the abolitionist cause both in and out of Parliament.

While there had been a constant thread of opposition to slavery among Christians in England – Richard Baxter the great Puritan preacher and later John Wesley had both condemned it as a great evil – nevertheless the Church and established society chose to ignore the issue. It was “over there” in the colonies and so “out of sight and out of mind.”

By 1807 at least three million slaves had been transported from Africa to the Americas by British ships. The method of transport was barbaric and inhuman. The slaves were crammed into tiny spaces unable to move, many died or went mad with claustrophobia in the confined space hardly able to breathe. The sick and dieing were simply thrown overboard. But this evil trade was a significant source of wealth in an increasingly prosperous England as the economic benefits of the Colonies and the plantations flowed back to the developing industrial revolution at home.

In 1787 the “Committee of Twelve” was formed to attack the problem in a coordinated way. It was made up of nine Quakers and three Evangelical Anglicans. This group recruited the young MP William Wilberforce as their parliamentary spokesman.

In 1789 Wilberforce moved his first motion for the abolition of the slave trade in the Parliament but it took 18years to get the Bill through The House of Commons! From 1807 British Naval ships enforced the ban on slave trading but it took another 26 years of campaigning to have the existing slaves released. In 1833 while Wilberforce lay dieing at his home he heard the news that the Bill had passed the third reading. One year after his death, at midnight on July 31st. 800,000 slaves were freed and the institution of slavery ceased to exist in the British territories. This was the result of the outstanding commitment of many Christians and the dedication of the whole life of one man.

On July 29th 1833 in an extraordinary expression of national gratitude Wilberforce was buried in West Minster Abbey by a grateful nation. At the state funeral the pall bearers were The Lord Chancellor, four Peers of the Realm, two Royal Dukes and The Speaker of the House. Almost every MP followed in the procession. This man had not just touched the conscience of the nation he had reshaped its spiritual core. What a magnificent model for Christian Mission!

The task was long and hard because the social and political context was not conducive, indeed often hostile to the cause. The social and political theory was Liaise Fair Capitalism and paternalistic philanthropy. Wealth was not redistributed by government to assist the poor that was the job of individuals. Constant wars with France (on and off from 1759 – 1815) and the American colonies were distracting and the French Revolution (1789) made the English ruling classes nervous about any social change.

The campaign methods used by the Abolitionists are instructive and a model for ‘faith based activism”. John Coffey in his Cambridge Paper (Vol.15/2 2006) describes how they mounted a media and petition blitz to coincide with Wilberforce’s Parliamentary Bills.(10% of the English population signed the Petition!) They assembled damning evidence of the barbaric nature of the trade. They developed a logo of an African man in chains with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?” The famous potter ,Wedgwood, even produced it as a pottery figure! They produced books and posters, they held rallies, they wrote to MP’s. They created a national organization and a huge grass roots movement. Coffey comments: “There were even boycotts on consumer goods, as up to 400.000 Britons stopped buying the rum and sugar that came from the slave plantations”. The Churches were mobilized and “hundred’s of Methodists… signed a petition against the slave trade in the Chapel at the Communion Table on the Lord’s Day.”

Wilberforce and the Abolitionist campaign has much to teach us about Christian Mission and “faith based activism” today. First, is the power of Christian conviction as a powerful motivating force. Second, is what a few really dedicated people can achieve. Third, the need for perseverance and long term commitment. Fourth, it shows us that change can be made even in a hostile social and political context. Fifth, it shows the power of mentors – the influence of The Rev Isaac Milner and John Newton on Wilberforce’s life. Sixth, it reminds us that our Christian calling extends to our everyday vocations.

The need to attack slavery and the exploitation of labor continues today. One way we can celebrate the anniversary of the 1807 victory is to become informed and involved today. Read David Batstone’s new book “Not for sale: the return of the global slave trade and how we can fight it” or contact “Anti Slavery International” (www.antislavery.org).


Religion and politics in Australia

RELIGION AND POLITICS IN AUSTRALIA – REVIVING THE CONNECTION.

 

By Peter Corney. July 2005

 

Even the casual observer of the last federal election in Australia could not miss the extraordinary amount of public comment and interest in the revival of the connection between religion and politics in Australia.

 

Those with longer memories recalled the dramatic days of Bob Santamaria, the Catholic Church and the DLP in the late 50s and early 60s. The battle between the DLP and the Communists in the Labor Party and the resulting split kept Labor out of office for over a decade. We hadn’t seen anything like the tensions and connections of those days between religion and politics for a long time.

 

Judging by the recent activities of the two major parties as they vie for the interest of the conservative Christian vote the focus and attention will continue as the run up to the next Federal election intensifies. Not only have John Howard and Peter Costello appeared on the AOG Hillsong platform but also Bob Carr and other Labor politicians have recently attended. In fact at the last Hillsong Mega Conference on July 4th in addition to the state Premier Bob Carr there were at least five federal cabinet ministers, eight Liberal back benchers and two National party Senators present.  On the platform Bob Carr, an agnostic, sounded like a Telly Evangelist giving away CDs as he promised not to bring in a Religious Vilification Act (like Victoria’s) in NSW. It was an unashamed pitch for the conservative Christian vote. We have not seen this sort of political interest in religion for at least 35 years. 

 

The Labor Party realising that the Liberals beat them to the punch with Family First preferences at the last election have formed their own “God Squad” initiated by Kevin Rudd. It is called the Faith Values and Politics working group. Their clear aim is to try and catch up to the Liberals in connecting with what they see as a significant voting block in contemporary Australian society where many of the old loyalties have changed including religious and political sentiments and alliances.

 

 Some of the old political/religious cliché’s went something like this:  Catholics voted labor right; Anglicans voted Liberal/National (but many of their leaders were publicly soft left); Pentecostals were a fringe group who were too small to matter and politically disinterested. Most of this has now changed. Much of the Catholic constituency has become socially upwardly mobile and moved away from its working class roots. The Uniting Church (UCA) is now a pale shadow of its former self, its membership is so small and ageing that its voting power is of little significance. The National Council of Churches (NCC) is now weak and it’s style of ecuminism is largely ignored by the new large and growing churches who have their own inter church networks. The Anglican vote is now  much more diverse than it once was. .

 

The other major change has been the growth of the Evangelical and Pentecostal Churches. The landscape of the Protestant church has been dramatically reconfigured over the last 20 years. This reshaping has until recently gone largely unnoticed in the general community, the press and the party political world. The largest number of adult Protestant Christians in church on Sunday is now in Evangelical, Pentecostal, or independent Charismatic churches. We are not talking nominal denominational census figures here but actual regular attendance. Many of these congregations are very large highly organised regional churches. Hillsong is now well known but there are dozens of others around the nation who have attendances in the 1000 plus range and a significant number in the 3000 plus range. They can be found in all Protestant denominations. Many of the leaders of these large congregations have now become politically active.

 

Another significant change is that theologically conservative Christians have begun to organise politically. The Pentecostal churches once disinterested in the “grubby business of politics” have become very interested and engaged. Their phenomenal growth since the late 70’s now makes them a significant influence. Family First is the most visible expression of this activity but there is much more going on behind the scene. The Evangelical Alliance now has a Director of Theology and Public Policy and has become more active in Aboriginal Justice issues. Saltshakers are a low key but influential lobby group based in Victoria. The Canberra based Australian Christian Lobby a non-denominational non-politically aligned organisation has attracted many members among theologically conservative Christians and is developing significant political skills and influence. They only began in the year 2000. They currently have around 6000 paid up members. The capital city annual Prayer breakfast movement which is run by conservative Christians has a low key but definite agenda to influence community leaders. It is now attracting very large numbers to its events. Also the influential Pastors Prayer Summit movement has a strong focus on society and the nation.

 

 What are the forces that are driving this and will they produce a permanent change in our social, political and religious landscape?

 

 Marion Maddox in her recent book “God under Howard – the rise of the religious right in Australian politics”, argues that John Howard’s conservative agenda has been very deliberately orchestrated through political lobby groups like the conservatively religious Lyons Forum made up of influential Christian federal politicians and the various conservative think tanks like the Institute of Public Affairs, the Centre for Independent Studies, the Tasman Institute and the H.R.Nicholls Society. She argues that a campaign has been successfully waged to shift Australian society to the right by restoring social conservatism and promoting economic liberalism. This has been done she claims by reconnecting conservative Christians with the political process.

 

There is obviously some truth in this. But the forces at play are much more complex than this and bigger than John Howard. You cannot reshape a societies attitudes so easily unless there is at large a mood that is conducive.

 

Larger forces, events and ideas both beyond and within Australia are pushing religion and politics back together. They are:

 

1. The media rub off in Australia of the so called “faith based presidency” of George Bush and his very public religious stance has had a significant effect on peoples awareness of the strong connection between religion and politics in other parts of the world.

 

2. The power of religious ideas for so long marginalised in the west is now re-emerging in the consciousness of western people. One of the reasons for this is the visible reality of a resurgent Islam, which is entering a new historic period of expansion. This development is now impacting on Western cultures as a result of immigration and international terrorism.

 

3. For some time now in Australia a values vacuum has existed and people are now sensing this. The vacuum has been created by the drift away from our traditional Judeo-Christian heritage and worldview to a secularist view. This rather arid secularist view is now being challenged by a number of trends in the culture. Post Modernism has created a mood of dissatisfaction with the closed box attitudes of secular modernism. The popularity of New Age spirituality is one response. The anxiety over the growing relational dysfunction of our society in spite of our prosperity – marriage and family breakdown, the growing army of single parents, escalating problems with depressive illnesses and substance abuse, very public and costly cases of corporate immorality. These have all rung the values alarm bells.

 

Up till now the values discussion has revealed itself most clearly in the values in education debate and the growth in independent and “Christian schools” and their climbing enrolment graphs. They now account for around 42% of all secondary students.

 

4. Some time ago the majority of ordinary Australians had reached a point of frustration with major political parties who have allowed the political agenda to be hijacked by minority lobby groups who in turn over influence the formation of public policy. The Victorian Racial and Religious Vilification Act is an example of this.

 

5. A collection of other concerns has also galvanised the theologically conservative Christians into political action: The decline in traditional values and the general coarsening of our culture; the aggressive secularism of elements of the political left when in office, (eg: The Bracks government has sensibly decided to back off any change after a recent secular left inspired review of the provision of voluntary RE in State schools in Vic.); the attempts to redefine traditional notions of family and marriage and the excessive influence on public policy of minority groups pushing family and marriage arrangements that are entirely novel in our social history and at odds with our societal foundations. Interestingly more perceptive politicians are slowly beginning to realise that some of these concerns are shared by a large number of Australians who are not necessarily churchgoers.

 

6. In Australia multiculturalism as it has been defined and practiced over the last 35 years has worked well. During that time the majority of immigration was from Europe and Asia. Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants although coming from very different cultures have enriched Australian society. But Australians are beginning to sense that the current idea of multiculturalism has its limits when pushed hard by an uncompromising culture and religion. The amber lights are flashing in Europe and the British are already suggesting post the London bombings that they have been too tolerant of religious extremists.  The current concept of multiculturalism needs significant revision in the light of these events. This inevitably brings religion and politics together.

 

The multiculturalism debate:

 

Western liberal democracy has evolved a series of core values that are essential to its healthy functioning. Among these are the separation of church and state, the separation of religious law and state law, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, equality of men and woman, universal suffrage, etc. If a particular religion and culture is unwilling to accept these core values and adapt to them then Australian society is in for a difficult and troubled time. Any revised idea of multiculturalism must include the expectation of a commitment by all participating cultures and religions to the core values of the liberal democratic state.

 

 Historically Christianity in Europe had to adapt and reinterpret a number of its views under the scrutiny and critique of the Enlightenment, eg, the connection between church and state. If a culture and religion that has come from a pre modern context wants to find its place happily in Australian society today it must be willing to come under the same scrutiny and critique. Its ideas must be open to debate, discussion and examination without retreating behind the defence of religious offence or insult. So long as the debate is conducted in a respectful manner nothing should be off limits for critique and vigorous debate. Indeed this kind of debate is one of democracies hallmarks

 

It will be very important for Christians to enter the debate on multiculturalism. The past idea was largely defined by the secular left and shaped by the optimism and idealism of the 70’s. The current debate is in danger of being reactive and hijacked by the right. Christians need to bring their unique insights to the discussion. Christians have a deep commitment to this issue because the Christian faith transcends race and nation. (SeeGal.3:28.) For Christians no culture is intrinsically sacrosanct, every culture must be submitted to the critique of the Gospel, including Western culture. From the Christian’s Biblical perspective all cultures have both good and bad characteristics, constructive and destructive aspects. The Christian brings the values of “the Kingdom” that Jesus inaugurated as their touchstone for evaluating culture and the various political solutions that the world offers to solve our problems and to create the common good.

 

This debate makes many Australians nervous but it must not be avoided because it is politically sensitive.

 

From Australia’s British roots there is a long and proud tradition of Christian involvement with Politics.

Deeply committed Christians like William Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery, Lord Shaftsbury and the Quaker George Cadbury and factory reform, the Methodists and the Union movement, Henry Scott Holland and the Christian Socialist movement, James Keir Hardie the founder of the British Labour party who had a strong influence on Australia’s second Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher. A rediscovery of this history, especially by conservative Christians, might turn out to be important for the current times.

 

The new connections between religion and politics in Australian life raise a number of questions particularly for conservative Christians:

 

1.How will Australians cope with the inevitable tensions that this “fatal attraction” always generates?

2.The government’s response to Islamic extremists and terrorism will ultimately impinge on the religious freedom of us all. How should we respond to this? 

3.The new awareness in the general public of the power of religious ideas may seem at    first a positive thing but in the current climate of anxiety it may also have some negative impact on evangelism. How should the present climate affect our approach to evangelism?

4.Ordained and lay leaders of congregations need to consider carefully how they approach political and social issues for discussion without polarising congregations around party political allegiances.

5.Will conservative Christians go the distance politically?

6.In addition to the more traditional “moral issues”, if conservative Christians are to be taken seriously politically and to have any broader impact they will need to address some of the more structural justice issues like: Aboriginal health and welfare, youth homelessness, aged care, the environmental crisis, and IR reform.

           

 

There is no question that we are in for interesting times!

 

Peter Corney    July 2005.

              


Equipping christians for social transformation

EQUIPPING CHRISTIANS FOR SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION

 

By The Rev. Peter Corney OAM

 

(Delivered on 25/3/09 at the inauguration of the Center of Education and Youth Studies and the Micha 6:8 Centre for Aid and Development Studies  at Tabor College Victoria Australia. The Centre’s are partnerships between Tabor College, Eastern University and Tear Australia and between Tabor and  the Victorian Council of Christian Education (VCCE). In addition to Youth studies the Center’s will also offer courses focusing on International Aid and Development.)

 

 

Thank you for the invitation to deliver the address at the beginning of what I believe is a most significant development in Australia in the field of Christian education and training for Social Transformation. This initiative at Tabor brings together, in an interdenominational context, organizations with successful track records as agents of social justice and transformation. The aim is to equip a new generation as agents of social change shaped by the Gospel. I commend this endeavor to you.

 

One of my involvements these days is with the West Papuan refugee community in Australia. Recently I attended a meeting in Sydney of mainly faith based organizations concerned about the current situation in West Papua and the difficulties of the indigenous Melanesian people and the West Papuan Church.

They live under a very oppressive military occupation by Indonesia. The abuse of human rights is extensive and persistent. The Special Autonomy promised by Jakarta in 2001 has never been fully or properly implemented, to many West Papuans it is a sham. All the well being indicators for the indigenous people are going down – life expectancy, health, education and now Aids / HIV is getting out of control.

 

The leadership of the West Papuan community is mainly drawn from the Christian Church. We met with the Moderator and General Secretary of the United Protestant Church (GKI) which represents the vast majority of West Papuan Christians. (At least 80% of the indigenous people are Christian.) We met to listen to their story. It was a rather dispiriting report as they expressed their tiredness and frustration with their struggle. But the Moderator used a phrase that stuck in my mind: “We believe the Gospel liberates us from all chains that seek to bind us.” It was like an echo of Luke 4:18-19.

 

                                “The spirit of the Lord is on me,

                                because he has anointed me

                                to preach good news to the poor.

                                He has sent me to proclaim freedom

                                for the prisoners

                                and recovery of sight for the blind,

                        to release the oppressed,

                                to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (NIV)

 

The task of Social Transformation empowered by the Gospel is integral to the mission Jesus has entrusted to us, but it is a complex and challenging task. It involves at least these six elements:

  1. The spiritual and moral transformation of people by the Gospel. (It is interesting that the West Papuan’s refer to the coming of the Gospel as “the coming of the light.”)
  2. The transformation of peoples world view.
  3. The transformation of community and social relations.
  4. The transformation of economic and political structures.
  5. The transformation of education and health.
  6. The transformation of the communities physical and technical resources – capacity building.

 

All these things are interconnected, one impacts on the other. We also know that the way assistance is given can help or hinder the process and in some cases make the situation worse. In her recent book “Dead Aid” (1) the articulate African writer Dambisa Moyo presents a challenging account of the negative results of aid to Africa, particularly inter government aid. In an insightful review of the book Oxford Professor of economics Paul Collier says “ African societies face problems deeper than dependence on aid….the help they need is not predominantly money. Aid is not a very potent instrument for enhancing either security or accountability. Our obsession with it has detracted from the more important ways in which we can promote development: peacekeeping, security guarantees, trade privileges, and governance.” (2) The title of her book is a deliberate play on Bob Geldoff’s celebrity fundraising efforts and while one may feel the case is overstated nevertheless her critique must be taken seriously.

 

My point is that equipping people well to take part as constructive initiators and facilitators in the processes of transformation is a very important educational and training task.

 

I have referred to West Papua and Africa but of course the need for people trained in this way is not just in the developing world. The need remains as critical in the developed world. All societies are in constant need of reformation and transformation by the Gospel and the values of the Kingdom of God. It would not take long to compile a list of areas in Australian society in need of transformation right now!

 

I sometimes think that if our clergy and pastors were trained in cultural awareness, community development and social transformation skills, as well as theology, we might be making more impact on our society.

So my first point is to say how important and strategic I think this venture is.

 

My second point is an observation about the church.

After years in pastoral ministry one of the things that has become very clear to me is that unless you keep your foot on the pedal as a leader and teacher there are three things that drift off the local churches agenda. They are:

  1. Evangelism
  2. Social justice
  3. Critical engagement with the culture. (By this I mean whether our discipleship is seduced and modified by the cultures norms or whether our discipleship challenges those norms and we seek to live differently and so influence our culture.)

 

What happens is that our focus has a tendency to drift inwards, probably because we are so practiced at self interest! Our piety becomes introverted and singular, concerned only with our own relationship with God. Of course in the end this is a false trail for three reasons: first, because the Bible allows no such singular focus. We are to “love God with all our heart soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.” And loving my neighbor means I will want to introduce him to Jesus, if he is hungry I will want to feed him and if he is being treated unjustly I will want to see justice flow for him. The second reason this is a false trail is because our anxiety about our relationship subtly leads us away from trust in God’s grace. The third reason this is a false trail is deeply ironic because this singular focus also leads to the erosion of the very thing I have become so preoccupied with – my individual relationship with God. This is because love and obedience are inextricably linked in the NT. The words of 1John2:3-6 make this very clear.

                        ‘We know that we have come to know him

                        if we obey his commands. Those who say,

                         “I know him,” but do not do what he commands

                        are liars, and the truth is not in them.

                        But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly

                        made complete in that person. This is how we

            `           know we are in him: whoever claims to live in him

                        must walk as Jesus did.’ (NIV)

 

The opposite of this introverted spirituality is the trap that those of us with a passion for social justice sometimes fall into – working for justice in God’s world without keeping God’s love alive in our hearts. This pathway leads to spiritual anorexia, cynicism and often such a rancorous spirit that our friends start avoiding us!

 

My third point is some historical observations about Christianity’s relationship with culture.

I have borrowed and adapted categories first developed by H. Richard Niebuhr as he reflected on this. (3) Six relationships can be observed historically:

1. Christianity under the culture. Eg: Persecution under the Roman Empire in the first three centuries; Byzantine Christianity oppressed by Islam under the Ottomans’; the Church under Communism in Laos or China today.

2. Christianity against the culture. Eg: Where the Church is actively opposed to the dominant culture, as in the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany with Bonheoffer and Niemoller, or The Solidarity movement backed by the Catholic Church and opposed to Communism in Poland in the 1980’s.

3. Christianity over the culture. Eg: Where the Church dominates and controls the culture, exerting power over it as in the Holy Roman Empire from the Middle Ages till the 15th C., or Geneva under Calvin.

4. Christianity withdrawn from the culture. Eg: Where the Church disengages and withdraws into ghettos or closed communities like the Anna Baptists in the 16th C or the Amish in North America or the Exclusive Brethren and some forms of Evangelical pietism today. The motive may be either fear of contamination from the culture or a desire to create the Kingdom on earth in an ideal community.

5. Christianity absorbed by the culture. Eg: Where the Church is seduced by the dominant cultures values and conforms to them, adapting its values and beliefs to fit the culture. The contemporary Western Church reveals many examples of this like prosperity gospel teaching or ordinary Christians adopting the same materialism and consumerism of those around them. Apartheid in South Africa, tribal conflict in East Africa, and the culture of violence and confrontation in Northern Ireland are all tragic examples from the recent past.

6. Christianity transforming the culture. Eg: Where Christianity acts like salt and light in the culture, reshaping its values and affecting public policy like the influence of the 18th and 19th C. English Christian social reformers. We have just recently celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of the work of Wilberforce and the Christian movement for the abolition of the slave trade. But it is not as well understood that Wilberforce and his friends in the Clapham circle created 69 different societies for the reformation of English society and the spread of the Gospel. Western countries like Australia and North America are the inheritors of their far reaching work of social transformation. The scope of their concerns took in education, factory reform, child labor reforms, health, workplace safety, prison reform. They were even involved in the passing of special laws for “the protection of native peoples” in the British colonies. They began The Bible Society, CMS, The Mission to India, the RSPCA, the list goes on. It was a remarkable achievement.

 

I trust that what we are launching today will help to train and inspire a new generation to embrace this sixth relationship with their culture – transformation.

 

My final comment is a reflection on our disturbed times. One of our leading papers this week carried an unusual graphic with the lead story in the business section. (4) The story was about the international financial crisis and excessive executive payouts. It showed an engraving of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden and an angel standing guard at the entrance, except that the entrance was to a bank! The title was, “Where to after the fall?”  This leads me to my final reflection.

 

In Ridley Scott’s iconic film Blade Runner we find ourselves in Los Angeles in the future (2019). The setting is bleak; “ecological disaster, urban overcrowding, a visual and aural landscape saturated with advertising, a polyglot population immersed in a Babel of competing cultures, decadence and squalid homelessness.” (5) But juxtaposed with this social decay is brilliant technological achievement. High above the teeming filthy streets live the wealthy few in luxurious gated skyscrapers.

In one of the early scenes we find ourselves in the head office of a high tech corporation who are the creators of Cyborgs – advanced robots who are almost indistinguishable from humans. But some of the Cyborgs have gone feral and hunting them down is the core of the films plot. A ‘Blade Runner’ is a bounty hunter of rogue Cyborgs.

As we view the interior of the luxurious penthouse office we see an Owl perched on a stand. Then the Owl takes flight, passing in front of the vast plate glass windows behind which a brilliant orange sun is setting.

 

The symbolism is deliberate. The Owl has always been seen as a symbol of wisdom. In Roman mythology he accompanies the Goddess Minerva, Goddess of wisdom. But it was the German Philosopher Hegel who famously wrote “…the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk…,” by which he meant, that philosophy only comes to understand an historical condition as it is passing away. (6)

This image right at the beginning of Blade Runner is telling us that the films bleak vision of the future is what the sunset of our epoch will look like – the twilight of Modernity and Post Modernity (or Hyper Modernity.)

The question for us is ‘As the Owl spreads its wings and the sun sets on Western Culture is our wisdom about the cause of its decay clear and sharp enough to enable us to transform it from it from decay to renewal?  Or, to change the image, has the West fallen so far from the values and world view that delivered us something close to Eden that we can’t get back?

 

Peter Corney.

 

References:

(1)    Dambisa Moyo (2009) “Dead Aid- Why aid is not working and how there is another way for Africa.” Penguin Books.

(2)   Paul Collier. Jan 30th 2009  Book review in the “Independent.”

(3)   H. Richard Niebuhr “Christ and Culture”. First published 1951. (Torch Books 1956)

(4)   “The Age”( March 21st 2009) Business Day pp.1.

(5)   Clayton J. (1996) “Concealed Circuits: Frankenstein’s Monster, the Medusa and the Cyborg” in Raritan Quarterly Review No 15 Vol 4 (Spring) pp.53-69.

(6)    G. W. F. Hegel, (1996)  From the preface to the “Philosophy of Right” (1821)

       Prometheus Books, New York.