A Nation in Shock

It is a week since the terrible bombings of hotels and churches in Sri Lanka and the ensuing heavy loss of life. The economy, too, will take a long time to recover, dependent as it is on tourism and foreign investments.

Questions of motivation in suicide attacks like this always defy rational explanation. And speculation has been suppressed by a blackout of all social media in the country.

Such a blackout was sensible in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy as a measure to prevent anti-Muslim violence which has been a feature of Sri Lankan society in recent years (see my Blog post of 17 March 2018- ‘“Religious Violence” Sri Lanka-Style’- and the warnings I issued to the authorities in a newspaper article).

But the longer it continues, along with the sweeping emergency powers under which any criticism in print publications of the government and security forces is forbidden, the greater the danger to the political health of the nation. We fear a return to the dark days of authoritarian rule and the suppression of valid criticism. And, given an understandable zeal to redeem themselves, the security forces (now armed with powers to detain suspects without following due process) are likely to over-reach.

So the less I say the better.

First published in vinothramachandra.wordpress.com

The Questions of Grief

A number of metaphors are used to describe the experience of grief that follows the death of a loved one: the loss of a limb, falling into a black hole, wading through thick mud, submerged in a tidal wave, and so on. And the strange paradox about grief, is that although it is universal (every one of us will experience it at some time in our lives) every experience is uniquely personal, depending on such factors as the depth of one’s relationship with the deceased, one’s personality, upbringing, cultural background, and network of other supportive relationships.

In my case, thankfully, I have not needed medication or professional grief counselling. In the weeks following Karin’s death. I kept a private journal recording all my pain, questions, doubts and spiritual anguish. I have lost not merely a wife, but my best friend, a fellow-traveller, critic, encourager, soulmate. And all the philosophical and theological questions about suffering, evil and death which have haunted me all through my life have returned with a fresh existential intensity. Wrestling with these has been for me a kind of self-therapy.

Of course, tears blind us. Our cognitive capacities are clouded by pain and disorientation. But they can also embolden us to question so much of the conventional wisdom of our churches and cultures. Karin and I have always been irritated by the popular theological clichés regarding suffering and death: “God is in control”, “God took him/her”, “God has a purpose in this”, and so on. They smack of Marx called “false consciousness’ and Sartre “bad faith.”

Karin used to point out that so many Western books on suffering addressed the question “Why me?” posed by normally comfortable people whose lives are suddenly blighted by disease, accident or failure. But what of the vast majority of humankind, in history as well as in many parts of the world today, whose all-too-brief lives from the cradle to the grave fall so far short of the flourishing that the Creator intends for them- and often through no fault of their own? Traditional theodicies and rationalist apologetics seem so painfully glib and irrelevant.

Many Christians invoke Job in situations like this, while missing the point of the story entirely. I am bemused by references to the “patience of Job”, when a cursory reading of the book reveals a man who was anything but patient! He vigorously protests his innocence, and hurls his questions, longings and accusations of unfairness at the gates of heaven. Can this God be trusted? That is the basic question in such times. Job lives in the tension between faith and experience, shuffling back and forth but never settling for an easy resolution. This is the tradition of biblical lament. And I believe that the “problem” of suffering and evil can ultimately only be approached through honest lament and compassionate action; not by theological reasoning.

I have often been haunted by the thought that while our faith can be verified eschatologically, it can never be falsified. If we are all deluded, we will never know it. And there won’t be any answers to the big questions humanity has been asking throughout its history.

I am in the paradoxical situation of remaining utterly convinced of the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (for I can find no other explanation for the origins of the Christian movement); and yet struggling to make sense of how the billions of people throughout history will one day be resurrected into the new creation that has dawned in Jesus’ resurrection. Clearly bodily resurrection implies a social, collective event; for our bodies are the means by which we interact and communicate with others. And the Scriptures take for granted that we shall recognize not only our loved ones but also those who have gone before us. But how does such recognition happen, given that every part of our bodies has evolved to meet the conditions of biological life on this earth? How did Peter recognize Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration? What aspect of our embodied human nature has Christ taken into the godhead for eternity? Is it only our memories, characters and relationships that we take from this life into the next?

I have long been dissatisfied with the standard models of how mind and body interact (dualism, dual-aspect monism, non-reductionist physicalism, etc.). On this and other matters I am content to be agnostic. But when in grief, we cannot but cry out for some assurance from a good and loving God that our loved ones have not passed into oblivion but are with him, in whatever form.

The typical response of my theologian friends has been either “We have never thought of that before” or “You are asking questions we are also struggling with and for which we have no answers.” At least nobody has suggested that my questions are foolish or stemming from hubris. I know that much of theology ultimately fades into deep mystery. Christian maturity is about living with our questions, practising faithfulness to Christ even as we weep, struggle and yearn for that new world.

First published in Vinoth’s blog.

What Future for Democracy?

We are often told that in poor countries, democracy is a luxury, and we should focus on feeding the hungry. However, this is a misleading “either-or”. Famines don’t happen in democracies; and democracies that trade with each other don’t go to war.

Where in the world do we find a political party that lost a general election being installed as the “government” of that country by a President who belongs to that minority party himself?

Nowhere but Sri Lanka: a country which in the 1950s was regarded as a beacon for good governance in the postcolonial world, but is now in grave danger of joining the growing list of failed democracies. The new regime installed a month ago has been decisively rejected in a no-confidence vote by the country’s parliament (in the midst of violent attempts in the chamber itself to scuttle the vote). But the regime still clings to power while lacking political legitimacy. It is backed by a large Buddhist-nationalist faction in the country who regard the newly installed Prime Minister (who was ousted as President in 2015) as a “war hero” as well as one of their own. No foreign government, except China, has hitherto recognized the regime. But the country is economically and politically paralyzed. And, despite public protests and demonstrations, mainly in the capital Colombo, large sections of the population appear simply apathetic.

Such apathy, coupled with the gangsterism that has replaced a civil political culture in Sri Lanka, is rooted in massive institutional failures that go beyond parliament and an easily-muzzled judiciary. For many years now, the island’s schools and universities have ceased to be places where students learn critical thinking or how to engage with those from other ethnic, economic and religious backgrounds. Education and the media have become ideologically polarized.

As for religious communities, they tend to live in self-enclosed ghettos, and have ceased to be forums where men and women are equipped with the moral habits indispensable for public life. Indeed, notions such as “the common good”, “the rule of law”, or “conflicts of interest” are little understood, not least among those entrusted with the education of the young, whether in schools or religious institutions.

In my last post, I mentioned the shifting political stances of the Roman Catholic church around the world. In Sri Lanka, the RC church comprises a significant 7 per cent of the population, compared to less than 1 per cent of Protestants. While there are several Roman Catholic priests and nuns who are politically active at the grassroots in promoting justice and reconciliation, the middle-class laity (among whom are found leading politicians, bureaucrats and judges) are largely theologically ignorant and often complicit in wrongdoing. And it is difficult for the RC Bishops to challenge authoritarianism in politics when they themselves are under the thumb of an autocratic Cardinal who is morally compromised and more Buddhist than Christian in his public pronouncements: for instance, claiming recently that a “Buddhist country” like Sri Lanka does not need the “Western religion of human rights” – thus denying his own church’s social doctrine!

In countries like Sri Lanka, the long-term task of building free and accountable institutions is where Christians should devote their energies. It is not simply a constitutional crisis we face, but a deeper moral crisis. Conversion— personal and cultural—goes hand-in-hand with legal and economic change. We are often told that in poor countries, democracy is a luxury, and we should focus on feeding the hungry. However, this is a misleading “either-or”. Famines don’t happen in democracies; and democracies that trade with each other don’t go to war.

“If someone takes away your bread, he suppresses your freedom at the same time. But if someone takes away your freedom, you may be sure that your bread is threatened, for it depends no longer on you and your struggle but on the whim of a master.”- Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Contrary to what is stated in typical undergraduate-level texts on political theory, the first modern political revolution occurred not in France or the US, but in 17th-century England. The English Civil War saw, for a few brief years, the replacement of monarchy by a sovereign parliament. The English dissenters (“Puritans”, “Diggers” and “Levellers”), opposed absolutism on theological grounds and championed freedom of conscience and religious worship. Oliver Cromwell’s ragtag army of common people held formal open debates all over England to determine what kind of government should replace the defeated monarchy. What an utterly remarkable moment in history.

Although Cromwell’s Commonwealth did not last long, his experiment was far-reaching. While monarchy was restored, there was no going back on the sovereignty of Parliament in the government of the English people. And the refugees and immigrants who fled across the Atlantic to New England continued the political experiment begun under Cromwell. Little wonder that in New England immediately after the American Declaration of Independence, slavery was banned (while it continued in the South), women’s rights advanced, and a level of political maturity reached that was unsurpassed anywhere in the nineteenth-century world.

Many otherwise well-educated Americans are ignorant of how much they owe to the English Civil War and its aftermath. Words like Puritan and Calvinist are usually used as “sneer words”: they have become caricatures of gloomy, uptight religious fanatics. Little do we realise how indebted to such men we are in our modern political discourse about equality, rights, the rule of law, and representational democracy.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat who traveled around the newly-independent United States observing its culture and institutions, had no such illusions. In his classic work, Democracy in America, written in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, he observed: “Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions, for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it… I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere belief in their religion—for who can search the human heart?—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.”

Recovering the rich heritage of Christian political theology is the first step towards the Church learning to speak truth to power and contributing to the building of free and accountable institutions.

First published on Vinoth’s blog.

Converting the Church

In his epochal commentary on the biblical Epistle to the Romans in 1919, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth reminded his readers that “It was the Church, and not the world, that crucified Christ.”

These are words that we need to recall constantly. Authoritarian governments have sprung up all the world in recent years, many of them supported by people calling themselves “Bible-believing Christians.” Even as I write, such folk in Brazil are preparing to vote into the Presidency a former army officer who is brazenly racist, misogynistic, contemptuous of the poor and defensive of the military dictatorship in Brazil’s dark era of repression.

A globally renowned American Christian leader told me a few days ago: “You must understand that Americans are largely an ignorant, uneducated people.” That ignorance, he went on to say, is widely prevalent among the white conservatives of suburban as well as rural churches. This perhaps is the largest “unreached peoples’ group” in the world, a people who need to be converted from fear to love, from prejudice to hospitality, from patriotism/civil religion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That such an ecclesiastical conversion is possible is shown by the case of the Roman Catholic Church. In the first half of the twentieth century the Roman Catholic Church was denouncing the discourse of human rights, and its fear of communism led it to support fascism in Europe and Latin America. All that changed with the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s and the widespread influence of liberation theologies. Today it is the Roman Catholic Church that is spearheading resistance to dictatorships and human rights abuses in many parts of the world, much to the shame of their non-Catholic Christian brethren. So we should not lose hope.

Earlier this month, nearly four decades after his death, the former El Salvadorean Archbishop Oscar Romero was declared a “saint” by Pope Francis. Romero was killed by members of a death squad while performing mass at the Church of the Divine Providence in San Salvador on March 24, 1980. Romero was an outspoken champion of the poor in his country. The day before his death, he publicly denounced the violence carried out by the country’s armed forces against civilian populations during a mass at the National Cathedral. His death sent shockwaves throughout Latin America. It made many sceptics more open to what the Church had to say. Today, when mass consumerism and social conformity has stifled dissent and counter-cultural resistance, the Church (for all its inner contradictions and tensions) quietly and courageously follows Jesus in caring for the poor, the foreigner and the vulnerable.

On this Blog I have often drawn attention to the global class of the “super-rich”, the miniscule fraction of the world’s population who own all the wealth and so influence governmental policies. Last year, a former British journalist Richard Reeves, now at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., argued in his book Dream Hoarders, that in the U.S it is the top 20% who are the real American villains: a large group of well-heeled pickpockets with huge bonuses on top of high salaries, tax breaks on mortgage interests and college savings funds, who engage in a variety of practices that don’t just help their families, but harm the other 80 percent of Americans.

The book shows how this upper-middle class, while not having seen the kinds of income gains made by the top one percent and America’s billionaires, are able to dominate the country’s top colleges, insulate themselves in wealthy neighbourhoods with excellent private schools and public services, and enjoy the best health care. “It would be an exaggeration to say that the upper-middle class is full of gluten-avoiding, normal-BMI joggers who are only marginally more likely to smoke a cigarette than to hit their children,” Reeves writes. “But it would be just that — an exaggeration, not a fiction.”

They then pass those advantages onto their children, sending them to the top universities, providing them with social connections that make a difference when entering the labour force, helping with internships, paying for college tuition and home-buying. All the while, they support policies and practices that protect their economic position and prevent poorer kids from climbing the income ladder — such as reduction in wealth and inheritance taxes, exclusionary zoning, or legacy admissions to colleges.

I believe this is happening all over the world. It may be the top 20% in the West and Japan, a smaller proportion elsewhere, but it’s really the upper middle-class (to whom many of us belong) who are limiting opportunity for everyone else.

This is not a political divide: it’s a social chasm. It doesn’t seem to matter who wins political elections; no party has the will to challenge the way of life of the upper middle classes.

Will the gubernatorial elections in the US next month make any real difference? The upper middle-class Democrats dislike Trump but they are happy to sit out his presidency as they are doing quite well financially under him.

The Rev Martin Luther King famously observed that it was as a cruel jest to tell a man to lift himself up with his bootlaces when he didn’t have any boots.

First published on Vinoth’s Blog

Racism in Other Guises

Racism and sexism are increasingly, and belatedly, being identified as major issues on North American, Western European and Australian universities, and are not merely “developing country” phenomena. See, for instance, the recent report from a British task force.

Racism/Sexism manifest themselves not only in hiring practices, unequal pay, hate speech and acts of overt violence, but in everyday paternalism, willful ignorance of and separation from others, and the language we use in identifying others.

Sadly, these are huge blind-spots in many Christian churches and organizations.

For example, many foreign Christian students are shocked to find Christian groups on American campuses that are divided not only on denominational lines, but on the basis of skin colour. And, feeling little welcome from the dominant host culture, such students often end up forming Christian ghettos themselves. In the wider society, people who may work together during the week migrate to segregated colour-based “churches” on a Sunday.

Moreover, it is from rich, predominantly white churches and organizations that we in the Majority World are bombarded with evangelistic “programs”, training courses and methodologies. They show no interest in learning from us. What they produce is for universal consumption. Whatever we produce is local. Ironically, these churches and organizations have little impact on their own cultures and societies.

Afrikaaner theology in South Africa promoted the idea of “separate development” of races by arguing that cultural diversity was intended by God and that, therefore, each race/culture should develop in separate spaces without contamination from or engagement with others.

The biblical premise was correct, but the conclusion drawn was profoundly anti-Christian.

This kind of theology re-surfaces in the popular “People Group” methodology of mission, developed in the 1980s at the US Centre for World Mission in Pasadena and propagated uncritically around the world. It marries a dubious sociology with a flawed theology: gospel preaching aims to plant a church within a “people group” so that nobody has to cross any awkward, let alone hostile, boundaries in becoming Christians. This makes for numerical growth, as “people-group churches” are homogeneous, like attracting like. Hence the mushrooming of homogeneous groups, all calling themselves “churches”, and not in any kind of communication with each other.

The great South African theologian David Bosch criticised Afrikaaner theology’s idolization of cultural diversity: “Paul could never cease to marvel at this new thing that had caught him unawares, as something totally unexpected: the Church is one, indivisible, and it transcends all differences. The sociologically impossible…is theologically possible… All this most certainly does not mean that culture is not to play any role in the Church and that cultural differences should not be accommodated… However, cultural diversity should in no way militate against the unity of the Church. Such diversity in fact should serve the unity. It thus belongs to the well-being of the Church, whereas the unity is part of its being. To play the one off against the other is to miss the entire point. Unity and socio-cultural diversity belong to different orders. Unity can be confessed. Not so diversity. To elevate cultural diversity to the level of an article of faith is to give culture a positive theological weight which easily makes it into a revelation principle.”

It distresses me, therefore, to find this methodology still pursued and promoted in some “evangelical” circles. We are given metrics about how many “decisions for Christ” were made through such a methodology, while never asking what these “decisions” are or- most importantly- which “Christ” they are talking about. It cannot be the Christ who breaks down dividing walls of hostility between peoples and reconciles them together into one new humanity, of which the Church is called to be a sign and foretaste (e.g. Eph. 2: 14ff).

One way of understanding the dynamic of Christian conversion is in terms of the creative tension between what the church historian Andrew Walls has called the “indigenising principle” and the “pilgrim principle” in history. Both these principles derive from the Gospel. The indigenising principle witnesses to the truth that God accepts sinners like us as we are, on the basis of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection alone. He does not wait for us to correct our ideas or tidy up our behaviour before He welcomes us into His family as adopted sons and daughters. Christ, so to speak, immerses himself in all that we bring to him from our background in our initial conversion; and “indigenises” our discipleship, calling us to live as Christians and as members of our own societies.

But not only does God in Christ take us as we are, but He takes us in order to make us what we ought to be. So, along with the indigenising principle the Christian also inherits a “pilgrim principle” which “whispers to him that he has no abiding city and warns him that to be faithful to Christ will put him out of step with his society, for that society never existed, in East or West, ancient time or modern, which could absorb the word of Christ painlessly into its system. Jesus within Jewish culture, Paul within Hellenistic culture, take it for granted that there will be rubs and frictions-not from the adoption of a new culture, but from the transformation of the mind towards that of Christ.”

The indigenising principle, then, associates Christians with the particulars of their culture and group, testifying to the sanctifying power of Christ within their old relationships. The pilgrim principle, on the other hand, associates Christians with the wider family of faith, bringing them into a new set of relationships with people whom they would have never associated with before and with whom their natural groups have little kinship.

The pilgrim principle testifies to the universal scope of the Gospel. All those in whom Christ dwells through faith, all who have been accepted by God in Christ, are now family members. The Christian thus has a double nationality: his own former loyalty to biological family, tribe, clan or nation is retained, but now set within a wider and more demanding loyalty to the global family of Christ.

(The closing paragraphs are taken from my book Faiths in Conflict? Christian Integrity in a Multicultural World (InterVarsity Press-UK and USA, 1999) Ch.4)

God and natural disasters

On my first visit to Nepal in 1989, I was appalled at the grinding poverty in which the vast majority of its citizens lived. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the rich world came to trek, climb the Himalayas or seek some variation of private nirvana. None of this tourist wealth “trickled down” to the poverty-stricken masses huddled on the river banks in Kathmandu or in the remote villages which had neither roads nor healthcare facilities. The Hindu caste-system was strongly entrenched, and conversion to Christianity forbidden. Yet an “underground” Church flourished, comprising mostly very poor folk; and foreign Christian doctors, nurses and agrarian researchers helped build a functioning infrastructure while corrupt politicians and business elites pocketed the wealth flowing from tourism.

Most of the “tourist paradises” of the Majority World – from the Caribbean islands (playgrounds of the rich and famous) to Bali, tell the same story. The poor are invisible not only to the hotel and tourist industry, but to the global media, until disasters in the form of hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis strike. But the recent tragedy in Nepal illustrates the close nexus between corruption, oppressive religious and cultural systems, and the betrayal of citizens by their own governments.

When the Indian Ocean nations were devastated by the tsunami of 26 December 2004, I raised the question: why is it that when hurricanes and earthquakes hit places like Florida or Japan, the loss of life is minimal; but that when the same disasters occur in Central America or South Asia, the devastation is mind-boggling? The answer is simple and straightforward: poverty. Or poverty combined with corruption and incompetence on the part of government officials. In South Asia, annual warnings about floods and cyclones are routinely ignored when the technology needed to save lives and property is readily available. Coral reefs and mangrove swamps (that absorb much of the impact of tropical storms and ocean surges) have virtually disappeared from our coastal belts. Building contractors frequently violate safety standards, even when building in earthquake-prone areas.

Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, even animal predation, and other natural events are not aspects of the Fall, as has been understood in much of the Christian tradition, but rather the way God has chosen to bring about ecological changes and biodiversity on the planet. The awesome Himalayan ranges themselves were produced by earthquakes. The “fallenness” of the human condition is expressed in our increased vulnerability to such events. It is sinful human actions (including wrong priorities) that result in the heavy loss of life, much of which is preventable. Poverty and economic inequalities on the scale seen in our world cannot be blamed on God. They represent a violation of God’s will for humanity.

God has chosen to create us humans as part of a material world. So, as material beings, we share in the unpredictability and vulnerability of the rest of the created order. Our solidarity as a human species is what leads to our rejoicing in the joy of others and weeping over the pain of others. To only receive through the good that others do, but not to suffer the consequences of what others do, would be a denial of our inter-dependent creatureliness. Natural events such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis are a painful reminder of our fragility, our interconnectedness with and dependence upon nature.

When tragedies strike, the first thing to do is to express our human solidarity, not to forget that these are our fellow men and women, creatures like us who are in the image of God and for whom Christ died. Our Christian response is well summed up by the theologian Jon Sobrino: “To let ourselves be affected, to feel pain over lives cut short or endangered, to feel indignation over the injustice behind the tragedy, to feel shame over the way we have ruined this planet, that we have not undone the damage and are not planning to do so, all this is important. It motivates compassion and immediate emergency assistance, but more importantly it sheds light on the most effective way to help in the tragedy.”

There will always follow the clamouring existential questions and our feeble, stuttering human answers. But more importantly, what we experience is a sense of indignation that “the same thing” always happens and “the same people” always suffer; and a yearning for things to be different some day.

Finally, every protest against innocent suffering, as well as every free embrace of others’ suffering, are both alike reflections of God’s own response to suffering – as seen supremely in God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ. In Christian thought, God is inherently relational: a three-fold movement of ceaseless giving and responsive love. So, in answer to the oft-asked question, “Where was God in these tragedies”, we can say, humbly yet boldly, that the Triune God of sacrificial love was present in the pain and terror of the victims, in the grief of the survivors, in the heroism of people who risked their lives to save others, and in the anger and protest expressed against the vulnerability of the poor in a technologically rich world.

The other Egypt

I don’t normally reproduce other people’s writings or newsletters. But the short piece below from an Egyptian friend deserves a wide readership, not least because it highlights an important aspect to the troubles in that nation which the so-called “international media” almost totally neglect. It is also a challenge to Christians living in more comfortable circumstances. My friend writes:

“When more than 85 Churches and institutions were viciously attacked and burned (a profound blow of disgrace and humiliation in this culture of ‘honour’), the non-retaliation of Christians was both unexpected and unprecedented.

Immediately following these attacks, the leader of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II said that if the destruction of these properties was the price Christians in Egypt have to pay to get a free Egypt, then that sacrifice is worthwhile! His – and all other Christian leaders’ messages – have helped the Christian spirit of forgiveness to be powerfully demonstrated in Egypt.

This practical application of Christ’s teaching by millions of Egyptian Christians should have made worldwide headline news!

Many Egyptian Christian leaders are reminding their flock that the Church consists of the people of God, Christ’s body, and not the buildings in which we worship. Thus the Church can never be destroyed!

Egypt is not on the verge of civil war! On the contrary, most Egyptian Muslims and Christians are more united than ever in their common vision for the future, as together they have rejected extremist ‘Political Islam’, and are working towards the noble task of establishing a civil society which recognizes all Egyptians as equal citizens.

Egypt, however, faces incredible social, economic, cultural and political challenges as it tries to rebuild after three years of radical change and confusion. As a result many Egyptians are weary and pessimistic about the present situation in their country.

Most of our leaders, however, see beyond these difficulties towards a better Egypt.”

Acts of courage

June was a remarkable month in global politics. We witnessed several potentially epoch-changing events. There was the unexpected election victory of Hassan Rouhani in Iran which could change relations between his country and the West. In Turkey, Brazil and Egypt what began as single-issue protests (against corruption, sectarianism or the privatization of the commons) quickly mushroomed into larger confrontations with political elites.

Dissatisfied with the status quo and distrustful of political parties, these leaderless social movements for change (mainly but not exclusively among the young) are blossoming in many places. If we needed reminding that the “public sphere” is not simply a realm of rational argument and deliberation but also one of imagination, passion, outrage and protest, then we received it in plenty.

Liberal, representative political institutions do not spring up overnight. And, as recent events in the US and UK have shown, they are easily dismantled. Their maintenance requires constant vigilance by a well-informed public that is not overcome by the lethargy induced by mass consumerism. The messy, topsy-turvy, contradictory and occasionally violent nature of the democratization process in Egypt is no different, historically, to what took place in Europe and the US. It is not a reflection of some “essential” aspect of Muslims or the “Arab psyche”.

Business corporations also had their wings singed last month. The US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that human genes could not be patented as they were ‘a product of nature’. It struck down patents held by Myriad Genetics, Inc, on two genes linked to a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Powerful private companies spying with American taxpayers’ money on foreigners and their governments were exposed by Edward Snowden (see my previous post “The Revolt of the Geeks”). The vicious backlash against him in large sections of the American media only revealed how ignorant many Americans are about what happens in their own country, let alone abroad.

Then at the G-8 summit in northern Ireland- the least unlikely gathering at which to expect corporate power to be reigned in- the rich nations vowed to change the global tax regime that enables multinationals to hide their profits in offshore accounts through bogus companies. Prior to the summit, Britain struck a deal with its Caribbean protectorates (representing around a quarter of the world’s tax havens) towards greater banking transparency. As David Cameron put it, “More was achieved in 24 hours than in the past 24 years”.

Whether we who live in the so-called developing world will benefit remains to be seen. More than multinational tax evasion, it is corruption and plunder by local politicians that needs to be addressed in a banking system that hitherto encourages criminality. Once again, we have seen how the rich nations need to suffer more (whether through money-laundering and tax avoidance/evasion, or acts of terrorism) before these global injustices even begin to be tackled.

Pressure to clean up the global tax regime has come from non-governmental organizations like Oxfam, Christian Aid and Tearfund (UK). The eminent economist Joseph Stiglitz has also been campaigning against a tax system that is pivotal in increasing inequalities within “developed” societies, especially in the US and UK.

Stiglitz has argued what should have been obvious to all defenders of “market freedoms”. Major corporate tax avoiders like Apple, Google and Amazon have benefitted enormously from what the US and other Western governments provide: “Highly educated workers trained in universities that are supported by government. The basic research on which their products rest was paid for by taxpayer-supported developments- the Internet, without which they couldn’t exist. Their prosperity depends in part on the US legal system- including strong enforcement of intellectual property rights; they asked (and got) government to force countries around the world to adopt US standards, in some cases, at great cost to the lives of those in emerging markets and developing countries.”

Stiglitz goes on: “Yes, they brought genius and organizational skills, for which they justly receive kudos. But while Newton was at least modest enough to note that he stood on the shoulders of giants, these titans of industry have no compunction about being free riders, taking generously from the benefits afforded by our system, but not willing to contribute commensurately. Without public support, the wellspring from which future innovation and growth will come will dry up- not to say what will happen to our increasingly divided society.”

But perhaps the most amazing story last month was that of a 28-year old Indian woman, Arunima Sinha. Two years ago, she had half a leg amputated after robbers pushed her out of a train near Lucknow, north India. She had refused to hand over a gold chain she was wearing. The national-level volleyball player began a mountaineering course to recover from what she called her “darkest hour”. Last month she became the first woman amputee to climb Mount Everest, a climb that took her 52 days. Now she is setting up a sports academy for poor disabled children.

India is probably one of the least disabled-friendly countries. Here is a woman who has turned her weakness into a source of strength and service to others. It is such stories, often tucked away in the back pages of newspapers, that are harbingers of deep-seated social change.

Reformed amnesia?

Much has been written in recent days of the simple lifestyle of the new Pope. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he shunned the archbishop’s palace and chose to travel in public buses. A few days after being installed as Pope, he celebrated mass with the Vatican City’s gardeners and refuse collectors; and has opted to perform the traditional foot-washing ceremony of Maundy Thursday, not in St Peter’s Basilica, but in a juvenile prison in Rome.

However much we may disagree with the Vatican’s views on priesthood, celibacy and lay ministry, we cannot deny that the Roman Catholic Church regularly provides more examples of incarnational servant-leadership than any other Christian denomination. A prominent evangelist, apologist or mega-church pastor who lives like Pope Francis would be as rare as a snowflake in hell. A lifestyle that revolves around self-promotion, business-class/first-class air travel, conferences in luxury hotels and convention centres – this is what we have come to associate with most “global evangelical leaders”.

The Roman Catholic church has, belatedly, come round to being a leading champion of human rights and social justice in many parts of the world, largely as a result of pressure from Latin American and Eastern European bishops and theologians.

The Reformed Church tradition can boast of a rich heritage of social transformation, resistance to political tyranny, cultural engagement and ideological critique. Paradigmatic twentieth-century figures here are Abraham Kuyper (Netherlands), Karl Barth (Switzerland), Alan Boesak (South Africa). In the US, political philosophers such as Richard Mouw and Nicholas Wolterstorff have helped recover the centrality of justice to the Biblical narrative and Christian discipleship.

This goes back to John Calvin himself. He spoke boldly of the “wounds of God” not only with reference to the cross, but in terms of human beings as icons of God. For Calvin, notes Nicholas Wolterstorff, to injure a human being is to injure God; to commit injustice is to inflict suffering on God. “Behind and beneath the social misery of our world is the suffering of God. If we truly believed that, suggests Calvin, we would be much more reluctant than we are to participate in the victimizing of the poor and the oppressed and the assaulted of the world. To pursue justice is to relieve God’s suffering.” [Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Wounds of God: Calvin on Social Injustice”, The Reformed Journal, June 1987]

Not only did Calvin vigorously denounce corruption in the church, but also tyranny in the polity and huge inequalities of wealth in the economy. In his Commentary on Habakkuk 2:6, Calvin claims that the cries of the victims are the very cry of God. The lament “How long?” is God’s giving voice to his own lament. One rarely finds such thoughts expressed in Calvinist circles today!

Was Calvin the first liberation theologian? He has as good a claim as any. He persistently fought the City Council of Geneva for the rights of poor refugees, persuading them to provide adequate social welfare. He himself was often exiled, experienced severe deprivation and other indignities, which must have made him particularly sensitive to the plight of refugees and the downtrodden.

How strange, then, to hear some influential pastors in the US and UK laying claim to be guardians of a “Reformed orthodoxy” while demonstrating little of Calvin’s heart. For these men (they are always men), the church’s mission is primarily one of proclaiming a message of individual salvation. Pastors are exhorted to “contend for the faith” (which usually amounts to contending with other pastors, and damning all who disagree with them), and “the faith” is taken to be a set of timeless “doctrines” rather than any distinctive Christian way of living.

But perhaps not so strange, once we recall that our personal experiences, social and political contexts, profoundly shape the way we read both Scripture and the world. That is one reason why we need to listen to each other in the global Body of Christ. Authentic Christian witness has to be ecumenical and trans-cultural.

We have a long way to go in developing such theological maturity despite all the deceptive language of “partnership” and “equipping”. Below is one example of the huge obstacles we face.

A group of North American pastors calling themselves The Gospel Coalition of International Outreach is engaged in what they call “a mission of Theological Famine Relief for the Global Church”. They state on their website: “We are partnering with translators, publishers, and missions networks to provide new access to biblical resources, in digital and physical formats. Our goal is to strengthen thousands of congregations by helping to equip the pastors and elders who are called to shepherd them.”

Sounds loving, until one asks: who decides who is theologically famished and who is not? who selects what “resources” to send the famished? who decides what constitutes “equipping” and who should be doing it? The answer is always the same. A small group of white, well-to-do American or British males. We have experienced such paternalistic, colonial “mission” before- others deciding what is the “Good News” for us, what is “sound doctrine”, which authors to read and whom to avoid, etc. They have exported their theological blind-spots and sectarian rivalries, reproducing carbon-copies of themselves in the global South rather than nurturing real leaders. The learning and theological traffic is all one-way.

Perhaps a day spent with leaders like Pope Francis or Desmond Tutu may be more useful for African pastors than all the “resources” from north America.