Saturday, July 30, 2011

Trying to understand the U.S. political and religious right

     The killings a week ago in Norway were a rude reminder if we needed one of the impact--even if misguided and negative--that the "right" has in today's democratic societies.
     These killings were first attributed to Islamist groups by so-called terrorism expert Will McCants ( terrorism-expert-set-media-suspicion-muslims-after-oslo-horror). Many prominent news sources followed this lead.
     But soon we learned that a Norwegian, Anders Breivik, a self-identified Christian "who leans toward right-wing Christianity," was responsible for the killings. I say this cautiously, because I do not want to use such a label improperly after my recent post dealing with that topic.
     I am also cautious about connecting Breivik's right-wing views with the U.S. right, although that did not deter many news organizations. Yet there is an overlap.
     Although I am not unfamiliar with the U.S. right, I do not consider myself an expert. Thus when I stumbled across an article in Aljazeera, entitled "America's own Taliban," I was shocked both by the extent of this movement and by some of those who were named directly or were listed in the linked articles (
     I am not an American but merely a long-time observer of the U.S. scene. As a foreigner, it behooves me to be careful in my comments on what is happening in the U.S. today, especially in the area of politics, lest my comments be perceived as a critique of the U.S. At the same time, however, it gives me an international perspective that many Americans may lack.
    For this reason, I have consulted many sources in order to help me understand the political and religious right in the U.S., which are closely connected. Please consult the chart that I have appended.
    I have been a missionary for forty years, teaching at seminaries and universities in many countries, as you can see from my profile. That experience has provided me with a unique viewpoint.
    As a missionary, I am committed to evangelism, although I appreciate that there are different evangelistic methods. While in the Philippines, I already became aware of the church growth principles espoused by Donald McGavran at Fuller Seminary. C. Peter Wagner taught church growth at the same school, but he accented spiritual warfare. I also learned about "power evangelism" as developed by John Wimber.
.   Because of my long residence overseas, I am also convinced that there is a spirit world that--at least for nearly everyone in those countries--is just as real as the physical world that surrounds us. I have been involved with exorcisms and am thus somewhat familiar with spiritual warfare.
    Earlier this week I wrote a post about prophets. Prophets also play a leading role in the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR),  which stresses the role of prophecy. The NAR was founded by C.Peter Wagner and he still heads it.
    Wagner has described his movement this way: "The New Apostolic Reformation is an extraordinary work of God that began at the close of the twentieth century and continues on. It is, to a significant extent, changing the shape of the Protestant world."
    The NAR has many arms and related ministries, such as Global Harvest Ministries, International Coalition of Apostles (which in turn has hundreds of ministries under it), United States Global Apostolic Prayer Network, United States Prayer Reformation Network, while at the state level there are numerous Spiritual Warfare Networks.
    In addition, there are Market Apostles, which want to practice "dominion" over the "mountain" of business and finance, the International Society of Deliverance Ministries, the Apostolic Council for Educational Accountability, the Wagner Leadership Institute, the International Society of Reading Rooms (the head of which in Uganda was responsible for the anti-gay bill there), Seven Mountains Ministry (which involves taking control of seven key spheres of society), and many more ministries.
    This list indicates the many ministries associated with the NAR, but it does not imply their political influence, especially in the U.S. I would like to learn more about this influence from those who are knowledgeable about it.
    You may see already the connection that the NAR movement has with what is often called "dominionism."  The latter involves the desire of some politically active conservative Christians to influence or take control of all secular institutions, including governments. "Dominion Theology" is based on Genesis 1:28, a text which most Christians interpret as teaching stewardship. Note that the term "dominionism" is not used by dominionists themselves.
    One should be careful in reading all sorts of conspiracy theories into dominionism and related groups. As you can see from the chart, there are both "hard dominionists" and "soft dominionists." Christian Reconstructionism (CR) is a branch of the "hard" variety.
    Many Christians, myself included, want to put faith into action in all areas of life, but CR goes much further. It wants to apply Old and New Testament laws in the place of secular law everywhere. This is also called "Theonomism." Rousas Rushdoony is regarded as the intellectual father of CR.
    The origin of all these movements mentioned thus far has been traced back variously to Calvinism, Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, and post-millennialism. Such attributions are not entirely fair. While CR tends to be most-millennial and has many followers who come from the Reformed tradition, their views have departed far from that of John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper.
    My own roots are in the Calvinistic and Kuyperian traditions. In addition, my missionary experience has opened my eyes to some positions that are espoused by Wagner's NAR. Yet none of these associations makes me sympathetic with the Christian right in any form.
    I very much want Christians to be active in all areas of life, and I want Christians to speak out prophetically against the many injustices of our time, but I do not recognize myself anywhere on the chart below, which is good because I do consider myself part of the right.
   In fact, my votes have often been cast for political parties at the other end of the spectrum. I say this only to prevent being labeled unnecessarily by those who may be unhappy with my comments. Hence my initial caution.
   Anders Breivik may want to place himself in one of the categories below, but I will not hazard a guess, since I know too little yet about his views. I have little interest in plowing through his 1,500 page manuscript. Anyway, that would involve labeling.
   What concerns me, above all, and what has motivated this post, is how extreme some of these groups are. In spite of that extremism, there are many prominent names associated with it, in the political sphere especially. Such individuals and groups, unfortunately, give Christianity a bad name. That may not be their intention, yet it happens.
   While I concede their right to exist and to propound their views, I owe it to myself as well as to the readers of this blog to investigate this phenomenon. I am trying to understand it, as you are, no doubt.
   The political and religious right in the U.S. is a complex phenomenon. I do not claim to understand it fully. But there is too much happening in our world to disregard this phenomenon entirely. Norway and Washington are only two recent examples of how this phenomenon has manifested itself. 
    As I am writing this, the debt crisis debate has still not been resolved. The refusal of some members of the Republican party to consider raising taxes, by closing some loopholes that benefit the rich, for example, is one important manifestation of this.
   Thus I would appreciate a cordial discussion about it. Please note the word "cordial." I do not want to get involved in a heated shouting match with those who may disagree with my comments or my political stance. I merely want to increase my understanding.
    Maybe we can help each other.

I append the following chart from Political Research Associates that provides a useful map of the U.S. right--notice where the chart places the tea party movement:

Sectors of the U.S. Right Active in the Year 2011

There is much overlap and sectors are not mutually exclusive. 
Methodologies range from cautious moderation, to militant activism, to insurgency, to violence.
Right-wing populist, apocalyptic, and conspiracist styles can be found in several sectors.
Forms of oppression—racism, xenophobia, sexism, heterosexismantisemitism, 

Islamophobia, Arabophobia, nativism, ableism, etc.—vary in each sector.

Secular Right
Secular Conservatism (Generic) — Share to some degree basic conservative, “Free Market,”& “Judeo-Christian traditional values,” but not categorized here as part of another sector.
Corporate Internationalism (Neoliberals) —Nations should control the flow of people across borders, but not the flow of goods, capital, and profit. Called the “Rockefeller Republicans” in the 1960s. Supports globalization on behalf of transnational corporate interests.
Business Nationalism—Multinational corporations erode national sovereignty; nations should enforce borders for people, but also for goods, capital, and profit through trade restrictions. Enlists grassroots allies from Patriot Movement. Anti-Globalists. Generally protectionist and isolationist.
Economic Libertarianism—The state disrupts the perfect harmony of the free market system. Modern democracy is essentially congruent with capitalism. Small government.
National Security Militarism—Support US military supremacy and unilateral use of force to protect perceived US national security interests around the world. A major component of Cold War anti-communism, now updated and in shaky alliance with Neoconservatives.
Neoconservatism—The egalitarian social liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s undermined the national consensus. Intellectual oligarchies and political institutions preserve democracy from mob rule. The United States has the right to intervene with military force to protect its perceived interests anywhere in the world. Suspicious of Islam, sometimes Islamophobic.
Religious Right
Religious Conservatism— Play by the rules of a pluralist civil society. Mostly Christians, with handful of conservative Jews, Muslims, Hindus and other people of faith. Moral traditionalists. Cultural and social conservatives. Sometimes critical of Christian Right.
The sectors above this line tend to accept the rules of pluralist civil society and PRA calls them part of the “Conservative Right.”
The sectors below this line tend to reject the rules of pluralist civil society and PRA calls them part of the “Hard Right”
Christian Nationalism (Christian Right: Soft Dominionists)—Biblically‑defined immorality and sin breed chaos and anarchy. America’s greatness as God’s chosen land has been undermined by liberal secular humanists, feminists, and homosexuals. Purists want litmus tests for issues of abortion, tolerance of gays and lesbians, and prayer in schools. Often a form of Right-Wing Populism.
Christian Theocracy (Christian Right: Hard Dominionists)—Christian men are ordained by God to run society. Eurocentric version of Christianity based on early Calvinism. Intrinsically Christian ethnocentric, treating non-Christians as second-class citizens, and therefore implicitly antisemitic. Includes Christian Reconstructionism and other theocratic theologies. Elitist.
Xenophobic Right
Patriot Movement (Forms of Right-Wing Populism: Tea Parties, Town Hall Protests, Armed Citizens Militias)Parasitic liberal elites control the government, media, and banks. Blames societal problems on scapegoats below them on the socio-economic ladder who are portrayed as lazy, sinful, or subversive. Fears government plans tyranny to enforce collectivism and globalism, perhaps as part of a One World Government or New World Order. Americanist. Often supports Business Nationalism due to its isolationist emphasis. Anti-Globalist, yet supports unilateralist national security militarism.
Paleoconservatism—Ultra-conservatives and reactionaries. Natural financial oligarchies preserve the republic against democratic mob rule. Usually nativist (White Nationalism), sometimes antisemitic or Christian nationalist. Elitist emphasis similar to the intellectual conservative revolution wing of European New Right. Often libertarian.
White Nationalism (White Racial Nationalists)—Alien cultures make democracy impossible. Cultural Supremacists argue different races can adopt the dominant (White) culture; Biological Racists argue the immutable integrity of culture, race, and nation. Segregationists want distinct enclaves, Separatists want distinct nations. Americanist. “tribalist” emphasis echoes racial-nationalist wing of the European New Right. Often a form of Right-Wing Populism.
Ultra Right (Sometimes called Far Right or Extreme Right)Militant forms of insurgent revolutionary right ideology and separatist ethnocentric nationalism. Reject pluralist democracy for an organic oligarchy that unites the homogeneous Volkish nation. Conspiracist views of power are overwhelmingly antisemitic. Home to overt neofascists and neonazis. Ku Klux Klan, Christian Identity, Creativity Movement, National Socialist Movement, National Alliance. Often uses Right-Wing Populist rhetoric.







Copyright 1981—2011, Political Research Associates –

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Where are our prophets?

     Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, 
     to the profane riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. 
     God is raging in the prophet's words.
     —Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets

     Prophets are in short supply today. According to Abraham Heschel, other nations have soothsayers and diviners who try to discover the will of God, but the Hebrew prophets are the recipients of God's wrath and sorrow over his nation for having forsaken him. God has feelings, and he reveals them through the prophets.
     In Judaism, a prophet (navi) is understood to be "the mouth of God." The Talmud recognizes forty-eight male and seven female prophets. Abraham, Moses, Miriam, Samuel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Malachi are only a few examples. But prophecy ended early in the Second Temple era.


    The Christian tradition acknowledges some of these prophets, but it adds in the New Testament era two more prophets, John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. Most Christians agree that prophecy, in the biblical sense, ended shortly after the coming of Jesus.
    Although the Qur'an mentions only twenty-five prophets, Muslims believe that there were 24,000 prophets and that God had sent a prophet to every people. Muhammad, however, as the "seal of the prophets" is the final one. Jesus, or Isa as they call him, is merely one of the twenty-five mentioned in the Qur'an; he is not the Son of God, since God has no sons.
    While I agree that scripture is complete, and that prophetic revelation in that sense has ended, this does not mean prophecy as such has stopped. Heschel himself discusses this in a series of articles. While I do not accept Heschel's interpretation of prophecy entirely, he does accent properly that God speaks through his prophets and continues to do so in the Middle Ages and even later. 
    God continues to speak to us through the biblical prophets. Their voices are not muted at all. They speak to us eloquently and powerfully, but we need contemporary prophets too.
    It is my contention that God continues to speak through prophets today as well. Today's prophets include people such as Gerald Vandezande, whose passing I recently commemorated.
    My lament, however, is that there are very few true prophets today. 
    There are many self-proclaimed prophets, such as Harold Camping, whose prophecy about the end of the world I also wrote about not long ago. But these are not true prophets, since their prophecies did not come to pass.
     A true prophet is someone who speaks out against the injustices of the time. Traditionally we assume that all true prophets are believers in God, but I suspect that on occasion God can even use people like Karl Marx, who did not believe in him. After all, nothing is impossible with God.

    Marx's prophecy was fulfilled in 2008, when governments did nationalize banks. One does not have to be a Marxist to recognize the contribution that Marx made in fighting social injustice. And we should not blame him for the misuse that his followers have made of his ideas.
    I prefer, however, to deal with prophets who do believe in God, whom God choses to speak out on his behalf. Like Isaiah, God has commissioned them. Not all of them accept the prophetic mantle willingly. Some like Jonah flee in the other direction, only to be dragged back miraculously to their God-given task. 

     Unwilling prophets are not self-promoting. There are too many so-called prophets who address contemporary issues, but who are in it for their own personal gain. They are not servants of God.
     What the world needs today are prophets who are willing to speak out boldly against the gross injustices of our time--men and women who are not afraid to tackle today's big issues: poverty, financial fraud, greed, world hunger, etc. Too many self-declared prophets specialize in trivial matters. 

     Do you see now why I raise this question in my title: Where are our prophets? 
     Where indeed are the people who proclaim God's judgment on the tycoons of Wall Street or Bay Street in North America or the City in England, but at the same time speak God's comforting word to those who are suffering as a result of their rapaciousness? 
     Where are those who will condemn the tyrants of the world who try desperately to hold on to power so they can enjoy their ill-gotten gain, while their own people are fleeing to refugee camps in neighboring countries?
     Where are those who are prepared to do more than just provide food for the famine victims in the Horn of Africa but will censure people for the money that is being wasted, especially in western countries, on food, pets, and armaments, just to highlight a few items?
     Where are our prophets?
     If prophecy is indeed the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profane riches of the world, as Heschel writes so eloquently, then do you hear God raging in the prophet's words?
     Are you listening?

Saturday, July 23, 2011


  Anders Behring Breivik

     What took place in Norway yesterday was a tragedy of the first order. At least 92 people were killed, between the bomb planted near the prime minister's office building in Oslo and the shootings at the youth camp outside of the city that was organized by the ruling Labor party in Norway.
     A 32-year old Norwegian man has been detained by police, who have so far revealed nothing about the man's motives. A newspaper has identified him as Anders Behring Breivik, who is described as tall, blond, and blue-eyed.
     So far, I have no problem with this identification. Name, age, and even general appearance, are standard in journalism, although in some countries the full name is excluded, and only the initials can be used until the person has been convicted.
    What does concern me, however, are some of the labels that have been used thus far in this story. Immediately after the bombing it was rumored that an Islamist group was responsible. A Kurdish leader, who was being deported from Norway, was also mentioned as a possible suspect, since he had threatened to kill those who were deporting him.
    In both cases, Muslims received the blame before there was any evidence to support these claims.
    Now that the prime suspect has been identified and charged, new labels have been used. The police have labeled Anders Breivik as a "right-wing Christian fundamentalist." On Breivik's Facebook page, according to police, "he describes himself as a Christian, leaning toward right-wing Christianity."
    For me, this police description raises several issues:
    1. Why call Breivik "right-wing"? He leans toward "right-wing Christianity," but does that make him "right-wing"? What difference does it make whether someone is "right-wing" or "left-wing," especially when it comes to violence? Even if he turns out to have extreme "right wing" views, does that explain this massacre?
    2. What does "Christian" mean in this context. It sounds like a label to me, similar to "Muslim." It is one thing for people to identify themselves as "Christian" or "Muslim," but when others use these terms, they become labels that can be, and too often are, pejorative. I, for one, am unhappy to have Christ's name associated with this massacre.
    3. Where did the term "fundamentalist" come from? This was not part of Breiivik's self-identification as revealed by the police. This term is nearly always pejorative. It is an additional label that is unnecessary, except to intensify the negative and pejorative aspects of "right-wing" and "Christian."
    4. Why use such labels at all? Does being a "right-wing Christian" help to explain why Breivik made a six-ton bomb out of the fertilizer that he had purchased legitimately? Does it help us to understand better why he dressed as a policeman and started shooting people at the youth camp? What difference would it have made if he had been "left-wing" or a "Muslim" or anything else for that matter?
    We all use labels everyday, but often with negative intentions. In addition to those already mentioned, labels like "conservative," "liberal," "socialist," "Jew," "Hindu," "queer," "feminist," "black," white," "young," "old," etc, are used to disparage others. They serve little purpose except to demean the intended group. You may add your own examples.
    Instead of trying to capture what we have in common, labels tend to divide people. Labeling stems from an attitude of "us" vs. "them." Rarely do we use labels in a positive way to endorse people or positions.
    Journalists are among the worst offenders. Journalism tends to simplify issues, and labels are a convenient way do so. Anders Breivik is a "right-wing Christian fundamentalist." End of story for the moment.
    Tomorrow the full story of why Breivik did this may come out. Then again, we may never fully understand.
    If Breivik is psychotic or declared mentally incompetent, we may never get a rational explanation. Instead, in lieu of anything better, we will continue to be barraged by labels.
    By their very nature, labels help to fit people like Breivik into the short segments that TV news requires. Newspapers too must chop up the news into bite-sized fragments that can be read while taking the train or bus to work.
    What happened in Norway was truly a tragedy, but labeling does not help us to understand the nature of this tragedy. It oversimplifies or even distorts the news. It serves as a cheap substitute for the real news. It is a convenient tool of lazy journalists when they have little else to report.
    There are countless other examples of such labeling everyday. Let us not fall into the same trap when we repeat these labels. Instead, let us demand that our news sources stop the practice.
    I don't want to get into what sociologists term "labeling theory," but this theory does help explain the practice of labeling.
    Let us above all refrain from using labels ourselves to pigeonhole others. A label is appropriate, of course, when used as a self description by an individual or a group. Even then, labels are reductive, reducing individuals or groups to a certain characteristic, such as "old."
    For example, it is one thing if I describe myself as "old" (although I know that I am not), it is very different when others label me as such. But I am more than just "old." I possess many characteristics, of which age is only one.
    Let us avoid labels ourselves. In the Breivik case, let us reject the labels that have been used. No one, neither Breivik himself nor his victims and their families, is helped by such labeling.
   I have no intention of condoning Breivik's behavior and actions. This crime is reprehensible. His motives, when they are revealed, will perhaps shed new light on the horrific nature of this tragedy, but labels will not help. I am not exonerating him; I am only raising questions about the usefulness of labeling.
   The childhood saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me," is blatantly false. Names, in the form of labels, can and do hurt.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Famine in the Horn of Africa and our abundance

     The United Nations has now officially declared a famine in parts of the Horn of Africa, where the worst drought in half a century has contributed already to thousands of death. It is estimated  that 500,000 children are at risk of death. In Somalia, about 10% of the children may die.
     Famine is officially defined as when two adults or four children per group of 10,000 people are dying of hunger every day and 30 percent of the population is acutely malnourished. In addition, 20% of households must face extreme food shortages with only a limited ability to cope.
      In Somalia, one in three children is already suffering from severe food shortage. These figures thus support the UN declaration.
    At least $1.1 billion is needed through January, while $300 million is required in the next two months, as a result of this drought. So far less than 20% of the necessary funds have been pledged by various western nations. Obviously much more is needed.
     In this post I do not want to provide a lot of details that are already widely available in newspapers or on TV. Instead, I want to compare the monetary cost of this famine (if that can be separated from the cost in deaths and human suffering) with what people in the western world spend on food for themselves and their pets.
     In 2010, Americans spent $1240.4 billion on food, in spite of reduced spending because of rising food costs. Yet many Americans are obese. The medical costs of obesity were a staggering $147 billion. One tenth of one percent of the money Americans spent on food would therefore cover the total that is needed for this famine until new crops become available. The medical cost of obesity by itself is more than a hundred fold of what this famine will cost.
     In 2005, people in the US spent $34 billion on pet food. No doubt more is spent on that today. No one wants pets to die of hunger, but only a few per cent of the amount spent on pet food every year would again suffice.
     Similar comparisons could be made with statistics that are compiled in other countries on food-related expenditures.
     Even though people in many countries, including Canada, are suffering as a result of the recession, these examples should suffice to prove that we have no excuse whatever, whether individually or as nations, not to provide the necessary funds to alleviate the suffering of people living (and dying) in the Horn Of Africa.
     So far this year Canada has spent only about $10 million to provide help in that region. That is a drop in the bucket. I hope and pray that International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda, who is currently visiting the area, will recommend that the Canadian government provide much more.
     There are many aid organizations that helping and they need our support. While some Islamist groups have thus far not permitted aid organizations to go into some areas, the UN is negotiating to make this possible.  This danger should not be used as an excuse.
     We must open our hearts and our wallets so that the necessary funds can be provided.
     And governments everywhere should be encouraged to help those who are suffering as a result of drought. These people are not to blame. 
     Jesus had compassion on the large crowds that followed him, especially since they had not eaten for three days (Mt. 15:32). Should we not display the same compassion, especially for people who are dying from a food shortage? Must we not share from our abundance with them?
     Our problem is not that we have no money. Our problem is spiritual. In the 21st century there is no reason that anyone anywhere in the world needs to suffer because of a lack of food. There is money enough. We just spend it on the wrong things.
     The cost of the F-35 program in the US is expected to top $1 trillion when all the bills are in. Surely the suffering people in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere in the world are worth more than a few F-35 fighters? If not, our spiritual problem is worse than we realize.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Farewell to a prophet: Gerald Vandezande


     On Saturday, July 16, 2011, Canada lost a prophet. Gerald Vandezande died peacefully at home in Toronto. He was 77. Jerry, as he preferred to be called, was for many decades one of Canada's foremost Christian activists. But he was above all a prophet.
     While I have refrained thus far in this blog from eulogizing individuals, I will make an exception for Jerry, since he was an exceptional person. As Dow Marmur, Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, expressed it so aptly, Jerry "speaks like a prophet and thinks like a politician." That is a rare combination.
     A true prophet is not someone who predicts the future, but is a spokesperson for God: someone whom God has commissioned to speak on his behalf to the society in which he or she lives. That was Jerry.
     He was born in the Netherlands and emigrated to Canada in 1951 at the age of 17. Although he had only a high school education, by dint of hard work he learned cost accounting at night school. His employer sent him to Sarnia, where he met his future wife and coworker, Wynne.
    He originally had a dream to become a minister in the Christian Reformed Church, but God had other plans for him: proclaiming the gospel through Christian action.
    He did this first in the Christian Labour Association of Canada, where he became executive secretary. He was instrumental in winning certification for the CLAC in several provinces. After that he worked for social justice through the Committee for Justice and Liberty, which became the CJL Foundation and later formed the nucleus for Citizens for Public Justice.
    This brief sketch cannot begin to do justice to Jerry's many ventures. Later in life his efforts for social justice expanded to include the environment, abortion, pluralism, independent schools, and child poverty. No doubt, I have forgotten many other things that he did.
    Jerry had a way of speaking to everyone in Canadian society, from factory workers to politicians. And he was fearless in addressing the issues of the day. Above all, he had a knack for uniting people from many faiths and working with them for a common cause.
    He was an inspiration and mentor to many younger people in Canada, who learned from him how a Christian should be engaged in politics. Jerry's thought had been shaped by the Dutch Christian religious leader and politician, Abraham Kuyper, who asserted that all of creation belongs to Christ. That means politics as well.
    On abortion, for example, Jerry supported proposed federal legislation that many anti-abortion Christians opposed and was thus defeated. This loss was a great disappointment to him.
    For Jerry, justice meant more than "Just Us," which was the title of his book. In the name of justice, we must not support only our own individual or community projects, but we must be prepared to build bridges to those of other political views or religious faiths. We must also be prepared to compromise, if necessary, in order to achieve our common political objectives. That, after all, is the nature of politics.
    The nation of Canada indicated its respect for Jerry by awarding him the Order of Canada in May 2001. He also received numerous other awards.
    His death is a great loss to all Canadians who are passionate for social justice. Many people from diverse walks of life and widely differing faiths have lost a great friend. I count myself among them. My wife and I have enjoyed his friendship and encouragement for many decades.
    Jerry was a prophet for our time, and Canada has lost one of its greatest prophetic voices.
    Our condolences go out to Wynne and their daughters, Janice and Karen, as well as the grandchildren, a great-grandchild, and his brothers, Harry, Henk, George, and Ben.
    Farewell to a faithful prophet. A good and faithful servant of God, Jerry has received the commendation of the master (Mt. 25:21).

Thursday, July 14, 2011

South Sudan

     On July 9, 2011, the newest nation in the world was born: South Sudan. Today it was officially admitted as the 193rd member of the United Nations. It gained its independence by seceding from Sudan, after a referendum held in January in which about 99% of the votes were cast in favor. The capital city is Juba.

Map of South Sudan
     The road to independence was a long one, including two wars in which more than 2.5 million people died and 5 million were internally displaced. The population of South Sudan is estimated to be between 8 and 14 million, thus these losses are significant.
     The leader of the independence movement until his death in a helicopter crash in 2005 was John Garang, a member of the largest tribe, the Dinka. Other large tribes include the Nuer, Shilluk, and Azande. Tribalism is one of the major problems facing this new nation. The first president, Salva Kir Mayardit, is a Dinka. The vice-president is a Nuer, but the Dinkas have already sidelined him.
     There are many more problems. There is virtually no infrastructure. As the information minister, Barnaba Marial, explains, "We never had roads. We are starting from below zero." Transportation costs are enormous: to ship a container from a port in neighboring Kenya to Juba costs $10,000. Moreover, rains turn the country into a quagmire for several months every year.
     Since 85% of the population is illiterate, the government is hard pressed to find capable people to staff the offices of the new state. Businesses also find it difficult to find suitable employees. But this has not kept away cohorts of foreigners who are intent on providing services. This influx includes South Sudanese who are coming home after decades of civil war.
    The city of Juba has tripled in size since a peace deal was signed in 2005. Relative to local income, Juba is the second most expensive cities in the world in which to live. South Sudan is ranked as 159th out of 183 countries in terms of difficulty in starting a business.
     Oil is the mainstay of the South Sudanese economy. The major oil fields are found in South Sudan, but for the export of the oil it is dependent on Sudan, which has the oil pipelines. Some of these fields are located in border areas that are still in dispute with Sudan. There are plans, however, to build a pipeline through Kenya.
     Religion was one of the major factors that led to the split. Sudan was about 60% Muslim before the secession, with more than 25% Christian and 11% adherents of ethnic religions. Now nearly all the Christians are concentrated in South Sudan.
     Catholics and Anglicans form the largest Christian groups in South Sudan, although there are also sizable numbers of Presbyterians and other denominations. Sudan has a predominantly Sunni Muslim population, primarily among Sudanese Arabs. But there are also many Sufis.
     I have followed the saga of the South Sudanese for many years, when I was introduced to Sudanese students studying in Moscow. These students were primarily Dinkas and studying at People's Friendship University. Many worshiped at St. Andrews Anglican Church in Moscow, which I also attended.
    We became  good friends with these students, and they kept me abreast of what was happening in their homeland. This is one reason why the independence of South Sudan is so important to me.
    The organization of which I was a part in Russia and Nigeria, Christian Studies International / the International Institute for Christian Studies, has been instrumental in trying to provide new professors for the University of Juba,  which was located in Khartoum for many years but is now moving back to Juba.
    Please pray for this new country. It faces many challenges. Pray especially that peace may reign both internally, among the many tribes, as well as with Sudan, with which there are still many unresolved issues, including borders and the final division of assets and debts. War is the last thing that South Sudan needs.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Of Gods and Men

    "Of Gods and Men" (2010) is one of the most powerful films that I have ever seen. It has won numerous prizes, including the Grand Prix, which is the second most prestigious award of the Cannes Film Festival. It also received the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. The French title, it should be added, is "Des Hommes et des Dieux, which translates as "Of Men and Gods."
    The film opens with a quotation  from Psalm 82:6-7: "I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes."
    It is not a documentary, but the true story of nine Cistercian (also known as Trappist) monks who lived and worked in a monastery in Tibhirine, Algeria. They enjoyed harmonious relations with their predominantly Muslim neighbors, provided them with medical care, sometimes worshiped with them, but never tried to convert them.
    The story start in 1993 and concludes three years later, when seven of the monks are kidnapped and assassinated, although who was responsible is never explained. The Armed Islamic Group of Algeria claimed full responsibility, but French sources suggest that the killing was a mistake by the Algerian army during a rescue attempt.

     Much of the film shows the monks working and worshiping in the monastery. One Christmas Eve, their peaceful existence is disturbed by some terrorists who want medicines.  When the abbot explains that they need the medicines for the villagers and, moreover, that it is the birthday of the prophet Isa, the terrorists reluctantly leave and even apologize for disturbing the monks.
    The political situation deteriorates further, especially after the killing of several Croatian workers in the area. The authorities urge the monks to go home to France. The monks are told that many Algerians would love to leave, but cannot.
    The monks are divided at first, with some wanting to leave, but the rest preferring to stay. In the end, all vote to stay. They are devoted to serving the people among whom they live. The film reveals the motives of each monk as they explain their vote.
    The last supper scene in which the monks silently sip wine while the overture to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake fills the room is powerful and moving. But then terrorists come and lead seven of the monks away, although two manage to hide and thus save themselves. The final scene show the monks trudging through the snow to their death, but that is not shown.
    The Christian faith is sympathetically portrayed in this film. The monks are motivated by love. In contrast, the terrorists have a different motive. They are not concerned with their fellow Algerians, and even misuse the Qur'an. As Pascal observed centuries earlier: "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."
    This film examines in a sensitive way the relations between Christians and Muslims. As these monks demonstrate, Christians and Muslims can live together peacefully. The Islamic terrorists disturb that relationship, but they cannot destroy it.
    These terrorists should not be pictured with a black brush, and the film does not. French colonialism must accept a large share of the blame for the situation in Algeria, and the film does that with only a few small, yet suggestive brush strokes.
    What the film neglects to mention, however, is the way both the French and Algerian governments undermined the results of the democratic election victory of the Islamic Salvation Front. A state of emergency was declared and the second set of elections were canceled. In addition, the Algerian regime used the army and foreign mercenaries to attack men, women, and children, but laid the blame on Islamic groups.
    Is what happened in Algeria a portent of what may happen in North Africa and throughout the Middle East, where Western governments are worried about Islamic parties gaining power as a result of the Arab Spring? I have no answer to that question.
    If you have not yet seen this film, please visit your nearest video store. This is indeed one of the most powerful films that I have ever seen. I am sure you will agree with me.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Canada Day and the monarchy

    Today is Canada Day. The celebrations of the 144th birthday of this country are taking place everywhere--from St. John's to Victoria and all points in between.
    The highlight of these celebrations, no doubt, are in Ottawa, where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are in town to grace the event. Three hundred thousand spectators assembled on Parliament Hill--some started arriving at 3 am--to witness the royal couple, who arrived in Canada yesterday.
    Will and Kate are arguably the most well-known couple in the world. Their wedding two months ago attracted a world-wide audience. They have attracted huge crowds already here in Canada, and will attract even more in the days to come.
    They are scheduled to visit four provinces and one territory before they leave next week to visit California. That they are extremely popular goes without question.
    But will they be able to save the monarchy? That is the real question that we should ask ourselves on this Canada Day.
    The Queen of Canada lives in Buckingham Palace, in far away London, England. But she is represented in Canada by the Governor-General, a Canadian, who is nominated by the Prime Minister of Canada, but appointed by the Queen.
    Queen Elizabeth has always been very popular throughout her realm. Unfortunately, her oldest son, Prince Charles has not been very popular, especially after his affair with Camilla, which started while Diana, Will's mother, was still alive.
    Will is next in line for the throne, after Charles. If it depended on Charles, the monarchy would end very soon. Will and Kate may ultimately be able to breathe some new life into this ancient institution, but that may not be enough to save it in the long run.
    In Canada, a recent poll indicates that only 33% want to retain the monarchy. The Monarchist League of Canada is a largely graying organization, although it does have a youth wing. I have no idea how large that wing is, but I doubt that there are many young monarchists.
    The younger generation will ultimately determine the fate of the monarchy, whether in England, Canada, Australia, or elsewhere. If they see no value in retaining this institution, it will fade away, much like the smile of the Cheshire cat. There are few signs that they are interested in the monarchy.
   Hence the visit of Will and Kate. If this young couple cannot capture the hearts of their own generation, it is curtains for the monarchy. Although they are trying to reform the monarchy as well as rebrand it, their attempt may come too late, especially if Charles becomes king for awhile.
   In Australia, a referendum on becoming a republic was narrowly defeated, but the current Australian prime minister is in favor of a republic. New Zealand would quickly follow in ditching the monarchy.
   In Canada, the popularity of Will and Kate may be attributed more to their newfound celebrity status than to any residual love that Canadians have for the monarchy. Will and Kate may one day rule Canada as part of their domains, but not everyone in Canada will rejoice.
   Not even the proposal that Prince Harry becomes the King of Canada (while Will would rule the rest of the realm) has much chance of flying.
   Constitutionally, it will be difficult for Canada to sever its ties with the monarchy. However, unlike England, where the Queen Elizabeth is the head of the Church of England, she plays no religious role in Canada. Thus that is one less problem.
   I am not a monarchist, and I certainly have little love for the British monarchy. If anything, I have a greater appreciation for the Dutch monarchy, since I have dual citizenship. While living in Moscow, I was introduced to Queen Beatrix and the heir to the Dutch throne.
   I am willing to reconsider the question, especially if there is a significant surge for retaining the monarchy by the time that the royal tour of Canada is over. But I doubt that it will.