Friday, October 20, 2017

Who is this powerful man who fell?

He was highly creative and what he produced inspired many.
His success led to him being very powerful in his field.
Women sought help from him and wanted his approval.
Tragically, he used his power to sexually abuse countless (hundreds?) of women over decades.
There were widespread rumours.
Because of who he was and his power many chose not to believe the rumours.
Colleagues covered up for him.
His employer covered up for him.
Only after a New York Times article appeared, did his employer properly address the issue.
Reading about the conduct of this "dirty old man" makes one want to take a shower.
He never took full responsibility, or made appropriate apologies, but blamed others.
Furthermore, he came up with highly convoluted rationalisations for his behaviour.

Who is this man?
You are probably thinking of Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer.

But actually, this history also describes that of the highly influential Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder.

Unfortunately, when it comes to sexual abuse it does not matter what the religion, philosophy, denomination, or theological position. They all have their abusers and victims.

There is a new article by Stanley Hauerwas [who played a significant role in bringing Yoder's theology to a wider audience] who wrestles with his own role and response. It makes painful but worthwhile reading.

To me, this tragedy highlights many important lessons.
One lesson is the importance of personal integrity and accountability. Furthermore, as Hauerwas emphasises you cannot separate theology and action. Mind, heart, and body are integrated and inseparable.

Christian leaders (that includes me!) have to take very seriously Paul's exhortation to Timothy:
Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.
You cannot separate life and doctrine. How you act is just as important as what you believe. Unfortunately, believing and speaking the "right" thing is an awful lot easier than living the right way.

Furthermore, we have an incredible capacity for self-delusion. This is particularly true when power, sex, or money are involved.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Guest post: What is real?

My dear wife has written the following post.


From time spent in India I am more aware of the existence of the spiritual world. In the West we tend to discredit things that aren’t tangible, things that can’t be touched or measured – for the sake of being “educated” and "rational". We have disqualified the spiritual for the sake of the material, things that we can not see for things that we thing are quantifiable and "real".

That makes me angry – this cultural blindness is like wearing shackles that I never asked for.

In most of India you can’t go far without running into a shrine or temple. To most Indians, there is no question that there is a spiritual world. Even some physicists consult the astrological calendar to pick an audacious date for their daughters wedding. I am not saying this is a good thing. The question isn’t so much “is there a god?” but rather “which gods will I honour?” We might argue about which is farther from the truth – living as if there are no gods or sacrificing to false gods? Yet the difference is striking.

As a Christian it is refreshing that the reality of the spiritual realm is affirmed by a society. It becomes easier to set one’s heart and mind on things above, not on earthly things. The dark side also is true, I’m more aware of the spiritual warfare surrounding us, and that our struggle isn’t against flesh and blood but against the spiritual forces of evil. The problems of our age can’t be solved by argument but need prayer and fasting.

I pray that God would help me to hold onto this awareness before it recedes into the Western norm. Help me to remember this world needs people honouring You with their lives – not an over emphasis on material things or analytical arguments seeking a perfect answer.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Does she belong in the slum?

My wife and I really enjoyed watching the movie, Queen of Katwe. It is based on the true story of a young Ugandan woman, Phiona Mutesi. She becomes a national chess champion while growing up in a slum.


I first heard of the movie after a story about Phiona appeared on the front page of the Seattle Times. Then a friend who works in a slum in Africa said he watched it with a group of local children to inspire them. Less than a week later my daughter independently recommended it.

The movie does a beautiful job of capturing many things.

The tragic daily grind and challenge of living in a poor family.... homelessness... debt... prostitution... disease... accidents... filth... floods... widowhood... no education.... lack of hope..

The "atmosphere" and imagery of a slum. This brought back memories of some of my limited experiences in South Asia.

The value of mentoring and role models.

Teaching chess to slum children teaches so much more. Here there are similarities to another movie and true story.

How human dignity transcends economic circumstance, family background, and street address.

To me, an important thing to remember is that the life depicted in the slum is what about one billion people experience.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The incredible power of symbols and rituals

They unite people. They divide people.

A national flag. A national anthem. A Confederate flag. A crucifix. A statue of Cecil Rhodes. A communion wafer.
Standing, kneeling, or sitting.

These symbols sometimes mean very different things to different people. That is when they divide communities.

I was in the USA for the last month and the recent controversy about what NFL plays do or do not do during the playing of the national anthem really brought these ideas home to me.
Some players have been sitting or kneeling or staying in the locker room during the national anthem. They are doing this to highlight issues about racism and particularly police violence against African Americans. On the orders of President Trump, Vice President Pence recently left an NFL game after the anthem in protest after two dozens players from one team did not stand. He said

I left today’s Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.

It is interesting (and perhaps disturbing to some) how to Pence (and many Americans) respect for the military is conflated with standing for the national anthem. For context, it should also be pointed out that before 9/11, players always stayed in the locker room during playing of the national anthem. Back then, they were never accused of being unpatriotic. My dear wife, points out how she finds it confusing that to kneel is an act of disrespect, whereas Tim Tebow [a famous NFL player] became famous for his kneel. There is a fascinating article in the Washington Post [written by an Australian theologian!] Colin Kaepernick vs. Tim Tebow: A tale of two Christians on their knees.

Here I should clarify my mixed "allegiances" and limited qualifications to comment on the USA. I am not a US citizen. But, my wife and two children both hold US and Australian citizenship. I lived there from 1983 to 1994. Since then I have probably spent an average of about one month a year there, both for work and visiting family.
Australians have very different attitudes to nationhood, patriotism, national anthems, politicians, and authority... but that is another story. To illustrate, when the national anthem was changed a few decades ago, a folk song, Waltzing Matilda, was a serious contender. It is about an itinerant farm worker who steals a sheep and commits suicide to avoid capture by the police...
On the other hand, Anzac day, has become highly symbolic, including in ways that I find worrisome.

I also want to confess my own mis-adventures. I am embarrassed to tell this story. When I was first in the USA I was invited to a Fourth of July concert and fireworks by some American friends. I was young and naive (clueless?). When the National Anthem was played and sung with great gusto by everyone standing around me I remained seated. I thought, "I am not an American and I don't like President Reagan or US foreign policy, so why should I stand?" Afterwards, I felt awkward. Now I think it was rude, particularly to my friends and hosts.
Having said that, if I played in the NFL [laugh out loud!] and one of my African-American team-mates asked me to kneel with him in solidarity I would.

These issues are not unique to the USA. In India, last year following a government directive,
The Supreme Court has ruled that the national anthem should be played before the screening of films in cinema halls, and that all should “stand up in respect.” “...people should feel that they live in a nation and show respect to the national anthem and the national flag,” Justice Dipak Misra said in the ruling.
People who oppose such directives or are critical of other government policies, such as military action in Kashmir, are increasingly painted as "anti-national".

Why does all this matter?
It does raise important questions about the meaning of freedom in democratic societies and how to live in a pluralistic community with a diversity of values and perspectives.
It is particularly important that on both sides of these debates to try to understand the points of view of those with different views to yours.
The symbols really can mean quite different things to different people.
If we want to build community and respect the dignity of others we will consider how our actions may be interpreted.
There are also questions about how the powerful use these symbols to manipulate people to stay in power and/or to distract debate about arguably more substantial and concrete issues.

What about religious symbols?
To hard-core Protestants they are just idolatry.
Yet, communion [bread and wine] has important symbolic value in focussing thoughts on the death, resurrection, of Jesus and on the community of the church.
A cross is an incredibly powerful symbol of The Cross of Jesus [his suffering, death, and its atoning power for sin].

One of the most important biblical concepts and symbols is imageo dei. Humans are made in the image of God. There are many subtleties and debates about exactly what this means. But I think the following is one of the most important messages of Genesis One, which has nothing to do with biological science and history. If we disrespect the image we disrespect God. Thus, any action of disrespect to any human [whether abuse, exploitation, racism, ridicule, violence, ...] is actually dishonouring God.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Is the slope really that slippery?

I am skeptical about "slippery slope" arguments, whether in theology or politics.

``If we allow/believe X then we will end up with Y, something that is really bad.''

First, this an argument from fear, not from faith and love.
Second, this video makes a point I had not thought of before. Usually, these arguments are against some view/action that is considered "liberal". However, one should be just as concerned about being too "conservative". For example, in theology, trying to avoid liberalism can lead to legalism, division, or authoritarianism.
In politics it can lead to totalitarianism.



Thursday, October 5, 2017

A university president talks about Jesus and about mental health

Santa Ono is the President of the University of British Columbia and a distinguished medical researcher. He recently gave a fascinating and personal talk at a church in Vancouver. [You can listen here].
He recounts his upbringing in a secular home, coming to follow Jesus as a young adult, and his struggle with mental health issues that included two suicide attempts.
He ends with a passionate appeal for mental health issues to be addressed at all levels, from informal conversations to public policy, and particularly among university students.
The talk is worth listening to in full. Perhaps it starts a little slow, but Ono is a great story-teller, quite self-effacing, and at times humorous.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

How divided is the USA?

At my mother-in-law's recommendation, I watched this excellent feature on 60 Minutes, a weekly news show. Much of what is said I found pretty disturbing.