Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “political theology”

slacktivist: The Scandal of the Evangelical Mosk

slacktivist: The Scandal of the Evangelical Mosk:

…all those stories about Glenn Beck. Beck has been reaching out to evangelicals to support his call for a moralistic brand of nationalism, and many evangelicals view him as a natural ally who shares their ‘conservative’ values.

But Beck is also viewed as ‘controversial’ because he is a Mormon. This controversy, and only this, was the subject of dozens of articles, columns and blog posts clogging my news feed. They all asked one and only one question: Should evangelicals avoid supporting Glenn Beck because he is a Mormon?

The answer is No. They should not be shunning Beck because he is a Mormon. They should be shunning Glenn Beck because he hates his brother, because he preaches hate, nurtures it, multiplies it and feeds on it.

He’s also a liar and a con-artist running a shameless pump-and-dump scam on overpriced gold coins. Both of those far outrank whatever discomfort some evangelicals might have due to Beck’s alleged Mormonism, but they fade in importance relative to the imperative to love.

How is it possible that so many evangelical Christian writers and reporters have taken the time to express their qualms about Beck’s Mormonism but have scarcely any reservations about his relentless message of hate? ‘Straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel’ was Jesus’ term for this sort of thing.

I disagree, well, sort of.

The point about Glenn Beck being a Mormon is important because it shows up the true values of those “evangelical” pastors who support him.

It shows that they have broken the first commandment “You shall have no other gods before me” and that “conservative values” (or whatever they see themselves as having in common with Glenn Beck) are more important to them than Christ.

It shows that whatever the religion of the “religious right” is, it is not Christianity; it is an idol.

I don’t know enough about Glenn Beck to judge whether he is good or bad. Nor do I know enough about the evangelical pastors to support him to know whether they are good or bad. But what I do know is that their theology differs.

I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing for people with differing theology to get together to achieve a common political objective. I was once a member of the Liberal Party of South Africa, which had as members Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, atheists, agnostics. They would all give different theological (or atheological, in the case of the atheists) reasons for working for the same set of political objectives. For more on this, see Religion, spirituality and politics | Khanya.

So where does it cross the line and become idolatry?

That’s where I think Slacktivist is right — where it is preaching hatred rather than love. Where political objectives are compatible with Christian objectives, it is fine to support them, but where political objectives supplant Christian objectives, it becomes idolatry.

This comes to the fore when you consider what you are against rather than what you are for. You can oppose a certain political policy because you believe it is impractical for various reasons. You might not object to it in principle, and think that its objective is OK, but object to it on the grounds that it is unlikely to achieve the stated objective. That is not a problem. It is not idolatry.

But if you are a Christian and you oppose a policy in principle, then if your reason for opposing it is incompatible with Christian theology, it becomes idolatry. And the grounds for Glenn Beck’s attacks on Dorothy Day are something I believe no Christian can support.

Theology of religions

In this month’s synchroblog article Christianity: inclusive or exclusive? I wrote that many Christian “theologians of religion” seemed to be asking the wrong questions. The question most of them were asking was “Is there salvation in other religions?”, and, depending on the answers they gave, were classified as “inclusivist”, “exclusivist” or “pluralist”. The names of the categories might vary slightly, but not in any fundamental way.

If asking whether there is salvation in other religions does not lead to a theology of religions, what questions should theologians be asking?

Alan Race, in his book Christians and religious pluralism (London, SCM, 1983), quotes Wilfred Cantwell Smith as saying

From now on any serious intellectual statement of the Christian faith must include, if it is to serve its purposes among men, some doctrine of other religions. We explain the fact of the Milky Way by the doctrine of creation, but how do we explain the fact that the Bhagavad Gita is there?

Race quotes this at the beginning of his book, on page 2, yet one may read through to the end and find that he has still not even attempted to explain why the Bhagavad Gita is there. The same applied to Paul Knitter, and most of the other so-called theologians of religion.

Many Western theologians write as though religious pluralism is something new, or assert, as Race does, that “the present experience [of religious pluralism] transcends any earlier sense Christians may have had of its significance”, which he ascribes to the new mobility brought about by modern means of transport, the academic study of comparative religion and the new missionary consciousness found among many non-Christian religions. This perception may arise from the peculiar circumstances of most Western Christians between the ninth and the sixteenth centuries. In that period Western Europe was nominally Christian, and other religions were to be found only on the peripheries – tribal and nature religions in the north-east, and Islam in the south and east. Only in Spain and North-West Africa did Western Christians continue to live in an Islamic society, and in North Africa the Church had practically disappeared by the eleventh century. By the sixteenth century technological developments in shipbuilding and navigation had allowed Western Europeans to bypass the Islamic world, and once again establish contact with Eastern Asia, and to make contact with most of the American continents for the first time.

For Eastern Christians, however, the picture was very different.

The Church grew in a religiously plural society, and much of this religious pluralism persisted for some time after Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman empire. In fourth-century Antioch, for example, there were more pagan temples than Christian churches, and the educational system was still basically the Greek paideia. The rise of Islam in the seventh century meant that many Orthodox Christians were living in a predominantly Muslim society, and continue to do so to this day. In Russia, Orthodox Christians were under Tatar rule for some centuries and even in the Byzantine Empire they “felt less threatened by Mongols and Turks than by the papacy, the Teutonic Knights and the monarchies of Central Europe” (Meyendorff 1989:47).

Western theologians like to talk about the “Constantinian era”, and “Christendom”, but for Orthodox Christians in the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem the “Constantinian era” lasted for less than 300 years and was gone by AD 640.

In the Western perception, therefore, a plurality of religions is a new phenomenon, which demands a new theological explanation, while for Orthodox Christians, especially those living among Western Christians, Western theology itself is the “new” (and sometimes more puzzling) phenomenon. Nevertheless the Christian Church came into being in a world in which there was a plurality of religions, and religious pluralism is not really a new thing.

What is new is not the fact of religious pluralism, but the concept of religious pluralism, and indeed the concept of religion itself. Harrison (1990:63-64) points out that “religion”, as we speak of it today, was a product of Western modernity, and the sources of Western modernity were the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

One of the effects of the Reformation was the exchange of an institutionally based understanding of exclusive salvation to a propositionally based understanding. Formerly it had been “no salvation outside the Church”, now it had become “No salvation without profession of the ‘true religion” – but which religion was the true religion? The proliferation of Protestant sects made the question exceedingly complex, and led to the production of innumerable abstracts, summaries and the like of the Christian religion, with confessions and statements of faith, in attempts to arrive at a solution. Thus there was a concern for ‘fundamentals’, which could therefore bring Christianity into a closer relation with other faiths, if the ‘fundamentals’ were broad enough to include them. Religions, in the new conception, were sets of beliefs rather than integrated ways of life. The legacy of this view of “the religions” is the modern problem of conflicting truth claims.

The inclusive, exclusive and pluralist models all derive from and are shaped by this conception of “religion” that itself arose from historical circumstances in early modern Europe, but these classifications neither explain, nor do they purport to explain, why the Bhagavad Gita is there. They are not so much theologies of religion as attempts to classify Christian attitudes to religious pluralism. Knitter, though he has much to say about the need for “authentic dialogue”, does not give much evidence of such dialogue in his book.

There were three different understandings of ‘nature’, which led to three different understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘the religions’. 1) the natural order as opposed to the supernatural. ‘Natural’ religion is the result of human sin and stands in opposition to ‘revealed’ religion. This dichotomy was largely shaped by the Protestant reformers. 2) an instinct, or the light of conscience (also Bacon, and Kant’s ‘practical reason’. This view is derived from Renaissance thought and ultimately from Stoic philosophy.`In this view the natural is not opposed to the supernatural but complements it. 3) the light of nature is that which springs from reason, sense, induction and argument (Bacon), which Kant later called ‘pure reason’. It was this view that developed as the Enlightenment progressed, and led to ‘religion’ being investigated in the same way as phenomena of the physical universe (Harrison 1990:5-6).

If modernity thus sidetracks the discussion of why the Bhagavad Gita is there (from a Christian point of view) perheps we can find some clues from a premodern source, the Bible.

Biblical data

The biblical view of other religions is a complex one. In Isaiah 46 there appears to be an absolute monotheism — the Lord is God and there is no other. In other passages the gods of the nations exist, but are subordinate to the Lord, the “great King above all gods” (Ps 94(95):3). The clearest statement of this is perhaps Deuteronomy 32:8-9:

When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,
when he separated the sons of men,
he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.
For the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.

This translation is based on the Septuagint reading, recently confirmed by some ancient Hebrew manuscripts. The Masoretic Hebrew text says “sons of Israel” instead of “sons of God”. I believe the “sons of God” reading (bene Elohim) is correct. This seems to imply that God gave each nation or people its own god, or its own religion. Israel was an exception, and had a hot line direct to YHWH himself, without having to go through a “middle man” – an angelic intermediary or go-between.

These gods of the nations were also national spirits, and were very often embodied in the human rulers of the nations, in the institution of divine kingship. They are the heavenly representatives of the earthly rulers, and stand before the throne of God. The “bene elohim” are the sons of God (Job 6), or in a Semitic metaphor, sons of gods, or simply gods.

Israel does not appear to have had one of these angelic rulers, because of its special relationship to YHWH. But after arriving in the promised land many Israelites were attracted by the political and religious arrangements of the people living there. they found all sorts of religions, and what goes with religions, kings, and they demanded a king for themselves (I Sam 8), thus rejecting YHWH’s direct rule over them. So later we find that Israel too has its god, its angelic intermediary, Michael (“who is like God?”).

The trouble is that the gods, and the political powers they represent, are corrupt and oppressive (Ps 81/2). The Psalmist prays for the restoration of God’s direct rule over all nations, and in an almost exact parallel of the last three verses of Psalm 81(82), Jesus asserted that he had come to do just that (Jn 12:31-32). The gods have allowed injustice and oppression in the nations they have been given to rule, and their rule will be taken away from them:

I say, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince.”
Arise, O God, judge the earth; for to thee belong all the nations (Ps 81:6-8).

The picture here is not one of strict monotheism in the sense of denying that other divinities exist, but rather the assertion that the Lord is supreme over all the gods. The gods of the nations are the vice-gerents of YHWH, and are his servants. But what is interesting is that the last verses of the Psalm are almost exactly paralleled in John 12:31-32, when Jesus says: “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”

Jesus himself is the one who puts the rebellious gods in their place, and St Paul affirms this when he says: “And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:13-15).

There is indeed a theology of religions here, but its concerns are very different from those of most of the Western theologians who have written on the topic. The concern is not with questions of “religious pluralism” or “dialogue”, but rather with the place of the gods in the economy of the kingdom. In the New Testament we read about the spiritual powers that later theologians, like Pseudo-Dionysius, systematized into nine orders divided into three triads: cherubim, seraphim and thrones; dominions, powers and authorities; principalities, archangels and angels. These angelic powers are identified with the stars and planets (Job 38:7) and thus with the pagan gods of Greece and Rome and several other nations. C.S. Lewis used this idea in some of his fictional writings, namely the “cosmic trilogy” and The magician’s nephew.

In all this, there is no clear unambiguous statement of exactly what these spiritual powers are. Genesis 1 seems to adopt the strict monotheist approach: other nations may worship the sun and moon, but Genesis 1 does not even call them that, but just refers to the “big light” and the “little light”, making them material objects to provide illumination and regulate the calendar, and so demythologizing them. But the other passages I have quoted show that the demythologizing approach is not the only one.

There is also some ambivalence about whether these powers are good or evil. Romans 13 and Revelation 13 demonstrate that ambivalence in the Christian attitude to the state, but the “authorities” of the state are not mere flesh and blood. “Authority” (exousia) in the Bible is spiritual, and Christians find themselves in conflict with “authorities” and “world-powers” (Ephesians 6:10-12). We often speak of the “demonic” and “Satanic” as if they were utterly evil and godless, yet even Satan is among the “sons of God” (Job 1). This is expressed symbolically in Revelation, where it is said that the dragon swept down a third of the stars from heaven (Rev 12:4; 13:9). It may be doubted whether this represents an exact number, or whether it is possible to identify any particular spiritual power as “good” or “evil”. The proportion is probably intended to reassure Christians, as Elisha reassured his servant, that “those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Ki 6:16).

The gods of the nations, then, are seen as servants of the one true God. Sometimes they are rebellious servants, sometimes they are obedient servants, but they form part of the created world. The principalities and powers, or rulers and authorities, are part of the creation of God. In relation to human beings they are gods, and yet in relation to God himself they become as nothing – “I am the true God, there is no other.”

The “great king above all gods” is the creator of the bene elohim, the gods. This has been confused in modern thought by focusing on a division between the “natural” and the “supernatural”. Since the late Middle Ages in the West, and continuing into modernity, beings have been classified as natural or supernatural, with God, the gods, and all spiritual powers being included in the latter classification.

Orthodox Christianity, and premodern Christianity generally, draws the line in a different place, between creator and creature. The gods, the spiritual powers, are part of the created world, the world in which we live. The “principalities and powers” are not merely “spiritual” or “supernatural” forces, but are actually closely linked with the political powers and superpowers of this world, with the economic forces that some would subject us to (like the “market forces” of the free enterprisers).

This is why, in earlier posts Notes from underground: Of egregores and angels, I wondered whether the concept of egregors could be helpful in understanding their relations.

[continued in Part 3]


  • Harrison, Peter. 1990. “Religion” and the religions in the English Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Meyendorff, John. 1989. Byzantium and the rise of Russia. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
  • Race, Alan. 1983. Christians and religious pluralism. London: SCM.

Of egregores and angels

In the New Religious Movements discussion forum a couple of weeks ago Matt Stone introduced me to the concept of an egregore. Well, not so much the concept as the term, since the concept was already familiar to me.

It came up in a discussion about the cults of fictional deities, such as Yog Sothoth and Cthulhu, from the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Matt suggested that these might be examples of egregors or egregores, which have been described as:

…a kind of group mind which is created when people consciously come together for a common purpose. Each of us belong to several of these groups. The process is unconscious. There also are drawbacks, some disturbing psychic influences in many cases, and a restriction of freedom. It is impossible to free oneself from certain egregores, for example the egregores of the country you live in. However we should free ourselves from non-essential egregores. If this process is continued for a long time, the egregore will take on a life of it’s own, even if all the members should pass through transition, it would continue to exist on the inner dimensions and can be contacted even for centuries later by a group of people prepared to live the lives of the original founders, particularly if they are willing to provide the initial input of energy to get it going again. These thought-forms are created reality by an individual or a group. They exist in the exoteric and esoteric realms. They are created by groups such as societies or cultures, professions and trades, or any group. They can be accessed by all members of that group. They change as the group contacting them changes. The egregore is prone to change, either to evolve or degenerate as members of that group change. The group then reflects the changing “egregore”. This contact of group members to their “egregore” is automatic in most cases, when the member actually feels that he/she is a member of that group. Most members are unconscious of this process. There are also instances where some groups deliberately use the egregore for the spiritual development and well being of their members. This is true of various mystical organizations.

Now this takes me back to when I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, taking Theology II and New Testament II and the lecturer talked about “principalities and powers”. I’d not given these much thought up till then, but when he started expounding a theory of the atonement in which Jesus defeated the “principalities and powers”, I asked what on earth he was talking about. In my mind, “principalities” were places like Monaco, and the “powers” were the USA and USSR (back then engaged in the Cold War).

The lecturer, Vic Bredenkamp, referred me to a book by G.B. Caird, called, unsurprisingly, Principalities and powers. From reading this I gathered that behind the nations like the USSR and the USA were spiritual powers — national spirits, if you like — and that the ancient Romans actually worshipped this spiritual power of the nation in the form of the genius of the Emperor, and it was their refusal to participate in that cult that got some of the early Christians into trouble with some of the Emperors.

Now in the description of an “egregore” quoted above, we are told that It is impossible to free oneself from certain egregores, for example the egregores of the country you live in. This links up with Deuteronomy 32:8-9: When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of men, he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. For the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage. “Sons of God” in this case (Hebrew “bene elohim”, literally “sons of gods”) means gods as in Psalm 82 (81 in the LXX numbering), which is is sung boisterously with much stamping of feet and banging on benches in Orthodox Churches in the Holy Saturday Liturgy while the priest scatters bay leaves all over the place, with the oft-repeated chorus “Arise O God, judge the earth, for to Thee belong all nations”. Jesus announced the fulfilment of that prayer when he said (John 12:31-32) “Now is the judgment of this world (judge the earth), now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth (Arise O God), will draw all men to myself” (for to Thee belong all nations).

There is an ikon of the scattering of the nations at the tower of Babel that often goes with the ikon of Pentecost (I have not been able to find an example, otherwise I would have put it here) that shows the nations with their angels leaving in different directions. And the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 says that the Most High set the bounds of the nations “according to the number of the angels of God” (kata arithmon angellon Theou). All nations were given their gods, or angels, except Israel, which had a hot line to the Most High, and did not have to go through angelic intermediaries. According to Psalm 81/82 the gods messed up and ruled unjustly, and with the death and resurrection of Jesus all nations became eligible for the hot line (John 12:31f).

These gods/angels are not simply of the nations. Individuals have their guardian angels. Families and communities have theirs. In Reveleation St John saw the angels of the churches. Business firms may have them too, and even ideas and ideologies can have them. In other words, the characteristics of “egregors” may also be the characteristics of angels, and they may be good or evil. As they become evil, they more and more resemble the characteristics of fallen angels, or demons.

Charles Williams, in his novel The place of the lion describes what happens when the powers get loose, and when men worship them independently of the power of God. C.S. Lewis sees them as belonging not just to human groups within the earth, but to the planets themselves, the principalities, archontes, princes he calls oyeresu, and each planet has its oyarsa, or planetary ruler, and this was the basis of astrology.

There is one theological problem in all this. As Charles Stewart says in his book Demons and the devil

“The main doctrinal point is simple: NO DUALISM. Satan is not to be regarded as a power equal to God. He is God’s creation and operates subject to divine will.” Other points:

  1. Satan is immaterial; this no excessive concern with his form or geographical associations;
  2. as he has no real power, there is no reason to appeal to him. All rites, sorcery, black magic, astrology and the like that appeal to demons or the devil are fruitless;
  3. Satan’s field of operations is narrow, and the harm he can provoke is limited;
  4. Satan is strictly and intrinsically evil. The Church does not accept the existence of intermediate or ambiguous fairy-like creatures such as neraides, gorgones and kallikantzaroi;
  5. Satan is singular. He is the leader of demons who are fallen
    angels of the same order as himself. There is no real concern
    for the names of demons
    (Stewart 1991:148).

This seems to exclude the idea of spiritual powers, such as angels of the nations that may turn from evil to good and back again, for example when South Africa abandoned apartheid in 1994.

See also Angels, demons and egregores.

Christianity, North and South

A long time ago I wrote an editorial for a magazine called Ikon, which is reproduced below. It was for the Summer 1970 Issue (published in about January/February 1970)

One hears much these days of the “New Theology”. There is a great debate about God. Is God dead? Is he up there or down here or in here? And this debating makes the fundamental assumption that God can be known by talking about him. This seems to be especially affecting white Christian students in South Africa. There is a demand for a theology which is relevant to secular man. This demand was created by the theologians, and they are now doing their best to fulfil it by creating a god in the image of modern secular man.

But this demand for a modern secular God is the demand of a minority. Modern secular man is white, prosperous, and has the leisure to engage in theological debates. The ‘new theology’ is another product of Western neo-colonialist society, and for the vast majority of mankind this theology is totally irrelevant. They are not so much looking for a revolution in theology as for a theology of revolution.

For decades now we have been conditioned to think of a world divided into two opposing camps — East and West. The East consists of “democratic” peoples republics, and the West likes to call itself the “free” world. This distinction has been fostered by power politicians to keep people ignorant, and to serve their own ends. The real division, however, is not between East and West, but between North and South. In the North live the haves, and in the South live the have-nots. Most of the wealth of the world is concentrated in the North — Europe, Russia, North America. The bulk of the world’s population, and the poorest, live in South Asia, Africa and South America.

The poor of the world are not interested in singing anthems to the status quo, as the secular theologians would have us do. They look to a God who changes things, who upsets the existing order. They look to a God who will depose the mighty and exalt the poor and powerless, who will literally turn the world upside-down, putting the poor south at the top in place of the rich north.

Theology is important, but the Church makes two great mistakes. The theologians are generally set apart from the rest of the Church. They engage in debates in a cosy academic setting, in the calm unhurried atmosphere of ripe scholarship. They throw away years of research into trivialities, which have nothing to do with the proclaiming of the Gospel of the Kingdom. And the rest of the Church suffers, because it has nothing to guide it. Christians go on doing things that were done by their forefathers, but they have no idea why their forefathers did these things, and therefore have no idea why they themselves do them. We need something more than academic theology — we need applied theology — a Christian ideology which can interpret events and forces in the world in the light of the Kingdom of God. Up till now they have been kept separate — “Religion and politics don’t mix”.

Theology is important. And it is important that theology should be capable of application in the world in which we live. The ‘Message to the people of South Africa’ is the first step towards such a theology, but it must not be the last. It will be noted that the Message is not debate-theology. It makes a series of proclamations about what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is. To the academic or the secular theologians this is arrogant. One cannot make proclamations, one can only make a tentative contribution to the debate. But the world does not have time for drawn-out debates. We have to act on the answers to these questions now. To the Christian theologian there is only one relevant question — What is the Gospel of Jesus Christ? To the Christian activist, only one course of action is open — proclaim the Gospel, and make visible God’s revolution in the world.

Perhaps Abraham is a good model for theologians, and for all Christians. Abraham was not seeking a way — he was on the way. He was aware of direction, but not of his ultimate destination. He did not know what the promised land was to be like; all he knew was that God was leading him there. It is important for Christians to know where they are going, for they cannot be effective otherwise. We should stop playing around with ideas around an abstract God, and rather concentrate on where God is leading us. Action which is not based on sound theory is what the Marxists call adventurism. For Marxists all action must be directed towards a goal — the revolution and the classless society. For Christians likewise, all action and theologising must be directed towards a goal — the revolution and the Kingdom of God.

Well, that is ancient history. It was written more than 37 years ago. The world has changed then, and I have changed. If I were writing it now, I would not have written it in the same way, and would be more aware of how I have allowed myself to be caught in the trap of academic theology. But it is worth asking what has changed? What has remained the same?

Some answers may be found in an article mentioned on another blog, Believing in the Global South, by Philip Jenkins. Jenkins says

some western Christians have since the 1960s expected that the religion of their Third World brethren would be fervently liberal, activist, and even revolutionary, the model represented by liberation theology. In this view, the new Christianity would chiefly be concerned with pulling down the mighty from their seats, through political action or even armed struggle. All too often, though, these hopes have proved illusory. Frequently, the liberationist voices emanating from the Third World proved to derive from clerics trained in Europe and North America, and their ideas won only limited local appeal. Southern Christians would not avoid political activism, but they would become involved strictly on their own terms. While many espoused political liberation, they made it inseparable from deliverance from supernatural evil. The two terms are indeed related linguistically and often appear together in biblical texts, but the juxtaposition of the two thought-worlds of liberation and deliverance seems as baffling for many Euro-Americans as it is natural for Christians in the Global South.

The last part was obvious to me when I first went to study theology in England in 1966. The first essay I was asked to write was on “Jesus and the demons”, and when I had finished reading it to the college principal he said, “But you haven’t told me whether you think demons exist or not.” I replied that I didn’t think it was important. When you have been run over by a bus, you don’t think to ask philosophical questions about the existence of a bus. Coming from South Africa, I was aware of our conflict being against principalities and powers, which were bigger than Mr Vorster’s flesh and blood security police, but nevertheless inextricably linked with them. One of the things I find interesting is that this kind of thinking is beginning to penetrate Europe as well, if the film Pan’s labyrinth is anything to go by (see review in an earlier post). Whether the director is a Christian or not I don’t know, but his vision seems far more in tune with the South African experience of the 1960s than the Western secular theology of the 1960s ever was.

Actually Jenkins is a bit off the mark when he said “some western Christians have since the 1960s expected that the religion of their Third World brethren would be fervently liberal, activist, and even revolutionary, the model represented by liberation theology.” That kind of liberation theology only penetrated the consciousness of Western theologians in the 1970s. In the 1960s they were too busy uttering paeans of praise to the status quo. Liberal theology led to conservative politics and vice versa. As G.K. Chesterton put it: the modern young man will never change the world, for he will always change his mind. Western theologians were concerned to change their theology to fit the world, and the last thing on their minds was to change the world to fit any theological vision. They wanted a revolution in theology, not a theology of revolution.

But for the most part Jenkins gets it exactly right. Over the last 37 years the differences between Western and African Christianity have become clearer. Neither is monolithic, of course, and Jenkins points this out. But if we want to know what Christianity will be like in the 21st century, Africa rather than Europe or North America will be the model. One question, however, may be whether South Africa will continue to fit that model. South Africa is becoming increasingly secular. People have long said that South Africa is both “First World” and “Third World”. Outmoded as such Cold War terminology may be, there is nevertheless some truth in it.

The wind and the rain

I’ve been gradually cataloguing my books on the computer and while going though them came across one called The wind and the rain, described as an Easter book for 1962. My mother had bought it back then, and after her death it had sat on the shelf and I only looked at it quite recently.

It is an anthology of literary essays, fiction, poetry, drawings etc. About half of them were about Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit palaeontologist, whose books were much in vogue at the time (probably due for a comeback; they might inject some variety into the sterile “creation versus evolution” debates on Usenet and elsewhere). There was a poem about Corfe Castle, written by John Cooper Powys at the age of 12, a hitherto unpublished essay by Walter Bagehot on Tennyson’s Idylls of the king, and more.

What I liked best, however, was the opening paragraph of the introduction.

Editors must be born lucky. In 1940 The Wind and the rain was founded by a group of schoolboys whose ambition was to produce a quarterly that would ‘interpret the Christian Order in the light of current affairs, philosophy, literature and the arts’. Three attempts were made to print it on a hand press; all were abysmal failures, and eventually it was sent to some printers in Gloucestershire. The title proved lucky. A number of bookshops ordered copies in the belief that it was a reprint of a successful thirties farce about medical strudents. The copies sold out and they reordered more.

I rather liked the aim, and I could say that that is also the aim of this blog: to interpret the Christian Order in the light of current affairs, philosophy, literature and the arts — to which I would add, “and vice versa”.

I think I’ll steal it for the description.

The demonification of Serbia

There has been very little publicity in the Western media about the International Court of Juctice’s ruling that Serbia was not responsible for many of the war crimes that the Western media had accused, tried and convicted it of. Here is one of the exceptions.

Slobodan Milosevic was posthumously exonerated on Monday when the international court of justice ruled that Serbia was not responsible for the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica. The former president of Serbia had always argued that neither Yugoslavia nor Serbia had command of the Bosnian Serb army, and this has now been upheld by the world court in The Hague. By implication, Serbia cannot be held responsible for any other war crimes attributed to the Bosnian Serbs.

The Western Confucian asks whether Mr Clinton will soon be shipped off to the Hague to face trial. Or Messrs Blair and Bush, for that matter. There are also interesting comments here and here.

Nobody came out of the wars of the Yugoslav succession smelling of roses. Horrible atrocities were commited on all sides. But the attempts of Western politicans and the Western media to demonify the Serbs and lay all the blame on them must rank as one of the more disreputable spin attempts of the 20th century.

The situation was summed up rather well by Samuel Huntington, in his The clash of civilizations and the remaking of the world order:

The breakup of Yugoslavia began in 1991 when Slovenia and Croatia moved toward independence and pleaded with Western European powers for support. The response of the West was defined by Germany, and the response of Germany was in large part defined by the Catholic connection. The Bonn government came under pressure to act from the German Catholic hierarchy, its coalition partner the Christian Social Union Party in Bavaria, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and other media. The Bavarian media, in particular, played a crucial role in developing German public sentiment for recognition. ‘Bavarian TV’, Flora Lewis noted, ‘much weighed upon by the very conservative Bavarian government and the strong, assertive Bavarian Catholic Church which had close connections with the church in Croatia, provided the television reports for all of Germany when the war [with the Serbs] began in earnest. The coverage was very one-sided’… Germany pressured the European Union to recognise the independence of Slovenia and Croatia, and then, having secured that, pushed forward on its own to recognize them before the Union did in December 1991.

Austria and Italy promptly moved to recognize the two new states (1991) Slovenia and Croatia, after German recognition and pressure, and very quickly other Western countries, including the United States, followed. The Vatican also played a central role. The Pope declared Croatia to be the “rampart of Christianity,” and rushed to extend diplomatic recognition to the two states before the European Union did. The Vatican thus became a partisan in the conflict, which had its consequences in 1994 when the Pope planned visits to the three republics. Opposition by the Serbian Orthodox Church prevented his going to Belgrade, and Serb unwillingness to guarantee his security led to the cancellation of his visit to Sarajevo. He did go to Zagreb, however, where he honoured Cardinal Alojzieje Stepinac, who was asociated with the fascist Croatian regime in World War II that persecuted and slaughtered Serbs, Gypsies and Jews (Huntington 1998:282).

The Avenging Aardvark’s Aerie

It is nearly 10 years since I discovered the Avenging Aardvark’s Aerie on the Web.

It was full of all sorts of interesting and exciting ideas on theology and literature and other things I was interested in, and I got really excited about it, and wrote to the author, Ross Pavlac.

Unfortunately he had died the week before.

I was very sad, and felt a great loss of a friend I might have had.

Other friends of Ross Pavlac (1951-1997) have preserved his web pages, however, so that others can read them, even though they will never be updated. They seem to move from time to time, and every time I think I’ve lost them forever, I’ve managed to find them again. And fortunately the name is unique, so Google usually finds them.

If Ross Pavlac were alive today, he would no doubt have a blog and be on top of my blogroll.

Trapped in apartheid – South African churches

I’ve just been reading Charles Villa-Vicencio’s book Trapped in apartheid. It was published in 1988, so it’s now nearly 20 years old, so it is rather late to be reading it for the first time. It’s about another world, another aeon, and yet it was a time I lived through, and so some some of it seems familiar.

At this distance, Villa-Vicencio’s book must inevitably be read as a historical document. It is about what he calls “the English-speaking Churches” in South Africa, and their response to apartheid. The term “English-speaking Churches” itself has a strangely anachronistic feel. The “English-speaking Churches” are the Anglican (Church of the Province of Southern Africa), Methodist (Methodist Church of Southern Africa), Presbyterian, and Congregational (United Congregational Church in Southern Africa). In all of them, the majority of members are not English speaking, though the proceedings at their main administrative meetings were usually conducted in English — but so were those of other denominations, like the Baptists and the Assemblies of God and the Roman Catholics. What these four have in common is that they are all members of the Church Unity Commission, which has been seeking to unite them for the past 50 years or more.

What strikes me most strongly, reading the book at this distance in time, is how extraordinarily narrow it is. In tracing the response of these four denominations to apartheid, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, Villa-Vicencio ignores huge chunks of Christian experience, and gives a thoroughly distorted picture. I suppose part of the problem lies in his approach and methodology. He is writing from a sociotheological point of view. In one chapter he gives a historical suvey of the response of these churches to apartheid, but it is actually full of a-historical generalities that beg the question. It gives a sociological explanation for these denominations being “trapped in apartheid”, but very little historical evidence, beyond mere assertion, that they were actually trapped in apartheid.

That is not to say I necessarily disagree with his main thesis — I believe they were, to some extent, trapped in apartheid, but if the church history of that period is to be written, it will be very different from the partial picture painted by Villa-Vicencio. These comments of mine are perhaps the opposite of Villa-Vicencio’s. His are full of broad sociological generalisations, mine are full of personal anecdotes. But narrative theology is all the rage, or at least it was ten years ago.

On reading Charles Villa-Vicencio’s Trapped in apartheid I realise that two of the events in 1985 that he makes a great deal of hardly affected me at all at the time, and more or less passed me by. These were the Kairos document and A call to prayer for an end to unjust rule. I had heard of the Kairos document, but it hardly impinged on my consciousness at the time. I don’t recall hearing of the Call to prayer until I read his book.

Villa-Vicencio bases his main critique of the “English-speaking churches” on the Kairos document, and he said that their response to apartheid was “protest without resistance”. He examines it in three main areas: the response to Bantu Education, the armed struggle, and the campaign for disinvestment and economic sanctions.

Villa-Vicencio was rather scathing about the response of academics to the Kairos document, but I suspect that it was mainly academics who made it known and kept it alive. If university theology faculties had not given their students assignments and exam questions on the Kairos document over the next ten years or so, very few people would have heard of it.

Villa-Vicencio devotes a single paragraph to the Message to the people of South Africa, issued in 1968, noting that it “rejected apartheid as a pseudo-gospel, anticipating the 1982 ‘Apartheid is a Heresy’ resolution of the WARC by fourteen years.”

I believe that The Message to the people of South Africa had a far greater impact on “the English-speaking churches” than the Kairos document. It was preceded by a conference on pseudogospels, and one of the points made at the conference was that a pseudogospel is far worse than a heresy. It therefore went far beyond the resolution of the WARC (World Alliance of Reformed Churches) in its rejection of apartheid on theological grounds. It noted that a heresy is a wrong doctrine, or an incorrect formulation of a teaching on the Christian faith. While it might be technically in error, however, some heretical formulations could remain quite close to the dynamics of the true gospel. A pseudogospel, however, is a false offer of salvation, and is therefore much worse than a mere heresy.

I believe the “Message” had a greater impact than the Kairos document for several reasons. First, its formulation was a far more public thing, and involved a greater number of people. It was issued jointly by the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and the Christian Institute, both influential bodies among “the English-speaking churches”. The Kairos document was drawn up by a small group, and signed by a few more people, and issued in the name of a group of individuals who, while they might be respected, did not necessarily speak for any group.

Secondly, the “Message”marked a significant development in public Christian responses to apartheid. Most of the earlier criticisms of apartheid from Christian groups had been directed at the implementation rather than the ideology. In its implementation it caused injustice and unnecessary suffering. There was the implication that it would be all right if only it were humanely applied. If there was any criticism of the principles of apartheid, it was (as Villa-Vicencio points out) from a fairly general liberal point of view rather than a specifically theological one. The “Message” emphasised that not only was apartheid wrong in practice, but it was wrong in principle. It was not merely the implementation, but the ideology, that was so utterly opposed to the Christian faith as to be not merely a heresy, but a false gospel.

The third thing is perhaps the most important, and is something that deserves further analysis. It supports Villa-Vicencio’s conclusion, but an analysis of it may give a better reason for why “the English-speaking chruches” failed to move from protest to resistance. This third thing was that the publication of the Message was followed by several meetings at which the formation of “obedience to God” groups was discussed. These groups would be centres of Christian resistance, and the nucleus of a confessing church. The idea never really took off, however, mainly because of the reluctance of the Christian Institute, which had been attacked by the Dutch Reformed Churches as a schismatic new denomination. Bishop Bill Burnett, the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, said that because of his position he could not lead such a movement, but if nobody else tried to get it going, he might consider doing so.

Eleven years later, in 1979, Bill Burnett was the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, and thus president of the Anglican Provincial Synod, and he threw down the gauntlet of a similar challenge to the Synod meeting in Grahamstown. This too is not mentionewd by Villa-Vicencio, but goes right to the heart of his contention, and if it is to be analysed historically then Burnett’s two challenges should be considered.

There was a rather long and waffling motion being debated by the Synod about the permits that the government required the church to apply for. Bill Burnett spoke from the chair, saying that he disliked having to apply for permits, but he thought it was part of his role in keeping the institutional church going. He was quite prepared to see the institutional church die, and if that was what synod really wanted him to do, he would do it. It was a challenge to the synod to “think sect”, based on the same kind of thinking as in the earlier “Obedience to God” movement. It was a challenge to the synod to move beyond passing resolutions, and to actually act on its principles. The synod failed to meet the challenge, and Bill Burnett retired before the next one met.

The press picked it up, and if the synod had not resolved to play it safe, it might have been a very different story. There was no resolution to this effect that was minuted. Burnett’s direct challenge was met by embarrassed silence and evasion; and at that moment the synod, black members as well as white, showed itself to be indeed trapped in apartheid. Burnett had opened to door a chink, but the church did not want to escape from the trap.

There are a few other things, not mentioned by Villa-Vicencio, that may possibly have played a role in the response of “the English-speaking churches”.

One was the charismatic renewal movement, which swept through “the English-speaking churches” in the 1970s and 1980s.It actually started among black Anglicans in the 1940s, but did not have a significant impact on whites in these churches until the lat 1960s and early 1970s. Villa-Vicencio fails to mention it at all, and infact there has been very little study of it by church historians.

An event that also had a considerable effect on “the English-speaking churches” was the South African Christian Leadership Assembly (SACLA) in 1979. This was a gathering of some 5000 people, mainly from “the English-speaking churches” in Pretoria. As far as I know its effects have not been studied, and Villa-Vicencio ignored it.

Another thing ignored by Villa-Vicencio is the National Initiative for Reconciliation, which appeared on the scene about the same time as the Kairos document (and for a while the South African government confused the two). It was a response to apartheid; though it differed from the approach of the Kairos document, it probably involved a larger number of people. Villia-Vicencio’s book would have been more complete, and perhaps more convincing, if he had compared them.

And finally, an anecdote.

According to Villa-Vicencio, there was a Call for prayer against unjust rule on 16 June 1985. I never heard of it. The 16th June 1985 was a Sunday, and at that time I was an Anglican. The Revd Alphaeus Ndebele and I had been licenced as assistant priests in the parish of St Francis, Mamelodi East. The reason for this was that we were involved in an outreach mission in KwaNdebele, the newest “homeland” and resettlement area, and that the priest at St Francis, David Aphane, had started. We were there because the parish was seen by the diocese as a base for mission and outreach.

That was not how the parish saw it, however. That Sunday the parish annual vestry meeting was held after the service. The parish council was reelected en bloc. The churchwarden announced that Alphaeus Ndebele and I had been sent there because their priest had just been given extra duties as an archdeacon, so we were there to “help in the parish” because of that. Nothing could have been further from his mind than outreach in KwaNdebele. And the Call for prayer to end unjust rule didn’t even appear on the radar screen.

St Francis was in a black township where there was quite a lot of resistance at that time, and several people were shot at one gathering. But this impinged hardly at all on the parish and its vestry meeting.

The story of “the English-speaking churches” being trapped in apartheid is a lot more complex and nuanced than Villa-Vicencio seems to think.

Hanging Saddam Hussein and loving enemies

Hanging Saddam Hussein will do as much for Iraq as hanging P.W. Botha would have done for South Africa — see my earlier post: Notes from underground: What to do with old dictators.

Pastor Phil Wyman makes some interesting points on treating people as enemies in his blog Square No More: Those Who Pray Together Slay Together.

In the recent obituaries on Gerald Ford, the former US president, it seems that for many the biggest mistake he made was pardoning Richard Nixon.

St Paul warns us (in Eph 6:10-12) that our struggle is not against blood and flesh, but against principalities and powers, against spiritual forces of wickedness. Hanging oppressors does not get rid of oppression. Yet we persist in thinking that we are fighting against flesh and blood, and so the cycle of vengeance continues.

It appears the US president George Bush wants Saddam Hussein to hang — but if Bush is ever brought to trial for his war crimes, will there be any to plead for him to be pardoned?

I have heard that at the war crimes trials of Nazi leaders at Nuremburg one of the difficulties faced by the court was convincing the accused that they were not on trial for losing the war, but for starting it. That Bush would lose the war in Iraq was a foregone conclusion; his crime was starting it in the first place.

PW Botha, so far as I know, went to his death unrepentant. Would hanging him have made things better? Did Jesus make loving enemies conditional on their repentance? It seems to me that in demanding vengeance we demonstrate that we have been infected by the same virus as those we seek to kill. Killing people does not kill the virus, it just causes it to seek a new host. And the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenlies behave very much like viruses in that respect — C.S. Lewis called them “macrobes” rather than “microbes”.

People with secular values find this difficult to understand. They believe it is letting people off the hook, denying responsibility, and letting them get away with it using the excuse “The devil made me do it.” But for Christians that excuse doesn’t wash. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” That is the real spiritual warfare — resisting the devil when he tempts us, and especially when he tempts us with the relatively undemanding exercise of confessing other people’s sins and ignoring our own.

Orthodoxy and Liberation Theology

When I posted my response to the quiz on theological worldviews in my LiveJournal, I pointed out that quite a lot of theological worldviews were missing from the list, including Orthodoxy and Liberation theology.

Someone asked for my views on Liberation Theology, and so I decided to put an article I had written on the subject some years ago on the web. If anyone is interested, it is Orthodoxy and Liberation Theology.

Comments are welcome, either on the message forum linked to the article, or here.

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