(part 5 in a series on Christian hope in an age of Pax Americana)
Now we come to the bottom line of this series. How should we respond to the new global realities, as followers of Jesus Christ who taught his disciples to turn the other cheek, to seek justice not revenge, to overcome evil with good, to become servants of all, to love their enemies, and not to lord it over others as the gentiles did?
What is the specifically Christian hope – not European or American or Western, but Christian hope – in this age dominated by American military might and cultural imperialism? And what specific dangers and opportunities face us in the wake of Gulf War 2?
How can we be the face of hope, the people of hope?
Huge questions – but here are just a few suggested responses:
1. DISTINGUISH CHRISTIAN HOPE FROM THE HOPES OF MODERNITY
Ancient Romans aspired for a Golden Age. Today secular Americans and Europeans alike dream of a world without conflict, of freedom, of eternal peace – whether subdued by American power or moved towards in ‘ever-increasing union’. Francis Fukuyama prophesied this future when he proclaimed the end of history had been reached after the Berlin Wall fell. The one and only rival to capitalism and liberal democracy had collapsed.
But the American dream is not the end Christians anticipate. Christian hope expects the coming of God’s reign/rule/kingdom/shalom in increasing measure (e.g. Isaiah 9:7; Daniel 2: 32; Habakkuk 2:14; Matthew 6:9) and yet recognises the ongoing strife between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘wheat’ and ‘tares’, right until the end (Matthew 13:24-30). The 20th century illustrates this strife having been at once the best and worst century ever – in terms of the spread of the church in all sorts of cultures on the one hand, and gross and inhuman suffering through wars and genocide on the other.
“Good” is not to be identified with any particular nation-state, but only that of the realm of God’s rule, destined to be established among every people group, according to God’s promise to Abraham.
The hopes of modernity are based on a beatitude which says, “blessed are those who are rich, for theirs is heaven on earth; blessed are the aggressive, for they shall dominate the earth…”
Let us not confuse our gospels.
2. EXAMINE OUR ATTITUDES; BROADEN OUR PERSPECTIVES
The situation and events around Iraq have created division worldwide – within family, churches, organisations, communities and populations. Perhaps we might find it wisest simply to avoid talking about it. Yet issues have been raised that will not go away quickly. Many ethical dilemmas and questions have been thrust into the open, and we as Christians must grapple with them. We won’t come to full agreement perhaps, but by wrestling with these questions we’ll come to understand what our conscience requires of us. The discipline of simply writing these columns on this topic has helped me think through some of the questions, and I certainly claim no infallible wisdom in what I have shared.
But we do need to learn to listen to those voices we may not normally hear. The horrifying experience of terrorism on American soil has brought home to millions of Americans what it is like to live in a land where terrorism reigns. We need to allow our perspectives to be broadened – by reading some of the history of the Middle East, about the Crusades and why Moslems view Christians as ruthless mercenaries. We need to read other books, international magazines, newspapers, and visit websites that take us out of our comfort zones.
We need to ask what is God’s heart for the Moslem world? Do Arabs belong to the promise of Joel 2, that the Spirit will be poured out on “all flesh”? Of course they do. We need to pray towards that end.
We should be prepared to be the voice of conscience, a prophetic voice, a Christian counter-culture daring to go against the stream if necessary, as did Francis of Assisi when he oppposed the Crusader mentality in the 13th century. We must wrestle with how to be patriotic and loyal without being nationalistic; maintaining a broader Kingdom-perspective. But be warned. This could be uncomfortable. We could be misunderstood and even rejected by loved ones.
In our mission strategies, it will often be helpful to copy Paul’s example of multicultural teams (see Acts 20:1-3), mixing Americans, Europeans and non-westerners as we travel in sensitive areas, to send a signal that the Gospel is not an American message, not a western imposition on the non-western world. It is a universal message for all peoples. We must develop other sensitivities and wisdom to know how to relate to Moslem cultures.
We should look for opportunities to reach out to moslems and refugees in our own neighbourhoods, extending friendships at a time when foreigners in our western lands feel very vulnerable.
3. AFFIRM CONSTRUCTIVE GLOBALISATION; RESIST DESTRUCTIVE GLOBALISATION
Globalisation is shrinking our world and increasing our interdependency and interconnectedness. In YWAM, for example, it means we can join together from two or more continents via technology for teaching, worship or intercession with our GENESIS links. It means we are much more aware of cultures in lands we perhaps have never visited, and news reaches us instantaneously – including the destruction of the Twin Towers in real time before our eyes. There are positive aspects of globalisation that we can celebrate as God’s people, joined around the world. Globalisation has opened up mission opportunities undreamed of by former generations. Globalisation enables us to rise above our nationalism and denominationalism as we become aware of other perspectives and other movements, and hear about God at work outside of our circle.
Globalisation is helping us to see the big picture, to think more strategically, to be aware of greatest need and deployment of resources. Globalisation is enabling more people in our churches to be exposed to the world of missions. Email, mobile phones, satellite television, laptops, more accessible airfares have shrunken the world further – at least for those missionaries belonging to the wealthier sector of humanity (which will include most of us reading this email).
Aye, and there’s the rub. For globalisation does not benefit all, despite the ‘trickle-down’ theory. Many are being left behind. And the least-reached of this world belong to the poorest and most adversely-affected. Many observers see the gap between rich and poor widening, and that the collapse of communism has allowed a more ruthless capitalism to emerge. Samuel Escobar is one who believes that Christian compassion will be the only hope of survival for victims of the global economic process. He also believes that God’s work will be accomplished through globalisation – and in spite of it.
4. BEWARE A NEW CONSTANTINIANISM:
When Rome was the world’s sole superpower, what was good for Rome was seen to be good for the world. After Constantine became emperor and embraced Christianity, many Christians viewed him as God’s Millennial Man. Persecution gave way to the Kingdom of God on earth in the form of the Holy Roman Empire. Paul had promised that those who suffered with Christ would also reign with him. Here now was their chance! Pax Romana had culminated in the kingdom of God. The Christian Caesar was the image on earth of the one pancrator in heaven. He had a divine mandate to subjugate the nations and bring them into the kingdom, imposing on them the gift of the Latin language and culture.
Pax Americana brings with it the temptation to confuse similarly the empire and the Kingdom. Theologians and philosophers have long been concerned about the influence of American civil religion on presidential rhetoric from Washington onwards. The founding fathers, accor
ding to sociologist Robert Bellah, were strongly influenced by the French philosopher Jean-Jacqu
es Rousseau, whose writings
became the ‘Bible’ of the French Revolution. Rousseau, an admirer of pagan Rome, believed some sort of belief in a God, and rejection of religious intolerance, to be essential for the smooth running of a state. Thomas Jefferson wanted the Great Seal of the United States to picture the Israelites, ‘led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night’. George Washington saw each stage of the process of independence ‘distinguished by some token of providential agency’. Civil religion viewed America as the pinnacle of democratic institutions and their highest expression in a providential history. America’s manifest destiny was to be a light to the nations. Her divine mandate was expressed on every dollar bill bearing the promise of ‘The New World Order’.
Yet such a civil religion is essentially idolatrous, unbiblical, anti-Christian and a distortion of original Puritan ideas, say theologians like Herbert Richardson. We referred in the first part of this series to the Latin inscription ‘E Pluribus Unum’ on the dollar note – ‘from many, one’, and remarked on its parallel with the Church. America truly is a remarkable country of immigrants from all nations of the world – but is this the embodiment of Christian hope? Many books have been written about Europe, the Beast, the revival of the Holy Roman Empire, and so on. But is it not also pertinent to ask if the New World Order is to be an American empire?
Whether consciously or not, civil religion is alive and well in the rhetoric of President Bush, as when announcing victory to his troops in Iraq on May 1: “Wherever you go, you carry a message of hope – a message that is ancient and ever new. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘To the captives, “come out,” and to those in darkness, “be free”.'” Again, in mid-June, he quotes Woodrow Wilson: “America has a spiritual energy in her which no other nation can contribute to the liberation of mankind.”
Listen too to Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in his December 2001 farewell mayoral speech, two months after the infamous attack on his city: “All that matters is that you embrace America and understand its ideals and what it’s all about. Abraham Lincoln used to say that the test of your Americanism was … how much you believed in America. Because we’re like a religion really. A secular religion.”
Writing about this in The Guardian last week (29.07.03), George Monbiot said it was not just that the Americans were God’s chosen people; America itself was now perceived as a divine project. “The United States of America no longer needs to call upon God; it is God, and those who go abroad to spread the light do so in the name of a celestial domain. The flag has become as sacred as the Bible; the name of the nation as holy as the name of God. The presidency is turning into a priesthood. The US has a divine mission, as Bush suggested in January: ‘to defend … the hopes of all mankind’, and woe betide those who hope for something other than the American way of life.”
Too strong? Maybe. Much needs to be said for the positive role America has played in the world in the 20th century. But as a movement so closely linked to the current US presidency, evangelicalism needs to take this warning seriously.
5. SEEK A TRULY BIBLICAL ALTERNATIVE
Is there really no alternative to socialism or capitalism, as Fukuyama assumes? Dr Michael Schluter of the Jubilee Centre in Cambridge, England, disagrees. A former economist with the World Bank, Dr Schluter talks of Relationism, a view of society based on Jesus’ summary of the Law: Love God, and your neighbour as yourself. We’ll take a closer look at this in a future w e e k l y w o r d.
To illustrate how much we all have been brainwashed by the vision of modernity and prosperity, Dr Schluter often asks his audiences to think, there and then, of a poor nation. Most people think of a country in Africa, Asia, or the Caribbean. Most of us think about poverty in terms of economics. Now, he says, think of a nation that is poor relationally – where the average marriage lasts 7-9 years. Now the answers are different. Now we’re describing America and England!
It is time to recover ground abdicated long ago to secular economists and politicians. Is the gospel a message of hope for life here and now – or only for the hereafter? Was the law of Moses designed for life in heaven or life on earth? Was the teaching of Jesus on money, stewardship, relationships, reaping and sowing all about the afterlife or earthly life?
Too often, our orthodoxy has best been summed up as “Sola Scripture – in vacuo”. We can believe all the right doctrines but never expect to apply them to the daily world in which we live. We have been guilty of allowing the vacuum in society to be filled with non-biblical worldviews. Yet the church, says J√ºrgen Moltmann, is to be an arrow sent out into the world to point the way to the future. So what is our vision of that future? How does it differ from the American dream? To which future do we point the world? Or can we only point to the past?
Christian hope, continues Moltmann, will not allow us to settle for the status quo:
Hope causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience.
It does not calm the unquiet heart in man.
Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is,
but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it.
Peace with God means conflict with the world,
for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.
6. WATCH THE ‘MARGINS’
Luke chapter 3 verse 1, set in a contemporary context, could read: “When George Bush junior was in the White House, Tony Blair resided in No 10 Downing St, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder waved the sceptre over the National Assembly and the Bundestag respectively, and John Paul II was still the pope in Rome, the word of the Lord came to John, Zechariah’s son, in the Arabian desert (or the African jungle, or the Indian rice paddies, or the Siberian steppes, or the Amazon waterway…) !!!
Our God is a God of surprises. TIME magazine got it right when it announced that God was back in Europe in surprising places: on the fringes, outside of the mainstream, among the immigrants. That’s our God! He is not as impressed with the corridors of power as are we. When Constantine took over in Rome, God broke out with new life among the desert fathers of Egypt, catalysing the monastic missions movement that would transform the people groups of Europe.
Over the past decade or two, the centre of gravity of the worldwide church has shifted from north to south and west to east. The most dynamic church life in the world is found in Latin America and Asia and Africa. While the world’s media is in the pockets of western magnates, such realities don’t often reach our consciousness. Meanwhile, even liberal theologians like Philip Jenkins, author of ‘The Next Christendom’ (Oxford), are waking up to the spiritual tsunami that is building in the so-called non-western world. Christianity is flourishing wonderfully among the poor and persecuted, he says, while it atrophies among the rich and secure. Considering Christianity as a global reality helps us see the whole religion in a radically new perspective – as if we are rediscovering primitive Christianity. Such vital Christianity is obviously not a product of the American dream. True Christian hope seems to be springing forth from the poor in spirit, the persecuted, the mourning, the dispossessed.
Just because the media constantly brings the comings and goings of western leaders into our living rooms, that doesn’t mean that in God’s view these are the most important people on earth. Yes, our God is the God of surprises.
Watch this space.
7. REMEMBER WHO’S BOSS
When war first broke out in Iraq, I suggested in a w e e k l y w o r d [ “Wei
ghty Questions”, Mar 31 ] that our priorities should be:
1. to maintain the unity of
the Spirit, agreeing to disagree if necessary;
2. to keep the main thing the main thing – to pray for God’s kingdom to come, to seek God’s kingdom first, and go and disciple the nations in God’s ways;
3. to bring our big questions to the Throne, and
4. to remember Who really is the Superpower in this world.
So let us once again, in the words of Saddam’s forefather, Nebuchadnezzar, affirm our Christian hope in the One whose…
“dominion is an everlasting dominion
And his kingdom endures from generation to generation
And all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing
But he does according to his will in the host of heaven
And among the inhabitants of the earth
And no one can ward off his hand or say to him, what have you done?”
Next week I’ll share some of the feedback from this series to encourage further dialogue. Please feel free to let me know your thoughts.
So till then,
Till next week,