”Course You Know, THIS Means War!” (Happy birthday, Robert)

leghorn warI’m writing this in honor of my older son’s 24th birthday today. I’m not sure he always realizes how important his birth is to me, and how much I respect and appreciate him in spite of all of the things that may have come between us over the years.

As I tell my friends, my son is a drill sergeant in the Finnish Army up in Lapland. He seems to find that fulfilling on a number of different levels, and I’m quite satisfied that he’s found that sort of career satisfaction for the time being at least. There was a time that he contemplated becoming a theologian as well, but for various reasons he thought the better of it. Even so, he remains interested in religious matters, though he avoids debating these things with me directly.

This can be seen in the Facebook status he posted yesterday, in Finnish, quoting from the controversial recent speech given by Finland’s Minister of the Interior and “Christian Democratic Party” chair person, Päivi Räsänen. To quote Robert in full, (in my own translation into English):

“I don’t understand what the problem is here. ‘…the situation where officials forbade the apostles to preach about Jesus…’ was an example of illegal activity. If the law forbids this, then you can certainly break that law.”

In complete respect for his perspective, I do actually understand what the problem is here, and I’d be happy to explain it. I can readily picture Robert saying, “No, that’s OK,” but I’ll do it anyway. For me it’s a matter of “doing what I do” this time in honor of my son. And not only will I try to explain what I see as the problem in this matter, but I’ll go on to briefly explain what I would like to see those my son is in fellowship with do in terms of moving in the direction of solving this problem. Of course this isn’t “Thus sayeth the LORD.” This is just a fatherly perspective which happens to coincide with my current doctoral studies. It is inevitably imperfect, and if Robert or anyone else would like to address those imperfections, I would be happy to take their council in return.

Courtesy of the newspaper Savon Sanomat

Courtesy of the newspaper Savon Sanomat

First of all, in terms of agreement with Robert, Mrs. Räsänen and the Book of Acts in the New Testament, I would absolutely defend the principle that any law which is intended to silence one’s freedom of religion, and people’s freedom to express their religious convictions in the public forum even, is a bad law, which deserves to be broken. According to a recent report I’ve seen, of all the most populous countries in the world, the ones which do the best at practically respecting this human right to freedom of religion are Brazil and South Africa. I have close friends from and strong sympathies with both nations in this regard, and I believe that the United States, Russia, China, Western Europe and the Arab nations could learn much from their positive example.

But that’s not really the point that Mrs. Räsänen was driving at. Where she was going with her speech was in trying to convince religiously conservative Finns to join in with what in the United States is being referred to as “the culture wars”. In particular she is trying to create political momentum in the direction of being more restrictive of abortion services and less publicly accepting of homosexuality.

The speech in question begins with a nostalgic bemoaning of the pattern of secularization, church property being sold off due to its low usage rate, and the church losing its cultural influence in Finland overall. This she sees as a problem because, “Churches and Christian organizations have had a far greater influence on the stability, safety and economy of our society than is commonly thought.  The foundations of child welfare, respect for human value and human rights, as well as other aspects of our legislation and civil culture are strongly based on the picture of humanity brought in by Christianity. Honesty, our work ethic and respect for authority are prerequisites for our receiving tax income on the basis of which our welfare can be maintained. Stable families, lasting marriages and responsible parenthood are preconditions for the development of children and young people.” The implication being, the less Godly people are, the more all of this come under threat.

This is contrasted with a culture of hedonism, in which sex and drugs and rock and roll overcome the fear of God, where young people’s lives fall apart for lack of a spiritual focal point. The statistics used to shock the righteous here are that over half of Finland’s first-born children are born outside of wedlock, and each year Finland has 24,000 marriages and 14,000 divorces. To protect us against these trends we need to go back to literal respect for the first chapter of the Bible: mankind is made in the image of God, and marriage must always be between one man and one woman.

At this point, rather than trying to back up this weak assertion, Mrs. Räsänen goes for comic relief –– telling of how when she had her last child, her then 2-year-old daughter requested that the following new family member Mommy would bring into the world would be a kitten. The Minister then asserts that those who don’t follow her biblical literalist standards are just as silly as her young daughter was back in the day. From there she goes into a rant against abortion based rather closely on American “Religious Right” materials (which I responded to here last fall). From there she moves on to an argument against Finland moving closer to the Dutch/Swiss model regarding euthanasia and assisted suicide, concluding with the argument, “Calls for euthanasia are the fruit of the value collapse of our time. A culture of superficial hedonism drives people to retreat from life’s limitations into death. If life’s purpose is defined in terms of seeking pleasure, the limitations caused by sickness or disability appear to destroy the meaning of life. These days it is difficult to accept that weakness and suffering are part of life.”

There’s a lot that can be said in opposition to all that, but the basic issue comes down to one of asking, how far are we justified in telling other people that they have to suffer because our religious convictions say that’s what they have coming to them, and on that basis they’re not allowed to do anything about it? If we get beyond that issue then the next question is whether or not that is really the (only) proper understanding of the Christian message here, but I won’t open that particular can of worms this time. Suffice to say, Dostoevsky’s fictitious speculation about all things being permissible if God is dead does not strictly speaking hold true philosophically speaking, nor does it provide a valid justification for civil law being based strictly on religious principles.

Mrs. Räsänen’s sermon goes on to depict Peter Singer’s philosophy of sentience having more moral significance than intra-species loyalty as the major antithesis to a Christian moral perspective. She concludes her polemic on this particular matter with the theologically unconfirmed statement, “The message of the cross is nonsense if human life is not sacred and human value unconditional.” As powerful as the message of the cross is in reinforcing our understanding of each person’s value before God, however, there is nothing about assuming that terminally ill people have the right to choose to die, or that the presence of an eternal soul in a first trimester human embryo is somewhat questionable, which nullifies the message of the cross.

Her next argument is to say that heterosexual matrimony is the only context in which child raising is a legitimate process. “Sex differences, manhood and womanhood are […] a significant part of the Christian image of humanity. Marriage has a special place within this Christian image of humanity in that it is the only union between people that was established in the creation.” On this basis all political efforts to have homosexual relationships recognized as legitimate, on the same level as heterosexual relationships, must be anti-Christian.

This is a very personal issue for some, so I think it is fair for me to state my perspective on the matter in very personal terms: My sons know that I am quite strictly heterosexual myself, and that I have been what is properly called a serial monogamist. I set out to live by biblical standards, but after their mother chose not to live by a shared commitment to such standards and abandoned our marriage, I found those standards rather impossible to maintain, as much as I wished to do so for the sake of my children. But from a biblical perspective then, regardless of my good intentions, I am a far greater sinner than any homosexual. There are far more verses condemning divorce and sexuality without deep personal commitment than there are verses condemning homosexuality as such. Nor can I, by any stretch of the imagination, say that any of my gay friends are in any way to blame for the marriage crises I have seen and gone through; nor that their sexual orientation would automatically make them worse parents than many heterosexual parents I know. Thus the categorical stigmatization of their sexuality which Mrs. Räsänen contributes to in her speech is unacceptable to me. The rest is details.

The Minister moved her sermon towards a close with an anecdote of a prostitute who had become a believer and who felt rather guilty for her profession being against God’s will (another factor that has had absolutely nothing to do with my experiences of the breakdown of family life). On this basis Mrs. Räsänen wants all sin to be acknowledged as such, so that sinners can come before God (preferably by way of his ecclesiastical representatives) to beg for forgiveness. It is from there that she went into her citation of the apostles’ preference to “obeying God rather than men.”

In terms of the original context of the verses in question, however, I believe she rather misses their point. The apostles were not trying to set standards by which non-believers would be required to live; they were trying to survive in an extremely hostile environment in which their value system was subjected to all sorts of unfair stereotypes, in which things eventually got so bad for them that it literally became part of the government program to invite people to watch Christians being killed just for the entertainment value of it. Trying to compromise and get along with such a governmental system, as a political strategy, was a bit of a non-starter.

Does that mean that Christianity cannot coexist with any strong form of central government? Of course not! At one point, in fact, the Apostle Paul himself made a gesture towards peaceful coexistence with the powers that be. After starting out the book of Romans with a bit of a homophobic rant against the leaders of Roman civil society –– God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. …so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. (Romans 1:26-29) –– and from there having written a particularly long letter in which he went through issues of the dynamics of God’s forgiveness, his own personal guilt complexes, and the role of the Jewish nation in the big picture of things, Paul sets out to close the book in as conciliatory a way as possible. Thus he starts chapter 13 with advice to show the greatest possible loyalty to these civil authorities:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. (verses 1-3)

In historical context this turned out not to be particularly trustworthy advice: doing “what is right” provided no guarantee that Christians would be treated fairly by the Roman rulers over the next couple of centuries. Yet in one sense this passage does offer valuable advice all the same: If you operate on the assumption that those in authority are in fact on the side of the right –– evil, greedy and depraved as they may be –– you have a lot less to fear and you have a lot better chances of living in peace with them than if you automatically consider yourselves to be in a continuous state of war with the powers that be.

The question then is, how can we apply the various teachings of the Bible regarding political perspectives –– with their varying historical contexts and strategic backgrounds –– to the context of a pluralistic liberal democracy in which we now find ourselves? Face it: our current world political situation was never envisioned by any of the writers of the Bible. Nowhere in the scripture is there the remotest consideration of how the people of God should vote if they are faced with choices in municipal elections between those who demand more just treatment for the poor and those who demand stricter punishments of the promiscuous. Both sorts of priorities can be justified on the basis of various biblical teachings, but the nowhere does it say directly how things should be prioritized if we are given a choice between the two. The possibility of our current situation arising –– the idea that these things might someday be decided by the collective will of a mixed body of voters, including both believers and non-believers –– never occurred to the apostles and prophets.

Nor is there specific direction in scripture as to what to do in the case where a large group who identify themselves as followers of Christ would attempt to seize the reins of power for their own moral cause and fail. Should they pack up and try to find a more righteous place to live? Should they try to stage a coup and take over the government by force? Or should they just “suck it up” and get on with life as best they can? Over the centuries believers have found justifications for considering each of these reactions to be their proper “Christian responsibility”. I believe there can be a time and place for each, and they need to be considered very carefully (and prayerfully) before we move forward with the more radical solutions in particular. I can accept the sincerity of those promoting any of these solutions in any given situation, though not necessarily their understanding of scripture nor their practical strategic, political intelligence.

Another acquaintance of mine recently posted a link to a Christian political blog entitled “The War We Are In,” promoting a particularly adversarial stance in which Christians are called upon to see all unbelievers and all Muslims in particular as “the enemy!” According to this perspective, “Throughout its 2,000 year history, hostile governments have sought to eradicate Christianity, or at least subvert it for its [sic] own purposes and subsume it under its own rule.” Thus a siege mentality where, “this longstanding struggle between state supremacy and the supremacy of God” in which “secular liberalism is a political religion which cannot peacefully coexist with Christianity” forms the backdrop for all political action among those who are considered to be properly believing Christians. In particular the author there claims that the premise for examining the “political philosophy of the last 500 years,” should be that “separation of state and religion was first championed by Christianity. Before that the two were closely fused.”

So Christianity brought about the separation between the state and religion. Now what religion was it that had been so closely connected with the state before that? Oh, right…

In order to build this heroic narrative of struggle of the true church against the state, writers like Bill Muehlenberg and Benjamin Wiker –– who are responsible for the blog in question –– need to label many of those who have operated within political systems in the name of Christianity as not being “true Christians,” but rather part of the evil “statist” system oppressing their faith. This is not to say that during the Medieval Period, and thereafter, those forces which claimed to be representing Christianity were particularly sincere in doing so. A lot of rather distinctively non-Christian stuff –– reflecting more of a crude lust for wealth and power than respect for the teachings of Jesus –– has been done in the name of expanding Christian political influence. The problem is that this situation really hasn’t improved much over the past 500 years. It doesn’t take too close a reading of the history of Constantine the Great, Charlemagne, the Borgias, Henry VIII, Pius IX, Ralph Reed or the Koch brothers to see such a trend running from the earliest days of Christianity’s official state acceptance to our present era. And these are the forces which have presented themselves as the Christian alternative to the evils of a more secular government!

These are the forces with which Mrs. Räsänen has been aligning herself. If these “Christian” politicians were to be honest about the matter they would have to say, “We have seen the enemy, and we are them.”

In the case of US politics, starting during the Reagan years (when I first moved to Finland), the Religious Right, in all of its various incarnations, has served primarily as a means of reducing the power of government to protect the poor and the natural environment from the interests of the wealthy and the corporate elite. Fighting against abortion and homosexuality has been their rallying call, but while reducing human sexuality as far as possible to just “legitimate” potential baby-making might be their official agenda, the concrete change in society which they have brought about has been to create “the Walmart generation.” In the process of providing cheap products and driving their smaller competitors out of business, businesses in the United States no longer have to pay their full-time workers enough to actually live off of. Employees can be treated as disposable commodities. Consequently the gap between the rich and the poor has grown far beyond the proportions seen in the works of Charles Dickens. The bankrupt city of Detroit is the current poster child for this dilemma.

I believe that the proper job of civil government is not so much to provide moral guardianship for the population –– keeping people from having sex in unacceptable ways, as Mrs. Räsänen and her exemplars in the American Religious Right seem to be primarily worried about –– but rather to protect the human rights of those governed. These rights include the right to private property, the right to freely choose their own religious paths, the right to speak freely about their personal convictions, the right to have the sort of education that enables them to really know what is going on in the world around them, the right of private individuals to have a say in governmental processes, and the right not to be treated as slaves.

Ideally these rights should be restricted only as far as is necessary to keep their exercise from being used to take away the rights of other people. This is particularly important in the case of religion being used as a political tool. Would-be theocracies in countries like Iran and Afghanistan are not the only ones who try to reject the rights of those who religiously disagree with them in the name of “doing things according to God’s rules rather than man’s rules.” In fact Mrs. Räsänen’s rhetoric –– again picked up from her American exemplars –– comes eerily close to the ayatollahs’ self-justification.

My political interests are not in allowing those who nominally support the same religious brand that I do to have as much power as possible, but to do what I can as an individual “person of faith” to support the sort of government that respects and supports not only my personal human rights but the human rights of all those Jesus called “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” (Matthew 25:40). Rather than getting sucked into American style “pelvic politics”, I would hope that European Christian would share this sort of political emphasis on human rights.

lapland 023And beyond all of this I just want to say to my son, Robert, I love you, and whether we agree on these matters or not I hope you never forget that or have reason to doubt it. Happy Birthday.

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Filed under Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Religion

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