Friday, February 29, 2008

Democracy Watch

These days a plethora of images revealing the state of democracy worldwide are staring us in the face. I am far from a political scientist, no pundit of all these power-broker dynamics, and about to comment on systems and cultures that are diverse beyond imagination. Hence, these thoughts are presented for our thoughtful and Christian discernment humbly, perhaps presumptuously, but wholeheartedly nonetheless.
Image #1 – The White House Sweepstakes
As a Canadian observing our friends in the world’s current Empire work their way toward the crowning of a new Emperor I am struck by the sheer simplicity and complexity of it all. Watching home-based caucuses in Iowa consisting of Skeeter and his cousins given as prominent a role on CNN as a University polling station is remarkable…and strangely intriguing. At the same time, candidates spend hundreds of millions of dollars promoting their image and a smattering of their vision over and against the in-party enemy causing one to wonder if this isn’t simply a grade school popularity contest on steroids (oh, sorry, that’s baseball). And then there is the dainty dance between the political and the religious. Again, as a citizen of the Great White North, it amazes me to see candidates of both American parties speaking in churches on Sunday mornings with as much ease as they do at the union gathering on Monday. In Canadian society such a move would be outright political suicide. In Canada politicians have to closet their religion – especially if it is Christian – and lock the door to remain credible. For all the talk of the separation of church and stat both appear keenly jealous of each other under Uncle Sam’s watchful eye (the First Amendment, by the way, seems quite misunderstood in the USA – at least to this Canuck – and misapplied in Canada, where the constitutional clause doesn’t even exist and yet we love to claim it as a popular Canadian “value”). The White House sweepstakes, for all its peculiarities, seems to reveal that the interests of the democratic state and religion are inescapably linked…or are they?
Image #2 – Eastern Experimentation
Some of the most recent experiments in western democracy are observable in Eastern locales. Places like Pakistan, where assassinating the opposition is one way to make your point; Iraq, where the long, hard road to a new world order is daunting at best even with the dictator six feet under, and Russia, where a President completes his full term and then finds a way in through the back door to hold on to Czar-like power, reveal that planting democracy – at least the western version of it – in lands with different histories and cultural thought patterns is like trying to teach your weathered hound dog to beg like a toy poodle. We are in the midst of – are you ready for it – a long term experiment in democratic global domination; what if it doesn’t work? Have we hitched our horses to a wagon designed for paved roads and now we’re in the gumbo of the prairies in a downpour? And, for the Church, has our identity become so linked to this political vision that we’ve lost our own distinct mission and prophetic song with which to love and embrace these peoples who are so different and yet so similar to ourselves?
Image #3 – Kenyan Chaos
December 2007 democratic elections in Kenya, a relatively stable and predominately “Christian” African nation, really didn’t go well. Fourteen years after Rwanda we sit teetering on the brink of another tribal disaster fed by imperial and tribal colonialism, monarchy, and now democracy. It’s all mercilessly hodge-podge, confusing, regrettable, and seemingly unstoppable. The reach for power and the slippery grip upon it can cause peace to disappear in the time it takes to mark a fraudulent ballot. We in the West watch images of machete-wielding mobs and shake our heads at their inability to appreciate what we’ve brought them…or is it the other way around?
I’m not saying the solutions are simple or that democracy is inherently evil, far from it, but I do believe the time has come for Western Christians to reconsider our politics and our mission, for it seems the two have become tragically enmeshed, on both the right and the left, and among conservatives, liberals, and anabaptists alike. From the White House – whose resident depends on some form of religious ascent – to the East – where our politics is assumed to be Christianity in action – to Kenya – where our form of governing only awakens old divides, we seem to have concluded that the world is us and we are the world. We can’t imagine why everyone doesn’t want it our way. We have assumed our politics rules the day. But, if we are Christian at all, we must say this is not true. Neither we nor our politics rule, only the LORD Almighty does and he has never been bound by any particular form of government nor opposed to using any form for his greater purposes. What he has done, time and time again, is seek out and form a people within the nations who are citizens of another politic altogether, who fix their eyes on what is unseen, and who receive the high and holy task of being a blessing to the nations because of their faith in and allegiance to One high and holy King alone.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

X = Bridge

Driving along in my automobile, my son beside me at the wheel, we are listening to a radio station play “classic” tunes from the 1980s! Besides the fact that “classic” and “1980s” should never be used in the same sentence—Do you remember the synthesizer, leg warmers, New Coke, PTL Club and the Hyundai Pony?—I nostalgically sing along and answer a child’s questions about the good old days.

Despite the Duran Duran influence, this was a divine moment as I became keenly aware of the synthesizing of my thoughts into crushing reality: I was born in the last century and I am old.

Many of you will think this a ludicrous statement. At 35, I am a spring chicken, a young pup, a mere bud on the branch, to probably the vast majority of those reading these words, but that is precisely what troubles me.

My generation—labelled X—is increasingly caught betwixt and between, and indifferent about both poles. We are halfway, but we’re not sure what we are halfway from or to as we begin to find our legs, voice and place in the world, let alone the church. Many of us are floundering because the world of our parents and the world swallowing us up are equally strange. Communism has been traded for terrorism; Pacman eaten up by Halo; the Walkman overtaken by the iPod; Ethiopian famine eclipsed by AIDS; and the VCR, which we’re still teaching our parents how to run when we don’t even use them anymore, by the PVR.

Let’s just say we who inherited the radical challenges and culture-quake of the Boomers are really caught between two worlds. We don’t understand the traditional world our Boomer parents sought to dismantle—even the most conservative of our parents dismantled something—nor this strange place in which we must raise our children, which is maybe why many of us are unsure about having kids at all.

The X of my generation marks confusion. This, however, reveals a challenge I throw at my generational comrades in hopes some catch it: Can we Christ-following Xers already turn our attention to the first true post-Christian generations? It will be our turn in the next few years—if it isn’t already—to embrace the leading and shaping of a church and culture. Like others before, we will be tempted to champion our right to build it to our specs. Dare we lay aside this right?

Thankfully—and what a gift of grace this may turn out to be—we mostly laugh disparagingly at our “good old days.” We can’t take them seriously. Perhaps we knew even then that the times were in transition as we created a culture symbolized by Michael Jackson’s moonwalk (going backwards while appearing to go forwards).

Our mission may very well be to embrace the cost of laying ourselves down as a bridge. We are a demographic caught between a fading age and an emerging, yet fuzzy one. What great joy it may be for us to lie down and get walked on! First, by our Boomer parents, who will mourn a world that is no more. Then by our children, who need us to be a sure Christ-centred foundation, their link to a new day in which the naming of Jesus Christ as Lord is an affront to the Empire.

Because we don’t know who we are or where we fit, I propose we are the perfect generation for this glorious task.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Confessions of a Guilty Bystander

After returning from a morning walk through the heart of Ottawa. Me, myself, and the Lord had a very good conversation, though I talked too much. Here at the core of all things powerful and pompous I am internally seething.

It’s a sad kind of angry; a mournful rage has built in me after I had dropped my family off at friends one night. I was overcome, crushed actually, by a profound loneliness. Not solitude – that’s a gift of grace – but true aloneness and the troubling sense that this capital is not the center from which life in Canada springs, but the melting pot into which our collective angst is democratically mixed with one great big sorrowful, though stately, sigh. You might not describe it that way. I am, after all, only one person and this may just be my personal dysfunctional moan transferred onto the rest of you without consent.

Still, I need to confess something and maybe my vomiting of the soul (what the Puritans called confession and repentance) can become yours and ours together. I confess that I am a selfish prig and fail far too often to share the holy rage of God for the way things are, how they stay that way, and my culpability in the whole bloody mess. It is disturbingly true that talking is easier than walking and that sight can be blind and feeling callous. I want to cry. I want to weep over my own sin, my own complacency, my own unwillingness to engage the Kingdom of heaven as it is birthed in my heart and mind’s eye by the Holy Spirit. I am disturbed enough to change the world so long as my experience of it stays the same and I can fit it between commercials. Woe is me in a world of mass distractions.

Here I think is the crux of my laptop confessional: I want the world to change, but I don’t want that change initiated in me. I wouldn’t even mind bringing about change, so long as I can be an arms-length lobbyist or consultant who can maintain a sterile, safe existence and leave others to work out the ills I point out. Yet, troublingly, it is in me, in the capitol of Phildom, that the mustard seed of the Kingdom must first find fertile soil and root. If it does I know things will be different, which is what my entire being screams for. But can’t someone else be the prophet or evangelist? Won’t someone else visit the prisoner? Can’t someone else build that relationship? Won’t someone else shelter the orphan? After all there’s a hockey game on tonight that will help me forget all this for a while, and maybe even longer if I’m lucky.

I so don’t want my personal discipleship, and the tidy packaging I’ve stuffed it in, to crash head-on with the residual effects of sin in the world (my thanks to Bill Janzen at MCC Ottawa for feeding this insight). That would only bring about the confusion of both – the unwanted realization that my discipleship is cheap and my view of sin too indifferent. I want a personal Jesus not a powerful one with his peace-wielding sword. I don’t want the violent peace of the cross to disrupt my journey toward a restful retirement. And yet my life of following Jesus, if it is genuinely about taking up my own cross, must ultimately conflict with the stuff I don’t like about this world and don’t like about me. Heck, it must even collide with the things I do like and rather enjoy. Jesus would have that all of me be relentlessly engaged in the thoroughness of his love and transforming infiltration of all things – of things personal, corporate, sacred and secular. Will he be Lord of all?

I believe this is what he seeks: selfish prigs who increasingly lose themselves and their priggishness in Him and discover a bittersweet satisfaction in holy rage; who smile with tears because life as we’ve accepted it, or even named it, is not life as he intended it and who willingly make the confession of a guilty bystander and thereby stand by no more.