Must Religion bring Armageddon: Re-appropriating the Separation of Church and State.

Some time ago I wrote a blog which outlined why I believe the metaphors used to describe the relationship between citizens and their government have serious implications for how people believe the state should function.  There I contrasted two common metaphors:  mechanistic and organic.  ‘Mechanistic’ metaphors suggest that the state should be viewed as a social-contract.  The view believes that the state is to function as the public sphere and is to legislate a lowest common denominator of morality.   Conversely organic metaphors suggest that members of society are bound  ‘naturally’.  Organic metaphors tend to suggest that the legislation of the state should resemble the ‘ideal’ status of morality as much as possible.  Furthermore ‘organic’ views of the state suggest that the good of the state takes precedence over the good of individuals.

Judging by several recent newspaper columns it seems as though the significance of this dynamic has come home to roost in Canada.  For instance, Jane Taber wrote a thought provoking article in yesterday’s Globe & Mail.  The article draws attention to the latest spat between the Conservative government and the CBC.  According to the Conservatives, the CBC is attempting to divide Canadians by emphasizing the (‘evangelical’ Christian) religious affiliations of several prominent members of the Conservative government and thereby effectively creating a “faith war”.  Meanwhile the National Post’s website has run a column by Don Martin which summarizes the ideas behind Marci McDonald’s recently released book:  The Armageddon Factor.  The book highlights various maneuvers of the Conservative government which suggests that Harper’s Conservatives are trying to get into bed (without anyone else knowing it!) with the religious right.  Some notable maneuvers include raising the age of sexual consent to 16, having a Chief of Staff who is pro-life, cutbacks to feminist groups and gay pride parades even while providing additional funds for faith-based colleges (on this last point I cannot resist pointing out that Regent College–a world class faith-based graduate school will cost a student about 2.5 times more per year than someone working on a research-based graduate degree across the street at UBC).

What I find fascinating about these stories is not so much that Harper is trying to please the religious-right of Canada (really?  just figuring this one out now?) but rather the tendency of Canadians to think that it is inherently negative for religious convictions to be brought into the public sphere (see the “reader comments” on the Globe link for examples).  The irony of course is that opponents of the political agenda of the religious right often hold to a twisted vision of secular liberalism which attempts to prescribe its own set of values on the masses.  For example, in a previous blog I cited the tendency of certain secular liberal groups to prioritize diversity over individual rights.  What I would like to suggest is that the problem in Canadian politics is not bringing religion (Christian or otherwise) or some other worldview to the public sphere but rather a group’s attempt to legislate their prescribed version of morality for all Canadians.  To explain why this is the problem requires a closer look at the meaning and significance of social-contract.

Social-contract theory suggests that the state exists to promote the well-being of its members.  The idea is that a group of otherwise independent groups and/or individuals come together to find common or public space based on the belief that this space will allow them to flourish better off than they could individually (health-care, infrastructure, protection of private property through police force are all appropriate examples).  In this model the public space exists for the benefit of the individual people/sub-groups—in contrast to say the former Soviet Union where the individual was to serve the state.  In social-contract societies individuals/groups must bring their particular identifying markers such as religion, ethnicity, orientation, or sex to the public sphere.  This is for at least two reasons:

  1. The state will not be able to allow particular groups to flourish if it is not aware/does not understand their particular needs/desires.
  2. If groups/individuals are prevented from bringing their particular identifying markers to the shared space then the contract metaphor has been forsaken and is replaced by a particularly bland, ignore-the-differences  ‘organic’  understanding of the state a la France? Quebec?).

That being said, separation of church and state (and indeed separation of any particular group and state) still needs to occur in the sense that particular groups need to recognize the existence and legitimacy of others who have ‘signed on’ to the contract who do not share their particularities.  Special interest groups which neglect to do so are deserving of harsh criticism since their actions attempt to undermine the very purpose of social-contract.

To be clear I am not at all suggesting that debate over what is the highest good should be abandoned.  In fact, as the very existence of this blog suggests, I am an advocate for the public discussion of virtue, religion, etc.  However as a Mennonite I am also painfully aware that the attempt to legislate the highest good of a particular group often has morally reprehensible results—the drowning of Anabaptists in 16th century Switzerland, the forced exile of Menno Simmons from Holland, or the mass-killings of 20th century Russian-Mennonites by the Bolsheviks are more than enough examples for me to remember what happens when we confuse categories.  This is especially true in the ‘global village’ where there is nowhere left for refugees to run to look for a tolerant nation.  In this context the prophetic words from the Eagles’ song “The Last Resort” come to mind:

There is no more new frontier,

We’ve got to make it here.

Whose Point of View: An Introduction of Perspective Criticism

This past weekend I attended the Pacific Northwest regional meeting of Society of Biblical Literature, The American Schools of Oriental Research, and the American Academy of Religion in Victoria—or what my wife not-so-affectionately called Nerdfest 2010—pacific northwest edition.  One of the better received ideas at these meetings was provided by a friend and former professor of mine Gary Yamasaki.  Yamasaki presented two papers which applied perspective criticism, a hermeneutic he developed (the most nuanced form of which can be found in his 2007 book Watching a Biblical Narrative) to two Biblical stories—“Gideon’s fleece” from the Old Testament and Saul’s “Damascus road” experience from the New.

Perspective criticism borrows from literary criticism and is concerned with discerning the point of view from which a story is told.  What makes point of view so significant is that it takes seriously the fact that in the genre of Biblical narrative the narrator tells the story for a purpose or to make a point but rarely does so with the inclusion of an explicit moral statement as to whether the acts of the story are to be viewed positively or negatively.  Perspective criticism suggests that the elusive “point(s)” the narrator is trying to communicate in the morally ambiguous Biblical narratives can be discerned at least in part by examining whose perspective the story is being told from.  The idea being that when a reader ‘views’ the events of a story through a specific character’s eyes their perspective effectively merges with that of the character and as a result identifies, sympathizes, and more or less approves of the character’s actions regardless of whether or not those actions would normally be considered ethical.

Yamasaki illustrates this effect of point of view by referring to many on screen examples where a viewer is influenced to cheer for villains:  “Dexter”, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, “Ocean’s 11”, etc.  A great example of how point of view can be manipulated to alter a viewer’s perspective of a character can be seen in “Scrubs”.  The show is typically told from the perspective of J.D.—however several episodes are told through the perspective of other characters which lead to temporary identification with them and a distancing from the typical main character.

If Yamasaki’s hypothesis that the point of view of a Biblical narrative can/should be discerned to comprehend the point the author is trying to make then it could potentially have great significance for the future of hermeneutics.  It will be fascinating to see whether perspective criticism is able to shed light on such troubling narratives as Jephthah’s daughter or the Levite’s concubine.  I believe that perspective criticism’s commitment to viewing the narrative as a work of literature may allow it to do just that without slipping into moralistic readings—preserving both the literary integrity and purpose of Biblical story.

Befriending the Stranger: My MCC experience

Unfortunately the demands of finishing the semester strong led to the neglect of this blog in the month of April.  However now that the school year is fading fast in my rearview mirror I look forward to blogging with renewed vigour.  I will pick up my forgiveness blog again in the near future but for now I wish to share an old blog about my experience working for the MCC thrift store in Mission last summer.  Originally published January 22, 2010:

This blog is long overdue. It describes the positive impression my summer 2009 experience of the community at the MCC thrift shop in Mission B.C. has made on me. The store’s work/volunteer force is comprised of people from varying backgrounds–the old and the young, the profound and the profane, the able and disabled.  The eclectic mix of volunteers represented to me a taste of what community is supposed to be like: the struggles, friendships, annoyance, and affection were often on par with the intensity reflected in extended families.

What sticks out to me however is not the dysfunction (every community/family has this to be sure) but rather the place of belonging that everyone had in this community. The common refrain of one of the managers at MCC was: “there’s a place for everyone at God’s table”. This saying, I soon found out, is the furthest thing from a cliché when it is actually practiced.

During my time at MCC Mission part of my role was to lead the morning devotion. After observing the community for a few days I could think of nothing more fitting than using excerpts from Jean Vanier’s Befriending the Stranger for the daily readings. The book is based on a series of talks given by Jean Vanier at a retreat for people involved with his famous l’Arche Communities. The basic theme of this book is the gospel message that Jesus came to the world to welcome the “stranger” whoever that may be, into his community. As Christians, Vanier says, we too were formerly strangers and so we too must learn to welcome the other—especially those difficult to love. What is amazing about Vanier is that his message not only holds up to the ideals of Scripture but also escapes accusations of slipping into naivety since he as actually been able to put into practice. In doing so Vanier displays incredible wisdom about the human condition and how Jesus is able to meet us wherever we are.

The reason why Vanier’s book was so fitting for the MCC community was because it could have just as easily been written to us as it was to L’Arche. MCC was a community of diversity—a place where the stranger was not only the person dropping off or buying items but also the one with whom you would work with. Because of this the community often felt the tension of the stranger. Frustration as to why this person couldn’t follow simple direction, why that person couldn’t figure out how to take a shower, or why the other simply refused to be open to change often plagued me, and I trust my co-workers as well. In the end however this is what community is all about. It’s easy enough to be with friends but it is tricky, demanding, and exhausting to try to welcome the stranger. I should also say that being a friend of the stranger is one of the most worthwhile tasks I have ever tried to participate in. My few months at MCC have given me unexpected, and hopefully life-long friends. I especially cherish the ones with cognitive disabilities—never in my life have I encountered people so warm, welcoming, and friendly. In their smiling faces I immediately saw something of which I wanted to be a part. Sometimes it makes me wonder which one of us was the real stranger after all…