13 November 2017

A troubled anniversary

Next year we observe – perhaps “celebrate” doesn’t entirely fit – the 370th anniversary of the modern state, which is generally said to have resulted from the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the devastating Thirty Years War and reshaped the map of Europe. According to this agreement, the European powers would henceforth accept the principle of state sovereignty, namely, that the state is sovereign within its own territory and exempt from interference from its neighbours. This new international order would replace the messy patchwork of feudal fiefdoms that had lasted for centuries in the western part of the continent.

Since that time we have come to see the state, not as a domain of a particular ruler, but as a community of citizens led by their government. But settling its territorial boundaries has been the tricky part. Where does France end and Germany begin? And what of the German lands where, say, Polish is the majority language? For as long as the modern state has existed there have been quarrels over its jurisdiction. Attempts to settle these quarrels have not always succeeded, with the two world wars of the last century among the most tragic of the failures.

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson thought it possible to establish a postwar order based on the principle of national self-determination, which would grant all nations the right to decide their own fates. If the Czechs no longer wished to be part of Austria-Hungary, they would be permitted to go it alone. If the Poles wished to recover their ancient independence, then Russians, Germans and Austrians should allow this.

However, Wilson, ever the political idealist, underestimated the lethal consequences of what he had unleashed, as competing claims to nationhood set the stage for the resumption of armed conflict only two decades after the Treaty of Versailles had ended the first war. We are still living with the consequences today.

First, the Middle East. The Kurds are an ethnic group speaking an Indo-European language and straddling the borders of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. At the close of the Great War, the Kurds were promised an independent Kurdistan, something the Kurds are still awaiting a century later. With the defeat of Saddam Hussein in Iraq more than 25 years ago, the Kurds established a Kurdistan Regional Government, currently led by President Massoud Barzani. With the seemingly inevitable breakup of Iraq, the Kurds hoped finally to have their own state – something understandably opposed by Damascus, Ankara and Tehran.

However, as the Iraqi military has been fighting to defeat the Islamic State and other insurgents, it has pushed well into Kurdish territory, ousting the Peshmerga, the Kurdish armed forces, from the key city of Kirkuk last month. Does this spell the end of Kurdish hopes for independent statehood in the region? Possibly, though the U.S. has called for dialogue between the disputing parties.

On the far western end of Europe, the territorial integrity of another state is threatened by secessionists, this time in the Spanish autonomous region of Catalunya, whose citizens voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence. After the vote, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont stopped just short of declaring full independence. As I write, Madrid is acting quickly to disband the regional government in Barcelona and impose direct rule before independence can be asserted. Readers will have the benefit of hindsight that I currently lack, but historical precedents compel us to recognize that this is a potentially dangerous situation. No state can acquiesce in its own dismemberment. At the same time, it seems unwise – possibly even unjust – to force Catalonians to remain part of Spain.

What does justice require in such situations? State borders are not sacrosanct, yet dismembering an existing state is a messy business fraught with great potential for injustice. True, the modern state has its flaws, but at its best it has managed to create a secure public zone of peace, justice and prosperity within its jurisdiction – something we take for granted until it’s gone. If we are unlikely to see many celebratory events next year, we can nevertheless be grateful to God for the admittedly imperfect blessing of the state.

Originally published for Principalities & Powers, Christian Courier, 12 November 2017.

One Year of Trump

Nobody expected him to win. He was too boorish and crude. He couldn’t hold his own in a debate, even as, by his sheer presence, he seemed to be trying to intimidate his opponent. He thumbed his nose at people he thought weak and made fun of the handicapped. Far from being a polished orator like his predecessor, his rhetoric consisted of monosyllabic words spat out with tremendous ferocity, coupled with monotonously repetitious outbursts of braggadocio. Read more.

08 November 2017

The Queen would not be amused: Julie Payette’s ill-considered remarks

Governor General Julie Payette
As one of the Queen's Canadian subjects, I personally doubt she would approve of the remarks her freshly-minted representative made last week. Some months ago Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had advised Her Majesty to appoint Julie Payette, a former astronaut, to the post of Governor General, an office which she assumed at the beginning of October. In a Westminster parliamentary system, the Queen and her representatives must remain impeccably nonpartisan and avoid even a hint of partiality. The monarch is the guarantor of the constitution and a symbol of unity for the entire nation. In her sixty-five years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II has discharged her weighty responsibilities admirably, more than living up to the vow she took in South Africa on her twenty-first birthday.

Sadly, not all of her representatives have managed to follow her example. Last week, Payette addressed the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa, and in the course of her speech appeared to belittle her fellow citizens who have the temerity to believe in a transcendent God:

Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately, we’re still debating and still questioning whether humans have a role in the earth warming up or whether even the earth is warming up, period? And we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.

The tone of incredulity can only be taken as a put-down of people of faith. Or, perhaps more accurately, of people whose faith differs from her own.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, apparently a practising Catholic, weighed in on the controversy with these words, inadvertently affirming that Payette herself is a woman of faith:

I am extraordinarily proud of the strength and the story of our Governor General, Julie Payette, who has never hidden away her passion for science and her deep faith that knowledge, research and the truth is [sic] a foundation for any free, stable, successful society. And I applaud the firmness with which she stands in support of science and the truth [emphasis mine].

No one can quibble with the Governor General and the Prime Minister in their recognition that the standards associated with the scientific method have led to greater knowledge of the universe and produced huge benefits for humanity. But there is a tendency among some, when this appreciation is not tempered by the recognition that our world belongs to God, to invest science with redemptive expectations. Those with a more modest appreciation for science might challenge Payette’s rather naive belief that natural processes somehow rule out the existence of a creating and sustaining God.

Nearly a year ago, the Queen spoke these words in her annual Christmas speech:

Jesus Christ lived obscurely for most of his life, and never travelled far. He was maligned and rejected by many, though he had done no wrong. And yet, billions of people now follow his teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love, whoever does them and whatever they themselves believe.

What she thinks of Payette’s speech we likely will never know. If I were in Her Majesty's position, I would send the governor general a sharply worded reprimand, perhaps accompanied by a revised job description. It would serve as a warning that the authority of the governor general’s office does not extend beyond the limits of the monarch’s own authority relative to Canada. Payette is not entitled to establish scientism as the state religion. Let us hope she comes to see this better, as she becomes more accustomed to her official duties.

David Koyzis is Fellow in Politics at the St. George's Centre for Biblical and Public Theology. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another.

07 November 2017

Commemorating a revolution

Exactly one-hundred years ago, a small cadre of revolutionaries seized power in the then Russian capital city of Petrograd. After the Tsar's abdication earlier in the year, a provisional government had attempted to run the fractious country, unwisely attempting to continue the war against Germany that had brought down the imperial régime. While Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein would immortalize the storming of the Winter Palace in his famous re-enactment three years later, the actions that brought the Bolsheviks to power were much less dramatic. Nevertheless the long-term consequences of the Revolution would reverberate throughout the twentieth century, leading directly or indirectly to the deaths of scores of millions of people in the interest of implementing a political illusion based on a fundamental misreading of human nature.

On this anniversary we do well to acknowledge that human efforts to reshape the world according to the demands of the gods of the age are not without consequences. In particular, when human beings deny the one true God, they don't cease to believe. They simply redirect their beliefs elsewhere. While there is little to celebrate on this solemn occasion, it is appropriate to remember those who lost their lives to the scourge of Marxism-Leninism in the decades following the Revolution. Господи, помилуй! Lord have mercy!

19 October 2017

How Socialism Suppresses Society

Last month I was privileged to visit the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where I lectured on "How Socialism Suppresses Society." A video of my lecture has been posted on YouTube with Portuguese subtitles for anyone interested. However,  as my delivered lecture was an abbreviated version of the text, I am posting the full text here:

Until last year's presidential election campaign, socialism had long been a nasty word in the American political lexicon. It had been associated with the worst forms of tyranny, especially those of the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. Thus many of us were surprised to see a certain United States Senator from Vermont gain a dedicated following among especially younger voters while proudly wearing the democratic socialist label. Their elders would have blanched at the prospect of a socialist president, while they themselves manifested no such fear of an ideological vision whose character and history is without doubt unfamiliar to them.

Norman Thomas
Nevertheless, virtually all western democracies can boast a sizeable socialist party of some sort. Britain has its Labour Party, while Australia has its Labor (minus the “u”) Party. France has its Parti Socialiste, and Germany its Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands. Even my own country of Canada has its New Democratic Party, which, while never having governed at the federal level, has managed at times to form the government in half of the country's ten provinces, including Ontario. The United States had a Socialist Party in the first decades of the twentieth century, under the leadership of Eugene Debs (1855-1926), who famously campaigned for the 1920 election from a jail cell, and the venerable Norman Thomas (1884-1968), a Presbyterian minister who stood six times unsuccessfully for the presidency. But the high water mark for the party came in 1932, after which it lost its support base to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. As a consequence, the United States remains virtually the only country lacking a major political party adhering to the principles of socialism.

Defining socialism

What exactly is socialism? Definitions vary widely, of course, and it is probably more accurate to speak of socialisms in the plural. Yet despite the differences, most manifestations of socialism have a number of characteristics in common.

17 October 2017

October updates

Here are three updates:

  • Last month I was privileged to visit Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where I spoke on "How Socialism Suppresses Society." My lecture has been posted on YouTube with Portuguese subtitles:


  • An article of mine has been published in the Autumn 2017 issue of The Bible in Transmission, of the Bible Society (also known as the British and Foreign Bible Society): Populism in Christian Perspective.
  • An excerpt:
    One cannot simply blame political leaders for the direction of an entire culture. George Bernard Shaw was perhaps more realistic in his observation that ‘Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.’ An overstatement perhaps. Yet it is true that political institutions and leaders alike are conditioned by a complex of cultural assumptions characterising the polity as a whole. A people accustomed to autocracy is very likely to be ruled by autocrats. A nation whose people are corrupt in their daily lives are highly unlikely to be governed by leaders careful to avoid conflict of interest in the conduct of public affairs.

  • Finally, I have received word from InterVarsity Press that my first book, Political Visions and Illusions, has been approved for a second revised edition, which I will be working on over the next several months. I will keep everyone updated on its progress and projected date of publication. Thanks to the many readers who have made this book a success over nearly a decade and a half.

25 August 2017

Abraham Kuyper and the Pluralist Claims of the Liberal Project, Part 4: The Kuyperian Alternative

Herman Dooyeweerd
In response to the evident defects of liberalism, we might well ask what the alternatives might be. We evidently cannot return to the religious establishments of old. Even the most dedicated communitarian is highly unlikely to make such an obviously retrograde proposal. Although at least one church body has long sought to amend the US Constitution to recognize the mediatorial kingship of Jesus Christ, no one would argue that, for example, the state’s coercive apparatus should enforce ecclesiastical judgements issued against recalcitrant members.

Everyone now presumably agrees that the execution of heretics handed over by the Inquisition to the civil authorities was not only a very bad idea but fundamentally unjust as well. Nevertheless, the major Reformed confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries charge the civil authorities with the responsibility to “protect the sacred ministry; and thus [to] remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship; that the kingdom of antichrist may be thus destroyed and the kingdom of Christ promoted.” By the beginning of the nineteenth century, this confessional charge to the political authorities was sounding less and less plausible in the increasingly pluralistic societies of Europe and North America.

22 August 2017

Abraham Kuyper and the Pluralist Claims of the Liberal Project, Part 3: What Liberalism Implies for the Two Pluralisms

John Stuart Mill
In Part 2 we examined the implications of Kuyperian and liberal pluralisms for ecclesiology, that is, our understanding of the nature and authority of the institutional church. We noted, in particular, that liberalism, following John Locke, is compelled to reduce it to a mere voluntary association of like-minded individuals.

There are two implications to this liberal move. First, it is incapable of accounting for structural differences among an assortment of communities. State and church are not essentially different from the garden club or the Boy Scouts. Whatever differences appear to the casual observer can be ascribed to the collective wills of the individuals who make them up. Proponents are persuaded that, even if different groups of citizens operate out of divergent comprehensive doctrines, they must be made to look beneath these commitments to what are believed to be the raw data of human experience that bind all persons together. These data are, of course, the constituent individuals themselves.

Every community can be easily understood as a collection of individuals who choose to be part of it for reasons peculiar to each member. There is nothing unusual about this approach, the liberal insists. Michael Ignatieff believes himself justified in asserting that liberal individualism is not peculiarly western or historically conditioned; it is human and universal: “It’s just a fact about us as a species: we frame purposes individually, in ways that other creatures do not.” Therefore if the claims of groups and individuals come into conflict, as they inevitably must, Ignatieff confidently concludes that “individual rights should prevail,” despite the contrary claims of nationalists, socialists and many conservatives of a communitarian bent.

15 August 2017

Abraham Kuyper and the Pluralist Claims of the Liberal Project, Part 2: The Church as Voluntary Association

John Locke
As we noted in Part 1, liberalism attempts to guarantee pluralism by empowering the individual, often at the expense of the very communities that go into shaping her. But in so doing, liberalism denies these communities any authority not reducible to the wills of the component individuals.

If, for example, we were to agree with John Locke’s definition of the church, we would find ourselves in territory foreign to the mainstream of the historic faith. According to Locke, “A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls” (emphasis mine). While there are undoubtedly many Christians, especially protestants in the free-church tradition, who would implicitly agree with Locke’s definition, the mainstream of the Christian tradition has viewed the church as the covenant community of those who belong to Jesus Christ, who is its Saviour and head.

Moreover, the gathered church, as distinct from the corpus Christi which is more encompassing, has been generally recognized to be an authoritative institution with the power to bind and loose on earth (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). As such it is more than the aggregate of its members but is a divinely-ordained vessel bearing the gospel to the world and especially to the church’s members.

09 August 2017

Abraham Kuyper and the Pluralist Claims of the Liberal Project, Part 1: Liberalism and Two Kinds of Diversity

Although it can be misleading to seek the meaning of commonly-used words and expressions in their etymological origins, in the case of liberalism, the linguistic connection with liberty is all too obvious. The promise of liberty is an attractive one that holds out the possibility of living our lives as we see fit, free from constraints imposed from without. We simply prefer to have our own way and not to have to defer to the wills of others.

Yet even the most extensive account of liberty must recognize that it needs to be subject to appropriate limits if we are not to descend into a chaotic state of continual conflict, which English philosopher Thomas Hobbes memorably labelled a bellum omnium contra omnes, a war of all against all.

Here I propose to compare two approaches to liberty, viz., those of liberalism and of the principled pluralism associated with the heirs of the great Dutch statesman and polymath, Abraham Kuyper. Although each claims to advance liberty, I will argue that the Kuyperian alternative is superior to the liberal because it is based on a more accurate appraisal of human nature, society and the place of community within it.

28 July 2017

Happy AR Day! a holiday to counter Bastille Day

G. Groen van Prinsterer
Twenty-some years ago my sister was in France, studying Gregorian chant with the monks at the Abbaye Saint-Pierre in Solesmes. During her time there, the 14th of July rolled around, when the rest of the country celebrates la Fête nationale, better known to us as Bastille Day. But things were quiet in Solesmes and the surrounding countryside. Curious at this lack of merriment, my sister asked why they weren’t joining in the celebrations and was greeted with faces registering shock. In a heavily Catholic region, they would never consider observing a day that marked the start of a godless revolution that wreaked such havoc on the Church, France and the rest of Europe.

There are now 351 days remaining until the next Bastille Day. As we await its occurrence, I would like to propose for that day a counter-holiday to be titled AR Day, “AR” standing for Anti-Revolutionary. After the generation of war and instability set off in 1789 finally ended with Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, many Europeans, especially those still loyal to the gospel of Jesus Christ, set about attempting to combat the ideological illusions the Revolution had engendered. This entailed breaking with the modern preoccupation—nay, obsession—with sovereignty and recovering a recognition of the legitimate pluriformity of society.

In any ordinary social setting, people owe allegiance to a variety of overlapping communities with differing internal structures, standards, and purposes. These are sometimes called mediating structures, intermediary communities or, taken collectively, civil society. This reality stands in marked contrast to liberal individualism and such collectivist ideologies as nationalism and socialism, each of which is monistic in its own way—locating a principle of unity in a human agent to which it ascribes sovereignty, or the final say.

Recognizing that the only source of unity in the cosmos is the God who has created and redeemed us in the person of his Son, Christians are freed from the need to locate a unifying source within the cosmos. Thus the institutional church can be itself, living up to its divinely-appointed mandate to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, and maintain discipline. The family is free to be the family, nurturing children as they grow to maturity. Marriage is liberated to be itself, free from the stifling constraints of the thin contractarian version now extolled in North America and elsewhere. And, of course, the huge array of schools, labour unions, business enterprises, and voluntary associations have their own proper places, not to be artificially subordinated to an all-embracing state or the imperial self.

This pluriformity is something worth celebrating! It may sound perfectly mundane when described in the way I have here, but the fact that the followers of today’s political illusions find it so threatening indicates that we cannot afford to take it for granted. Here are some suggested readings that highlight this dissenting anti-revolutionary tradition:
  • Johannes Althusius, Politics (1614)
  • Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)
  • Guillaume Groen van Prinster, Unbelief and Revolution (1847)
  • Abraham Kuyper, Our Program (1880)
  • Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891)
  • Jacques Maritain, Man and the State (1951)
  • Yves R. Simon, Philosophy of Democratic Government (1951)
  • Friedrich Julius Stahl, Philosophy of Law: the Doctrine of State and the Principles of State Law (1830)
I could go on and list many more resources, but these will suffice for purposes of our new holiday. I propose that we celebrate it by holding public readings from these and similar works. The food would consist of such anti-revolutionary delicacies as boerenkool met worst, haggis, Brazilian pães de queijo and pamonhas, and, for the sake of all those Byzantine-Rite Calvinists out there, loaves of white bread with taramosalata, Kalamata olives, and cruets of extra virgin (Greek!) olive oil.

Music will consist of mass communal singing of the Psalms, preferably from the Genevan Psalter. Additional music will be provided by (why not?) the monks of the Abbaye Saint-Pierre in Solesme! Let’s do it!

This is a numerically altered version of David Koyzis's debut column at Kuyperian Commentary.

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can be contacted at: dtkoyzis@gmail.com