Laugh or Cry?

by Doug Howard.
comic Aamer Rahman

Comic Aamer Rahman performed his stand up act at Calvin College on September 19, 2014

Just so you know, Aamer Rahman apologized for Islam last Friday night. Also—in advance—for daring to tell jokes about terrorism. You can’t be too careful these days. In his show at the Calvin College CFAC, the Australian comedian, who is of Bangladeshi Muslim descent, gingerly felt his way around and through American Evangelical sacred cows—religion, race, and politics. But the Calvin audience came mostly ready to laugh, and they were well warmed up by Michael Ribbons and by the Calvin Improv group. We can laugh about Islam here, and race too. What a relief to hear an Australian say that racial problems Down Under are worse than ours! But the room got very quiet when he referred to Israel’s genocide of Palestinian Arabs. And ISIS? He did not even touch that one.

All Muslims these days are burdened by apologizing for terrorism. With every new terrorist incident in the news, Rahman and his high school buddies prayed fervently that the perps would turn out to be White Guys. When sketches of the Boston Marathon bombers (2013) showed White Guys, he heaved a huge sigh of relief—until he learned that the bombers were the wrong kind of White Guys. They were Chechen Muslims!

Based on sheer numbers and percentages, it would seem to be a far greater danger that Judaism become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Settler Zionism, or that American Evangelical Christianity become an opening prayer for Answers in Genesis, than that Islam be hijacked by the latest al-Qaeda wannabes. After a near century-long history of European Jewish conquests and settlements in Palestine, armored IDF bulldozers still plow Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem and even ran over Rachel Corrie (2003)—and she was an American! Yet there they were, Australian Muslims standing in front of microphones and apologizing for HAMAS and Islam and violence. Well… do you laugh or cry? Aamer Rahman chooses to laugh.

Humor is the best way to get people talking about issues. The Friday night crowd was way bigger than either the Gaza vigil two weeks earlier or the Gaza documentary the night before, even though that one featured the film director himself. Aamer Rahman joked about his family’s disappointment that the big bucks they paid for his elite private education set him up to be a “traveling clown.” He joked about South Asians who can’t seem to go on a trip without “a bag of sandwiches, 15 suitcases, and a mattress.” He joked about the Prime Minister “completing Australia’s mission in Afghanistan,” when an American army “bad apple” had just left his base to kill sixteen Afghan civilians including women and children, and covered up the bodies with blankets. Islam—it has terrorists. America? America has bad apples. But the Calvin audience, who had probably never heard of the incident (2012), could at least hear of it now, through the laughter.

Aamer Rahman was creative, fresh, and edgier than a West Michigan audience usually hears. As it often does, SAO sponsored a discussion with the artist after the event. My date wanted to go have a glass of wine, so we did not stay. Those who did told me that the local South Asian community expressed enthusiastic gratitude to student activities director Ken Heffner and the Student Activities Office for bringing Aamer Rahman to Calvin. That took courage, and the SAO has plenty of it.

Doug Howard is a professor of history at Calvin College. He’s almost finished writing a history of the Ottoman Empire. 

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Book Note: The Good of Politics by James Skillen

by Dan Miller.
cover of book

The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Introduction by James W. Skillen (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014)

James Skillen thinks that most Christians have an impoverished view of politics, regarding it as a necessary evil in a fallen world. Skillen wants them to think of it as something inherently good, an essential part of the social order like families and churches. He notes that while politics can be corrupt and governments can be tyrannical, families and churches can also manifest sinful characteristics but Christians accept both as divinely ordained institutions. He concludes that if Christians were to engage in politics from a proper creational perspective, they could develop more constructive approaches to current issues.

Skillen divides his new book, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Introduction (Baker Academic, 2014) into three sections. The first deals with Biblical teachings on politics and government. The second provides a historical survey of the church’s teachings about and participation in politics. In the final section Skillen explains his own understanding of politics with some examples of how his approach might shape Christian thought and action in several areas of current political debate.

Skillen begins his review of biblical teaching on politics by describing humanity’s role as God’s “viceroys,” with a divine mandate to rule the earth. That creation mandate culminates in the kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus. He rules by serving and giving his life for others, whereupon he receives “all authority in heaven and on earth” which suggests to Skillen that proper political authority is intended the benefit of the ruled, not the rulers. He challenges the view that Christ’s kingdom is separate from the kingdoms of this world, claiming that all earthly political authorities operate under the lordship of Christ who is “king of kings and lord of lords.” That means that worldly rulers have legitimate authority but it also means that their actions fall under the judgment of God in the here and in the age to come. Hence they are under obligation to do justice, not only by punishing evil doers but also by giving everyone what is “due” them as exemplified by this passage from Job which Skillen cites: “I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist them.” (Job 29:12)

The book’s second section begins with Augustine’s stark distinction between the city of God, a spiritual community founded on love of God and others, and the city of man, a worldly community of self-love. To Skillen, Augustine’s negative view of earthly government shaped subsequent Christian thinking on the subject, leading it to be regarded as something that exists only because of the fall and that is largely confined to restraining evil doers by the use of un-Christ-like violence. Thus the medieval Church claimed that “worldly” political rulers were inferior to “spiritual” ecclesiastical authorities and should defer to them.

Protestant Reformers generally respected secular rulers but they continued to make a sharp distinction between “spiritual” and “worldly” authority. For Lutherans this meant that the church should concern itself with worship and personal behavior, leaving rulers free to use whatever unsavory means were required to maintain order in society at large. Christians might serve as soldiers or magistrates, but in doing so they would have to follow norms appropriate to a sinful world, not the rules of a loving Christian community. Anabaptists drew an even sharper distinction between the Christian community and the world of politics, claiming that no true Christian could serve as a public official since such a person would have to employ un-Christian means to enforce the will of government.

Skillen believes that Calvinists offered a more balanced approach, calling for collaboration between secular and ecclesiastical authorities, each of which had a divinely appointed sphere of authority. Calvin expected government to support the true church and prohibit “false religion” but he also believed that secular rulers should submit to the moral law as it was taught by the church. This idea encouraged challenges to arbitrary rulers and, stripped of its theological content, led to the Enlightenment ideal of a social contract that limited rulers to protecting of the rights of their subjects.

The United States, says Skillen, exhibits several strands of religious politics. The dispossession and cultural domination of Native Americans was justified as a mission to Christianize and civilize them. The separation of church and state was supported by the Protestant denominations who competed with each other for converts, a mission they pursued so successfully that America remained a largely Christian nation even though it lacked an established church. In the twentieth century, Black Christians and some white liberals offered a vision of America as a purified community where the ideals of the Declaration of Independence would be wedded to the millennial hopes of the Old Testament prophets. Far more popular however is a conservative vision of America that rejects government activism in favor of gospel preaching and personal piety which will preserve the nation’s Christian character and secure its survival by winning divine approval.

Having surveyed the Biblical roots and historical evolution of Christian political thought, Skillen offers his own approach. Rejecting the Augustinian claim that government is inherently sinful, the Calvinist claim that government should establish right religion, and the Enlightenment claim that government exists only to protect the rights of individuals, Skillen opts for “principled pluralism.” This means government must not just protect individual rights but divinely ordained relationships and institutions as well such as families, schools, businesses, and churches. (Skillen asserts that government has an obligation to treat all religious traditions with equal respect, an eminently sensible policy but one which merits a fuller theological justification than he offers.) Going further, he says government has an obligation to promote the “common good” which he defines as “a well-governed community of peace, mutual support, just treatment, and exercise of responsibility by all citizens…” (p. 140).

Skillen concludes with some specific policy recommendations to illustrate what a truly Christian politics might look like. To get citizens to fulfill their political obligations, he advocates a system of proportional representation that would allow a greater range of political options to be expressed and reduce the practical disfranchisement and consequent disillusionment that the two-party system engenders. To encourage parents in their familial obligations, he wants government to require them to protect the life of their unborn children from the moment of conception and he advocates tax support for religious as well as secular public schools. In addition, government should promote a “responsible economy” which encourages entrepreneurial talent, free markets, and “proper self-interest” but which also gives “foundational, even constitutional” recognition to the natural environment as an entity meriting state protection. Recognizing the increasingly globalized nature of modern society, he recommends some strengthening of local and international political institutions at the expense of national governments: “only a politics that disperses sovereignty both upward and downward can combine the power required to rival global market forces with the differentiation required of a public life that hopes to inspire the allegiance of its citizens” (p. 186). He concludes with an appeal for Christians to involve themselves in these complex issues, using the wisest insights of their faith to guide their actions.

Skillen covers a lot of ground in this short volume. Not surprisingly, his generalizations occasionally miss the mark. For example, he complains that American evangelicals believe that “politics and culture belong in different categories” (p. xvii). It might be more accurate to say that they put politics and culture in the same category: both are “worldly” and therefore suspect. His recommendations which combine conservative ideas about abortion and same-sex marriage with liberal aims regarding environmental matters and international cooperation probably won’t win him the entire approval of any particular reader, but perhaps that suggests that he has something to say to both sides in the culture wars. His central theme—that the existence and role of governments do not merely reflect the fall but grow out of the original plan of creation and thus have a positive mandate to promote the common good—should prompt some good discussion. If Skillen has his way, it will also promote more frequent and more thoughtful participation in politics by Christians as well.

Professor Daniel Miller has been a member of the Calvin History Department since 1983. He regularly teaches a survey of Latin American history and has taken students there on several January Interim trips. His research interests include the history of Protestantism in Latin America and U.S.-Mexican relations.

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Learning Communities

by Will Katerberg

blackboard with hand writing in chalk "History"Every year I teach a section of the history department’s capstone course on historiography. The most basic questions in the course are: What is the nature of historical knowledge? Is objectivity possible? Is it necessarily desirable? How does historical thinking work? What is the purpose of historical study? To understand the world? To contribute to changing aspects of the world?

Most of the students are seniors. Some are bound for grad school; others hope to teach elementary, middle, or high school history. Some have firm plans for medical school, law school, seminary, or a career in government or business. Some have no idea what’s next.

My favorite assignment is a take-home essay that is part of the final exam. The students reflect on their worldview, particularly the religious elements of it, and how it shapes the way they study and think about the past—and how studying history has shaped the way they view their lives and the world. They also talk about what they consider the most interesting or important issues that we studied over the semester.

Reading the students’ take-home essays gives me an insight not just into how they think, but also into how they feel and what they believe. Some express existential doubts about matters of faith, why they have been studying history, or what they’re going to do after they graduate. Many talk about how disorienting they have found the material in the course—which was part of the point!—and how they’ve only begun to put the pieces back together in a new way by the end of the semester.

Cartoon drawing of 2 students walking with the caption "I like my history teacher. He's kind of old and I think he lived through much of the history he's teaching."What students tell me shows how much this course and their time at Calvin has shaped them. In turn, reading what they say has powerfully influence my sense of who I am as a historian and a teacher, and a mentor to some of the students.

This past year, one student emphasized how during his time at Calvin he discovered the depth and breadth of racial and economic inequality in Grand Rapids. He found the careers of activist scholars such as Howard Zinn compelling in the ways they have contributed to both higher education and society. Thinking about the question posed by Christian historian Perry Bush—“What Would History Look Like if ‘Peace and Justice’ Really Mattered?”—shaped his own work in a research project that semester. Yet he also remained committed to pushing back against postmodern scholars and zealous activists, where they threaten to treat the past as a matter of our arbitrary construction. We need to do justice to, be faithful to, the complexities of the past. “History,” he concluded, “should speak to the problems of the present without sacrificing the complexity of the past.”

A student hoping to become a teacher emphasized how much more self-conscious he had become about what he would teach his future students, and how. The past does not tell its own story, he explained, the historian does. Truths about the past that seem obvious become confusing or seem strange when we tell the story from a different narrative point of view, or start and end the story in different places. The power that a teacher can have over students just beginning to learn about the past struck him in a new way, leading him to advocate the importance of diverse perspectives in the classroom for his future students.

Studying these issues from the viewpoint of the historian’s vocation also bled into other areas of students’ lives. One said that she found the diverse interpretations of the past beautiful. “The past is not just the past. There are so many stories and so many characters and so many lessons.” She celebrated the power of stories and the “endless possibilities for creativity” in the work of the historian. She also “grieved” that the past can as a result be “manipulated, whether goodheartedly to tell a fine story or deceitfully to indoctrinate.” How can we find assurance, whether in our knowledge about the past or in matters of faith?

Cartoon of Inspector Gadget character with tools labeled as "skill sets for the 21st century", "learning environments," "a thinking pedagogy," etc.My favorite observation from this past year’s essays helps to answer this last question. It came from a student who said that our class had become an important community for her. She also explained how valuable is was for her to discuss the role of communities in making possible the work that historians do, whether in classrooms, scholarly conferences and peer review, or in public history settings such as museums, national memorials, and parks. When her own understanding failed her, she appreciated what she learned from other people in the classroom. She found comfort in the generations of modern historians who came before us and wrestled with the same kind of disorienting questions that sometimes bedeviled us. Her experience of community in our classroom had renewed her desire to transfer some of what she’d learned to others in the future.

Christians often emphasize how important it is for them to be part of a community of faith when their own faith falters. At their best, classrooms do much the same. When we wonder why we spend huge sums of money and many, many hours, days, and years  studying a subject like history, and wonder what its purpose is, communities of learning help us to keep the faith. Historical knowledge matters. And the work my students have done together has the power to shape their careers and lives, whatever kind of work they end up doing after graduating.

This post is part of a series on Critical History and Sacred Tradition.

William Katerberg’s areas of focus are the history of ideas, the North American West, environmental history, and world history. He is the chairperson of the History Department at Calvin College.

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