Vinoth Ramachandra

Long Revolutions

Posted on: April 2, 2011

Back to Blogging after a short break. I was travelling in the USA, accompanied by my wife, on a speaking tour of eight American universities, organized by the Veritas Forum. Two of them were in Atlanta (Georgia Tech and Emory) and the rest in the northeast region (Harvard, Boston College, Tufts, Wellesley, New Hampshire and Brown).

The US has an astonishingly high proportion of the best universities in the world, but they take their toll on students and faculty. Graduate students, many of whom come from outside the US, often tell me they feel exploited by a system that is profit-and-status driven. Faculty are pressurized to publish, and the quantity of publication often matters more than quality when it comes to securing tenure. I also find a reticence on the part of many Christian faculty to openly be identified as Christians for fear of persecution. Some intend to be more bold after they have obtained tenure; but, usually by that time, not only has their integrity been compromised but they have little interesting to say as Christians since their understanding of the Christian tradition has lagged far behind their academic “success”.

I kept raising the matter, wherever I could, of why alleged war crimes and acts of torture by Americans are not investigated by the Justice Department, while the US postures on the global stage as the great champion of human rights. I came up against a stony silence. The same silence that seems to have greeted my last Blog post “Does Truth Matter?”. I find it interesting that, whenever I write on some traditional “mission” issue, the comments flow thick and fast. Touch on what US citizens can do to help us deal with our own political repressions, and I come up against a blank wall.

Some of you out there have asked me to comment on the upheavals going on in the Middle East and North Africa. That would be pretentious, not least because I have no first-hand experience of that part of the world. I simply adopt a “Let’s wait and see” attitude to the political revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere.

I cannot help observing, however, that it is relatively easy to overthrow tyrants, especially when one has the support of the army and police. The really difficult bit is what comes after the revolution. Will the rights of religious liberty and freedom of thought be respected, and will hitherto voiceless minorities have a say in their own governance? Frankly, the prospects for the Middle East and North Africa are not very promising in this regard, because what is called for is a cultural  transformation that runs deeper than political revolution. Sudden, violent revolutions may excel at destroying the past, but they are generally impotent to create a future.

While I support the UN resolution over Libya, I continue to be sickened by the hypocrisy and double standards of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Who sells weapons to these tyrants around the world? Which banks and companies have been doing business with them? Where do they and their families stash their ill-gotten funds? These are the questions that the serious world media ought to be exploring.

And why has Libya displaced the Ivory Coast in the world’s media? In the latter we have a President refusing to relinquish power, despite having lost decisively to his rival in recent elections, and willing to slaughter his own citizens and turn a million of them into internal refugees rather than accept defeat. If any situation calls for humanitarian military intervention today on the part of the UN, it is surely this! But, sadly, Ivory Coast only produces chocolate, not oil.

David Bentley Hart, in his book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press, 2009) points out that the revolutions that transform societies at the deepest levels are those that also reshape the imagination and reorient desire. Christianity, in its first three centuries, argues Hart, was “a revolution of the latter sort: gradual, subtle, exceedingly small and somewhat inchoate at first, slowly introducing its vision of divine, cosmic, and human reality into the culture around it, often by deeds rather than words, and simply enduring from one century to the next.”

Hart is not, however, offering a triumphalist version of Church history. He writes: “The gospel has at best flickered through the history of the West, working upon hard and intractable natures- the frank brutality of barbarians, the refined cruelty of the civilized- producing prodigies of sanctity and charity in every age, institutional and personal, and suffering countless betrayals and perversions in every generation.”

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18 Responses to "Long Revolutions"

First off, thank you for coming out here to the US. And secondly, thank you for confronting us (and me) in our understanding of the issues that confront us. And thirdly, in this piece, thank you for including the extraordinary voice of David Bentley Hart.

The first three centuries of the church’s voice is still sadly lacking in our collective voice in how we’re dealing with an imperial world. A world of empire after empire, passing away, one after another before our eyes. Including the American and post-American realities we’re in the midst of as we speak.

If we rest in the words and the wisdom of the prophets and the apostles we’ll see beyond the ideologies that become out idolatries.

[...] Ramachandra has returned with a new blog, in which he quotes extensively from David Bentley Hart. That makes me feel better about the fact [...]

I too support the UN action in Libya. The effect of the 42 year old tyrannical rule cannot be destroyed in a hurry, its toll on the psyche and attitude of its people was visible even 20 years ago, but I am glad the fear-factor is gone now, but creating a future out of this cleverly manipulated system will certainly be a Herculean task.
However I neither agree that Libya has displaced Ivory Cost in the UN agenda, (but they’ll have to take them on a case by case basis) nor that their incentive is always oil, in which case US could always have made a back-door agreement with the present regime. Well to be inconsistent sometimes on foreign policies may be inevitable but that’s the challenge.

I kept raising the matter, wherever I could, of why alleged war crimes and acts of torture by Americans are not investigated by the Justice Department, while the US postures on the global stage as the great champion of human rights.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Vinoth! We need to ask this question as often as possible. It’s hard for Americans, many of us well-meaning and otherwise very thoughtful, to question our empire-building and *intentions*.

Quite interesting Vinoth that you quoted David Bentley Hart. In fact his book The Beauty of the Infinite was my entry to the Radical Orthodoxy collective writings some 4 years back. Loved and read them for a year until I read a critique by you and Alister Mcgrath…

Not intending to spam the blog but here is David Bentley Hart on Calvin (follow up of our conversation):

“Frankly, any understanding of divine sovereignty so unsubtle that it requires the theologian to assert (as Calvin did) that God foreordained the fall of humanity so that his glory might be revealed in the predestined damnation of the derelict is obviously problematic, and probably more blasphemous than anything represented by the heresies that the ancient ecumenical councils confronted.”

I wonder if the “stony silence” that you receive in response to your political activist pep talks on campuses is simply weariness from the constant “transform your government and the world” lectures they get. The fact is that your average US citizen has time to write a few letters per month to their congressman and then maybe vote. Let’s exhort them to become more Godly people (which would include a greater concern for the welfare of others and a desire to grow in holiness). Maybe the greater responses to the traditional mission issues that you write on are because people feel they can actually do something about those things.

I just read a fascinating Os Guinness quote that seems to apply… “In terms of influence, the problem is not that most Christians aren’t where they should be, but that they aren’t what they should be where they are.”

Can anyone help me understand this strange, confused comment from Andrews?

For example, how does one show “Godly concern for the welfare of others” like Bradley Manning without “transforming government”? (Or, let us imagine that it is one’s own brother who has been held in solitary confinement for over a year). And were Jesus and the prophets engaging in “political activist pep talks” (which I am charged with!) when they spoke of justice and exposed hypocrisies?

Does “the average American citizen” really write letters every month to their congressmen? If only they would! And what proportion actually votes? And if writing a letter to a national newspaper is harder work than throwing off crude comments on the internet, then maybe the discipline of writing letters about blatant injustices will help one’s “growth in holiness”.

It seems to me that the vast majority of well-to-do white men like Andrews enjoy freedoms that they think fell from the sky. No, they were won for them by a tiny proportion of ordinary folk who were willing to make great sacrifices. Some movements began with letters to newspapers. Others involved sit-ins, strikes, imprisonment, torture and martyrdoms. Social history needs to be taught in all our churches and seminaries.

And am I obtuse in thinking that the Os Guinness quote Andrews admires is simply stating what I have been saying?

I’ve been delving into the discussions you recently had in the US, Vinoth, and I was struck by your conversation with the unfortunately named Katrina Swett. I don’t know if she wasn’t prepared to go deeper into the topic, or she was just playing to the audience (which is possible considering her political experience), but it seemed to me that touching anecdote and inclusive language passed for an introspective look at the state of the Nation. While I’m sure she is a very warm and intelligent person, I just didn’t think that she said anything of substance with regards to the topic. The regrettable thing was that the audience appeared to be lapping it up.

I really don’t know what to think about Wikileaks. I’m torn between the horror of seeing the footage of a group of men and children being obliterated by the cannons of a circling gunship (at which point I feel compelled to highlight the shocking similarity with this real life tragedy to a computer game called Call of Duty 4 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4caDv58z38) and the belief that perhaps governments do need to keep their dirty little secrets under lock and key. What would Jesus say about such political machinations, I wonder? Still, I am please that you discussed Bradley Manning, even if it appeared to be lost on the audience.

I’m tempted to suggest that perhaps some of the stony silence you encountered on campus can be explained by the motives and beliefs that inspire and prop up the saying “God bless America”. If God is American (or at least has American interests at heart) then perhaps anything goes when it comes to the enemies of the Nation. That hypothesis is largely unsubstantiated, of course.

Keep up the good work, Vinoth (same to your wife). People are listening!

P.S. Come to Ireland some day.

When it comes to stony silence it’s not different here in India either. I think when it comes to national interest many of us are not just able to think first as Christians, but as citizens of the particular country we belong to. We are like “if our national interest will be hurt it’s okay if some people get hurt or some are killed. Justice is not actually the foremost issue here”. But that’s idolatary, isn’t it?

Whether it’s American or Chinese or Israelis or anyone else if we claim to be followers of Jesus Christ our allegiance is to Him first, our nation later. And we need constant reminder of this particular fact. Thank you, brother Vinoth for doing that for us. Since national welfare is a subject that is so close to our hearts oftentimes we tend to forget justice. But by reminding us time and again that our allegiance is first to Jesus Christ and his kingdom you help us to be more godly. Thank you.

Dear Vinoth,

I do think my comments were a bit belittling in tone. Please forgive me for that.

I was not suggesting that Christians not take any interest in what their gov’t does.

I am suggesting that many that you were speaking to might need more basic instruction in the Gospel and it’s implications for loving the people in their churches and their neighborhoods. My concern is that it’s far too easy to consider your “love of neighbor” done by signing petitions or writing your congressman than to love the difficult person that you live next to or the people in the pew in front of you.

I’m only left to guess that you’re referring to me when you make reference to ‘crude comments’ made on the internet. I did not mean for them to be crude but pointed. Again, my apologies.

Lastly, I am saddened by your scorning reference to me as a “well to-do white man”. It seems to be a veiled (but vogue) racial slur. It’s the kind of slur that sits well at Wellesley, Harvard and Brown but I’m not so sure how it sits with Jesus and how it squares with his Gospel.

In reference to the Middle East and North Africa, you stated. “That would be pretentious, not least because I have no first-hand experience of that part of the world. ” I think that it would be wise and Godly of you to take that same position toward America. I am sure that you have traveled and spoken widely in America (and at the same time, line you pockets with money from those you criticize), but you certainty don’t understand most Americans.

And somehow you seemed to have missed it, but US soliders have been tried, convicted, and punished for the murder of Iraqi civilians and were punished for their roles at Abu Graib.

Finally, the next time you find that your racial prejudice is getting the better of you, and you are tempted to generalize with terms like “well-to-do white men”, I would suggest that you pause and ask yourself how you would like to be called a “cynical brown man”

Greg, I have no objection to your calling me any names whatsoever provided that they are part of a specific argument. My reference to “well-to-do white men” was not meant to be insulting, it was part of an argument that you don’t seem to have grasped.

As for “lining my pockets with money from those I criticize”, I am afraid I haven’t received a single dime from any US government, neoconservatives or fundamentalist American church.

As for US soldiers being tried and convicted, yes- but not a single high-ranking officer, and none of the senior politicians in the Bush who sanctioned torture and “renditions” as regular policy. Can’t you see the difference? In the rest of the world, it is the commanders who are brought before war crimes tribunals, not just low-ranking troops.

Vinoth,

Your “well-to-do-white-men” comment was a racial slur plain and simple. I would guess that it reflect an internal attitude that you hold – one that is not God honoring. You may continue to deny the truth if you wish and remain in your sin, but please take allow me to paraphrase and update an old saying, “Do not urinate on my lower extremity and claim that it is precipitating”.

I doubt if you really know enough “well-to-do-white-men” on a deep enough level to form this opinion. Are you describing Paul Borthwick, Alec Hill, Steve Hayner…(just a few that you might know) Or are these the exceptions; men who are a “credit to their race”, since they are different than your prejudiced opinion?

Do you realize that African American leaders are frustrated by the younger generation’s lack of understanding and appreciation for the struggles of the civil rights movement. Or that there is a general lack of interest about the Civil War among many African American. It is not only “well-to-do-white-men” that may not fully appreciate the sacrifices of others to win rights for them and to single them out reflects an impure heart.

As for me, I clearly remember the almost non-human sounds my father made as he relived the horrors of World War II in his nightmares. As a 19-year old kid, he helped free Europe and liberate concentration camps. I have spent time with those who marched in Selma, been beaten and jailed. How dare you assume that I think my “freedoms fell from the sky” simply because my skin is pale and I have a few extra dollars in my pocket.

You stated “I haven’t received a single dime from any US government, neoconservatives or fundamentalist American church.” First, let me point out that your criticism goes well beyond those groups. Did you not comment about the “stony silence” and blank walls” you encountered when you raised certain issues? Do you not receive honoraria when you speak? Are you not paid royalties on the books that sell in the USA? In addition, does the IFES not receive financial support from America through various channels. Maybe this money has not directly made its way to your pockets, but I suspect some of it may have. I wonder where the IFES would be if not for the generosity of “well-to-do white men”?

“racial slur”?

What??

I really wish white folks would start to study history and sociology from non-white perspectives before they make such ludicrous claims.

What part of Vinoth’s critique do you find abhorrent, Greg?

I’m seriously having trouble following you. Are you suggesting that African American youth aren’t sufficiently grateful for the “sacrifice” of Union troops during the Civil War? That they should honor the memories of whites who were engaged in a war that wasn’t about blacks’ freedoms so much as about the financial institution of slavery? You’re upset that Vinoth didn’t point them out as well?

Like Jason, I have no idea where you are going with this, Greg, or even what you are trying to say!

Are you saying that Americans like you give money with the intention of suppressing criticism? Well, that would only prove the worst suspicions people have of our “charity”- but I don’t think Vinoth gets charity. Are you saying that pastors who are supported by their congregations must never challenge or criticize them? (That attitude used to be called feudalism!)

I see that Vinoth criticizes his own countrymen in his latest post (Opium for the masses?”)- would you call him racist and “anti-Sri Lankan” for doing so? I don’t think anybody does. But why is it that when he criticizes us Americans, some of us (and yes, it is mostly “well-to-do white men”!) call him racist and anti-American.

As a Sri Lankan I can vouch that Vinoth has not lined his pocket with money – period. I agree that there are those who do so in the name of Christ and it is very sad, but having known Vinoth for many a years a lecturer at the inter denominational seminary I studied in and as a brother in the Christ in the christian community …I could vouch that his life and testimony is anything but of one who worships the golden dollar.

Jesus went to the home of Zaccheus and the Jews found it hard to accept that he would have anything to do with someone who worked for the imperialistic Roman empire. He was critical though his ministry centered primarily with them. Once he had to turn the tables in the temple he worshiped in. To have the voices in the body of Christ raise up issues of its own body is a need of this hour.

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