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Rich versus poor

 

Last week Christies in New York sold a painting of Leonardo Da Vinci to an unknown buyer for the obscene amount of four hundred million US dollar (exclusive of the fee for the auction house).

As I write this blog the US Senate is working on its version of the tax reform bill that is one of President Trump’s main agenda items. The bill will greatly benefit the rich and will make the gap between rich and poor even bigger than it already is.

In the Netherlands the gap between rich and poor is much narrower than in the USA. But this does not take away from the fact that the richest one percent in the Netherlands owns 26  percent of the national wealth. It is most regrettable that the new Dutch government, that has only been in place for a few weeks, feels it is necessary to reduce the tax that foreign shareholders have to pay over their dividends to zero. This supposedly will make this country even more attractive for large multinational companies to invest in. This measure will cost the state 1.4 billion euro. And this happens while there are serious problems in financing health care and education.

Oxfam reported last week that our world now has 12.000 billionaires and 16.5 million millionaires (in US dollars). The richest one percent of the world now owns just over 50 percent of global wealth.

These statistics sound quite alarming–a least in my ears. It is one of the reasons why, since a substantial number of years, I have given my vote to one of the parties on the left of the Dutch political spectrum. Justice demands that the difference between rich and poor somehow become smaller!

This past week I saw a link to a website that made me aware of an aspect that I found even more alarming. When I look at my own annual income I must conclude that–in the Dutch context–I am in the lower middle-class. However, when I compare it with global statistics, it appears that I actually belong to the richest one percent of this world (See: www.givingwhatwecan.org/get-involved/how-rich-am-i/).

Of course, I am aware that statistics do not always tell the full story. And the amount one needs in order to have a ‘decent’ lifestyle differs greatly from country to country. Nonetheless, these figures do tell me a few important things:

  1. When thinking of the things I would like to have, the travel I would like to do, etc., I must never forget that my desires are of a very different kind than those of a big part of the world’s population who are struggling to merely survive.
  2. As someone who belongs to the richest one percent of the world’s population, I must critically look at my giving practices. Can I not be more generous when funds are raised to assist people who are is real need?
  3. Should I, as a christian, not be much more critical with regard to policies and plans that will mostly benefit the rich, and do nothing for those who are less fortunate? And should this not be a major factor in making my political choices?
  4. Should I, as a christian, not pay far more attention to the biblical values that condemn the extreme differences between rich and poor, and all forms of exploitation of the poor by the rich?

Seventh-day Adventists attach a greater value to various Old Testament laws than most other christians. This is based on their conviction that those things that were ‘good’ for the people and for society in biblical times, are still ‘good’ for us today. However, could it be that Adventists are too selective? Would it not be good to reconsider these criteria of selection? Should we not consider the principles we find in these Old Testament laws about social justice as at least as important as the rules in Leviticus 11 that deal with the scales of fish and the hoofs of various categories if animals?

Fake news

Mrs. Karin Hildur Ollengren, the new minister of interior affairs, issued this week a sharp warning against ‘fake news’. She alleged that foreign powers are also interested in influencing all kinds of political processes in the Netherlands, and that they do so by large-scale attempts to bombard the Dutch people with ‘fake news’. She pointed to Russia as one of the main culprits. It is therefore, so it appears not only the United States where the Putin administration–according to steadily growing evidence–is guilty of this kind of practices. Mrs. Theresa May, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, just days ago accused the Russians of meddling in British affairs by spreading fake news. Unfortunately, technological developments in the domain of the social media have made it much easier to spread fake news at an ever larger scale.

But fake news is not the only, and perhaps not the biggest, problem if we want to know what happens in the world of politics and other domains. We must also realize that all news sources have their own specific ‘color’, and report the news from a particular perspective. Since a few months I subscribe to the Nederlands Dagblad–a solidly christian newspaper. I had been a subscriber some years ago and recently decided to come back. (Very little sport news and very little attention for entertainment news suits me fine!). This newspaper does (I think) some excellent reporting, but the selection as to what gets into the paper and how it is reported, is, of course, very much ‘colored’ by its philosophy. During the past week or so, the reader might have thought that the talks about a fusion of two smaller branches of Christian Reformed Dutch Protestantism, keeps a large section of the Dutch population on the edge of their seat. I also read a number of other (on-line) newspapers to ensure a balance,  to discover what is considered most important in other circles and how things are reported elsewhere.

The above also applies to the news sources in the Adventist Church. The different media select what they want to report and all have their own approach and perspective. The flagship journal op the world church (Adventist Review) is mostly filled with ‘good’ news, about the growth of the church and about all kinds of positive initiatives. At times (too often, I tend to think) it seems that the journal’s main mission is to promote the president of the church, pastor Wilson. And to a considerable degree this is also true of other media, such as Adventist News Network and Hope Channel and many division websites.

However, there are also some media that are far more critical, write about topics that the official church media tend to avoid and provide investigating reporting into things that are not so positive. Most prominent among these media are Spectrum and Adventist Today. They have a very important role. But they are, inevitably, also one-sided and report from a very different perspective as, for instance the Adventist Review. A church member who wants to form a balanced opinion of what is happening in his/her church should follow media that operate with different ‘colors’, in print or in digital form.

(Doing this will also make it a lot easier to unmask the fake news about the church that so often finds its way into the social media.)

 

‘Boundary-crossing conduct’

In the Dutch language a particular term has lately become one of the most common expressions: ‘’grensoverschrijdend gedrag’, that is: conduct that crosses acceptable boundaries. About a month ago some American media came with very painful revelations about Harvey Weinstein. It was soon apparent that this influential film producer had been guilty of sexually abusing scores of women. Via hashtag #MeToo thousands of women around the world admitted that they had also been the victims of similar unacceptable conduct.

In The Netherlands we now also have our own Weinstein-like case. Film producer and director Jos Gosschalks has decided to leave the casting agency, where he had an extremely powerful position after admitting that in a number of cases he has been guilty of conduct that has ‘crossed acceptable boundaries.’ Several persons have explained in the print media or in television talk shows what this boundary-crossing conduct consisted of. It seems that Gosschalks’ behavior was a public secret, but so far he got away with it.  He has dramatically fallen from his pedestal, but one might well ask whether he should be torn to shreds in the media before a judge has had a chance to consider his case.

In the past week we also heard of prominent British politicians who were unable to keep full control of their hands, and who, as a result, lost their position. Stories of long-time sexual abuse have also emerged from the world of sports, in particular about trainers who abused young people that were entrusted to their care.

This ‘boundary-crossing’ behavior is nothing less than an epidemic. But is must also be said that the boundaries between what is and what is not acceptable in the relationship between people have at times become so vague that there may be disagreements whether or not something qualifies as abuse. Moreover, words and actions may be interpreted as intentional, while there were no wrong intentions. That does not, however, take away from the fact that there are a great many things which happened in the past–and are happening today–that cannot be justified by any stretch of the imagination. In recent years we have seen how in several countries members of the Roman-Catholic clergy have abused (mostly) young boys. But also in many Protestant churches countless instances of sexual abuse have taken place. In the past, these things were usually covered up, in an attempt not to damage the reputation of the church. Today many Dutch Protestant churches (Seventh-day Adventists included) have developed a protocol that prescribes what to do in cases of abuse. In addition, there is the rule that only people who possess a ‘certificate of conduct’ may work with young children.

The Adventist world church tries to ensure that ‘boundary-crossing’ conduct does not occur and that, when something goes wrong in the sphere of sexual abuse, adequate measures are taken. This means that in many cases the authorities will be notified.

But there is one particular form of ‘boundary-crossing’ behavior that is still not adequately addressed in the Adventist community: in most countries women continue to be discriminated when it concerns full access to the pastoral ministry. This violates the norms of modern civilization, but also clearly contradicts one of the Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists. We read in article 14: ‘The church is one body with many members, called from every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. In Christ we are a new creation; distinctions of race, culture, learning, and nationality, and differences between high and low, rich and poor, male and female, must not be divisive among us. We are all equal in Christ . . .’

 

Peace

This past week I was in Northern-Ireland. The distance, as the crow flies, between the Netherlands and Northern-Ireland is less than 1.000 kilometers, but I had only been here once before. I had traveled to a place North of Belfast, on the coast, where the Adventist ministers from Ireland (both the Republic and Ulster), Wales and Scotland met in a small conference center. They were twenty-seven in total, which reflects the limited size of the Adventist Church in these areas.

It is impossible to drive through Belfast without being reminded of the violence between Protestants and Roman-Catholics, which split the society for so many years. Even today there are a number of barriers between Catholic and Protestant sections of the city. Some of these are even closed during the night, but since the so-called ‘Good Friday Agreement’ of 1998 the parties have ceased open hostilities, and there is peace–be it still a fragile peace and in the context of Brexit fears are growing that the troubles could flare up again.

The Corrymeela-center, where we were staying for a few days, and where I was to give four presentations, played a significant role in the peace process of Northern-Ireland. The center was established some fifty yeas ago, and ever since it has been a place for people who work for peace on the basis of the gospel. Before the ‘troubles’ started in full intensity, the center brought groups of Catholic and Protestant young people together, so that they might come to know more about the others and to respect them; to learn about the things they had in common besides those things that separated them. During the peace process the center also had an important role.  Many of the initial exploratory talks of the different parties about a possible path towards pace were held here.

Indeed, Corrymeela is a place that exudes peace. It must be a combination of factors that produces that sense of peace: the extraordinary location, immediately on the coast, with a fantastic view over the sea; the absolute silence; the friendly campus with buildings of a sober but elegant design; and the absence of any blaring television screens. But it is, undoubtedly, also the efficient, friendly, but almost invisible, manner in which the center is run and how a christian ethos is modeled. Rarely have I been in a place for a number of days, when I never heard an unfriendly or loud voice. I experienced Corrymeela in all respects as a place of peace.

This environment may also have helped to make our pastors’ meeting a success. The organizers had invited me to give a number of presentations on the issue of unity and diversity in the church, and also to talk about the content and background of my latest book. In many respects the group of pastors was a very mixed bunch. They represented a wide range of ethnic and national backgrounds, and also of theological orientation. I, undoubtedly, have said things that were very much at odds with the convictions of some of them. But if there was one thing that characterized our conference in Corrymeela is was the respect for one another and the spirit of camaraderie. Or: a spirit of peace.

Peace is a precious article. I wished I were able to export it into the Dutch political and societal landscape, and, in particular, into the Dutch Adventist Church, where I so often miss this mutual respect and the willingness to understand others, also when opinions differ. I believe it is within our reach to be a church with peace and unity, in spite of all diversity. This past week I saw a sublime example of the fact that it is, indeed, possible.

 

Reformation: a renewal of our mind

Five hundred years ago, on October 31 1517, Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  He was not the first nor the last of the reformers, but he stands out as a giant among them.

In Luther’s days a reformation of the church was long overdue. But today Adventists would tend to say that he was not radical enough. And many would argue, there is still a great need for reform in contemporary Christianity, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The famous theologian Karl Barth–possibly quoting church father Augustine–emphatically stated that the church is, and always will be, in need of reform: Ecclesia semper reformanda. The corporate crhurch and all individual church members must always be ready for a critical self-analysis and be prepared to change.

Luther will always be remembered for his emphasis on the three sola’s: Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, and Sola Scriptura (only by faith; only through grace, with the Scriptures as our only source). And another (German) term that was essential for Luther is:  ‘Was zum Christum treibet’ (what pushes us towards Christ).

Seventh-day Adventists proudly claim that they are heirs of the Reformation.  As the world focuses on Luther in this year of the fifth centennial of his ‘coming out’, Adventists would do well to ask themselves if they are really doing justice to the key elements of Luther’s work. Officially things seem to be quite ok. We confess that we are saved by faith and through divine grace alone. And our Fundamental Beliefs make clear that we only accept as ‘truth’ what we find in the Scriptures. And, yes, we claim that Christ is the center of our theology, our beliefs and practices. But let us face up to the fact that we still have some major challenges in these areas.

This is, first of all, true with regards to the sola fide and sola gratia. There has always been the temptation to also strongly emphasize (and often over-emphasize) our own contribution in the salvation process. Problems with legalism and perfectionism have never been far away. We cannot claim to be true heirs of the Reformation unless the sola fide and sola gratia are key elements that reign supreme in our thinking and way of life.

But many Adventists also continue to struggle with the principle of Sola Scriptura. Officially we believe that the Bible is the ‘supreme, authoritative and infallible revelation of God’s will.’ But actual practice sometimes differs sharply. Many put the writings of Ellen G. White at the same level as the Bible, and some pay even more attention to her writings than to the Bible. I have heard many sermons, even preached by top church leaders, that contained more Ellen White quotes than Bible citations.

There is no doubt that Ellen White has played an important role in Adventist history. Her writings have been, and are, an important source of inspiration. But we must never lose sight of the important reformation principle: Sola Scriptura -  our faith rests on the Bible alone.

Was zum Christum treibet–Luther placed a strong focus on the BibleHe translated the Bible for the German people. He constantly emphasized that in our dealings with the Bible we must look for Christ. and for what ‘pushes’ us towards him. Officially, Adventists fully agree that we must always make Christ the center of what we do and say in the church. But, in actual practice, many have a long way to go.  For do we really make Christ the center of all our doctrines? Does the way we do theology and read the Bible always ‘push’ us towards Christ? After all, Christ said: I am the Truth. In other words: it is only in a relationship with Christ that we find Truth.  Our doctrines, practices (and even our policies) must ‘push’ us towards Christ

We must constantly ask ourselves, at every level of the church:  Do we bring people closer to Christ by the way we speak about him, the way we worship him and the way we practice our faith and organize things?

As I think about the meaning of ‘reformation’, Romans 12:2 comes to mind: ‘Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.’ (New Living Translation)

Reformation is not primarily about changing behavior or even correcting doctrine, although this is certainly involved. But what is most of all required is inner change, a transformation in the way we think: a new mindset – a way of thinking that ‘pushes’ us and others towards Christ.