Poverty

 

In his novel The Eye of the Leopard (as the title is translated from Swedish),  Hans Olofson, a Swede, is the main character. The book is written by the well know Henning Mankell, whose fame is mostly built on his Wallander policy series.

After a rather complicated youth Olofson travels to Africa for a short stay, but in the end he stays there for nineteen years. He works in Zambia on a farm owned by a white woman. When she leaves, she offers him to take over her farm. White farmers, however, are less and less welcome in this part of Africa, and after having suffered a lot of troubles and violence, Olofson gives up and returns to Sweden.

It is a fascinating, but tragic, story that will, especially, touch people who have lived for some time as expat in Africa. Even though I never experienced this degree of racial hatred in West-Africa, where I lived for almost seven years, there is much in this book that I recognize. I have also visited the East-African country of Zambia several times so that I recognize many of the places Hankell writes about.

Besides Hans Olofson quite a few other persons play an important role, in particular Joyce Lufuma and her two teenage daughters Majorie and Peggy. Joyce’s husband was one of the 200 workers in Hans’ employ. He died in an accident and Olofson—who treats his workers much better than most other white farmers—takes care of Joyce and ensures that the two girls  get an education. Olofson greatly admires the way in which Joyce and her family deal with all their problems. He visits them regularly in their hut—for their house if not much more than that—and comes to the conclusion that he—the rich farmer—is, in actual fact, in comparison with Joyce and her daughters, much poorer than they bare. They possess the kind of inner wealth that he does not have.

One of the (several) messages of this fine novel is that concepts like poverty and wealth are very relative.  This past week this was confirmed to me by a report of a Dutch planning agency that indicated how currently over 7 percent of the population, or 1,2 million people, live below the poverty line. When we hear this we must be aware of how ‘poverty’ is defined. Being poor in the Netherlands means living on a minimum income. The report explained that it means that one does not have enough money to buy any new furniture or to buy new clothes on a regular basis. For some it means that they must rely on the ‘food bank’ and it also usually means that a vacation is out of the question.

Not for a moment do I want to suggest that we do not need to worry about the unacceptable level of inequality in our Dutch society. It is scandalous that in one of the richest countries on earth some people must rely on food banks! Nonetheless, we must not forget the relativity of such concepts as poverty and wealth. I am rich when I compare my situation with that of most one-parent families that must live on social security or with those of my age who only have their state pension.  But I am quite poor when compared with the over 154.000 millionaires in Holland.  According to the norms that are used in the recent poverty report, I must conclude that the family in which I grew up was extremely poor—even when seen in the context of the 1950’s. We barely had enough to eat, but not enough to have something on every slice of bread in addition to a thin coating of cheap margarine. Yet, I never felt that we suffered because of this situation.

There is still ample reason to continue protesting against all poverty in the world. And we can never accept that so many people in the Netherlands can not share in the high living standard that most of us enjoy. Yet, at the same time, more people should realize, like Hans Olofson, that true wealth does not primarily depend on the size of your house or the amount of money you have in the bank.

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Northern associations

 

In the past week three cities in the Northern part of the Netherlands aroused some strong associations for me. The first one was Zwolle, where I went to preach last Saturday. Whenever I arrive in Zwolle and turn into the street that brings me to the church, and I see the street name Zamenhofsingel, there are memories of my youth. The Polish-Jewish scholar Leizer Zamenhof (1859-1917) developed an artificial language that was learned by millions of people worldwide. Esperanto, this simple language, without irregular verbs or strange plural forms, was supposed to make international communication so much easier. In the 1950’s and 1960’s of the last century Esperanto became quite popular. In the Netherlands courses were offered in many places and people travelled to large international Esperanto congresses. It almost became a kind of religion. In the village where I lived the headmaster of the public elementary school taught an evening class that I attended as a 12 or 13 year youth, together with my father. I successfully sat for an exam in the city of Purmerend, some fifteen kilometers from where we lived. Going there in the old, windowless truck of a local transport firm was an adventure in itself.

Later this past week my wife and I decided to use one the free tickets that come with our railroad pass for 60-plus citizens, for a trip to Assen. A few years ago the provincial museum in this town was totally revamped. Presently there is a special exhibition dedicated to the Dead Sea scrolls. The theme as well as the content of the exhibition, and the way in which everything is arranged, make a visit very worthwhile.

The manner in which the timeline of the history of the Jewish people, from the fourth century BC to the second century BC, is projected with living images, on one of the walls, is extremely well done. Looking at it, my thoughts went to the Bible book of Daniel. I saw on the wall the dates of 168 BC and 165 BC appear, the years in which respectively the Syrian king Antioch Epiphanes IV desecrated the Jerusalem temple and in which the sanctuary was rededicated. Many (if not most) Bible exegetes are convinced that Daniel’s ‘little horn’ points to this Syrian king. I have to admit that this explanation has always seemed more reasonable to me than the traditional Adventist (historicist) explanation. No wonder that many Adventist colleges have some difficulty in assigning the class on ‘the prophecies of Daniel’ to one of their teachers.

As we travelled by train, we passed Meppel. The train did not stop, but in a flash I saw the sign ‘Meppel’. It made me think of one of the projects that has kept me busy for the last few weeks. Some ten local churches in Meppel—among them the Adventist congregation in this small town in the province of Drenthe—has organized a series of events that center on the ten favorite Bible stories that have been selected by the Meppeler population. In a few months time the activities will end with a major event in the local park. At that time a booklet with some forty meditations will be made available to the public. These meditations will focus on these same ten stories. I have been asked to write this small book and when passing Meppel I was delighted by the the thought that the job is almost finished!

Zwolle, Assen, Meppel—three places that evoked particular associations. Tomorrow I will visit (and preach) in Deventer. I wonder what memories this beautiful Hanze city on the IJssel river will bring.

 

 

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Is every promise irrevocable?

 

This past week the Dutch media reported about two remarkable promises. On Monday the singer Trijntje Oosterhuis, daughter of the famous theologian/poet/ex-priest Huub Oosterhuis, announced on her Facebook-page that she wanted to donate a substantial amount to the nation campaign to help the victims of the terrible disaster in the Philippines.  She promised to donate one Euro for every person who would ‘like’ her Facebook message. After a few hours Trijntje realized she had been rather naïve. Having received over 250.000 ‘likes’, she made sure her generous offer disappeared. She issued a statement that she would make a sizable donation, but was not able to transfer a quarter of a million Euro’s to the bank account of the national campaign.

I have no ways of determining whether or not Trijntje has enough money to give 250.000 Euro’s. The Quote magazine, that seems to know everything about the rich people of this world, reported that giving such an amount would indeed take a sizable bite out off Trijntje’s cash, but that she would in fact be able to do so. Many people commented that they could understand that Trijntje changed her mind after things got so out off hand. Other knew of no pardon: She must do what she promised!

The French public watched in suspense to see whether another publicly-made promise would be fulfilled. Doria Tiller (27), who presents the weather report in the context of a talk show on the French TV station Canal Plus, apparently had little confidence in the capabilities of the French national soccer team. On camera she promised that she would present her weather report in the nude if the French would qualify for participation in the world championships. But, lo and behold, France ended the crucial match with a 3-0 victory. France talked about little else: Would (the attractive) ms Tiller keep her promise and appear naked in tv, or would she manage to find some excuse? She decided to stay with her promise and, totally naked, ran through a meadow, near Paris, while loudly announcing what weather the viewers were to expect. No doubt many viewers were somewhat disappointed that she stayed as far away from the cameras as she did, but—anyway—she did what she had promised.

 

Both Trijntje Oosterhuis and Doria Tiller would have done well to consult to Bible book of Judges and to read the story of Jephta. Those who are familiar with biblical history know that Jephta was the commander of the Israelite army that had to fight the Ammonites. In Jephta 11:28 we learn that Jephta was ‘seized by the spirit of JHWH’, and was convinced that his God would be with him. Against this background he made a promise that was about as stupid as the promises made by Trijntje and Doria. He promised that, if he were to return safe and sound from the battlefield, he would sacrifice the first thing that would meet him when returning home. Of course, he was thinking of a lamb or a calf or some other animal that was suitable for a burnt offering. But what happened? Jephta did indeed return in one piece, but as soon as he approached his house the door opened and his teenage daughter ran towards him.

Jephta was inconsolable. This was something totally unforeseen. To our surprise his daughter agreed that her father should keep his promise. And so he did.

Was Jephta obliged to keep his rash promise and kill his daughter? To me this is one of the Bible stories I find most difficult to stomach. Had I been near, I think I would have said to Jephta: ‘Don’t do this, Jephta. Nobody can expect you to do this. But next time, please, think before you promise something like this.’ And, if I were to meet Trijntje Oosterhuis, I would want to say to her: This was rather stupid, Trijntje. Now, give what you feel you can give. And next time, be more careful!’ And what I would have advised Doria Tiller, if she had asked me whether or not to keep her promise—well, I will keep that to myself.

 

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Literature

 

This past week began with a most interesting event. On Sunday afternoon I entered a place that until now was for me terra incognita: the Balie, a building for cultural events in the center of Amsterdam, near the well-known Leidseplein. At the other side of the street a number of television trucks were lined up that clearly were to report on something important. I had no illusion that they had come to film the occasion in which I was about to participate, but that their massive presence had something to do with the festivities around the MTV awards.

In the Balie an activity was to take place that was sponsored by a foundation for literary activities in Amsterdam and the publishing firm van Nijgh & Ditmar. It focused on the publication of a new book by Arnon Grunberg, who was to lead out in a panel discussion. The public had come in considerable numbers and paid 10 euros to be able to hear four experts discuss the topic of Apocalypse with Grunberg. The author was seated on the stage, with to his right a historian and an astrologist, and to his left a psychiatrist and myself as a theologian.

The topic of Apocalypse was inspired by the title of the newly appeared collection of short stories by Arnon Grunberg, who has become one of the Netherlands’ most popular authors. For about an hour and a half he skillfully led the discussion about various aspects of apocalyptic thinking. It became a lively discussion and Grunberg made sure that we would all be able to fully participate. I hope the organizers were not disappointed over my contribution. If they had hoped that I would ‘enrich’ the discussion with some strange details of bizarre endtime expectations (for which Adventists have been known in the past) they should have invited someone else. However, I believe, I was able to present a balanced picture of how (Adventist) Christians look towards the future, with hope rather than fear as their main sentiment. When I accepted the invitation I did not know what to expect, but as I left the hall, with a bag with Grunberg books under my arm, I had a positive feeling. Part of the 150 euros that I received for my participation was well spent on a meal with my wife and daughter, not far from the Leidseplein. (I certainly cannot be blamed for the fact that consumer spending in the Netherlands remains too low to create a speedy recovery of our economy.)

An extra bonus of this afternoon was meeting Rob Schouten again after many years. This author, poet and literary critic, who also since many years, twice a week, writes a column for the Christian daily Trouw, was born in an Adventist family. His father, who died years ago, was a pastor in the Adventist Church. Many of his poems and other publications show that Schouten has never completely detached himself from his Adventist origin. He told me that last month he was interviewed on TV by Jacobine Geel, on her weekly religious program. A few days ago I made sure to find this program and to watch it belatedly.

It was fascinating to hear Rob Schouten talk about the disappearance of his faith and about the church of his childhood. He sounded quite traumatized, but in no way malicious or frustrated. He speaks with a certain degree of tenderness about his Adventist upbringing. I cannot help but thinking: What a pity that ‘we’ could not retain such a gifted person in our ranks. (But than, we have seldom been successful in making artists feel at home in the Adventist Church. I could suggest a few reasons for this deplorable fact.)

Like Schouten, I was raised as a Seventh-day Adventist. I recognize many of his experiences, but it has not given me the same kind of trauma. In any case, the church that suffocated Schouten is not the church I remember from my childhood years. That certainly is true for the Adventist Church of 2013. In the meantime I look forward to the appearance of the new novel that he is presently writing. He mentioned that once again his Adventist experience will feature quite extensively in this new book. I can’t wait to find out.

 

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A sad story

 

1995 saw the publication of the book ‘Hoe God Verdween uit Jorwerd’ (How God Disappeared from Jorwerd). It was one of the early successes of the now famous author Geert Mak. In a novel-like documentary he analyses what happened during the last fifty years in a village in Frisia, in the North of the Netherlands. The character of the village changed dramatically. Not only the farmers and shopkeepers disappeared, but the religious outlook of the people was also totally changed. It is a beautiful book about an extremely sad reality: God disappeared from Jorwerd due to the relentless secularization of our times.

Just a few weeks ago another book appeared, also about God’s disappearance. Emiel Hakkenes (1977), the chief editor of the section on philosophy and religion for the Dutch daily Trouw, wrote a chronicle about his family. The title of the book may be translated as: The God of Ordinary People. And the subtitle as: How Faith Disappeared from a Dutch Family.

Hakkenes relates how very gradually he became estranged from his Christian Reformed background. The issue of his personal faith became acute when he had to decide whether or not his first child was to be baptized. Hakkenes tells his own story against the background of the history of his family. He starts at the beginning of the eighteenth century and follows the fascinating religious pilgrimage of his ancestors, building on the data he found during his careful (and adventurous) research. The thread that runs through the story is this: In the past religion was the basis of life in the Hakkenes family. But gradually, their religious experience changed and now faith is on the point of completely disappearing from this family.

There is much that many of us will recognize in these two books, both with regard to the process of secularization in general (that is certainly not limited to Jorwerd), but also with regard to the spiritual history of many in individual families. Many of my generation of early septuagenarians have seen how this same kind of process has taken its toll in their own family. More often than not the active involvement with faith and church has disappeared from the lives of their children who are now in their forties or below. When I take a look at myself, I cannot deny that over the years my faith has changed in many ways. But, fortunately, God has not disappeared from my life. Yet, I must add something to this.

On the website of the Dutch Adventist Church the reader is told there is every reason to be proud of his/her church. To a large extent I agree. There is much in my church, especially in the Netherlands, that I am happy with. And, in general, I have a lot of appreciation for the leaders of my church in the Netherlands. But my pride in the international Adventist Church is regularly severely tested. And many times I ask myself whether some of the top leaders do, in fact, live in the twenty-first century and do understand how people (in particular in the Western world) are thinking.

The commotion around the issue of the ordination of female pastors is developing into a very sad story. I was tempted to use the word ‘soap’, if it were not such a serious matter. While comprehensive studies are taking place, voluminous books are being written and one meeting is held after the other, the leadership of the church is in danger of losing its credibility. The largest subdivision of the church in the United States (Southern California) recently elected a female pastor as its president. Top leadership of the General Conference protested in vain. Days later, the umbrella organization for the Adventist Church in North America approved a document that endorses the full equality of males and females—also when it pertains to church offices. It was deemed irresponsible to wait any longer with stating clearly where the organization stands. I cannot but wholeheartedly agree. The top leadership again protested, but this protest did likewise not carry any weight. And a things are simply happening, the official discussion that is organized by the world church leadership, and is ongoing, becomes an almost superfluous and very sad story.

I hope I will not complete lose my faith in ‘my’ church and its leaders. I hope ‘my’ church will soon find a way to do what should have been done a long time ago, without jeopardizing the true unity (which is not the same as full uniformity) in the church. Perhaps I must accept that things often go slowly, and that hurdles may break the speed. In the meantime I will try to have some more patience. But it is not easy.

 

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