Parents and Power

I never really dated (how I ended up married is a story for another day), but apparently there’s a dating-related addage about judging your date not by how he treats you, but by how he treats the waiter. [I’m nice to waiters, if you were wondering]. I suppose the thinking is that people are always on their best behaviour when they’re trying to impress someone, but their true character can be seen more clearly in relationships in which they have the power to get away with anything.

As many other addages have pointed out, power is a corrupting force, and few people have the strength of character to resist being vile when they won’t be held accountable. It’s why we are ruder over email, and more vulgar behind the wheel.

In the same way that we often think that greed is only a rich-person’s problem, it’s easy enough to think that abuse of power is a vice that only the powerful can exercise. It occurred to me today, however, that all of us who are parents are at the apex of one of the most asymmetrical and easily abused power relationships there is. Why is it that, in spite of loving my kids more than anything else, I shout at them more than anyone else too? Why do they suffer more of my grumpiness, laziness, impatience etc. than anyone on the planet?

Sure, I have to be a parent and discipline them, and kids are frankly deeply annoying at times, but none of that necessitates a bad attitude from me. At work or at church, I’m able to hold my tongue, measure my tone, and if necessary apologise, and the people there are annoying too. Fact is, parents hold all the power, with almost no accountability. Much more than waiters, kids are a great barometer for what we really are like as people.

Beware: Possible hint of suggestive imagery. Not sure.

There appears to be a storm spilling out of its teacup and soiling a perfectly good saucer all because of some poorly chosen stock photography. The Democratic Alliance Student Somethingorother have published a poster which has been described by some as ‘shocking’. It features a beefy white guy hugging a non-beefy non-white non-male person who may or may not be indecently dressed. I for one would like the guy to put on a shirt, because really, some of us struggle to put on muscle mass. It’s unkind.

Anyway, the poster is so shocking that I am completely willing to post it on this site, which will automatically email it to my mother (hi mom!).Shocking No, it really isn’t shocking at all.

While some writers have intentionally misunderstood the meaning of the poster for comedic effect (it does invite some ridicule unfortunately), it quite clearly means to communicate that the DASO aims at a non-racial future in which the scene pictured will illicit no surprise. It’s an entirely praiseworthy message, although depending on the context, bumping into people apparently that undressed will hopefully always cause a double-take.

In spite of it not being any more shocking than day-time television, the Christian Democratic Party went to town on it. Theunis Botha, clearly unfamiliar with the extremes, claims that it is ‘distasteful to the extreme’, and that it promotes sexual immorality and promiscuity. He adds:

“In a country with high levels of Aids and an overdose of crime, especially the high incidence of farm murders this year, this poster sends the opposite message to the country than needed.” (Source: Mail & Guardian)

Of course, this is ridiculously far from reality. The couple isn’t doing anything lewd, and who says that what they may or may not be planning won’t be taking place within the bonds of holy matrimony? There is not much immoral or voyeuristic about the image either, because even though it is slightly racier than Jacob Zuma’s last election poster, the couple in view might easily be on the beach; there is nothing more revealing here than is on display onyour average day out with your kids to the seaside. The poster certainly isn’t advocating sex or spreading STDs, and it doesn’t promote promiscuity, unless seeing biceps the size of my thigh sends you into an uncontrollable frenzy. It may encourage farm murders, but I have yet to spot the connection.

As a Christian, I’m extremely disappointed that a Christian party would try to score cheap points against a rival on such flimsy moralistic grounds. Is it really serving any sort of discussion in this country to oppose a message of racial harmony because of an excessive amount of arm skin? Is it really necessary to radicalise your disagreement so that vaguely tittilating imagery must be described as ‘distasteful to the extreme’? In connection with a poster about racism, must you bring up farm murders, the big white-advocacy issue of our day?

I wish Christian parties were rather at the cutting edge of positive change, good ideas for promoting peace and reconciliation, for combatting poverty and so on. Instead we get this. It’s annoying that in response to a poster encouraging unity any Christian politician should be leading the polarising, petty, divisive rhetoric against it. The first step to overcoming our national problems just really isn’t the banning of pictures of hugging.

Prayer and Politics

Jack Bloom, the Democratic Alliance leader in the Gauteng legislature, recently published an opinion piece encouraging prayer as a means of moral regeneration that perhaps had the power to galvanise people to action in a way that politicians could not. Drawing anecdotally upon prayer-led regenerative movements in history and some of the changes that they had a role in shaping, he rounds off with the suggestion that conservative religious institutions should perhaps return to a position of greater moral and social authority. You can read his piece at http://bit.ly/wKjMmh.

A friend of mine, Jacques Rousseau, took issue with him, pointing out that anecdotal evidence of the sort presented does not actually prove any connection between prayer, religious revivals, and especially the change that has supposedly resulted from them. Any number of factors might have had a far greater role in, say, abolition of slavery, than religious movements. Jacques also gives evidence that secular countries tend to have a better ethical record than religious ones. You can read his riposte at http://bit.ly/yQ4x3E.

[Jack has since responded (http://bit.ly/Ar9BC9) arguing among other things that good secularism is still trading upon religious moral capital. This is a common retort, and one about which we’ll have to wait and see, I suppose. I personally doubt it is as simple as that. Anyway, the exchange is interesting and worth following.]

I would like to add a couple of points to the debate, perhaps we’ll call it one for each side.

Firstly, as an endorsement of Jack Bloom’s sentiments, I think that prayer can play an important role. Of course, much depends on addressing the true God and in the right manner, which is by no means a guarantee, but even from a purely pragmatic (virtually secular) perspective, it can be important. The reason for this is that prayer has a good chance of promoting humility. It is perfectly possible in the hands of the worst sort of people for prayer to be one more tool in service of hubris (take for example Jesus’ caricature of that Pharisee who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers…” [Luke 18:11]). Yet prayer is per definition an act of casting oneself upon what one believes to be a higher power. This ought to breed a sense of perspective.

Humility is certainly something that is needed in this country, from the top down. In fact, Jim Collins, a researcher of organisational change, has written identifying hubris as the first of five steps that successful companies take on the road to utter failure. Restoration of humility and renouncing of complacency are the only cure (http://amzn.to/UctDR). If prayer can play a role in growing humility, I say advocate it. If people end up praying earnestly to the right God who then turns out to exist and care, all the better.

Secondly, as a caution to Jack Bloom, in particular concerning his opinion that religions should wield more social and moral clout, I would be concerned that it makes all the difference who those religious are. The good sort are great, but the bad can be really bad. I would hate to be taking cues from the frequently confused type, but taking moral guidance from some of them would be hell on earth. Some confuse Sharia law for morality, or the ‘God inspired’ hatred of gays.

The Greek philosophers rated monarchy as the best system of government, if the king were good and noble, but had the potential to be the worst if the king were wicked (democracy, in their view was the least desirable because it had the least potential for going wrong, or for getting anything worthwhile done — hopefully they would like what we’ve done with it). Handing moral responsibility over to the religious could have good effect if they were wise, benevolent, principled, and selfless. But I don’t fancy the chances.

Paul (the Apostle)

I’ve been having a discussion with some American pentecostal types in which the issue of apostles has come up. I’ve written before about why I think Apostles like Paul no longer exist, but this time I was asking myself again why Paul isn’t a precedent for there being Apostles beyond the original Twelve (or 14).

The problem is that when Judas dies, the other Apostles insist that the replacement must have been with them from the beginning (from John’s baptism) and he must have been a witness of the resurrection. Clearly no one can any longer fulfil either of these qualifications, and this is one reason why big-A Apostleship is off the cards. And yet Paul also failed to fulfil them, but he clearly was an Apostle of the highest order. Does this mean that those qualifications were not so important after all? Can people these days still be Paul-like Apostles?

Well with respect to the requirement to be a witness of the resurrection, Acts goes to great lengths to show that Paul did fulfil it, albeit via a loophole. Acts recounts three times that he was graced with a special post-resurrection appearance of Jesus (which Paul refers to as his ‘unnatural birth’, ektromati, ‘by miscarriage’ or ‘at an unnatural time’). This was witnessed publicly, but its repetition in Acts emphasises how important (and unusual) it was.

The other qualification is simpler. Paul does not meet it at all. So the question is Why not? God doesn’t do things by accident, so if there was a reason for the two qualifications given in Acts, there must be a reason for a clearly legitimate Apostle not to meet them in Acts. Indeed, the fact that Paul recognised that his Apostleship was ‘abnormally born’ is an acknowledgement that there is both a proper way (the two qualifications) and that he didn’t follow it.

The answer to this problem is, I think, this. Once the Twelve Apostles recognised Paul’s status as one of their order, they nevertheless saw that he had a different role to theirs. They were to serve the Jewish church, and Paul was sent to establish Gentile converts. There was an acknowledged difference in his sending. It is the difference in his sending that seems to me to be the motivation for the difference in his calling. Paul began his career as a famous enemy of the Christian movement, tirelessly working to wipe it out. The Gentiles began the book of Acts occupying their long-standing historical position as unclean enemies of the Jews. By the end of the book of Acts, Jewish and Gentile churches have been established and united, and the Gentiles even prove to be the more willing recipients of the Christian message. What better person to choose to instigate the conversion of enemies to friends than the man who was initially the foremost enemy of the Christian message?

So the choice of Paul to be the Apostle to the Gentiles was reasonable and poetic, and it accounts for why he had to be chosen outside of the normal pattern. His election to Apostleship was picturing the work that he was being called to: enemy Gentiles were going to be made friends (outside the normal Jewish pattern of circumcision and submission to Torah). The surprising nature of Paul’s conversion and calling to Apostleship probably had a preparatory role for his mission.

This might seem to provide a precedent for other ‘abnormally born’ Apostles, but actually it doesn’t. As I’ve said, Paul acknowledges that there is a proper time and pattern for Apostles that even he didn’t fit, and that he is an exception, a miscarriage. Secondly, the exception was made for reasonable purposes: the inauguration of Gentile mission; this was a one-time event, so there is no reason to expect that any more exceptions to the rule in the future. Thirdly, as my other post on apostles argues, Paul himself does not encourage the church to seek the office of Apostle, but only the second order teaching ministry, i.e. prophecy. So, unless Jesus personally appears to you and gives you good reasons why you should be starting some new chapter in redemption history, you should probably not put yourself in the shoes of Paul or the Twelve. Call your office something else.