Category Archives: Mark L. Movsesian

Senior, “A Theology of Political Vocation”

This fall, Baylor University Press published A Theology of Political Vocation: 5720Christian Life and Public Office,” by John Senior (Wake Forest). The publisher’s description follows:

Power, money, endless competition. A zero-sum game. Politics as usual. Only the hearty or craven need apply. The political actors have lost sight of the politics of a common good.

A Theology of Political Vocation takes up the question of public life precisely where most discussions end. Proving that moral ambiguity does not exclude moral possibility, author John Senior crafts a theology of political vocation not satisfied simply by theologies of sin and grace and philosophical theories of power. For Senior, political theology moves beyond merely staking a claim within a public conversation, a move that prizes discursive skills and aims at consensus concerning shared norms and values. Political theology must offer an account of a political vocation.

Senior connects political deliberation to moral judgment, explores use and consequence of power, analyzes political conflict and competition, and limns the ethics of negotiation and compromise. In light of this richer understanding of political vocation, Senior develops theological resources appropriate to a variety of ecologies—ordinary citizens, political activists, and elected officials. A Theology of Political Vocation shows how Christian politicians can work faithfully within the moral ambiguity of political life to orient their work—and indeed, their very selves—toward the common good.

Winter, “Divine Honours for the Caesars”

In October, Eerdmans released Divine Honours for the Caesars: The First Winter_Divine Honors for the Caesars_wrk03.inddChristians’ Response, by historian Bruce Winter. The publisher’s description follows:

Though the first century A.D. saw the striking rise and expansion of Christianity throughout the vast Roman Empire, ancient historians have shown that an even stronger imperial cult spread far more rapidly at the same time. How did the early Jesus-followers cope with the all-pervasive culture of emperor worship?

This authoritative study by Bruce Winter explores the varied responses of first-century Christians to imperial requirements to render divine honours to the Caesars. Winter first examines the significant primary evidence of emperor worship, particularly analysing numerous inscriptions in public places and temples that attributed divine titles to the emperors, and he then looks at specific New Testament evidence in light of his findings.

Announcing the Tradition Project

TP Banner

As reported in this story, the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University School of Law has received a major grant from the Bradley Foundation to launch the Tradition Project, a new, multi-year research initiative.

The project seeks to develop a broad understanding of what tradition might continue to offer for law, politics, and responsible citizenship. It will explore the value of tradition and the relationship between tradition and change in today’s world.

For its first event in Fall 2016, the project will bring together leading public figures, scholars, judges, and journalists for a lecture and workshops addressing the multiple meanings of tradition and the importance of tradition for American law, politics, and citizenship.

Through the project, the Center for Law and Religion aims to develop a broad clr-logo1and rich understanding of what tradition might continue to offer in cultivating virtuous, responsible, self-governing citizens.

For more information on the Tradition Project and the Center for Law and Religion, please contact the project’s co-leaders, Marc DeGirolami and Mark Movsesian.

Christians, the State Department, and Genocide

syrian christians

Photo from The Guardian

At USA Today, columnist Kirsten Powers writes about the State Department’s apparent reluctance to refer to ISIS’s persecution of Iraqi and Syrian Christians as a genocide. The reluctance is puzzling. According to press reports, the Department is poised to declare a genocide ISIS’s persecution of another religious minority, the Yazidis. If Yazidis are the victims of genocide, she asks, why not Christians? The situation of these two persecuted minorities is quite similar.

Powers makes a very good point. The 1948 Genocide Convention defines “genocide” as, among other things, “deliberately inflicting on” a religious group “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Obviously, what ISIS is doing to the Yazidis qualifies. So does what ISIS is doing to Christians. ISIS is driving Christians from their homes, seizing their property, and, quite often, killing them in the most horrible ways. How does that not qualify as a genocide?

Apparently, the State Department is hesitating because, unlike Yazidis, Christians have a way out. As “People of the Book” under classical Islamic law — which ISIS has purported to restore in its newly declared caliphate — Christians can choose to abide by the terms of the Dhimma, the notional contract that governs the treatment of Christians, Jews, and some other minorities. As dhimmis, Christians may remain in the new caliphate as long as they follow the rules – paying the jizya tax, for example, and accepting social subordination. (I detail the dhimmi restrictions ISIS has imposed on the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria here).

As Powers point out, however, on many occasions, ISIS has disregarded the dhimmi rules. Moreover, even at their best, the rules are punishing. The jizya is often set at a level where many Christians cannot pay it. These Christians have no choice but to leave. More fundamentally, how is it acceptable to tell religious minorities that things are comparatively good for them because they can “choose” to accept oppressive and demeaning treatment and manage to survive? Quite obviously, ISIS’s goal is to eliminate these ancient Christian communities. And it is largely succeeding: those Christians who can do so are fleeing. Some experts believe that Christianity will disappear from Iraq and Syria – places where Christians have lived the religion began – within one or two generations.

Last Friday, a group of Christian leaders, human rights advocates, and scholars sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking for a meeting on this question, at which they hope to persuade him that Iraqi and Syrian Christians, as well as Yazidis, should be included in any designation of a genocide. (Full disclosure: I am one of the signatories). Secretary Kerry has not yet responded.

Demacopoulos, “Gregory the Great”

Earlier this year, the University of Notre Dame Press released Gregory the P03214Great: Ascetic, Pastor and First Man of Rome, by George E. Demacopoulos (Fordham). The publisher’s description follows:

Gregory the Great (bishop of Rome from 590 to 604) is one of the most significant figures in the history of Christianity. His theological works framed medieval Christian attitudes toward mysticism, exegesis, and the role of the saints in the life of the church. The scale of Gregory’s administrative activity in both the ecclesial and civic affairs of Rome also helped to make possible the formation of the medieval papacy. Gregory disciplined malcontent clerics, negotiated with barbarian rulers, and oversaw the administration of massive estates that employed thousands of workers. Scholars have often been perplexed by the two sides of Gregory—the monkish theologian and the calculating administrator.

George E. Demacopoulos’s study is the first to advance the argument that there is a clear connection between the pontiff’s thought and his actions. By exploring unique aspects of Gregory’s ascetic theology, wherein the summit of Christian perfection is viewed in terms of service to others, Demacopoulos argues that the very aspects of Gregory’s theology that made him distinctive were precisely the factors that structured his responses to the practical crises of his day. With a comprehensive understanding of Christian history that resists the customary bifurcation between Christian East and Christian West, Demacopoulos situates Gregory within the broader movements of Christianity and the Roman world that characterize the shift from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages. This fresh reading of Gregory’s extensive theological and practical works underscores the novelty and nuance of Gregory as thinker and bishop.

This original and eminently readable interpretation will be required reading for students and scholars of Gregory and sixth-century Christianity, historians of late antiquity, medievalists, ecclesiastical historians, and theologians.

Bushlack, “Politics for a Pilgrim Church”

In October, Eerdmans released Politics for a Pilgrim Church: A Thomistic ResizeImageHandlerTheory of Civic Virtue, by theologian Thomas J. Bushlack (University of St. Thomas – Minnesota). The publisher’s description follows:

Church leaders and scholars have long wrestled with what should provide a guiding vision for Christian engagement in culture and politics. In this book Thomas Bushlack argues that a retrieval of Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of civic virtue provides important resources for guiding this engagement today.

Bushlack suggests that Aquinas’s vision of the pilgrim church provides a fitting model for seeking the earthly common good of the political community, and he notes the features of a Thomistic account of justice and civic virtue that remain particularly salient for the twenty-first century. The book concludes with suggestions for cultivating a Christian rhetoric of the common good as an alternative to the predominant forms of discourse fostered within the culture wars that have been so divisive.

Some persecuted minorities are funny

Take a look at this clip from a recent episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. In the clip, Colbert mocks Republican presidential candidates who argue for admitting Syrian Christians as religious refugees. At least I think that’s what he’s doing. Unfortunately, in attacking the GOP, Colbert, who often speaks publicly of his devotion to Catholicism, uses Syrian Christians as a cheap prop.

Republican candidates want to admit Syrian Christians, but not Syrian Muslims, Colbert says, because they think Americans can “relate to average Syrian Christians.” After all, Syrian Christians are “basically Methodists.” For example, he continues, with the cutesy irony that has made him rich and famous, consider Syriac Orthodox Christians. They say something called the Ramsho Prayer every evening—“Ramsho Prayer,” incidentally, is how you say “Vespers” in Syriac—and read their Bibles in Aramaic. He continues with what he apparently thinks is a hilarious sendup of the Syriac Orthodox patriarch, His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem II. Flashing a picture of the patriarch in his liturgical robes, Colbert jokes that the vestments make Ignatius look like “Golden Snake Santa Pope,” a comic figure who would fit right in as King of Mardi Gras. Colbert’s piano-playing sidekick joins the audience in guffawing.

Now, I’m sure Colbert, who often makes jokes about his own church, thinks this is all good-natured fun. How clever! These GOP candidates know nothing about real Syrian Christians, and if they did, they’d be shocked, those ignoramuses. But it’s in very bad taste. The whole joke turns on showing how weird and unrelatable Syrian Christians are. That’s why the audience is laughing so hard. (You want us to admit these people?) The Syriac Orthodox have suffered for centuries and are enduring one of their worst trials right now, and Colbert is using them for a cheap gag. The joke is particularly unfortunate with respect to Ignatius himself. I’ve talked to people know him personally, and Ignatius is a saintly man. (But what about those silly clothes?). For many years, he was the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop in New Jersey. He could have continued to live a pleasant life here in the United States, but returned to the hellhole that is Syria last year in order to lead his flock.

Syrian Christians, and Mideast Christians more generally, have a public relations problem. The fact is, they are culturally different from Americans, and it is genuinely difficult for many American Christians to relate to them. That’s one reason why the United States has done so little to help them in the current crisis. Mocking them as weirdos doesn’t help. Those golden snakes on Ignatius’s staff are an ancient symbol of wisdom. Colbert should display some of it himself.

Yoga and the University

Not into Yoga

Not into Yoga (Photo: Ottawa Magazine)

Earlier this month, controversy broke out when a Canadian university canceled a beginners’ yoga class it had offered for years. The reason for the class cancellation at the University of Ottawa is a bit murky, but a student government representative evidently told the instructor that the class showed insufficient sensitivity to foreign cultures. Yoga, after all, comes from India—a country, the concerned student explained, that had suffered oppression and “cultural genocide” as a result of “colonialism and Western supremacy.” The yoga class could be perceived as a slight to Canadians of Indian ancestry and to Indian civilization, and had best be shut down.

Many conservative commentators expressed disbelief. Here’s another example, they complained, of political correctness gone crazy. What could possibly be wrong with a yoga class? It’s just stretching. Moreover, there’s nothing unusual about appropriating positive aspects of other cultures. Aren’t we all supposed to be multiculturalists now? A yoga class is a tribute to Indian culture. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Etc.

We have seen a number of silly episodes on college campuses this fall, and I appreciate that people have grown exasperated. But even a broken clock is right twice a day. In this case, it seems to me, the students who object to the University of Ottawa’s yoga class have a point – though perhaps not the one they think.

The problem is not that a yoga class wrongly appropriates a foreign culture. As critics of the university’s decision rightly point out, there’s nothing necessarily offensive in that. And there’s no indication that the teacher or students in this particular class did anything to mock Indian culture. I imagine most of the students didn’t think about yoga’s cultural roots at all. Probably some of them assumed yoga was a Western invention. American tourists in Italy frequently tell Italians that we invented pizza.

The problem is that yoga, in its essence, is a religious exercise. (In America, in fact, some groups have objected to public school yoga classes as violations of the Establishment Clause). For pious Hindus, yoga is not simply mindful stretching, but a form of worship, as much so as Christian prayer. It’s understandable, then, that many Hindus find it deeply offensive to treat yoga merely as part of a good exercise regime. Indeed, an organization called the Hindu American Foundation has started a campaign, “Take Back Yoga,” which seeks to end the commercialization of yoga and restore the tradition “as a lifelong practice dedicated to achieving moksha, or liberation/union with God.” Think of it as akin to keeping Christ in Christmas.

Of course, the fact that Hindus see yoga as a spiritual practice doesn’t mean that others must do so as well. In a pluralistic society, believers must learn to tolerate many things. Perhaps a Hindu has no more right to object to secular yoga classes than a Christian has to object to SantaCon. (Word to the wise: avoid New York City bars on December 12). To each his own. Still, to my mind, there is something very admirable about fighting to preserve an ancient religious tradition from commercialization, misappropriation and dilution – something very conservative, in fact. Maybe the University of Ottawa should just offer a calisthenics class.

Panel: “The Present & Future of Religious Freedom” (Chicago, Dec. 10)

The Lumen Christi Institute will host a panel, “The Present and Future of Religious Freedom,” on December 10 in Chicago:

Recent controversy over the HHS contraceptive mandate and the participation of faith-based organizations in federal grant programs has raised questions about religious freedom in the American legal and political systems. This discussion will consider the perceived conflict between civil rights and religious freedom and the roles of Congress, the judiciary, and administrative agencies for how religious freedom will be understood, applied, and protected in the future.

The panelists are Noel Francisco of Jones Day and Michael Moreland of Villanova Law School. Details are here.

Drakeman, “Why We Need the Humanities”

Congratulations to CLR Board member (and CLR Forum contributor) Don 9781137497468Drakeman, whose new book, Why We Need the Humanities: Life Science, Law and the Common Good (Palgrave Macmillan) appeared last month. Here’s a description:

This lively book explains why we need the humanities. It shows how society has long relied on humanities scholarship to address important public policy issues. Donald Drakeman, an entrepreneur and educator, builds a compelling case for the practical importance of the humanities in helping governments make decisions about controversial issues affecting our lives in fields as diverse as healthcare and civil liberties.

Bold, compelling, and accessibly written, Why We Need the Humanities sets out a fascinating case for the importance of humanities research in the modern world.

Don has already written a major book on originalism, Church, State and Original Intentwhich has drawn admiration from scholars across the world. His new work addresses a subject that could not be more timely. In fact, Don previewed the book in a post on CLR Forum a couple of months ago — which is to say, CLR Forum fans saw it here first. Now, go out and by it!