Some thoughts on Covid-19

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(This post is a work in progress; it is likely to get changed and updated whenever my opinions shift or I have had occasion to think more about different aspects of the subject. Last update: 2022-01-18 17:15:18)

We’re at the beginning of the third year of the global Covid-19 pandemic, and the widely differing opinons on the pandemic, and on the various measures taken by governments and businesses to deal with it increasingly divide society, affecting families, churches, workplaces, and of course politics. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

First a few words regarding my personal situation: I waited a long time to get vaccinated because it seemed a logistical nightmare, due to my health-related mobility problems. My GP does not vaccinate, and normally does not do house calls, either. The various vaccination stations either required long walks from the car park, or else (in the case of mobile stations) long waits outside, neither of which appealed to me. And in view of my living arrangements, in a remote village and again, due to my mobility problems, my largely house-bound state, I did not see the urgency.

In mid-December the opportunity arose, on the occasion of a visit with my daughter, to have her GP come to the house and give me a jab, and in a couple of weeks we will repeat this exercise for my second jab.

In my immediate family there are several people who are unvaccinated by conviction, and who wish to remain so, and I must and can live with that, and live well with that.

When it comes to the big discussion the first question is, of course, whether the pandemic is a thing or not, whether it isn’t simply a new variant of the flu, which we ought to treat just like the flu, with voluntary vaccinations, vitamins, and rest, and nothing more. Those who hold this opinion usually doubt official statistics on the higher mortality of Covid-19 or the strain on the healthcare system; they assume that the numbers have been manipulated by governments in order to justify those draconian restrictions of our civil rights which they impose for undefined but certainly malevolent reasons.

I find this hard to believe:

When I look at our politicians, both here in Europe, in America, and elsewhere on this earth, they do not strike me as intellectual giants, nor as the most knowledgable and able people (those typically occupy the much better paid positions in the business world). I don’t believe for one second that these basically second-rate people, across the entire political spectrum, manage to conduct a worldwide conspiracy which only a handful of cogniscenti have penetrated; that they manage to seduce the media, business (which, with the exception of vaccine and mask producers suffer from the restrictions), as well as the entire medical establishment to quietly go along with their conspiracy. After all, we are here talking about people who are surprised that their text and WhatsApp messages can be used to blow their corrupt deals wide open; we are talking about people who are surprised that the voters are not thrilled when they impose restrictions on us and then flout them, etc.

For such a conspiracy to work the majority of the world’s medical doctors would have to be corrupt and play along; business people whose companies are at risk because of lockdown etc. would have to be quiet; really all politicians would have to be corrupt.

It’s the adherents of such conspiracy theories who drive the divisions in society because they consider anyone who complies with the restrictions to be complicit and traitors who cannot be trusted.

There are others however, who do not believe in a worldwide conspiracy but have various doubts about the need for and the efficacy of the measures imposed by government, whether it is masks, social distancing, or vaccinations. Others consider the potential risks of vaccination to be greater than the risk of dying from Covid-19; or, among Christians, who do not see death as a huge tragedy and prefer it to potentially disabling permanent side effects of vaccination. I think that such considerations, such views deserve some respect even where we disagree; we should feel free, however, to restrict our contact with people who hold such views if we consider it necessary for our own safety.

So what do I think of the various measures imposed by government to deal with Covid-19?

I have absolutely no doubt that the measures are not always well thought through, and of course they are not either argued or communicated in an optimal manner. The reason for this is exactly that weakness and imperfection of our politicians which has me doubt the global conspiracy, as well as the tension between the need for measures and restricitions on the one hand, and the realization that implementing such restrictions could negatively affect a future election outcome: If government does not implement measures and restrictions to guard against the risks of the pandemic, and there is a sudden rise in the number of deaths, or a collapse of parts of the health care system, they will get blamed and may loose the next election. If, on the other hand, they implement all the measures recommended by the experts, when they, for example, require that masks be worn, or impose a lockdown, people may get so annoyed that they will vote for someone else next time around. This tension frequently causes politicians to do what is likely to result in the biggest number of votes, rather than what their conscience tells them is the right thing to do; this is one of the biggest weaknesses of democracy, however, the alternative systems of government have their own, even worse weaknesses.

Add to this the fact that politicians, both those in government and those in opposition, are typically neither medical nor economic experts but depend on expert advisers. Even when there is broad consensus on the necessary measures and restriction, there are also frequently very loud and vocal dissenters, and this makes it even more difficult to know what is the right course of action.

The other big question is how we as Christians should deal with the pandemic and with the “Covid Culture Wars”. I maintain a directory of evangelical churches in Austria, and have recently added a page summarizing the relevant government rules and regulations as they pertain to churches and church services. On this page I linked to two videos by two German Christian leaders, Johannes Reimer and Johannes Hartl, and I also linked to statements from the Evangelical Alliances in Austria and Germany (sorry, all of that is only in German).

 

Das andere große Thema ist die Frage, wie wir als Christen sowohl mit der Pandemie als auch mit dem großen Streit darüber umgehen. Auf der Covid-Infoseite auf dem Österreichischen Freikirchenatlas habe ich zwei Videos verlinkt, eines von Johannes Hartl, und eines von Johannes Reimer, sowie Stellungnahmen der Evangelischen Allianz in in Österreich und Deutschland.

I also wrote the following: “As Christians we are called to regard others higher than ourselves, and to obey the laws of the state as long as they do not contradict the commandments of God. And we are not to usurp God’s role as judge, and for this reason I would like to challenge us, as followers of Jesus, to be very careful in how we express our opinions. Much of what irritates us when it comes to government measures is most likely not the result of lies or an attempt to brazenly restrict our civil rights, but rather the result of politicians being overwhelmed by the situation and the tension between possibly necessary measures and the desire to win the next election and thus not to excessively annoy voters. I am expressly not saying that we should not criticize government — that is our constitutional right — but we should not be quick to attribute malevolent motives  to people, not to mention dealing in conspiracy theories.”

On January 18 German evangelist Ulrich Parzany posted on Facebook, “In view of the painful conflicts in Christian churches regarding vaccination and Corona restrictions I recommend reading Romans 14 and 15. However, there’s still plenty of conflict potential there: Who are the strong, and who are the weak? Those who advocate vaccination? Those who oppose it? In any case, it would be helpful if both sides stopped swinging their moral baseball bats.”

That was not a very successful appeal as the comments show: with a few exceptions, both sides continued to swing their “moral baseball bats”.

And actually, one can read Romans 14 in such a way as to defuse this situation. Let me paraphrase Romans 14:2 in two different ways:

One person believes he should be vaccinated, while one who is weak does not want to be vaccinated. One who is vaccinated must not judge one who is not vaccinated, because God has accepted him.

and—

One person believes vaccination to be unnecessary and dangerous, while one who is weak considers vaccination to be good and necessary. One who is not vaccinated must not judge one who is vaccinated, because God has accepted him.

 

The argument that opposition to vaccination is objectively wrong, or that it springs from a sinful ideology (as one of the commenters writes rather judgmentally) is as irrelevant here as the fact that Paul says that the Jewish food rules absolutely don’t apply to Christians. Accepting the other because God has accepted him (or her) has absolute priority here.

We should also remember that the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:5 that we should take every thought captive to obey Christ. And Christ tells us in Matthew 5:22f, «Everyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Whoever insults his brother or sister will be subject to the court. Whoever says “You fool!” will be subject to hellfire.» Therefore we would be well-advised, when we think of those we disagree with, even if we consider their views wrong and foolish, to discipline our thoughts to think “This man, or this brother, is wrong!”, rather than “This idiot is wrong.” I am convinced that if we disciplined our thoughts in this way, we would end up treating each other differently.

And let us not forget that we owe each other respect not because of our correct opinions, but because we are all created in the image of God, however distorted that image might be by sin or ignorance.

Then, when some argue that love of neighbor requires one to be vaccinated, keep in mind that every one of us is responsible for our own loving or unloving actions; pointing the finger at others has never been helpful.

Here are a few more thoughts on the notion that the pandemic and the restrictive measures implemented by government are some sort of conspiracy to restrict and take away our civil rights:

Especially here in Austria I would be very careful with such accusations. Unlike in some other countries, here in Austria churches and church services are explicitly excempted from the various Covid-related regulations; the public health orders explicitly excempt “venues for the practice of religion”, and every lockdown, including the lockdown for the unvaccinated which is still in force, had as one of the exceptions the “satisfaction of basic religious needs”, with government clearly stating that that his includes attendance at church services.

Basically Christian churches (and other religious organizations) are responsible to make their own rules as seems good and necessary to them; the most elaborate such rules are the Guidelines for Church Services (sorry, German only) by the Austrian Roman-Catholic Bishops’ Conference. It contains this remarkable sentence which evangelical churches would do well to adopt: “In order to not exclude anyone a priory from attending church services participation continues to be possible without proof or minimal epidemiological risk as defined by government regulations (i.e. tested, vaccinated or recovered).”

This situation concerning church services, as well as the fact that regular public demonstrations against the government’s measures continue unhindered, despite the fact that a majority of demonstrators ignore the distancing and mask requirements, is  sufficient evidence for me that the government is not simply trying to restrict or take away our civil rights — else this is where they would have started.

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Justice …

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“But let justice roll down like waters
and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”
Amos 5:24

A friend of mine, Karin Laser Ristau, who lives and works in a long-term care facility in Canada, recently posted this verse on Facebook, and in response to a question, “What is our part in this?”, Dr. Jerry Shepherd, Professor of Old Testament at Taylor College and Seminary in Alberta, Canada, posted this comment:

There are lots of ways in which this is prescribed in the OT.

Justice and righteousness in the OT, for the most part, means doing right by those who are in distress, in need, are oppressed, or are marginalized in society through no real fault of their own.

So the OT speaks a lot as to what is the “just” and “right” thing to do:

  • care for the widow, the orphan, and the poor;
  • lend to those who are in need;
  • treat everyone with dignity and respect as they are made in the image of God;
  • love one’s neighbor and love the “alien” in your midst;
  • provide for those who are poor by not completely gleaning your fields;
  • make sure the poor are not oppressed in court and deprived of their justice;
  • preventing people from being forced off their lands;
  • blocking those who would try to make excessive land grabs;
  • preventing the poor from being unfairly taxed;
  • putting a stop to the practice of accepting bribes.

These would be a few of the ways in which justice and righteousness was to come to expression in society.

This is a challenge to us as Christ followers, when we see many who do not profess to follow him displaying more of that kind of righteousness.  All to often we tend to think being a Christian is primarily about our own salvation, our ticket to heaven. But Christ talked about the Kingdom of God being manifest on the earth, and that is where we have a responsibility.

It disturbs me when some who hold decidedly unorthodox ideas display more of this kind of righteousness than some whose theology is impeccably orthodox.

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Hermit: A Web App Wrapper for Android

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One feature I really like about the Chromium-based Browsers (Google Chrome, Chromium/Iron, Microsoft Edge, Brave; haven’t found it in Opera) is the possibility to save a website as a shortcut. All four of these browses save these shortcuts in a folder in the “All Programs” menu (“Brave Apps”, “Chrome Apps”, “Chromium Apps”, from where they can be pinned to the taskbar, to the Windows 10/11 start menu, or to whichever “classic” startmenu you are using.

One can customize these shortcuts by adding the commandline option “–profile-directory=xxxxx”, then they will start a separate browser profile for saving all sorts of browsing data (cookies, passwords, etc).

I find this a very useful feature, but unfortunately the Android versions of these same browsers do not support this feature. I have tried a number of different apps which promised to provide this feature; the one which worked best was called “Anker”, but unfortunately the developer stopped maintaining it and thus it no longer works as of Android 10.

Now I have come across another app, called “Hermit”, available in the Play Store, which works even better than Anker. Among other features it permits one to backup all the defined web apps to a file, which one can then restore on a different device, thus avoiding the need to separately set up one’s favorite web apps on each device.

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My view of Judaism has changed

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I have just re-read four novels by American Jewish author Chaim Potok: The Chosen and The Promise, and My  Name is Asher Lev and The Gift of Asher Lev. Over the course of the past few years I also have read other, non-fiction, books and articles about Jews and Judaism, and in the process my views have shifted:

The more I read about the subject the more I am convinced that the typical evangelical Christian reading of the religion of the Older Testament, as a religion whose followers try to earn their salvation by works, rather than relying on God’s mercy and grace, is nonsense.

Of course there are nominal believers in Judaism, just as in all Christian traditions; of course there are legalists and others who think that they are good enough to earn their salvation, just as there are Christians like that; of course there are groups within Judaism who have abandoned faith in a God who acts in this world and who have reduced their religion to ethical principles—just like we have in Christianity as well.

But faithful, Torah-observant Jews know that they depend on God’s mercy, not on their own goodness—that’s the point of Pesach and Yom Kippur and all the other feasts, to remind them to depend on God who has shown Himself to be faithful before, time and time again throughout Israel’s history. They view their obedience to the commandments of Torah not as an annoying burden but as a joy — hence the feast of Simchat Torah, the joy of the Torah, at the end of the reading cycle.

Of course Christians lament that most Jews do not recognize Jesus as the promised Messiah. But it is high time that we as Christians recognize our own part in that, our own collective culpability in that regard. The Apostle Paul says in Romans 11 that he regards it as his — and thus by extension our — responsibility to provoke the Jews to jealousy as they observe God’s life in the followers of Jesus. In this we have spectacularly failed. Instead, throughout 2000+ years of church history we have excelled at provoking the Jews to anger, to revulsion, turning Jesus’ name into a curse word among them.

And even those among us who support Israel all too often do so not from a love of Israel as God’s chosen people, as the apple of His eye, but from rather utilitarian eschatological calculation.

Anyway, my reading, most recently the novels by Chaim Potok, has caused me to re-evaluate my attitude towards Jews, Judaism, and Israel. While I do not embrace any sort of “two covenants” theology (one covenant for the Jews, another for the rest of us) I can well imagine a merciful, gracious God taking into account how the behaviour of many of those who claim the name of Christ has made it difficult for Jews to recognize Jesus as their Messiah.

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The Taliban and “Christian Fundamentalists”

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Why I consider even a merely insinuated comparison of conservative Christians and Islamist fundamentalists to be scandalous

A few days ago this Facebook post was shared, without comment, by an Austrian Christian leader:

“Women can work but not be leaders” (Taliban). Now where have I come across that before?

My criticism of this was dismissed by this leader as “more than exaggerated”, and others agreeed with him or even denied that it constituted such a comparison. Someone else said that my criticism/protest suggested that the comparison was apt. Only one commenter agreed with me and said that he thought the comparison inappropriate.

I have since deleted my crititcal comment because I am not really interested in conducting a public debate with this brother; however, since I suspect that with the Taliban take-over in Afghanistan there will be more of these comparisons I would like to lay out why I consider these inappropriate.

I want to first of all express my appreciation for those who admitted that this post was aimed at conservative Christians; I think that it is rather dishonest to deny this.

Then I would like to point out that it is not at all my intention to defend the one or the other side in this debate of the role of women in the church; my own position on this is not at all fully or finally developed; more on this later.

It is also clear that “the world” which is, after all, critical of Christianity will draw such comparisons and will associate conservative Christians with Islamist extremists; after all, that is why the term “fundamentalist”, which originally was the self-designation of Christians who wanted to hold on to the fundamental  truths of the faith, has by now become a derogatory term used for all sorts of extremists, from radical environmentalists to Islamist terrorists like ISIS, Al Kaeda, or the Taliban.

What really bothered me about this post and the comments that followed was first of all the fact that these came from Christians, and in the case of the post itself from a Christian who is active in a number of ecumenical initiatives which maintain that Christians from different traditions, who hold to very different theological positions, should nevertheless deal with each other respectfully. To suggest this comparison is not dealing respectfully.

After all, the position of conservative Christian churches who restrict women from holding leadership positions is based on their understanding of Scripture; specifically on their understanding of the words of the Apostle Paul, for example in the first epistle to Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Timothy 2:12 ESV). One may or may not share this understanding, but one should never lose sight of the fact that the people in these conservative churches are Christians, brothers and sisters in Christ, for whom Christ died. This is why Paul’s words in Romans 14 came to mind, where he says, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14:4 ESV).

The second reason I consider this comparison so inappropriate is the fact that the Taliban and other Islamist extremists not only limit women’s access to leadership roles but suppress and oppress them in a multitude of other ways, threatening them with forced marriage, physical violence, and even death. By making this comparison one inevitably associates conservative Christians with all these forms of oppression.

Of course the same is true when one tries to associate the rejection of lived-out homosexuality by conservative Christians with the persecution of homosexual people by Islamist extremists, as when ISIS in Irak murdered them by throwing them off tall buildings. Christians have indeed in the past failed to treat homosexual people with respect; but to simply point out that the Bible considers lived-out homosexuality as contrary to the created order is no-where near on a par with violent persecution.

Now, as far as my personal position on these issues:

I have not come to a definitive view on the question of women and leadership in the church. I find the Roman Catholic rejection of women priests more logically consistent than the rejection of women preachers in an Evangelical context[1]; the question of women in church leadership is a lot less clear in my view. However, I find the manner and tone, in which this conflict is handled on both sides of the issue extremely destructive, both in the Roman Catholic church and in the Evangelical movement. Unfortunately the Protestant Churches in Germany and Austria[2], as well as the main Anglican Churches in the UK[3] and North America [4], provide prime examples of what conservative Evangelicals have always said: that the acceptance of women clergy goes hand in hand with the abandonment of biblical Christianity in all sorts of other ways, and that once some tenet of the faith is made optional, it won’t be long before it is abandoned completely.

I believe that this whole debate rests, ultimately, on a major misunderstanding: that a person in a leadership position is somehow better or more valuable than everybody else. This is a very unbiblical idea; Scripture tells us that whoever wants to be a leader should first of all be a servant of all (Matthew 20:26-28); it also tells us that one should not strive for leadership positions (James 3:1)
 
It is my considered view that women who insist on wanting to be pastors or leaders in a church where the official position or leadership does not allow this, instead of either submitting to the existing policy and leadership or else finding another church are just as destructive as conservative Christians who use all sorts of political agitation to try and change the policy of a church which permits female pastors and leaders, or as Christians of either persuasion who publicly condemn each other and each other’s churches.

After all, it isn’t as if this only applied to women. The majority of men are not leaders, either. And men who for whatever reason are not called to leadership positions in the church also have to live with it; no-one who is not called to a leadership position by a church can insist on his or her calling to this position.

In this context I am reminded of something that was repeatedly stressed in the church we attended in Texas: that only a limited numbe of men are called by the church to be elders, but that there are others, both men and women, who function as leaders, by virtue of their exemplary life and the wise counsel they give others. We can all aspire to be such leaders.
 
I have sat through several years of delegates’ conferences[5]  where a particular sister persistently strove to be recognized as a pastor; I have also sat through several years of church assemblies[6] where a particular brother tried in vain to be elected to the elder board of his church; in neither case did these increasingly desparate efforts make for peace or glorify God.

And on the subject of homosexuality:

Scripture is pretty clear that sex has its place only with the marriage of one man to one woman. I have more respect for homosexual people who acknowledge this and clearly admit that they are unable or unwilling to follow Scripture in this, than for people who deny this fact.

This biblical verdict excludes all sorts of things, such as pre- and extra-marital sex between men and women, as well as all sex between men or between women. It also excludes same-sex marriage. Thus, if a church claims to follow the Bible as the basis of its faith and practice, then these things are not acceptable in the church. However, the state is not the church; in most cases today it is a secular state governed democratically, and it can regulate things differently. As an evangelical Christian I don’t really have too much of a problem if the secular state wants to authorize same-sex marriage, as long as it doesn’t demand that churches recognize such relationships as marriages and even bless them. I also believe that homosexual people, just as all people, are created in the image of God and as such deserve to be treated with respect, and it really isn’t my business how people outside the church lead their lives. Within the church it is the church’s business to regulate these things in accordance with the Word of God, and a state which claims to grant freedom of religion should not really interfere.

In both of these areas Christians should be open and stand for their convictions, and it is o.k. to criticise those whose convictions differ, as long as this criticism  is expressed respectfully: it is the lack of respect which I found offensive and disappointing about the referenced Facebook post.

Note: the picture at the top of this post combines a picture of some Amish women, as stand-ins for conservative Christian women, and a picture of some Muslim women, each in what would be considered typical clothing. Needless to say, these pictures do not have a direct connection to the subject under discussion.

__________
  1. This is because the Roman Catholic understanding of the priest as acting, in the Eucharist, in persona Christi, i.e. in the person of Christ, and Christ clearly was male; this argument does not hold for the office and act of preaching[]
  2. Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland, Evangelische Kirche in Österreich – the united Lutheran and Reformed “mainline” churches in these countries[]
  3. Church of England, Church of Wales, Scottish Episcopal Church, Church of Ireland – the member churches of the Anglican Communion in the UK and Eire[]
  4. The Episcopal Church, Anglican Church of Canada – the member churches of the Anglican Communion in the US and Canada[]
  5. part of the annual convention of the Austrian Baptist Union[]
  6. the “Annual General Meeting” of an Austrian Baptist church where major decisions are made and the leadership is elected, all by majority vote[]
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Allister Heath on the Fall of the American Empire

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Allister Heath of the British Telegraph newspapers has recently published two compelling – to me, anyway – commentaries in the Daily Telegraph, one on Aug. 4, 2021 on the American “woke” crisis, and one on Aug 18, 2021 drawing conclusions from the chaotic fall of Afghanistan. Because these articles are behind a paywall, here are a few excerpts which seem to summarize his main points.
 
Despite my growing conviction that the stance most compatible with the New Testament is Christian pacifism, I have nothing but gratitude for the role of America in defeating the Nazi regime and providing Marshall Plan aid to rebuild Germany and Austria, and I thoroughly enjoyed the time we lived in Texas. So I regard the current situation not with “Schadenfreude”, but with sadness and a heavy heart.
 
(Italic emphasis is mine; “liberal” and “liberalism” does not carry the derogatory meaning in which the terms are used by American conservatives and Evangelicals.)
 
«America’s elites, led by younger graduates, have abandoned their post-1960s liberalism and embraced instead what Wesley Yang has described as its “successor ideology”: the sinister “woke” secular religion of so-called “social justice warriors” who see the world through the distorted prism of “intersectionality”, oppression, identity politics and the catch-all of “white supremacy”. These people say they want to fight racism but, in reality, are Balkanising America and have no interest in a truly meritocratic, colour-blind society finally at peace with itself, the original liberal ideal.»
 
«In the authoritarian, anti-democratic worldview which now dominates universities, big business, government and cultural institutions, free speech is dismissed as violence, conservatism as fascism and differences of opinion as “micro-aggressions”. Capitalism is loathed, as is free enquiry. The old elite – whether Left-liberal or Reaganite – tried to help the poor: the new elite dislikes the working class and seeks to deploy “cancel culture” to stamp out dissent. It attacks selective state schooling and campaigns to defund the police, moves that have led to an explosion of crime and are hitting minorities especially badly.»
 
«The Right, for its part, has also gone mad: too many Republicans have ditched their old principles – be it free markets, limited government or social conservatism – and instead embraced a dumbed-down, populist demagoguery on a long list of issues. Many Republican voters still believe, against all facts and evidence, that the election was rigged; on Covid, conspiracies have been rife. Trumpism could be the death of the Republican party. Left and Right hate each other: they refuse to talk, to live together, and they don’t want their children to marry one another. Race relations are also deteriorating again after years of gradual progress, according to polling.»
 
«No empire is eternal: all eventually fall amid hubris and humiliation. The heart-wrenching, humanitarian calamity that is the botched Afghan retreat is merely the latest sign that the American era is ending: Washington is no longer the world’s policeman, and an unsettling future of clashes between expansionist, authoritarian regional powers beckons.»
 
«In the late 1980s–early 1990s America’s global clout peaked.»
 
«Twenty years on, America’s global plan lies in ruins, its elites confounded on almost every issue, the stupidity and incompetence on display over the Afghan withdrawal confirming that they don’t understand the rest of the world, and aren’t fit to govern their own country, let alone the globe. Blinded by a simplistic universalism, they no longer understand religion, tribalism, history, national differences or why countries want to govern themselves.»
 
«America’s internal problems are immense: its constitution is broken, its predilection for second-rate gerontocrats such as Biden unrivalled. Racked with self-doubt, its elites in the grip of a bizarre “awakening” centred around a nihilistic, ungrateful self-loathing, it no longer has values to sell, neither capitalism nor democracy nor the American dream. How can people who live in terror of “micro-aggressions” find it in themselves to defeat real evils? As to the public, it doesn’t want to know about the rest of the world: how, under such circumstances, can the US empire not be in terminal decline?»
 
«The West has lost control: there will be mass population movements, currency wars and battles over natural resources. The American empire at least believed in freedom and democracy; what replaces it won’t even pretend to be liberal.»
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Two Vienna Churches: Stadtlicht and New City Wien

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Having grown up in a fairly traditional Roman Catholic family, by the time I reached my mid-teens I was no longer really interested in God and church. Then I met a group of young people to whom God seemed to be a living reality, and after spending some time with them I decided to follow Jesus myself.

After a few very formative months in England I came back to Vienna during the summer of 1972 and found my way to an evangelical church in the process of formation. This church later became known as the Tulpengasse or TUGA church, and was the subject of a book by Canadian Mennonite author Margaret Epp. Some of the people I got to know there are still more or less close friends today, such as Johannes Fichtenbauer, who today is a Roman Catholic deacon; others have already passed away, such as the church’s founding pastor and his wife, Canadian Mennonite Brethren missionaries Abe and Irene Neufeld; many others I have lost touch with after moving on, for a variety of reasons, to other churches both in Austria and abroad.

Today, the TUGA church is part of the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Austria, and thus also part of the state-recognized Free Churches in Austria.

A few weeks ago the TUGA church moved from their longtime facilty in Tulpengasse in Vienna’s 8th district, to the novum venue in Wiedner Hauptstrasse 146, in Vienna’s 5th district, known as Margareten. Consequently they changed their name to Stadtlicht – Freikirche Margareten, i.e. Light For The City – Free Church Margareten.

The Stadtlicht church shares its space with the bi-lingual reformed New City Wien church, which also recently moved to the novum location from their old premises on the other side of Wiedner Hauptstraße, a few hundred meters towards the city center. My connection to New City Wien is the fact that my son Stephen and his wife are pretty intensively involved in this church, and that for this reason I have frequently attended their Sunday morning service in the past.

novum Wiedner Hauptstraße is a part of novum locations, a company started and owned by Christians which owns and operates multiple dual-use facilities across Austria: these are typically used by evangelical churches on the weekend, and rented out as conference and seminar facilities during the week. This business model is not without problems, and the co-existence of the two types of users  is not always friction-free, but it has made available affordable meeting spaces to evangelical churches who would otherwise have a hard time affording their own space.

Stadtlicht have their Sunday service in the morning, and New City Wien have theirs in the afternoon. Because of the restrictions imposed due to the Covid pandemic both churches are live streaming their services on YouTube, permitting me to follow both services despite my health-induced mobility challenges.

Here are the links to their respective YouTube channels, where the livestreams can be found each Sunday, as well with videos of past sermons:

My prayer and wish for these two churches is that together they can be an even brighter light and can even more effectively seek the welfare of the city whom their names reference (Jeremiah 29:7).

There are two things in this story which are not without pain to me:

On the one hand the fact that some of those I got to know and respect in the TUGA church (and of course also in various other churches since then) have somehow and for a variety of reasons drifted  away from biblical Christianity, towards some other ideology or philosophy. While I do not feel called or qualified to speculate on the eternal fate of other people (I am much to busy to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling — Philippians 2:12),  when I hear about someone’s passing, and the report is cloaked in the unbiblical language of New Age or other eastern esoteric religion, then, while I commit this person to the boundless love, mercy and grace of God, I cannot help but have some slight doubt as to their fate.

And on the other hand there is the sad fact that it was apparently not possible to preserve the Tulpengasse venue as a space for Christian ministry, and so an important piece of Vienna’s evangelical history is lost forever.

 

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Twelve Good Rules

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These “Twelve Rules for Promoting Harmony among Church Members” are taken from a “Manual for the Members of the Second Presbyterian Church” of Charleston, SC, from 1838. They previously appeared in a similar manual for a Presbyterian church in Petersburg, VA, in 1833. They are variously credited to Thomas Smyth (b. 1878, d.1873), pastor of the Charleston church, and William Plumer (b. 1802, d.1880), pastor of the Petersburg church. The facsimile is taken from the “Complete Works” of Thomas Smyth.

Presbyterian churches trace their origins, via Scotland, to the Swiss Reformers, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, and are thus part of the Reformed tradition of Protestant churches; as is true of most Protestant traditions there are now both more conservative and more liberal Presbyterian denominations.

These “Twelve Rules” are, of course, not specifically Presbyterian, but would contribute to peace and harmony in all churches, parishes, and communities, regardless of denomination.

Twelve Rules for Promoting Harmony
among Church Members

    1. To remember that we are all subject to failings and infirmities, of one kind or another.” — Matt 7:1-5; Rom 2:21-23.
    2. To bear with and not magnify each other’s infirmities.” — Gal 6:1.
    3. To pray one for another in our social meetings, and particularly in private.” — James 5:16.
    4. To avoid going from house to house, for the purpose of hearing news, and interfering with other people’s business.” — Lev 19:16.
    5. Always to turn a deaf ear to any slanderous report, and to allow no charge to be brought against any person until well founded and proved.” — Prov 25:23.
    6. If a member be in fault, to tell him of it in private, before it is mentioned to others.” — Matt 18:15.
    7. To watch against shyness of each other, and put the best construction on any action that has the appearance of opposition or resentment.” — Prov 10:12.
    8. To observe the just rule of Solomon, that is, to leave off contention before it be meddled with.” — Prov 17:14.
    9. If a member has offended, to consider how glorious, how God-like it is to forgive, and how unlike a Christian it is to revenge.” — Eph 4:2.
    10. To remember that it is always a grand artifice of the Devil, to promote distance and animosity among members of Churches, and we should, therefore, watch against everything that furthers his the Devil’s end.” — James 3:16.
    11. To consider how much more good we can do in the world at large, and in the Church in particular when we are all united in love, than we could do when acting alone, and indulging a contrary spirit.” — John 13:35.
    12. Lastly, to consider the express injunction of Scripture, and the beautiful example of Christ, as to these important things.” — Eph 4:32; 1 Pet 2:21; John 13:5,35.

 

The facsimile page is taken from a Facebook post by Log College Press but should be in the public domain because of its age.

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Alyssa and her family need our help

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Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal. 6:2)

Don & Nancy Prokop came to Austria as Vineyard missionaries, and together with Dave & Lisa Boyd the planted and nurtured the Vienna Vinyard. Their children Amy, Alyssa, and Matthew grew up near Vienna and attended Vienna Christian School (now International Christian School of Vienna). In recent years Don Prokop is part of the Mercy House of Prayer in Vienna, as well as part of the intercession team for the Austrian Roundtable, a grassroots Christian reconciliation initiative.

Their three children are married, Amy in California, Alyssa in Germany, and Matthew here in Austria.

In April of 2020 Alyssa’s husband David Kogler found her unresponsive in her bed. She was rushed to the hospital, and the initial diagnosis was an unspecified infection which had gone septic and caused swelling on the brain (cerebral edema). Alyssa almost died, and a short time later doctors diagnosed a rare condition: Addison’s Disease or hypocortisolism.

All of this has left Alyssa in a minimally conscious state, unable to walk, talk, care for herself or feed herself. At 46, the once vibrant caring wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend to many, a talented singer, has been silenced.

Because of Covid restrictions, initially visits were severely restricted; in fact, Alyssa’s children saw their mother for the first time in a full year in April 2021.

Since last summer Alyssa has been in a nursing home; she needs round the clock care and intensive therapies to hopefully regain some of her abilities. All this is expensive; in God’s providence much of it is covered by insurance and government aid. Nevertheless, Alyssa’s husband David faces a monthly shortfall of $1800 (€1500).

This is why Alyssa’s sister Amy has started a GoFundMe campaign to financially support Alyssa and her family.

In the spirit of “bearing one another’s burdens” I ask all my readers to consider participating, according to their means and abilities.

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Lived Experience Trumps Open Debate – Should It?

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Let’s get this out of the way first: I am so sorry for the Trump reference in the title of this post—it does not refer to the former POTUS but is a quote from one of the articles I refer to in this post.

In an opinion column in today’s Daily Telegraph (unfortunately behind a pay wall for many) spiked columnist Ella Whelan comments on The Twitter mauling of Joe Rogan in the wake of the US comedian and podcast host suggesting that «the trajectory of “woke” culture is such that eventually “straight, white men won’t be able to talk”».

Her article illustrates and confirms something American theologian Voddie Baucham said in a recent interview (text summaryvideo) with Church Leadership Magazine and in his book, Fault Lines.

Here is the section from Ella Whelan’s column in the Telegraph:

According to some Black Lives Matter activists, white people need to “sit down” and stop talking about race. Feminists have long argued that men need to “lean out” or “shut up” and listen to women when it comes to issues relating to women. Transgender activists claim that any non-trans person deviating from the repetition of their “trans women are women” mantra must be a bigot, and therefore should be silenced. Teenage climate activists tell us we should be quiet and “listen to the science” rather than debating the best way to tackle environmental challenges.

In a recent online debate on intimacy during lockdown, I was told I couldn’t possibly comment on the benefits of dating apps for sexual exploration because I am married. In almost all aspects of contemporary politics, lived experience has trumped open debate, meaning that unless you fit into whichever identity or experience is being discussed, your views are deemed less valid.

In the interview in Church Leadership Magazine, Dr. Baucham discusses Critical Race Theory (CRT) which underpins the current social justice movement. He says it isn’t just a pseudo-religion but is rather its own religious movement. It has all the trappings of religion, a point which even atheists have made. The movement has its own cosmology, its own saints, its own liturgy, and its own law.

And here is the section where it meshes perfectly with what Ella Whelan says in her column:

What we have in our culture is not an objective truth, but we have a cultural hegemony that is designed for the purpose of oppression. Because of this we have to look at other ways of knowing. This is where narrative becomes very important, story telling becomes important, it’s one of the central tenets of Critical Race Theory. So in Critical Race Theory, if you want to know the truth when it comes to race and racism, you have to elevate black voices, you have to listen to the voice of the marginalized. And this is what people are talking about in church today, right: We have to listen to black voices, we have to elevate the voice of the marginalized. Well, in Critical Race Theory we do this because that’s the way you know truth—not through knowing God, not through knowing God’s Words, but through listening to the voices and the experiences of  the people who we determine to be marginalized.

So, even when we talk about having the conversation—and people will say, “You’re just trying to shut down The Conversation About Racism!”—that’s rooted in principles of Critical Race Theory, that’s saying that storytelling is the way we find knowledge and not through pursuing objective truth.

Since narrative, story telling, are the ways to find true knowledge, when folks tell their story they must be believed, their story must be taken at face value, however much it flies in the face of your own experience, of objective—even scientific—knowledge, or revealed truth.

But because it is only the narrative and the stories of the oppressed and marginalized, whether it be people of color, women, or those who identify with “alternative sexualities”, only their stories are worth listening to, and others, especially privileged white males, need to shut up rather than contribute their own experiences or opinions.

And finally, even those who belong to the oppressed and marginalized groups are only welcome to tell their stories and experiences if they fit into the grans narrative of Critical Race Theory. A black man, like Dr. Baucham, who tells a different story is dismissed as having “internalized racism.”

This edict, that all who are not fully supportive of the narratives and stories considered authentic voices of the oppressed need to be silenced, is at the root of what has come to be called the “cancel culture”, with the “de-platforming” of speakers who represent contrary views.

One of my own observations, and which all this bears out, is that it is typically those who call for tolerance and even affirmation of their own views and positions end up most intolerant of other views and positions. Even Christians are guilty of this: demanding freedom of religion for Christians in places like Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, etc., while at the same time discriminating against followers of visibly foreign religions in our own countries. It seems to be part of our sinful human nature.

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