Opinion, Theology

NZ Church is dominated by simplistic short-term theological focuses

This week the NZ Parliament introduced the Abortion Legislation Bill and it also passed the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill. Both issues are attracting understandable controversy in the NZ Christian community. However the responses to it from a Christian perspective are, as usual, dominated by conservative viewpoints, with Family First rushing out numerous releases and statements criticising both measures. The measures are also receiving considerable discussion by the New Conservative political party.

Whilst organisations like Family First do perform a useful role in keeping some of these controversial issues in public consciousness, they also highlight that most of the debate in the church in NZ tends to be polarised around conservative theologies that largely follow right-wing political themes. These overwhelmingly emphasise a black and white simplistic approach to just about every issue of a moral nature.

Issues like crime, drug use and abortion are much more complex than the simplistic perspectives espoused by organisations like Family First and New Conservatives. The latter for example has claimed that an expanded welfare payments system is responsible for many of our social ills. They simply fail to recognise that the government did not decide one day to create a much larger welfare system. The changes in welfare were caused by other government policies that resulted in large increases in unemployment. Many conservatives also highlight the breakup of families as a key factor in many of our social ills. This is quite true, or close to true, but there are causatives factors that aren’t just down to the availability of the domestic purposes benefit and so anti-welfare commentators like Lindsay Mitchell (formerly an Act party MP) are creating simplistic perspectives that are lapped up by right-wing  commentators who then spread them with their loud voices.

The usual reason we have such a dominance of conservative perspectives is that they are the ones with all the finance. Conservatism is generally the political viewpoint most espoused by the wealthy because it gives them a means to oppose change to protect their financial base. The Church unfortunately follows this trend. Much of our theology is subject to the same risk of ideological corruption as political belief systems when it is influenced by the interests of the rich and powerful members of society. Fortunately for us, we have just this week discovered that there is a community out there of people like us who can be morally conservative and socially or economically progressive. It is difficult to hold that type of viewpoint in churches where the majority of the members are completely conservative in their thinking, but we are sticking around our current church regardless because of other factors. The Church at large is not limited to the boundaries of individual fellowships. It is possible to have such viewpoints regardless of where we choose to attend and it is totally worthwhile networking across the physical boundaries of particular church fellowships.

In New Zealand the dismantling of key aspects of government social programmes that recognised the huge benefits to society of full employment, equitable housing costs and economic equality has largely been glossed over and sidelined by the church. The simplistic ideology and theology based around individual responsibility peddled by right-wing political parties and churches that support them fails to recognise that this type of thinking overwhelmingly favours the elite who have a lot of money, power or intelligence. This small percentage end up with all the gains they can extract from their enhanced opportunities and the majority end up with relatively little. In the Church we say people are blessed but we fail to recognise that there is a lot more at stake than just a person’s spiritual state in their relationship with God. It is true that people can be placed in a situation where they are being supernaturally provided for but that does still involve physical money that is in most cases being gifted by wealthier members. Some church members are in the position of being able to earn a lot of money because they are exceptionally good at their line of business, but there are a lot more who are merely self employed sole traders who have a moderately comfortable living but aren’t exactly rolling in the loot. So the ideology of individual responsibility inevitably does not live up to its claims as those who are favoured by it are a small elite and the vast majority do not gain a great deal. These ideologies when promoted to the extremes that have been prevalent during certain periods of government in NZ, most notably 1984-1999 but also more recently in 2008-17, have generated major economic inequality that has further driven deprivation in society. This in turn drives more breakdown and moral failure.

At the top of this thread we talked about misuse of drugs and abortion as current moral issues being highlighted in the Christian community. Misuse of drugs is an example of a social issue created out of the breakdown of family life driven by various factors associated with economic inequality. Abortion is associated with a number of issues such as casual sex, solo parenting and family breakdown. The problem for the Church is these issues can’t be solely characterised as personal moral failures. Many MPs who are supporting these measures aren’t drawn from liberal political perspectives as commonly they are receiving support across the political spectrum. Hence, conservative Christians have fewer friends on the right of politics than they once did. This is a key that the evangelical NZ church should actually be willing to take a hard look at its prevailing adherence to conservative political ideologies. The reason these theologies dominate is partly because evangelicals tend to shun higher learning and intellectual knowledge, and many of them receive all of their theological learning from a pulpit. Another reason is that the US Church is also dominated by a right wing group who are strongly involved in campaigning for and supporting Republican party presidents. The theology that this group champions, which emphasises US domination and rule of the “New Jerusalem”, is thus attractive to NZ Christian believers who are unaware of its shaky theological bases. This is one of the reasons we don’t believe in Christian politics or support parties like New Conservatives who have a Christian base because of our concerns that the Church should not seek political dominance or power. Abortion is an issue that is not just about unborn children. It is really part of reproductive rights, and the problem in the church is the way in which women are marginalised in some conservative theological circles.

The answer to many of these problems is a society that is more equal and that irons out many of the rich and poor extremes and contrasts that have developed in NZ society over the past 35 years, and the NZ church should be at the forefront of this cause.

Book, International, Theology

Review: Trumpocalypse

[Disclaimer: We have not read the book in full and are mainly relying on the advertising material and our extensive knowledge of “end times” activism]

“Trumpocalypse” is the title of a book by “internationally recognised prophecy expert speaker and author” Paul McGuire and Troy Anderson. We decided to check out these claims first off and are unsure if either of the authors really are internationally recognised, or at least in a widespread way, as we have never heard of either of them. Wikipedia lists Paul McGuire as “an American conservative radio talk show host…the host of the syndicated McGuire Report, broadcasting for over 100 years (sic)…a frequent guest on the Fox News Network and CNN”. Whilst Troy Anderson is “president and editor in chief of the World Prophecy Network” (according to their own web site) and “a former Los Angeles Daily News reporter who writes for Reuters, Newsmax, Christianity Today, Human Events, Watchdog.org, Charisma and other media outlets…”. What is reasonably clear is that these people are largely not recognised in the mainstream church internationally, which sets the stage for the rest of this review as they are probably only really well known within the small and fanatical circles of “end times” prophecy.

The key theme of “Trumpocalypse” is a a familiar one to students of “end times” dispensationalist theology. A US president has been elected who will be the leader of the free world who helps fulfil the purported events of end times prophecy and thereby usher in the age of the second coming of Christ. To that ends, it is simply the latest of many books and claims made over centuries. As none of these various timelines and scenarios have yet been fulfilled, this book is no more in tune with the actual “end times” than any of its numerous predecessors. The book is more of an attempt to justify the conservative Christian support of Donald Trump as US president, just the latest in the never ending quest of this segment of the Church for political power, along with many portrayals of the current (always Republican) president as some sort of equivalence to an Old Testament king and used by God in the same way as some of them were.

In order to entertain the many claims of “Trumpocalypse”, readers are enjoined to enter into specific interpretations of the Bible along with the specialist and highly niche “dispensationalist” theology. This book was drawn to our attention whilst watching a TBN Christian TV channel as such fare is staple fodder of these major US Christian TV networks even though they largely represent the highly conservative Christian Right / Moral Majority branch of the Church which adheres to the theology of “Dominionism”, in which America is God’s chosen instrument of His purposes in the world, chosen to rule and reign the nations for the millenium mentioned in Revelation 20. It’s for this reason that we choose only to watch the TBN Pacific channels ACCTV and Hillsong Channel, along with Shine TV, as much of the programming on these channels is much more mainstream and rejects the more extreme viewpoints of the “end times” movement.

The main plot of “Trumpocalypse” sees Donald Trump fighting a righteous battle against the worldly elite, the 1% of the world’s people who are the top income earners and are fighting for world domination and control. They are preparing to usher in a future age of slavery and servitude in which the ordinary masses will have no democratic or human rights as all of their property and income will belong to this elite group. There is at least a thread of reality in parts of these claims in that such a group of people does exist and they are amassing ever greater fortunes at the expense of the masses who have indeed seen their incomes and net worth plummet as a result of these activities. Furthermore it is a recognisable fact that the constant drive towards online cloud-based IT services and the rise of surveillance capitalism via the Internet is giving greater opportunities than ever before for mass surveillance to be instituted and become a part of everyday life. World events do in reality point towards a future in which a small group of people are likely to be able to dominate or take over governments and remove many of the personal freedoms we currently enjoy. Whether or how this results in the apcalypse long referred to in “end times” literature is a question of considerable debate however. This is why publications such as this one enjoy only a small following in theological circles generally and the wider Church, even in evangelicalism. A key assumption of the book, as in much “end times” literature, is that the Bible contains some kind of code to future events that has to be interpreted by some specially chosen people that have received a specific revelation. In that respect there is actually little difference between this theological school and many others, and the lack of widespread acceptance throughout the Church as a whole, even in the evangelical branch of the Church, results from the many previous attempts to interpret the Bible in this way which have not been fulfilled in the predicted timeline, or at all to date. One of the biggest problems with promoting Donald Trump as this supposed agent of righteousness is his own personal aspirations to join the ranks of the 1% which he has coveted for many years, and the policies he has promoted which have further enriched many billionaires and further impoverished the masses, such as the tax cuts he enacted recently and the repeal of Obamacare. This alongside his own personal moral failings which are perpetuated on a daily basis in his administration.

In essence then, this book is mainly about a group of conservative “Dominionist” Christian leaders who have sought political power by an alliance with another Republican president in a familar way. This seeking out of political leadership is a key hallmark of the Christian Right in America and elsewhere, as generally political leadership is a key right wing cause, due to their attitude as business owners that they are born to rule over the rest of us. However their cause is not inherently morally or spiritually superior to that of the rest of the Church, and as usual, the danger of becoming over-obsessed with “end times” prophecy and teaching is that it results in short-term thinking about the future with the result the churches and families drawn into these theologies become hollowed out by the constant overwhelming dominance of these themes. We reiterate that a key Biblical teaching that remains important and is usually glossed over or undermined by these prophets is that Jesus himself stated clearly that no-one was to know the time at which He would return. When He gave this word the disciples thought that He would come back in their own lifetimes, which of course never happened. So in fact the best way to interpret the “end times” themes is to point out that “end times” in the Biblical sense has actually lasted for more than 2000 years of recorded history so far and that truly, no one actually knows when Christ will return. The most that any of us can be assured of is our own personal “second coming” at the end of our lives when we ascend with Christ into the heavenly realms.