Why All this Hate?

Why is so much political vitriol spewed these days, not just from politicians and commentators but from ordinary people? Why is social media full of such extreme rhetoric? Why can’t we have a simple conversation anymore?

Yes, cable news and talk radio hosts have taken advantage of our situation. And yes, there are more than 50,000 Russian-linked social-media accounts fueling outrage by sending automated messages on both sides of issues. But these only feed on a pre-existing condition.

In the last few years I’ve read four books which all give the same answer. Interestingly, two books were by conservatives, one was by a liberal, and one was by an independent observer.

What did all these agree on? That the primary cause of all this contentiousness is not political differences. Rather it is loneliness.

In his book Them, Republican Senator Ben Sasse notes that since World War II single-person households have tripled to 26 percent. Rates of depression and addiction are increasing. At the same time, “Between 1975 and 1995, membership in social clubs and community organizations such as the PTA, Kiwanis, and Rotary plummeted. Same with labor union membership and regular church attendance” (p. 26). The trend continues with Covid exacerbating the situation. The causes are multiple but the result is what Sasse calls a Loneliness Epidemic.

Second, conservative commentator David Brooks made the same point in The Second Mountain. Brooks thinks our increasing isolation from one another has led us to gravitate toward twisted forms of connection. As Brooks says, tribalism is the evil twin of community. The first is defined by who is our foe. The second by who is our friend.

In a third book, Upheaval, Jared Diamond, a scientist and historian with a more liberal bent, likewise notes that a hundred years ago Americans were involved in book clubs, bridge clubs, church groups, community organizations, town meetings, unions, veteran’s associations and more. This fostered trust and reliance on each other.

Then radio, then TV, then video games, then the internet, and then smart phones increasingly kept people in their homes. As a result, “heavy TV viewers trust other people less, and join fewer voluntary organizations than do people who are not heavy TV viewers” (p. 352). In short, we are increasingly separated from each other, increasingly isolated.

The fourth book comes from independent author Jeffrey Bilbro who is editor of Front Porch Republic. He writes in Reading the Times, “As Robert Nisbet puts it in his classic study, The Quest for Community, an individual thus alienated ‘not only does not feel a part of the social order; he has lost interest in being a part of it.’ Loneliness has now become an epidemic in Western liberal democracies. And, apparently, being lonely is worse for some¬one’s health than being a smoker.” (p. 127)

We are homeless and so search, even yearn, for new types of community, which we are finding on line. “In other words, perhaps it is because we are lonely and detached from our places that we put such outsized importance on the news of the day” (p. 129).

What can we do about this? I’ll take that up in my next installment.

Image by Grae Dickason from Pixabay

Our Strange New World

The world is a weird place. Have you ever wondered:

♦ Why do most people, even those in Africa and Asia, wear western-styled clothing?
♦ Why do people believe that reason and science are the only ways to sure knowledge while simultaneously believing that we should make decisions by following our hearts?
♦ Why was every country in the history of the world a third world country until the 1800s?
♦ Why is soccer (aka football) the world’s most popular sport?
♦ Why are there now only six countries in the world that say they aren’t democratic when 250 years ago none said they were?
♦ Even though the western world has largely cast aside Christianity, why do we still tend to embrace the distinctly Christian values of love, freedom, justice, and human dignity?

Andrew Wilson thinks he knows the answer. And that answer is 1776.

In Remaking the World Wilson contends “that 1776, more than any other year in the last millennium, is the year that made us who we are” (p. 7). In that year we find not only the birth of democracy in the American Revolution, but also of globalization, the industrial revolution, the enlightenment, the dawn of romanticism, and the rise of our ex-Christian world.

The year 1776 saw the publication of Adam Smith’s seminal ode to capitalism (The Wealth of Nations) and of Edward Gibbon’s (Christianity was the cause of) The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. That year James Watt installed the first steam engine in a commercial enterprise, and Rousseau began writing his landmark book on romanticism, The Reveries of the Solitary Walker.

But wait! There’s more!

And Wilson fills in his premise with impressive amounts of fascinating detail, vigorous synthesis, and penetrating insight. All the while he brings in contemporary illustrations from Hamilton and The Hunger Games to The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.

Yes, he overplays the point that 1776 was the critical year for everything—but not by much. His case for the importance of that decade and the late eighteenth century generally is extraordinary. More to the point, when it comes to why our world is the way it is, he exhibits vast and highly illuminating explanatory power.

Wilson closes with three Christian themes from the 1770s to help navigate the weird world that decade has bestowed on us.

Grace. We do not bear the impossible burden that our (enlightenment and romantic) world places on us of creating our own identity, status, and value. Rather, God shows his favor to us regardless of our accomplishments, intelligence, or wealth.

Freedom. Though Christians have often failed to live up to Jesus’ model of offering good news to the poor and liberty for the oppressed, we still have the opportunity to champion both. By the Spirit we can battle two opposite lies. On the one hand we can oppose the idol of materialistic (industrialized, affluent) success in the church in favor of spiritual flourishing. On the other hand, we can fight the gnostic heresy that the material world doesn’t matter by combating the lie that the physical lives of the poor and oppressed are not important.

Truth. Reality is not lodged in abstract, impersonal, scientifically verifiable principles. Rather truth is graciously personified in the Father, Son, and Spirit. Jesus, who was full of both grace and truth, again is our model. We dare not separate the two.

If you want to understand what’s going on in the world today and respond to it fruitfully, don’t follow the news. Instead read my “Book of the Year”—Remaking the World.

Being a True Patriot

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Original sin is not a popular notion. You sure won’t find Oprah supporting it. The idea that we are born with a tendency to do wrong, to be selfish, to ignore the common good is just downright unAmerican.

As McKenzie notes in We the Fallen People, “A New York Times poll found that 73 percent of Americans believed that humans are born good. A 2014 Lifeway survey found that two-thirds (67 percent) of respondents believe that ‘most people are by nature good’” [250-51].

Today we live in what Tom Wolfe called the “Me Generation” and what David Brooks labeled in The Road to Character as the age of “the Big Me.” Yet, contrary to popular opinion, our sinful nature is, as Chesterton once observed, the only Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable.*

Admitting our flaws and weaknesses is the first step to improvement. That goes for us as individuals and as a country. As I’ve noted over several blog posts (beginning here), McKenzie makes the case that the Founders of America had a very different view of human makeup than we do today. They believed so strongly in our flawed natures that they structured the Constitution on this foundational idea to protect us from ourselves. McKenzie writes:

There’s nothing unpatriotic about acknowledging moral failures in our country’s past. G. K. Chesterton emphasized this truth over a century ago in his classic work Orthodoxy. In its essence, patriotism is less an expression of pride than a commitment to love a particular human community, and authentic love “is not blind,” Chesterton observed. “That is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound, the less it is blind.” Never for a minute accept the false dichotomy that pits patriotism against an honest acknowledgment of America’s failures and flaws. Because love binds rather than blinds, we are free to criticize our country without somehow betraying it. [259]

Living out a conviction of original sin will require that we confess the allure of power, acknowledge the danger of power, and work proactively to mitigate the abuse of power. If we accept the reality of original sin, we’ll know that the seductiveness of power is fueled by our self-interested nature. . . .

Heeding their [the Founders’] warning is complicated by two obstacles. First, in our heart of hearts we doubt that it really applies to us. Too much power may be dangerous in the hands of Nazis or Democrats or our teenage children, but we’re confident that we can be trusted. Second, we are blinded by our preoccupation with the present, unaware of how much the fall has left us short-sighted as well as selfish. [272]

It will require agreeing with the Framers that power is dangerous whoever wields it, not just when it is controlled by our political rivals. [279]

Criticizing the nation or the government is not disloyalty. Those from the right and the left do it all the time. True patriotism is love of country, celebrating what is good, and wanting what is best for all, but not blind loyalty. It is also admitting flaws in our past and in our present. Only then can we move from the good toward the better.

*G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908; repr., New York: Image Books, 2001), 8-9, noted in We the Fallen People, p. 70.

Image by Clarence Alford from Pixabay

The Perils of Religion and Politics

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Should religion and politics mix? Many today decry the involvement of “evangelicals” while others hail their impact. Religion has always had an influence. But are there better ways and worse ways to do it?

In the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his classic Democracy in America that the clergy wielded extraordinary and positive influence in the country. How did they do it? Counterintuitively, they succeeded precisely because they deliberately distanced themselves from political parties.

As Robert Tracy McKenzie, in his landmark book, We the Fallen People, summarizes it,

It is by keeping all political parties at arms’ length, Tocqueville concludes, that America’s religious leaders have helped to make religion “the first of America’s political institutions.” By eschewing power, they have grown in influence. But note that this influence is indirect. “Religion in the United States never intervenes directly in government,” Tocqueville explains. “One cannot say” that it “influences the laws or the specifics of political opinion.” What it does is influence American mores, and it influences mores because “Christianity maintains more actual power over souls in America than anywhere else.” (p. 239)

McKenzie highlights Tocqueville’s exceptionally clear explanation of why direct identification with a party is so problematic for Christians, though really for any religion. This French aristocrat and nominal Christian shows a clearer understanding of the priority that the gospel should have over politics than many today.

American clergy in the 1830s recognized what so many contemporary Christian leaders have forgotten—namely, that political influence always comes at a cost to the church. When Christians ally themselves with a particular political leader or party, the church “increases its power over some but gives up hope of reigning over all.” The reason for this [writes Tocqueville] is straightforward: “Religion cannot share the material might of those who govern without incurring some of the hatred they inspire.” (p. 239)

I have friends, and perhaps you do as well, who have turned their backs on Christianity because they so disagree with the current policies and actions of the Republican party. Since they see so many Christians aligned with that party and its candidates, they reject Christianity too.

While those of us who are committed Christians are clearly called to support the causes of justice, this should not be at the cost of bearing witness to the kingdom. Indeed, many conservative Christians claim that the most important thing they can do is spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet they seem quite willing to sacrifice that on the altar of political power.

In a recent article Tim Keller echoes this sentiment:

In a polarized environment, white evangelicals’ strong identification with one party and one presidential candidate has produced deep and hostile reactions from the 50% of the country opposed to this political platform. And, in general, the 50% that it has alienated is younger and more multi-ethnic. Many fundamentalists consider this a victory, rather than a defeat. My informal perception is that many conservative Protestants voted for Donald Trump, but did so with far less enthusiasm or approval than fundamentalist Christians. But in any case, the identification of conservative religion with the political Right is now very strong in the public mind, and is a turn-off [to the Christian faith] to a large percentage of the populace.

Let me be clear. The reverse can and has happened. Some churches have been so identified with left-leaning politics that they also alienate half the population to the faith.

The separation of church and state is not just a good idea for the state. It’s good for the church too. One of the reasons the church in Europe has become so weak in recent centuries is that many countries have a state-sponsored religion. Two centuries ago Tocqueville saw that this practice generates disdain for the religion associated with detested political structures. Maintaining separation gives the church more influence in society morally and spiritually.

Should the church exercise public moral leadership? Yes. Work for justice and social reform? Yes. Become identified corporately with one party or candidate? No.

Image by alila1 from Pixabay

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of We the Fallen People from the Publisher. My opinions are my own.

Why a Flawed Democracy Worked

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What has made democracy in America work despite its drawbacks?

One weakness Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his classic Democracy in America sounds all too familiar today. In the 1830s he saw that the most noble and qualified people were seldom elected. Instead those who won office often bowed to the lower impulses of the electorate rather than courageously doing what was right in the face of public opinion.

Another problem he spotted is also eerily familiar. Elected officials regularly offered simplistic answers which cannot hold in the face of complex problems. “An idea that is clear and precise even though false,” Tocqueville observed, “will always have greater power in the world than an idea that is true and complex” (p. 194). That is so whether the ideas come from the right or the left.

Why then, he wondered, did democracy still work in America? One reason he gave is geography. The country was so vast and open while the government was so small that it could not easily involve itself with the citizenry. In addition there is so much cultivatable land that the average citizen could prosper, adding stability to the country and the government.

A second reason was the Constitution with its brilliant collection of checks and balances (discussed in a previous post here).

Third were the country’s mores. Mores is a squishy term, but Robert Tracy McKenzie in his own exceptional book, We the Fallen People helpfully summarizes it and Tocqueville as a whole. Mores are “the common beliefs and values that shaped the ways that whites in Jacksonian America interacted with each other and their government” (p. 228).

Tocqueville labeled one such key belief as “self-interest, properly understood” united with Christian ideals. “The first trained them to believe that their short-term desires could betray their long-term self-interest. The second [Christian ideals] warned them that what they had the power to do was not always morally proper to do.

“What unified these seemingly disparate dispositions is that they both inculcated what Tocqueville calls ‘habits of restraint.’ In essence, both their religious beliefs and their commitment to ‘self-interest, properly understood’ conditioned Americans to question the wisdom of their natural impulses. To the degree that they did so, they discouraged a supremely self-confident and all-powerful majority from becoming agents of tyranny” (p. 229).

Americans lived by “enlightened” self-interest. It’s a big question whether we still do so now. Not only do children today rarely exhibit the virtue of delayed gratification; adults have trouble as well. Credit card debt is just one case in point. Concern for our economic well-being now can overwhelm long-term considerations for the Social Security system, the national debt, the environment, the country’s infrastructure, immigration, and more.

The appeal of both long-term self-interest and religion have diminished in recent decades. In the next post in this series we will consider how religion might have a more beneficial role in society.

Image by Mustafa Kücük – v. Gruenewaldt from Pixabay

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of We the Fallen People from the Publisher. My opinions are my own.

Where We Are All Above Average

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You’ve seen the surveys. Most people think they are more friendly, more intelligent, more honest than average—an obvious impossibility.

We have a hard time seeing ourselves objectively. We are just too close, and too likely to accentuate our virtues and minimize our weaknesses. It’s true of groups (sometimes called ethnocentrism) as well as individuals. How can we then get an accurate view? An outside assessment can help.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America gave Americans just that. Writing after his extended visit and intense investigation into Jacksonian America in the 1830s, Tocqueville admired Americans for their freedom and hard work but was cautious of their overly congratulatory view of themselves. In this caution, Tocqueville’s thinking lined up with the Framers of the Constitution (see here).

People are and always will be a combination of “good instincts” and “wicked inclinations.” We are not getting better and better every day in every way. Human nature with its flaws and strengths has remained constant for thousands of years. (Are we more advanced, more civilized now than five thousand years ago? With 160 million or more killed for political reasons in the twentieth century, it is hard to argue it is so.)

Individuals embody this mix of traits as much as groups. Power, therefore, always carries dangers, regardless of whether a group or an individual wields it.

As Robert Tracy McKenzie summaries this in his outstanding, wide-ranging book We the Fallen People, “Power is always a threat to liberty and justice. This probably seems obvious under a monarchy or dictatorship, but Tocqueville is warning us that it holds no less true for a democracy” (p. 204).

Examples abound in American history including the forceable removal of thousands of Cherokees from Georgia under Jackson’s administration. Tocqueville didn’t think we should do away with democracy because of such problems. Democracy has many blessings. But we do ourselves a disservice when we fail to openly acknowledge that tyranny of the majority has happened here and that it can happen again. Therefore, we must always be on our guard—even from those we agree with who can also exercise that tyranny.

Tocqueville’s own family history made him sharply aware of this dynamic. Five of his relatives were guillotined (along with thousands of others) by the passions of a democratic majority in the French Revolution forty years before, and his parents were traumatized by the events for the rest of their lives.

Tocqueville viewed democracy in America with clear-eyed realism. He knew that both “Indians and Negroes suffer the effects of tyranny.” So while he did not have unalloyed faith in democracy, he nonetheless did have hope for it (despite his family’s history).

He saw its benefits at least among the white population, a diverse group by European standards. This country of immigrants was “a society compounded of all the nations of the world. People each having a language, a belief, different opinions: in a word, a society lacking roots, memories, prejudices, habits, common ideas, a national character” (p. 220). Yet in his view they were freer and more prosperous than any such population in Europe.

What made democracy in America work despite its drawbacks? That is the topic of the next post in this series.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of We the Fallen People from the Publisher. My opinions are my own.

What’s Wrong with U.S. Politics?

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Many think something is very wrong with the U.S. political system. In Robert Tracy McKenzie’s excellent book We the Fallen People, he contends that one problem lies with how we have wandered from the way the Framers of the Constitution understood human nature. As we saw in my last post, the Framers were realists who knew people weren’t reliably good.

A key turning point in this drift came almost two hundred years ago, just a generation after the Constitution was written. In the presidential election of 1824, one of the most contentious in U.S. history, Andrew Jackson pioneered three strategies which have been a staple of American politics ever since.

First, he “ran against Washington DC,” proclaiming himself the outsider who could fix a broken system. Second, he developed a populist strategy which many have followed (both liberals and conservatives) ever since.

McKenzie helpfully describes this, saying, “Populists see the world . . . as a struggle between ‘the people’—always clothed in robes of righteousness—and some insidious threat to the people, typically a corrupt elite who would subvert the people’s welfare for selfish gain. . . . When populist leaders pay tribute to ‘the people,’ who they really have in mind are the folks who agree with them. Everyone else is an enemy” (p. 161).

The result of the election? Andrew Jackson led the field with 99 electoral votes. But he failed to carry a majority with the rest spread among three others—John Quincy Adams with 84, William C. Crawford with 41, and Henry Clay with 37. With no majority in the electoral college, the Constitution required the decision go to the House which elected John Quincy Adams.

The Framers of the Constitution, you see, wanted the election of the president to be shielded from the passions of the crowd—thus they inserted the Electoral College and the House. As I noted here, the Framers feared not only the tyranny of a king but also the tyranny of a majority (even a majority of white men like themselves).

As a result Jackson and his supporters pioneered a third strategy—they proclaimed long and loud that the presidential election of 1824 had been stolen from “the people” even though absolutely nothing underhanded or illegal had been done. The Constitution had been followed exactly as written. Yet he kept asserting this for the next four years despite its obvious lack of truth. Jackson also falsely claimed that the Framers thought the person with the most popular votes should be President even though the Constitution clearly says otherwise. Jackson won in 1828.

“The Framers of the Constitution would have been horrified” at Jackson’s populist strategy and its success. “In Federalist nos. 10 and 51,” McKenzie writes, “James Madison had argued that the only way to protect minority groups in a republic was to hope that society would be so diverse and the number of distinct interest groups so large that majority coalitions would rarely emerge.” He stated that whenever “a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure” (pp. 169-70).

What’s wrong with U.S. politics? The Framers had an answer: “We are.”

That’s why they created a system that sought to protect all of us from ourselves. We forget this at our peril.

Despite the divisions during Jackson’s time, all sides listened to one major voice. He was an unlikely option not only because he was young and an aristocrat, but also because he was a foreigner. In addition, he agreed with Madison and dissented from the populist majority. His name was Alexis de Tocqueville, and his book (which I will discuss in part three of this series) was the timeless classic Democracy in America.

Engraving: James Barton Longacre, 1794-1869; Library of Congress–https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003671446/

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of We the Fallen People from the Publisher. My opinions are my own.

The Beauty of Gridlock

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Complaining about political gridlock is our new national pastime. Congress seems to get barely anything done. What would the Founding Fathers of the United States think about all this? They’d be delighted.

Why? Because it would mean that the Constitution was working as intended—making change difficult and slow.

How did they achieve this? By spreading out power among various groups nationally (the executive, legislative, and judicial branches) and sharing it with the states (which have their own executive, legislative and judicial branches, as well as city and county divisions). We call this a system of checks and balances, and separation of powers. The intentional result, sometimes, is gridlock.

Why did they do this? Because they didn’t trust human nature.

In this first of a series of posts, I will unpack this story and several others told by Robert Tracy McKenzie in We the Fallen People, one of the most important, insightful, and worthwhile books of recent years. This vital work not only gives us some fascinating history but also offers key observations and wisdom for our own day.

So why didn’t the Founders trust human nature? “The problem as they understood it,” McKenzie writes, “is not that we’re wholly evil; it’s that we’re not reliably good” (p. 17). “The Founders were realists. They exhorted Americans to revere and practice virtue. They didn’t expect it” (p. 42).

Checks and balances are especially important because they didn’t want one person or group to be easily able to impose its will on others. While they rejected the potential tyranny of king, they also rejected the potential tyranny of the majority—even a majority of white males who were the only ones who could vote.

Hamilton observed that “this is why we have government in the first place: ‘because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint’” (p. 54).

The Founders were not perfect themselves in avoiding this problem—witness the tyranny of the majority of white males over slaves and Native Americans, and the absence of political representation by white women.

It may sound strange that they distrusted democracy, but it explains why originally the Constitution called for senators to be elected indirectly by the state legislators. It’s also why they didn’t want the President elected directly but through the Electoral College.

How things have changed! Today most Americans as well as most Christians (according to polls) reject the underlying assumption of the Founders that human nature is driven by self-interest, often at the expense of others. We the people now believe in the goodness of human nature—at least the goodness of American human nature. And if not that, then at least the goodness of those we agree with!

We the people have no doubts about how good and noble and true are our opinions, our motivations, and our goals. The Founders believed we should be very suspect of exactly these things, and they built that understanding into the Constitution.

Remarkably, the shift about human nature from the realism of the Founders to the optimism of today did not begin with Oprah Winfrey or Thomas Harris’s 1960s bestseller I’m OK—You’re OK or Norman Vincent Peale’s radio show from the 1930s and his The Power of Positive Thinking. What David Brooks has labeled in The Road to Character as the age of “the Big Me,” McKenzie tells us, began two centuries ago with the election of Andrew Jackson.

We’ll look at that story from We the Fallen People in my next post.

Image by Wenhan Cheng from Pixabay

John Stott Remembered

Ten years ago today one of the great Christians of our age passed away. Here is what I posted on that day.

John Stott passed away today at the age of ninety. And it is as if a giant oak of the Christian landscape has fallen. As he has faded from public view in the last few years, some may not appreciate the massive effect this strong, humble leader has had. Not only in his native England, but in North America and across the world his beneficial influence was felt. In Heart. Soul. Mind. Strength. Linda Doll and I looked back on his life’s work in this way:

As 2004 concluded and 2005 began, national recognition came in a variety of high-profile ways to the author who had perhaps defined IVP more than any other over the decades. In the November 30 issue of the New York Times, columnist and commentator David Brooks wrote a stunning op-ed piece on how and why John Stott was the person to listen to from the evangelical fold.

He commented, “Falwell and Pat Robertson are held up as spokesmen for evangelicals, which is ridiculous. Meanwhile people like John Stott, who are actually important, get ignored.” He went on to say what it is like to encounter Stott’s books (no doubt many from IVP).

When you read Stott, you encounter first a tone of voice. Tom Wolfe once noticed that at a certain moment all airline pilots came to speak like Chuck Yeager. The parallel is inexact, but over the years I’ve heard hundreds of evangelicals who sound like Stott.

It is a voice that is friendly, courteous and natural. It is humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic. Stott’s mission is to pierce through all the encrustations and share direct contact with Jesus. Stott says that the central message of the gospel is not the teachings of Jesus, but Jesus himself, the human/divine figure. He is always bringing people back to the concrete reality of Jesus’ life and sacrifice.

Shortly afterward, the February 7, 2005, cover story of Time magazine, “The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America” also highlighted Stott. He was called quite justifiably “one of the most respected and beloved figures among believers in the U.S. . . . He plunges the rich royalties from his more than 40 unassumingly brilliant books into a fund to educate pastors in the developing word [sic].” (Of course, there is a significant theological difference between the developing word and the developing world. While Time isn’t always known for its theological astuteness, we add sic under the assumption that in this case the usage was inadvertent.)

Only two months later in a special issue featuring “The Time 100,” Time numbered Stott among the one hundred most influential people in the world. The piece on Stott, written by Billy Graham, noted their friendship that began in 1954, Stott’s influence in the Anglican Communion worldwide and his personal humility—his resisting appointment to the position of bishop, the use of his royalties to provide theological books to pastors and scholars in the Two-Thirds World and the simplicity of his living quarters in London’s West End. Graham concluded, “I can’t think of anyone who has been more effective in introducing so many people to a biblical worldview. He represents a touchstone of authentic biblical scholarship that, in my opinion, has scarcely been paralleled since the days of the 16th century European Reformers.”

John Stott was a world Christian before it was fashionable to be a world Christian. On five continents he was known personally and affectionately as Uncle John. Just as he was key to bringing an evangelical renewal to the Church of England, he brought clear, strong teaching and pastoral sensibilities to Latin America, Africa and Asia. Christian leaders all over the world looked to him as their mentor.

The world will miss him.

Vital Lessons from Countries in Crisis

Poet Steve Turner wrote, “History repeats itself. Has to. No-one listens.”

The tragedy is that smart people continually think they are exceptions to the rules. Ironically, people who don’t think they are too smart are better off because they believe they can benefit from the experience of others.

In Jared Diamond’s recent book, Upheaval, the author focuses on what we can learn from countries in crisis. He tells the fascinating stories of six countries over the last two hundred years who each faced a major turning point—some navigating those moments with great success and others with less. What makes Diamond’s book particularly insightful is that he has visited each of the countries dozens of times and speaks the language fluently in all but one.

We encounter Finland (Russia’s invasion, 1939), Japan (Commodore Perry’s arrival, 1853), Chile (Pinochet’s coup in 1973), Indonesia (the countercoup of 1965), Germany (postwar recovery, 1945-1990), and Australia (separation from England, 1940-80). Other than postwar Germany, I only knew the barest outline of the stories he tells, and found his tales absorbing.

What factors contributed to handling crises well? Among a dozen he names are facing reality squarely, accepting responsibility rather than blaming others, letting go of doctrinaire commitments, being willing to modify some elements of national identity while retaining others. In light of these, Diamond then considers the prospects for the unresolved crises today in Japan, in the United States, and in the world as a whole.

I found the chapter on Chile to be notably unnerving. Chile had a long democratic tradition, identifies with Europe rather than Latin America, and enjoys protection from invasion by significant geographic features. Yet when the left, right, and center parties in Chile all refused to compromise, the country descended into cruelty, violence, and oppression for twenty years, from which it has still yet to fully recovered.

Chile’s lessons of inflexible, extreme partisanship loom especially large for the present-day United States. Every government leader and concerned citizen should absorb the warnings and wisdom of this book if we wish to navigate our future together successfully.