Kuyper’s Politics Today

Retrieving Calvin’s emphasis, Kuyper stands in the tradition of placing attention on creation and God’s sovereignty. A Reformed understanding of politics—as opposed to Anabaptist, Lutheran or secular perspectives—has traditionally recognized God’s sovereignty in the political realm and suggests that our political activities ought to mirror and glorify God as they rectify God’s creational purposes (in that arena). Kuyper’s brilliant political organizing and national public positions put teeth on these ideas. He often encouraged the average Dutch citizen to be engaged in politics year round, not just on election day. He even argued politics could be viewed as an “elevated pursuit.” We don’t hear that sentiment anymore.

A few years ago, I was teaching an upper-level international development course at Calvin. The vast majority of students in this particular class had a distaste for politics, particularly macro-level institutions such as the US government, the European Union, the World Bank, or the International Monetary Fund. In their eyes, the latter were hegemonic, inherently unjust, and economically imperialist. Maybe, maybe political activity could be pursued at the local, grassroots level, but certainly anything beyond that was a waste of time.

On the one hand, the conundrum my class was facing was a good one. My students weren’t writing off all political engagement, just macro-level political activity. And they were pointing to a serious flaw within modern institutions, namely that the free market hegemony found within contemporary political institutions often benefits the economically privileged. It’s precisely here, in the thick of conversations like this, that Kuyper, and others in his tradition, can revitalize a Reformed understanding about the role that politics, in all its complexity, at all its levels, can play in our society. If it’s true that the power of unregulated markets often dictates the actions of powerful political actors, a blurring of two spheres if you will, what is a wise response on the part of Christians—to dismiss macro political institutions as unredeemable, or to look for opportunities of reform or at least opportunities to diminish the power of markets? Can’t the power of unbridled capitalism and/or hegemonic interests find its way into local, political arenas as well—and if so, what does a discerning Christian response look like in such situations? These are just a few of the questions that can be explored given Kuyper’s political theorizing.

This is part of an excellent article written by a former professor of mine, Tracy Kuperus. Abraham Kuyper is a tricky intellectual role-model for many Reformists. While a large swath of his ideas are indeed powerful and seem to pertain to a faith-centered public life today, some of his ideas and the political responses to them – the atrocities of many Kuyperians in apartheid South Africa – act as a deep stain on Kupyer’s intellectual legacy. Prof K continues:

Kuyper’s ideas about religious pluralism were, in many ways, ahead of their time. We continue to wrestle with the appropriate response regarding religion in public life today. Resistance to the idea of religious pluralism comes from the same two sides that existed during Kuyper’s time: secularists, for lack of a better word, who are very suspicious of religion (witness Quebec’s recent call to ban government workers from wearing “overt and conspicuous” religious symbols) and traditionalists who would privilege a certain kind of religious belief in public life (witness a US Congressional delegation’s recent visit to Egypt which praised the military’s takeover because it removed the threat of “the bloodthirsty Muslim brothers”). There’s still a lot of work to be done regarding the need to respect religious pluralism in the public sphere! Kuyper was there first.

Kuyper’s ideas about appropriate church-state relations and the need to respect different confessional communities apply most easily to Western style constitutional democracies among fairly homogenous societies. They can apply to non-Western contexts as well, but things get murky quickly. What if the country has a hybrid regime that places strict limits on religious association (think Egypt today or under Mubarak)? Does religious pluralism promote the recognition of all confessional communities, even Boko Haram in Nigeria? Should confessional community be broadened to refer to more than religious pluralism, for example, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender? What if the confessional commitments of different religions or confessional communities violate the state’s constitution or the beliefs of other religious/confessional communities?


“Mission Trip” Syllabus

Over the past month or so I’ve received several requests (or invitations) to support various upcoming “Mission Trips” (or voluntourism trips).  Some are weeklong trips over spring break and some are a couple weeks scheduled sometime in the summer months.

Without going on for too long about my opinion of Mission Trips I would like to affirm the clear motivation of all involved to do something to help those in need around the world. This feeling (or calling) to do something good for others is special; do not let anyone diminish it (including me). 

There has been tremendous work done by those trying to understand the impacts of short-term mission trips. Unfortunately there is a problem, very few people who make up the multi-million dollar short-term missions industry have access to (or are even aware of) these resources.

While the overall effect of Mission Trips remains ambiguous, it is clear that those who do the “going” are often the ones who receive the most salient positive benefit. So in an effort to amplify the learning of the “goers”, I present my Mission Trip Syllabus, which focuses on the benefit (or lack there of) to the “receivers”.

[A short disclaimer (and full disclosure) regarding my credentials: I have a bachelor’s degree in economics with a focus on international development from Calvin College. While in college I participated in and (twice) led three Service-Learning trips to Southern Louisiana. I also made two (once as a leader) microfinance and business-consulting trips to Panama. I have traveled to Mexico, South Korea, and spent a semester studying in Ghana. I am currently both a student and a research assistant at the Africa Theological Seminary in Kenya, where I am taking a course on missions and am researching the impacts of a church-based business development program. I also have plans to pursue a graduate degree in economics and development starting the fall of 2014.]

– Lesson 1: Paternalism –

Read two of the following:

When Helping Hurts” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

Toxic Charity” by Robert Lupton

To Hell with Good Intentions” by Ivan Illich


Listen to “Act One” of the following This American Life episode.

(End of high school level requirements)

– Lesson 2: Theological Foundations –

Read/watch two of the following:

Chapter 1 of “Walking with the Poor” by Bryant Myers

What is Justice” by Nicholas Wolterstorff 

Are Short Term Missions Good Stewardship?” A conversation between Kurt Ver Beek and Robert Priest in Christianity Today 

(End of college level requirements)

– Lesson 3: Poverty Alleviation and Development-

Read one of the following:

More Than Good Intentions” by Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel

Poor Economics” by Abhijit Banergee and Ester Duflo


Watch this TED Talk video by Ester Duflo on “Social Experiments to Fight Poverty“.

– Lesson 4: Human Behavior –

Read two of the following: 

Nudge” by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kanneman

Scarcity: Why having Too Little Means so Much” by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

A Behavioral Economics View of Poverty” by Marianne Bertrand, Sendhil Mullainathan, and Eldar Shafir 

(End of trip leader requirements)

– Lesson 5: Perspectives (Extra Credit) –

Read one of the following: 

The rest of “Walking with the Poor” by Bryant Myers

Development as Freedom” by Amartya Sen

The White Man’s Burden” by Bill Easterly

The End of Poverty” by Jeff Sachs

The Great Escape” by Angus Deaton

The Bottom Billion” by Paul Collier

The Mystery of Capital” by Hernado De Soto

Dead Aid” by Dambisa Moyo

Portfolios of the Poor” by Collins, Morduch, Rutherford, Ruthven

Why Nations Fail” by Daron Acemonglu and James Robinson

Collapse” by Jarrod Diamond

Read Kurt Ver Beek’s essay “The Impact of Short Term Missions”. Integrating themes from Ver Beek write an essay on a topical area of interest (microfinance, education, orphanages, violence and sexual abuse, health, aid, NGOs, access to water, democracy, evangelism, inequality, etc.) and explain the influence or role mission teams have in this area.

I write this totally understanding the reality of the situation. No many (if any) will actually take up the assignments listed here. I can already hear the excuses and I (sort of) understand. “I just don’t have time” or “Well, this isn’t my full time job” or “How much more do you expect from me, I’m already volunteering to go on this trip”.

I’m wondering though if some of you will prove me wrong and actually read through some of the books and articles listed above. I am willing to act as your instructor, so email me your thoughts, questions, and challenges (bloem.jeff@gmail.com). I hope this enhances your mission trip experience. Perhaps it will be the most fun thing you’ll never do again.

I’ll end with a hypothetical a former professor liked to tell.

You are sitting in your house, surrounded by people who care for you and even love you. Suddenly you are stricken with splintering pain in your side. It becomes clear that you are in desperate need of an emergency appendectomy. A family member (who is not a medical doctor by any means) offers to perform the surgery right here right now on the dinning room table; giving the reasoning, “because, as family, we care about you more than anyone else on the planet”. Why do you dial 911 and take an ambulance to the hospital instead?

Can You Come Out and Play?

Soccer, or what it is more commonly known as, football, is the world’s most popular sport. This may, or may not, come to a surprise to those who live in the United States where there are many popular sports to play and to watch. The world enjoys football. The world understands football. That is why the following is so powerful.

Continue reading “Can You Come Out and Play?”