Editorial: What do I believe? Who am I?
A diary of convictions—and how smart reading can shift them.
The longing for coherence, connecting the cords of one's life, is at the heart of the task of constructing a worldview which can sustain one for life.
Is truth a possibility, even a reality? And is it a truth that has the possibility of providing coherence for the whole of life? Against forces both overt and covert, those who continue to strive for coherence, years after their days of early idealism, are those who have worked through the difference of truth and the difference it makes.
—Steven Garber, The Fabric of Faithfulness
In the final months of 1989 I commuted by train from a small cottage in the suburbs to an office in beautiful, downtown Cape Town, South Africa. I was in the fourth of six years of community service as a conscientious objector against compulsory military service under the apartheid regime in South Africa. I began my objection as a convinced Christian pacifist, the result of a struggle after my conversion to the Christian faith in 1982 to make sense of the relation between my newfound faith and my commitment to the struggle against racism in my motherland.
In the early 1980s I found a friend in an Anglo-Catholic monk, Anthony Perry. Anthony's monastery in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains was the only retreat site in our province willing to host a multi-racial youth camp. Anthony exemplified a radically committed Christian in the world. Apart from the celibacy, I wanted to be like Anthony! He was a devoted pacifist of long standing who gave ambulance service in China as a conscientious objector during World War II.
My pacifism was also the result of an early affection for the work and life of Ron Sider who wrote the groundbreaking Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. I also read John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus in 1983. Perry, Yoder, and Sider persuaded me that pacifism was the Christian answer to the problem of war.
Six years later, pacifism seemed inadequate. I was involved on a small scale in protest and resistance projects against apartheid. The Botha regime's reformist language did not match its increasingly oppressive and violent actions against the non-white majority of South Africans. As I reflected on my encounters with the South African security police, on the far more serious encounters of black friends, and on the systematic exploitation and oppression, I became more and more dissatisfied with pacifism.
I also read Francis Schaeffer who with his wife Edith founded L'Abri, a community that personified, even more than Anthony Perry, how to live as Christians in the world. Schaeffer proffered a Christian response to war and politics different from Sider and Yoder's pacifism. Later, at university, my mentor Kobus Smit introduced me to Bob Goudzwaard's Idols of our time which deconstructed the idolatry undergirding apartheid and other late 20th-century ideologies. From Schaeffer and Goudzwaard, I caught glimpses of a response to apartheid more robust than what pacifism disclosed.
My reading changed my convictions
In the final months of 1989, I read my way backwards into a tradition of robust political engagement, instead of gentle, political testimony. I re-read Goudzwaard and Schaeffer, then read back into the work of the Dutch political thinker Abraham Kuyper and his mentor Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer, then further back into the work of Reformation thinkers like Johannes Althusius and Samuel Rutherford, the Vindiciae contra tyrannos (1579) of uncertain authorship, John Calvin, and, even, reaching a little into the work of Augustine.
By January 1990, my convictions changed. I came to believe that political resistance—even armed resistance—against tyrannical oppression may at times be warranted. My reading, followed by serious reflection, changed my convictions. My sense of coherent truth concerning faith and politics was reshaped. I became a different person, still desiring to live with the kind of radical commitment exemplified by Ron Sider and Anthony Perry, but seeking to shape my character—my habitual virtues—more in the footsteps of Francis Schaeffer, Abraham Kuyper, and Reformation-inspired contributors to the tradition of constitutional democracy.
To my astonishment, the world changed faster than I could change my mind. Early in 1990 a new South African government released Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, lifted its ban on anti-apartheid political movements in South Africa, and embarked on peaceful negotiations to end apartheid and to establish a constitutional democracy in South Africa. I was released from community service years ahead of schedule. I did not need to declare myself a non-pacifist resister or duck underground. I was surprised by this, and I faced afresh all kinds of big questions.
In this Comment, we ask you to read along with others, to consider the big questions others have asked, and to open yourself to reshaping—to life-sustaining coherence.