Christian Today Digest – March 2018

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Did Stephen Hawking believe in God?

By Mark Woods

Stephen Hawking was a extraordinary scientific talent, by all accounts. I put it like that because it’s the judgment of his peers, who are the only ones who count: most of us aren’t qualified to say (like a lot of people, I read A Brief History of Time when it came out and thought I understood it, but I probably didn’t).

However, he did impact popular consciousness and culture to a remarkable extent. Partly that was because there was something very potent about the image of a wheelchair-bound figure, unable to speak and reliant on technology to keep him alive from moment to moment, but with a mind that could span galaxies. Partly it was because he was fun – he understood people’s fascination with him and played along, to the extent of appearing in hit shows like The Big Bang Theory.

And partly, for Christians in particular, it was because he was tantalisingly vague about religion. He said in A Brief History that if we ever discovered a ‘theory of everything’, it would be ‘the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God’. A flurry of speculation regarding his religious beliefs followed. But he was later to explain that by saying, in an interview with the Spanish paper El Mundo: ‘Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation. What I meant by “we would know the mind of God” is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist.’

It may be, in fact, that his views evolved over time. I’m told he attended St Andrew’s St Baptist Church in Cambridge on occasion years ago, and his first wife Jane was a Christian. Journalist Andrew Graystone recalled today on Twitter interviewing him once, saying: ‘I asked him at length whether he believed there is a God. He refused to answer the question. When I asked him why, he said “If I say I believe in God, everyone will immediately claim that I believe in the same God they believe in. So I won’t say at all.”

Certainly he doesn’t appear to have ever believed in an interventionist God, saying in a Reuters interview in 2007: ‘I believe the universe is governed by the laws of science. The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws.’

And he told El Mundo: ‘In my opinion, there is no aspect of reality beyond the reach of the human mind.’

So was Stephen Hawking an atheist by the end of his life? Probably, though that answer might not be the whole story.

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If Cameroon becomes another Rwanda, we all pay the price

By Rebecca Tinsley

When the international community ignores ethnic cleansing, it often ends up with a massive bill. If history teaches us anything about averting our eyes from repressive regimes it is that, sooner or later, we must fund refugee camps, send peacekeepers, host negotiations, accommodate thousands of migrants seeking asylum, and then help rebuild shattered nations. Never mind the stain on our collective conscience for standing by as civilians are slaughtered and displaced.

Cameroon, a central African country best known for soccer, is sliding toward ethnic cleansing. Yet, our politicians offer the usual clichés (‘we urge all sides to exercise restraint’). Gregory Stanton, the genocide scholar, has identified the stages through which a society goes before genocide begins Unfortunately, Cameroon is on the way to meeting Stanton’s criteria.

The government of Cameroon’s leader, Paul Biya, has responded to peaceful protests with a disproportionate military crackdown, a curfew, the arrest of journalists and opposition figures and the reported torture of dozens of activists. According to the International Crisis Group, dozens have been killed. There are credible reports of soldiers shooting civilians from helicopters and spraying tear gas at people emerging from Sunday mass. There are also verifiable reports that the security forces have carried out beheadings.

Consequently, since the crackdown on dissent began two years ago, more than 40,000 civilians have fled across the border to Nigeria, leaving behind empty villages. In January, 80 Cameroonian troops followed the refugees, trying to forcibly return them, breaking numerous international and regional laws while they were at it. Yet, Nigeria facilitates the violation of its own sovereignty, keen to supress activities that might inspire its domestic secessionists.

Cameroon’s crisis is rooted in the marginalisation of the Anglophone minority (20 per cent of the population). The government denies English-speaking regions in the south west and north west any degree of autonomy. The Francophone-dominated regime labels anyone calling for devolution of power a terrorist. Yet, the more the government cracks down, the more popular are calls for a new Anglophone nation called Ambazonia. In response to the regime’s tactics, some English-speaking activists have begun kidnapping or murdering officials and security forces.

In January, 47 Anglophone leaders were abducted from a meeting in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, with the apparent assistance of local security forces. The leaders were deported to Cameroon where they remain in jail, without access to legal representation. Their treatment fuels rumours, intensifies distrust of the authorities, deepens the sense of grievance, radicalises civil society and polarises the population.

Meanwhile, in French-speaking Cameroon there is little media coverage or debate about the increasing violence in the English-speaking areas. One local observer comments (in an email exchange in March) that Francophone public disengagement resembles the attitude of the rest of the British Isles toward Northern Ireland during the Troubles: they don’t want to know about it and hope it will fade away.

Anglophone frustration exploded two years ago when lawyers went on strike, protesting that new laws were not being translated from French into English; courts in Anglophone areas were forced to conduct business in French and Francophone judges refusing to speak English were foisted upon them. The lawyers were joined by teachers and others from civil society. Each Monday, many schools and shops join strikes called Ghost Towns and in some places, children haven’t been to school for more than a year. There are suggestions some citizens feel intimidated into participating in Ghost Town protests by the more militant Anglophone activists who are reported to have burned 30 uncooperative schools since January 2017. Some parents are said to have sent their children to schools in the more peaceful Francophone areas.

President Biya, in power since 1982, denies there are grounds for Anglophone grievance. However, until there is a unified and coherent Anglophone position, he will likely divide and rule. Biya also survives because of his usefulness to the international community: Cameroon is fighting Nigeria’s Islamist Boko Haram rebels in its Far North. In addition, the country hosts 350,000 refugees fleeing the violence in the Central African Republic and Nigeria. Biya is supported by France which has units of its Foreign Legion stationed around the region. Whereas the British left Africa at independence, the French never did. They remain closely involved in the economic and military life of their former colonies. Cameroon’s oil may be off the coast of the English-speaking region, but it is French companies running the rigs.

Representing moderate Anglophone voices are the Roman Catholic bishops of Bamenda, who have called on the government to begin genuine dialogue and to investigate attacks on civilians. The bishops warn that a volatile situation may deteriorate further. Observers believe the church is well-placed to host negotiations. However, the bishops’ opposite numbers in Francophone Cameroon failed to see the unrest in the same manner. A cleric interviewed for this article (who is anonymous for his own safety) suggests that the church’s French-speaking hierarchy prefers to maintain close ties with the regime, much as the church did in Rwanda before and during the 1994 genocide.

The background to Cameroon’s unrest

Until 1960, there were two Cameroons: the larger territory was administered by France, using the French legal and education systems and language. In the south and west, the British were in charge. At their schools, students spoke English and studied for O and A Levels, and in their courts, English common law was dispensed by English-speaking judges.

In 1961, a referendum asked the inhabitants of British Cameroon if they wanted to join next door Nigeria or French-speaking Cameroon. A third choice – independence – was not on offer. By default, the English-speaking Cameroonians found they were a minority in the new nation. A constitution guaranteeing equal rights was soon disregarded, and the Francophone majority took positions of power in the military and in government. Currently, only one of 36 cabinet members is Anglophone. And Cameroon long since ceased being a democracy: Amnesty condemns President Biya’s jails (‘deplorable’), and his track record of having journalists arrested and tortured. The World Justice Project ranks Cameroon as 109th out of 113 countries surveyed, worse than Afghanistan and Venezuela.

The UN Secretary General has called for inclusive talks, but as is often the case, the African Union takes no position on the violence. In May 2017, the UK government said it was standing by the disputed referendum at the heart of Anglophone grievances. In October, the UK called on all sides to reject violence. Such moral equivalence ignores the disproportionate force used by the Cameroon government, and it assumes both sides (armed forces against unarmed civilians) are equally to blame.

Cameroon could choose the Quebec model, with its own unique system within a federal Canada. Or the regime could cling to its centralised power structure, refusing to discuss a federal solution for fear of provoking wider unrest. If so, the calls for secession may become increasingly violent. The Ambazonia independence leaders have vowed to lay down their lives to achieve their goal. In the worst scenario, the Biya regime may use propaganda to manipulate the majority into rising up against the minority, as happened in Rwanda. Preventing this bloody eventuality depends on pressure from the international community, but most obviously from the French and British. The Catholic Church could also play a vital role, if it chose to. The time for it to assert its moral leadership is now.

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Donald Trump receives hundreds of prayer cards; Reads them everyday with Vice-President Mike Pence

By Czarina Ong

United States President Donald Trump faces criticism on a daily basis, but he also receives widespread support in the form of hundreds of prayer letters that are sent to him via Republican Congressman Mike Bost.

Congressman Mike Bost, R-IL said that it was 2017 when he first realized the country needed a positive boost. Because of this, he came up with the idea of having the public send inspiring thoughts and prayers to Trump. “We thought maybe we’d get 30, whatever,” Bost told CBN News. “It came back – there were hundreds.”

The letters were written from kids ages five and up, and even senior citizens took the time to send their well-wishes to the president.

“There was a 90-year-old woman that on it said, ‘I have never written to a president, but I’m depending on you, and I pray into you every day that you’ll straighten this country out - it needs it so bad[ly],’” recalled Bost.

Before sending the letters to the White House, Bost and his wife would read through it first to make sure that only the encouraging ones make it through. He kept sending the letters to Trump without knowing if they were being read or not. But a few months later, Bost had his answer.

He was invited to the White House with 20 other congressmen to see the president sign a bill into a law, according to the Chicago Tribune. While they were together, Trump began wondering out loud who Bost was. “He all of the sudden turns at me and goes, ‘Bost, Bost, prayer cards!’” shared Bost. “And I said, ‘Wow, yeah we sent you some prayer cards over.’”

“He said, ‘You know we use these every day.’ And I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, that’s why they’re here. We use them every day,’ “ continued Bost.

Even Vice President Mike Pence takes part in the reading, and he feels uplifted with the prayer cards. “We read these every day and they’re so wonderful,” Bost recalled Pence telling him.

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How Billy Graham showed love to televangelist Jim Bakker while he was in prison

By Czarina Ong

A friend in need is a friend indeed. This is what the late evangelist, Rev. Billy Graham, showed controversial televangelist Jim Bakker after the latter was in prison and suffering at the lowest point in his life.

In 1987, Bakker’s ministry ground to a halt after he was accused of paying off his secretary to keep quiet about an alleged rape. He was later slapped with a five-year prison sentence due to several fraud charges, according to The Christian Post.

After he learned that Graham has passed away, Bakker told WBTV that he did not think twice about flying to Charlotte to pay his respects to the man who showed him remarkable kindness when many others turned their backs on him.

“Billy Graham came into my prison when I was there. He wrapped his arms around me when I was a mess. I was cleaning toilets at that moment and I was at a very low moment in my life,” Bakker said. “Billy Graham walked in and threw his arms around me and said, ‘Jim, I love you.’”

Graham’s wife, Ruth, who passed away in 2007, was no different. After he was released from prison, she even invited him to dine with them in their North Carolina home. “And Ruth Graham is so amazing, it would take me hours to tell. As I got out of prison, I was at the Graham home, I was at the church with Ruth Graham and all,” he recalled. “But they represented Jesus Christ to somebody who the world said was fallen and would never preach again.”

Bakker, who now hosts “The Jim Bakker Show,” has no doubt that Graham is now in heaven, and he is looking forward to the day that he will be reunited with his good friend.

Earlier, Bakker reflected on his website about the timing of Graham’s death. “Some believed and have declared that the death of Billy Graham would signal the beginning of the last days. I don’t know this to be a fact, but I do know, according to the Scriptures, we are truly living in the final days before the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ,” he wrote.

Bakker noted that Graham’s age, 99, is a number that means fruitfulness. “At an age of double fruitfulness, Billy enters Heaven, leaving an abundant legacy of fruitfulness that no man has ever before achieved,” he said.

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Christian asylum seekers in Sweden face violent attacks, warns Swedish Evangelical Alliance

By James Macintyre

Christian asylum seekers in Sweden, including those who have converted, are falling victim to violent attacks and the government there is failing to investigate, according to leading figures at the Swedish Evangelical Alliance and the anti-persecution watchdog Open Doors.

The plight of Christian refugees – attacked mainly by Islamist extremists – is highlighted in an article for the Assyrian International News Agency by Jacob Rudenstrand, the deputy general secretary of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance and Peter Paulsson, director of Open Doors Sweden.

In it, they compare Sweden to Germany, which reportedly saw nearly 100 anti-Christian attacks in 2017.

They write: ‘A similar pattern of violence against Christian refugees afflicts Sweden, our own country. Compared with other European nations during the ongoing migrant crisis, Sweden, like Germany, has taken in a disproportionately high number of refugees of all faiths.

‘While that is laudable, it has led to many violent incidents, as the hatred against religious minorities in, for example, Syria and Iraq has now migrated to Sweden.’

They point to examples reported in the Swedish press, including that of an asylum-seeker who had converted from Islam and was attacked when leaving a Pentecostal church in Karlstad on Sunday, February 11.

Another example is a Christian refugee from Syria who in 2015 lived at a refugee home in eastern Sweden. According to a local newspaper, a 26 year-old jihadist who was also from Syria and lived in the same refugee home, threatened to ‘slaughter’ the refugee and cut his throat and harm his family back in Syria. ‘I fled the war to avoid this kind of thing,’ he told police when they responded to the emergency call.

The man who threatened him was eventually sentenced to probation and fined 8,000 kronor (around £700) in damages.

However, the authors write: ‘Despite news reports of such attacks against Christians, Sweden’s government has launched no serious investigation.’

They point out: ‘There are many studies focusing on hate crimes against Jews and Muslims in Sweden but few on hate crimes against Christians, even though statistics from the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention show that police reports of the latter have risen in recent years.’

The writers point to an Open Doors Sweden survey last year of persecuted Christian asylum-seekers nationwide. Some 123 reported that they had been subject to religiously motivated persecution. The 512 separate incidents recorded included death threats, sexual assaults, and other acts of violence. Most of the victims were converts and did not file police reports, while most of the perpetrators were other migrants.

The victims said they feared reprisals or assumed that the police wouldn’t take any action.

More than half of all participants in that survey – 53 per cent – reported that they had been attacked violently at least once because of their Christian faith, while almost half, 45 per cent, reported that they had received at least one death threat, and six per cent reported that they had been sexually assaulted.

The articles states: ‘The reaction both in the media and from government officials has been cool. The experiences that Christians have had with Sweden’s migration officials have been far from positive.’

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#MeToo: 7 lessons for the movement from slave trader John Newton

By David Robertson

Every time there is a manifestation of human evil, whether it’s an abuse scandal in the church, paedophilia like Jimmy Saville, the Weinstein affair, or the perversion of charity in Haiti, the response is the same: never again!

We must set up an inquiry, make new laws, change the culture, wear Me Too badges/dresses; and then – it happens again.

Perhaps we need to take a wider perspective and reflect more on human nature. Perhaps we can learn from history.

John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace and an Anglican preacher in the late 18th century, was, as is well known, a slave trader. He was a captain on a ship that between 1745-1754 made several trading voyages.

Contrary to the popular myth he did not, from the moment of his conversion, repent of his slave trading and campaign against it. He did not write Amazing Grace as an act of penitence and confession. It was only later on in life that he came to fully realize the evil of slave trading and to write against it. But then he wrote an amazing tract entitled Thoughts on the African Slave Trade.

It is piercingly honest and movingly informative. And it has some clear lessons for us in the 21st century as we seek to come to terms with our flawed humanity.

1. Be prepared to face up to, and confess, our past sins

‘I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.

2. We need to think about and challenge what society says

‘But I never had a scruple upon this head at the time; nor was such a thought once suggested to me by any friend. What I did I did ignorantly; considering it as the line of life which divine providence had allotted me, and having no concern, in point of conscience, but to treat slaves, while under my care, with as much humanity as a regard to my own safety would admit.’

‘The slave trade was always unjustifiable; but inattention and interest prevented, for a time, the evil from being perceived.’

3. Sexual exploitation is, and always has been, as much about power as it is about lust

‘When I was in the trade I knew several commanders of African ships who were prudent, respectable men, and who maintained the proper discipline and regularity in their vessels; but there were too many of a different character. In some ships, perhaps in the most, the licence allowed, in this particular was almost unlimited.’

4. Familiarity with evil breeds contempt and callousness

Newton writes of a situation where 100 slaves on another ship, men, women and children, were thrown overboard when drinking water was short. They were thrown overbroad to drown so that the insurance would pay, because if they had died on board it would have been the ship-owners who would have paid.

‘But unlimited power, instigated by revenge, and whether hard, by long familiarity with the sufferings of slaves, has become callous, and insensible to the pleadings of humanity, is terrible.’

‘These instances are specimens of the spirit produced, by the African trade, in men, who, once, were no more destitute of the milk of human kindness than ourselves.’

5. It is often those who consider themselves to be the most civilised who behave with the most barbarity

‘When the women and girls are taken on board a ship, naked, trembling, terrified, perhaps almost exhausted with cold, fatigue, and hunger, they are often exposed to the wanton rudeness of white savages.’

‘When I have charged a black with unfairness and dishonesty, he has answered, if able to clear himself, with an air of disdain, “What! Do you think I am a white man?’”‘

6. The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil

Newton talks with brutal honesty about how when human beings are regarded as commerce they are treated inhumanely. He tells us that in Antigua a slave rarely lived beyond nine years in slavery because a commercial decision was taken that it was cheaper to treat slaves cruelly.

‘By rigorously straining their strength to the utmost, with little relaxation, hard fair, and hard usage, to wear them out before they became useless, and able to do service; and then, to buy new ones, to fill up their places.’

He raises the question of whether wars were started or encouraged to increase the number of available slaves.

‘I judge, the principal source of the slave trade is, the wars which prevail among the natives. Sometimes these wars break out between those who live near the sea. The English, and other Europeans, have been charged with fomenting them; I believe (so far as concerns the Windward coast) unjustly.’

7. Evil must be challenged

Newton was not one for excusing his or his nation’s guilt.

‘If but an equal number are killed in war, and if many of these wars are kindled by the incentive of selling the prisoners, what an annual accumulation of blood must there be, crying against the nations of Europe concerned in this trade, and particularly against our own!’

He did speak truth to power. Remember that slavery was legal at this time (it would be many years before the persistent efforts of Wilberforce would bear fruit – at great cost to the British Empire) and that it helped fund the great cities of London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow. Many people’s livelihoods depended on it. He challenged those who argued ‘by pleading for a commerce so iniquitous, so cruel, so oppressive, so destructive as the African slave trade’.

Are there things in our culture that are considered normal, and part of the commercial scene that in years to come humans may look back and wonder how we did it?

Does the re-introduction of slavery through the sex trade not shame us? The fact that there are now more slaves in the UK (an estimated 20,000) than there were in Newton’s day is a stench in the nostrils of God. The renaming of prostitution as ‘sex work’ and the attempt to legalise the exploitation of the poor and weak by the rich and powerful is a sin that reaches to heaven.

What about the taking of human life in the womb being justified by economic circumstances, or the taking of the human life of the elderly because they have become a burden upon society?

Are there aspects of trade and ‘free’ markets and ‘free movement of labour and capital’ which end up creating ‘wage slaves’? Is the development of authoritarian technocracies something that is good for human development?

In our culture we too often react to the demonstration of human evil by blame shifting, virtue signalling and a kind of moralistic triumphalism. We speak and act as if we would never be like that.

He put the sub-heading on his essay, Homo Sum (‘I am a man’) not to excuse himself, but to point out that all human beings (it’s not just ‘men’) are exploitative and evil.

The solution to this is not to have yet more meaningless and powerless vows of ‘never again’ but instead to listen and obey the words of Christ. Newton also put at the head of his essay the words from Matthew 7:12: ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets.’

It’s a simple standard that our society needs to hear. And it’s one that we cannot meet without the mercy, forgiveness and grace of Christ. The most radical thing we can do to change society and turn the world upside down, is to proclaim and live this gospel of grace.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

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