Thursday, June 3, 2010

Istanbul Reflections

What a city! I thought Hong Kong, Athens and Rome would have prepared me for Istanbul. They hadn’t. The traffic is outrageous. The crowds are huge. The haggling and hawking is relentless. It made Rome and Athens seem like country towns. There is little evidence of effective public transport. It is a mega-city in relentless growth mode, where does such growth end?

One senses distaste for Europeans but the economy needs us. It is a symbiotic relationship – they need our money, we enjoy their country and history

The overall impression to me was that I was in another city where its golden days were based on all that opposes the gospel. Its history is intensely religious, political and military, Constantine established it as his centre and Christianity in Constantinople was from the first, irrevocably intertwined with politics and military might. It was a corrupted form of the faith which reigned until the Crusades and its fall. It was then dominated by the Ottomans and Islam. Mosques replaced churches and there are now literally thousands of them.

The Sultan’s palace was a lesson in how such empires work. We have already worked our way through Rome and Greece and seen how these two great Empires functioned. The Ottomans were little different, nor Constantine’s Christendom prior. Military might is the first important thing – to rule by power and where need be, violent forceful oppression. Wealth is critical to maintain the power. Hence conquests must continue and tribute paid. They are dynastic, despots ensuring that their sons continue the tyranny. Sex is important, as these rulers gather huge harems for their personal pleasure. The Sultans had 4 wives, 7 favourite concubines, and around 300-400 others for their good pleasure. Women were sold into the employ of the Sultan from across the empire. Building projects: these emperors built monuments to the gods and to themselves. Romans built temples, palaces, fora, statues, arches etc. Ottomans built palaces and mosques. Christendom built churches. The temples are critical as centres giving spiritual vindication of their divine chosenness to reign. Religion endorses the monarchy. It is essential to remove all enemies either through death, exile or giving them a job on the other side of the empire. The most dangerous people were your brothers as they could knock you off and assume power. It is critical to ensure that the people are kept generally happy to reduce possibility of rebellion, joining forces with a brother or other leader and overthrowing the reigning monarch. This means that rulers had to know when to be benevolent and when to dish out the justice. Favour those who support you big time, come down hard on those who oppose you! And at the centre of course, a meglamaniac, despotic, self-absorbed, sometimes beneficient, sometime tyrannical egostistical twat.

The Ottomans are a great study after Athens and Rome where the same principles applied. Their monuments are still standing. While they no longer are an empire, their mosques and society still stands. Christendom was little different, the ideal of Jesus of a world free of all of this skubala violated by alliance to human hubris, greed and violence. No wonder God allowed the fall of Constantinople and subsequently the breaking up of Christendom.

The journey has reinforced a developing hermeneutic. Jesus came to bring a new world in which the patterns of such empires, imperial rule, dicktators, dominance through wealth, power, lust and hubris are put aside for love, humility, servanthood, grace, mercy, gentleness, equality, justice for all, peace and hope. It shows me that humans, whether Christian or otherwise, fail repeatedly falling into the trap of the ways of the world.

The ideal must drive us however! God is bent on restoration – he will not relent. Neither can we. It begins with us – ripping out of our hearts ever vestige of selfish ambition (eritheia), vain conceit (kenodoxia), hubris, pride, jealousy, greed, rivalry, deceit, lust, hatred, discord and more (cf. Gal 5:19-20; Phil 2:1-4 etc). These are at their most dangerous when done ‘in the name of Jesus.’ When we fuse our mission zeal and desire for a better world, great churches, the salvation of the lost and the things of God (noble though these things are), with the patterns of the world, the gospel is violated – no matter how good it seems on the outside. We must refuse to build our work on this. I believe this is what Paul was driving at in 1 Cor 3; our work will be tested, not to see how effective it has been, but how it was motivated!

Yet herein lies the rub. There are two competing principles at work. First is a refusal to compromise the gospel to the ways of the world. This is our imperative right. Yet second is the need to get in amongst it and not simply back off because it is too hard. This is the easy way out. We are to be ‘out there.’

The Laidlaw vision is a noble one but has many snares. As we seek to engage we become vulnerable to the seduction of using the ways of the world to win the world. This is a tension. Suffering will come at times as the world fights back and we do not yield to it. Sin will come at times as we fall prey to the world. We will err on the side of sin and false grace in the name of the progress of the gospel. So suffering and sin are certain consequences if we remain engaged. We will err at times falling into compromise and sin; at others we will experience suffering.

The toughest places to be will be the seats of sins power – politics, military, police, economics, business, corporate life etc. These places are as Jesus in Revelation describes it, thrones of Satan (as I write tomorrow we visit Pergamum which was the Asian centre of Imperial worship, the throne of Satan). These places are dangerous and lethal, but we must be engaged. The idols of pop culture are also danger points – sport, music, visual entertainment etc.

Aside from students knowing the gospel and being sold out for it, the key for Laidlaw in my view is character formation – building young men and women of character who know the gospel, can walk the tightropes that await them in every part of God’s great world, corrupted as it is by the things I have written of above. These are places we want people. The Church must support them big time, gather around them, equip them, pray, and ensure they are not isolated and picked off.

The church lies at the centre of all this for me despite its struggles. Gatherings of God’s people who spend their weeks engaged in family, society and work. They build one another up as they go, praying and strengthening them for cosmic transformation.

We must all reject the lure of the ways of the world that corrupted the faith in Christendom, which empowered the Greeks, Romans and Ottomans. God’s way is to change the world through a crucified and resurrected church.


Emma and I are very glad to be out of Istanbul at present after the Israeli attack. It must be even more frenetic. 

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