Archive for month: November, 2014

Violent and Nonviolent Protests

26 Nov
November 26, 2014

I had lunch yesterday with Randall Collins, a Penn sociologist who has written extensively about the “micro-sociology” of violence.  (Our mutual friend Dave DeHuff, who runs the faculty-staff fellowship group at Penn, brought the three of us together).  I would highly commend Randall’s blog essays, articles and books on these issues under any circumstances, but especially with the turmoil in Ferguson and Hong Kong.

I was particularly struck by two of Randall’s insights.  The first is that violence is less likely when a protestor and police officer encounter one another face to face.  Although a protester’s natural inclination is to flee, fleeing actually is often more dangerous than a face to face exchange, at least if the exchange could be kept relatively calm.  It’s much harder to attack someone when you see them face to face.  This seems to me to reflect an implicit recognition, even in the most hostile of circumstances, that each of us is made in the image of God and is therefore precious.

Randall also pointed out that when protesters damage or destroy property, they usually target property in their own neighborhood.  This may explain the seeming incongruity of protesters damaging businesses that serve their own community, which often seems counterproductive.  But protestors tend to feel most comfortable in their own neighborhood, and their neighborhood is they place whose injustice upsets them most.

Religion Freedom in Beijing

24 Nov
November 24, 2014

During my visit to Beijing last week, a Christian professor at one of the universities I visited pointed out a sign posted on a little square near the campus.  The sign had a small list of prohibited activities, the most prominent of which was “no religious activities permitted.”  When I asked the professor if he found this public reminder of the government’s discomfort with Christianity discouraging, his reaction surprised me.  He said the sign had exactly the opposite effect for him: it reminded him that there must have been vibrant religious activities on the square in the past and could well be again in the future; otherwise no one would have felt the need to exclude them.

The following day another Christian scholar told me that the recent trend of “derecognizing” Christian ministries on American college campuses—most prominently, at the California State colleges and universities—has emboldened the Chinese government in its restriction of religious freedom.  If the United States restricts religious expression, the reasoning seems to be, there is less basis for criticizing China’s limits on religious expression.  The campus access debate in the U.S. obviously has almost nothing in common with China’s restrictions on religion.  But the suggestion that the campus access controversy may have implications in China underscores just how great the stakes are in our growing debate over whether to protect pluralism in the United States.

True Paradox Reviews

22 Nov
November 22, 2014

There are two really nice recent reviews of True Paradox, one in this morning’s Wall Street Journal and one a couple of weeks ago in Patheos.  Both do a wonderful job of distilling the key themes of the book– in many respects more eloquently than True Paradox itself.  I’m having trouble with links on the blog, but I’ll post links as soon as I get the links working again.

Chinese Manners

20 Nov
November 20, 2014

During my stay in Hong Kong last week, I got several lessons in Chinese manners, usually after I’d managed to mix things up.  I assumed that the two sets of chopsticks at a formal Chinese dinner were there so that a backup would be available if necessary, not realizing that each had a specific role (a bit like the salad and dinner forks I’m a little more familiar with).  And after handing out a few business cards, I learned that the proper etiquette is to present your card with both hands, rather than just one.

Trickiest for me is the rule that, if you cross your legs while sitting down, it’s impolite to point a shoe toward the person or persons opposite you.  Pointing your shoe is a sign of disrespect.  If you happen to watch the video of my lecture “Is Justice Possible?” at Hong Kong University, you’ll notice that I paid nearly as much attention to my feet as to the very challenging and interesting questions.  I finally concluded the best bet was simply not to cross my legs.


19 Nov
November 19, 2014

I managed to see the full-range of Beijing skies in my very packed two and a half day visit (which has just come to an end): the sky was almost perfectly blue on Monday; yesterday the sky was still blue, with just a fringe of yellow on the horizons; today it was blocked by an impenetrable white haze of smog and mist.  A student I met said her dormitory room was unusually cold last week because the supply of coal used to heat the dorms was cut off during the APEC meetings—a small part of the price of the blue sky.

Having spent the morning yesterday at the Forbidden City, which is right next to China’s current governmental buildings, it occurred to me that Beijing’s pollution falls on the elite as well as the poor.  Perhaps this will make Chinese leaders more sensitive to the health risks and other consequences of the pollution than they would be if the Chinese factories were further removed from the capital city.

The Forbidden City itself is quite beautiful, and was quite mobbed.  It was originally built in the early 1400s, during the Ming Dynasty, and consists of a series of highly decorated buildings progressing from an outer court where the Emperor’s ministers lived to an inner court where he and his inner circle lived.  I seemed to be one of the few Westerners there; many of the men who had come had notably calloused hands (which I noticed as we all jostled for position at the windows of the palace buildings), which seemed to confirm my host’s comment that the Forbidden City is especially popular with traditionalists and men and women from the Chinese countryside.

Hong Kong (and Beijing)

15 Nov
November 15, 2014

Sooner or later, every conversation here in Hong Kong turns to the Occupy movement.  During my five days here, I’ve quickly found that reactions to the movement are much more complicated than I imagined before I came.  The movement is a protest against a change in the process for selecting the leading official in Hong Kong that was touted by Beijing as enhancing democracy.   As I understand it, the 1200 person election committee, which consists of representatives from various Hong Kong constituencies will select two or three nominees.  Hong Kong’s citizens will then vote for their preferred candidate among the nominees.  Supporters of the movement have set up tents in three different parts of Hong Kong, blocking roads in the heart of the city.  Even within the church, views of the civil disobedience are sharply divided.  Some feel it that it is inappropriate to undercut secular authority, while others view the protests as a justified challenge, often by analogy to the Civil Rights movement and other civil disobedience campaigns.

Whatever one’s views of Occupy, it has become a major tourist attraction.  Yesterday, when I walked through the tents—and umbrellas, a symbol of the movement—of the main site in downtown Hong Kong, there were dozens of tourists taking pictures with their phones.  More on the movement in the coming days.

In a few hours, I fly to Beijing for the last three days of this trip.  Last week, Beijing’s skies were uncharacteristically clear and blue, as a result of restrictions put in place for President Obama’s visit.  (The blue skies are described as APEC Blue in the press– a reference to the meetings that brought Obama and other leaders to Beijing).  Apparently, the smog is now rolling back in, just in time for my arrival.

Back On-Line and Recent Column

10 Nov
November 10, 2014

My apologies for the long lag between posts.  I’ve gotten swept up in preparations for various speaking events and other obligations, and have let weeks slip by without posting anything new, much less interesting.

I’m in Hong Kong and will be putting up new posts soon.  In the meantime, here is a recent column discussing an intriguing shift toward the testimonial in the writings of popular atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.