>Useful Instrument for God: Interview with Gideon Strauss

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Although I’ve enjoyed one-on-one, face-to-face conversations with Gideon, this interview was conducted primarily via email. It was published in the February 2, 2011, issue of Christian Renewal.

Dr. Gideon Strauss is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at Center for Public Justice, Senior Fellow at Cardus, and—until recently—the Editor of Comment magazine. He is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America and has been married to Angela for 25 years. Their two daughters, Hannah and Tala, are students at Gordon College near Boston, MA.

Christian Renewal (CR): Dr. Strauss, you assumed leadership at the Center for Public Justice (CPJ), which began in Midwestern America and now is headquartered in Washington, DC, on October 1, 2009. Can you explain why you recently moved from Hamilton, ON, to Pasadena, CA?

Gideon Strauss (GS): While my intention remains to be living in the Washington DC area in the near future, I plan to be living in Pasadena, California for at least the next year, since my wife of nearly 25 years is a graduate student in intercultural studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, and we like to spend as much time together as possible. I don’t know that Los Angeles serves as a bedroom community for many people working out of Washington DC, but it does for me. Of course, my work requires a great deal of travelling all over the United States, as we build the community of Center for Public Justice associates, so I spend nearly as much time in Southwest airplanes as I do in either our little graduate student apartment or the coffee shops of Washington.

CR: For some years you’ve been the editor of the electronic and print magazine, Comment. According to its website, Comment is “trying to build a Christian intellectual, artistic, and culture-making community animated by the gospel.” How is Comment attempting to do that?

GS: Comment magazine connects people through the writing and art it publishes and the conversation that its content generates. Recently, for example, we heard back from an artist friend in New York City who met with a group of other artists to discuss one of our articles about a vocation in the arts, its promise and challenges, from a Christian perspective, and it was wonderful to hear about the quality and value of that conversation. Magazines have a great community-building power when they have a clear voice—people identify themselves with that voice, and then identify with others who also read the magazine with agreement. And that generates movements with culture-making consequences. On a small scale, examples would include the Partisan Review crowd of anti-stalinist leftists from the 1930s to the 1950s, or TS Eliot’s The Criterion and its influence on the modernist literary movement. On a larger scale, think of Rolling Stone magazine in helping to shape the rock-‘n-roll generation, or Wired magazine’s techno-utopianism in the early 1990s. Comment magazine starts out from the premise that the good news of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus makes all the difference in the world, also for the life of the mind and the practice of the arts, and in every area of human cultural endeavour. It tries to contribute to that by publishing articles that explore that difference.

CR: You have served as a Senior Fellow at the think tank Cardus (formerly Work Research Foundation), which takes its name from the Roman road that connected people with public spaces. The Cardus website describes it as “the liberal arts program of the think tank world.” With a base in Hamilton, ON, and team members throughout the United States and Canada, it works to “build intellectual capacity, social networks and policy alternatives to sustain a wide range of cultural entrepreneurs for the renewal of North American social architecture.” How does it do that and what is its relationship to Comment magazine?

GS: Cardus is the publisher of Comment magazine, so Comment is wholly a publication of Cardus. Cardus does a multitude of things, with most of which I am not involved. I’d encourage you to interview several of their staff for a better big picture: Michael Van Pelt, Ray Pennings, Milton Friesen, Rob Joustra, Dan Postma…

CR: In addition to your work for Cardus and your editorial responsibilities for Comment, you are the CEO of CPJ, which (according to its website) is “dedicated to public policy research, leadership development, and civic education” with a “distinctive Christian-democratic perspective.” How is it accomplishing those goals and what are your responsibilities as CEO?

GS: I think perhaps examples are the most useful.

With regard to research, we are at the beginning of a research project on intergenerational justice, the federal deficit and debt, and domestic poverty. We’ll be working with other organizations, and if all goes well with some colleges and universities, to try and understand the demands of public justice when it comes to balancing the costs of providing public services (especially to the elderly and the poor) with the raising of government revenues (especially from the young and the productive). The big question for us is always what God calls citizens and governments to do, practically, faced with particular historical challenges, given the order of creation for human life and the hope we have in the resurrection of Christ. So what is God calling the federal government to do now in the second decade of the 21st century, knowing what we know about demographic trends, the constraining effect of national debt and the burden of taxes, and the complex character of both poverty and aging in this moment of American history? As both a policy think tank and network of citizens, the Center for Public Justice has the difficult task of facing up to the complexity of policy issues while trying to communicate what we find and recommend in clear, honest, accurate terms that enable action. This is not easy!

With regard to leadership development, for example, this past summer we presented our annual Civitas events in Washington DC, starting in the evening on July 4 with a rooftop celebration watching the fireworks. The Civitas conference is an event anyone can attend. We start each day with common worship—this year we had Jim Belcher, the author of the book Deep Church, teach and exhort us from the Scriptures, and the husband-and-wife singer/songwriter team of Sandra McCracken and Derek Webb lead us in song. Then we bring in speakers who connect principle and practice—folk who as lawmakers, executive leaders and public administrators, judges, police officers and soldiers, public policy thinkers, public opinion journalists and so on respond to the call of God into a life of politics. This year we had a wonderful set of presenters—including Judy Dean on international trade and Rebecca Patterson on foreign service, Angela Wu on religious freedom and Bethany Hoang on sex trafficking and debt slavery. The Civitas School is a living-learning experience for graduate students, who spend a week together digging into these issues at some depth, and this year they studied with Stanley Carlson-Thies, a former colleague of ours at the Center for Public Justice who now heads up the Institutional Religious Freedoms Alliance (and whom you should really also interview for an article!). Stanley is a wonderful teacher, and our students really benefitted from what they learned in the Civitas School—I recommend the experience to any grad student: from seminarians to law school and business school students, political philosophers and social workers—the gamut! Finally we presented what we called the Civitas Institute (it will be called something else in the future), a series of evening lectures for people working in DC during the day, where they also had access to the teaching of Stanley Carlson-Thies. This model (of a series of evening lectures) really worked for us, so we’ll be experimenting with ways in which to expand that in the future. I should mention here that these kinds of events only go as well as they do because we are blessed with a very gifted, small crew of staff and volunteers at the Center for Public Justice, under the able operational leadership of our Chief Operating Officer, Stephanie Summers.

With regard to civic education, we do that by means of both events and publications. An example of the civic education events we do is our current series of panel discussions on immigration, which we are doing in partnership with several other institutions—you can read a little about this series and the related certificate program here: http://www.cpjustice.org/content/cpj-co-sponsors-panel-series-immigration-reform. Our flagship publication is the weekly online magazine, Capital Commentary (http://www.cpjustice.org/capitalcom), which is about to expand significantly.

What do I do? Well, I see my task as CEO to have three parts: mission, morale, and money. My job is to serve as the connection between our board of trustees, who steward the purpose and mission of the organization by means of policy governance, and our staff, who give effect to that purpose and mission in programs and projects, it is to hire and lead a staff of highly motivated and competent paid and volunteer staff, and it is to raise the money to make all of this happen. In addition, I serve as the editor of Capital Commentary, making sure we publish articles that serve the purpose and mission of the Center for Public Justice: Our mission is to equip citizens, develop leaders, and shape policy in pursuit of our purpose to serve God, advance justice, and transform public life.

CR: How does your work for Comment and your work for CPJ intersect?

GS: In practice, not very much—these are and have always been completely separate and independent organizations; in principle: both Cardus and the Center for Public Justice starts out from the confession that Jesus is Lord over all of life, and so in their common commitment to the love of God, common worldview convictions about the creation, fall and redemption of the world, and common calling to culture-making, there is a deep intersection.

CR: You are a native of South Africa and wrote your Ph.D. dissertation on “The Ethics of Public Welfare.” You worked as an interpreter for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission under Desmond Tutu and were an advisor to the South African constitutional assembly on the 1996 Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. Beginning in 1999, you served as Research and Education Director for the Christian Labour Association of Canada, developing a comprehensive education program that included a one-year “CLAC College” for new staff. What led you to leave South Africa and come to Canada?

GS: Big life changes like moving from one country to another almost always have a complex of reasons and motivations woven together. I’ll mention two of the reasons why we initially moved from South Africa to Canada.

First of all, I had been going through an extended vocational crisis from 1990. Before 1990 I thought that my life’s vocation would be in the political struggle against apartheid in South Africa, which I had not imagined would come to an end in my lifetime. But then, early in 1990, with the release of Mandela and other political prisoners, the legalization of various previously banned anti-apartheid political organizations, and the initiation of negotiations towards a non-racial democracy, it became clear that I would have to listen for God’s call into something other than resistance politics. During the 1990s I came to the conviction that my work would have to dig the soil in which a politics of contribution (rather than resistance) might grow, and that this must consist of helping the people of God think deeply about the connections between biblical faith, contemporary culture, and everyday life and work. Around 1996 and 1997 I thought that this call—to explore the connections between faith, work, and culture—might be given best expression in the ministry of word and sacraments in the Presbyterian churches of Southern Africa—mistakenly, it turned out—and so sought to prepare for such ministry. I wanted to study Reformed doctrine—in particular John Calvin—with J.I. Packer, and the pastoral practices as taught by Eugene Peterson, and so ended up at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Secondly, I needed, badly, a sabbatical, after two years of work as an interpreter for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. My work was quiet and behind the scenes—nothing spectacular: just conveying the words and stories of witnesses before the commission from one language (usually my mother tongue, Afrikaans) into another (usually English). But because these stories were all about abduction, torture, and murder, I found myself after two years to be very angry: praying Psalm 137 all the time, so to speak. I was sustained somewhat by the practice of praying the Psalms, which our small group had been studying since about 1994, but my prayers were narrowing down to that one psalm—a little like Bruce Cockburn’s song “If I had a rocket launcher”?—and I knew that if it were to be well with my soul, and if I were to be able to continue making a contribution to God’s world, I would have to step away from the work of the Commission and recover a practice of praying all the other psalms. Vancouver gave me the space to do that, and Regent College was a place of substantial healing for me, and for my marriage, which had suffered from how I processed my work with the Commission.

Unexpectedly, some months into our time in Vancouver, the Christian Labour Association of Canada invited me to apply for a job in which I would help their staff “explore the intersection between faith, work, and culture,” which was too close to my sense of vocation for me to dismiss as coincidence, and so, wondering if this was providence, I applied for the job, was hired, and had the wonderful opportunity for twelve years to explore that intersection with CLAC and the Work Research Foundation (now Cardus) and Comment magazine.

For several years I was troubled by this turn of events, wondering if I understood God’s call correctly—I had made commitments, including a five year commitment to CLAC, that I was resolved to keep, but I was still troubled. An invitation to consider a job as an academic administrator in South Africa around 2002, and the process around that, brought me to accept that I was truly called, for the long run, to do my work in North America. And here I still am, until differently assigned!

CR: What events, books, or people have been important influences in shaping your thought and guiding you into your current work?

GS: Too many to name! I could talk about my mentors through the years—from “Uncle Cliff” and Father Anthony Perry when I was a teenager, to Mark Manley and Caesar Molebatsi during my years in anti-apartheid politics, my university professors, including Kobus Smit, who supervised my master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation work, to Calvin Seerveld and Steven Garber during my Canadian years. But let me list some of the books that most deeply influenced me.

In 1983, a year after my conversion to the Christian faith (my cradle religion was an amalgam of racism and Reformed pietism with which some of your readers will be familiar, and in my early teens I called myself a Zen Buddhist … but I don’t know if any Zen monks would have taken that claim seriously!), I started reading John Howard Yoder’s “Politics of Jesus” at L’Abri in Switzerland, and in the years immediately following I drew on the work of Yoder and similar theologians to try and understand the connections between faith and politics. By the late 1980s I was no longer satisfied with what I could find in that tradition—it seemed to me that Yoder offered a politics of resistance and witness, but not a politics of contribution, and I was convinced (consider Jeremiah 29:7) that Christians were also called to a politics of contribution. Sometime in the late 1980s I had read a little book, Idols of our Time, by the Dutch economist and politician Bob Goudzwaard, that seemed to me to hint towards such a positive politics, even though the book itself was a work of criticism. In 1989 I decided to read into the tradition behind the work of Goudzwaard, to see what it offered—I read everything by Goudzwaard I could find, and then also the work of Herman Dooyeweerd, Abraham Kuyper, Guillaume Groen Van Prinsterer, Johannes Althusius, leaping back to John Calvin, and then leaping back further yet to Augustine of Hippo. Two years of reading backwards of time through these Christian thinkers, focusing on what they had to say about faith and politics, converted me to their tradition. I don’t think anything else has so deeply shaped my thought or called me into a particular way of doing politics as the work of Augustinian, Calvinist, Kuyperian thinkers.

Briefly, also: my imagination and my sense of how a Christian way of life should *feel* has been thoroughly shaped by the work of Calvin Seerveld, in particular his book Rainbows for a Fallen World; my understanding of that intersection of faith, work, and culture has been thoroughly informed by Steven Garber’s Fabric of Faithfulness, and recently nuanced by Andy Crouch’s Culture Making; the eschatology and ecclesiology to which I would subscribe—both of which play a very large role in how I live my life—are handily summarized in Richard Mouw’s little book When the Kings Come Marching In and Jim Belcher’s Deep Church. And during this year my personal devotional life has been much enriched by Abraham Kuyper’s To Be Near Unto God (in an older translation), as some years ago it had been by praying daily for two years out of John Baillie’s Diary of Private Prayer.

CR: How can you see God’s hand at work in leading you into this work and preparing you for it?

GS: I believe rather thoroughly, first, in divine grace and providence, but also human responsibility. I have made many mistakes throughout my life, some very serious, and always with consequences. And yet, as Cal Seerveld likes to say, “God picks up the pieces.” My life and work has taken peculiar, unexpected turns, and I must admit to often being perplexed and anxious in the face of the challenges that my calling brings about. And yet, looking back, I can see how God, more than anything else, has been slowly shaping my character and providing me with opportunities to learn skills that turn me into a useful instrument of his purposes, opaque as these purposes often are to me. I pray for the help of the Spirit in faithfully responding to my experiences and opportunities, paying attention to what I can learn, and trusting God to bless my limited efforts so that they constitute an honest and effective contribution to the work of the people of God and to the common good.

NOTE: This interview was conducted via email communications prior to the September 2010 decision of Dr. Strauss to give up his position as Editor of Comment magazine. Dr. Strauss became the CEO of the Center for Public Justice (CPJ) in October of 2009 and was scheduled to continue as Editor of Comment magazine until the end of 2010, but his increasing work load with CPJ made it impossible for him to continue his Comment editorial responsibilities.

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