God speaks to me in Norwegian. This will seem treasonous to my Swedish compatriots, so let me explain. Way back, I spent a couple of years waiting tables on a 600-passenger cruise ship on the Norwegian Sea, where the sparsely furnished staff cabins — located on the lower levels, underwater — featured two elementary amenities: a life vest and the Holy Bible.
I'll be honest: It's hard to take God seriously in Norwegian, especially in the guttural mountain tongue that was official on the ship. Still, having mostly slumbered my way through Religion 101 back in high school, those late-night Bible sessions were a personal record in religious immersion.
Safely returned to dry land two months later, I was surprised by the feedback when arriving home and telling the other father I've been brushing up on the Gospels: "Son, I'm not sure you should be reading that book."
So why would my dad, a Lutheran priest, be opposed to my reading the Bible? "You can read it," Gunnar continued ... "But what it means will depend on who you are."
It is a quintessentially Lutheran idea of the individual as alone in front of God.
He didn't need to tell me: After all, both my parents had forced upon me a first-hand experience of Christian cluelessness when moving the family from Stockholm to Sweden's Bible belt a decade earlier. That little southern town was thick with nonsense on the religious question — on both sides: the Christian fundamentalists with their heavily armored certainties and judgments; and the hard-boiled atheists who worshiped "reason" over fantasies … punkt slut ("and that's that").
Uninspired by the view on either hill, I adopted what appeared the only reasonable stance: that your religious experience is none of my business.
It is a quintessentially Lutheran idea of the individual as alone in front of God. But it comes at a price, which Gunnar reminded me of recently in very 2021 terms: "Martin Luther never wanted to form a new church; he wanted to drain the swamp."
The swamp in the early 16th century was the Roman Catholic Church. Luther's opposition to the Church's corrupt practices, and his claim that salvation could be reached through faith and by divine grace only, ended up splitting Western Christianity in two. Shifting the interpretative authority from the Church to the individual meant that Protestantism would grow into an open-ended argument that today is exploited by traffickers in utopian promises, get-rich-quick schemes and conspiracy theories. A survey conducted in late January by the conservative American Enterprise Institute reports that 27% of white evangelicals believe in the QAnon conspiracy theory that former President Donald Trump is leading a covert war against a cabal of pedophile Democrats.
The Swedish Christian right has started swapping notes with the U.S.
Of course, long before the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol, the American evangelical right has become increasingly radicalized, funded by right-wing organizations, major corporations and lobby groups to rally people behind the idea of what can only be interpreted as a Christian theocracy.
I got a close-up view of it during the two years I lived in the States, that perfect convergence of faith, profit and party politics that seemed to be particularly American. But according to Gunnar, the Swedish Christian right has started swapping notes with the U.S. — recruiting new members, organizing in universities, politically and online.
Though it has yet to spread widely across society, the prerequisites are in place: Sweden has over the last half-century progressively turned away from collectivist ideas towards individualism, far-right political forces have risen in pace with the growing income disparities, as ancient prejudices are dusted off in search of new scapegoats.
So how do we balance the freedom to interpret our own lives with the risk of ending up in alternative realities? Still sweating it out down there in the Swedish Bible belt, Gunnar doesn't have the answer. But he left me with this thought: Dogma is always shaped by people, and right and wrong will never be the sole province of religion.
Japan's new prime minister is facing the twin challenges of COVID-19 and regional tensions, and some wonder whether he can even last as long as his predecessor, who was forced out after barely one year.
TOKYO — When Fumio Kishida, Japan's new prime minister. introduced himself earlier this month, he announced that the three major projects of his premiership will be the control of the ongoing pandemic; a new type of capitalism; and national security.
Kishida also pledged to deal with China "as its neighbor, biggest trade partner and an important nation which Japan should continue to dialogue with."
Nothing too surprising. Still, it was a rapid turn of events that brought him to the top job, taking over for highly unpopular predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who had suddenly announced his resignation from office.
After a fierce race, Kishida defeated Taro Kono to become the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and pave the way for the prime minister's job.
Born into politics
A key reason for Kishida's victory is the improving health situation, following Japan's fifth wave of the COVID pandemic that coincided with this summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.
The best way to describe Kishida is to compare him to a sponge: not the most interesting item in a kitchen, yet it can absorb problems and clean up muck. His slogan ("Leaders exist to make other people shine") reflects well his political philosophy.
He is an excellent actor.
Kishida was born into a political family: His grandfather and father were both parliament members. Between the ages of six to nine, he studied in New York because of his father's work at the time. He attended the most prestigious private secondary school — the Kaisei Academy, of which about half of its graduates go to the University of Tokyo.
However, after failing three times the entrance exam to , Kishida finally settled for Waseda University. Coming from a family where virtually all the men went to UTokyo, this was Kishida's first great failure in life.
An invitation for Obama
After he graduated from college, Kishida worked for five years in a bank before serving as secretary for his father, Fumitake Kishida. In 1992, his father suddenly died at the age of 65. The following year, Kishida inherited his father's legacy to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives for the Hiroshima constituency. Since then, he has been elected successfully nine straight times, and served as Shinzo Abe's foreign minister for four years, beginning in December 2012. A former subordinate of his from that time commented on Kishida:
"If we are to sum him up in one sentence, he is an excellent actor. Whenever he was meeting his peers from other countries, we would remind him what should be emphasized, or when a firm, unyielding 'No' was necessary, and so on ... At the meetings, he would then put on his best show, just like an actor."
According to some insiders, during this period as foreign minister, his toughest stance was on nuclear weapons. This is due to the fact that his family hails from Hiroshima.
In 2016, following his suggestion, the G7 Ise-Shima Summit was held in Hiroshima, which meant that President Barack Obama visited the city — the first visit by a U.S. president to Hiroshima, where 118,661 lives were annihilated by the U.S. atomic bomb.
Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida in Hiroshima in 2016commons.wikimedia.org
In September, 2020 when Shinzo Abe stepped down as prime minister, Kishida put out his candidacy for the first time for LDP's presidency. He didn't even get close. This was his second great failure.
But reading his biography, Kishida Vision, I must say that besides the two aforementioned hiccups, Kishida's life has been smooth sailing over the past 64 years
When one has had a happy and easy life, one tends to think that human nature is fundamentally good. Yet, the world doesn't work like that. And Japanese tend to believe that "human nature is vice," and have always felt a bit uneasy with the dovish Kishida diplomacy when he was foreign minister.
Leftist traditions from Hiroshima
Hiroshima has always been a city with a leftist political tradition. Kishida's character, coupled with the fact that he belongs to the moderate Kochikai faction within the LDP, inevitably means that he won't be a right-wing prime minister.
How long will a Fumio Kishida government last?
Kishida would never have the courage to be engaged in any military action alongside Japan's ally, the United States, nor will he set off to rewrite the country's constitution.
So after barely a year of Yoshihide Suga in office, how long will a Fumio Kishida government last? If Japan can maintain its relatively stable health situation for some time, it could be a while. But if COVID comes roaring back, and the winter brings a sixth wave of the pandemic as virtually all Japanese experts in infectious diseases have predicted, then Kishida may just end up like Suga. No sponge can clean up that mess.
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