A look ahead at 2017: A year of thresholds

By Subby Szterszky | January 16, 2017

For many of us, January is a month of transition, a time to take stock of the year that was and to anticipate the year that lies ahead. In fact, the month is named for Janus, the Roman god of thresholds, whom the ancients depicted as having two faces, one looking back into the past and the other forward into the future.

But even beyond January, the year 2017 promises a number of threshold moments – anniversaries, political changes and cultural events – whose impact we may only assess after the fact, if at all.

Naturally we can’t know for certain what a year will bring, either to our world or to ourselves. But we can consider the unfolding stories – liminal or otherwise – that will likely call for thoughtful, Scriptural engagement from God’s people. Here are just a few.

Canada at 150

On July 1, Canada will mark its 150th birthday, but numerous celebrations will run throughout the course of the year. At 150, our country is still a relative newcomer on the world stage. Still, a century and a half is plenty of time on which to reflect, to consider who we are as a nation, where we’ve come from and where we’re headed. To that end, Canada is also commemorating another pair of anniversaries this year, both centennials: our victory at Vimy Ridge during the First World War, and the formation of the National Hockey League. The first event is often cited as the moment when Canada’s national identity began to emerge from the shadow of Britain. The second denotes the birth of an institution that’s at the heart of our cultural self-image. And beyond both, there remains our national motto, a mari usque ad mare, translated from Psalm 72:8, “He shall have dominion from sea to sea.” It’s a motto that will continue to serve our nation well for another 150 years, and more.

The Protestant Reformation at 500

This year also marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, reckoned from when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and their successors sought to reform the church, to return it to a pure Biblical standard of faith and practice that had been obscured under centuries of tradition. By God’s providential grace, they touched off a movement that has shaped both church history and Western culture down to the present. Of course, 500 years have shown that the Reformation wasn’t a one-time event. As the Reformers themselves pointed out, the church must be semper reformanda, always reforming. Nevertheless, their core principle of the five solas – salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Scriptures alone, to the glory of God alone – remains the central truth on which the church stands or falls.

The Russian revolution at 100

One other anniversary that’s less likely to be celebrated – although still worthy of note – is the Russian revolution of 1917 that led to the creation of the Soviet Union. The Russians themselves are deeply ambivalent about the centennial, choosing to commemorate the Soviet role in helping win the Second World War, while sidestepping the bloody Stalinist purges in which millions were executed or sent to the gulags. The Soviet Union was the world’s first communist nation, a 75-year experiment in atheistic materialism as state religion. For good or ill (mostly ill) its Cold War rivalry with the United States defined global politics for the bulk of the 20th century. Its sudden and quiet collapse 25 years ago bore sublime testimony to the fact that God determines the times and boundaries of all empires, even the most powerful and repressive.

The Trump administration

With the most controversial election in American history now behind us, Donald Trump is about to begin his term as President of the United States. For some, this remains a cause for happy optimism, while for others, an occasion of fearful dismay. The political and ideological rifts revealed by the November election – not just in American society but around the world – show no signs of being healed either quickly or easily. And while the Trump administration represents an undeniable shift in the political landscape, no one can know what the next four years will bring. Christians from around the globe will continue to pray according to their respective consciences, and so we should. But whatever transpires, we can confidently leave the result in God’s hands, knowing that He’s the one who raises and removes leaders and controls all events, both great and small, for His glory and the good of His people.

Ongoing implications of Brexit

In last summer’s Brexit referendum, the British public voted by a margin of 52 to 48 percent to leave the European Union. Some of the effects were immediate, plunging world markets into disarray, driving the British pound to a 30-year low and leading to the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron. As the dust cleared, voters expressed confusion about how they voted and why. According to a November poll conducted by BMG Research, 51 percent of Brits said they’d vote to stay in the EU if given a second chance. This year, as Britain works to finalize its divorce from the EU and what that will look like, the political and economic fallout will continue to ripple throughout the international community. But just as God raises and removes leaders, so He is in control of the affairs of nations. Those who know Him can rest in His care while we pray with confidence, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Syrian civil war and refugee crisis

Despite the efforts of the United Nations and sporadic ceasefires, the civil war in Syria rages on, with no permanent resolution in sight. Since 2011, the conflict has claimed more than 400,000 lives and created an international refugee crisis, as millions of Syrians have fled their shattered homeland to seek asylum in other countries. Western nations continue to grapple with the dilemma of opening their borders to waves of refugees versus legitimate concerns over security and the accommodation of so many new immigrants. These concerns are exacerbated by global acts of terror, like those in Brussels, Nice, Istanbul and Berlin last year. For Christians, whether public officials or private citizens, the challenge remains to balance prudent caution with a welcoming heart of compassion for those who are truly in desperate need.

Challenges to religious freedom

Freedom of religion is one of the fundamental rights in modern Western societies, Canada included. However in recent years, this basic freedom has come under fire. Especially when it rubs up against sexual ethics, reproductive issues or the right to die, freedom of conscience is increasingly being eroded in the court of public opinion, and sometimes in the court of law. Secularists have largely succeeded in redefining this right simply as freedom of worship, or even freedom from religion. In other words, people can believe as they please in private or at church, but they’d better not bring those beliefs into the public arena. This trend is only growing and unlikely to reverse any time soon, but it’s nothing the church hasn’t faced throughout its history. As always, the call remains for God’s people to be faithful.

Challenges to academic freedom

Unlike liberty of conscience, academic freedom is not enshrined in most constitutions. Yet it remains a core principle of Western education, safeguarding the free exchange of ideas, even (or especially) unpopular ones. Alas, this freedom is also coming under attack at all levels of education, from public schools to universities. “Triggered” and “microaggression” have become buzzwords on campus and in the classroom, used to silence those who hold culturally unfashionable views. Teachers and students risk discipline or dismissal for merely voicing such views. Offended parties can then retreat to “safe spaces” where they’ll be sheltered from ideas they don’t want to hear. While bullying and harassment are clearly unconscionable, this kind of overreaction threatens the free pursuit of knowledge that lies at the heart of a healthy society. As believers, we pray that God will restore a level of cultural sanity to our land.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus Insights.

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