Features

Amsterdam unraveled

International | A visit to ground zero in Worldview War III on the centennial of Kuyper's Princeton lectures

Issue: "Pilgrims' progress," Nov. 28, 1998

A sanctifying and purifying influence must proceed from the church of the Lord to impact the whole society amid which it operates. -Abraham Kuyper

Squeezed tightly into a row of aging brownstones, The Shelter can be hard to find. The police know where it is, as does the antique American hippie behind the counter at the Grasshopper, Amsterdam's biggest marijuana-selling "coffeeshop." Out of curiosity, I even asked a prostitute, whose door, ringed by the fabled red light, faced onto Voorburgwal near Damstraat. She knows where it is, and she hops off her stool to point the way. "Have you ever been there?" I ask. She's a short, dark Eastern European girl, maybe 20 years old. She shakes her head. "But I know where it is. If I ever need to go, I can. It's good; no drugs there." The Shelter lies at the edge of the Red Light District, occupying an old church school. For 26 years, this Christian youth hostel has taken in the backpackers, the addicts, the working girls, and the homeless who have drifted to the Low Country and bottomed out. It is a strongly evangelical, Bible-centered ministry, and it's having a visible effect. "We attract the people with nowhere else to go," says Auke Algera, a 28-year-old Dutch minister who serves as The Shelter's daytime director. "We get the budget travelers, yes, because we are in all the guide books. But also we get the people who are looking for help. They come here because we do not fit in, in our environment." The arched, iron gate at the entrance leads into a gorgeous, stately courtyard; on a stone bench a young woman reads a New Testament in German. Mr. Algera taps a few numbers into a keypad at the door then enters. "Vincent Van Gogh once taught Sunday School here," he says. "His father was a pastor, and he thought about going into the ministry." Just before I enter, I catch sight of a man, outside the gate and across the street; he has passed out in a doorway. Mr. Algera sees him, too, and makes a mental note-later, he'll go out and check on the man. Less than 100 yards away from The Shelter is the Oude Kerk; the Nieuwe Kerk (which is not that new; it dates to the 15th century) is about the same distance away, in the other direction. It was in the Nieuwe Kerk on Oct. 20, 1880, that Abraham Kuyper gave the inaugural address for the new school he had founded, the Free University of Amsterdam. "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, 'Mine!'" Kuyper declared. And for all of his life as a scholar, a statesman, a preacher, and a writer, he was to live this credo. Abraham Kuyper, 1837-1920, is now regarded as one of the foremost thinkers in the history of Reformed Christianity. This stout, pipe-smoking Dutchman "was one of those rare intellectuals who actually led a popular movement," writes James Bratt in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Eerdmans, 1998). "He thought it not enough to articulate a worldview but built the organizations needed to implement it-a newspaper, a complete school system, his country's first mass political party," writes Mr. Bratt. Kuyper's Anti-Revolutionary Party became the foundation of Europe's Christian Democratic movement. At its head, he spent 30 years in the legislature and four years as prime minister of the Netherlands, from 1901 through 1905. But it was the series of lectures he gave at Princeton University in 1898 (the centennial Mr. Bratt refers to) that widened his influence dramatically. Titled "Lectures on Calvinism," they outlined the ecclesiastical, political, and cultural vision he was attempting to implement in the Netherlands. Kuyper summed up his attempts thus: "God the Lord unmistakably instituted the basic rule for the duty of government. Government exists to arrange his justice on earth, and to uphold that justice. To take over the tasks of society and of the family therefore lies outside its jurisdiction." He promoted church schools, for example, and church involvement in welfare efforts. "But there's a legitimate debate over whether those seeds ever bore fruit," says David Hall, a Presbyterian pastor who heads the Reformed think tank, the Center for the Advancement of Paleo Orthodoxy. "Having been to Amsterdam, I don't think you can look to Holland as the lab. I'm convinced his thought, and his biblical worldview are valid-and indeed are the only hope for humanity-but in looking at the fruit borne in Holland, I have to conclude that the seeds never took root there." Indeed, the Netherlands has been the lab for a quite different experiment. Amsterdam, in particular, was the scene of student protests throughout the 1960s (many of them at Kuyper's own Free University)-and the protesters won. By the end of the decade, the famous decriminalizations of drugs and prostitution had been enacted, the government began providing needles and methadone to unaccountable addicts, and euthanasia soon followed. Holland now hails the homosexual subculture. Indeed, just last week the Dutch cabinet approved a measure allowing homosexuals to adopt children; government officials hope the plan will become law by Jan. 1, 2000. According to news reports, there was no discernable opposition. Today new attempts are being made to nullify the church's influence on civil society.... This development must be laid at the doorstep of the church.-Abraham Kuyper The obvious question is, What has happened? What transformed the Netherlands to the universally acknowledged sin capital of the world? In brief, Kuyper's seeds hit the stony soil of Enlightenment liberalism. His Anti-Revolutionary Party won temporary political victories, but Dutch intellectual culture fell deeper into the emphases that had popped up initially in the late 18th century: the upward march of history and mankind, and an enlightened enthronement of toleration. Indeed, Kuyper asked in 1871, "What was there in the spiritual atmosphere of our century that gave rise to this phenomenon? Why did the particular heresy of our century have to be a strident Modernism? ... People have left off raving over hollow ideals and want above all to see and handle-and, I might add, freely enjoy-things." In time, as Amsterdam became the grand experiment of Enlightenment liberalism, the church-particularly the state Dutch Reformed Church, rife with theological liberalism-became the grand enabler. The results of the grand experiment are sobering. The policy of decriminalizing and regulating drugs has failed to reduce the number of addicts; junkies line the alleyways and parks of Amsterdam like refuse. Turning a blind eye to prostitution has not protected either the prostitutes or their customers; a majority of the girls are HIV-positive. But there are signs the Dutch are ready to give up on their experiment: "A country long regarded by the British and other Europeans as an anything-goes society is beginning to look cleaner, safer, and tamer," reports the London Times. Police descended on Amsterdam brothels last winter and rounded up underage prostitutes and illegal immigrants; more than a dozen houses were forced to close. And the coffeeshops have been put on notice: Do a better job of keeping out the underage dopers, or be shut down. Amsterdam authorities are taking some lessons from New York City's successful crackdowns: They're attending even to the minor crimes. Public urination has become a real problem in Amsterdam; the city stinks of it. Even the filthy urinoirs, phone-booth-sized open-air urinals near street corners, haven't helped. Now police are issuing tickets to people who are caught urinating in public-60 Dutch guilders, or about $32. (The fine is higher for owners who don't clean up after their dogs: 75 guilders, or $40.) Making obscene gestures at police is no longer tolerated; the fine for lifting a finger in indignation, for example, is a steep 250 guilders, or about $135. In the city of Leeuwarden, police are ticketing kids who kick beer cans or shout after midnight. And in Leiden, the college town where Kuyper attended school, mounted police are now patrolling the campus. "For years an influential left-leaning elite of social scientists, politicians, and journalists trivialized crime," opined the daily De Volks Krant newspaper last spring. "Now, people are realizing that social life deteriorates rapidly if small offenses are tolerated." Last year, the best-selling title in Dutch bookstores was Dangerous Children, by Amsterdam sociologist Mieke Komen, which argues that the liberal experiment-particularly in relaxing controls on youths-has failed. "Self-control can only be taught," she wrote. "And it is precisely this teaching that is missing in our society." You cannot walk away from your own time, but must take it as it is, and the times demand that we either accept the unsettling of our faith or enter the fray. Given this choice, the committed person does not hesitate.-Abraham Kuyper Naoki Yota carries a bundle of linens in one hand and a clipboard in the other. This stocky, square-jawed Japanese kid wears a broad smile. He puts his burdens down in a corner of The Shelter's common room and sits across from director Auke Algera to tell his story. He begins by apologizing for his English. "In Japan I sold drugs," says the 23-year-old, with a nervous laugh. "Very bad, very bad. I offered to a policeman." He was arrested, but not jailed (probably because it was a first offense, he says, and only a small amount of marijuana). "But I had enough of laws, so I came to Amsterdam, so I would not worry about police," he says. "But soon I didn't have money; all my money goes for drugs. When I had nothing, I came here." Auke explains that if their guests are broke, they can stay for free if they'll spend a few hours a day helping to clean the hostel. "My supervisor was so kind," he says softly. "I did not know why. I wanted to know. He gave me the New Testament." Naoki was led to Christ by his supervisor; in time he returned to Tokyo and became involved in a church. "But I wanted to come back, to help others like me," he says. "So I have returned, for a year. Perhaps longer." He's now on staff, earning room and board and a little bit of spending money. Though the job involves linens and buckets and clipboards, he and other staff members focus primarily on the kids. "We are here, like a net," he says. "To catch."

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