Monday, June 22, 2009

Heroes and Villains

I have a tendency, when I find a novelist that I like, to read everything that he or she has written. Ayn Rand, Leon Uris, James Clavell Jodi Piccoult, Maeve Binchy, James Michener, Margaret Atwood, Chaim Potok - these are some of those authors. It's been years since I read the James Clavell books, but I've been reminded recently of one that really made an impression: King Rat (1962).

Set during World War II in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, King Rat depicts the struggle for survival in the camp. I suppose as a budding sociologist, the book really intrigued me because the camp was basically a microcosm of society. The prisoners and guards formed a social system and developed a culture, with it's own norms and values. There were rules - and consequences for not following the rules. There were those who prospered and those who did not survive. There were those who maintained an admirable degree of integrity and those who made no pretense at integrity. I don't remember any of the details, really - just the discomfort in reading this book and thinking about how I would act under similar circumstances. Would I be noble, honest, kind, compassionate, generous? Or would I be devious, manipulative, selfish, cruel? Would I try to stay out of the way - inconspicuous, inconsequential? Would I part with my integrity for the sake of comfort, or even more basically, safety?

King Rat is a novel and like any worthwhile novel, it raises questions for the reader. I often think about King Rat when I'm watching the news and I hear reports about some event - a natural disaster, a crime scene - where some people respond as heroes and others as villains. I wonder, what is it that causes some people to run into a burning building to rescue someone else - or even a pet or piece of property - and others to take advantage of a breach in security to loot and plunder? Why will one person jump into the water to try to rescue a stranger who is drowning, while another person will stay safely out of the way even as they watch that person drown?

Is there any way we can know how we'll react to these kinds of situations? Is it enough to hope that when the chips are down, we'll be revealed as heroes rather than as villains?

I mentioned recently listening to a discussion of Gaia Theory and James Lovelock's prediction that the global population may actually shrink to about 1 billion people. What kind of society will we live in if the population starts declining rapidly? How will we respond? Will we be heroes? Villains? Is there anything we can do to prepare ourselves?

I actually am more and more convinced that we CAN prepare ourselves to respond to any kind of situation. But it will take some time and intentionality. This may sound pretty bleak and not the kind of thing you want to think about on a gray and damp day, but I honestly think that preparing ourselves for the various temptations which may one day come our way, is a key to living fully and freely. If I really WANT to be a hero, the training is now, NOT when the chips are down, so to speak. I may not have time to think, let alone plan. I may not have an opportunity to consider the pros and cons. I will simply react. In that instant of decision, what I REALLY believe about myself and about God will be revealed.

I know it's probably a bit lame, but I do think about stories from the book of Daniel - the one where Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego get thrown into the fiery furnace - and the one where Daniel is put into a lion's den. Were they tempted at the last moment, to back down? It's easy to SAY that "my God can deliver me" but when the heat from the fire is so intense that guards are dying or when hungry lions are circling - did they waver? Sure - God rescued them. The stories would be a whole lot less impressive if he hadn't. But God doesn't always deliver us from evil - or at least he doesn't always do it in such a way that we live to tell the tale. Don't forget the disciples and the hundreds of thousands since then, who have been martyred for their faith. Deliverance may look a whole lot different than it does in the book of Daniel.

So the real question is, do I trust God with my life, or, when it comes right down to it, will I have more confidence in myself than I have in God?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

"How do we know what we know?"

Years ago I remember hearing about a group known as the Flat Earth Society. I don't want to spend any amount of time talking about this society - though if you're interested, you can check out the webpage: What I remember is that this group challenges conventional wisdom by asking the question, what do we REALLY know and how do we know it? I remember thinking that no one in their right mind would actually believe that the earth is flat - and that got me thinking, what do we KNOW and how do we know it and which is more important: the way something REALLY is or the way we THINK it is?

So fast forward about 20 years and there's the popular movie The Matrix - a movie about layers of reality. There's the world as we experience it with all of its drama and intrigue, but then there's the "matrix" which is the engine or blueprint for the experienced world. Or - come to think of it, maybe the children's book, Alice in Wonderland, was an earlier attempt to capture the same thing. And then there's The Truman Show, about a guy whose entire life is a reality tv show and everyone knows, except him.

These, and probably many other artifacts of popular culture, have challenged our thinking about what's real. We watch the movie, read the book and are momentarily intrigued by the mystery of knowledge - a "cloud of unknowing" (to quote an anonymous 14th century author). Although maybe the cloud of unknowing had more to do with the cloud between humanity and divinity rather than the distortions within humanity... a topic for another day.

The point that I'm trying to get to is this: there seems to have evolved a whole genre of thinking (and probably it has a name - please advise...) that is based on this idea that things are not only NOT what they seem, but the "what they seem" is actually a massive hoax, perpetrated on ignorant, somewhat dull-witted and unsuspecting humans, by a force of ambiguous origin. There are various conspiracy theories but it seems to me that it goes even deeper than this. For instance, some of the titles I've watched that would exemplify this genre are Zeitgeist, The Movie, a couple of BBC documentaries - The Century of Self and The Power of Nightmares. Even some of our mainstream North American documentaries might fall into this category: The Corporation and Who Killed the Electric Car?, for example. Some of these examples are really just exposes - they look at something very much rooted in the world as we know it and expose the layer that is often just beyond our vision. But, if that layer has a sinister, manipulative quality, maybe there are darker layers below that one...

I'm a Prison Break fan, and "the Company" is another exmaple - or take Lost - here again there's a well coordinated and complex plot. So - I'm just saying, this genre is interesting and I'm starting to see it's imprint in a variety of places. And, I'm also beginning to suspect that the people who are most likely to be knowledgeable and drawn to this genre are highly intelligent and very articulate young adults. Interesting. I actually think that we may be on the verge of a new era of "enlightenment" (does that mean that these years of incredible, obscene affluence have actually been a "dark age"?) - and that's pretty exciting and maybe more than a little frightening at the same time. For you Matrix fans (and here I'm only talking about the FIRST movie), red pill or blue pill?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Act Justly

I've been thinking about the "act justly" part of the Micah 6:8 verse - it's the one where the prophet Micah asks, "what does God require of us" and he answers his own question by saying that we should "act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God." So, WHO exactly, acts justly? Is not acting justly effectively to act against one's own self interest? Isn't it putting the needs and rights and dignity of other people ahead of your own? Isn't it surrendering one's opportunity for advancement so that someone else might be lifted up?

There's a quote a heard a while ago - I've thought about it a lot over the last few months and I may even have mentioned it in a previous post. The quote goes something like this, and I'm sorry that I don't even remember who said it or where I first heard it: "We don't always act according to what we profess, but we always act according to what we believe." In other words, profession - saying what we believe - is relatively easy. But the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. It's what we DO that counts and what we do reveals what we REALLY believe.

We can make impressive speeches and pronouncements about the way things are and the way we think they should be, but what do our actions say? Here's something I've wrestled with for a long time - I increasingly SEE the suffering and injustice caused by greed and economic systems built on a mentality that says "to the rich [or winner or victor] go the spoils." By this line of reasoning the West deserves to be rich and the poor of the earth - well, they're the poor. They don't have what it takes. They don't measure up. God must somehow be withholding his blessing. I can protest that I don't believe these things. I can say that I understand that God grieves over the plight of the poor of this world. I can even say that I believe that God calls me to love the poor and to provide for them as best I can. But the thing that haunts me is the fact that I still benefit from the system that makes me "rich" and others "poor". What do my actions say about what I believe?

Sometimes, when I'm especially honest - or perhaps, cynical - I think that I'm actually worse than those who intentionally and blatantly set out to exploit other people in order to secure a better position for themselves. There actions may be despicable but they are at least acting in a manner consistent with their beliefs. Can they actually be more honest than I am? Here's the bottom line: is it safe for me to play around the edges of justice, secure in the knowledge that the really greedy people will ensure that my security and privilege are maintained? And if I don't want that to be my legacy, what ought I to do? Must I sell all that I have, give the money away and literally follow Jesus? Is there any other way? A truly more effective way?

Monday, June 08, 2009

Some thoughts on Karl Marx... a tentative defense

As an undergraduate student and later throughout my graduate studies in sociology, I really enjoyed studying the classic social theorists, especially Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer. I loved reading about the historical context and the development of this fledgling social science which was so intrinsically appealing to me. These were philosophers and social analysts who defined the parameters for the field we now call sociology. I don't hear much these days about them, except for the odd awkward reference to Marx - usually by someone who is quick to clarify that he is "not a Marxist"! Interesting...

Though it's been MANY years since I first encountered the thinking of Marx, I still vividly recall the images that my reading produced in my mind. To this day, whenever I hear any reference to Karl Marx I see Marx and his friend, Frederick Engels (co-author of The Communist Manifesto published in 1848) and others in a smoky, noisy pub, engaged in intense conversation about the state of the world, the oppression of the masses, the injustices of an economic system that strips people of dignity. I sense their passion for the poor and their indignation over the evils of industrialization and the factory system. I agonize with them over the alienation of labour, whereby people quite literally become cogs in a machine of mass production, churning out "stuff" to appeal to a nascent materialism - now, incidentally, in full bloom or perhaps even a little past it's prime.

The themes of their writing, frankly, are similar to the things I spend a lot of time thinking about today in the context of global issues of justice and injustice. We talk about micro entreprise in countries like Kenya and Rwanda and Bolivia and the fact that it incredibly small loans can help people have dignity - they are "business owners" and they're able to provide for their families and send their kids to school. I've presented workshops on the global food crisis where we emphasize that the problem has less to do with the production of food and more to do with the fact that food is a commodity and poor people are priced out of the market.

It occurs to me that Marx's "bourgeoisie" have banded together to form massive corporations that control the means of production and siphon and squeeze profits from both land and labour.

So why are we so quick to distance ourselves from Marx? I think of some of the fundamental tenets of Marx's thinking - it was Karl Marx who said, for instance, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need". This, in fact, was to be the motto of socialism, which Marx believed to be the ideal form of governance. That's right - socialism, NOT communism. According to Marx, communism would be a transitional form of governance which would be replaced by socialism. Marx was not a "communist" and Marx even declared that he was not a "Marxist"! Those "labels", I think, miss the whole point.

I've often thought that my biggest criticism of Marx (at least as I understand him) is that he underestimated the power of human selfishness and greed and the presence of evil in the world. In the end, Marx was an incurable optimist. He thought that humanity could and WOULD work for the common good and in so doing, everyday people would enjoy the dignity of their labour.

The other thing that people might have against Marx is his reported disdain for religion. You might have heard that Marx described relgion as the "opiate of the masses". Actually, the fuller quote is this: Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.Perhaps we shouldn't be quite so quick to assume that Marx intended this as a slam against religion. Maybe it's more a description of a role that religion was playing in a heartless world. Honestly there have been times (lots of them!) when I have felt that many of us - even people with deeply held faith beliefs - have settled for a watered down, complacent faith that makes us feel better, but fails to engage the world in any truly transformative way. So - I'm prepared to say that I appreciate Karl Marx and he's stretched and stimulated my thinking.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Peter's Sword: The Sequel

This is going to be quick but I want to add this before I forget or get distracted. I met someone today who had read the "Peter's Sword" entry and said that she'd looked into it and discovered that in Luke's gospel, Jesus actually tells the disciples to BUY swords. So I've just looked it up myself and sure enough, it's right there! If you want to check for yourself it's in Luke 22:36.

It's right after the Last Supper, after the disciples argue about which of them will be the greatest (now THAT must have irked Jesus!), after he has revealed to them that one of them will betray him, after he tells the boastful Peter that he will deny him three times before the rooster crows. Maybe it's just my imagination, but I get the sense that Jesus is a bit tense. He asks them if they have ever lacked anything in the time they've been with him and then he tells them that if they don't have a sword they should sell their cloak, if need be, and buy a sword. That's weird. Why would he tell them to buy swords? In fact, they say that they have TWO swords (again, I wonder why they have them!) and he says that two swords isn't enough. Isn't enough for WHAT? And is Jesus suddenly wanting to support the local economy? If he wants the disciples to be armed, why not just provide what they need?

So you see, I'm absolutely no further ahead. Why in the world would Jesus - the Prince of Peace - the guy who could call on the services of 10,000 angels - the Lamb of God who is about to be crucified by Roman soldiers - why would he instruct a bunch of fishermen, a tax collector, and the other 7 (whose occupations seem to be unknown) to buy swords? Especially in light of the fact that he apparently didn't intend for them to use them? If any of you have any ideas on this, PLEASE, feel free to share them. I hate loose ends!

For those of you who might be Chronicle of Narnia fans, do you suppose there's any connection between Peter the disciple and his sword and the sword of Peter in the Chronicles? And, if you want to see what Saint Peter's sword actually looked like, check it out at Not exactly a precision instrument! I'm thinking it's no wonder Peter (or whoever it was swinging that thing) lopped off a guard's ear!

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Gaia Theory: A CBC Interview with James Lovelock

Just when you think you've got your head around some of the pressing environmental issues and their impact on humanity, you read or hear something that turns it all upside down. At least that's been my experience of late. Just last week I happened to have CBC radio on during The Current and Anna Maria Tremonti was doing an interview with James Lovelock. The show started out with the promo CBC's been doing for "a million acts of green" and went on to say that all of the energy and hype that's going into encouraging humanity - at least those of us who are accustomed to living recklessly and carelessly in the developed world - to live more responsibly and with respect for environmental stewardship, may not make that much difference. What? That got my attention.

James Lovelock, it turns out, is the originator of what's called the Gaia Theory. The basic idea behind the Gaia Theory is that the earth is a self-regulating organism which has it's own survival agenda. If James Lovelock is right, we should perhaps be less concerned about saving the earth from US and more concerned about saving US from the earth! According to him, the earth WILL look after itself but it may not look after us. In fact, he believes that the population will dwindle from the current nearly 7 billion, to only 1 billion. You can read more about Gaia Theory at . Oh, and it's not that we shouldn't reduce green house gas emissions and look for greener ways of living, but he argues that it may be too late to reverse the earth's adaptation to our carelessness. And, he suggests that we'd do well to focus instead on our own adaptation to the effects of climate change on our habitat.

Well! That's interesting, and frankly a bit frightening - if he's right. As I listened I was reminded of a situation in Vancouver a few years ago. They'd had heavier than usual rain in Vancouver [in my experience, it's ALWAYS raining in Vancouver!] and the city was under a "boil water order". Now note that it wasn't that they didn't have access to water - residents were just warned that they needed to boil the water before ingesting it. An inconvenience to be sure, especially for those who are used to unlimited quantities of clean, potable water at the turn of a tap - on demand, so to speak. You can imagine that demand for bottled water went through the roof. And here's the thing. There were reports of people - normally NICE people, good citizens - coming to blows at the Costco over bottled water! A colleague I was visiting at the time - who, by the way had lived for a number of years in Africa - remarked wryly that these same people very likely would say of Africans, "I don't know why they keep killing one another!"

My point in all this is to say that many of us who have had the incredible privilege to live in Canada all of our lives, and especially those of us who are 55 years old or so or younger, really don't know what it's like to live with scarcity. And consequently, we may not know how we would (or WILL) deal with scarcity when it arrives on our doorstep. I don't understand all the science behind Gaia Theory or other perspectives on climate change, but I think a lot about our responsibilities to our neighbors - whether they live around the block or across the globe. I note the news reports of violence around the world - food riots and riots over access to water and political instability and terrorism and attacks on humanitarian organizations trying to deliver aid - and I wonder what it will all come to. Mostly I wonder how I will respond if and when my comfortable life is disturbed by scarcity. And I think that if I want to respond well and out of a generous spirit, I'd better start cultivating a generous disposition now. If you'd like to listen to the interview with James Lovelock, just click on the title of this post and scroll down to Part 2.