Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The power - and politics - of HOPE

We have all heard inspiring messages about the transformative power of HOPE. Anyone who has visited a developing country and spent time with people who are courageously facing hardships and challenges on every side, can testify to the incredible power that hope can generate in even the most oppressive of circumstances. I remember clearly the day when I was in Kenya, visiting a Guardians of Hope group (see and the light came on. Guardians of Hope - what an absolutely perfect description of this approach to caring for orphans of the HIV/AIDS virus!!! These groups are literally guarding and also nurturing HOPE!

But that's just one example of hope. In general, the image that comes to my mind as I think of the power of hope is that of a solitary vibrant flower persisting gloriously in the heat and barrenness of a desert. Brilliant hues of purple, orange, yellow, red and blue set against a dreary canvas of sand and wind. Flowers that can thrive in desert conditions have apparently honed their adaptive capacity and cheerfully defy all of the challenges of nature that conspire against them.

Perhaps it's pushing the analogy too far to suggest that similarly, people who are able to rise above oppressive political, economic and environmental climates and conditions, have found reservoirs of strength that are not apparent on the surface. Is that romanticizing the poverty and oppression experienced by as many as three billion or so people who struggle every day to simply survive? Perhaps. But maybe we can honour the struggle without condoning the conditions which cause the struggle. Resilience IS beautiful.

And about those "reservoirs of strength" that the oppressed, the marginalized, the downtrodden, may tap into - I'm reminded of the scene, recorded in Matthew 4:31-33 where the disciples are concerned because Jesus hasn't had anything to eat. Surely he must be hungry and weak. But Jesus says to them, "I have food to eat that you know nothing about." Hm. Our physical bodies need nourishment or we die. It actually happens every day to tens of thousands of human bodies (many of them CHILDREN under the age of 5!) who die of starvation. But there is more to life than the physical body and the food that fuels it...

Most of you reading this posting live in a land of plenty. Our challenge is not to find enough food to eat to keep the body going, but rather to limit our intake of fat and salt and sugar and the host of things that manufacturers ADD to our food to make it hard to resist. Enough said! But what of the spirit? Is it possible that our obsession with physical food - carbs and fats and protein and fiber and fruits and vegetables - has actually resulted in a shriveling of our spirits? Are we well fed but spiritually dry? Speaking for myself, I'd have to say YES. But it's NOT too late. I can learn. I can tap into those reservoirs that Jesus opened up and filled (and keeps filling!). I don't want to get all sentimental about this, but there it is. That's the way I see it.

I came across another book by Paulo Freire - this one is Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1992). I'll close this posting with a quote from Friere:

The idea that hope alone will transform the world, and action undertaken in that kind of naivete, is an excellent route to hopelessness, pessimism, and fatalism. But the attempt to do without hope, in the struggle to improve the world, as if that struggle could be reduced to calculated acts alone, or a purely scientific approach, is a frivolous illusion. To attempt to do without hope, which is based on the need for truth as an ethical quality of the struggle, is tantamount to denying that struggle is one of its mainstays. The essential this: hope, as an ontological need, demands an anchoring in practice. As an ontological need, hope needs practice in order to become historical concreteness. That is why there is no hope in sheer hopefulness. The hoped-for is not attained by dint of raw hoping. Just to hope is to hope in vain.

In case you're wondering, ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being. And - final thing! - a preview of the Pedagogy of Hope is available FREE, as an online edition at

Friday, July 24, 2009

Beware optimism, pessimism, cynicism... and complacency!

According to the Canadian National news, the recession is over. Really? Well - the jobs that were lost may not come back for years, but Canadians seem to be spending which the optimists among us interpret as evidence of renewed confidence in the economy. And since that seems to be all that keeps the economy going - confidence, that is - that's a good thing. Right?

And, the H1N1 pandemic seems to be more or less under control, though there are warnings that a second wave may be much worse. But the optimist rests easy knowing that some of the best medical minds on the planet are working on a vaccine and there are some pretty intelligent people even now figuring out how many doses of the vaccine are needed to protect us from this nasty bug - so that's all good. Right?

The environment continues to be a cause for concern, but the sun keeps coming up in the morning and going down at night - of course if you live in Atlantic Canada where we haven't actually SEEN much of the sun this summer, we're still pretty sure it's still up there somewhere. The climate change forecasters of doom and gloom are still issuing pretty dramatic warnings, but at least they seem to have captured the attention of the G8, so they'll figure something out to get us out of this fix, right?

The food crisis that was so much in the news last spring seems to have receded somewhat. The poor are still poor, of course, and the hungry are still hungry, but we haven't seen any food riots lately, so that's good, I guess.

There are still lots of problems but, hey, no one ever promised us a rose garden after all. Struggle is what makes us strong. No pain, no gain. Even the bible says that we shouldn't worry about tomorrow so, let's carry on. Nothing like a trip to the mall or a few bids on ebay to help us forget our troubles or the troubles of people we don't even know but who are rumoured to be suffering hunger, ill health, exploitation, persecution and all kinds of other unpleasantness. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot that we can do about all the problems, so maybe the best thing is to find some way to enjoy life as best we can.

So - I think I've covered it all - optimism, pessimism, cynicism AND complacency. And here's the warning - each of these basic attitudes is a trap. So what's the alternative? Well - here goes. It may sound incredibly simplistic, but I think that we need to open our eyes and see things as they are - the good, the bad, the ugly. As humanity presses on - whether by our own design or by the momentum from the past - we will need all of the resources of science and of faith and of good will if we are to have anything of value to pass on to the next generation. Or even if there is to BE a next generation!

I can't help thinking about Solomon - the author of Ecclesiastes - who asked that God would give him wisdom. God apparently granted his request and he wrote the book of Ecclesiastes as a sort of journal of his discoveries. He sought to understand the meaning of life and, as you probably know, everything he tried - wisdom, pleasures, work, advancement - it is all, in the end, he says, meaningless. Pretty depressing, eh? But this is how Solomon concludes his writing:

Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (Eccl. 12:13)

This is where I'm at. There are times when I'm drawn to optimism, pessimism, cynicism and complacency - but I know that they are all dead ends, if I stay on any of these paths too long. Sometimes I find God's commandments pretty obscure and when I'm really honest, they are often counter intuitive and definitely counter cultural. But I'm thinking that counter cultural is probably not a bad thing and maybe it's just what we need. Even from a purely human point of view, it's pretty evident that our materialistic, narcissistic, consumer-driven culture and our confidence in humanity's ability to solve our own problems hasn't actually worked out all that well. Which isn't to say that we should stop trying - just that we should try something else. As for me, I think that trying to do things according to God's commands is certainly worth our best effort. And if we're going to try to live by them, it's going to take some effort to figure out just what they are and to separate them out from our cultural biases.

Hans Rookmaaker, a Dutch Christian scholar once said that "Jesus didn't come to make us Christian; he came to make us fully human." Interesting. More thoughts on that for another day!

Oh - one more thing - and I think I've likely said this before but I'll say it again - the biggest challenge for us in seeking to obey God OR in applying ourselves to science, is to acknowledge our limitations and to tackle the challenges with humility...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Band wagons and climate change

I confess I'm feeling a bit uneasy these days with all of the advocacy initiatives around climate change. There are all kinds of quick and easy ways that we can pester our governments into at least making a show of understanding the urgency of political action on the environment portfolio. We can sign petitions, send letters, join demonstrations - the usual array of citizen tools for voicing our collective concern.

Some might say that these activities are needed in order to badger our politicians into effective policy decisions and that they are consequently worth the little bit of effort they require. The implicit argument is that our governments can't be trusted to act responsibly if we don't keep at them. Hm. I confess that as I write that statement, I realize that it may not actually be that far-fetched! Others might have less confidence in the effectiveness of these forms of advocacy but may adopt a "what can it hurt?" attitude. But - let's think this through...

Here are some basic assumptions that I'm working from:

1. Climate change is nothing new. I have no idea of all of the variables that may possibly impact on the climate of this planet, but I'm pretty sure there are TONS of them. I suspect that the climate fluctuates and changes daily but that there are also significant shifts and trends. I think I've heard that scientists can identify 7 distinct climate "ages" in the earth's known history.
2. We humans are part of the ecology of the earth. Our actions affect the planet and we, in turn, are affected by our environment.
3. I think James Lovelock (the guy who originally proposed Gaia Theory - for more on that see my post of June 2/09 entitled Gaia Theory: A CBC Interview with James Lovelock), is onto something really significant when he posits that the earth is a self-regulating organism with its own survival agenda and that we should perhaps be more concerned about saving ourselves than about saving the planet (since it will likely outlast us, at least from a scientific perspective). When push comes to shove Mother Earth may not be so much "nurturing" as vindictive!
4. Presuming that we are, in fact, the highest life form (and most intelligent), we ARE to be stewards and caretakers of the earth. In other words, we should know better than to pollute our nest or exploit resources for our short-term selfish gain. That sounds so self evident that it makes me wonder how we ever got where we are in terms of our very obvious abuses of a marvelously complex - but not infinitely forgiving - natural system. I suppose each little encroachment and denial of common sense and common courtesy seemed innocuous enough and it's only now sinking in that we have been crass and stupid as stewards.
5. No credit to us, but it does seem that the earth has been incredibly resilient, despite our short sightedness and bad manners. Doomsday forecasts have - at least in the past - tended to overstate the case and underestimate the earth's capacity to survive our assaults. This is not to presume that we can carry on as we have in the past.
6. If the current observations of climate change do, in fact, indicate a trend of global warming, the predictions of what will happen if the planet continues to heat and the ice caps and glaciers continue to melt, are VERY daunting and certainly SHOULD cause us to take the warnings of impending disaster very seriously.
7. This is much MORE than a simple environmental issue. After all, if we dig even a bit into the pit of explanations for WHY the climate is changing, we will discover that the impact of human activity has largely been fueled by a combination of greed, selfishness, a perhaps naive and uncritical embrace of technologies which have enticed us to forfeit sound judgment for comfort and convenience. Environmental issues cannot be neatly separated from political and economic issues. Therefore, we will not overcome environmental impacts of political and economic policies WITHOUT addressing the flaws in those political and economic policies.
8. It seems to me that a basic bottom line observation is that environmental advocacy will simply be a lot of hot air (pun intended!) if we are not willing to challenge the underlying systemic injustices of our international political and economic structures and assumptions.

All this to say that it may be that the band wagon of environmental activism is actually a diversion that is distracting us from the more critical issues. To the extent that we get drawn into the debates about climate change and how the actions of the G8 countries are addressing environmental issues (or not!), we run the serious danger of diverting attention away from the root CAUSES of both the current climate issues AND the injustices of globalization as it is currently managed.

The solution, I think, is not to ignore the monumental environmental challenges facing humanity, but to understand them in their broader context. And, to beware of simple environmental advocacy efforts which may contribute more to political smoke and mirror antics than to effective strategies for managing not only the environment, but global issues of social injustice as well.

Please be assured that my intention is NOT to discourage advocacy on these issues, but rather, to encourage us all to be a bit wary of a band wagon mentality that MAY oversimplify the issues in order to gain momentum. Let's keep checking our bearings and make sure that the band wagon is actually heading in the right direction before we hop on.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Pedagogy of the Oppressors!

I came across a book this morning that I've been thinking about lately but haven't read for years - Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire. In fact, I used to mark on the inside covers of books the date that I read them and this one is marked March, 1983. But it's one of those books that really made an impression on me - and, as I said, I still think about it. Lately though, my thinking has taken a turn - I think not so much about the "pedagogy of the oppressed" but the "pedagogy of the OPPRESSOR". How do WE - the affluent, privileged, entitled, global minority - learn how to be oppressors? How do we perpetuate structures and systems that continue to grant us privileges while consigning millions and even billions of our "neighbors" to abject poverty?

Here's a quote from a review of Freire's original writing:

The method of learning of Paulo Freire requires that students do more than simply reproduce the words that already exist. It requires that they create their own words, words that allow them to become aware of reality in order to fight for their own emancipation. Without this, some people acquire a kind of naive consciousness in which they are aware of their situation but don't make any effort to change it; they take a conformist stance and consider their situation something normal, even to the point of supporting it themselves. Other individuals construct their own reality and liberate themselves from oppression, only to go to the opposite extreme and become the antithesis of what they were fighting against.

Now - read that quote again, thinking not of the oppressed but of the oppressors. I'm thinking especially of this line:

...some people acquire a kind of naive consciousness in which they are aware of their situation but don't make any effort to change it; they take a conformist stance and consider their situation something normal, even to the point of supporting it themselves.

Ouch! I have been troubled by this thought for months and maybe I've even tried to express it before in one of my postings. The thing is, what if - deep down - I know that I can be opposed to the injustices that have accumulated over the years to allow me to enjoy the enormously privileged way and style of life I have - but that my opposition is really no threat to my comfort? I can speak out against injustice, and yet still enjoy its fruits.

I had an email yesterday from a colleague who lives and works in Kenya. He mentioned a conversation he had with a Kenyan pastor about books. The gist of it was, this pastor has to save and save in order to be able to afford to buy a book - no extravagant book allowance for him! Once he's got the book, it's a cherished thing. My mind went to my appetite for books which has resulted in bookcases full (overflowing!) with books, many of which I haven't had the time (or inclination) to read. I buy books spontaneously. I love books. I always INTEND to read them, but seriously, am I ever going to read ALL of the books I've bought? It may seem like a small thing, but for me it's an indication - one of many - that I have a long way to go in debunking the pedagogy which allows me to sit amongst the oppressors.

By the way, if this hits a nerve with you and you'd like to do something about it, I've got a suggestion. Canadian Baptist Ministries has partnerships around the world and one of our strategic drivers is leadership development. I've met some of the leaders who have had access to opportunities through CBM's commitment to leadership development. They are an inspiration. Interestingly, when it comes to giving though, way more people prefer to give goats and chickens and rabbits than books or funding for continuing eduction. Interesting, eh? Why is that?

Well, here's a link if you want to look into this further: Giving for leadership development in a developing country may not seem like much but for the person on the other end, and for those whose lives he or she will ultimately touch, it's a big deal. Maybe some day the oppressed and the oppressors will sit down together and learn from one another and MAYBE, when that day comes, we will have the courage to create a new order... or at least to live with dignity in the midst of the present order, whatever it may be.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Christianity: a religion or a way of life?

I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago. It was at a Father's Day bbq and my sister-in-law was updating me on the whereabouts and activities of some of her family members. One of her sisters has struggled with various chronic illnesses and, largely as a consequence of inactivity and frustration with her limitations, had put on quite a bit of weight. But then she get involved in some "new" eastern practices. I don't remember the name of the eastern system - but that doesn't matter. What I've been thinking about since that conversation is my sister-in-laws description of her sister's involvement.

Apparently, after just a few months, her sister had experienced an amazing transformation. Aha - that kind of language always heightens my interest! My sister-in-law went on to describe this "thing" - it involves some meditation but it's really a whole way of life. It affects EVERYTHING! Hm.

OK - so here's three other strands of thinking that converge at this point. First - last year I read a book by Bruxy Cavey called The End of Religion: Encountering the Subversive Spirituality of Jesus. BTW - if you want an audio overview of the book - basically it's an mp3 file of Bruxy talking about the book at a book release party - go to The gist of it is that although people these days are getting very frustrated with Christianity as a RELIGION, something about the person of Jesus still intrigues them. So the question is, did Jesus ever really intend for us to reduce our practice of the things He taught to the system we now call Christianity? Have we somehow missed the forest for the trees? Is Christianity - the form that we have developed and defended - all there is?

The second strand is simply a quote someone brought to my attention just a month or so ago (sadly I'm not sure who brought it to my attention OR even who the original author of the quote is!). But the quote is this: "Jesus didn't come to make us Christians, but to make us fully human." Well - you can think about that - maybe until the proverbial cows come home! I think maybe it's a concise way of saying the same thing. And of course that reminds me of a book by Jean Vanier called Becoming Human. And, while I was checking to make sure I had that title right, I discovered that Jean Vanier and, another of my favorite authors, Stanley Hauerwas, have a new book (published October 2008) entitled Living Gently in a Violent World. Sounds good. But those were just sub-strands...

The third strand is a brief conversation I had just a few days ago with the 21 year old son of one of my best friends. I haven't seen him for a few years and he came for a visit. In the course of conversation, he made reference to the fact that he had decided when he was in grade 11 that he should check out Christianity for himself (having been raised in a home that is certainly not explicitly "Christian"). So, he went to youth group for 2 years and, since that didn't seem to lead to any prolonged commitment to Christianity - or, at least the institutional form - I'm assuming that he found it lacking in the kind of depth he was looking for.

So, those are the 3 strands that lead me to this thought: being a follower of Christ is NOT about accepting and perpetuating a system of beliefs and the practice of religious rituals. It IS - or ought to be - a way of life that affects everything. It's who we are, it's what we do, it's what we think, it's how we spend our money and our time and our talents, it's what we eat. But it's all this, not in some narrow, legalistic manner, but in absolute and total FREEDOM. To be a Christian isn't to be confined to a narrow set of beliefs and practices. It's to be free to grow and learn and love - to be fully human, as Jean Vanier puts it. The early Christians called it "the way". How sad that we, safe and sound in our sanctuaries, have often hidden "the way" from view and reduced Christianity to a mere "religion"!