Saturday, June 26, 2010

Making a difference...

I love a good metaphor, a clever analogy, a simple yet poignant story that has a profound meaning. I’m always looking for stories and illustrations that can help an audience quickly grasp a point that is central to what I’m trying to say. When it comes to convincing people that they CAN make a difference, despite the enormity of the problems, there’s a story about a little boy who patiently throws starfish back into the ocean.

The scene is an expansive beach. The tide is going out and thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of starfish have been stranded and will soon die. The boy is patiently picking up starfish, one by one, and tossing them back into the water. The little boy is challenged by someone with considerably less vision – perhaps an older man, or maybe a woman – who asks him why he is bothering with this impossible task since there are SO MANY starfish and he can’t possibly save them all. In fact, the skeptic says, “Why do you bother? You can’t make a difference because there are so many of them that need to be rescued”, to which the little boy replies, as he gently lifts another starfish and returns it to the ocean, that what he is doing has made a difference to THAT ONE. The obvious lesson is that we CAN make a difference, even if we can’t do it all.

We can save some, though many will perish. We need to be persistent in the face of cynicism and misunderstanding and outright opposition. We can make a difference. It’s an inspiring story. Simple, yet powerful. We identify with the little boy, with his innocence and clarity of purpose. We’re reminded of the profound truth that “a little child shall lead them.”

I’ve just returned from the World Religions Summit in Winnipeg, where some 80 religious leaders came as official delegates from a variety of faith traditions and from all corners of the world (as well as a dozen or so youth delegates from Canada), to gather together for a few days to talk about three of the critical issues facing humanity - poverty, the environment and peace – and to finalize a “statement” to be presented to the political leaders of the G8 and G20 countries who have now commenced their meetings in Ontario.

It was a tremendous privilege for me to be there and to participate in the deliberations and discussions. There was really something incredibly moving about being in a room of such diversity and to realize that despite our differences – and they are MANY! – spiritual, ethnic, national, economic and political - we are ALL motivated by our faith traditions and by our own personal faith professions to imagine a future that is different than the present and different than the future towards which our current path is stubbornly leading us.

We had an opportunity to hear various guest speakers who each brought to the table a degree of experience and expertise which would help inform our understanding and our “statement”. It was a truly positive experience…

And yet, I find myself now thinking about the boy and the starfish and asking myself some disturbing questions. See – I’ve always accepted the story at face value. I can picture the beach and the poor, helpless starfish. Since I live on the ocean, the scene is complete with the feel of the ocean breeze and the cry of gulls. The gentle swell of the waves as they wash onto the beach and then recede, each time further and further from the immobilized starfish. I can picture the thin line of rockweed which marks the high water aspiration of the next cycle of the tide. And I believe the narrator who states that these starfish will inevitably die without this one little boy’s intervention.

I’ve also been to the so-called developing countries and it’s not hard for me to understand the intended transfer in this illustration to young children, who, like the starfish, are stranded - but by a tide of indifference and callous exploitation. I am inspired to help as many as I can.

But – and here’s the thing that is now bothering me – what if it’s even more complicated? What if some of our assumptions are a little off? What if there is actually a deeper reality that we have not seen?What if our efforts at aid and development are actually more like a new form of colonialism - despite our truly good intentions?

One of our speakers was John W. MacArthur, the Executive Director of Millennium Promise (see http://www.millenniumpromise.org/). This man has worked tirelessly with a vision of ending extreme poverty and addressing all of the issues defined by the Millennium Development Goals. As evidence of the impact this organization is making, John spoke of the number of mosquito nets that his organization have provided in the fight against malaria. He spoke with passion and conviction and I could picture the distribution of these nets to people in malaria ridden countries and the humble gratitude with which many people would receive these nets.

But in the back of my mind was something that I had heard or read once about the fact that these nets provide only temporary relief – the pesticide coating wears off, the nets become torn, nets are used for all kinds of other purposes and of course, the mosquitoes still carry the deadly virus. In short, the nets help some for a time, but they are perhaps OUR solution to a problem that we don’t totally understand.

As John was speaking, I thought to look to the small African delegation to gauge their response to his words. My eyes fell especially on a woman from Zambia – I watched her and suspected by her body language, that she was uncomfortable with what she was hearing. So, during the next coffee break, I sought her out and asked her to tell me what she was thinking. Basically, she affirmed that it is true that many people in African countries die of malaria and it is true that the mosquito nets provide some protection for a time.

But, she said, it is not a sustainable solution and they do not take into account traditional knowledge or methods. The mosquito nets are bought elsewhere and brought into African countries. They do not contribute to the local economy. They are not an African solution.

Malaria has been an issue in Africa for a long time, and little consideration is given to traditional methods for dealing with mosquitoes. We ASSUME that our solution – our method – is better. After all, we have the advantage of science and technology and modern pesticides. We are HELPING the immobilized and stranded and helpless Africans. We are saving the children. For the first time, it’s occurring to me that we may be so focused on outcomes, that we may have lacked a good deal of sensitivity in terms of approach. Are African children going to grow up thinking that their own parents and communities and governments cannot protect them? That their survival is in the hands of foreign agencies?

I’m sure some of you will be thinking, “well at least with our help they WILL grow up. They won’t die of malaria – or hunger, or some water borne disease, or lack of basic access to food – if they’re fortunate enough to have our help.” I know what you’re saying. But I’m increasingly uneasy with it. I hear youth and young adults utter the mantra of wanting to “help”, wanting to “make a difference” and I commend them for their commitment to get involved. But I think we have to think more deeply.

Maybe in our planning and strategizing we should pay more attention to the "dignity factor" and to the way our actions affect not just our intended outcome, but the less tangible impact on the capacity of a country to care for it's people in the long term. I know that this may sound simplistic and may be overestimating the capacity of leaders in these countries to overcome corruption, not to mention other forces that are far beyond their control. But still, I can't help thinking...

And just to be totally clear, I'm NOT suggesting that there is nothing we can do to make an effective and positive difference. I'm not criticizing anyone who is sincerely trying to make a difference in the lives of the millions of people who have been stranded and are in peril through lack of access to things like safe and nutritious food, water, health care, etc. I'm just thinking that we need to make sure that our contribution is sensitive and empowering and that it is sustainable and builds dignity and doesn't erode it. After all, a starfish is NOT a human.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Faith, Politics and Peace...

As I write, leaders of diverse faith communities from around the world are making their way to Winnipeg for the World Religious Leaders' Summit. They're coming from every continent - but the bulk of them will be from the G8 countries. The rationale for this is that if the G8 political leaders will listen to any faith leaders, it's more likely that they'll listen to leaders from within their own constituencies - perhaps a bit of a naive hope, but there it is.

These World Religious Leaders Summits have been held just prior to the G8 Political Summits since 2005 and have consistently provided a forum for religious leaders to nudge political leaders to keep the Millennium Development Goals on the table - AND to live up to the commitments that they have already made. As it turns out, that too may be a wee bit naive.

Take the upcoming summit - between the global economy showing distinct signs of serious wear and tear and the BP oil spill - the most recent large scale example of the folly of thinking that nature is a passive slave to human exploitation - the G8 leaders may see sincere efforts to eradicate extreme poverty as a luxury they simply can't afford. And seriously, we can protest and posture all we want but the truth is, the voters in the G8 countries are - for the most part - not prepared to back governments that actually DO make this their priority.

When it comes down to it, most of us still have a "me first" attitude. We want to eradicate poverty so long as it doesn't cost us - our jobs, our conveniences, our standard of living, our access to safe water, food choice, education, medical care... We may be advocates for the voluntary simplicity movement, but we're not likely to be as enthusiastic about government policies that FORCE us to simpler lifestyles. But I digress. What I really want to reflect on is the fact that the faith leaders will be pushing the G8/G20 leaders to invest in peace - the three themes of the draft statement are: address poverty, care for our earth and invest in peace.

Having returned from Rwanda recently maybe I'm just overly sensitive to the failings of faith to be agents of peace in specific moments in history. Talk is easy. And of course the Rwandan genocide is just ONE example. There are SO many others! Examples of war and other forms of conflict, where people and institutions of faith have failed to resist the evil of hatred and have embraced brutality in order to indulge religious partisanship.

Sure, we at the Winnipeg Summit will mean well. And those who gather around the table in Winnipeg will NOT be the extremists from their faith traditions... but isn't it a question of credibility? There is a painful irony - it seems to me - that the first of seven National Events to be hosted by The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) will have just concluded in Winnipeg (June 16-19) as the Religious Leaders Summit begins.

These events are the latest effort of Canadians to come to terms with the horrific abuses of the Indian Residential School system - a systematic effort to eradicate Indian culture through stripping Indian children of their language and culture. The Residential Schools were established as a result of the Gradual Civilization Act passed in Canada in 1857 with the purpose of "assimilating" Indians. In 1920, attendance at these schools was made compulsory for Indian children 7-15 years of age and they were taken from their families by force - by priests, Indian agents and police officers. Once established in Residential Schools, many children were also subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse. These schools operated until 1996... but the effects will haunt us for generations to come.

As we think about the cumulative pain inflicted on peoples around the world and throughout the ages - by religious leaders or in the name of one religion or another - the call from the World Religious Leaders to the Political Leaders to invest in peace is not misguided or inappropriate, but it must be made with immense humility and honest contrition and repentance. It's not enough to be peace lovers from within our various faith traditions. We must be peace makers - and that's a whole different mandate.

As we call for the political leaders to rise to the moment and provide inspired leadership and action around peace, let's spend some time repenting of our own past failures, mending our own fences and taking a firm stand within our faith traditions for a peace grounded in justice for all. Nuclear disarmament may be the responsibility of political leaders, but an appetite and a culture of peace can begin in the churches and synagogues and mosques and temples of the world. Let's make some peace!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The "right to food"?

I need to give a little context for this post. I'm in Winnipeg as a guest at the Board meetings of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and then I'm staying on for the World Religious Leaders Summit at the University of Winnipeg next week. There are two issues that I've been thinking about these last few days and I intend to talk about one in this post and the other next time - probably in a few days. Just so you know what's coming, the topic for today is the concept of the right to food. Next time it's going to be some thoughts on the role of faith in promoting peace.

So - the right to food. Simple proposition really. Every social activist apparently resonates with the idea that no matter how rich some people are, or how poor other people are, everyone should have the right to eat. From grass roots activists to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the right to food is about declaring that we ALL have the right to eat. Sounds good... fair... right. Who can argue? But the thing is, I think that when we dig a little deeper this proposition is problematic from both a pragmatic perspective and from a Christian perspective. Hear me out.

First, the pragmatic perspective. So what happens? According to the UN,

The World Food Summit in November 1996 reaffirmed the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, and gave a specific mandate to the High Commissioner for Human Rights to better define the rights related to food and propose ways to implement and realize them. (see http://www.fao.org/Legal/rtf/rtf-e.htm)

That was in 1996. See where I'm going with this? It's easy to say that everyone should have the right to have access to safe and nutritious food, but who's responsible? When drought destroys the crops in whole regions of the world, or when scarce agricultural land is used to produce cash crops for rich people a world away, or when a flood ravages the subsistence farmland of small shareholders, or when food is contaminated, or livestock gets sick and dies, who makes sure that all those people and their families have safe and nutritious food?

The right to food campaign may make some sense in a political context - when a layer of government makes a conscious commitment to patrol the distribution of food so that even the poorest have their basic needs met - but let's think a bit about the implications from a Christian perspective.

I'm thinking that we shouldn't take food and water for granted OR see them as entitlements. We also shouldn't exploit them for profit - and certainly not when somewhere around a billion people are chronically hungry. Nope. The way I see it, if God created this earth with the capacity to sustain life, then food and water are actually sacred gifts. Our relationship to food then is not about rights or demands but gratitude and humble stewardship so that there's enough to share - not as a right but as a privilege. And the privilege part is not just that we have the privilege to enjoy safe and nutritious food, but the greater privilege is in the sharing at a common table - having enough for everyone to eat and some to spare.

See when we're not hording the resources there is an amazing multiplication that happens around the table. Five loaves and two fish become both food for the masses AND symbols of abundance. But the minute we start arguing about rights, they're just five loaves and two fish - a snack pack for a little boy's lunch. BTW - if you're not familiar with this bible story, you can read it at John 6:5-13 or just click on this link: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%206:5-13&version=NIV.

These are tricky times. Sometimes the rhethoric can get the best of us and we get turned around. Sometimes the very thing that sounds fair and just is actually a diversion. Let's be careful about using the language of rights, even when it's someone else's rights we're talking about. This is literally just scratching the surface of the issue, but it's a start.

And speaking of rhetoric, next time I'm going to be talking about faith, peace and politics. Some interesting ironies.

Monday, June 07, 2010

A "Lost" Generation?

I’ve been noticing something lately and it’s pretty disturbing. I keep running into young adults who have some degree of “Christian” background but now they want absolutely nothing to do with Christianity. Absolutely NOTHING. I’m talking specifically about a sub-set of those who are twenty-something (and certainly not ALL twenty-somethings!). They’ve survived high school and many are in university or have already graduated from university with an undergraduate degree and a pile of debt. Or they're out working and dealing with bills and kids and the realization that there really are limits and life isn't always captured in Facebook status updates. They’re often pretty astute in some things. They have a “survivor” mentality. You don’t have to convince them that it’s a rough world. They’re all about alliances and looking after themselves. They’re hard – they’re into horror movies – the more brutal the better. They’re not like the hippies of the 60s with a culture of peace and love and non-conformity. No – they’re more about brazen cynicism and naked individualism. Whatever Christian influence they had as kids has largely been de-bunked and exposed as a fraud along with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.

I get it that they don’t find Christian churches very appealing. I get it that most expressions of Christian faith offend their post modern values. Christianity’s meta narrative, call for commitment, truth claims, judgmentalism, exclusivity – these are all totally counter cultural in their enlightened and educated circles. I get it that they feel entitled to a good dose of cynicism – after all, there are LOTS of issues that make optimism and faith in a sovereign good God seem more than a little na├»ve. And I get it that Christianity often seems to be more part of the problem than part of any solution to the injustices that abound. I get it. But it bothers me.

It bothers me because they aren’t just sceptical – they’ve completely closed their minds to Christianity. And In so doing, they’ve broken one of their own values. They will – in fact, they MUST - be tolerant and open-minded about just about EVERYTHING. But for some reason, it’s ok to dismiss Christianity. It’s ok to mock and pity Christians for their foolish faith.

I suppose they think that they’ve given it a chance. After all, they went along to church and Sunday School - when they didn’t know any better – maybe even liked it. They learned the stories about Noah’s Ark, Daniel and the Lion’s Den, David and Goliath, the birth of Jesus, the miracles of Jesus (stories about feeding thousands of people with a little boy’s lunch, or raising Lazarus from the dead, or healing lepers), the brutal crucifixion of Jesus and the claim that he rose from the dead. Those stories were pretty impressive when they were kids, but now they just seem to have lost their lustre.

So they walk away.

I respect everyone’s fundamental right to believe – or not believe – whatever they want. But I’m looking at a generation of young adults who, I think, have shut their minds a little too quickly. I’m sad for them and I’m sad for the church. I’m sad for them because I think that in the midst of their pain – and let’s not even get into an argument as to whether or not they are in pain! – they are turning to all kinds of destructive, toxic influences. They may self-medicate with drugs, alcohol and other addictions – materialism, sex, high risk adventure – all of which may give temporary reprieve to their personal and social pain, but what if these are actually very dangerous idols that have the potential to totally suck the life out of them?

And I’m sad for the church because we desperately need the perspectives and critiques and brutally honest questions of this generation and the more of them that walk away, the less likely we are to get them. As I write this, though, faces flash through my mind – faces of young adults who haven’t given up on Christianity – at least not yet - but who are wrestling with all kinds of questions and issues. I fervently hope that they hang in there – that they keep pushing and keep questioning…

Maybe I’m just getting old. Maybe I’m being a hypocrite. After all, haven’t I closed my mind to certain worldviews? How can I criticize someone for closing their mind to Christ, when I’ve essentially closed my mind to all worldviews that aren’t centred in Christ? But I’ve also argued that certainty can be dangerous. I do recognize that I hold a lot of what I believe to be true fairly loosely – and I might be criticized by some for being TOO wishy washy in my thinking. But the truth is - I don’t have it all figured out. I know that. In fact, I love the uncertainties. I love the questions. I love trying to figure out what I've missed or where my thinking has taken a wrong turn.

And maybe I’m too stressed out about this. They'll figure it out. Or not. Either way, all I can do is keep on trying to put my faith into practice in a way that is real and honest and transparent... and I can pray that God, in his sovereignty, will open our eyes.