Saturday, October 27, 2012

The allure of conspiracy theories

A few years back - five years, to be precise - my son who was then 17 or 18 years old - asked me if I'd seen Zeitgeist, the Movie. I hadn't, I said, and he insisted that I watch it. So, always on the alert for a good movie, and curious about his uncharacteristically enthusiastic recommendation, I did. It turns out that this movie - a 2007 documentary by Peter Joseph - is a 3-part conspiracy theory expose.

In the first part, titled The Greatest Story Ever Told, Joseph challenges the historical claims for the existence of Jesus and then illustrates how many of the Christian stories - from Old Testament accounts of things like the flood to New Testament stories of the virgin birth, the performance of miracles, Jesus' death on a cross, the resurrection, etc. - are not unique to Christianity at all but are variations of the stories told in other ancient religious and pagan systems. Part Two - All the World's a Stage - argues that the US government was actually the mastermind behind the 9/11 Terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, and Part Three - Don't Mind the Men Behind the Curtain - argues that there is a global economic agenda (driven by "international bankers") that promotes and profits from war and war mongering. If you want to watch the movie for yourself, it's available on youtube and vimeo on the web.

I'm only going to refer to the first part of the movie - the part that argues that Jesus never existed and that Christianity is based on a lot of recycled myths (and if you decide to watch it, let me warn you that Part I doesn't actually get started until about 11 minutes in). And I only bring it up at all because back in 2007 when this movie was spreading like wildfire through the internet, something like a million people - most of them young, I presume - watched it in the span of a month or two. I can only imagine that many of them - glued to their computer screens - must have had the sinking feeling that the church, their parents, their youth leaders, even their teachers, were either ignorant or worse, liars.

If they, like my son, had grown up going to Sunday School, chances are they had either assumed or been taught explicitly, that the Christian faith - and specifically the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus - were uniquely ordered events that were the fulfilment of prophecies made in the Old Testament period. Imagine their surprise to find that so many of the precious elements of the Christian story were NOT unique but had appeared in other primitive and pagan belief systems through the ages! That was 2007. I didn't hear many pastors talk about Zeitgeist: The Movie from the pulpit, but you can find lots of response and rebuttal online - just google Christian critique of Zeitgeist the Movie and you'll have lots of material to sort through.

For the purpose of this post I don't want to get drawn into a point by point defence of Christianity. What I do want to draw attention to is the allure in our culture today - especially amongst youth and young adults - of conspiracy theories. The thing about conspiracy theories is that they are almost always a fabrication based on fragments of truth, knit together in plausible ways that inevitably challenge conventional wisdom and see intentionality and exploitation behind every bush. There is always an agenda and there are no bonafide coincidences.

I understand the appeal. In fact, I would argue that Christianity - though not a conspiracy theory exactly - has some of the same elements. The forces of evil - Satan and his demonic army - are loose in the world and will do whatever it takes to undermine the forces of good - the trinitarian godhead (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and their army of angels. A supernatural battle rages but not in real time and space. Things are not as they seem. The kingdom of God is present but not yet fully established. See what I mean? It should have the same kind of appeal as a good conspiracy theory!

So how do we know what's really true and what's a twisted fabrication?

I think the first step is to acknowledge that we will never - ever - be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt any kind of faith claim (or, for that matter, any other kind of claim!). Scientific observation and journalistic inquiry can only take us so far. That's where the faith part comes in. By definition, faith is having confidence in something that we can't prove. That doesn't mean that it's blind or naive or irrational. Many many people (past and present) have been been tortured and martyred for their faith - that would seem to indicate that they had some pretty strong reason to believe that the object of their faith is real and worth suffering for. That kind of commitment should not be dismissed lightly. So, whatever we believe - from Christianity to other faith systems to secular humanism - let's acknowledge that our alignment to that set of beliefs requires a degree of "faith".

After that, I think that we need to be willing to do some homework - I'm all for examining our beliefs with a critical eye and adjusting them when we encounter irrefutable evidence that something doesn't line up. That doesn't mean abandoning a belief system the first time we come across an apparent contradiction. But it may mean digging deeper and it may mean holding some of our specific beliefs loosely. Anne Lamott says, "the opposite of faith is not doubt, it's certainty." I agree! And I think maybe we've done our kids a disservice by not helping them see that we don't have it all figured out. Our Christian faith is not a neatly packaged meta-narrative with all the i's dotted and t's crossed. We see through a glass darkly. Truth is not black and white but wonderfully nuanced, complex and even mysterious.

I have hope that this generation - with all of their skepticism and fascination with conspiracy theories - may give Christianity a second look, not out of a sense of duty or to comply with tradition, but because they are genuinely seeking truth. And doesn't God promise (Deuteronomy 4:29, Jeremiah 29:13) that when we seek Him - who is truth - with all our heart, we will find him?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Illusion of Prosperity - Who are we kidding?

Statistics Canada released some scary figures on Monday, Oct. 15. These figures indicate - in fact, they make it abundantly CLEAR - that Canadians are in a deeper debt hole than economists had anticipated. And believe me, what they had anticipated was bad enough! The fact is, the ratio of credit market household debt to disposable income has now hit a record high of 163.4%. That means that for every dollar of disposable income we earn - collectively as Canadian households - we are spending $1.63. And just as an aside, since not everyone is in debt - other figures indicate that increasing numbers of Canadians are living debt-free - the reality is that some Canadians have over-spending habits that are way beyond the 163% threshold.

The annual RBC poll for 2012 indicates that 26% of Canadians are now living debt free, not counting mortgage debt. But while that's encouraging, mortgage debt may be a wild card in the light of early indicators that Canada's housing market is softening. On average, Canadians are carrying $13,141 in non-mortgage debt. While the figures can be spun in different ways, surely no one can be completely comfortable with the degree to which we Canadians are living beyond our means... Just last week we heard reports that the International Monetary Fund is sounding an alarm about the twin towers of the softening housing market and debt levels in Canada.

And yet, we somehow believe that we are a prosperous country! Who are we kidding?

I've been reading a report just put out by the Broadbent Institute entitled Towards a More Equal Canada: A Report on Canada's Economic and Social Inequality. As one might expect (given that the Broadbent Institute is really the Ed Broadbent Institute) the paper is a clear and well formulated apologetic for NDP principles. It demonstrates clearly that any benefits of national economic growth over the past 20 years have gone disproportionately to the richest 1% - in fact, it states that:
"Almost all of the income gains during that period went to the wealthiest 20% of Canadian families, with much of that going to the top 1%. In fact, the share of all taxable income going to the top 1% of families rose from 7.4% to 11.2%, and the average income of those in the top 1% of families soared from $380,000 to $684,000."

No wonder the 99% are feeling deprived and angry! But I think there's a deeper problem than this growing gap between the super rich and the rest of us.

The deeper problem is that our economy - and the social order that it finances - is based on a model that presumes growth - perpetual, steady, hope-inspiring growth. And THAT'S a problem. It's not just a matter of dividing the pie up more equitably, with the assumption that the pie can continue to get bigger and bigger. If we're not convinced that there really are ecological limitations - only so many raw materials and natural, non-renewable resources to draw from - then the ill effects of a consumer culture driven by greed and financed by debt should be a hint that what we're doing is unsustainable and blatantly unhealthy, not only for us but for future generations. And I would say that it's really those future generations that are most at risk because they're the ones who will one day have to deal with the most inconvenient truth that our prosperity is actually an illusion.

I think I've mentioned this book before, but it bears repeating - the book is Affluenza by Oliver James. In this book James argues that there is a negative correlation between mental health and affluence - that is, the more affluent a society becomes, the greater is the incidence of mental illness and other social ills. That's the basic idea, but it's well worth the read to get the full impact of his study...

Yes, there is a problem when 30 cents of every dollar goes to the top 1% of the population, but stronger unions - part of the answer proposed by the Broadbent Institute - is not likely to result in a decision to shrink the pie.

To be fair, the vision proposed by the Broadbent Institute is quite appealing:

"There is no single magic bullet. Rather, we need to develop a comprehensive policy agenda integrating our economic, environmental, labour market, social, human rights, and taxation policies. The goal must be sustainable, shared prosperity, measured by a much broader range of indicators than GDP, which values only economic growth and not equity in its distribution."

Sounds good, but can we get there in such a way that a smaller pie to distribute is a vision that can be embraced by rich and poor alike?

I realize that this all sounds pretty gloom and doom. But there is a silver lining. The truth is, we are living in all kinds of ways that are out of compliance with our design and our destiny. Correction is necessary and though it may not be pleasant, I believe it will ultimately be for our good and our delight - and more importantly, it will be good for our neighbour, both rich and poor.

Jesus warns us about putting too much stock in material riches when he says:

"Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being (The Message, Matthew 6:19-20)."

God is not unconcerned about economic matters. The kingdom of God will not avoid economics. Rather, in the kingdom of God - trite though this may sound! - economics will be redeemed. In his book, God's Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove describes the abundant life that Jesus promises and lays out five tactics that will help us to discover it. The tactics are: subversive service (Mark 9:35); eternal investments (Matthew 6:20); economic friendships (Luke 16:9); relational generosity (Matthew 5:42); and gracious politics (Mark 12:17). This is another book that is well worth the read!

There IS a way forward and I dare say that it is a path that may appear to be overgrown and not particularly inviting, but I think we'll find that more and more pilgrims are re-discovering the beauty of this path less traveled.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Whatever happened to Judeo-Christian values?

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) famously asked "how is social order possible?", the question which laid the foundation for the development of sociology as a distinct field of social scientific inquiry. He speculated that in a state of nature people would always act to further their own interests and this would produce a society characterized by a "war of all against all". To avoid such a state, humans negotiate social contracts and impose on the natural state constraints that produce a "civil society", regulated by governments of one kind or another.

Thus, citizens of a particular society learn to orient their actions according to a moral code. In previous posts I've talked about the difference between shame-based and guilt-based cultures. Canada is an example of a guilt-based culture; China is an example of a shame-based culture. In both cases the point is to constrain the behaviour of individuals so as to ensure that social order is maintained. And both systems presume the socialization of individuals according to the moral standards necessary for the smooth functioning of the society. In guilt-based societies there are clear penalties for breaking the rules. We have sophisticated criminal justice systems to determine the guilt or innocence of anyone accused of breaking the law, and we have other less formal ways of enforcing our moral standards.

And what are the moral standards you ask? Well, simply put, they are a modern articulation of the ten Commandments. We all know that we ought not kill, steal, lie or cheat. We should treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We should keep our word and we should tell the truth. We should take responsibility for our actions and we should be fair and just, even in the face of injustice. Such are the things that we teach our children. And when we are successful, our society hums along smoothly.

In shame-based cultures, there is a similar moral code which prescribes "right" behaviour, but the emphasis is on how things appear. What is actually the case is less important than what appears to be the case. Where we - from a guilt-based culture - might argue that it matters less what people "think" than what actually is the case, in a shame-based culture, what people "think" - the appearance - is actually more important. This may seem to be a minor difference but it has significant implications in the nitty gritty of everyday life, especially when people from different cultural orientations are working together.

But what I want to get to is this: what happens when the individual is elevated to a position of being above the moral code? If the purpose of the moral code is to make social order possible, and the power of the moral code to constrain individual behaviour is compromised, what will happen to social order?

A few days ago news broke of evidence that cycling superhero, Lance Armstrong, was not only guilty of using illegal substances to bolster his own performance, but was also the key figure in a sophisticated doping ring that impacted many other riders, including eleven teammates who have now testified against him. Lance Armstrong's accomplishments are legendary: while his most notable claim to fame is winning the Tour de France seven times, he did so while also battling testicular cancer and he has established a foundation which has raised 500 million dollars to fight cancer. Even in the midst of the most recent testimony against him, proponents argue that Armstrong has done a lot of good and should therefore not be vilified because of his alleged doping infractions. In other words, even though it appears that Armstrong has broken the moral code of our society by lying, cheating, and stealing (at least insofar as his cheating has robbed other athletes of success), what happens when a society decides to overlook those violations of our moral code?

Some might argue that we have always done this - that is, make exceptions for people whose net contribution to our society is such that we are willing to overlook their shortcomings. But at what point do we make so many exceptions that the rule no longer holds? I'm concerned that our moral compass has literally lost its bearings. The basics - telling the truth, being who we appear to be, being accountable for our behaviour, etc. etc. - simply do not seem to be "written in stone" any more. Reality tv is full of shows that are re-wiring our moral compass. Coming out on top is what counts. Lying is perfectly acceptable - even admirable - if it helps you win the prize. We have adopted - it seems - a "survivor" mentality. And that's the very mentality that Thomas Hobbes argued would produce a "war of all against all" and social chaos. Hm. Let's check our own bearings and be careful of those influences that might lure us away from them...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Count your blessings, name them one by one...

In the pleasant after-glow of a long weekend focussed on family, feasting and fall colours, my thoughts have been drawn to a philosophy of thankfulness. When I dropped my 4 year old grandson off at preschool this morning, he kicked an old penny that was lying on the ground. I don't think he even recognized it as a penny - it was just something underfoot that had no more value than a pebble. Ever on the watch for teachable moments, I, however, stooped down and picked up the tarnished penny and declared it "a lucky penny". Suddenly his eyes lit up and he was most interested in it. It wasn't worthless, after all but a treasure!

That got me thinking about the penny and the way we attach value. In Canada, we stopped producing the penny on May 4th, 2012 and circulation of the penny as a unit of regular currency will cease on February 4th, 2013. Ironically, this will likely mean that the value of the penny will actually increase (over time) as it eventually becomes a relic of a bygone era. And I've noticed that lots of people are gathering up the soon-to-be "worthless" coins so that they can cash in before the toll rings on February 4th. Surely lots of coins will be left behind - stashed away in drawers, lost in the creases of couches, rolled up and ready to take to the bank but forgotten in the rush of more pressing matters. Over time they will somehow be dispersed, ending up in landfills or buried in the rubble of a restless age.

It's tempting to do a bit of research on the history of the penny, but that's not really where I want to go just now. Suffice to say that the penny will fade into the recesses of our collective imagination as well as becoming an artifact for archaeologists of some future age to un-earth. Sayings like, "a penny saved is a penny earned", or "a stitch in time saves nine" will perplex our great great grandchildren. How will we describe someone who values frugality when the term "penny pincher" is rendered obsolete? How will we describe something that is expensive when we can no longer say that it "cost a pretty penny"? Thoughts will clearly be worth more than a penny, but to say "a nickel for your thoughts" doesn't seem quite right. Ok - I'm chasing another rabbit trail...!

What I really want to talk about is the fact that we attribute value to all kinds of things - in fact, it may be fair to say that we attribute value to virtually every kind of thing: from coins to art to "stuff" to people. I suppose we could say that every thing that we can attribute value to, already has some value of its own - some intrinsic value. After all, if it's something that we can name - whether an object, a person, a thought, an experience, a relationship - it has identity and therefore value. But it is the value that we add that really counts.

After dropping my grandson off this morning, I had a half hour drive. Much of that drive was on a brand new highway and I marvelled at the engineering ingenuity that has gone into carving this new highway through forest, field and rock. On another level I marvelled also at the amount of money that has been invested in this project, but that's another rabbit trail and I shan't run down it today.

Even though it's a damp day, I also was completely awe struck by the beauty of the fall leaves - a canopy of yellows, reds, oranges. But then my mind went to friends, colleagues, and the countless people that I don't even know, who are today so burdened down with worries and concerns of all kinds that they can't even take note of the beauty around them. My heart and mind are filled with thankfulness and as I think about it, I realize that I am (and most certainly should be!) thankful for that. That is, I'm thankful that my life right now allows me space and time to think such thoughts.

One of the headlines on the news this morning is the story of the 14 year old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for her thoughts and actions that promote education. That's a jolt! A startling and unwelcome intrusion into my reverie of thanksgiving for highways and fall vistas...

The fact is, life is all about shifting perspectives and cultural landscapes. We are thankful - or resentful or angry or self-absorbed or outraged - in a particular context. I'm sitting at my desk watching leaves fall from an especially beautiful maple tree. And I'm thankful that I have the luxury of even noticing such a thing. I realize that most people in the world have other things - more pressing and more practical things - on their minds today. For a great many of them the first priority will be to find the means to get enough food together to feed themselves and their families. For some, the priority is nurturing their failing health so that they will see another day. For some - like Malala Yousufzai in Pakistan, or so many other young and old activists - it may be how to advance a particular cause. I'm reminded that we see through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12). And I'm thankful that in the blur that is life, I'm granted brief glimpses of a beauty and a value that transcends space and time.

Here's a quote that sums it up:

If you have food in your fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of the world. If you have money in your bank, your wallet, and some spare change, you are among 8% of the world’s wealthy. If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, you are more blessed than the million people who will not survive this week. If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the agony of imprisonment or torture or the horrible pangs of starvation, you are luckier than 500 million people alive and suffering. If you can read this message, you are more fortunate than 3 billion people in the world who cannot read at all.

Count your blessings, name them one by one... and be thankful! And then, share what you have with those who have less...

Friday, September 14, 2012

Christianity, China and Capitalism

In preparation for a trip to China last spring I read David Aikman's book, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (2006). It's a fascinating book, based on Aikman's first hand journalistic travel and work in China and his study of christianity in China over several years.

On the very first page of the first chapter, Aikman quotes a scholar from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing who essentially says that Chinese academics are convinced that the principle reason for the success of the West is not a more powerful military, nor a superior political system, or even a more robust economic system. Rather, the conclusion that these scholars has drawn from their study is that the pre-eminence of the West - the key thing that underlies the emergence of capitalism and democratic politics - is the Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life. This is remarkable and profound. In other words, the best minds in China are convinced that what has made countries like Canada strong and prosperous is our adherence to Christian faith and practice. Interesting...

Max Weber (1864-1920), a German sociologist, philosopher and political economist, wrote an essay entitled "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism", in which he argued that Protestantism prepared the way for the development of capitalism by creating a culture that promoted hard work and austerity. In order for capitalism to develop as an economic system, it needed to legitimate the rational pursuit of economic gain. The Protestant ethic (rooted in Calvinism) encouraged believers to work hard and to reinvest their profits in the development of their businesses, rather than spend money on frivolous pursuits. Weber noted that those countries in which this ethic was practiced were quickly gaining power through the development of capitalist economies. And what's more, Weber even anticipated that this ethic, though necessary for the initial development of a capitalist economy, would not be needed once a capitalist economy was firmly embedded. Indeed, we might say that presently, much effort goes into legitimizing and promoting a "buy now - pay later" consumer culture in order to keep the wheels of capitalism turning.

One might argue that obscene amounts of capital have funded the very "frivolous pursuits" that the Protestant ethic once warned against. What happened to austerity, we might ask? Has a more "mature" form of Protestantism loosened the purse strings and turned us into compliant (greedy) consumers?

If the Chinese scholars are correct in their assessment of the role that religious culture has played in the prosperity of the West, is the shift in public policy in China towards Christianity essentially a strategic effort to re-create conditions of prosperity within a Chinese context? And if so, can it work? In other words, will the growth of Christianity within China create the conditions for economic (capitalist) growth? And what kind of Christianity is needed?

It occurs to me that there is a danger that the form of Christianity that is embraced may be the form that is currently practiced in the West, rather than the form which Weber identified as the "Protestant ethic". It occurs to me that in an effort to give their citizens the "good life", the Chinese government may inadvertently create a culture of consumption that could precipitate a sudden plunge into ecological nihilism.

Just as the West is beginning to realize that we have been living beyond our means and perhaps putting the planet at risk (through our mis-use and over-use of natural resources), what might happen if China - currently representing about one-sixth of the planet's population - embraces a deviant form of Protestantism (a "prosperity gospel")?

Maybe this is an alarmist view and perhaps it doesn't fully credit the authentic movement of God's Spirit in China. And who knows what the future holds given that economic and political and ecological and spiritual predictions and trajectories are always based on incomplete information. But as the theologians in China develop a uniquely Chinese theology, maybe they can learn from our mistakes. And maybe the church in China will help us to adjust/correct our theological understanding so that we can work fruitfully together to promote the revelation of the kingdom of God on earth. I hope so!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Beauty, Beast... and Brokenness

Sometimes I wonder how it's possible for human beings to do the things we do - the horrible, mean, cruel, inhumane, despicable, evil, almost unimaginable deeds that humans do. You know the things I'm referring to - those things that we hear and read about through the various news media on a regular basis. And for most of us - thank God! - that news coverage is as close as we get to that kind of action.

How is it possible that human beings, created in the image of a good God, can become so de-railed and disoriented from their very design that we actually commit such acts of darkness? I wonder what the mechanism is that somehow restrains or even shuts off impulses for good and self-giving and sacrifice and turns on, instead, impulses for evil.

But maybe even more disturbing than the extreme instances of violence - the guy who guns down people in a movie theatre, or the sexual predator who rapes young children, or the family man who participates in a genocide, or the businessman (or woman) or politician who intentionally capitalizes on a system that is set up to exploit the vulnerable - are the everyday violences that simmer just under the surface. I'm talking about the capacity we have to inflict pain and shame and suffering on people for no more provocation than that we disagree with them or we feel threatened by their opinion or we are envious of their place in life. Why do we lash out at people in both subtle and obvious ways?

There are times when I feel an incredible sense of peace. I feel connected to all that is good. But too often these moments are fleeting and that sense of harmony can be shattered in a moment by a thought, an image, an action, a word. I live, it seems, in a constant tension between the beauty and the beast in me and in those around me.

The story of Noah and the Ark (Genesis 6-8) is a disturbing account of God's judgment and punishment of His amazing creation gone bad. Genesis 6:5-7 says:

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.
I can't help but think that God must have been heart-broken and/or simply outraged by the way humanity was behaving. Speaking of "impulses", it seems that God's impulse to wipe the slate clean by destroying all that He had made (with the exception of a tiny remnant that could start over) was pretty extreme. Just enough DNA to start anew. To literally re-build from the ground up. But surely God knew that the fatal flaw - the capacity for evil - had not been eliminated. The human creature was still free to choose evil over good.

As I look at myself and around the globe at the violence and selfishness that seems to have the upper hand, it makes me wonder, how close are we to reaching the same level of wickedness? And even though God promised not to destroy the earth by flood again, what other consequences of wickedness might lay ahead of us? Sometimes I fear that society as we know it will implode if we remain on the course that we're on. We are quite literally, I think, on a collision course with utter anarchy and chaos.

But when despair threatens to overtake me I think about God who I believe to be the original and pure essence of the fruit of the spirit - love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Will He repay evil with evil? Or will He - somehow - overcome evil with good?

I become lost in the maze of these thoughts.

This is what I know: I have the capacity for beauty and for beastliness and so, I expect, does every single person on this planet. I am broken and I often operate out of my brokenness, but I'm not broken beyond repair, and neither is anyone else. I don't know exactly how it will happen or when it will happen, but I believe that God will pull it off. If He's not going to destroy His creation again, despite the fact that that may be exactly what we deserve, He will provide a way forward. In the meantime, there's no time for lament and despair.
This may sound very naive, but despite all appearances to the contrary - all the bad stuff I started this post with - there is also a lot of good. And maybe - NO, certainly! - as in the days of Elisha (the Old Testament prophet), there are forces at work that we do not see (see 2 Kings 6:1-23).

Every person has their story. There is none - no matter what they think or what they do - who is beyond the reach of God. Love will triumph over hate, good over evil. And God's justice may surprise us.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Hospitality: Loving one another as if our life depended on it...

I love Eugene Petersen’s translation of 1 Peter 4:8-9. In the NIV it reads, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” But in The Message, Petersen puts it like this: “Most of all, love each other as if your life depended on it. Love makes up for practically anything. Be quick to give a meal to the hungry, a bed to the homeless—cheerfully.” Love each other as if your life depended on it! I can’t help but wonder what our churches might be like if we loved one another as if our life depended on it.

Hospitality – the generous, spontaneous sharing of who we are and all that we have – flows out of this kind of love. In its purest form, hospitality is the divine mechanism by which God demonstrates his love for all creation, through us. In Making Room, Christine Pohl says that hospitality isn’t so much a task as it is a way of living our lives and sharing ourselves. It’s not just a matter of providing shelter or sharing a meal. These are entry level steps – important practices but small first steps. Pohl suggests that we learn how to practice hospitality in small increments of daily faithfulness. First a sharing of what we have but ultimately a sharing of who we are and of the love that God has invested in us for the good of others.

In our society and even in our churches, this kind of hospitality is rare. We are conditioned to be prudent in our sharing, to maintain proper boundaries between our lives and the lives of others. Our cultural milieu is one of distance and distrust. Openness, transparency, vulnerability and honesty are often seen as childlike qualities that must be overcome as a matter of safety. We need to take care of ourselves after all – and above all. Really? But this is a clever deception and not at all what God intends for us or for those – strangers, foreigners, friends – who he places in our path.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is a case in point. We ought not to be too hard on the priest and Levite. They did what was expected of them – in the hierarchy of rules, best to give a half dead man a wide berth. The Samaritan, on the other hand, was not constrained by purity rules. He was free to show mercy, to treat the helpless and wounded man as he himself might want to be treated had he been the one to fall into the hands of thugs. The kind of compassion he demonstrated is rooted in a spirit of hospitality.

Compassion may compel us to look after someone who is in need – to provide medical care, food, clothing, shelter, encouragement. But hospitality is about giving AND receiving. Hospitality transforms us. As it turns out, sometimes the needs we don’t see – the attitudes and prejudices and ethnocentrism and arrogance – are actually MORE debilitating than the needs that we do see – the poverty, addictions, wounds, lack of opportunity. These are lessons that our global field staff learn quickly as they live among people groups around the world. They soon discover that people with pressing material needs have much to teach us about hospitality and the state of our hearts.

Who is our neighbor? Well, in Canada, the neighborhoods are often diverse, especially in the larger urban centers. But diversity is spilling out into the rural areas as well, as governments at all levels and businesses are recruiting immigrants to work in their factories and to populate our towns and villages. There are challenges and opportunities for churches. And the way forward must, I think, be rooted in an understanding of, and commitment to, the practice of biblical hospitality – loving one another – whether family, friend, foe or foreigner – as if our life depends on it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Politics of Choice

As I was driving to work this morning I listened to CBC's show The Current, and one of the topics was a review of the impact of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms ( We're now 30 years in and the discussion was around the question of whether or not the Charter has been a "good thing" for Canada. It got me thinking...

Do you suppose that efforts to bolster "individual rights and the freedom to choose" may actually be a symptom of a society's inability to provide conditions for its citizens to live the life that they might prefer? Here's the thing. We've been conditioned to think that the promotion of a culture that favours individual rights and freedoms - to live as we wish, so long as we're not hurting someone else in the process - is a way of limiting the state's control. In other words, the state can't tell us what to do. We're free to do what we want. We're free to make "bad choices" - choices that might negatively affect our physical, emotional, relational or spiritual health, or the health of the environment - and it's nobody's business but our own. But what if a relaxation of conventional moral codes (our collective conscience of what is "right" and "wrong") is really about diverting our attention away from the fact that the state is not providing the levels of support necessary for us to choose what we might most want to do or be?

On The Current, the two issues that seem to have generated the most public debate in the last 30 years under the influence of the Charter, are abortion and same-sex marriage. Supporters of the Charter cite these two issues as "successes" that indicate that the Charter is protecting individual rights and freedoms. But maybe - if we dig a little deeper on these and other issues - we'll discover that there are more profound realities at stake. I've talked a bit about the abortion issue in several previous posts, but let's think about it for a minute from the perspective of the Charter and the perspective of the woman who determines that terminating a pregnancy is the best option in her particular circumstance. Does anyone ask if she LIKES the circumstances that she's in? And by that, I don't mean the fact that she's pregnant. I mean the fact that she - perhaps - doesn't have the financial and/or social support she needs to have the baby. So - in a Charter-based, individual rights and freedom driven society, the state has no obligation to address THOSE issues. If she can't afford to have and raise a child, or doesn't have the kinds of supports in place that would make having a raising a child a healthy option (for herself and the child), no problem. She can CHOOSE to have an abortion. But is it really a CHOICE? If her circumstances were otherwise, would an abortion still be the thing she'd choose to do?

There's no doubt in my mind - now that this thought has taken root - that it is far easier and cheaper (at least in the short term, and from a political perspective, that's what counts!) for the state to give people the opportunity to do things that are neither best for them nor for the broader society, than it is to provide the infrastructural supports that make it possible for them to truly choose what they would most desire, if all options were truly available.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

I wonder what Screwtape would say to Wormwood on the human aspiration to "make a difference"?

I've always been a fan of C. S. Lewis and especially of his book, The Screwtape Letters in which a senior demon - Screwtape - mentors his nephew - Wormwood - advising him (and cajoling him) in the ways of tempting "the Patient" to sin. Such a clever way to help us see and think about our assumptions concerning sin and faith and righteousness. These last few days I've been thinking about what Screwtape might say to Wormwood when it comes to our human ambition to "make a difference" in the world.

On first thought, "making a difference" seems like an honourable - maybe even an altruistic - ambition. I think of the assorted people throughout history who have made a (positive) difference in their time and place and I'm grateful for their impacts. In fact, I've so admired people who have made a difference that I've imagined myself as someone who might someday and in some way, make a difference too. And I love to surround myself with people of all ages and abilities who also think that way. Not that I - or any of the people I'm thinking of - have grandiose schemes or plans, but I love it that we can aspire to something that goes beyond ourselves. It IS noble, I think, to have that kind of mindset and to take steps that move us in that direction - whatever it is. But even as I say that, and as I've been thinking these last few days about it - a yellow flag is raised.

There's been lots of cyber chatter this past week about the Kony 2012 campaign - for one example see - and while you're there, feel free to join this Facebook group. I don't want to reiterate that discussion, but I do want to acknowledge that it's been a big part of my thinking on this issue of "making a difference". Jason Russell - the filmmaker who made Kony 2012 - wants to "make a difference". I quite honestly think that all of the people at Invisible Children are involved so that they can be part of the solution to the problem of the abuse and exploitation of children by the LRA. I've just watched a short video that they've put together to respond to some of the criticisms that have been directed their way since Kony 2012 hit the internet. You can find it here if you're interested: I can just imagine how hard it is for them to hear and read and see the kinds of attacks that have been issued. But this is all a bit beside the point of this posting...

All I really want to say is that maybe we need to be cautious when we talk about "making a difference". Maybe having the kind of "make a difference" mindset can actually set us up for some unhealthy distractions. I can just hear Screwtape telling Wormwood that it's a good idea to have us think that we can take on the enemy by having a good strategy that will make a difference. Mind you, I can also hear him advising Wormwood that if he can get his Patient to feel that nothing he does will make a difference - that's also a win for the bad guys. What Screwtape and Wormwood DON'T want to hear is the Patient committing to a life of faithful obedience to the commands and instruction of Christ in the way of kingdom living, come what may. I think THAT'S what we ought to be aiming for, most fundamentally.

I'm thinking of scenes from my childhood when we used to pick teams on the playground. Imagine that we're all assembled and the teams are being picked. Believe me, if I'm doing the picking I'd far rather pick those who are itching to get involved so that they can make a difference, than those who don't believe they can or will or should even be involved. But I also think that a team full of people committed to making a difference can be a pretty unruly bunch. Likely the first thing to be done is to have them all lay their plans and ambitions for making a difference down in order to be formed in the character of Christ.

I'm re-listening to Dallas Willard's book, Renovation of the Heart, and I'm reminded of Willard's emphasis on character - the inner being who is being shaped and formed by the Holy Spirit... for good works. It's not enough just to contemplate the character of Christ. But nor is it wise, it seems to me, to take matters into our own hands - to devise clever plans and strategies to accomplish good ends - and to plunge ahead with our campaigns for making the world a better place. Rather, if we can seek God and His righteousness - with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength! - maybe the changes we so desire will be the icing on the cake.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Human Rights... or the View from the Top?

In this post I'm going to do something which is most likely ill-advised. I'm going to speculate about the concept of "human rights" and I'm going to do so on the basis of a hunch. I haven't done any amount of serious research or even focussed thinking on this issue. But it's something that's occurred to me more than once in the last few years. On diverse occasions - moments when traveling in foreign lands, a thought in mid-sentence while teaching, a gut response when listening to CBC radio on assorted topics - I have an increasingly persistent sense that much of our talk (rhetoric?) about human rights may actually be more the product of an egotistical and ethnocentric sense of cultural entitlement than some sort of divine mandate for the proper and appropriate "rights" of all humanity.

Just this morning, for instance, when I turned on the radio I heard the tale-end of an interview with a plastic surgeon from Pakistan who does facial reconstruction (amongst other things) for Pakistani women who have been intentionally burned with acid by members of their own family. I suppose it's some sort of punishment for behaviour and attitudes considered inappropriate or shameful. It's horrendous and who could think otherwise!? But then - again - this thought crosses my mind: who decides what is appropriate or shameful? Surely every nation on earth has it's legacy of shame. Who among us is without sin? In every country in the world - including, of course, our own - an honest history will expose principles and practices that we now find hugely offensive. Acts that are, today, clearly defined as criminal, were once - in our very own cultural context - applauded as being right and honourable and in keeping with the common good. Women were not considered "persons" in Canada until October 18, 1929, for goodness sake! See for the background on this story.

Please, believe me when I say that I am NOT writing this post in defence of acid burning or domestic violence in any form or in any place. Truly, I am not.

What I am calling into question - or at least, for consideration - is the idea that any universal declaration of human rights is going to contain an inherent bias in favour of those who consider themselves the cultural and ideological elite. Such "rights" are akin to a view from the top, passed down to those below, with the expectation that they need not discover these "fundamental rights" for themselves but should rather except the wisdom of those who now see themselves as having "seen the light" in terms of their own past abuses. Canadian law once did not recognize women as persons, but now that we do, it is clear that women truly ARE persons and so other countries should forego the painful path to that realization and simply accept our perspective. After all, should it not now be self-evident that women are and were persons all along?

And I wouldn't necessarily object to this practice, except it doesn't seem to work very well. The path to personhood for Canadian women was not an easy one - IS not an easy one. It could certainly be argued - in fact I WOULD ARGUE - that the path to personhood for women in Canada is far from complete, especially if we consider indicators such as social, economic and political equality as the measure of success. Women have come a long way in this country, but they are still way too often the victims of domestic violence, sexual exploitation, economic injustice, etc. etc. And sometimes women have failed to live up to the challenges and opportunities of "equality".

And none of this happens in a vacuum. There is a growing awareness that the peoples of this world are connected through the political, economic, technological, and social forces of globalization. For some, globalization is inevitable and welcome. It opens new markets, new frontiers, new opportunities. For others, however, globalization means uprooting old ways of life and threatening livelihoods and cultures. The fact is, no matter where we live, we are not immune from the collective forces of globalization and these forces sooner or later impact the very fabric of family life and the role of women in both family and society. They affect life at its very source. These forces of globalization are not neutral. Nor can we assume that they are designed to promote the "common good". Globalization seems to be, most fundamentally, about dominance by the "fittest" - or at least by those with economic and military and ideological power.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948. Fifty nations participated in the final vote - 42 voted in favour and 8 abstained. On the one hand, in the post war context I'm sure it was a remarkable accomplishment to have this much consensus on a template for human rights. But on the other hand, if we look at the Declaration itself, I can't help but wonder how this document must have been perceived by those who had no part in its design. The final portion of the preamble, reads as follows:

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction (

The 30 Articles contained within the Declaration make perfect sense from the point of view of the western world, but is it even fair or rational to expect all of humanity to subscribe to THIS particular view of what is right and good? I suspect that anyone who has worked or lived for any prolonged period of time in a very different cultural context has, at some point, understood that OUR culture and OUR understanding of human rights is a reflection of our biases and perhaps NOT as transferable as we might have assumed.

So, as I observe and read and hear about human rights abuses around the globe, it causes me to question the process. I have no solutions and I need to reiterate that I am not suggesting that we ought to turn a blind or indifferent eye to those abuses. But perhaps it will help us to battle them more effectively if we at least acknowledge that they are rights that we have arrived at through much trial and painful error ourselves. Forced compliance - through military and economic and political sanction - simply doesn't seem to be a very effective strategy.

Well - this seems to be a not very satisfactory conclusion, but it has been my attempt to articulate this hunch that disturbs and challenges me.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Social Justice: A Musical Chairs Metaphor

Today - February 20, 2012 - is the United Nations World Day of Social Justice (see I think about social justice a lot so I thought it would be good to post something today in recognition of this international focus. There are many MANY things that I could reflect on, but what is sticking in my mind is a musical chairs metaphor.

When I was a kid, musical chairs was a birthday party activity. In case you have no idea what I'm talking about, here's how it's played. Chairs are arranged in a circle or maybe in two rows, back to back, and the kids all start out sitting. When the music starts playing, the kids get up and walk or run around the chairs. One chair is removed. When the music stops, the "game" is to get a seat. But of course there's one fewer chairs than there are kids. So someone is "eliminated". And the second round begins. The game continues until there are only two contestants remaining and one chair. When the music stops on this last round, the winner is the one sitting. When all goes well it's a good natured game. No one gets hurt - physically or emotionally. Parents often have to caution the kids not to push or shove.

But as I think about it now - years and years later - this childhood game is a bit of a metaphor for the competition we see amongst peoples and nations of the world for what to appear to be "scarce resources". The idea is that there are not enough to go around. Not enough food. Not enough water. Not enough oil. Not enough land. Not enough money. Not enough medical care. Not enough education. Not enough of anything. An economy of scarcity. But the metaphor is only a simple approximation - and perhaps misleading.

The fact is, not everyone has the same opportunity to get a seat when the music stops. In fact, it could be argued that not all seats are vacated at the beginning of each round. Some of the participants seem to have a permanent seat in the game. They never have to get up and take the risk of losing their place. It's only the poor who are really competing. And even then, it's not an unbiased competition. Their chances of getting a chair may be rigged - directly or indirectly - by those starting and stopping the music (timing is everything!), by those who are removing seats (creating a situation of scarcity - real or perceived), by those enforcing and/or altering the rules of the game, etc. etc. It's complicated.

I watched an online documentary this morning called The New Rulers of the World - In this documentary, John Pilger looks at the effects of globalization for Indonesia, examining the role that corporations, governments and international financial agencies (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank) have played in Indonesia's economy. It's sobering and instructive.

So on World Day of Social Justice, it behooves us to ask what social justice is? What does it look like? Maybe it's easier to say what it isn't. It's not, for instance, like a game of musical chairs. It's also not, I would argue, a gigantic pie sliced precisely and neatly into 7 billion equal slivers. Social justice is not about reducing or defining us all as a common denominator of one.

At the risk of being ridiculously esoteric and more poetic than practical, I see social justice as a symphony of subtleties. It's life as God intended/intends it to be - a celebration of provision and diversity, of hope and grace and generosity and hospitality and peace. Of giving and gratitude more than grabbing and greed. Social justice is what is produced when people and communities live out the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

It seems to me that when we live according to these characteristics - whatever our motivation or reason for doing so - social justice will be the natural outcome. But, you protest, this is NEVER going to happen! Fallen humanity is incapable of living this way on any grand scale. Maybe so. But in a symphony of subtleties, if each one does that which he or she CAN do, without fretting about whether or not their contribution will make a difference to the final performance, we will be part of a majestic movement that will ultimately reveal the true potential of the divine order.

On THIS day, let's celebrate and encourage one another by living joyously in the midst of the insanity and chaos generated by a global system of scarcity. Rather than push and shove and strategize and connive to ensure a seat for ourselves in the proverbial game of musical chairs, let's trust that it's possible to put chairs back in the game, if we will but live according to kingdom values!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

An Economy of ENOUGH

Have you ever noticed how the forecast of a storm, and the possibility of power outages or other disturbances in everyday life, often precipitates a stampede of people to the grocery store and other retail stores to "stock up"? Following a natural disaster, sales of "emergency kits" soar as people attempt to prepare themselves for the uncertainties of a disrupted market economy. Scarcity - or the perception of scarcity - is surely good for business.

I've just finished reading a great book by Walter Brueggemann - Journey to the Common Good. In this book Brueggemann argues that empire (that is, secular society) operates on the basis of an anxiety system that is driven by fear and fueled by scarcity. This anxiety system is inimical to the common good. People - generally speaking - are so preoccupied with ensuring that their own needs are met - now and into the future - that they have no sense of broader responsibility to those outside their immediate sphere. It reminds me of the game of musical chairs we used to play when we were kids. Our entire economic system is premised on the assumption of growth - more money, more products, more consumption. And like kids playing musical chairs, it's fun so long as you're still in the game. Not so much fun if you're the one left standing when the music stops. But is it an ethical system? Is it good for us? Is it the only option?

Brueggemann believes that there IS a system that is preferable - it's a system based on an economy of enough. The anxiety of the scarcity system is replaced with a whole different economy based on God's provision of what is needed. And, freed from the anxiety and fear of the scarcity system, people have time and energy to care for their neighbours. Thus, the community journeys from the anxiety system to an economy of enough to a state of neighbourliness.

Remember when the Israelites - under Moses' leadership and God's provision - had crossed the Red Sea and were milling about trying to figure out what to do and where to go next? God provided them with food - manna which literally fell from the sky. He instructed them to take what they NEEDED - no more, no less. And those who gathered more than they needed soon discovered that the excess went to waste. Each day they gathered what they needed for that day. Except on the day before the Sabbath when they gathered for two days and thus honoured the Sabbath. And this went on for forty years! They had enough.

What would happen if we changed our attitude and our habits so that rather than taking all that we can get, we only took what we need? What would our world look like? What if we operated out of an economy of enough and resisted the fear tactics of a global economic system which profits from scarcity and convinces us that we must use whatever political and military means necessary to make sure we get - not just what we NEED - but what we desire? Oh Lord! Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven!