Thursday, January 26, 2012

Year of the Dragon

The first day of the 2012 Chinese New Year was on January 23, 2012 (in China's time zone). This day is a new moon day, and is the first day of the first Chinese lunar month in the Chinese lunar calendar system.

The Chinese New Year's Day on January 23, 2012, is actually 12 days before the first day of the astrology calendar this year. There is a common misconception that the astrological animal signs begin on the Chinese New Year's Day. In reality, these animal signs mark the Start of Spring, the first day of the astrological year. 

For example, if a baby was born after the Chinese New Year Day in January 2012, then its animal sign is the Rabbit, not Dragon, because the birthday is before the Start of Spring. In the China's time zone, the Start of Spring this year is on February 4. This may sound confusing, and it is for many people, myself included.

I know very little about this system, but do want to share the little that I have learned about it. In Africa, where I am at the moment the Chinese new year is not very important, but in many parts of the world it is because of the growing influence of China on the world stage, and the increasing pervasiveness of Chinese culture. Chinese people can be found everywhere.

Toronto, where I live most of the year, has many China towns to accommodate a burgeoning Chinese population. In Africa, there are now an increasing numbers of Chinese working here, and thus the Chinese new year will become more important here too as time goes on.

According to the Chinese zodiac, 2012 is the Year of the Dragon, which began on January 23, 2012 and ends on February 9, 2013. The dragon is the fifth sign of the Chinese zodiac, which consists of 12 animal signs. The dragon is a mythical and legendary creature. In ancient China, the celestial dragon represented both the emperor and power. Today, it is the ultimate auspicious symbol signifying success and happiness. 

The year 2012 is the 4709th Chinese year. The Chinese believe that the first king of China was the Yellow King (who was not the first emperor of China). He became king in 2697 BC, and therefore China entered the 4709th year on January 23, 2012 (although some people contend this is the 4710th year).

In all stories about Chinese dragons, they come from the sky, which means heaven in China. The image of dragon is blurred, misty, mystic, occulted, noble and untouchable. For China, it is the symbol of power from heaven. The Chinese emperor was considered the son of heaven. An emperor alone has the authority to send a command to dragons. 

One Chinese story mentions an emperor who killed a dragon in his dream. After 581 AD, emperors in China began to wear imperial robes with dragon symbols. During the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911 AD), the dragon can be seen everywhere on the roofs, doors, pillars, bridges, utensils in the forbidden city. The most powerful dragon is the five-clawed dragon. It appears only on the yellow imperial robe. Because of this, the dragon is one of most auspicious animals in China.

The dragon is the only mythological creature in the Chinese zodiac; it epitomizes yang (male/warm) energy. Those born in the year of the dragon are considered to be lively people who are straight to the point, proud, full of enthusiasm and possess a great passion for life. They are also dynamic and stand out in a crowd, since they are flamboyant and tend to leave a blazing trail behind them, igniting passion in some but scorching others. Dragons are profoundly loyal to family and friends, and think nothing of laying their lives down to protect them. Although sincere and honest, dragons are known to act first, think later and suffer as a result.

Dragons also can never keep their mouths shut, indulge in idle gossip and tend to believe they can take on just about anything. They can be eccentric and egotistical, demanding others to laugh at their jokes or laud that their actions. Intelligent and charismatic, but the dragon seldom applies its wisdom carefully and chooses to flirt with imagined grandeur instead.

There are many more descriptions of people born in the year of the dragon; all of them assume that these people will resemble dragons in character and temperament. This is as likely, in my opinion, as the signs of the zodiac in the West are said to determine the future of those who are born under that sign.

Personally, I am not a believer in astrology. Our fates are not determined by the stars or by animal signs. God alone determines the future of each and everyone of us. Our future is in God's hands, and is not written in the stars. We may perhaps play with these various types of astrology, as long as we do not take them too seriously. My comments may offend those who do believe in astrology; if so, I am sorry, but I disagree.

The year of the dragon is important for many Chinese or for those who share the Chinese heritage, and we should not denigrate them in any way. On the contrary, we must respect their beliefs, even if we disagree. I do not ridicule people who consult horoscopes either, even though I never do so myself.

Stamps of Azerbaijan commemorating the Year of the Dragon

Do you want to know what's in store for 2012? Who will win the US election? Will the eurozone implode? China's feng shui masters tackle some of these issues with their predictions for the Year of the Dragon.

Many Chinese take such predictions seriously and adjust their lives accordingly. Feng shui, the ancient study of the forces of chi, or life energy, is a daily part of life in the Chinese world. If they want to build a house or renovate it, they will consult experts in feng shui.

A feng shui chart

Chinese astrologers have already predicted that the Year of the Dragon will bring natural disasters and financial volatility, especially to crisis-hit Europe. "The world economy will be unstable in the Year of the Dragon, because the economies in Europe and the US are still suffering from the effects of the recession," Hong Kong feng shui master Anthony Cheng says.

Celebrity astrologer Peter So says the United States will provide some good news late in the year, but his charts for Europe make grim reading. "Europe will not recover so soon -- it is expected to suffer at least until 2014. But what I can say is this, a recovery for the US economy is possible in 2013," he says.

If you're prepared to ride the dragon and invest in 2012, Russia and China could be your best bets. The two emerging markets will be the best performers in a volatile year, says Cheng. But be prepared for surprises, especially out of China where the Communist Party will hold its 18th Congress to select a new generation of leaders. "In the second half of the year, a scandalous corruption case will be exposed in China," warns Cheng, but refuses to elaborate about who will be implicated.

I don't put any more stock in such predictions than I do in the prediction made in some magazines at the checkout counter. Nor do I accept the predictions made by those who say that the world will end in December this year, according to an ancient Mayan calendar. The future is in God's hands; only he knows what will happen and when. 


Monday, January 23, 2012

Is capitalism evil?

Is capitalism evil? Yes, contends US documentary maker Michael Moore in his latest movie, "Capitalism: A Love Story," where he proves that capitalism is evil. The idea for this post came as I was flying across the Atlantic and was able to watch this movie, which comes with a warning that it is not intended for children. I would add that it is not intended as entertainment either. Instead, it is a hard-hitting attack on capitalism, which blends his trademark humor with tragic individual stories, archive footage and publicity stunts.

Moore argues that capitalism benefits only the rich while condemning millions to poverty. He explains, "Capitalism is an evil, and you cannot regulate evil," he concludes. "You have to eliminate it and replace it with something that is good for all people and that something is democracy."

Big banks and hedge funds gambled with investors' money, using complex derivatives that few, if any, really understood. Meanwhile, large companies have had laid off thousands of staff despite boasting record profits. Moore also sees an uncomfortably close relationship between banks, politicians and U.S. Treasury officials. With official connivance, regulations were changed to favor the few on Wall Street rather than the many on Main Street.

Moore says that by encouraging Americans to borrow against the value of their homes, businesses created the conditions that led to the crisis, and with it homelessness and unemployment. The film features several priests, including a bishop, who say capitalism is anti-Christian by failing to protect the poor.

"Essentially we have a law which says gambling is illegal but we've allowed Wall Street to do this and they've played with people's money and taken it into these crazy areas of derivatives," Moore told an audience at the Venice Film Festival. "They need more than just regulation. We need to structure ourselves differently."

Moore on Wall Street trying to make a citizen's arrest

Moore is hardly the first person to preach this message, but he does so in a hard-hitting way that some, and not only the very rich, may regard as offensive. Even those who would stand to benefit most from him may not appreciate his in-your-face attack, such a when he goes to Wall Street and some corporate head offices to make a citizen's arrest.

Yet the story he tells is simple enough even for the most committed couch potato to understand: the rich are getting richer at the expense of the poor. This message was the one that motivated Occupy Wall Street and the other occupy movements all over the world. The 1 % through their manipulation of the political and economic levers of society are enriching themselves without any concern for the untold suffering that results for the rest, the 99%. Quite frankly, the rich don't care for what happens to the rest. Moreover, they blame everything, except the capitalistic system.

That the very rich critique Moore so bitterly is understandable, but that some of the 99% do so as well can only be explained by the successful media attacks prompted by the rich. Moore has been accused of being a hypocrite, since he is a multimillionaire--his net worth is reputedly $50 million. Such ad hominem arguments, however, miss the point that both Moore and the Occupy Movement are making: this is an issue of the heart.

Some critics (see charge that Moore takes verses out of context to match his view of the Bible and his version of God. They also charge him with making major errors in his understanding of capitalism. What these critics fail to grasp is that definitions, such as that of capitalism, are not neutral and objective, but are shaped by subjective attitudes which are matters of the heart.

These critics are also blind to the influence and power that capitalism already has, and that it is prepared to use whatever means are necessary in order to increase that influence and power. Today capitalism has become virtually unstoppable, unless enough people wake up and start protesting, as the Occupy Movement is doing. This movement is not dead, in spite of being evicted from parks and public places everywhere by the powers that be. That eviction illustrates the power of capitalism.

The Bible never condemns wealth as such. Abraham, for example, was a very wealthy man. Thus the Bible does not regard money as evil. Instead, as we read in 1 Tim. 6: 10: "For the love of money is at the root of all kinds of evil." Unfortunately, there are people who crave money. They are addicted to it. And thus to all and sundry they explain that the only purpose of doing business is to make money. Money! Money! That is all there is for them. What a sad existence for them, and even more so when this attitude is used to justify greed at both the individual and corporate level--a greed that blinds them to their extortionist practices.

Capitalism is evil, if by capitalism we mean more than the mere possession of capital; instead, it expresses an attitude to money that the Bible describes simply as greed. Capitalism is evil because it is marked by greed and does not concern itself with the poor.

Moore may be rich, but that does not make him a capitalist, nor does this movie make him a hypocrite because he belongs to the 1%. On the contrary, his heart is with the 99%. That is why he has produced movies such as "Roger & Me" and now "Capitalism: A Love Story." 

His gruff persona may put some people off, but it expresses his identification with the victims of capitalism. For that I want to thank him. It made my flight more enjoyable, even if it was somewhat disturbing. That, of course, is Moore's intention. I hope that more people will be disturbed and will join the protest, otherwise soon protest itself will be controlled.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Does Canada need an Office of Religious Freedom?

The proposal by the Canadian government to establish an Office of Religious Freedom is politically motivated. It fulfills a promise made in the 2011 federal election. The Conservatives won this election handily, in part by attracting votes in many ethnic communities, especially in Greater Toronto Area, which according to the United Nations is the most cosmopolitan urban area in the world. Nearly every nation and language on earth is represented here, as are most religions. This forms part of the context in which this proposal was made.

Does Canada really need an Office of Religious Freedom, or is it largely a political ploy, as is my impression?

The Conservatives  needed the support of various ethnic groups, which represent many different religions, in order to win the election: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, are only a few of them.

The most important of these religious groups, although not identifiable as a single ethnic category, were evangelical Christians. They tend to vote Conservative, are well organized, and have been persecuted in many different countries, especially during the last few years.

In fact, Christians are persecuted more than any other religious group today. There are many reasons for this. There are also many organizations, such as Freedom House, that keep careful track of instances of the persecution of Christians. Many Christians certainly support the creation of an Office of Religious Freedom.

The Conservatives also attracted the Jewish vote through their unqualified support for the State of Israel. Canada is now one of Israel's most faithful friends and supporters. The existence of the State of Israel is rooted in the Holocaust. Canadian Jews do not want a repetition of this, very understandably, and thus they too would support such an office.

Both Christians and Jews are somewhat ambivalent in their attitude to Muslims, however. The Palestinian cause is hardly popular among many of them, and Muslims are often viewed as terrorists. Both have for centuries been persecuted for various reasons, but they are often unwilling to extend protection to Muslims.

Muslims too need the protection of an Office of Religious Freedom. They have been vilified and demonized more than any other religious group, especially since 9/11. But will they get that protection this way?

In a year-end interview, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird denies that his department’s new Office of Religious Freedom will become a vehicle for playing domestic politics in Canada’s immigrant communities. He also dismissed criticism that the new office could lead to an uncomfortable mix of religion and politics.

“Freedom of religion is one of the first things in the (Canadian) Charter, it’s one of the first things in the (Canadian) Bill of Rights, it’s front and centre in the UN Declaration of Human Rights -- it’s an essential human right; I don’t see any concern about that at all,” the minister explained.

Baird has high hopes for the new office, even though it will come with a modest $5-million price tag. That includes a minuscule $500,000 budget for operations, so it won’t be a major drag on already thin resources for a government, like governments elsewhere, that is currently focussed on reducing the deficit.

But this office may not have the positive benefit the government is looking for. Alex Neve, the head of Amnesty International Canada, says that while religious persecution “is a serious human rights concern right around the world,” he is not confident about the government’s approach to the new office. Religious freedom can have a “contentious relationship” with other crucial human-rights concerns such as women’s equality, the equality rights of gays and lesbians, and freedom of expression, he explains.

The various human rights must be interpreted so that religious freedom and women's rights are both given their proper due. Communal and individual rights must be carefully balanced. In addition, for years I have reminded my students that rights are not absolute, but carry with them duties as well that can restrict these rights out of respect for others.

There are other problems as well. The governments needs to be careful that it does not -- either intentionally or unintentionally -- convey a message that some religions are preferred over others. The consultations that Baird organized with religious groups in October seem to indicate otherwise. These consultations were not open to the public. Amnesty International and other rights groups were excluded, but more crucially, so were many religious groups.

Panellists invited to closed-door consultations on the new Office of Religious Freedom were drawn almost exclusively from western religions, primarily Christianity. Six official panelists were invited to help lay out parameters for the proposed office during a half-day meeting with the minister. 

The official panelists were: 
Thomas Farr, first director of the U.S. Office of International Religious Freedom.
Father Raymond De Souza, Roman Catholic priest and columnist.
Anne Brandner of the Global Peace Initiative and formerly of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.
Don Hutchinson, vice-president with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.
Frank Dimant, CEO of B'nai Brith Canada.
Susanne Tamas of the Baha'i Community of Canada.

Islam was not represented on the panel, nor were the major Eastern religions, all of which have suffered religious persecution: Hinduism, Sikhism, Taoism, Buddhism, and others. The choice of panelists completely ignored the Canadian reality of multiculturalism, which is different from the American situation.

Pressed on what exactly the office will do, Baird replied in the interview: “It will be promoting religious freedom.” He said it would involve “persuasion, lobbying, putting light ... promoting.” The Tories note that the concept of such an office is not entirely new. They point to the fact the U.S. State Department has its own religious freedom office that was created in the late 1990s under the administration of Bill Clinton.

There are three priority areas for the new office: protecting and advocating on behalf of religious minorities under threat: opposing religious hatred and intolerance; and promoting the Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird with the Papal Nuncio

Baird said he had consulted internationally on the creation of the new office meeting with the Holy See, the Aga Khan, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey, and the American ambassador at large for international religious freedom. But, he added, “ours will be a made-in-Canada approach.”

He cited persecution of Baha’i practitioners in Iran, Coptic Christians killed in Egypt, and Roman Catholic priests who have been forced underground in China. “Sometimes tough things need to be said. It’s really uncomfortable, I think, for the Egyptian government when you talk about the plight of Copts,” he explained

As the Tories mull their final roll out for the new office, religious violence is sparking the usual time-honoured response of Canadian governments, whether Liberal or Conservative: a written denunciation in the minister’s name condemning the perpetrators and an expression of solidarity for the victims.

That’s what happened on Christmas Day after a radical sect called Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a series of attacks on churches that killed at least 42 people in Nigeria. Mr. Baird’s statement that day said: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their loved ones. These people died practicing their religion -- a basic human right. Canada strongly denounces such cowardly attacks without reservation.”

The Conservatives are unapologetic about making a defense of the right to worship a central objective of Canadian foreign policy, noting, as a recent Pew Center study found, that assaults around the world on religious freedom have increased in recent years. This stance is in response in part to some bureaucrats in the Department of Foreign Affairs who, because of their belief in the separation of church and state, have tended to ignore the issue of religious freedom.

Shahbaz Bhatti

The Tories explain that it was a charismatic Pakistani foe of religious persecution who helped clinch their decision to create the office. Shahbaz Bhatti had visited with Prime Minister Stephen Harper only weeks before he was shot dead in Islamabad. A Catholic, he was the first Pakistan minister for minority affairs and the only Christian serving in the Islamic state’s cabinet when he died on March 2, 2011. A militant Islamist group claimed responsibility for killing Bhatti, who had been urging reform of that country's blasphemy laws.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who’s also the party’s point man for outreach to new Canadian voters, said Bhatti made a major impression on Harper when they met in early February, 2011. “The Prime Minister was deeply affected by this as was everyone who had the chance to meet him,” the minister said. “His visit to Canada shortly before his assassination helped to galvanize within the government the reality of this kind of persecution.” Kenny said he counselled Bhatti against returning home -- to no avail.

Former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, for one, offers qualified support for the new office. He said it can “turn a Canadian spotlight on people in danger” and can provide the persecuted “with the protection of visibility and concern.” But he adds it should not become be a tool for pressure groups the Tories hope to appease in Canada.

He advises that the office defend all cases of religious persecution, not just those that are bothering domestic constituencies at home, and that it does not ignore other human-rights violations, which usually accompany religious persecution, like limits on freedom of the press, denial of democratic rights and persecution.

The American office once headed by Farr has been criticized from several quarters, including from within the US State Department, for being Christian-centric, and primarily dedicated to protecting and promoting Christianity overseas. They contend that US officials tend to recognize and emphasize violations of the rights of Christian minorities and Christian evangelical groups to proselytize, rather than using the term "religious freedom" to cover the religious freedom of all communities.

In other words, in the US not all religions are equal and not all enjoy the same rights.
The Conservatives responded by saying that the office will take a multi-faith focus that is representative of Canada. Whether they will or not is debatable, especially if the October panel is any indication.

There is too much about the proposed Office of Religious Freedom that smacks of politics. If this office does succeed in defending religious freedom for all religious groups and not just some of them, and if it can untangle the various human rights that are implicated in issues of religious freedom, then it may yet prove to be a blessing for everyone, and not just a cheap ploy to buy votes from strategic religious communities.

In the previous post, it was obvious how complex the issue of religious freedom is. When politics is added to this already potent brew, the mixture becomes potentially explosive. Thus the government should be very careful in what it does with the new Office of Religious Freedom. It is a good idea, but it can be abused in many ways. No one who is serious about religious freedom wants that to happen.

I don't want Christians to hijack the very important issue of religious freedom. It does not belong to any one religious group. If it did, religious freedom would be a contradiction in terms. All religions must enjoy the same rights, if this term is to have any meaning whatsoever. Religious freedom belongs to all of us or to none.


Monday, January 9, 2012

The nature of religious freedom as seen from an international perspective

Recently the Canadian government proposed to establish an Office of Religious Freedom within the Department of Foreign Affairs. This is to fulfill a campaign promise made in the 2011 federal election. The proposal prompted me to reflect on the nature of religious freedom in our world today. This topic is so complex, however, that I thought I would start this time with the international context, and then in the next posting look at the Canadian proposal more closely.

Religious freedom is a fundamental human right, but it is at the same time highly disputed. Religious freedom can be defined as the right to practise the religion of one's choice, or to be a non-believer, and by extension, to change one's religion. That this freedom is not universally acknowledged is demonstrated by the long history of religious persecution that persists even today.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations (1948) states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

This right is closely linked to the right to free expression and the right to free association:

Eighteen years later the Declaration became a convention, which became binding and had an enforcement mechanism. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) was adopted by the United Nations in 1976 and extends the specific protection to religion in Article 18:
  1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
  2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
  3. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
  4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
In 1981 this Covenant was further amplified in The UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion or Belief. This Declaration sets out in considerable detail what the international community regards as basic standards for the protection of religious freedom. This Covenant did not become a convention, however, because the international community was unable to agree on issues such as the freedom to change religion. For example, Islamic nations do not consider this to be a part of religious freedom. That is why "apostasy," or conversion from Islam, can result in the death penalty in some countries.

The reason for this impasse is not due to the desire of these nations to be ornery, but lies in a fundamentally different approach to human rights, one that the individualistic West finds difficult to understand and accept. The following Venn diagram may help to illustrate the difference.
This split into individual versus community rights is often interpreted in terms of liberalism and conservatism, but that is a mistake, in my opinion. The spit actually occurs between Western individualism and the rest of the world. Even this statement needs a further qualification, since not everyone in the West is individualistic when it comes to human rights.

Unfortunately, human rights have been interpreted in an individualistic way for a long time, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world. Even the United Nation's documents governing human rights have sometimes been interpreted in this way. Thus one can understand the frustration of Muslims when it comes to a fundamental aspect of their beliefs and for their unwillingness to budge when it comes to further interpretations of these rights, especially when it comes to religious freedom.

Muslims are not alone in this frustration. In Canada, the conflict between English Canadians and French Canadians about language rights in Quebec is another example of this split. The question that both Muslims and French Canadians ask, together with many other groups, is this: Do individual rights always have to trump community rights, or are there times when the rights of the latter should be emphasized so that the community does not suffer?

The United States has a great problem with community rights. The American emphasis on individual rights is expressed already in the Declaration of Independence. In contrast, the UN Declaration of Human Rights has a more community orientation, although I would contend that this is still not strong enough. Some of the differences are described in the following table:

American readers will no doubt object by asserting that an emphasis on community rights eliminates the rights of the individual, but that is precisely the issue. Should individual and community rights be played off against each other, or should they both be allowed to play a role? Community rights have been neglected too much and too long, and only now are they coming to the fore again, where they belong. It is not a matter of either/or, but of recognizing both where appropriate and helpful.

By asserting this, I do not want to excuse the killing of people who leave a certain religion in order to adopt another. Yet Muslims, among others, should be allowed to maintain their beliefs, except for the killing, even if they seem grossly unfair to others. In Quebec, similar objections about unfairness can be made, but French Canadians should be allowed to take the necessary measures to ensure the survival of their language.

In both cases, I personally disagree with their positions, but I must respect the rights of these communities to take measures that will help preserve them. If that seems unfair to the rest of us, then so be it. We are just revealing our own bias. While they too recognize the importance of human rights, especially as they have been encapsulated in the UN documents I mentioned, the rights of communities to express a contrary opinion should not be diminished, otherwise there will not be any community rights left at the end of the day.

The ICCPR recognizes this limitation when it states, as we already noted: "Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others."

Freedom of religion must not proscribe any beliefs as long as these beliefs do not limit the rights of others, in this case the right to life. Thus Islamic countries should not be allowed to pass laws that prescribe the death penalty for apostasy. But Muslims should have the right to condemn apostasy, even if we might disagree.

The situation in Quebec is different, since freedom of religion is not an issue, but a similar argument can be made to justify laws that protect the French language, again as long as the lives of others are not endangered.  The preservation of French is necessary for people who are drowning in an English ocean. 

There are many more issues involving freedom of religion that could be discussed, but this will have to suffice this time. The topic is large enough to justify writing a book or indeed many books. I am not alone in raising the issue of individual versus community rights; in fact, many articles have already been written on it.

My contention is that community rights need to be protected, not just the rights of individuals. I am more sensitive to this than many people, perhaps, because I have lived in Asia and Africa for many years. In Africa, for example, one's identity is determined by the community. Whereas in the West we say, "I am, therefore we are." In other words, the individual precedes the community. In Africa, the reverse is true; Africans say, "We are, therefore I am." The word ubuntu is often used to describe this. This expresses the essence of being human; it declares that my humanity is caught up and inextricably bound up in yours.

The Bible cannot be understood apart from community. God created us to live in community. Even salvation must be understood communally, and not just individualistically, as we are often inclined to do. The dignity of human beings, the chief reason for human rights, arises from the idea of persons being created in the image of God; the dignity of communities proceeds from the notion of human beings being created in relation to God the Creator. Thus, community first and foremost means being in community with the Creator. By extension, therefore, we exist in community with each other.

If we lose sight of the community, we fall into the trap of individualism, as so many Christians have done, especially in the West. Then our individualistic understanding of human rights becomes an idol that blinds us to the communities that we see all around us. A false ideology has blinded us to reality. Let us, therefore, break away from the individualism that permeates Western thinking, and look instead at the picture that the Bible presents and that is expressed in many non-Western modes of thinking.

There are many different kinds of communities. The following wheel illustrates only some of them:

This international perspective that I have have sketched briefly provides a background to an examination of the proposal by the Canadian government to establish an Office of Religious Freedom. That is where I intend to go in my next posting.

Please feel free to respond to my observations about the nature of religious freedom. My emphasis on the rights of the community may not please everyone, but I do hope that I will cause people to think about this important topic. I am searching for the truth, as we all are. Let us therefore respect each other when we debate this controversial issue.