Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Oscars, history and faith

And the winning Oscar goes to . . . historical dramas. History won in several Oscar categories this year, but no historical film swept all categories, not even Argo, which is a dramatization of the rescue of six American diplomatic hostages from Tehran in 1980, which won the Best Picture award. Out of the nine films nominated for best picture, three were historical dramas.

Of the other two nominations in that category, Zero Dark Thirty won only one award for Sound Editing that it had to share since there was a tie vote, but Daniel Day-Lewis won the Best Actor award for his portrayal of the president in Lincoln. Thus many of the top Oscars went to historical films.

Even more important is the way that history was used in each of these films. In each case, the history was distorted, supposedly for dramatic or artistic effect. As someone for whom history is important, I find such distortions disturbing. These films are not truly history but only stories loosely based on historical events. If that is the case, then disclaimers should be made to that effect.

One commentator on the Oscars suggested that those who who are troubled by these distortions should "get a life." But some of the distortions in the three historical dramas involved more than just liberties that artistic freedom would explain. Some of the films, like Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, paint pictures that distort history so much that Iranians and others are understandably upset.

Argo purports to be a true story, according to the introductory spiel, but it distorts the role of Canada in the rescue, assigning only a minor role to Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and his wife Pat. The key role is given to the CIA. Taylor was understandably miffed, so much so that the director, Ben Affleck, changed the blurb at the end, at great cost, to acknowledge the Canadian role, yet the film itself was not further modified.

However, this was not enough for former President Jimmy Carter, on whose watch the hostages were taken and held for 444 days, who felt compelled to apologize for this grievous distortion of what had happened. Initially, as Carter notes, the Canadians did receive all the public credit in order to protect Washington, but the film ignores this and credits the CIA with 90%.

The final chase scene at the airport in Tehran, which never happened,  may be justifiable as dramatic effect, but rest of the story is yet another example of a Hollywood movie made largely for American viewers. One could argue that Affleck's version is more exciting, but the real story might still have been told in as dramatic a fashion without offending many British, Canadian, and Iranian citizens, as this film managed to accomplish.

In Lincoln, the delegates from Connecticut are shown voting no on the 13th Amendment that would abolish slavery in the US when they actually voted yes. Again, this embellishment was for dramatic purposes, but it casts the people of Connecticut in a bad light as seeming to support slavery. A film like this may prompt viewers to brush up on their American history for the real story, but that should not be necessary.

Zero Dark Thirty received so much criticism from the US Congress for its depiction of torture that it was snubbed for the Best Picture award at this year's Oscars. It has also been criticized for revealing national security secrets. The film distorts history even aside from the controversy it raised about the role that torture played in the death of Osama bin Laden.

There is no objective historiography, but something that purports to be history must stick a little closer to what actually happened. These three historical dramas embellished the historical events to such a degree that it was hard to determine what really occurred. If it were just a story, that might not matter, but it does if it presents itself as something that is true.

I am not opposed to embellishment as such, but I do draw the line when people or groups are hurt by the revised story as happened with Argo, where several nationalities were hurt. In Zero Dark Thirty not only were some members of Congress upset but the relatives of a flight attendant who died on 9/11 and whose recording of her last call before her American plane struck the North Tower was used in the film.

I also want to criticize the way faith is portrayed in Argo, which has not only been labelled anti-Iranian but, more seriously, also anti-Islamic through the way it shows Iranian Muslims as a bunch of religious fanatics who are unalterably opposed to everything associated with the West.

This is a typical Hollywood avoidance of complex issues; instead it reduces everything to black and white. When I was a boy the American West was populated by cowboys and Indians, according to this reading of history. There are no extra points for guessing who the good guys were and who the bad.

Argo feeds the anti-Muslim feelings that already prevail among many Americans. This film does not properly differentiate between ordinary Iranians and their government, nor does it inform its viewers that Iranians have not controlled their own government since 1950's and that the Shah's government was put into place with US help. The offense is not felt not only by Iranians but all Muslims as well, since they ascribe films like this to the Islamophobia of many people in the West after 9/11, which depicts all Muslims as terrorists

Lincoln did not offend as many people perhaps, but it did manage to offend the good people of Connecticut. That should be enough to cause people to question the motives of those who produced and directed this film. In the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the people who are hurt especially are those Americans who are not fully aware of the extent of the use of torture by their own government.

Filmmakers should not needlessly offend religious people. In these films, the producers may not even have been conscious of the offense that was taken by so many Muslims all over the world, but especially in the Middle East.

The Oscars are not as important as they were some years ago. There are now many more award programs, but the Oscars are still the highlight for many in the film world. History indeed won in several categories, but these wins need to be taken with a huge grain of salt. The members of the Academy select the winners, but do not determine what are truly the best films. That is something that we, the public, ultimately do.

These historical dramas may be judged by many as among the best films this year, but all of them are flawed in some, some more seriously than others. Yet it is good for us to review them in order to determine not only their merits but also their weaknesses. That I have tried to do. I hope you appreciate my effort.

If you have any comments, please send them to me. I appreciate the dialogue.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Canada's Office of Religious Freedom finally unveiled

The unveiling of Canada's new Office of Religious Freedom along with the first Ambassador of Religious Freedom fulfills a promise that was first made by the Conservatives in the 2011 election campaign.  If the slow unveiling was meant to tantalize the Canadian public and make it more appealing, it failed miserably.

Most Canadians had forgotten about this promise, and even Prime Minister Harper's Conservative base, who are the primary reason for establishing this office, must have thought that it would never materialize.

The new Ambassador, Andrew Bennett, is a 40-year old former civil servant, who is now dean of Augustine College in Ottawa. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of Edinburgh, an MA in history from McGill University, and a BA from Dalhousie University. He is a Roman Catholic.

In announcing the appointment, the prime minister introduced him: "Dr. Bennett is a man of principle and deep convictions and he will encourage the protection of religious minorities around the world so all can practice their faith without fear of violence and repression."

The unveiling was done at an Ahmadiyyah mosque in Vaughan, just north of Toronto. This was done in order to lessen the appearance that this new office would be Christian- and Euro-centric. But that perception is difficult to dismiss entirely with the appointment of a Christian as its head. Two other people turned down this position, when it was offered to them. Perhaps no other choice was possible, but the optics are not good.

In a news conference, Bennett emphasized that the office would defend everyone, even those who have no religion: "All people of faith and, again, those who choose not to have faith, need to be protected, their rights need to be respected. That's what this office is about."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Dr. Andrew Bennett
as he is named Ambassador to the Office of Religious Freedom

According to the website of Foreign Affairs and International Trade the office's mandate is three-fold:
  • protect, and advocate on behalf of, religious minorities under threat;
  • oppose religious hatred and intolerance; and
  • promote Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad.

It further explains: "[F]reedom of religion or belief, including the ability to worship in peace and security, is a universal human right. Through the Office of Religious Freedom, Canada will continue to work with like-minded partners to speak out against egregious violations of freedom of religion, denounce violence against human-rights defenders and condemn attacks on worshippers and places of worship around the world."
In his statement opening this new office, Harper noted that the establishment of this office was motivated especially by the assassination of Shahbaz Bahti, the Minister of Minorities of Pakistan, who had worked tirelessly to defend the rights not only of his fellow Christians but also of Sikhs, Hindus, and other minorities. This office is his legacy, and a legacy of hope also for those who unlike him remain nameless.
Yet these noble words are not enough. The new Office of Religious Freedom has an impressive name and a huge mandate, but the staff is minimal -- only four or five people -- and the funding is minuscule -- only $5 million, which amounts to 0.002 per cent of the budget of $2.5 billion for the entire Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, of which it is now a part.

Canada is only the second country to establish such an office. The United States.Office of International Religious Freedom was set up under the wing of the State Department. The mandate of this office is similar to the Canadian one, which is not surprising since it was modeled on its American counterpart. 
  • promote freedom of religion and conscience throughout the world as a fundamental human right and as a source of stability for all countries;
  • assist emerging democracies in implementing freedom of religion and conscience;
  • assist religious and human rights NGOs in promoting religious freedom;
  • identify and denounce regimes that are severe persecutors on the basis of religious belief.

In addition to this office, there is also the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which is an independent, bipartisan US federal government commission that monitors the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad.

The US Office of International Religious Freedom has attracted much criticism for being Christian-centric. The Canadian government clearly wants to avoid that criticism, but whether it will be successful in that remains to be seen.

What can the new ambassador and his staff achieve with its very limited resources,especially since religious persecution is on the rise around the world? According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, in 2010, 75 per cent of the world's population lived in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion, which is up from 70 per cent in 2007.

I have previously outlined the problems that I perceive in understanding religious freedom when viewed from an international perspective, thus I won't repeat them now, except to note especially the conflict that exists between the largely Western individual and the communal interpretations of human rights that the rest of the world has. The latter is expressed in the African word ubuntu, which declares that my humanity and that of everyone else are inextricably bound together. That is also a biblical idea, since God created us to live in community.

The next week I asked the question that is still pertinent today: Does Canada need an Office of Religious Freedom? Then I again raised the issue of individual and communal rights. These are not absolute rights but are limited. Moreover, human rights can never be separated from their corresponding duties. 

Such an office should also be careful not to prefer one religion over others, which it was already accused of doing even before it was officially established. Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and many other religions were ignored when the principles that would govern this office were formulated.

The prime minister in his speech stressed the idea of pluralism, but that idea sounds hollow as long as these other religions are not fully involved in the functioning of that office. Religious freedom.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. The Harper government has not yet assured me and others its sincerity in establishing this office. 

Unfortunately, there is too much politics involved whenever this government takes any initiative, whether in dealing with climate change (ignore it), crime (build more prisons), or religious freedom (establish an office). In every case, it caters largely to its Conservative base.

For the Conservatives, the Office of Religious Freedom is also an appeal to the ethnic vote. In his speech, Harper went out of his way to speak of the many religious communities that suffer at the hands of intolerant governments; it is not just Christians who are persecuted, as many people in Canada and elsewhere believe.

To the extent that this new office is genuinely concerned with religious freedom, I applaud this effort, but it will take more than I have seen and heard thus far to convince me that that will indeed be the case. With its limited staffing and funding, this office is only a tiny religious island in a largely secularized departmental ocean where religion can be conveniently shunted aside and ignored.

In addition, only a token acknowledgment of religious freedom can be made by a department that is focused on international trade. When this new office complains about the treatment of Falun Gong by the Chinese government will the Canadian government be willing to jeopardize its trading relations with China to protect the religious freedom of this highly controversial group? Economics will once again trump human rights.

Perhaps I am too skeptical about the current government, but it has disappointed me immensely in the past, and thus I have not been reassured by the speeches that I heard when this office was officially established. Yet I do want to take this opportunity to wish Ambassador Bennett and his staff well as they begin their task. It will not be easy, and they need the prayers of all people of faith in Canada. May God richly bless them!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI and Islam

Pope Benedict XVI recently became the first pope in almost 600 years to retire. Not surprisingly, no one knows what to expect from an ex-pope. The Pope says he wants to devote himself to a life of prayer in a monastery and to stay out of papal affairs. That is wise, but it remains to be seen how successful he will be. He is a man of great contradictions. Like many of us, he can say one thing and do something else.

The way he handled clergy sexual abuse is one example of these contradictions. He apologized a great deal, but as pope he did little to bring the perpetrators to justice. The Vatican has seemingly been more concerned about protecting the institution than providing healing for the victims.

His treatment of Islam is another example. Although he often spoke out on behalf of Muslims, he did not reach out to them the same way that Pope John XXIII did to Jews. Benedict is cautious by nature, and that showed in everything he said and did.

In 2006, the year after he became pope, he condemned the cartoons about Muhammad that had been published in a Danish newspaper. Later that year he called for Christians to open their hearts and their borders to Muslims, encouraged dialogue, and pleaded for peace in the Middle East and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

These efforts were the least that the world would have expected from the leader of the Roman Catholic Church on behalf of a major faith that has been under attack in the post- 9/11 world.

But any good will that was generated by his comments in support of Islam was instantly destroyed on September 12, 2006, when he delivered a lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany, the same university where he had taught theology for many years. It was entitled “Faith, Reason and the University -- Memories and Reflections.”

In this academic lecture, Benedict quoted the opinion of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos, "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

Many Muslims were offended by this speech. Islamic politicians, religious leaders and scholars protested against what they saw as an insulting characterization of their faith and the Prophet Muhammad.

Mass street protests were mounted in many Islamic countries, and a nun was even killed as a result. Many Muslims called on the Pope to apologize for his remarks.

Benedict did apologize somewhat, but it was too little too late. He explained that the quote he used was not his own opinion, but that of the emperor. At the time, I admit that was the way I tried to defend the Pope as well when my Muslim colleagues at the university in Nigeria asked me to explain his remarks.

An American Dominican scholar in Nigeria, whom I know very well, took the same tack. He translated the text of the emperor from the original Greek into Arabic so that Muslims everywhere could read it for themselves. However, now I realize much better how complex the issue is that the Pope raised, and yet how inadequate his response was when the fur began to fly.

On 13 October 2006, a month after the Pope's address, 38 Islamic authorities and scholars from around the world sent an open letter to the Pope. On 11 October 2007, a year after this open letter, a larger group of 138 Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals sent another letter, titled A Common Word Between Us and You, to Pope Benedict and the leaders of other Christian denominations.

The 2007 letter emphasized that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, and share many values, including living in peace with one's neighbors. Many Christians have responded favorably to this initiative and are seeking ways to promote better relations with Muslims.

Pope with Muslim leaders in Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock

Was the Pope lacking in his grasp of Islam? Many Muslims argue he was. He was certainly not aware of the consequences of his remarks. But such naivete is inexcusable in his position. He should have had his speech vetted, yet he regarded it as an academic lecture on faith and reason.

Faith without reason leads to fundamentalism, he claimed; while reason without faith results in secularism. He associates the former with violence. In the case of Islam, he explained, it is the product of a perverted form of that faith, not its authentic expression. That point has eluded many Muslims and even some Christians.

It was unfortunate that in this speech the Pope dismissed Islam as an unreasonable and violent faith. Thus the outrage of Muslims was understandable.

Was he contradicting himself? Perhaps not, but Muslims thought his language was not only inappropriate but it seemed to contradict everything he had said since he became pope the previous year.

Let us pray that the new pope will be able to establish better relations with Muslims. It is tragic that Benedict got off on the wrong foot so soon after he became pope. It has been difficult for him to repair the damage from this interfaith gaffe.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A retiring pope

Pope Benedict XVI shocked the entire world. on February 11 This quiet intellectual did something that no pope has done in almost six hundred years: he announced his retirement. There are suspicions that he planned to do so for more than a year.

This shock does not mean that a pope cannot retire. The 1983 Code of Canon Law states that this is possible, but it does attach several conditions, "If it should happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that he makes the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone" (Canon 332, No. 2).

When a pope is elected as the Successor of St. Peter, the Roman Catholic Church normally expects that he will remain in office until his death -- die with his slippers on, as it were -- but there have been exceptions to this rule, as a quick perusal of church history reveals.

In the long history of the Catholic Church, a few popes have resigned for various reasons, and a few have been deposed for various reasons. And one man was both deposed and resigned several times.

I will leave aside a few disputed instances of papal resignation in the long, convoluted history of the church and briefly list those who resigned. I will also mention very briefly those who were deposed.

The first pope to resign was Pope St. Pontian, who was elected as the Successor of St. Peter on July 21, 230. The Emperor Maximinus Thrax had him exiled. He resigned in September 235 and died a martyr in 236/237.

Pope St. Silverius, who was consecrated pope on June 1, 536, was the first pope to be forcibly deposed in March 537 by the Byzantine Empress Theodora. 

A similar fate awaited Pope St. Martin I about a century by the Byzantine Emperor Constans II. Pope St. Martin I is the last pope to die a martyr.

Pope Benedict IX holds the honor of holding the papacy three separate times. He resigned twice, and was deposed in December 1046. But he did not accept this deposition; he later resigned officially, which marks the end of what was technically a triple pontificate.

Pope St. Celestine V was elected pope at the advanced age of 84. He was weak and incompetent and was forced to resign after only a little more than five months in office in December 1294. Dante assigned him to Hell in the Divine Comedy because of his resignation. No other pope since then has chosen that name.

Pope Gregory XII was the last pope in the medieval period to resign. In order to heal the Great Western Schism, the Council of Constance in July 1415 urged the resignation of Gregory XII and forced the other two claimants to the papal throne either to resign (Benedict XIII) or be deposed (John XXIII). 

Thus Gregory XII was the last pope to resign until Benedict XVI dropped the bombshell of his abdication.

The 85-year-old pope announced his decision in Latin during a meeting of cardinals. He emphasized that carrying out the duties of being pope requires "both strength of mind and body."

He cited health concerns as his reason for resigning, "After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths due to an advanced age are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry." 

His health has visibly deteriorated since he became pope in 2005 at the age of 78. Recently he received a replacement for a pacemaker that was installed some years ago when he was in better health.

But his resignation was also prompted by strategic considerations. Benedict has a deeply-rooted vision of where the Roman Catholic Church should move in the years that lie ahead. He realizes, however, that a younger man would be better able to carryout that vision.

Benedict's explanation that he was resigning "for the good of the church" can be interpreted in many ways. If it is simply his health that motivated him, then I applaud his resignation. By doing this he has moved the church into the 21st century. It is a bold step that may set a precedent.

A papal conclave meeting in the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope

The political intrigue that motivated resignations during the medieval period is now a thing of the past. Today health has become an important issue everywhere. In the corporate world, when a CEO becomes too old or suffers from ill-health, then he or she often retires, whether voluntarily or not. Benedict has chosen voluntary retirement as the Canon Law stipulates.

On the other hand, if he is concerned especially for saving his vision of the Catholic Church, then those who are looking for renewal in the church may be disappointed. Benedict's implementation of Vatican II is very different from what many progressive Catholics still hope for.

These hopes may be dashed for another generation if a young, but very conservative, cardinal is elected to the papal throne. Then, again. anything can happen.can happen in a conclave.

When John XXIII, the recent and not the medieval one, was chosen the cardinals expected that because of his advanced age he would be only an interim pope, yet he boldly called the Second Vatican Council, which opened doors that have reshaped the face of Catholicism.

Benedict is a good theologian, with perhaps one of the finest minds in many centuries, yet he has disappointed many people, both Catholics and non-Catholics, by not dealing more openly and forthrightly with the issue of sexual abuse.

But we may have expected too much from this retiring man who nevertheless has left his mark on the church in eight short years, and may continue to do so for another generation though his successor.

Benedict has already promised not to interfere in papal affairs in the future. He plans to retire to a monastery located within in the walls of the Vatican. But his vision may continue to live on.

The Mater Ecclesiae Monastery where Benedict will live

The pope is honored as a great spiritual leader, but he is often dismissed because the church is not meeting the needs of women and other groups that cannot find their place in this still very large denomination -- one that represents more than a billion Christians.

The hope of further renewal in the Catholic Church is still possible in the next conclave that will select a successor to Benedict XVI.

But if Benedict gets his way, and the large majority of cardinals whom he appointed and who are eligible to vote, agree with him and elect a conservative pope similar to Benedict, then the future for the church does not look very bright for those who are seeking major renewal.

Many Catholics will no doubt disagree with me. I am an outsider who has a great respect for the Catholic Church, but I sense that it must change substantially in the 21st century or it will come under further attack.

What young people, women and many other groups are looking for today is a church that meets their needs. The Catholic Church too has many needs. However, it needs more than a new pope who can tweet. It needs a man with a vision for the future, not someone who looks largely to a glorious and storied past.

Next month the entire world will get the answer.

Monday, February 11, 2013

What's in a name?

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

What's in a name? you may ask. Are names really that important, or should we just agree with Shakespeare?

Names give us our identity; they tell us who we are and tell us among other things whether we will be on a no-fly list or not. If your name is Muhammad or Ali you are much more likely than I am to be on such a list.

Names are revealing. The can reveal our age, since some names are more fashionable than others at certain periods, at least in many countries. The popularity of names is an interesting phenomenon. It is difficult to explain why some names become popular and others less so.

They can also reveal much about our race, whether we are white or black or something in between, as if race really meant anything significant. Yet it is deemed important by the powers that be and is the basis for profiling.

They can reveal our nationality as well, even when one becomes hyphenated as I am, a Dutch-Canadian. What this means is that, like nearly everyone else, we came from somewhere, wherever that is. Yet this is deemed significant enough that people ask us, "Where are you from?" even when they only hear or see our names.

And names can reveal our sex, or should I say gender, since sex is considered an inappropriate word, at least for some people, but why should that be such a problem, since all of us are either male or female. As a result we treat one Pat differently from another Pat, since one is named Patrick and the other Patricia.

But still I wonder: What's in a name? Why are names so important, and at times even controversial?

Blaer (l) has been known only as "Girl" in official paperwork

A girl in Iceland has won the right to use her own name, Blaer, which means "breeze" in Icelandic but was not on the approved list of names since it was regarded as a man's name and not proper for a female.

In the Bible names are very important, since they do not only tell who these people were but they also reveal something significant about them, especially what they did.

Adam simply means "man" or "a man," while Eve means "life" or even"source of life." The Bible describes them as the first parents of the entire human race. Some scholars ask how real they were, and many of us wonder where and when they lived. 

Other biblical names are even more revealing.

Jacob, or "leg-puller" as he has been called since he was born after his brother Esau, Jacob later received a new name, Israel, which can possibly mean, "God fights/struggles," because he did fight with God.

Moses, according to some scholars, means "saved from the water," or as others surmise, "savior/deliverer." His name portends what he would do to save his people by bringing them out of Egypt to Canaan, the promised land.

Moses with Ten Commandments, by Rembrandt

Joshua, Moses' successor, who actually led the Israelites into the promised land, was also a savior as his name indicates. The Hebrew "Yehoshua" means "Yahweh is salvation."

Jesus is the English form of the Greek transliteration of "Yehoshua" (Ἰησοῦς). He was given the name Jesus because, as an angel prophecied, he would "save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). Christ is not a name but a title meaning "the anointed one."

There are many more names in the Bible that are revealing, but I will not list all of them. This sample will have to do to make my point that biblical names are important.

In other religions names are equally important. This is evident especially with the founders of these faiths.

The name Muhammad means "praiseworthy" and occurs four times in the Qur'an. It is a name that many of his followers have borne with honor. His chief title is messenger or prophet. In fact, Muhammad is called "The Seal of the Prophets" since he is Allah's final revelation to humanity.

Siddharta Gautama Buddha is another example he is the "Supreme Buddha," "Buddha" meaning "awakened/ enlightened one." Gautama is the primary figure in Buddhism.

In the twenty-first century, names are not as revealing as they were in these religions, but they are revealing nevertheless. Use this link, if you want to know more about the etymology and history of your first name.

When I taught in Russia, there seemed to be only a limited number of first names among my students. I had more than a few who were named Oleg or Olga (which are actually the masculine and feminine forms of the same name). But then came nicknames, like Sasha, which made the classroom resemble a Russian novel.

In contrast, African names are numerous and tricky. In Nigeria I rarely had two students with the same name and I could never tell if they were using first or family names. Nearly all had a tribal name in addition to their Christian or Muslim names.

Throughout Africa many people are named after the day they were born; thus Kofi Annan was probably born on a Friday. Or they are called a name that corresponds to their birth order, "first-born," etc.

What's in a name? Much more than many of us realize. A name is rarely an accident. There is often a story attached to many names, although often we never hear these stories.

I am named after my paternal grandfather, but the name does not go back any further, although there are many Dirks and Gerrits in previous generations, going back to early in the eighteenth century, which is as far back as I have been able to trace my family tree.

My youngest granddaughter, who was born recently, is named after my mother, who is still alive but in frail condition. The two, however, may possibly never meet, since they live about 700 kilometers apart. Even if they do, my granddaughter may not be old enough at the time to remember my mother. Yet what they will always share is a name.

Shakespeare may not have been right about the significance of names after all, although I know what he meant. He also got his history wrong at times, such as in his portrayal of King Richard III, as archaeologists recently discovered. Shakespeare, of course, had to humor the Tudors who had won the War of the Roses.

What's in a name? A great deal. Names do matter and are very important both for us and others.

What is most important, but I haven't mentioned yet, is this: God knows our names! He knows the name of each and everyone of us! Nothing else matters as much as this.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Droning on

" 'Put your sword back in its place,' Jesus said to him, 'for all who draw the sword will die by the sword' " (Matthew 26:52 NIV).

The White House said on Tuesday that US drone strikes on potential terrorist targets were "legal," "ethical" and "wise" and would continue. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney added that "the US government takes great care in deciding to pursue an Al Qaeda terrorist, to ensure precision and to avoid loss of innocent life."

Carney's comments came the day after a Department of Justice memo leaked the conditions under which drone strikes targeted at American citizens abroad would be viewed as legal.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney

The memo explains the conditions under which the government can order the killing of American citizens abroad: "If an informed, high-level official" determines that an individual is "a senior, operational leader of Al Qaeda or an associated force" and "poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States" and that the individual cannot be captured, then killing him or her would not violate the Constitution.

As if to make such a killing more palatable, the memo adds that the strike should be conducted "in a manner consistent with applicable law-of-war principles."

The 16-page document thus provides a legal framework for killing a terrorist overseas, without violating due process, even if that person is an American citizen.

Civil liberties groups immediately expressed their concerns. They describe the leaked memo as "flawed" and "profoundly disturbing."

I have already expressed some of my concerns about US drone policies in two earlier postings: "The (im)morality of war" and  "Obama's secret 'kill list." Today I want to go further in my critique of drones.

The white paper suggests that such decisions would not be subject to judicial review and outlines a broad definition of what constitutes "imminent" threat. Constitutional experts, however, responded that this definition does not hold up to scrutiny.

Critics of the administration immediately asserted that the memo is further evidence that the president has abandoned his 2008 campaign pledge to recognize and respect the limits of executive power.

On Monday eleven senators had already signed a letter formally requesting the administration to provide its legal justification for drone strikes to Congress. Apparently, this is the twelfth time that Congress has made such a demand.

Congress and the public, the senators claim, need to know whether the president has the necessary authority and whether that authority has been properly defined and how it is has been limited.

The leaked DOJ memo may be in response to their demand to provide justification for the use of drones to kill US citizens. But can the use of drones ever be justified to kill supposed terrorists?

Even some Democratic members of Congress have asked for reconsideration of the use of drones by the US to kill not just American citizens but the citizens of other countries as well.

The drone debate puts President Obama in the awkward position of carrying out lethal attacks in secret and bucking his political allies in the Democratic Party. Yet the use of drones did not seem to have any political cost to Obama in his re-election campaign.

Two weeks ago the United Nations announced a major new investigation into the use of drones and targeted assassinations by the US. The US is by far the leading user of drones and unmanned vehicles for targeted assassinations, but it is not the only one.

Drone use is expected to expand widely around the world. Other countries already have that capability. How will they use their drones? Whom will they try to kill? Americans?

This helps to explain the growing calls for the US to clarify its own internal rules for the appropriate use of drones. Drones are a dangerous technology, whose use has not been thought out as thoroughly as it should be.

The apparent tactical success of drones -- their ability to kill suspected terrorists without significant risk to American forces -- does not answer important questions about the strategic benefits of the program, or the broader strategic thinking behind it, as a new report recently released by the American Security Project explains.

My objection to the use of drones relates not just to their tactical use but especially to their strategic purpose.  Does the goal of defeating and destroying al Qaeda justify the use of drones? Does the killing of a supposed terrorist -- even an American one at that -- bring that objective much closer?

The price of success has been very steep. Every time non-combatant civilians are killed by a drone, which is dismissed euphemistically as collateral damage, potentially many new recruits are created for al Qaeda. 

The use of drones has fostered anti-American feelings in many countries and driven an enormous wedge between the US and several countries. 

The use of drones as part of the war on terror, a phrase that Obama has rejected, but which still lives in the minds of many people all over the world, has confirmed many Muslims in their conviction that this war is directed against them and their religion.

Both the White House and the critics of the administration miss the crucial point when they focus largely on the issue of the legality of the killing of Americans through the use of drones. They tend to ignore the strategic considerations that should be paramount.

I can understand why the administration wants to defend the tactical use of drones, since it seems to be very effective in fighting terrorism while protecting American lives. But it is the strategic objectives that they have lost sight of.

They must ask themselves several questions: Why are we doing this from a global perspective? What do we hope to gain when al Qaeda is gone? Have we made the world a safer place for everyone and not just for ourselves? Have we made enemies through the use of drones? And have we perhaps fostered so much anti-Americanism through their use that the US will become the target of such attacks in the future?

These are only a few questions that should be asked. There are many more. I pray that all these questions are considered carefully. Please pray with me. Remember what Jesus said about those who use the sword.

PS. A day after I wrote this post, the Department of Justice released the classified memos that members of Congress have asked for for a long time, just ahead of the confirmation hearing for John Brennan, Obama's nominee as CIA director.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The road to Sochi

The XXII Olympic Winter Games will begin about a year from now, on 7 February 2014. These are the first Olympics that Russia will host. The 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow were held in what was then the Soviet Union.

Sochi is located on the Black Sea. It is the warmest place in Russia. The summers are hot and humid.while the winters are mild. Temperatures drop below freezing for only one or two days in the year. In February the average low is only only about 3 degrees C (37 F). Thus it is hardly the optimum choice as the site for the Winter Olympics.

Prior to its selection in 2007, Sochi did not possess any world-class sports facilities. These have had to be built from scratch at enormous expense. They are still not finished, but the Russians seem to be on track to complete the project on time.

The projected cost of these Olympic are expected to be the highest ever (I have already heard $50 billion mentioned). The road from Sochi to Krasnaya Polyana, where the snow events will be held is reputed to be so expensive when completed that it could have been covered in its entirety with a layer of Russian black caviar (which sold last year for about $2,500 per pound) one cm thick.

This road is a metaphor for me of the choice of this subtropical city as the site for the 2014 games. Having visited Sochi some years ago, I was astounded when it was selected. There is snow in the mountains, but nothing is found in the city.

I lived in Moscow for many years and had the opportunity to visit Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana. My wife and I wanted to experience this famous city where the elite of Russia would go every year during the Communist period.

The flight from Moscow to Sochi alone was already an experience. This was on the domestic service of Aeroflot. But I use the word service cautiously.

Passengers were still walking the aisles on takeoff and some of the seats were not bolted down properly. One entered and left the plane via a staircase at the rear of the plane.

There were no seat assignments. Fortunately, the days when passengers had to run around the plane and then find a seat are long gone, but this was not much better.

Drinking started even before takeoff. I have heard of some long-distance flights in Russia where no meals were served and only liquid refreshment, primarily vodka, was available.

On the drive from the airport, which is located only a few kilometers from the border with Georgia, we were astounded by the sight of palm trees lining the roads.This was not the Russia that we had become familiar with.

We found a hotel where we only had to pay $11 per night for a room. A rather basic Russian breakfast was included. I suspect that this rate will not be available during the Olympics.

We traveled by bus to Krasnaya Polyana on roads that almost made our hearts stop. At many points our bus barely managed to navigate roads so narrow that a mountain towered over us on one side and a cliff dropped off on the other, with no road that we could see in between. The new road will be an enormous improvement over the old one (and much safer).

We were disappointed by the beaches. These were all pebbles, yet Russians will find a spot to lie down and soak up the sun, which shines there about 2,200 hours per year. Summer lasts for six months. In Moscow there is six months of winter.

Today the elite of Russia have impressive villas lining the shore of the Black Sea. President Putin and the Moscow Patriarch are only a few prominent Russians who have summer homes there.

A rocky beach in Sochi

A year before the Olympics and the accusation of widespread corruption are already flying furiously. Very prominent among these accusers is Boris Nemtsov, a leading Russian opposition figure.

Charges of corruption are hardly new in Russia. When we first arrived there, we were already prepared by having lived for a decade in the Philippines, but were nevertheless astounded by the extent of corruption in Russia.

Which country where we have taught for many years, the Philippines, Russia, and Nigeria, is the most corrupt is hard to determine. Stealing is stealing, regardless of the amount and pervasiveness of the theft. In some countries corruption is just done more openly than in others, and thus seems to be more prevalent.

Corruption is endemic in many countries, and sometimes it occurs even in rich countries such as Canada, but that does not excuse such behavior.

Thus it is hardly surprising that the Sochi Olympics, because of the huge amounts of money involved in the construction, have experienced so much corruption.

View of Krasnaya Polyana and the mountains

The conflict in Chechnya, which is only a stone's throw across the mountains, poses a potential security threat, but the Russian government is taking measures obviate this danger.

Appeasing the Chechens is hardly going to solve the longstanding problems of this volatile region. In the 19th century Tolstoy already realized how intractable the Chechen situation was.

To hold the 2014 Winter Olympics in a subtropical and volatile region seems foolish, but at this point that decision cannot be undone. The Russians will have their Olympics and, as expected and as their national pride dictates, they will clean up in the medal count. Other nations, such as Canada with its "Win the Podium" program, have done the same when their turn came.

I will not begrudge the Russians their Olympics next year, but I do question the wisdom of this choice, which I suspect was done for political reasons. Putin wanted the Olympic Games and he got them.

The road has been a long and expensive one, yet I wish the Russians success!