Saturday, April 30, 2011

A royal wedding and a Canadian election

     While I have never been an ardent monarchist, I developed a new appreciation for the monarchy when I watched the other day the wedding of "Wills and Kate," as they are popularly known. This young couple may yet rescue the British monarchy from the brink of disaster. This wedding was beautiful in so many ways that I will not even begin to enumerate them all. It shows both Britain and the Church of England at their very best. For all these reasons, I am very thankful. Moreover, and more to the point for this posting, I sense that there is a euphoria that has spread its wings not only in England but also throughout the world, including Canada.
    As you may know Canadians are going to the polls on Monday, May 2. Politicians like Prime Minister Stephen Harper have termed this an unnecessary and unwanted election, but it became necessary due to the vote of Parliament that held the government to be in contempt. Other politicians such as the leader of the opposition, Michael Ignatieff, did want this election, if only to show that many Canadians are unhappy with the current prime minister.
    Quite unforeseen by either politicians or pundits, the one politician whose star is shining the brightest in the closing hours of the election campaign is Jack Layton, the leader of the New Democratic party, which, if the election confirms the polls during the last week or so, may result in the NDP replacing the Liberals as the second-largest party in Parliament. Layton has dreams of becoming prime minister, if his party either wins a plurality of seats or is asked by the Governor-General to form a government, if and when the Conservatives lose a vote of confidence after the new Parliament is called into session.
    This assumes, of course, a Conservative minority government after the election. If the Conservatives do get a majority, the NDP will not be asked to form a government, but Layton could become the leader of the opposition, provided his party has enough seats. The NDP support could still collapse at the last moment, however, especially if the dirt thrown at Layton a few days ago by the Sun sticks. This has been a vicious campaign. In that case, Canada is back to the status quo, thus no change. Then a majority of Canadians will be very disappointed. But that is a weakness of the first-past-the-post system that Canada has. That is a topic for another time.
   These observations are generally accepted as valid by many pundits today. Many would also agree that this election is promising to bring change to Canada. Where they disagree is on the reasons why that change is coming. I won't enumerate these reasons now, since your daily newspaper can provide them for you, if only to discount the possibility of any change.
   I do want to suggest a new factor that ought to be considered: the royal wedding and the resulting euphoria that has now reached Canadian shores. In my discussions with an admittedly small group of people, I have come to the conclusion that the desire for change that Canadians are increasingly expressing is being amplified by this feeling of euphoria. People want a better world for themselves and their children. This wedding holds the promise of such a world, and this may carry over into the election. Admittedly, this is still only a hunch.
   May 2 will either confirm this desire for change or not. Of course, there will be no way to prove the euphoria factor, as I term it. But I doubt that this euphoria, if it persists, will cause Canadians to endorse five more years of Conservative government. In my opinion, that would be a tragedy. I may also be wrong about the future of the British monarchy as a result of the wedding of Wills and Kate. My opinions, ultimately, will not matter. But the future of Britain and Canada do matter greatly.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Religious extremism and how to counteract it

     I used the Holy Week break to read Miroslav Volf's new book, Allah, in which he argues convincingly that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I will not attempt to review this book today, but I do want to observe, as he does, that many Christians and Muslims find it difficult to accept a common deity. This attitude sometimes results in extremism. Thus the question arises: How can such extremism be counteracted? Terry Jones is a recent example of an extremist from the Christian side, but there are many more names that could be added, some very prominent, but most unknown. The Muslim list is probably equally long. In the last chapter, Volf suggests ten ways in which we can fight extremism, whether Christian or Muslim. Extremism has many causes, he explains: political, economic, cultural, religious, and so on. Thus a multi-pronged approach is required in response. He rejects the military option and questions the just war theory, since the criteria for a just war cannot be met today. While he wrote this book primarily for Christians, he invites Muslims to reflect on his proposal.
     Extremists, as Volf notes, are unreachable by reason, but he sketches an environment that will discourage extremism. I will list these ten ways, but try to explain them largely using my own words:
    1. Discourse about truth. In the post-modern age religious truth claims must not be discounted. Instead these claims should be debated in public in order to combat religiously-motivated violence.
    2. Acknowledgment of a common God. This is the heart of the book. If Christians and Muslims have a common God, they will share many values. Therefore, instead of accenting differences and promoting a "clash of civilizations," we must emphasize similarities, such as in the area of morality.
    3. Belief that God is loving and just. If God is loving and just, as both faiths agree, then it should be possible for Christians and Muslims to live together.
    4. Adherence to the command to love neighbors. Christians and Muslims today are often next door neighbors, which makes the divine imperative even more real. Moreover, Christians are commanded to love even their enemies. Thus there is no room for extremism.
    5. A healthy sense of the fear of God. The love of God ought to motivate us to place him above anything else, including our own religious communities and political visions if these limit our love for him in some way.
    6. A stand against injustice. As a friend once wrote, justice means more than "just us." It means that we must defend just solutions to the problems of others no matter what their faith, as in the Middle East, for example.
    7. A stand against prejudice. As I wrote in an earlier posting, we tend to demonize the "other" in order to fight them. Prejudice is one tool that we use to do so. Love and justice eradicate prejudice and exclude demonization.
    8. A stand against compulsion in religion. Freedom of religion will do much to counter extremism. Islam teaches this, but does not always practice it. Yet Christians must promote religious freedom, and not resort to extremism in turn.
    9. A stand against disrespect. Publishing the Danish cartoons and burning the Qur'an are symbols of disrespect that all Christians must reject emphatically and publicly protest when they do occur.
    10. A stand against political exclusivism. Love of God and neighbor demand political pluralism where all religious communities have equal rights to be heard and the state does not favor a particular religion.
    Implementation of these ten ways will go a long way to combating extremism. They will not eliminate it, of course, but they will help to reduce it and make our world a better place to live.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Demonizing the other

     You have no doubt learned already how human beings who are at war tend to demonize each other. Demonization is as old as the human species. The reason is simple: you cannot intentionally kill someone that you do not already hate. Hate lies at the root of the biblical commandment not to kill, as Jesus makes very clear. In warfare, killing is difficult, unless you first demonize the other. Why should I kill someone on the battlefield whom I do not know? If I knew him well, I might, instead, want to have a cup of coffee or share a beer with him. So I need to be told that he is a demon--someone evil, who wants to destroy everything I have and believe in, and, moreover, is not fully human. I don't want to discuss the psychology of demonization any further. Those who are experts in this area are better qualified to do that.
     My concern is how this phenomenon is playing out in our world today. Today there is a long list of potential candidates for demonization, and an even longer list of those who have been demonized in the past. Osama bin Laden might top the current list. Most of us are probably prepared to add a name or two ourselves. It is bad enough that we demonize someone who is now holed up in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thus Western nations have, to varying degrees, supported the war against al-Qaeda and and the Taliban. Are these efforts justified? I believe not.
     But what is even more reprehensible is when this demonization takes place of the leaders in our own countries. In this case, we know the people involved, not necessarily personally, but we see them regularly on TV. Barak Obama is a an example. The "birthers" in the US who deny that the president was born in the USA and, moreover, insist that he is a Muslim, are practicing the dark art of demonization. They hate the president and will do anything to destroy him. Unfortunately, there are many other people in the US who hate the president as well, for many reasons, including racism.
     Canada is not free of demonization either. Witness the current election campaign, where the leaders of the major parties attack each other not only in terms of policies but also personalities. The Conservative ads that questioned Michael Ignatieff''s loyalty to Canada are a prime example here. These ads started even before the  campaign kicked off officially. The Liberals, in turn, have attacked Stephen Harper, but with less vehemence and effect, since Harper is a known quantity, while Ignatieff is still largely unfamiliar to the average Canadian. In both cases, there are attempts at demonizing opponents. This is done not merely to encourage voters to vote against their opponents but even more to enlist supporters to come out and fight the enemies of the party.
    I would like to see the elimination of any ads that attack personalities. Policies are fair game, but let's practice charity rather than demonization. In a democracy, there is no place for the latter. Let us demonstrate that in this election by voting for parties that reject demonization in any form, whether at home or abroad. In politics or foreign affairs, let us love our neighbor. To use a slogan from the sixties, "Make love, not war."

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Elections and democracy

    Canada is in the middle of a federal election campaign. Unfortunately, the issues that are being raised by the leaders of the major political parties are not necessarily the ones that are most crucial to many Canadians. Politicians cater to what they think voters want to hear by making promises to various interest groups. In fact, they are buying votes with the voters' own money. 
   One issue that has been largely ignored is one that may not resonate with many voters, but is important, not least to me, is Canada's foreign policy. This policy is reflected in the decline in Canada's image in the world. One example of this poor image is Canada's inability a few months ago to gain a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. This is the first time this has ever happened. Canada lost because of its foreign policy, especially its unwavering support of Israel, which alienated many UN members.
     The recent developments in the Middle East also illustrate this. The last few years Canada has neglected Africa. The only exception is Canada's recent involvement in Libya on behalf of the rebels. But this decision was taken without proper political consultation at home. While one can question the nature of this involvement, as I do, I applaud the fact that Canada is siding with those in Libya who are fighting for democracy, but this involvement is ironic when it is viewed form the perspective of what is happening in Canada.
     This election was prompted by a motion of non-confidence in the Conservative government as the result of numerous charges of contempt for parliament made against the government. The other political parties are charging that democracy is under attack in Canada. Without sounding too partisan, there is some truth to these charges. The Conservative came into power five years ago on a platform of transparency and accountability. These charges, on the contrary, indicate the opposite: a government that is highly secretive and evasive. 
    What is needed in this election is an open and frank discussion of these charges. But that has not happened, in spite of attempts by the opposition parties to do so in this week's debates, especially during the French-language debate, where foreign policy was also touched on. The governing party brushes these charges off as politically motivated and thus without substance. End of story.
     Similarly, the Conservatives have refused to debate their foreign policy. They deny that Canada has a negative image abroad. Having lived abroad myself for many decades, I have seen the decline in this image, especially during the last few years. Why is foreign policy not being debated very much? The simplest answer is that foreigners don't vote in Canadian elections; also, few Canadians are very concerned about this issue. They are more motivated by bread-and-butter issues, precisely those that politicians of whatever stripe are trying to cultivate to their own advantage.
     What I am pleading for is an openness and a willingness to discuss in a serious way the issue of foreign policy. It is ironic, as I have already indicated, that some politicians are raising the issue of the erosion of democracy in Canada, precisely while the Canadian government is involved in defending those who are striving for democracy in Libya. What these politicians have not done is connect these two issues. What is needed, but will not happen during this election campaign, is an open and frank discussion of foreign policy, and to do so in conjunction with an honest debate about the state of democracy in Canada. The irony continues.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The world in which we live

     The German philosopher Leibnitz has called this "the best of all possible worlds." I will not attempt to address the question of multiple universes that some physicists are postulating today. Yet we do know this world in which we are living at present is not perfect. Far from it! When God created it, however, he declared that it was "good."  But the daily killings in Libya and elsewhere testify loudly to the contrary that ours is a very broken world. As you may know, many Christians attribute this brokenness to the Fall. In spite of its brokenness, however, it is the only world we have. It's the best we have got for moment, at least until God restores it. Here is where we now live and where God is calling us to love him and our neighbor.
     As in recent developments in the Middle East, we must see the light of renewal and change breaking through the gloom that seems to dominate this world. This light is still faint, perhaps; moreover, it requires the eyes of faith in order to see it. But this light is real and a portent of greater things still to come. It is appropriate that, at least in the northern hemisphere, spring has now broken. For Christians, in addition, Easter is just around the corner. Christ's resurrection assures us that not only will we experience that resurrection in our bodies but the whole world will one day be renewed. It will be resurrected, as it were.
     This is how I see these developments in the Mediterranean world. Very clearly they are not that final renewal, but they do contain the seeds of a restored world that will become evident some day. They are signs that are there to comfort us as well as assure us that this world does not belong to the Evil One but only to the one God who created each and everyone of us and who is restoring it. We are all human beings. This is one thing that unites all of us. Since this is the only world there is, we must, therefore, learn to share it and live in peace with each other. This is not easy, but such attempts are also tiny portents of what is to come.
     Although my focus is especially on religion, this blog will deal with the problems that we are facing in this world today. In this "global village" in which we live, where we deluged with news, often of a catastrophic nature, as the triple whammy that hit Japan: first an earthquake, then a tsunami, and finally major radiation problems that are still not over. What a litany! How should we address this triple whammy? I will leave that to a future posting.
     I am writing this blog as a Christian to Christians, but not only for them. Thus I invite those who are not Christians to look over my shoulder and to respond as well to what I am saying here. Yet I want to issue the standard disclaimer that these are my personal remarks and thus should not be attributed to other Christians, especially those who do not agree with everything that I am writing. Please comment, therefore, with these remarks in mind.
     You don't have to read each of these postings, but they are listed in order, with the latest first. To select another posting please scroll through the blog archive. Enjoy.

The Middle East and the role of religion

     The Arab world is in ferment as it has never been before, at least in recent times. First we had Tunisia, then Egypt quickly followed. Now we have Libya, not to mention other countries that have been largely eclipsed by the virtual civil war there. What the results will be, God only knows. Democracy, if that is indeed one result, will no doubt take different forms in each of these countries, not to mention any differences from various Western forms, since these too are not identical.
     What is noteworthy already, is the new role that religion can potentially play in Western perceptions of these developments. The role of religion in the West has been changing for a long time. Once religion was dismissed as irrelevant and not allowed to play a role in the public square. Increasingly, however, there has been a recognition that religion can no longer be ignored entirely. Religion belongs to the human DNA. We are created as religious beings. Secularism, of course, denies this, but today this denial is being questioned more and more, in part because of these recent developments in the Middle East. Islam teaches that life and religion are inseparable. But now many in the West are being confronted with a face of Islam that has not been ignored before. They are faced with the reality of a faith that integrates religion with the rest of life. The Christian faith does this too, but that teaching has been forgotten by many Christians. One result is that Islam, and Muslims in general, should no longer be quickly dismissed as "evil." That would not be fair to them. We may quibble about how that integration should take place, but not its necessity. There is much that we in the West can and, indeed, must learn from Muslims.
     For decades, Islam was demonized in the West, so that some people today still think that all Muslims are potential terrorists. Witness former President Bush's misguided "war on terror." But now people witness many Muslims who are willing to sacrifice their lives, if necessary, in order win freedom for themselves and their children. Western-supported tyrants are being overthrown, and people can now see Muslims who are like them and who only want to live in freedom and enjoy the wealth of their nation--wealth that was too often being siphoned off by these tyrants with the tacit support of Western governments.
     Whether everyone in the West will be prepared to accept Muslims more than before as a result of what is now happening in the Middle East still remains to be seen. I, for one, firmly believe that Christians and Muslims (as well as Jews) worship the same God. Thus all of us must seek to build bridges rather than destroying each other with all kinds of weapons, including the most deadly one of all: words. Love must replace hatred. Then and only then will we be able to live together in peace and harmony, as God intended.
    I will develop many of these themes, as well as others, further in future postings on this blog. Please feel free to respond by commenting directly in the comment box, going to my Facebook page, or you may even write me privately at