Saturday, August 27, 2011

Farewell Jack Layton: Canada's most loved politician


Jack Layton (1950-2011)

My friends, love is better than anger.
Hope is better than fear.
Optimism is better than despair.
So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic.
And we’ll change the world.
(Excerpt from Layton's last letter to Canadians, two days before his death)

   The words "loved"and "politician" are rarely brought together in this order in the same sentence. Yet an exception can be made for Jack Layton, who died on August 22, 2011, after a brief bout with a newly discovered but undisclosed form of cancer. His death has led to an outpouring of grief that Canada has not witnessed before in living memory.
   Many never knew the man personally, and many more never voted for him as a politician. But in death they demonstrated their love for him.              
   Canadians from every walk of life gathered throughout this country to pay their last respects to this amazing man. They signed books of commemoration across the country, stood in line for hours to view his casket in Ottawa and Toronto, chalked a memorial to him at Toronto City Hall, lined the streets of Toronto to see the funeral procession, and thronged into Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto where the funeral was held.

   What makes this outpouring of grief so remarkable is that Jack (as everyone called him) was the leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP), a mildly socialistic political party, at least by Canadian standards. Some Americans might want to call him a Communist, but he was not. The best way to describe him is as a lifelong fighter on behalf of the underdog.
   He was born into a Christian family. Although he was not overtly religious, he is remembered as a deeply spiritual man, whose commitment to a caring society was rooted in the Christian faith.
   His pastor said in a radio interview that Jack viewed each day as a day of worship. Rev. Brent Hawkes of Metropolitan Community Church officiated at the funeral, which was planned according to Jack's instructions.
   He was born in Montreal and grew up in Hudson, not far from Montreal. He had an instinctive grasp of the aspirations of the people of Quebec. This contributed to the NDP winning more seats than ever before in the last federal election; his party won a total of 103 seats in parliament, and made him the leader of the official opposition.
   My purpose is not to eulogize Jack, but rather to examine what made him stand out from the crowd of other politicians, and made him the most loved politician in Canada, in death if not already in life.
   He had a way of electrifying crowds. In the two televised debates (one in English and the other in French) he related to the viewers in a way that won him many seats not only in Quebec but throughout Canada as well.
   What explains this phenomenon? The short answer seems to be that he gave people hope. He had a vision and he conveyed that vision to others. In this way he gave them the hope they needed. He also loved people.
   Hope is in short supply today. People everywhere gravitate towards those who have a vision of hope. President Obama's election slogan, "Yes We Can," inspired people. Jack did the same.
   When it came to hope, he knew what he was talking about. He had a PhD in political science. He had studied under George Grant, and later he became a professor at Ryerson University, where he wrote a book on homelessness. More recently he wrote a book on public policy. He also fought cancer for many years.
   He acquired the art of compromise as a member of Toronto City Council. That is where he met his second wife, Olivia Chow. They formed a team at City Hall and later in Ottawa, where Olivia is also a Member of Parliament.
   Jack loved people. He showed this by speaking to them in their own language. He was a first-rate public speaker in both of Canada's official languages. He spoke good, but colloquial, French.
   He even spoke some Cantonese, although he got into trouble once when he wanted to thank his mother-in-law at a dinner, but said instead (by using the wrong tones), "Thank you for the good sex." Nevertheless, the Chinese community adopted Jack. They loved him, just as he loved them.

Jack bicycled everywhere in Toronto and Ottawa, even in the snow
    He also shard his optimism. In the letter he issued shortly before his death he sought again to inspire Canadians, in particular the youth, to change Canada, and by extension the world. For decades he inspired several generations to follow in his footsteps.
    The NDP will choose a new leader, probably early in the new year. But finding a leader with Jack's charisma will be difficult. He was their Moses who led them to the border of the promised land, though he was not allowed to enter it.
    In the last election campaign he walked with a crutch because of a hip replacement. He had also fought prostrate cancer for a long time. He was the star of the election campaign, and an inspiration to cancer sufferers everywhere. Now this fighter has succumbed to an undisclosed cancer.
Casket lying in state in the rotunda of Toronto City Hall

    Whether Jack saw that hope in biblical terms, we will probably never know. There are many such texts, some of which he may have remembered from his childhood.
   I suspect, however, that he may have memorized the lines from Alexander Pope about hope:
Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
(An Essay on Man, Epistle I, 1733)
   What Jack believed about eternal life is up for grabs. In an interview with the CBC, his pastor gave his own view, "Whatever that means to you."
   Nevertheless, he inspired numerous Canadians and gave them a reason for hope in this life. Eternal life, after all, begins now already for believers.
   Jack thought his life had been well-lived, though he admitted having made many mistakes. But who of us has not made mistakes. It is what we do with our lives in spite of these mistakes that matters. 
   Jack indeed lived a good life, and now even in death he continues to inspire people. At his family's request, his funeral was called, "A Celebration of Life." More than 1,700 guests were invited to the service at Roy Thomson Hall; another 600 members of the public. who started lining up the previous afternoon, attended inside the building as well.
   I walked near the casket as it was brought from Toronto City Hall to Roy Thomson Hall. Thousands of people watched the service on widescreens set up in a park outside the hall. It was also televised nationally on many networks. Unfortunately, I too had to watch the service in the park, since I could not get into the hall.
Jack's children, Mike and Sarah, embrace as they deliver their eulogy at his funeral

   Stephen Lewis brought the main eulogy at the funeral. He closed with these stirring words:
   "When my wife and I met with the family a few hours after Jack died, Olivia said, as she said in the video, that we must look forward to see what we all can accomplish together.
    I loved Jack's goodness and his ideals in equal measure. Watching all of you react so genuinely to his death, the thousands upon thousands who lined up for hours to say a last goodbye in Ottawa and Toronto, it's clear that everyone recognized how rare and precious his character was.
   We're all shaken by grief but I believe we're slowly being steadied by a new resolve and I see that resolve in words written in chalk and in a fresh determination on people's faces. A resolve to honour Jack by bringing the politics of respect for all, respect for the Earth and respect for principle and generosity back to life.
    My wife Michele reminded me of a perfect quote from the celebrated Indian novelist, activist and feminist Arundhati Roy. Jack doubtless knew it. He might have seen it as a mantra. 'Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing.'"

   Jack would also have approved of what Brent Hawkes said about him, "Folks, it's amazing to pay tribute to him. But now it's time to get to work."

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The price of food and the famine in the Horn of Africa

 If you have visited your local grocery store lately, you will not have escaped noticing the rising price for food. Unless you are living on the edge of the poverty in North America or Europe, however, this increase is easily measurable but still bearable. Many of us adapt by searching for a cheaper item or we forgo the purchase. 
   We survive. In fact, very few people in the more developed parts of the world starve. An extensive social welfare system in most countries protects us from that.
   But for those who live in the Horn of Africa the rising prices can be fatal. There more than 12 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian aid, and 40% of children under five are suffering from acute malnutrician. I have already written about this crisis before, so I will not belabor those facts and the great need that exists there.
   My concern today is to examine these rising prices with the famine in part of Africa. I will show that there is a connection.

   These rising prices are a global phenomenon. While the global food prices were reasonable throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they have been climbing steadily since 2000. Global food prices reached a historic high in February of this year, surpassing the spikes of 2007-2008, which were then the highest in 20 years.
   And while the current prices are in part related to bad weather in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere, other significant factors are high energy prices, increasing use of grain for biofuels in the U.S.and elsewhere, and export restrictions on food.
   Food prices in Somalia are now often three times as high as the normal, making these goods inaccessible to much of the population. 
   A volatile global food supply is deepening the humanitarian catastrophe in the Horn of Africa, the World Bank reported recentlyShortages and near-historic prices for staples such as corn, wheat and sugar have magnified the impact of the drought now ravaging the Horn of Africa.
   "While the emergency in the Horn of Africa was triggered by prolonged droughts, especially in areas struggling with conflict and internal displacement such as Somalia, food prices that are near the record high levels seen in 2008 also contributed to the situation," the World Bank stated.
   Finally, large land leases (or "land grabs") to foreign governments and corporations in the Horn have further exacerbated this problem. These farms, designed solely for export production, effectively subsidise the food security of other regions of the world (most notably the Middle East and Asia) at the expense of local populations.
   The problem is not the growth in population, as postulated by the British philosopher Thomas Malthus in "An Essay on the Principle of Population" in 1798. Since then people have been concerned that human population growth will outstrip the available food supply. 
   But that is not the case in the Horn of Africa. They lack access to contraceptives, but most Somalis need children since they are a crucial source of farm labor and an important source of family income. They also provide a social security system. 
   For these families having fewer children is, therefore, not an option at present. Yet as their economic situation improves, they too will eventually have fewer children.
   Thus over-population cannot be blamed as the major reason for the current famine. Nor can drought by itself be ascribed as the chief source of the problem. There are many causes, and no single factor alone can explain it entirely.

   The main reason for this famine is the high price of food worldwide. This is intensifying a recurrent problem. The shortages and record prices have exacerbated the drought, and all the other factors mentioned thus far.
   In global terms, food prices last month were on average 33% higher than a year ago, the report added. Corn, or maize, has risen by 84%; sugar 62% and wheat 55%.
   The price rises were particularly severe in Africa. Corn prices doubled in Kampala, Mogadishu and Kigali over the last year, the World Bank report stated. And sorghum prices increased more than fourfold over last year in parts of Somalia.
  The report blamed the soaring prices on poor local harvests as well as shrinking global food stocks. Corn stocks were at their lowest levels since the 1970s creating a situation in which "even small shortfalls in yields can have an amplified effects on prices."
   Another factor that adds to the potential upward pressure on the price of maize is the diversion into the production of biofuels." Aid organisations have also connected rising food prices to the use of food crops for energy.
   Some prices had fallen back slightly since last February, the report noted, but it warned that the volatility still left the most vulnerable populations, as in the Horn of Africa, dangerously exposed.
   "Persistently high food prices and low food stocks indicate that we're still in the danger zone, with the most vulnerable the least able to cope," added the bank's president, Robert Zoellick.
  An economist in Kenya, Wolfgang Fengler, explained further: "The famine in the Horn of Africa is a result of artificially high prices for food and civil conflict than natural and environmental causes. This crisis is man-made. Droughts have occurred over and again, but you need bad policymaking for that to lead to a famine."
  All the factors mentioned play a role. Civil conflict also exacerbates the problem, but it too is not a primary cause of the famine. It merely compounds what is already catastrophic in nature. Moreover, it hampers the distribution of aid.

   Blaming rising food prices does not offer us an excuse to stop providing aid to the famine victims. We cannot argue that we don't have any money left to give. Other people are suffering much more than we ever will. 
   Instead, let us give thanks for what we have received (even if it costs more). And then let us try to help the people in the Horn of Africa, among others, who need our help. We must provide relief for those who are suffering the most.

   Let us also work for justice, so that those who are contributing the most to the rising prices of food will be exposed. Just as Charles Dickens exposed the social conditions that prevailed in Victorian England, we need to do the same in our own societies. 
   We can start with ourselves and ask whether we have added to the misery of those living (and dying) in the Horn through our actions or inactions. Just because we cannot afford that bottle of wine that was recommended by a friend, does not mean that we are suffering in any way. 
   We also need to put pressure on our legislators so that legislation that can help to resolve the problem of rising prices. Pressure needs to be exerted at every level, municipal, state/provincial, federal, and international.

What does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
(Micah 6:8)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Problems with democracy

“The complaints of Plato and Aristotle concerning the character of democracy are as relevant today as they were in their time.”--Unknown

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”--Winston Churchill

   Democracy is under attack today without many people being aware of the problem. Unlike the last century, when it was attacked from outside by National Socialism and Communism, today it is under attack from within, both in the U.S. and in other countries that call themselves democracies.
   The U.S. claims to have the best form of democracy, but that claim is increasingly being called into question by the citizens of other democratic countries. Now the "Arab Spring" has raised hopes for many living under authoritarian regimes in northern Africa and the Middle East that they too may taste the fruits of democracy, but they are not sure that the American model is what they want.
   Plato and Aristotle questioned the nature of democracy more than two thousand years ago already. Admittedly, they did not understand it the way we do today. For them democracy meant "mob rule," and thus they criticized it vociferously. They feared the tyranny of the majority. Their preference was for something aristocratic or, as for Aristotle, of a mixed nature.
   My allusion to them is not to point to specific criticisms they might have of today's democratic institutions, but rather to the questions they raise about the very nature of democracy. If democracy is indeed "mob rule," why would anyone want it? But the questions they raise are still pertinent today.
   Plato, when he mapped out the constitution of his utopian society, assigned the role of ruling society to the "philosopher kings." These were the best and most well-informed minds who could best direct the ship of state.
   A state also requires a competent citizenry who have received a good education. Unfortumately, the demos, or people, are incapable of ruling themselves, since they cannot make rational decisions. Thus the need for "philosophers," those who love only wisdom and have no great desire to rule.
   Aristotle, who made a study of different constitutions, classifies democracy as a deviant form of constitution.
He did not reject it entirely, but wanted the best minds to rule the state. They would come from a middle class that included both the rich and the poor.
   This mixed constitution would share features of democracy, oligarchy, and aristocracy. In his ideal constitution, the citizens would be fully virtuous. Aristotle's vision is broader than that of Plato, his teacher, but it still treats democracy as a second-best.
   These brief sketches cannot begin to do justice to the thought of these great philosophers, but they do reveal the difficulties that both had with democracy. It is their questioning spirit that is important to me at this moment rather than the details of their political thought, which are still disputed by contemporary scholars.
   Today we have made an idol of democracy. We assume it to be the best form of government, which in many ways it is, certainly as compared to other forms of polity. But there can be problems with democracy, particularly as it manifests itself in the American and British forms that many of us enjoy.
   Winston Churchill was more matter-of-fact about democracy. He would have recognized many of the problems that afflict us today, yet he preferred it to other forms. I do too, but that doesn't mean that I am blind to these problems. Such a blindness is what I mean by idolatry: we idolize our system of government, and no longer recognize its limitations and weaknesses.

Pigs will fly when Republicans and Democrats are able to compromise

   You would think that Americans would ask some serious questions after the drama surrounding the debt limit crisis in Washington. Many Americans are intent on blaming the president, or either the Republicans or the Democrats. But they do not seem to raise any questions about the system itself.
  There is a polarization in the U.S. that far exceeds that in any other democracy. This polarization finds its roots in a political system that recognizes only two parties. This creates an "us vs. them" mentality, where "us" is good, and "them" is bad. The U.S. has become a "fifty-fifty" country, with very few Americans sitting on the fence. This is not healthy.
   The resolution of the recent debt limit crisis was not really a compromise. It was a sellout to the Tea Party wing of the Republican party.
   If Plato and Aristotle were worried about the tyranny of the majority, the U.S. problem is a tyranny of the minority--the tail is wagging the dog.
   Moreover, the U.S. has a system in which congressmen and -women, who are elected for only two years at a time, are so concerned with being re-elected that they live in their districts much of the time and see their role largely as bringing home the "bacon."
   I am not trying to denigrate the American system, but rather raising some pertinent questions. No doubt there are Americans who do raise these questions as well, but their voices are drowned out by politicians on both the left and the right and their ideological supporters.
   In the U.S., don't forget that even the most conservative Democrat is still to the left of the most liberal Republican. Don't forget either that the money President Obama raised for his own election would have paid for the entire election in the U.K.

Canadian House of Commons

   A similar polarization is taking place in Canada. The recent federal election witnessed some of the worst in negative advertising that was ever seen. Even though Canada currently has three major political parties, the division between the right and the left is beginning to resemble that in the U.S. This is an unhealthy development.
   In the parliamentary system, the different parties sit on two sides of the aisle, but they have traditionally been able to get along with each other. For one thing, they take turns governing or sitting in opposition, and sometimes, even having to form a coalition. Somehow they were, until quite recently, able to attack each other on the floor of the House of Commons, but soon after they get together for a coffee or a beer.
   In Canada today this polarization resulted in the election of a Conservative government at the federal level as well as that of a new mayor in Toronto.
   Rob Ford is a divisive figure whom people either love or hate. He has managed to polarize the city council, in which there are officially no parties, but councilors are labelled as either right or left. Only the right get positions in Ford's administration.
   The polarization in the U.S. thus has spilled across the border and infected large parts of Canadian society.

CCTV surveillance cameras

   The "mother of parliaments" in the U.K. has its problems as well. The recent riots there illustrate that. The current government is a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal-Democrats. The British parliament system operates with a similar camaraderie that existed in Canada until recently.
   The riots, however, have led to the erosion of civil rights in the U.K. David Cameron, he prime minister, announced that people who were involved in the riots have been threatened with eviction from social housing units, while CCTV kept a "big brother" eye on everyone, especially in London and other major cities. People are being arrested and charged on the basis of this video evidence. Many in the U.K. applaud these measures.
   Thankfully, Nick Clegg, who is the deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal-Democrats, has injected a note of sanity into the debate by announcing a "riot payback" scheme to make looters and rioters face their victims and carryout community service rather than going to jail.
   This restitution is an example of the restorative justice for which I have pleaded for in an earlier post.
   Just when it seemed that the British parliament would succumb totally to such anti-democratic measures, we read about Clegg's proposal. Maybe democracy is still working in the U.K.
   Democracy still functions in America and Canada as well, but it is under attack in all these countries and many more that identify themselves as democracies. It has many problems.
   My purpose is just to raise some important questions. You don't have to agree with me, but please think carefully about the issues that I have raised. I have barely begun to scratch the surface, but I do hope that I have awakened a few people and alerted them to these problems.
   If you can improve my arguments, please feel free to do so. And then pass on the message.
   I intend to use this blog not only to inform but also to provoke serious thinking about some topics.
   For further reading about democracy and the problems facing it today you should consult

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Faith (or the lack thereof) and the U.K. riots

    The recent riots in the U.K. have mortified that country, and have shocked the rest of the world. The images of burning buildings and widespread looting have been seared into brains worldwide for several days in a row. Everywhere people are asking, "Why?" What can explain the murder and mayhem in merry, old England?

    The U.K. has witnessed riots before, so has France, and, more recently, the U.S. and Canada. But those riots  either had a racial component or were caused by rambunctious youth after their favorite team had won or, sometimes, lost an important game.
    These riots also bear no resemblance either to those earlier this year in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and now Syria. They are totally different.
    In the U.K. politicians of every stripe have universally condemned the riots, but their analyses are as divergent as their political ideologies. Yet there is more than enough blame to go around. Left and right, respectively, have blamed everything from public spending cuts to pure criminality; in the latter case, it is claimed, any further explanation would be to excuse the culprits.

    But that reasoning is too simplistic. First and foremost, there has been a breakdown of the barriers that prevent most youngsters from running amok. In the minds of the rioters, an inherent sense of right and wrong, shame, and concern for their job and education prospects, seem no longer to exist. 
    Because of the changing nature of the economy, there is indeed a shortage of low-skilled jobs. But there has also been a crumbling of family structures and discipline. A moral malaise has gripped a minority of young Britons.
    The cracks in British society—economic and moral—have opened up, and they are deeper than many realize. The youth today see politicians who pad their expenses, or bankers who fiddle with their bonuses. And thus some of them see no reason not to help themselves as well. Those who were arrested include not only young "hoodlums" but also university graduates, and even a law student.
    In contrast to this sense of self-entitlement of some Britons, the response of people of faith in England, in some cases recent immigrants, has been astounding. If the former typify those who evidence a lack of faith, the latter demonstrate that faith has not yet died in England.

Tarik Jahan with a photo of his son

    Tarik Jahan is truly a man of faith. His son, Haroon, was one of three young men who were murdered by a hit-and-run driver in Birmingham during the riots. But Jahan did not call for revenge, nor did he use the occasion of his son's death to denounce everything that was wrong in British society.
    Instead, he made an open and straightforward declaration of his faith, "I’m a Muslim. I believe in divine fate and destiny, and it was his destiny and his fate, and now he’s gone. And may Allah forgive him and bless him." 
    An article in the Economist described him this way: "Like the great majority of Muslims in this country, Mr. Jahan is hard-working, clean-living, guided in his conduct by religious belief, and unshakable in his devotion to the ideal of family life."
    Another clear expression of faith occurred when more than 700 Sikhs lined up to defend their temples from potential arsonists. Sikhs have a proud tradition of valuing each human being, male and female, as equal in God’s eyes. Theirs is a religion in which the family is paramount.
    Whether Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, or Christians, there are still many parents in the U.K. who have instilled into their children the importance of working hard for money to buy things, rather than hurling a brick through a shop window to help themselves.
   Paramount too among their values would be a sense of altruism--a concern for others--that could not be more different from the sense of self-entitlement that been so grotesquely on display in London and elsewhere.
   These altruistic children come largely from religious families. All the main religions are unshakable when it comes to teaching about right and wrong--not stealing, not harming others, not coveting goods, not seeking instant gratification, and so on.
   Many years ago, I read an article in the Atlantic entitled, "Can We Be Good Without God?" ( The author came out strongly in favor.
   But in the U.K. and many other countries people have decided that they no longer need God, and have tried to eliminate him from the public arena. That they have not succeeded entirely is by God's grace. 
Richard Dawkins

    Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have provided the intellectual tools that a whole generation of parents, who felt they did not need God, could use bolster their arguments. At the risk of mixing metaphors, their chickens have now come home to roost.
   The symptoms of this malaise are evident everywhere, and not just in the U.K. The riots there are just the latest example.
   Aside from politicians and bankers who use the public purse to benefit themselves, there are many others today who have lost their moral compass.
   Our contemporary "gods" are the stars of the entertainment and sports worlds, whose talents do not always justify their outrageous salaries, but a whole generation (or generations) seemingly worships them.
   Muslims are not entirely wrong when they accuse Christians of promoting secularism and immorality. Cries to the contrary are not enough. Christians must demonstrate their faith in the way they live. Islam emphasizes orthopraxy or right living.
   In the riots in the U.K., Muslims and Sikhs were singled out by the media for their faith. Their response has provided an example to a nation and a world where faith is often lacking.

Prime Minister David Cameron in the House of Commons on August 11

   David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the U.K., identifies himself as a Christian. In the debate in the House of Commons last week he condemned the rioters in very forceful language, "And to the lawless minority, the criminals who've taken what they can get. I say: We will track you down, we will find you, we will charge you, we will punish you. You will pay for what you have done."

   As I am writing this, more than 1,400 people have been arrested, and some have already been convicted and sentenced. Yet I ask, is punishment the best and most appropriate response? 
   In the case of the Vancouver riots, I argued for restitution. As it turns out, not a single rioter or looter there has been charged so far, in spite of the existence of numerous photos and videos. Apparently, there are major differences in the legal system in Canada and the U.K .that help to explain this.
   Restitution should be considered in the U.K. Is it appropriate to convict an 11-year old girl, or people who were caught up in the heat of moment and did things they immediately regretted?
   Perhaps the parents of those who have been arrested, especially if they are underage, should be held liable in some way. After, they probably neglected to inculcate their children with moral values.
   Tarik Jahan has modeled appropriate behavior after the murder of his son. He is more "Christian" than many people in the U.K. He is a man of faith, and Christians should emulate him.

The three young men killed in Birmingham, including Haroon

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God?

    Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the three major Abrahamic religions. Together they number more than 3.8 billion people or about 55% of the worlds population (Christians, 32.3%; Muslims 22.9%; Jews, 0.2%). They are closely related, closer than many people realize.
    Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God? The answer is, to use the medieval Latin title of Peter Abelard's famous book, Sic et Non (Yes and No), which was an exercise in dialectical logic intended for his students.

    This is not an abstract question suitable only for logicians. It has been asked innumerable times, and is more often than not answered in the negative. Yet the answer is more important for us than ever, especially after the "Arab Spring."
    When former President Bush stated publicly some years ago that "we worship the same god," he was attacked by the religious right in the U.S., which affirms the contrary. I suspect that many Christians today will agree with this negative stance. Moreover, many Muslims would also answer this question with a resounding, no.
    In spite of this ocean of negativity, I will answer, yes (but with some qualifications and a necessary correction).
    The primary qualification and correction relates to the way the question is framed: Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God? The word "same" is ambiguous. Is this what we mean: Do all Jews or all Christians or all Muslims worship the same God?
    The answer to that question is clearly, no; there are many different conceptions of God among Christians, for example. Some visualize him as a stern, angry, bearded patriarch, who saves only a faithful few; others describe him as a loving Father, who will save everyone; while still others find themselves somewhere in between.

    Hence, I prefer to pose the question this way: Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship a common God? Each faith, by tracing itself back to its roots in Abraham, can acknowledge that the God they now worship in their own distinctive way was once one and the same.
    According to Muslims, Abraham was haneef, which means someone who believes in and serves only Allah. Jews and Christians can say something similar. Thus God is common to all of them. This formulation of the question allows room for different conceptions of God, not only between these faith but also among individual believers.
    I added Jews to this question because many Christians are prepared to acknowledge them as believers in the same God they believe in. Yet these same Christians want to exclude Muslims. This attitude has hardened post 9/11. We have demonized Muslims today, with enormous repercussions for interfaith dialogue and, perhaps more crucially at present, for working together with Muslims in strengthening democracy in the Middle East.
    He was at one time the same God of all believers, as even Muslims who are emphatic in their "no" will admit. Yet they immediately add that Christianity has misinterpreted belief in Allah through the doctrine of the Trinity.
    Christians, they charge, have corrupted the original revelation from God, and thus they affirm the Trinity, and related to this, the divinity of Christ, who for Muslims is only a prophet, though an important one.

A well-known symbol of the Trinity 

    Jews, Christians, and Muslims are united in many ways. I want to list some of them, at least according to their official teachings.
    1. There is only one God. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all monotheists. The worship of any other god is idolatry.Whether in the form of the Jewish "Shema"--"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Deuteronomy 6:4)--or the "Shahada" of the Muslim--"There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messanger of God" (لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله [lā ʾilāha ʾillallāh, Muhammad rasūlu-llāh])--these are both strong, monotheistic affirmations.

   The Shema Yisrael, read liturgically

     Christians also confess the Shema. And they can affirm the first part of the Shahada, as I often point out to my Muslim dialogue partners (without thereby becoming Muslims).
    2. God is one. Muslims use the Arabic term tawhid to describe this oneness, which can be translated as "absolute unity." To add an associate to God is called shirk. Because of the doctrine of the Trinity, Muslims accuse Christians of this, which for them is the greatest of all sins.
    And to add insult to injury, Muslims caricature the Trinity as the Father, the son Jesus, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. This was the result of inadequate conceptions of the Trinity that were current among the Christians that the earliest Muslims came into contact with and that persisted for many more centuries.

Father, Son, and Mary, as depicted in late Middle Ages
    Any attempt to explain to Muslims and Jews, that this doctrine was articulated to oppose the idea of believing in three gods, is futile. They, like some Christians, find the Trinity impossible to understand. No one, in fact, can fully understand it. We can only describe it while stuttering.
    3. God is distinct from the world. God created everything that is not God. The Creator-creature distinction is fundamental to all three faiths, and results in heresies when this is denied. Polytheists or idolaters do not share in this belief.

   4. God is holy, loving, merciful, and just. These are just a few of the attributes of God that all three faiths agree on, even though they may not understand them in precisely the same way. But, as I have already noted, members of these faiths do not always agree on what each means.
    5. God has revealed himself through the prophets and in the scriptures. These faiths do not agree, however, either on the content of the revelations nor their primary purpose. While Christians believe that God revealed himself in order to save us, Muslims insist that God's revelation is meant to provide guidance for living in this world.
    Jews are still expecting the promised Messiah, or have secularized this concept so that it is fulfilled in the modern state of Israel.
    Christians believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, and that he is the Word of God. The Bible too is the Word of God, but this is mediated through human beings who were inspired through the Holy Spirit.
   Muslims claim that the Qur'an was not mediated; it came down directly from heaven and was revealed to Muhammad, who was illiterate and thus entirely passive. Qur'an simply means "descended."
   Now is not the time to get into the different understandings of sin and salvation in each of these faiths. There is wide divergence, even between the adherents of each religion, on this issue. Personally, my view of original sin now is closer now to that of Eastern Orthodoxy than to the Augustinian understanding that I was taught and have in turn taught to others.

The Garden of Eden

  That there enormous differences between these three religions, which is reflected in their understanding of God, is undeniable. In spite of these differences, however, I have tried to describe very briefly what these faiths do have in common. I am an ecumenist; by nature, therefore, I want to examine what people have in common so as to be able to bring them closer together.
   Those who have a narrow conception of their own faith and specific doctrines within it may not appreciate my search for these areas of communality.
   Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God? Yes, with some qualifications, as I have already remarked. My yes, however, should not be taken to mean that Jews and Muslims are automatically saved. Salvation is by grace, and is not based on an intellectual knowledge of God.
   I do not want to take into my purview now other faith groups, such as Baha'i, Jehovah Witnesses, or  Mormons. These are sects, the first largely of Islam and the others of Christianity. Don't forget, Christianity started as a Jewish sect, and while Muslims would reject this assertion, Islam too was a Jewish-Christian sect at  the beginning.
   There are many aspects of this topic that I have not dealt with, such as the names for God in Judaism and Islam, nor have I discussed the use of icons in Christianity, or at least a large segment thereof, and the absolute rejection of any images of God by both Jews and Muslims, although both do use symbols. Islam is noted especially for its calligraphy of the name of Allah.

    Please feel free to interact with me on this topic. Admittedly, I have only scratched the surface, and thus am unable to do justice to this important issue. Even a book might not suffice.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Towards a nuclear-free world

     At 8.15 am, on August 6, 1945, the first nuclear bomb was dropped in warfare on Hiroshima, Japan. This bomb had the 12.5 kilotons of TNT, and exploded at a height of 580 m. (1,885 ft.). Hiroshima, located about 800 km. (500 miles) from Tokyo, was selected in order to impress the Japanese government with the destructive power of the bomb. Kyoto was also considered, but its unrivaled beauty ruled it out.

     On August 9, at 11.02 am, another nuclear bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. This bomb had the power of 22 kilotons, and was exploded about 500 m. (1,625 ft.) above the ground. But because of the mountainous terrain, only about 6.7 sq km. (2.6 sq. miles) of Nagasaki was reduced to ashes as compared to 13 sq. km. (5 sq. miles) of Hiroshima.

     On August 15 Japan surrendered. That was sixty-six years ago. The constitution of Japan today does not permit the stationing of nuclear weapons on Japanese soil as part of Article 9, by which Japan renounces war as a sovereign right. Japan does not maintain any armed forces, but does have a de facto force, called the Japan Self-Defense Forces, which are technically part of the national police.

Signing page of Japanese Constitution

     By the end of that year, in Hiroshima about 140,000 people had died, some in the explosion and others due to radiation and injuries. In Nagasaki about 80,000 died.

    Almost half a year ago, following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant experienced a series of equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns, and release of radioactive materials.
   An international expert in nuclear power plants has described Fukushima as "the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind." Japanese officials intially assessed the accident as Level 4 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), but that was later raised to 5 and eventually to 7, the maximum.

     The Japanese government has disclosed that the plant would be decommissioned, but this would be expensive and require many years to accomplish. 
     At least 85,000 people were evacuated from the area around the plant. The danger of radiation leakage is a constant one.
     It is estimated that a full-scale cleanup would require at least 30 years. The ground contamination will be of concern for several decades, especially to those who will be involved with the actual cleanup.
      Prime Minister Naoto Kan of Japan in his speech at the memorial service to mark the 66th anniversary of of the bombing of Hiroshima mentioned the Fukushima accident and used it to reiterate his intention to to pursue a society not dependent on nuclear power. This comment, however, may be just his own personal opinion.
    A Japanese government guideline, which exists so far only in draft form, calls for reducing the nation's dependence on nuclear power. This guideline was meant apparently to modify Kan's intentions.
   Kan's linking of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings with the Fukushima accident, and his declaration yesterday about ending Japan's dependence upon nuclear power reveal the growing debate about nuclear power in Japan.
   On one side is the prime minister, who probably enjoys a large measure of Japanese and international support on the occasion of the Hiroshima memorial service, while on the other side are those in Japan, and perhaps elsewhere in the world, who feel that nuclear power is essential for economic reasons.
   The advocates for nuclear power would contend that all that needs to be done is to bring the nuclear crisis to an end and to enhance the safety of its nuclear power plants.
    But that argument is fallacious. It is tantamount to arguing that the same technology that created the current nuclear mess will also be able to save the world from any further consequences.
    Our faith in technology and our economistic view of the world lie at the root of the problem. Prime Minister Kan, in contrast, is injecting a note of sanity into an otherwise insane world.
    In my opinion, not only Japan but also all those nations that possess nuclear weapons or that make use of nuclear power should use the opportunity offered by the memorials this week to move decisively towards a nuclear-free world.
   Both nuclear weapons and nuclear power are perilously connected. Just to mention the most obvious, the disposition of nuclear waste, whether from decommissioned weapons or power plants is fraught with dangers, not least of which where to dispose of elements that will be radioactive yet for hundreds of thousands of years. If this is not insanity, what is?
    Why do we need such powerful weapons of mass destruction?

Click to enlarge

    Compare this with the bombs that were used during World War Two.

    After Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima, the inherent danger of living near a nuclear power plant should be readily apprent. Those who want to live anywhere nearby today are crazy. Not only their own lives are in danger but also those of their children and grandchildren.
    In a future post, I will argue that the just war theory is no longer tenable, in large part because of nuclear weapons. The world already possesses too many nuclear weapons. Examine the current inventory.

Click to enlarge

   Nuclear power is also unacceptable. Renewable energy is the only route to go.
   Recently, I had a closeup view of some wind turbines in operation. They were not noisy, nor do they pose the dangers some people argue they present.
   I consider them beautiful. They are certainly more beautiful than nuclear power plants.

    It is high time that we move towards a nuclear-free world. If you agree, let me know. If you disagree, let me know as well.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Although about 1/4 of the population of the world is Muslim, very few non-Muslims know much about Ramadan or why this month is so important for Muslims. Christians especially are unaware of what their Muslim neighbors are doing during Ramadan, yet there is much that Christians can learn from them.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. It is an important month marked by fasting for all capable adults who have no valid exemptions. Fasting during Ramadan means abstaining from food, drink, smoking, and intimate marital relations from dawn to sunset everyday for the whole month.

Muslims believe Ramadan was the month in which the first verses of the Qur'an were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

Hilal (the crescent) is typically a day or more after the astronomical new moon. Since the new moon indicates the beginning of the new month, Muslims can usually safely estimate the beginning of Ramadan.

Nevertheless, there are many disagreements each year. This stems from the tradition to sight the moon with the naked eye and thus there are differences for countries on opposite sides of the globe. More recently some Muslims are leaning towards using astronomical calculations to avoid this confusion.

For the year of 1432 Hijri, the first day of Ramadan was determined to be August 1, 2011. Because of the lunar calendar, Ramadan starts eleven days earlier than in the previous (solar) year.

The timetable for Ramadan for Toronto (extra large, so you can read it. Click to make even larger.)

The daily fasts begin at dawn and end with sunset. These times can be calculated locally as are the times for the daily prayers. Special nightly prayers called Taraweeh are held. The entire Qur'an (divided into 30 more or less equal sections) is recited during the month in these prayers in mosques all over the world. This month thus provides an opportunity for Muslims to get closer to God. 

The Qur'an teaches, "O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may become God-fearing" (2:183).

It is compulsory for Muslims to start fasting when they reach puberty, as long as they are healthy, sane and have no serious disabilities or illnesses. The elderly, chronically ill, and mentally ill are exempt from fasting, although the first two groups must endeavor to feed the poor in place of fasting. Also exempt are pregnant women, if they believe it would be harmful to them or the unborn baby, women during menstruation, and women nursing their newborns.

The Prophet has said, "Whoever fasts during Ramadan with faith and seeking his reward from Allah will have his past sins forgiven. Whoever prays during the nights in Ramadan with faith and seeking his reward from Allah will have his past sins forgiven."
What should Muslims not do during Ramadan? Here is a list of commandments that some Muslims have prepared (and I have edited). These may sound negative, but so are the Ten Commandments. Compare them with what Jesus taught. Do you see any similarities?
   1. Do not argue or debate over when the month should begin (based upon the sighting of the crescent moon).
   2. Do not overeat or overindulge in food and drinks, but eat in moderation. Fasting is intended to teach self-control over one's body and what one consumes.
   3. Avoid everything that is haram (forbidden).
   4. Do not cheat, lie, backbite, gossip, slander, or spread rumors.
   5. Do not overspend on food and drink. Feed the poor and invite relatives and friends, but do not show off or compete by overspending. 
   6. Do not sleep too much. Instead, pray more at night and read the Quran, but work during the day.
   7. Do not waste time by watching TV. Instead, read a book, which is much more rewarding. And spend more time in worship.
   8. Do not invite wealthy people to your feast; instead, invite the poor.
   9. Do not become angry because one is fasting and hungry. Instead, one should control one's emotions all the time (and not only during Ramadan).

Ramadan is also a time when Muslims turn away from worldly affairs and focus on self-improvement, spiritual cleansing and enlightenment. Muslims focus on God through prayer, charity, good deeds, and helping others.
Ramadan is an occasion for giving and sharing, Muslims prepare special foods and buy gifts for their family and friends as well as for giving to the poor and needy. The social aspect involving the preparation of special foods and inviting people for Iftar (the feast that ends the daily fast) is important during this month. 
This feast begins with eating three dates, but often becomes a banquet. In Nigeria, for example, we discovered that when we organized workshops during Ramadan, the budget for food would have to be doubled if Muslims were present.

Laylat al-Qadr is considered the most holy night of the year. This is when Muslims believe that the Qur'an was first revealed to Muhammad. This is believed to have occurred on an odd-numbered night during the last 10 days of Ramadan, either the night of the 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th or 29th.

The month of Ramadan ends with a day long celebration known as Eid al-Fitr. This day begins with a special morning prayer in mosques all over the world that is attended by men, women and children, who are all dressed in their new or best clothes. A special charity, known as Zakat al-Fitr (which here refers especially to food for the poor), is distributed prior to the prayer. The rest of the day is spent in visiting relatives and friends, giving gifts to children, and eating, of course.

Ramadan with its closing feast are for Muslims what Christmas, Lent, and Easter (all wrapped up together) are for Christians.  The cards that Muslims distribute during Ramadan are very similar to Christmas cards. This is not surprising, since Ramadan is associated with the giving of the Qur'an, while Christmas celebrates the coming of Jesus Christ.

If I may add a theological note, the proper comparison is between the Qur'an and Christ, not between the Qur'an and the Bible, nor between Muhammad and Christ. This what makes their respective cards so significant. They prove the comparison I have just made.

Christians and Muslims have much in common. That is what needs to be accented. There are enormous differences, of course, that we must not neglect. Yet we worship the same God, albeit in differing ways. The same is true of Jews.

Ramadan is an appropriate time for Christians to join their Muslim neighbors when they celebrate during this month. Their desire to get closer to God through fasting and prayer is one important lesson that Christians can learn from Muslims and even emulate.

And when you invite Muslims to your house, please respect that they may be fasting during this month. Do not offer food or drink to them until the sun has set, and refrain from eating or drinking in their presence. Remember, they are your friends.