Monday, July 30, 2012

Five things I dislike about the United States

Let me be very clear, I am not anti-American. I like Americans, and I have relatives in the United States. Also, together with many people all over the world, I like many things about the US. It is a beautiful country with a diverse and wonderful people. Americans can rightfully be proud of the land where they live.

But there are also some things that I dislike about that country -- a few of which merit special mention in this post. Please realize that I want to speak the truth -- but I do so in love.

My list is not in any special order, but these are a few things that bother me so much that I felt the need to write about them. I have touched on some of these themes in previous posts. You will probably notice that all the items on this list are closely related.

1. Guns, guns and more guns. 

I was motivated in particular by the recent shooting in Colorado. While many Americans dismiss this incident as the aberrant behavior of a lone, perhaps psychotic, individual, I am concerned especially by the attitude of many Americans to the possession of guns.

This attitude was readily apparent immediately after the shooting: they want more more weapons, not less. Americans want to protect themselves, and they regard this as is the best way to do it. Should people have to bring guns into theaters in case someone starts shooting at them?

Quite frankly, I am frightened by all the guns that Americans currently possess. Even if strict gun-controls were instituted now, there are already too many lethal weapons in the hands of Americans. I am reluctant to visit some parts of the US. But, if I did go there, I would certainly avoid picking a fight with people.

There are many reasons why people want to possess guns. One is to go hunting, and another is that it is fun. People from other nations, of course, share these interests. In Canada, people who love hunting urged the Conservative government to scrap the long-gun registry that the previous Liberal government had instituted. I regret to say that, in spite of protest by the police that the registry aided in limiting crime, it was scrapped.

Another reason for having such weapons is self-defense. After the Colorado shooting, the sale of guns has soared. People are understandably afraid, but this is not the way to protect oneself and one's loved ones.
Americans are terrified by gun-control, since they perceive it as an attempt by the government to limit one of their fundamental rights. In the aftermath of shootings such as in Aurora, the National Rifle Association claims that the government will confiscate all their weapons. Clearly the government has no such intention, but this fear makes good propaganda and is the chief tool of the NRA in its lobbying efforts.

Americans are one of the few people in the democratic world who believe that it is their right as individuals to bear arms in order to defend themselves and their families. Citizens of other nations rely on the police and the military.

There are very few people in Canada, except for hunters and some farmers, who possess rifles. Handguns are banned totally, as they should be. The long-gun registry was, in my opinion, a good piece of legislation, but the current government believes otherwise. The American influence is very clear.

The American constitution protects the right of Americans to bear arms, but does this right derive from God or is it in accordance with natural law? In most law-governed countries, such as Britain, Canada, France, the Netherlands and Japan, people do not have an individual right to bear arms. If it were a divine or natural right, you might think that people elsewhere in the world would also possess this right, but this is not true.

If this is a special sort of right, one that can be created by the people via government, then what stops the people, through their government, from creating other sorts of new rights, like a right to health insurance?

In contrast to this view, health care is a fundamental human right that many Americans do not yet enjoy. This brings us to the next item on my list.

2. The denial of health care to many Americans.

Americans are selective in their rights, and they rate some rights much higher than others. Guns are the best example of a highly rated right. Health care is not important. It is not regarded as a right because mandatory insurance is perceived as something imposed by big government and is an infringement of individual freedom.

Thus the political drama surrounding what is popularly known as Obamacare. The recent decision of the US Supreme Court worsens the situation of those who are currently uninsured, and means that they will continue to be deprived of coverage.

How can many American Christians square their rejection of Obamacare with the commandment to love one's neighbor? Does an individualistic understanding of freedom trump the love commandment?

The irony is that American medical care is among the best in the world. But it is very expensive. A major illness can cripple a family, even if they have insurance, because of the co-payments involved. As a senior, I always buy supplementary medical insurance whenever I travel to the US.

In Canada, the principle of universal health care is praised by everyone, even if there are problems with the system. Attempts to introduce a two-tiered system that would allow those who can afford it to get better and faster care are widely feared as the first step in dismantling the current system.

Americans are afraid that mandatory insurance would reduce their freedom to buy insurance or not. That fear is nonsense, of course. Canadians have no such difficulty; instead, they fear the loss of their system. How can two such widely divergent views have developed side-by-side in Canada and the US?

American politicians are afraid too: in this case, of public opinion on this controversial topic. Mitt Romney, the putative candidate of the Republican party for the presidency, introduced a system similar to Obamacare in Massachusetts while he was governor there, but he has since backed off from that position, and he now opposes Obamacare.

The reason for Romney's reversal is clearly political. In an election year politicians tend to pander to the electorate. This bring me to my third complaint.

3. The polarization of politics and tea party movement.

That US politics is highly polarized is obvious to everyone. The US is divided ideologically as never before. This is very unhealthy, in my opinion. There is polarization in Canada too, I admit, but this is something that has spilled across the border.

Canadians are by nature pluralistic. This is reflected in our politics. Canada has three major political parties. For lack of better terminology, we can call the Conservatives "center-right" and the Liberals and the New Democratic Party "center-left." The NDP is not a socialist party, even though Americans tend to label all Canadians as socialists, largely because of universal health care.

In the US, there is an ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans. US elections are decided by undecided voters who switch their support to one party or the other at the last moment.

The tea party movement measures the extent this shift. The movement, which is conservative, libertarian, and populist, may have been formed and funded by the Koch brothers.

Although elements of their platform may have merit and they favor some social programs including medicare and social security, they have moved the Republican party even further to the right, and have thus contributed to the polarization of American politics. But there is evidence that their influence is declining.

At the other end of the political spectrum, one finds the occupy movement, which is focused on social and economic disparity, is another indication of this polarization. I share their concern, and thus move on to my next item.

4. Economic inequality.

There is a growing economic disparity in the US. While economic inequality has risen among most developed counties, it is highest in the US, where the top 10% now possess 80% of all financial assets while the bottom 90% hold only 20% of all financial wealth.

But this is only one indicator. The slogan of occupy movement, "we are the 99%," refers to the concentration of income and wealth among the top earning 1%, with the 99% left to fight over the scraps. I have written several posts dealing with the occupy movement.

This economic inequality manifests itself especially in politics. The 1% control the levers of political power at every level from the municipal to the federal. During this election year, they are concentrating their attention on removing President Obama from office. The Koch brothers, you probably realize, belong to the 1%.

Other countries struggle with economic inequality as well, but the effects are especially noticeable in the US. This concentration of wealth has led to an explosion of militarism abroad and the destruction of working class living standards at home.

These are two sides of a political agenda that is aimed at funneling the wealth of the US and the world into the coffers of an American financial oligarchy.

Like political polarization, US economic inequality has spilled over the border into Canada, which also suffers from economic inequality. However, the effects are not as noticeable largely because of Canada's social security system and its limited economic clout.

The final item on my list follows naturally from the previous ones. As I already stated, they are all connected. The influence of the 1% is discernible in the attitude of Americans to climate change.

5. Denial of climate change.

Americans are in the forefront when it comes to the denial of climate change. The reason is obvious to many. Denial is a major industry, lavishly financed by Exxon, the Koch brothers and others with a financial stake in the continued burning of fossil fuels.

But there are also strong ideological factors: a rejection of laissez-faire governance as well as an opposition to government regulation that help to explain the skepticism of many Americans about climate change (or global warming, as I preferred to call it in previous posts).

The drought that many parts of the US is currently suffering should ordinarily be enough to convert many skeptics, but the denial industry, abetted by segments of the media, has done such a thorough job that such skepticism will remain for a long time. This denial will play a role in the upcoming election.

There are very few Republican politicians who openly accept the reality of climate change, while even a few Democrats can be found in the denial camp. Again, the polarization of American politics evidences itself.

And again there are signs that this denial has crossed the border into Canada. The Conservative government now downplays climate change, in part to defend the development of the Alberta tar sands but also for some of the same ideological reasons as in the US.

In conclusion, I want to add that I could amplify each of the five things that I have listed and even add more items, but I will refrain from making any further comments, since this post is already getting too long.

Until I had made my list and started amplifying each one, I did not notice how inter-connected each of them are. The world view that underlies each of them has become dominant in the US, and it influences other countries, whether they like it or not.

We live in a global village, where we not only know nearly everything about each other but also how what happens in one country affects all the others. The US is the prime example of this.

The US has influenced Canada very much, and continues to do so. That especially motivated me to write this rather long post. I do not want my country to move further in the same direction that the US is moving.

I hope that this post inspires your comments and that it promotes further discussion.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Stop the violence

Our society glorifies violence. Although we all are horrified by what happened in Aurora, Colorado, life will soon return to normal again, except for those who were wounded or for families who lost loved ones. For them the scars will remain for many years to come. Most of us, however, will continue to glorify violence.

On July 20, 2012, a mass shooting occurred during a midnight screening of the movie The Dark Knight Rises at a movie theater in Aurora, a suburb of Denver. A gunman, dressed in dark clothing, set off smoke or gas canisters and shot into the audience with multiple firearms, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others. 

The sole suspect is 24-year-old James Eagan Holmes, who was arrested outside the cinema minutes later. Afterward, when the police checked out his apartment, they discovered that it had been booby trapped with explosives. They also revealed that Holmes had planned this shooting for several months. Eventually, of course, the courts will have to determine his sanity.

The Dark Knight Rises is a dark film, the third in the Batman trilogy, that extols violence, as do many films today. The irony of this shooting occurring during a screening of this film has escaped no one.

One person later tweeted that James Holmes might have have been influenced by the second film in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Returns. In this film a gunman opens fire on a theater killing several people.

The same week there was a shooting at a block party in Toronto, where two young people were killed and 23 people, including an infant, were sent to various hospitals with gunshot wounds. In this case, the violence was gang-related. For this reason, the perpetrators are still unknown, although one victim was arrested and charged with the reckless discharge of a firearm.

In Norway, July 22 marks the anniversary of an attack that ranks among the worst peace-time atrocities in modern history. Anders Behring Breivik, who is currently on trial for the calculated slaughter of 77 people, has admitted his crime, but the court has to rule yet on his sanity.

Taken from Breivik's own manifesto and video

Not far from Aurora is Columbine High School, where 12 students and one teacher were massacred 13 years ago. The two young men responsible, who we now know apparently had psychological problems, also killed themselves. The massacre sparked fierce debate over gun control laws, the availability of firearms in the United States, and gun violence involving young people. 

If there is one common denominator connecting many of the killings, it seems that the perpetrators were mentally unbalanced. But all these killings were senseless acts of violence that should not be condoned by our society.

While there is little we can do ahead of time to stop psychopaths from perpetrating such violence, there are many steps we can take to minimize this and other forms of violence.

The anguish of the Aurora victims and their families

First, we must stop glorifying violence. We must regard violence the way we do child pornography. Violence in all its forms claims over 1.5 millions deaths ever year worldwide. To bring it closer to what happened last week, thirty people die every day in the US as the result of gun-related violence. 

Why do we continue to extol violence in movies? It is often gratuitous, intended only to sell tickets. If we do not permit gratuitous sex scenes, why do we allow gratuitous violence? Rating films and disclosing sex and violence on TV is not enough. 

Even though all pornography is evil. some forms of it, such as child pornography, are more evil than others. Similarly, all violence is evil, but some forms of it, such as assault with heavy weapons, are more evil than most. Such violence must certainly stop. Ultimately, every form of violence must stop.

Will the Aurora shooting reopen the gun control debate?

Second, why do we allow people to possess automatic weapons with clips that fire up to a hundred rounds without reloading? Such weapons are not necessary for hunting. For that matter, why permit handguns, which were used in the shootings in Toronto? In fact, why permit guns on our streets at all? 

The father of one of the victims of the Columbine massacre, who is now an advocate of gun control, admits ruefully that the situation is even worse today than it was 13 years ago. Colorado is probably no worse than other states when it comes to violence, but it has not acted to restrict such weapons after Columbine nor is it expected to do so now. 

The National Rifle Association, which is consistently ranked the most powerful lobby in the US, makes sure of that. It uses the Second Amendment to the US Constitution to press for the right of people to possess, and even to carry weapons in public. Many scholars regard that as a misuse of the Second Amendment.

The situation in Canada is not much better. The Conservative government recently abolished the long gun registry, which required such weapons to be registered. That was stupid, in my opinion. I think the NRA is also stupid for its advocacy of weapons that many of us only consider appropriate on the battle field. 

But because of my belief in active non-violence, I seriously question the use of such weapons even there.

Third, we must try to deal with the causes of violence, in particular those that do not involve psychopaths. Gang-related violence, such as in Toronto, is rooted in poverty and joblessness. Unaware of this, the mayor of Toronto with a flagrant disregard for human rights stated that he wanted to expel the perpetrators from Canada, and even from the city, as if that were possible. 

(Click to enlarge further)

Fourth, we must become aware how pervasive violence is not only in our society but throughout history. Violence is nothing new. The Bible records many acts of violence, starting with the first murder, when Cain killed his brother Abel. History is replete with stories of violence. One wishes it were otherwise, but it is not.

Violence takes many different forms. It is found at home, at school, at work, and on the battle field. We find on our movie screens, and now even in the theaters. We cannot escape it anywhere.

Fifth, we must stop glorifying violence and realize its horrific nature. Violence is rooted in sin, and is therefore inescapable. It affects everyone of us. None of us can escape  its impact, whether actively or passively. After Aurora, many people have become fearful of visiting a theater. Many theaters have augmented their security.

My wife abhors violence so much that she hardly ever watches TV, even for the evening news, since that has become a chronicle of violence. Many of us, in contrast to her, have become inured to violence. Some of us even extol it.

Is it any surprise that the psychopaths living among us should resort to violence? Are any of us totally immune to the use of violence? Who of us at some time or other has not resorted to violence in a moment of anger? 

We may not charge into a theater and shoot everyone in sight, but in our hearts we have all wanted to hurt other people on occasion. That is sin.

What happened in Aurora is so terrible that we find it difficult to comprehend. So are the senseless killings that take place every day in Syria and other hot spots in the world. In the face of these horrendous realities, why do we continue to glorify violence? Let us pray that every form of violence stops soon.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Praying with Muslims during Ramadan

Ramadan is a time of spiritual reflection and worship. During this month Muslims fast in order to focus on God. In addition, they read the entire Qur'an, perform acts of charity, and offer daily prayers. They do this during the rest of the year as well, but now with increased frequency and zeal. I wrote about Ramadan in an earlier posting.

Ramadan in 2012 (1433 AH) started on Friday, the 20th of July and continues for 30 days until Saturday, the 18th of August. Note that, in the Muslim calender, a holiday begins on the sunset of the previous day, so that observing Muslims already began celebrating Ramadan on the sunset of Thursday, the 19th of July.
These dates are based on astronomical calculations to affirm each date, and not on the actual sighting of the moon with the naked eye. This approach is accepted by many today, but it is still hotly debated by some. For them the date of Ramadan varies from country to country depending on when the first crescent of the new moon is sighted.

Saudis used a telescope to monitor the new moon of Ramadan as astronomers and scholars of Islam
debate when the holy Muslim month of Ramadan began in the Saudi city of Taif on Thursday, July 19

Those who are not Muslims can learn much from such devotion. Many Christians read the Bible every day, pray frequently, attend weekly worship services, make charitable donations during the year, but few fast regularly. Fasting is one way to make these acts of worship more intense and meaningful.

Should non-Muslims join their Muslim brothers and sisters by fasting during Ramadan? Not necessarily, but what they can do is pray with Muslims during this month. By this I do not mean just going to a mosque and praying there, but rather offering extra prayers on behalf of the Muslim world, and indeed, the whole world.

Prayer is the most important thing that anyone, whether Muslim or not, can do today. During Ramadan Muslims are supposed to focus less on the world and more on God, but the world and its many needs continue to impinge themselves on the minds of people everywhere. Today prayer is necessary for the survival of the world and thus we must all be involved in this vital activity.

The Grand Mosque (Masjid al-Haram) in Mecca -- 
only one of the places where people come to pray

The Arab Spring that started more than a year ago is already beating at the gates of Damascus and may soon drive Bashir al-Assad out of power. Everyone is very concerned what the implications of the imminent  fall of the Syrian government will be not only for Syria but also for this volatile region, and thus the entire world.

In order to be more aware of the presence of God, Muslims cut themselves off from worldly comforts while they fast during Ramadan. But this does not mean that they totally ignore the world and its many needs. They pray for the world especially when they are fasting. Fasting concentrates prayer.

Christians too can pray for the world, even if they are not fasting. But during Ramadan they can add their prayers for the world to the prayers of Muslims everywhere. Hence they pray with Muslims. This is why I called this post, "Praying with Muslims during Ramadan." During this month people of many faiths are not praying for Muslims but with them. They will continue to do this during the rest of the year too, of course.

Let all of us together pray for peace in this world.-- peace in the Middle East but also in countries like Nigeria where sectarian violence is endemic in parts of the country. This violence has largely been ethnic in nature for many years, although many people are still unaware of this.

More recently with the rise of Boko Haram, which wants all Christians to leave northern Nigeria immediately or convert to Islam, the violence has become more clearly sectarian: Christians vs. Muslims. Churches have been bombed and many people killed by those who misuse the name of Islam. Christians have responded by instituting security measures, including metal detectors in churches, but also by retaliating through attacks on Muslims. Violence breeds violence. Pray that this may soon end.

Islam is a religion of peace. Not all Muslims are terrorists, although they are often portrayed that way by some Christians. Similarly, in parts of the world, Christians are regularly vilified by some Muslims. This too must stop. There is only one world, and peoples of many faiths -- or even none -- must learn to share it.

Pray that Christians and Muslims may learn to accept each other and live peacefully together. Both must be able to accept all peoples everywhere as fellow human beings, or better, as brothers and sisters. After all, as I have written previously, Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same God.

And all of us belong to the same species. As I wrote last time, there is only one human race. This means race is out, and so is racism.

Christians do not have to visit a mosque during Ramadan in order to be able to pray with Muslims (although that is commendable -- I have done it many times myself). Prayer can be done everywhere; thus it does not require a mosque, even though it is good to do it communally.

People of both faiths have more in common than many realize. When all of us realize this, it becomes much easier to pray with each other. Then, perhaps, we may all be able to pray for each other some day -- not in the first place for conversion but because we truly love one another. 

May that day arrive soon! Insha'Allah (an Arabic phrase meaning "God willing")! Or, as Christians would say, "Amen!"
 Ramadan Mubarak!  

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

End racism by eliminating race

Racism is a system where people are divided based on skin color and appearance. The Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines it as a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority or inferiority of a particular racial group; alternatively, it is the prejudice based on such a belief.

Unfortunately, we continue to support racism as long as we divide people according to race. It is very easy, therefore, to end racism. All we have to do is to stop dividing people according these external features.

From now on we should refuse to call ourselves or others "blacks," "whites," "hispanics" or other race-related names. There is only one race, the human race. All of us belong to one species, Homo sapiens. 

Today many modern anthropologists and biologists view race as an invalid genetic or biological designation. Neither "race" nor "subspecies" are appropriate ways to describe human populations. Race is not a scientific concept, but a social one. 

Biology does not explain this concept. The Human Genome Project, the most complete mapping of human DNA to date, indicates that there is no clear genetic basis to what we today define as racial groups.

History, however, does tell us how it developed. The current concept of race only arose in the 17th century. Before that the term was used to describe nations or ethnic groups. The Atlantic slave trade, which I wrote about previously, created an incentive to categorize human groups and provide a justification for slavery.

In the United States most people who self-identify as African–American have some European ancestors, while many people who identify as European American have some African or Amerindian ancestors. Since the early history of the US, Amerindians, African–Americans, and European Americans have all been classified as belonging to different races. The consequences are still readily apparent today.

But the criteria for membership in these races diverged in the late 19th century. It was then that increasing numbers of Americans began to consider anyone with even "one drop" of known "black blood" to be black, regardless of appearance. This is not only absurd but it is illegitimate and, perhaps most important, unbiblical.

It is high time that we eliminate the term "race" when we apply it to human populations. The word has other meanings, and is still appropriate in other contexts as when it refers to competitions, such as in the current London Olympics, but otherwise it should be banned. Christians, Jews and Muslims especially should press for its removal from our vocabulary.

The Bible does not use the term "race" at all. It does not discusses the color of people's skins. Thus the Queen of Sheba (2 Chronicles 9:1-12) and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) are never described in racial terms. On the contrary, there is not even the slightest suggestion of race as the term is understood today. Ethnicity is emphasized, but not skin color. 

Nor should the "Sons of Noah" (Genesis 10) be used to divide the world along racial lines. Rather than separating races, which the Bible never does, the following chart is a portrayal of Noah's descendants that is more consistent with scriptural teaching (although I might quibble about some of the theology behind it).

Similarly, the Qur'an does not use racial language to describe people, although such prejudices did develop later among the Arabs for a variety of reasons, especially their conquests and slave trade.

If the Bible and Qur'an do not use such language, why should we do so, especially when we see how the term has been misused in Europe and its colonies, especially South Africa with apartheid, as well as in North America, where people continue to be classified according to racial categories.

One way to end racism is to recognize how it has molded our thinking so that we define ourselves and others largely in racial terms. This helps to explain the latent racism that many people have -- even among people who say that they are not racists. 

A recent spate of gang-related shootings in Toronto made many people think that "persons of color" were responsible. That may be unfair, but it illustrates a commonly-held perception of crime in North America. This is racist thinking, as is racial profiling and, indeed, any discussions about race. 

Why do we continue to use a dubious term such as race that has no basis in biology? There are many ethnic divisions, of course, but these are linguistic and cultural in origin, not biological. When people assert that they can easily distinguish Africans, Asians, and Europeans, as well as many groups within them, they are referring to ethnic differences, not racial ones.

Such ethnic divisions and tribalism can be equally dangerous. Only recently has Europe become sufficiently united to be able to rise above the tribalism that dominated European history for many millennia and has led to innumerable wars. Unfortunately, other continents will need more time to become equally united.

Tribalism is the curse of Africa, but Europeans, because of colonialism, contributed to the problem by drawing the boundaries of many African states which lumped numerous tribes together or divided them among adjacent nations. Ethnicism and tribalism will not disappear any time soon. 

Ending racism must become our priority. Of course, there are other divisions of the human species that are objectionable as well: age and sex. Ageism and sexism must also come to an end. We must emphasize the unity of humanity, not the divisions if this is to happen.

Let us stop the discrimination based on these divisions; instead, let us promote our oneness. Above all, we must be motivated by love for our fellow human beings. Is that too much to ask?


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

End human slavery

Slavery is as old as the human species. It has existed in every society and persists even today. Although it has been outlawed in every country of the world, it is estimated that there are now more slaves than at any time in history -- from 12 to 27 million, according to various sources, and possibly more. 

Slavery is still practiced in many countries, especially in Africa and Asia. Many are debt slaves, often forced to pay off debts that sometimes go back several generations.
Human trafficking is widespread, with men, woman and children forced into manual labor and many also into prostitution. Because such trafficking is illegal, its extent is unknown. This contributes to the lack of precision about how many slaves there are today.

The most well-known form of slavery, at least to North Americans, is the transatlantic slave trade, although slavery was practiced already in Africa long before this. The slave market was supplied by well-established slave trade networks controlled by local African societies and individuals. 

At first slaves were brought to Europe, but later they were transported directly to the Americas.  An estimated 12 million Africans arrived there from the 16th to the 19th centuries, when slavery was finally abolished in Europe and North America.

On a somewhat controversial note, it must be added that many historians argue that African merchants may have played a key role in the slave trade by determining the trade goods they wanted, and thus they should share some responsibility for it.

The topic of slavery, especially to the Americas, was vividly brought home to me a week or so before I left the Gambia. Together with friends from Canada, my wife and I did the "Roots" tour on the Gambia River.

This tour visits the village of Juffure, about two hours by boat from Banjul, the capital of the Gambia. Juffure was immortalized in the novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family by American author Alex Haley, as well as the television miniseries Roots, which was based on the book.

Kunte Kinte (c. 1750-c. 1822) was the central character of the book. He was a Mandinka-speaking young Muslim when he was captured and shipped to Maryland, where he was sold to a Virginia plantation owner. The novel, which is really fictionalized history, traces his life as a slave. Haley had discovered that he was a seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte. 

Juffere today is a typical dusty African village, although it attract tourists because of its connection with Kunta Kinte. There is the inevitable market that caters to the tourists, but has little else to offer other than a museum that vividly describes the transatlantic slave trade. This museum makes the horror of slavery almost tangible. 

The newly captured slaves were first brought to Juffere, from where they were brought to James Island (now called Kunte Kinte Island in the Gambia), about  three kilometers away, where they were imprisoned until they could be shipped to the American colonies. The slaves apparently could not swim from the island to the mainland.
This was a one-way voyage in many ways -- about 10% of the slaves did not survive the trip -- in tiny ships, where the slaves were packed like sardines without any provision of amenities. 

This facsimile of a slave ship gives an idea of how small it was

There are other museums elsewhere that also portray these horrors, but this museum helped to convince me, as if I needed any further convincing, that slavery needs to stop. I found it hard to imagine that the inhuman treatment of fellow human beings continues today in many parts of the world and that slavery is still tolerated. 

Slavery must be abolished totally. These men, women and children are all created in the image of God; they are our brothers and sisters who must be treated just as we would want to be -- justly and lovingly.
The world must no longer look the other way and pretend that slavery does not exist. Unfortunately, it does. We must stop it once and for all. If we don't do it now, someday there will have to be many new museums built all over the world to portray the horrors of contemporary slavery.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Some reflections on our humongous universe

This will be my 100th post since I started this blog on April 13, 2011. Since then I received almost 100,000 pageviews. In order to celebrate the occasion, I wanted to pick a big topic, and there is certainly nothing bigger than the universe. This is the subject of my reflection this week. Enjoy!
The universe is commonly defined as the totality of everything that exists, including all matter and energy, the planets, stars, galaxies, and the contents of intergalactic space. Definitions and usage vary, however, and there are similar terms including the cosmos, the world and nature.

Up until the beginning of the modern period, the geocentric model of the universe reigned supreme. In this model the Earth was the center of the universe. From the late 16th century onward, this was replaced by the heliocentric model of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler.

Christian theologians were initially reluctant to accept a theory that seemed to contradict certain Bible passages and they offered much resistance. Muslims also adopted the geocentric model very early, but they were ahead of Christians in proposing an alternative. Muslim astronomers were among the first to suggest that the Milky Way consisted of many stars, although proof for this awaited Galileo's use of the telescope.

It was not until the early 20th century that astronomers recognized that there were many more galaxies outside of the Milky Way. Thus our understanding of the universe has grown through the centuries.

This high-resolution image of the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field shows a diverse range of galaxies, each consisting of billions of stars. The equivalent area of sky that the picture occupies is shown as a red box in the lower left corner. The smallest, reddest galaxies, about 100, are some of the most distant galaxies to have been imaged by an optical telescope, existing at the time shortly after the Big Bang.

It is now estimated that there are as many as 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy and probably 400 billion galaxies in the universe. In addition, some scientists have postulated that there are also other universes that are not connected to our own universe. These are called multiverses.

I have purposely refrained from providing many details, except for the numbers that I already mentioned. My concern now is to describe how our understanding of the universe has inflated greatly to the point where it has become impossible for our finite minds to fully grasp.

When the Bible was written, the geocentric model was widely accepted, and remained so until the beginning of the modern period. Then the Milky Way was added, and the explosion began. Less than a century ago, a further explosion took place. With the discovery of dark matter and dark energy the picture has become even more complex, since these two account for 95% of the mass-energy density of the universe.

The announcement of the existence of the Higgs boson, the so-called "God" particle, which gives mass to other elementary particles is yet another advance in our understanding of the universe, which has now become so large that even the word humongous is not adequate to describe its immensity. 

Since I am a theologian, it has caused me to reflect on what this development means for my science. The old anthropocentric theology has been questioned many times, but perhaps not as severely as today, after these cosmological explosions.

Our God is an extravagant God. Why did he create such a mind-boggling universe? Our solar system would have sufficed. Why create such a large stage if only the tinniest part of it is necessary for the biblical drama?

Christians say that, according to the Bible, the Earth is the centerpiece of God's creation, and the only place where he created life. God has given humanity the task of taking care of what has created. But does this stewardship extend beyond the Earth to the entire universe -- all 400 billion times 400 billion stars together with their planets?

Is there life on any of these planets? More pertinently, is there any intelligent life? If so, how should we relate to those extra-terrestrial beings? Fortunately, we haven't discovered them yet (although they may already have found us), because then the theological sparks would really begin to fly, not only for Christians but also for Muslims, Jews, and adherents of just about every religion, except the Raelians who it seems have met the aliens and cooperate with them.

Claude Vorilhon, a former French journalist, is the spiritual leader of the Raelians

The idea of aliens is the stock-in-trade of science fiction writers, but few Christian writers seem to have openly espoused this idea. C.S. Lewis, however, speculated that aliens may never have experienced a "Fall."

Some contemporary Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians who do “exotheology” have speculated about the nature of these extraterrestrial races. They are not afraid to raise theological questions that may, seem in the absence of aliens, to be premature to many people, yet these questions deserve to be asked. 

Many science fiction novelists and filmmakers have already raised interesting parallels with the Christian faith, whether intentional or not.

Spielberg’s classic 1982 film E.T. has some of the most striking christological parallels in all of cinema: so much so that one could almost consider the film an allegory of the Christ story. Consider that E.T. comes from the heavens to bring healing. He performs miracles, including bringing things that have died back to life. In a Garden of Gethsemane scene, he goes out into the woods the night before he is captured and “phones home”. After he is taken captive, dies, he is resurrected, and ascends back to the heavens in a space ship.

Is the idea of other sentient beings so absurd? Even if we were the only sentient race in our own galaxy, and if other galaxies had on average one form of sentient life, there would be 400 billion species, at least some of whom would be space faring, and who may be able to overcome the incredible distances involved.

The odds of us eventually finding other forms of intelligent life are probably much higher than the figures that I used. No committed gambler would place a bet using such dismal odds.

Some of the questions that arise for me include the following: the "historicity" of Adam and Eve, the meaning of the Fall, the nature of sin, the necessity and means of salvation, the nature of God, and the role of Jesus Christ. Raising these questions does not mean that I deny these doctrines, but rather I want to open them up for discussion.

Other faiths will raise different questions. That is to be expected, yet there may be some overlap as well as some fundamental differences.

I want to reject biblicism, since that will not answer these questions in a meaningful way. Christian theology must be prepared to address the myriad issues that have arisen since the cosmological explosion that I have described. 

Instead, I am pleading for a frank discussion of issues. In the Middle Ages people already asked these questions. Increasingly, however, I find myself unhappy with the answers provided by past generations. Textbooks in theology over the years have left me dissatisfied, because the answers they provide no longer speak to me, and thus I find it difficult to convey them to my students without hedging them with caveats.

Anselm's theory of the atonement, for example, is encased in legal jargon that totally misses the drama of what Jesus accomplished during his 33 years of life. The story of his death and resurrection can be grasped intuitively by ordinary believers. 

Note that I do not deny what Anselm taught; rather, I question its relevance in the 21st century. Many churches are able to retell the story of what Christ did without any mention of Anselm and his theory. 

This is only one example. I could give more, but this is not proper venue. I do want to raise some important questions, however, that deserve further discussion, especially in the light of new cosmological developments.

Theology is not a museum where we can calmly peruse past relics, even though knowledge of the history of theology is invaluable; theology is something that is living and growing. The current dismissal of theology by many people is due in part because it has not sufficiently kept up with new developments in the wider world.

When theological pronouncements are made they are often seen as reactive and not proactive. The issue of the role of women is a good example. Instead of pressing for a greater involvement of women in an official capacity, the Roman Catholic Church has dug in its heels and consistently refused to countenance any change in its official teachings and practices. 

The same goes for the issue of clerical celibacy, which is demanded urgently by many African Catholic clergy who do not possess the necessary charism, not to mention that this is also counter-cultural. There are many more issues that I could raise, but won't at this time.

To widen the circle again, I keep wondering why God created such a humongous universe for a species that lives on a small planet circling a medium-sized star. Is our old anthropocentric and geocentric theology still sufficient to answer this question? Or do we need a new theology that is as vast as our universe?

The answer to these questions will aid us as we struggle with the other questions that I raised. We must begin formulating a new theology that is fully cognizant of the many developments in the intervening centuries since many of our doctrines were formulated. Somehow, many matters have been excluded.

For those for whom theology is a foreign language that they are totally unfamiliar with, my apologies for these theological reflections. This blog, as I explain in the sidebar, focuses on our world, with special attention paid to religion. 

For those who have imbibed deeply from the old theological fountain, I suggest that they drink from the new fountain as well. They may discover that the new water tastes as good as the old; in fact, it may even taste better when they have overcome their skepticism. 

All theologians, however, both old and new, should be humble enough to realize that they too may have made errors, and that they will continue to make them. That is a valuable lesson.