Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Religion and global warming: part 2 -- Jews and Christians

The importance and the urgency of my survey in this new series of the views of the world's major religions on the environment is illustrated by the recent report that places Canada dead last on the list of what developed countries are doing in order to protect the environment.

I am ashamed of my country and its leaders. I blame the Harper government for its clear lack of concern for the environment in general and global warming in particular. Harper calls himself a Christian, but his Christian faith is not evident in his government's policies.

While I doubt that these posts on religion and global warming will ever reach, much less influence, the Canadian government, I nevertheless will try to do what I can to oppose these wrong-headed policies.

According to recent polls, most Americans accept the reality of global warming (see chart). Polls in Canada who similar results. But they have to get the message out to their politicians, who seem to be more interested in advancing the interests of corporations rather than the environment. They must inform their leaders that this is not the stewardship that the Bible demands.

Jews and Christians share parts of their respective scriptures. Genesis, the first book of the Bible, and accepted by both , tells the story of the creation. Chapter 1 teaches us that God created the world. But it does not describe how he accomplished this. That is where science comes to our aid by uncovering the laws that govern creation.

Genesis 1:28 teaches us what our task as human beings is in relation to the world that God has made. This governs the whole world, and thus includes the environment:

God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."

The next verse informs us that God provides food: seed-bearing plants and trees. Only later does the Bible add animals to the food supply. This provision should be understood in the context of the role that God has assigned to humanity.

The word "rule" in verse 28 has too often been misinterpreted. Some translations use the word "dominion" to describe that role. But there is a better interpretation that is expressed in the next chapter of Genesis.

Chapter 2 provides another creation account, where God has placed human beings in the Garden of Eden and commands them to care for the garden. Their task is that of gardeners, who do not own the the garden but merely take care of it, although that is an enormous responsibility, nevertheless.

Human beings are stewards or managers. They do not own the earth, but have been asked manage it for the owner, who is God. When people lose sight of our managerial task and usurp the role of owner, they get into trouble and misuse God's marvelous creation.

The environment is there to be taken care of properly; thus it must not be misused. The "dominion" part was rejected. This happens to be the interpretation I grew up with. Many Jews and Christians agree.

Jews and Christians are commanded to love God. This also means to love the creation.  The whole earth belongs to God (Exodus 19:5; Psalm 24:1). Believers are called to live in harmony with their neighbor and the rest of creation. This mandate has been ignored by many people today, even those who call themselves the children of God.

Humanity, when it has lost its connections with God, thinks that it owns the world and is therefore free to do whatever it wants. Today that even means to plunder and rape the earth.

Jews and Christians have protested this misuse in several notable statements. As mentioned in the last post, they have affirmed their position (together with people from other faiths in the Interfaith Declaration on Climate Change:  http://www.interfaithdeclaration.org/.

Jews have done so similarly in the Jewish Community Priorities for Climate and Energy Policy: http://coejl.org/resources/jewish-community-priorities-for-climate-and-energy-policy-2008/.

Roman Catholics have also issued a number of statements: Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good (A Statement of the the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops): http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/environment/global-climate-change-a-plea-for-dialogue-prudence-and-the-common-good.cfm; and: Catholics and Climate Change (from the Yale Climate Project)http://www.yaleclimatemediaforum.org/2012/02/the-catholic-church-and-climate-change/.

The National Council of Churches in the U.S.A. provides a list of of these and other statements in Faith Statements & Resolutions on Climate Change: http://nccecojustice.org/climate/climatestatement.php.

Evangelical Christians, not the be outdone, have issued: Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action: http://christiansandclimate.org/statement/.

Other religions have also produced statements on the environment. A long list of these statements is provided by the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale. I will examine several of them in future posts on this topic:

Secularists disregard these statements at their peril. There are secularists who are concerned with climate change, but some do not. Largely because of their denigration of religion, they have no use for the idea of stewardship, even though they are concerned about the environment.

Thankfully, there are many people of faith who are calling governments to action in the name of stewardship. Governments everywhere need to warned about the consequences of global warming.

Jews and Christians are in the forefront of such calls to action in many parts of the world. Motivated by God's command to be good stewards of the earth, they urge leaders in the respective countries to be more concerned about the environment and to fight global warming. 

Stewardship is fundamental to the faith of Jews and Christians, as it should be for everyone who lives on this world. It is the only world we have, and thus we must take good care if it.

I am trying to do my little bit to get this message out. If you agree, please do what you can to help spread the good word. Together, whether Jews or Christians, people of faith or of no faith, God commands us to be good stewards of the creation and to  prevent further damage to the environment.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Religion and global warming: part 1 -- introduction

The recent typhoon in the Philippines and the tornadoes in the American mid-west have been the most terrible in a long time. The devastation that they caused was unprecedented. Not surprisingly, many people immediately connected these events with global warming. Not everyone agrees, however. Some claim that these are merely natural disasters and were not brought on by humans.

Who is right? Whom should we blame? Of those who accept the contributions that human beings make to global warming, some blame religion for it and hold it responsible for the degradation of the environment. This comes especially from people who have no use for religion. Many of these are people of science, for whom environmentalism has ironically become a religion, even though they reject all forms of religion.

These charges are blatantly false, as I will try to show in a new series on global warming. I want to examine different religions and see how each of them deal with environmental issues. Many religious people do feel responsible for protecting the environment, thus why are these charges being made against these religions?

In this introductory post, I suggest several reasons why such charges are made, although there are many more no doubt that could be cited.

The first charge comes from scientists who have a fear of religion, one that goes back many centuries to the persecution of Galileo and Copernicus, and continues today when evolution and environmentalism are attacked by people who often have little understanding of science but a great distrust of scientific research.
Both scientists and people of faith contribute to the huge gap that exists between them on the issue of global warming. Scientists, with their rejection of a holistic view of life, are often unwilling to accept religious people as allies. Religious people, in turn, are afraid of scientists and see them as the enemy. As a result, each side blames the other. Scientists tend to claim that religion ignores environmental issues, while religious people counter that scientists are exaggerating global warming.

Not all scientists and not all religious people vilify each other, but enough are so antagonistic as to make cooperation difficult at times. Yet science and religion can and often do work together in fighting global warming. This is why I want to look at the views of various religions on the environment in the next few posts and see where cooperation is possible or is already happening.

A distrust of science is typical of many conservatives. Typically, political and religious conservatism often overlap. Many conservative governments have gutted environmental regulations and reject any scientific evidence that contradicts the government stand on the development of oil fields and other sources of energy resources as well as the pipe lines and other means of bringing these resources to market.

Such governments turn a blind eye global warming, often appealing to conservative religious people for support. When these governments are blamed for their stand on the environment, they try to shift some of the blame onto these people. Thus religious people once again receive the blame for global warming.

The companies that produce energy and are thus more directly responsible for global warming are protected in this way. Religion makes a convenient scapegoat, especially because of the tendency of more than a few religious people to ignore environmental issues. Political and religious conservatism bolster each other.

In addition, industries spend enormous amounts, especially at election time, for slick media campaigns that downplay the effects of global warming and argue instead that these industries protect the environment while creating jobs. Conservative religious groups often pronounce their blessing on these efforts.

I call this bad religion. It is a religion that is so focused on heaven that it ignores earthly concerns. It is not adverse to twist scriptures to support its position.

One account, familiar to Jews and Christians, is Genesis 1, where God gives humanity "dominion" over the earth. Such mastery is easily misconstrued to justify misuse of the environment. We are in charge, some people claim, thus we can do whatever we want. As we shall see later, that is a distortion of this passage and, as a result, of the human task.

We are not rulers but stewards. There is a big difference between these terms, as I will demonstrate in a later post. Rulers do not have to concern themselves with the environment, but stewards or managers do.

No wonder some Jews and Christians are blamed for global warming. Other religious people can also use their scriptures to justify misuse of the environment. God has given the world and everything in it to human beings, and thus they can do anything they see fit. The earth is large, and they will not damage it very much.

Moreover, these people argue, climate change is natural and is not caused by humans. There are natural warming and cooling cycles. If human beings have done any damage, it is minimal as compared to these natural cycles. We cannot trust the science of global warming, and thus we need not concern ourselves very much with it.

This argument is especially popular in poorer, less developed countries. If global warming is caused naturally, then they cannot be blamed for adding to it. On the other hand, if humans are culpable, then these countries should be granted a period of grace before they are judged by the same criteria as are rich countries. We cannot afford it, they contend. Natural causes are thus much more convenient and less likely to give offence.

Finally, eschatology also plays a role, especially for some Christians who hold to apocalyptic views of the world. They believe that God is going to destroy the world when Jesus Christ returns. Global warming is one sign of this. There is thus nothing that human beings can do to avert this destruction, nor should they.

Anyone who holds to such apocalyptic views will not view global warming in a negative way, but rather as a positive sign of Christ's imminent return. Often this view is combined with some of the previously mentioned views on global warming.

When all these views are added up, it is not surprising that religion receives the blame and is accused of degrading the environment. Religion seems detached from the world. It either ignores the reality of climate change or rejects any responsibility for it. In either case, religion is blamed, whether fairly or not.

The world disagrees on the causes of global warming

As I shall attempt to show in future postings, this change is not only unfair but it is blatantly false. Religion is a positive force for change on environmental issues. While global warming is an important issue among all faiths, not all groups among these various religions see it as a danger. as we have already noted. But this does not mean that religion as such must be blamed.

Similarly, we do not blame all the world's political leaders for global warming, even if some of them ignore it or deny any responsibility for it. There are good politicians and bad politicians, good politics and bad politics.

Religion deserves some blame, but I prefer to call that bad religion. Good religion is practiced by much of the world's population. More than 80% of the people in the world believe in a god or some higher force. All of these people, whether Hindus, Muslims. Christians, Sikhs, or whatever faith they belong to, are threatened by climate change. Many all over the world attribute global warming to human factors.

These people of faith do not simply want to stand by as silent observers, but have spoken out against this threat. In the "Interfaith Declaration on Climate Change," more than 100 religious and non-religious groups called on world leaders to come to a binding agreement on fighting climate change.

People of various faiths from over the world are discussing global warming. They do this partly in the context of highlighting relevant passages in their scriptures that show a close connection between human beings and the world. The environment is included. It cannot ignored or dismissed. How could it?
In the next few posts I will examine what various religions have to say about the environment. This topic is more important today than ever. Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu affirmed this at a climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009. "We only have this one world, this world, And if we destroy it, we have nothing else."

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Leadership means involving everyone

We need a new type of leadership today. One that does not cater to a base, but includes everyone. Politics today is increasingly polarized. In the US this polarization has made the functioning of the federal government almost impossible. It is now totally dysfunctional. Canada is not far behind. It is becoming more and more polarized by the day. This has to stop.

One of the reasons for polarization relates to types of leadership. Leadership has been defined as "organizing a group of people to achieve a common goal," although there are many other definitions. The type of leaders that I envision must have, in addition to many other qualities, is the ability to involve everyone. Polarization increases when some leaders use it for their own purposes.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto have both capitalized on this polarization. In fact, they have promoted it. Both have established a base that they can count on for support, especially during elections. In Ford's case, those who voted for him in 2010 and continue to support him have been termed, "Ford Nation."

Stephen Harper and Rob Ford

I am using Ford and Harper as examples because of the constant barrage of media reports in Toronto, where I live. In the case of Ford, this has been 24/7 non-stop. Harper has been in the news repeatedly as well not only because his is prime minister but also because of his handling of the Senate scandals. As I wrote previously, the Office of the Prime Minister is being investigated by the RCMP.

During the last few months, while Ford was under attack by the elitist media, as "Ford Nation" saw it. Ford claimed he had delivered on his campaign promises, and "Ford Nation" was willing to overlook his personal failings.These accusations, they insist, were all part of a plot to destroy their hero. Even now, when the evidence that he smoked crack is overwhelming, and he has even admitted doing so on several occasions, many still continue to back him.

Toronto is divided as it has never been before into two parts: urban and suburban. This is the result of amalgamation in 1998 when six municipalities were merged to form the City of Toronto. These two parts are totally different from each other. Ford and Harper both find much of their support in the suburbs. Ford appealed especially to the suburban voters with promises to "cut the gravy" -- money that was supposedly being wasted, especially by the urban elite who have neglected the suburbs, or so "Ford Nation" claims.
The City of Toronto: the suburbs voted overwhelmingly for Ford as can be seen from the colors

Harper has a solid base as well, even if these people are not as devoted to him. In fact, Ford and Harper share much of the same base. Harper's stage is much larger, but there are many similarities between these two men and their respective bases. These people are Conservatives and, in the Toronto area, tend to live in the suburbs. They share a feeling of alienation -- of being excluded and not part of the elite. They are angry and are committed. For this reason, both Ford and Harper have successfully played the role of outsider in their appeal to the base in order to win elections.

Ford and Harper have ignored for the most part those who are not part of their base. Harper has to appeal as well to "swing voters" -- those voters who actually decide elections by swinging their votes one way or the other. The base, however, is what both Ford and Harper depend on. These voter are highly committed, and, as wily politicians, Ford and Harper cater to them.

Neither man ever spends much time or money trying to attract those who are opposed to their policies. They cater to their base instead. But that does not display good leadership. Leadership in this case means involving everyone, not just the base.

Are there any leaders today who can bring the two extremes together? Many leaders today cater only to their base. What are needed are leaders who can reach out beyond their base to include voters of every political stripe.

One of the most important leadership gifts is the ability to bring everyone together. In the absence of leaders who regularly display that gift, the US, Canada, and many other other countries will lurch from one crisis to another. The world needs a new kind of politics and a new type of leader.

Instead of  leaders pandering to their bases and vilifying their opponents, we need leaders who can build bridges. Leaders who understand their opponents and do not tear them to shreds, but are willing sit down with them for a civil discussion on how to proceed for the sake of the common good. Leaders who can reach out to all political groups, not just their own. But that is impossible in the current polarized atmosphere.

President Obama is constantly vilified by his political opponents and large segments of the public who have turned against him and his policies. Obama has not been able to build bridges to them. Some people judge him to be a poor manager, but there is also a latent racism among segments of the population. Or they think he is a communist. All these things prevent them from judging his programs objectively.

Thus it is difficult for Obama to build such bridges, even if he is inclined to do so by nature. That is too bad. Congress is filled with the wrong sort of leaders-- those who are unwilling to reach out to others. The Tea Party movement hampers the members of Congress from making even the smallest political concession. This has fed the polarization, and as a result, even on the Democratic side there are few real leaders. The waning influence of the Tea Party will not change this polarization and lack of good leadership.

Outside the political arena I can hear many voices crying for a new leadership. People are fed up with the acrimony and bitterness that are typical in politics today. They want politicians who are not beholden to the base that they use, but are willing to listen to and respond to the needs of everyone. Only such leaders will be able to deal effectively with all the problems facing both the US and Canada, not to mention many other countries.

Labels such as conservative or liberal are not always useful.to describe voters. They have individual needs that are often not covered by these labels. They may be as angry as their neighbors are, but that does not mean that their concerns are the same. These labels should thus be used with caution.

For example, to describe "Ford Nation" as a united group exaggerates those things than bind them. That unity is fleeting and it forms a poor basis for a trustworthy base, as Ford is now learning as many disillusioned members of "Ford Nation" are leaving in droves. They have had enough of the man. His policies, such as they were, are not enough to unite them any longer. Ford has lost all moral authority, and many supporters finally realize this. The type of leadership that he represents is outdated and inappropriate, even apart from Ford. It must be changed.

Harper may learn that lesson in the next election. Unfortunately, that is still two years away, and memories are often short. But Harper may yet discover that he cannot count entirely on his base in the Toronto area in particular. A lot of damage has been done to the Conservative brand by Ford especially, but Harper has inflicted his own wounds. He too may lose some of his support as a result.

If Ford and Harper cannot count on their base the way they did before, there is hope yet for a new politics and a new leadership, one that is capable of building bridges. I sincerely hope and pray that this will be the case and that the current polarization in Canada will one day become history. That will require new leaders.

In the US new leaders are needed too. May today's Tea Party also be relegated soon to the history books! That movement is not the only reason for the polarization of American politics, just as Ford and Harper are not the only culprits in Canada. But all of them contributed to the polarization of their respective countries and used it for their own ends. Other politicians do the same. This must end.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Can one be both a Christian and a politician at the same time?

There are many Christians, but few are politicians. There are also many politicians, but few are Christians. Is it possible to be both a Christian and a politician at the same time? Does one have to sacrifice one's faith when they are combined? The answer to the first question is easy: an emphatic, yes! The answer to the other is more difficult, especially in the confines of this blog.

Rather than making a survey of Christian politicians from the beginning of the Christian era until now and doing so worldwide, which would require a series of books, in this post I want to do a very brief case study by looking at one politician in Canada who is currently very much in the news and is widely acknowledged as a Christian: Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Harper is regarded by many as a consummate politician, yet in a country where politicians prefer not to identify themselves openly with a denomination, much less to be seen attending church regularly, he stands out. This is part of his appeal to his conservative base, which includes many evangelical Christians.

Harper is a member of the evangelical Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination and attends East Gate Alliance Church in Ottawa. He married Laureen Teskey in 1993, and they have two children, Benjamin and Rachel. His home life to all appearances is impeccable.

His lifestyle stands in striking contrast to that of Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto, whose drunken behavior and admitted drug use have brought shame not only on himself but also the city and the entire country. That is something thing that Harper would never do, although lately he has seriously damaged his own brand as well as that of the Conservative Party though the way he has handled the Senate scandal.

For those of you who are not familiar with Canadian politics, this is the biggest scandal in decades, involving several senators who have made false expense claims. The scandal has blown up to become a major political event because of the way the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) has handled it.

Harper is reputed to be a control freak, and thus it is extremely unlikely that he was totally unaware of what the PMO did, as he claims. Without going into all the sordid details, he has blamed the senators involved and some of his office staff, especially his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, for the sordid mess. Instead, Harper shoved his chief of staff "under the bus." Rob Ford, to his credit, albeit foolishly, did not want to do that. He has said that he does shove his friends "under the bus."

What Harper has not done is accept any responsibility, much less any blame for the Senate scandal. He is, to put as mildly as I can, "truth challenged." He appointed the three senators, who have now been suspended from the Senate, with a loss of salary. He also appointed the staff in his office. Unlike Harry S. Truman, he does not say, "The buck stops here," especially now that the PMO is being investigated by the RCMP for possible criminal wrongdoing. That is a basic principle of good leadership. Harper has failed in this respect.

In Parliament he has been accused repeatedly of lying. That is a serious charge to bring against any politician, even if the words politician and liar are sometimes considered synonyms. It is more serious for someone who professes to be a Christian. Harper is a politician who wants to save his political life, but that does not excuse behavior which goes beyond lying; he also displays a ruthless that is unbecoming a Christian.

Interestingly, the accusations of lying and ruthlessness that have been brought against him have not mentioned his faith at all. That speaks volumes about how he downplays that part of his life, at least in public. Although not afraid to mention his denominational affiliation, I have not been able to find a photo of him leaving a regular Sunday church service, as is common with US presidents.

These charges are not even the most serious ones that I would bring against Harper. Although I do not like Harper and the way he operates, I am most disappointed by his refusal to display his Christian principles in the policies his government has introduced. It is bad enough that he is ruthless and vindictive -- that can characterized as a serious character flaw, although one would hope that he behaved in a more loving way in political life and not only in his home life.

Harper's stand on many political issues is seemingly motivated more by a conservative worldview than by Christian principles. For example, on the environment his government has been blamed for eviscerating environmental regulations in order to promote extraction industries, especially in Alberta, the province he considers home, although he was born in Toronto.

Alberta has the third largest oil reserves in the world

Harper is an economist by training. His economic policies are very conservative. Early in his political career he called for reform of health care and replacement of the federal pension plan with a provincial one. He has pushed strongly for austerity measures in order to curb growing deficits, yet the Conservatives have managed to amass the largest deficit in Canadian history. In spite of this huge deficit, Canada has still managed to have the lowest debt-to-GDP ration in the G7 economies.

His social policies are not as conservative. There he displays his strong political skills by avoiding contentious issues such as abortion and euthanasia as much as possible, even though his conservative base and some of his members of Parliament support such legislation. This was illustrated again at the most recent Conservative convention where delegates approved these measures in spite of Harper's strong objections. This shows he may be losing some of control he has had of his party. This is part of the fallout of the Senate scandal.

In Parliament, when one of his MPs introduced a motion to initiate debate when life begins, the otherwise tyrannical prime minister allowed his caucus to vote as they wished, although he personally voted against it. He knew it would be defeated.

Harper's own personal views on abortion do not play a role for him. His stand was determined by politics. Political considerations are also the reason why he does not want to reopen the euthanasia debate. Yet the media do not want to leave this issue alone. Politicians cannot control everything, as even Harper has learned.

Harper's foreign policy is characterized by a strong pro-Israel stand. This stand, which was clearly politically motivated by his desire to attract the Jewish vote, cost Canada an opportunity to get a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2010. How much Harper's evangelical faith may also have played a role in this I have not been able to determine, but it is a stand that is popular with parts of the evangelical Christian portion of his base.

Central to Harper's agenda is his longstanding desire to destroy the Liberal legacy that he inherited from previous governments. His intention is to replace it with a Conservative stance, much as Reagan and Bush achieved in the US, so that when Harper retires he will leave his own legacy, one that will be difficult to undo.

For Harper, his brand of Conservatism trumps any evangelical Christian views he may hold. This is a harsh judgment, perhaps, but that is my perception. I am willing to be corrected, but politics is what drives the man.

East Gate Alliance Church in Ottawa

I wish that biblical principles would be more operative in his politics, but that does not seem to be the case. This does not make Harper less a Christian. I am not questioning his faith, but rather the way Harper allows his faith to operate in the political arena. I want to see a man who is on fire for justice for all Canadians, not just the rich and influential people who fund the political apparatus in Canada.

I am not a politician, and I would make a poor one, since I am too blunt for my own good. If I were involved in politics I might find it difficult to bring my own faith to the table. After all, politics is the art of the possible. It requires compromises. Harper is a politician.

Harper may not be able to exercise his faith more fully within the political context where he finds himself. But that context is to a large degree one that he has helped to shape. On the other hand, if he had allowed his faith to be operative to a larger degree that is currently the case, he might not have been able to accomplish what he did. He may never have become prime minister.

The political alliance he formed in order to be elected and to achieve his position demonstrates a man of great political acumen. He parlayed his role as an outsider from Alberta and someone who did not belong to the elite into the highest political position in the land. He is now the consummate insider. He and the people around him constitute the new Canadian political elite.

The three suspended senators: Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau, and Pamela Wallin

How long that will continue, only time will tell. The Senate scandal may yet prove Harper's undoing. He has handled that crisis poorly, and it may yet destroy him. He has been a consummate politician for a long time, but during that time I, and many Canadians with me, wish we could have seen more of his faith not only in his policies, where it is urgently needed but also in his dealings with people.

Harper's character flaws are only too obvious. I wish he would demonstrate genuine love and concern for ordinary Canadians, especially the poor and downtrodden. That is not only a Christian thing to do but it is above all human. Canadians want to see less of his machine-like nature and more of his humanity.

Can one be both a Christian and a politician at the same time? The answer is, yes! Unfortunately, I am not sure that Stephen Harper is the best example of someone who is able to accomplish both at the same time. That is sad, because he is a very capable politician. Like all of us, he has his flaws. The difference, however, is that he is prime minister and we are not. We cannot bring our faith to bear on public issues the way he can. The more the pity!

What I can do is pray for him and for all those who are actively engaged in politics, especially those who want to exercise their faith. They may not always be successful in demonstrating their faith openly, but I can rest assured that I have interceded on their behalf.