Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Radicalization of Boko Haram and the Islamic State


Both Boko Haram and the Islamic State (IS, was ISIS) are in the news again. Sometimes days go by without much news about them. Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sinful," is the radical group in Nigeria that wants to set up an Islamic state in the northern part of Nigeria. IS, of course, had earlier made a similar claim in Iraq and Syria.

Boko Haram has been off the radar for a while. The girls from Chibok have not been released, in spite of hopes that a much-touted ceasefire would lead to their return. But those hopes were dashed when Boko Haram captured this town in north-eastern Nigeria, only to have to cede it again to Nigerian forces a few days later. This cease fire can now be definitively declared dead.

Within the last few weeks the militants have captured several villages near Chibok. They killed the boys in at least one school and told the girls to go home and get married.

Boko Haram and IS are increasingly radicalized and radicalizing. The Chibok girls, who are mostly Christian, may never be released, since those who were not Muslims are said to have been forced to convert to Islam. All have reportedly been sold to Boko Haram militants as wives, although some may have been sold as slaves in neighboring countries.


The Nigerian government claims to know where the girls are being kept. yet except for the retaking of Chibok little has been accomplished to achieve their release. What the government has done, according to reports of videos of these atrocities that have been verified by journalists, is capture suspected Boko Haram militants and torture them. Unfortunately, most of the suspects had nothing to do with Boko Haram.

What the government forces did has further radicalized the local people, most of whom want nothing to do with either side. Both sides are guilty of atrocities. No wonder that some people have joined Boko Haram, since the militants seem to be stronger and able to protect their town and villages better. Reports that villages near Chibok remain in the hands of the militants only confirms these fears.

The longer the impasse between Boko Haram and the government continues, the greater the likelihood that the militants may achieve de facto control of part of Northern Nigeria and be able to proclaim an Islamic state.

Christian in Nigeria and elsewhere are praying earnestly for the release of the Chibok girls. My wife and I have several former students living in the area. They are now afraid for their own safety after some of their co-workers were captured. We are praying for their safety and the release of all the captives.

Our former student, Rebecca Dali, in Chibok, which is not far from her home

Boko Haram denies that there has been a ceasefire. In a video a spokesman for Boko Haram, boasted, "Who says we are dialoguing or discussing with anybody?...  All we are doing is slaughtering people with machetes and shooting people with guns ... War is what we want."

The government claims that the militants are divided into factions, and that Boko Haram is unable to control these factions. If that is indeed the case, it may explain the recent  rash of bombings and killings in that area, but my suspicion is Boko Haram is unified in its goal of ultimately achieving an Islamic state and wiping out the vestiges of Western influence that they hate so much.

The military is also divided, since there have been numerous rumors that factions within the military support Boko Haram and covertly support the militants by feeding them with reports of imminent attacks and even weapons.

Bok Haram is radicalizing that part of Nigeria as well as being radicalized even further through the atrocities perpetrated by government forces. Local people are turning to Boko Haram, since they can no longer trust the government. The militants are becoming more extreme as are the government forces. This becomes a vicious circle that makes a resolution of the conflict even more difficult

Abdul-Rahman (formerly Peter) Kassig, the latest foreigner executed by IS

IS, which controls sizable parts of Syria and Iraq, has issued a new video showing the beheading of yet another American as well as that of more than a dozen Syrian soldiers, What is unusual about this video in comparison with previous ones is that the faces of the executioners of the soldiers are revealed. These jihadists are not hooded as previously and are believed to be Europeans.

Also different in this video is that the American aid worker, Abdul-Rahman (formerly Peter) Kassig, a US soldier turned aid worker, and apparently convert to Islam while in captivity, did not make any final statement, unlike what happened in the videos of the previous executions of foreigners. He may have refused to do so. The last segment of this video, which deals with his execution does not show the actual beheading. This part is not as professional as previous videos which used multiple cameras.

Was this segment with its amateurish filming rushed because of theUS bombings and surveillance, as some surmise? A more likely explanation is that IS is enthralled by its efforts to install fear in people. IS uses these videos as a recruitment device. In many countries there are many young men and women who are disenchanted with the West and are susceptible to siren call of IS. In this video IS says, in effect, we are not afraid. Join us!

The fanaticism and barbarity of IS is very evident in this video, but it may have the opposite effect from what was intended. The previous videos were shocking enough, but their professionalism made it seem as if they were movies. Now the naked barbarity of the executions, in part through the lack of professionalism, may stiffen the resistance of some people to the message of IS.


The US involvement in the war against IS is one of the reasons why IS has been so successful in recruiting foreigners to join IS. But this time IS might have damaged its cause, at least temporarily.
This involvement of the US and its allies in Iraq is ineffective and is, in my opinion,just plain wrong. As many have observed already, IS cannot be defeated by air strikes, bombs, and bullets aimed at hitting the infrastructure and the strategic objectives of the organization. 

No war against IS can be won without stopping its rise and its propaganda efforts to recruit members in the West. The campaign to stop that recruitment may have been aided by the clumsy, blatant propaganda of the new video, which contrasts sharply with the slick professionalism of earlier videos.

IS has become more radicalized because of the US involvement. IS has been very successful thus far, Ye it is premature to argue that this this video is a setback. There is still plenty ot time for IS to recover and be successful again in recruiting people to its cause. This gory video and the accompanying photos may still appeal to some sick minds.

If the US and its allies wrongly persist in staying in Iraq, they should do what they can to lessen the appeal of IS by becoming more strategic. They should tackle IS by targeting its funding and wealth. The focus should be on driving IS away from the oil fields they control and that provide much of its revenue. IS should be made bankrupt and forced to self-implode. Unfortunately, even this strategy may ultimately prove unsuccessful.

One thing the US, and the Western nations that support it, must avoid like the plague: they must not commit any ground troops in Iraq. That failed miserably in the past. Such previous involvements are part of the legacy that gave birth to IS. 


In the end, the US and its allies will be forced to leave Iraq with IS undefeated. What makes this war almost impossible to win is the declaration of the Islamic state by IS. This declaration is rooted in the Qur'an and is what makes it difficult for many Muslim-majority countries to involve themselves, except in a token fashion, in the war against IS. For Muslims all over the world the establishment of a new caliphate has both great emotional and religious appeal,

The radicalization of IS will probably continue, in spite of the small hiccup posed by the most recent video. Western nations must do what they can to stymie these efforts by handling in a positive way the disaffected people in their countries who want to join the jihad. The Scandinavian countries are doing this and other countries should follow their lead.

Both Boko Haram and IS have been radicalized and are in turn radicalizing others. This radicalization can be stopped, but it will require different weapons than are currently being used. 

But do NOT, I implore you, blame all Muslims for what these groups have done in the name of Islam. They are not true Muslims. Muslims are those who have submitted themselves to God (that is what the name means). But these groups do not worship God; they only worship violence. They are Islamists (see an earlier post) who must be stopped, although further violence is not the way to do that.
       

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Can a Pacifist Celebrate Remembrance Day?


I prepared these reflections on Remembrance Day, November 11, 2014, as I watched the ceremonies at the War Memorial in Ottawa, where hundreds of wreaths, each covered with poppies, were laid in order to commemorate those who sacrificed their lives in the many wars that Canada has participated in since the beginning of the 20th century, from the Boer War to the recent conflict in Afghanistan.

I regret that I was unable to publish it on the day itself, largely because I had not yet finished these reflections, but the question that this ceremony prompted in me is valid all year round: Can a pacifist celebrate Remembrance Day?

I will begin by reflecting on In Flanders Fields, the most famous poem to come out of World War I, examining what it means. Here is this poem, together with a few comments on it. I conclude with some observation on the just war theory that under-girds Canada's past involvement in many wars.


IN FLANDERS FIELDS
By Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae




In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived, 
felt dawn, saw sunset glow, 
Loved and were loved, 
and now we lie in Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe: 
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high. 
If ye break faith with us who die 
We shall not sleep though poppies 
grow in Flanders fields. 


Composed at the battlefront on May 3, 1915 
during the second battle of Ypres, Belgium


In Flanders Fields was written during WWI by John McCrae, a Canadian physician and soldier, a few days after his friend and former student, Alexis Helmer, was killed by a German shell. 

A few hours after presiding over his friend's funeral, McCrae sat down on the back of an ambulance and began to write In Flanders Fields. Within a few minutes he had finished the poem; he then ripped it out of his notebook. It was rescued by a fellow officer, Francis Alexander Scrimger, and later published in Punch magazine.

The poppies which are mentioned in the poem grow abundantly in Flanders, which has been the scene of battles for many centuries. Stories are told of millions of poppies blossoming soon after more bodies had been deposited in the soil.

Ever since the poem was published, poppies have been a symbol of Remembrance Day in many countries. In Canada more than 19 million poppies were distributed this year; poppies are also featured on the Canadian $10 dollar bill.

Almost 900,000 poppies surround the Tower of London, one for each British soldier killed in WWI

The first line of the poem “In Flanders fields the poppies blow” originally read, “In Flanders fields the poppies grow.”  It is believed to have been changed when the poem was first published. 

In Flanders Fields indicates that it is the responsibility of the citizens of a country to protect it and the freedom that they enjoy. They should always be ready to fight for what they cherish, but this does not mean that this poem glorifies war. 

The second stanza states, “We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders fields.” This stanza is written in the first person, from the point of view of the dead soldiers that lie in Flanders fields. Only a few days before they were still alive, but now they are dead and buried in Flanders fields. 

The final stanza of  In Flanders Fields states what goes on even after soldiers have died:“Take up our quarrel with the foe.” Who are the foe? McCrae, in a comment he made to the brigade chaplain, suggested that he did not mean the German and Austrian armies but war in general. I have not been able to verify this remark.

However, there is no evidence that McCrae was a pacifist or had such inclinations. Unfortunately, he died of pneumonia on January 28. 1918, before the end of the war. Thus we have no way of knowing precisely what he meant, but we can safely assume that he thought that war was bad, especially for soldiers.


"The torch is yours to hold it high” has been interpreted by some as suggesting the statue of liberty in the harbor of New York City. This statue holds a torch that lights the way into America for immigrants. The United States had entered the war in April 1917 and this poem was used to support the US involvement.

But this line can also mean the torch of victory that marks the end of a war. The latter seems much more likely. The new hands that grasp the torch do so so in order that victory will be achieved and the war will be over. WWI, remember, was considered "the war to end war."

The final line is:"If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep though poppies grow in Flanders fields."  It provides a rationale for the commemorative services that are held all over the world to mark the end of WWI and all the other wars that followed.

These commemorative ceremonies do not glorify war, however.  McCrae realized this. He had just lost a close friend. All those who have lost loved ones in wars realize this as well. There is nothing pretty about war. War is ugly, in spite of Hollywood's efforts to glorify it.

My problem with such ceremonies are not that war is glorified, but rather with the justification of war that is implicit in them. As I have argued earlier, war is immoral. The just war theory that has been used for centuries to justify war is no longer valid, especially in the nuclear age. Even before then, it was questionable.


As I write there, Augustine was the first to enunciate this theory, which was later elaborated by Thomas Aquinas and others. Augustine argued that war could only be waged by the appropriate legal authority. And he claimed further that a legitimate war required a just cause and should only be fought with rightful intentions. These principles, together with several others, have been used to justify war ever since.

Some Christians, such as the Mennonites, have traditionally been opposed to war. But many other believers continued to argue for the just war theory, using arguments such as self-defense to justify the use of deadly force whether by individuals or communities and states. Yet this argument, in my opinion, is not sufficient to justify war. 

As critics of the just war theory repeatedly point out, the use of violence in the name of self-defense is difficult to defend in view of the biblical injunction to love one's neighbor, even if they are enemies (Mt. 5:44). Admittedly, not everyone agrees with this interpretation of the biblical passage.

There are other motivations for this dissatisfaction as well. These just war principles have too often been used by powerful states to impose a standard of conduct on others who are less powerful or may adhere to cultural standards that differ greatly from those who wield that power. The morality of war seems especially to serve the interests of these powerful states. As has been frequently noted, history is written by the victors.


War is so obnoxious that it deserves to be eliminated. The immorality of war is expressed both in the principles that are invoked to justify war (jus ad bellum) and in the way that a war is actually conducted (jus in bello). To which should also be added the judgments that are made after a war is over (jus post bellum). The last refers, for example, to what was done when the international community after World War II tried the German leaders at Nuremberg, but refused to do the same for Americans after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On the basis of hindsight (jus post bellum), one can ask whether all the wars that Canada has been engaged in were justified. Such a judgment is not intended in any way to diminish the sacrifice of those who lost their lives in these wars. But the governments that declared such wars can and should be held responsible, even if that does little to change the situation.

Were such sacrifices, therefore, in vain? On the contrary, those sacrifices were real and deserve to be celebrated. Not to do so would be to rob salt into the wounds of those who have lost loved ones, especially of that loss was recent. 

On Remembrance Day Canadians celebrate those sacrifices by remembering those who lost their lives. No negative judgment attaches to those who died on behalf of their country.




Can a pacifist celebrate Remembrance Day?  I believe so, even if every year I and others struggle with this issue. In my own case, I prefer not to label myself a true pacifist, but rather an adherent of active non-violence. I will not try to explain the difference now, but I hope to do so in the future.

I hope too that my reflections have been helpful and that they will be useful in future celebrations of Remembrance Day.
       

Monday, November 10, 2014

Religion and Belonging


What is most important in religion: belief, behavior or belonging? This question was prompted by an article in the Toronto Star by Dow Marmur, one of Toronto's leading rabbis. He argues that belonging should be primary.

Marmur observes that different religious traditions emphasize different priorities. He associates belief with Christianity  belief, and behavior with Judaism and Islam, Christians, according to him, "belong in order to be confirmed in their faith, Jews and perhaps Muslims, on the other hand, give priority to behaving, assuming that actions lead to convictions,"

But today, Marmur insists, neither belief nor behavior seems to be the main reason for membership in a religious community. "Particularly the young," he explains, "often say that their beliefs need not be informed by official doctrine and that their behaviour reflects their personal convictions and isn't governed by social conformity or archaic rules."

Instead, belonging more than belief or behavior leads to membership. He adds that "even if their beliefs are shaky and their behaviour inconsistent, people may still want to belong to a religious community. The way beliefs and behaviour are articulated is secondary to the need to be recognized and appreciated".

Marmur, without intending to do so directly, may have put his finger on why many churches today are losing members. My own denomination, I sadly admit, has also declined in the last few decades. These churches have not met the needs of people, especially their need to belong.

Rabbi Dow Marmur, former senor rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple

The need to belong, which according to Marmusr, stems from loneliness and anomie, is more important than beliefs and behavior. This is true especially in cities, where religious congregations can alleviate the sense of being lost in the world.

I would like to go further than Marmur, whose focus is especially on Judaism, by arguing that churches have declined in part because they no longer meet the need for belonging for urban people,

In cities there is indeed a lot of loneliness, but there are also many opportunities for belonging that did not exist in the rural communities where many denominations traditionally had their roots and the majority of their churches. Years ago, when rural people moved to the cities, they continued to maintain their need for belonging in the churches of their youth.

Now that has changed. Young people, especially, no longer have their need for belonging met in churches which focus largely on beliefs and talk about money much of the time. Doctrines mean little or nothing to the younger generation. Even the older people can be turned off by doctrines that seem dry as dust. While debates about creation and evolution, for example, that may still stir their parents, are irrelevant for the young.

If churches want to grow again, they must address the need to belong that people have. They must become communities where belonging is emphasized and not just beliefs or behavior. The old strictures against premarital sex, to give another example, are meaningless for many people today.

A pastor friend of mine once told me that not one of the couples he married over the years was still virgin at the time. Times change. If churches do not adapt they will not become places where people feel they can belong.

Rabbi Yael Splansky, who was acting senior rabbi, is now officially in charge at the Holy Blossom Temple. For the first time in Toronto's history, a woman was officially named as the senior rabbi at a major, large synagogue. She is one of the rabbis Rabbi Marmur mentions.

Marmur gives the example of two new rabbis , both women, that he helped to install who have the gift of making people feel appreciated. He adds, "they don't tell them what to believe and they don't make overt demands on their behaviour. They motivate them to believe and behave  by giving them a strong sense of belonging."

This is what must happen in churches as well. Churches, especially their leaders, must also cultivate a strong sense of belonging, both in the cities as well as in the rural areas.

Today people find other ways to alleviate their loneliness, although sometimes that is no more than in a neighborhood bar. Churches should present themselves as alternatives, but that is only possible when they make a concerted effort to make belonging a priority.

Churches must recognize the need of people to be recognized and appreciated and deal with that need. Only then will they feel that they belong.


The literature dealing with religion and belonging often discusses `believing without belonging.` That is a different issue and refers largely to attendance. 

What I mean by belonging is a feeling of being important. That lies at the heart of bringing people into the church and keeping them there. That is how churches grow.

People go to church because of their need to belong. I experienced that may years ago when Dutch immigrants attended my local church, even though they had gone to other churches or no church at all in the old country. They felt the need for fellowship with other Dutch people, but at a deeper level even the need to belong. They were new to Canada and had not formed any new bonds yet that gave them that feeling.

Belonging is more that just church attendance, but it involves a deep-felt awareness that one is where one belongs, at  home in other words, The church should be more than God`s house; it is where we belong.

Home is the place where the heart is. It is the tie of blessed steel that binds people together and ultimately with God. It is where we belong.


Beliefs and behavior have a place in the church, but the priority belongs to belonging. Rabbi Marmur has taught a valuable lesson to many people, regardless of their faith. The same principles hold for every religion. It does not matter whether people are Jews, Christians or Muslims. All have the same need to belong.

Religion involves more than just a set of beliefs or behavior, but it addresses the basic need to belong that God has created in every person. Those who disparage religion have not yet experienced that sense of belonging that can exist whether in a synagogue, church or mosque.

It can also exist outside of these houses of worship, since even atheists, as I have discussed earlier elsewhere, are religious without being aware of it. Every person has the need to belong. Religion meets that need.

That need can be met in many other ways as well, but at at heart it is a religious need. That is how God created people. Ultimately everyone has a need for God, even they may not know it, much less acknowledge it. Every one has a need to belong.
     

Friday, November 7, 2014

End Sexual Abuse

Jian Ghomeshi

Recently in Canada a well-known radio interviewer, Jian Ghomeshi, was fired by his employer, the CBC, because of allegations of sexual abuse made by at least eleven women. Many of these women did not come forward with their allegations until a woman finally did exposing his long history of abusing women. These allegations provide a powerful case study of our society's systemic failure to address sexual abuse.

Around the same time another sordid tale came to light where two male MPs (Members of Parliament) were evicted from the Liberal caucus because of alleged "personal misconduct"involving two female MPs the nature of which was not disclosed, but which is assumed to be sexual in nature.

These are only two of the latest disclosures of what is often described as sexual harassment but which I prefer to label as sexual abuse. The Ghomeshi case reportedly includes violence and should thus be labelled as more than simply harassment but condemned as blatant abuse.


Although not everyone agrees on what sexual harassment means, the explanation of the Ontario Human Rights Code is helpful. It defines sexual harassment as “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought to be known to be unwelcome” and can include any of the following:
  • asking for sex in exchange for something, like offering to improve a test score, offering a raise or promotion at work, or withholding something like needed repairs to your apartment
  • asking for dates and not taking “no” for an answer
  • demanding hugs
  • making unnecessary physical contact, including unwanted touching
  • using rude or insulting language or making comments that stereotype girls, women, boys or men
  • calling people unkind names that relate to their sex or gender
  • making comments about a person’s physical appearance (for example, whether or not they are attractive)
  • saying or doing something because you think a person does not fit sex-role stereotypes
  • posting or sharing pornography, sexual pictures, cartoons, graffiti or other sexual images (including online)
  • making sexual jokes
  • bragging about sexual ability
  • bullying based on sex or gender
  • spreading sexual rumors or gossip (including online).


Ghomeshi admits on his Facebook page that he is into kinky sex but he claims that any violence was always consensual. That is now a matter for the courts to decide, if his suit against the CBC is allowed to proceed. Meanwhile more and more women, and even one man, have accused him of harassment and even abuse.

Such abusive behavior has to stop. Period. Maybe the Ghomeshi case will finally shine the spotlight on behavior that should no longer be tolerated, whether in the workplace, the halls of Parliament, or wherever.

The abuse that Ghomeshi stands accused involves an imbalance of power. Women were allegedly treated in violent way because he thought he could get away with it. For decades, it now appears, he was able to continue to do so with impunity. No one reported him publicly, although women who worked with him met privately for a long time to discuss his behavior.

Such an imbalance of power exists even in the halls of Parliament, it has now become apparent, because of what has been described as an old boys network that allows men to abuse women even when they are supposedly equal in power, as MP's, but more often an imbalance exists when women are juniors in some way whether as staff or even as journalists.

Some men feel entitled when they acquire positions of power, and then they abuse the power relationship and, in some cases, even think that they are above the law. Bill Clinton is one example of such entitlement, but there are many more -- too many to count.


I hope that the prominence of the Ghomeshi case will finally cause people to force men who abuse women (or anyone else) to change their behavior. Either that, or they will be reported to the police, if necessary. Sexual abuse must no longer be tolerated. 

The case of the two male MPs who were evicted from the Liberal caucus has now become a cause célèbre largely because of its proximity to that of Ghomeshi. Whether that will be enough to end the old boys network on Parliament Hill is dubious. 

But even there there is a glimmer of hope that attitudes will change a little bit. For the first time, according to news reports, something will have to be done about the abuse in Parliament. The situation is too notorious now to seep it under the carpet any longer.

In Parliament there are many huge egos --  people who are very powerful or strive to be. These men (they are predominantly men) unfortunately spend a lot of time away from home and sometimes drink too much. Thus it is not surprising that sexual harassment and abuse arises. But that is no excuse. Abuse must stop. Women are being hurt.




The hashtag #beenrapedneverreported has reportedly been shared millions of times by tweeters from as far away as India and Saudia Arabia who have joined Canadian women in saying, "That's enough!"

Sally Armstrong wrote in The Toronto Star urging men to become involved in protesting the abuse of women:
Its time for the men to speak out and walk with the women here in Canada. Bosses and jocks, preachers and teachers, politicians and dads -- put your truth to the test at the barricades. Your girlfriends and sisters and wives and mothers and daughters are there waiting for you.


When I wrote about sexual harassment about three years ago I listed some things that all of us can do, now especially in light of the cases of Ghomeshi and the two MPs. These suggestions are still relevant today, and that is why I am repeating them:
  • If you or someone you know is being harassed, you can ask the person to stop and you can ask someone in authority to take steps to stop it from happening.
  • Employers, housing providers and educators and others who provide services have a legal duty to take steps to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and they must make sure that human rights are respected, even if no one has raised human rights issues.
  • Employers, housing providers, educators and others can protect human rights and prevent claims by:  1. putting procedures in place to deal with discrimination and harassment; 2. responding quickly to human rights issues as they come up and taking complaints seriously; 3. making resources available to deal with the issue/complaint; and 4. telling the person who complained the actions taken to deal with the issue.
  • If the harassment continues or is not being dealt with appropriately, you can file a human rights claim.
  • If you feel the harassing behavior is getting worse, or that your safety is threatened, you can contact the police.   
As I stated earlier, sexual harassment is not a strong enough term to cover the sexual violence and abuse that millions of women experience every day. Sexual abuse must stop. 


        

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Churches and Politics


Should churches engage in politics? This question has been around almost as long as there have been churches. It was especially pertinent during the mid-term elections in the US. although other jurisdictions have also had elections recently and the same issue prevails.

A similar question applies when we talk about synagogues, mosques, temples, or what not: should any religious institution be involved in politics?

Almost  three quarter of Americans think that the influence of religion on American life is waning, according to the Pew Research Center, while ore than half of them see this as a bad thing. Even many of those who have no faith (about 30% of those polled) would prefer that politicians have a strong faith.

A slight plurality of Americans would permit churches to have a say in politics, which represents an increase from about four years ago when most wanted preachers to keep their nose out of politics.

The Economist, which published these results, surmises that this change is due to the anger that Republicans in particular feel against President Barack Obama. Obama has become toxic in many states, Even Democrats shied away from him during the mid-term elections.

But most Americans think that churches should not endorse candidates for political office, although the gap from four years ago has narrowed. Have you heard of any church that has endorsed someone from the pulpit?


Americans have adopted a strict interpretation of the separation of church and state. Just as the state should not interfere in the business of the church, so too the church should leave the state alone. But in some countries the relationship of church and state is more complex. Just think of Great Britain, where the Queen is the head of the Church of England.

The question whether church should engage in politics is not easily resolved. One way to clarify the issue is to define what the church is.

If one means the institutional church, whether the local church or a denomination, there is bound to be a lot of resistance to any meddling in politics, especially in an age when the institutional church has such a bad reputation among many age groups, the young in particular.

Houses of worship should obey federal tax law and stay out of partisan politics during election season, according to groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Many Americans would agree.

Tax law in Canada similarly restricts the involvement of charities (churches are charities) in politics, limiting involvement to 10% of the funds raised. The Canada Revenue Agency recently audited several charities that are concerned with poverty. the environment and climate change, Some supporters of these charities allege the Conservative government has done this for political reasons.

But all that should not exclude all involvement in politics. Christians can and should be involved with politics. For one thing they are voters. They can also run for political office. And they can try to influence public policies, in spite of current constitutional and tax code barriers.

There are many examples from the Bible of believers being involved in politics, but these clearly involve individuals and not institutions.Thus the Bible does not exclude political involvement. 


Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said in the thick of the battle against apartheid, "When people say that the Bible and politics don't mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading."

Faith-based advocacy groups have been harassed by governments, but that should not deter them from continuing with their advocacy work. Such harassment should inspire them to protest such politically-inspired interference. They must plead for more room for political advocacy. 

They are examples of the church at work, not as an institution but as part of the body of Christ. Working collectively believers can achieve much more than they can as individuals.

Thus the issue is not: should churches be involved in politics? Instead, the question should be: how can believers best be involved? 

The answer is clearly not as institutional churches. In spite of a greater acceptance of the role of religion in the public square, Americans are unwilling to permit churches to endorse candidates for political office. Nor should they.

While churches (synagogues, mosques, temples, etc) as institutions should not be involved in politics, believers can and ought to be, That is their right and their duty. They must do more than just vote.

Some years ago, when I was a pastor, people would not have appreciated my deciding who they should vote for. Nor would they have wanted me to take sides on controversial political issues, such as building a subway or an LRT, to pick a current example in Toronto. 


Now, in my retirement, I am free to speak out on all sorts of issues. I do so through various avenues. I am a member of several faith-based organizations and serve on the board of two of them. I also use this blog to vent my thoughts on issues. I do so as a Christian.

I do not expect every one of my readers to agree with me. In fact, I hope they will not. That is the nature of the political process, involving a free exchange of ideas. 

I must not try to impose my ideas on others. That is one reason why I object to religious institutions doing so, since religious leaders speak with a certain authority which they must not misuse.

That danger exists for anyone in authority, Teachers, celebrities, and even other politicians, should all be careful whom they endorse or even what stand they take on various issues, If they do so as individuals, that is one thing, But if they do so as official representatives of various groups, religious or otherwise, they must exercise caution.

Caution is the operative word. In what capacity is a person speaking? As an individual or an official representative? In both cases, caution is important, if that person is a leader of some sort.

If Pope Francis, for example, would endorse some political candidate, most people would object. Or if he speaks out on a potentially controversial issue, such as the role of gay people in the Catholic Church, many might applaud his stand, but others might disagree. That is what happened recently when a majority of bishops did not approve the Vatican proposals on gays and divorcees. Thus the Pope needs to be cautious.

Should churches engage in politics? This is indeed a complex question, I hope my position is clear by now. I hope too that everyone realizes that this is my opinion and that it is subject to debate. Please feel free to comment. 
       

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Politics of Fear

An Ottawa police officer runs with  his weapon drawn

The killing of two Canadian soldiers in the space of about 48 hours has upset many Canadians more than any other event in recent memory, in part because these deaths occurred in Canada, one of them near Montreal and the other in the nation's capital, Ottawa, and not overseas. This is what makes them so terrifying for many people. And this is something that the Conservative government has capitalized on.

The details of these killings are well-known to most Canadians by now, thus I am not going to concern myself with them. Rather I want to discuss what I call the politics of fear.

By the politics of fear I mean the fear that is generated by events such as these, and how politicians manipulate this fear for their own advantage by promising to rescue us from threats that people cannot see and do not understand.

Today the greatest threat is said to be posed by international terrorism, but much of this threat is really a fantasy which politicians have exaggerated and distorted. It is a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned by governments around the world, as well as security services and the international media. This is a form of fear mongering.

Fear mongering has been used for a long time by politicians, but it is also used by advertisers to steer people into making decisions using emotions rather that reason. H.L. Mencken expressed it this way: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed -- and hence clamorous to be led to safety -- by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."

The screen title of the BBC documentary series

The term politics of fear is not original with me. As I discovered after I first wanted to use the term, it is part of the title of a BBC documentary called The Power of Nightmares, with as subtitle, The Rise of the Politics of Fear. The series argues that the threat of radical Islamism as a massive, sinister organised force of destruction is a myth perpetrated by politicians in many countries in an attempt to unite and inspire their people and for the politicians to amass more power.

This series documents how and why that fantasy was created. It also notes who benefits from it: primarily American neo-conservatives and radical Islamists, Both groups were born out of the failure of the liberal dream to build a better world, and both have a very similar explanation of what caused that failure.

Together these two groups have created today's nightmare vision of a secret organized evil that threatens the world, a fantasy that politicians then found restored their power and authority in a disillusioned age.

Now the same politics of fear has arrived in Canada. Soon after Canada committed planes to fight ISIS in Iraq some voices within ISIS had threatened to take the conflict to Canada. That threat has now materialized, at least according to the Conservative government. But is this threat real?

Immediately after these two killings Prime Minister Stephen Harper pointed an accusing finger at ISIS. He claimed that the two men who were responsible were associated with ISIS and part of an ISIS-inspired plot. But there is little evidence for this, and both are, conveniently, dead so that we may never know exactly what inspired them.

Harper addressing the nation after the Ottawa shooting

Harper described these killings as an attack on Canada. He interpreted them as part of a broader bid by terrorist groups to bring “their savagery to our shores.”  And he vowed that his government would take all necessary steps to protect the country, and would work together with its allies to fight ISIS. 

Both Martin Couture-Rouleau  and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau had sympathies with ISIS, but that does not mean that they were part of an ISIS plot. Thus their attacks are not enough to justify Canada's participation in the fight against ISIS, as Harper did. Nor should their association with Islam be used to smear all Muslims, as some Canadians are already doing. This is yet another example of Islamophobia.

Couture-Rouleau was a Canadian-born convert to Islam, while Zehaf-Bibeau was the son of a Libyan father and Canadian mother. Both had problems with their parents, and both had a troubled past. Zehaf-Bibeau was well-known to the police as a petty criminal and a drug addict. In addition, he was no longer welcome in his mosque in British Columbia.

Neither man can properly be called a terrorist, at least on the basis of the information I had when I was writing this. The terror they inspired lasted only a few minutes in each case, although the effects linger. We don't call every murder terrorism. But Harper's description of these killings as terrorism is part of the myth making that typifies the politics of fear.

These men did have much in common. They were both self-radicalized individuals who wanted to go and fight with ISIS.  They were lone wolves who had grievances against the government, yet only one of them was under surveillance by the RCMP. One man used a car to kill a soldier, the other used a hunting rifle to shoot a soldier standing guard in front of the War Memorial in Ottawa, yet there is no evidence they were part of a plot. Apparently they did not know each other.

Michael Zahef-Bibeau from an ISIS Twitter account

Both has mental issues, which may be the primary reason for these killings. Thus the government should not get carried away by implementing security measures that will diminish the civil liberties of Canadians.

Security was lax in the Parliament buildings, but that is the result of Government-imposed cutbacks. Tweaking security measures ought to be enough. Canada does not need a repeat of the implementation of the War Measures Act in !970 at the height of the FLQ crisis.

What happened near Montreal and in Ottawa was not part of a terrorist plot, but rather the bizarre acts of two men who happened to have sympathies for ISIS. Canadians should not let themselves be terrorized by them. They should certainly not become fearful as a result.

Terrorist groups such as ISIS want to inspire fear. That is their main strategy. Governments too often react to that fear and try to use it for their political advantage. Hence my use of the term politics of fear. Fear can be generated by terrorists groups such as ISIS, and politicians are easily tempted to use it for their own political advantage.

Fear must never be permitted to erode civil liberties. These are to precious to squander at the hands of of politicians. Instead, Canadians and those in other countries who value these liberties must expose such politicians and show that the emperor is without clothes. What they preach is a myth.

The War Memorial in Ottawa the evening after the shooting

I am not contending that Harper is going to introduce a police state in Canada, but he has displayed enough despotic tendencies in the past to make me wary of his intentions after the recent killings. I do, however, expect him to use these killings in the next federal election, which is scheduled for a year from now. He is already making political hay out of them.

In the election Harper will present himself as the political leader who is best able to protect Canada. He has already demonstrated that, he will argue, by sending planes to Iraq to fight ISIS. And now, by vowing to implement stricter security measures he will appeal to the natural desire of people for security in order to win a further mandate for his party.

Canadians should be careful not allow themselves to be sucked in by Harper's arguments. They must reject the politics of fear,since such politics are based on emotions, not reason and thus they are highly suspect. A healthy hermeneutic of suspicion is needed whenever politicians use fear.

The price for Harper's politics of fear is too high: the loss of civil liberties in Canada. If Canadians want to protect these liberties, they must not reelect Harper in the next election. He is too dangerous in my opinion. He must not be allowed to use the politics of fear to win reelection. The damage he has already done to Canada is incalculable.

Canadians must also be careful not to endorse other politicians we preach a similar message. There are too many politicians of every political stripe who are willing to capitalize on the politics of fear, if this would allow them to gain power or to retain that power. A word to the wise!
          

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ebola, the latest pandemic


According to the World Health Organization there are currently 1,000 new Ebola cases per week, but the WHO now estimates that this will rise to 10,000 new case per week by the end of the year.

The WHO has also warned that the death rate in the current outbreak has risen to 70%. Previously it had estimated the Ebola mortality rate at around 50%. In contrast, in the past flu pandemics the death rate was approximately 2%. Some estimates of the death rate for Ebola place it as high as 90%.

Ebola virus disease, which was formerly known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, is a severe, often fatal illness. It is one of the world’s most virulent diseases. The infection is transmitted by direct contact with the blood, body fluids and tissues of infected animals or people.

Severely ill Ebola patients require intensive supportive care. During an outbreak, those at higher risk of infection are health workers, family members and others in close contact with sick people and deceased patients.

Unfortunately, the West African countries that have experienced the most cases (about 8,000 by now) and the most deaths (approaching 5,000 currently) have been unable to control the outbreak in their countries. They lack the resources to control the spread of the disease and have difficulty controlling their own citizens.

The number of Ebola cases and deaths, as of October 15, 2014

A pandemic has been defined as a global epidemic -- an epidemic that spreads to more than one continent. By this definition, Ebola may already be a pandemic since it already found on more than one continent, even though it not yet epidemic except in Africa.

A pandemic is determined by how the disease spreads, not how many deaths it causes. In order to be a pandemic a disease must also be infectious. Ebola is highly infectious, It is spread by direct contact with infected animals and people. Some have suggested that it may be spread in other ways as well, although there is as yet no evidence for this.

In West Africa the number of deaths caused by Ebola is predicted to grow exponentially if no way is found to stop the spread of the disease. The international community is now very much involved in that region in order to help stop spread of Ebola, but these efforts have thus far been unable to do so.

The WHO has a six-stage classification that describes the process by which a new virus moves from the first few infections in humans through to a pandemic. The process ends with a pandemic when infections from the virus have spread worldwide and it might then be out of control until it is eventually stopped.

Bubonic plague

There have been a number of significant pandemics recorded in human history. Perhaps the most well known one is the Black Death which started in Asia and was responsible for an estimated 75 to 200 million deaths worldwide over several decades during the 14th and 15th centuries. Since then it has recurred in Europe and elsewhere, most recently in China in the 19th century.

Today it is commonly assumes that Black Death was a bacterial bubonic plague pandemic caused by flea bites and spread by rats. But there is evidence to the contrary that the Black Death also killed a high proportion of Scandinavians who lived in a region that was too cold for fleas to survive.

The Biology of Plagues (Cambridge University Press, 2005) helps to explain this mystery. It analyzed 2,500 years of plagues and concludes that the Black Death was caused by a viral hemorrhagic fever pandemic similar to Ebola. If this view is correct, the future medical and economic impacts from Ebola have been vastly underestimated.


The authors, Dr. Susan Scott, a demographer, and Dr. Christopher J. Duncan, a zoologist, contend that the threat of plagues such as AIDS and Ebola is constantly with us. They point out that the Bible used the term "plague" to describe a catchall of afflictions resulting from divine displeasure.

The researchers discern “Four Ages of Plague”, including the "Plague of Athens" from 430 to 427 BC that killed about a third of the city; the "Plague of Justinian" from 542 to 592 AD that killed 10,000 a day in Constantinople; the Black Plague from 1337 to 1340 AD that killed a third of Eurasia; and a series of plague outbreaks in Europe from 1350 to 1670 that killed about half of the populations of a number of cities.

The book combines modern concepts of epidemiology and molecular biology with computer-modelling. By applying these to the analysis of historical epidemics, the authors show that these plagues were not outbreaks of bubonic plague but a viral pandemic similar to Ebola.

The Athenian plague, for example, was similar to the Black Death and the current Ebola pandemic. Like Ebola, this plague is believed to have originated in Africa and then traveled northward. 

The bubonic plague, which was first recorded in China about 37 AD and still is a worldwide public health problem, with thousands of cases each year, is a very different disease and should not be confused with the viral plagues that Biology of Plagues deals with.


An inguinal bubo on the upper thigh of a person infected with bubonic plague.


The first symptom of bubonic plague is a mild and non-alarming fever. Bubonic swellings follow within a few days. Sufferers either go into a deep coma or become violently delirious, paranoid and suicidal. Most victims die within a few days. Before antibiotics, the appearance of black blisters was considered a sign of imminent death.

Bubonic plague is very seldom spread from person to person. The disease needs a rodent population, usually rats, to carry fleas to spread the infection to humans. However, once the local rats die out from the infection, human infections tend to tail off.

In the 2011 book The Black Death in London, Barney Sloane, an archaeologist who has worked on medieval sites for the Museum of London, documents the 1348-49 epidemic that killed two thirds of the city and argues that this could not have been bubonic plague. He writes:
The evidence just isn't there to support it. We ought to be finding great heaps of dead rats in all the waterfront sites but they just aren't there. And all the evidence I've looked at suggests the plague spread too fast for the traditional explanation of transmission by rats and fleas. It has to be person to person – there just isn't time for the rats to be spreading it.
Bubonic plague is a bacterial disease that is spread by animals, while Ebola and its kindred diseases is viral and spread especially through person-to-person contact. These diseases should not be confused.

Today scholars remain divided about the nature of the Black Death. Many would still argue that it was bubonic plague. Whether that was the case or not does not detract from the argument that a viral hemorrhagic disease similar to Ebola may have been responsible for many plagues in the past.


This argument offers a reason for hope. It means that Ebola can be stopped. It has stopped in the past and it can be stopped again today if the necessary measures are taken.

Many people today are so frightened of Ebola that they want to quarantine parts of Africa by cutting off air travel with the countries that are currently infected. But, as the head of the Center for Disease Control in the US has argued, this would be ineffective since people would find other ways to travel to the rest of the world and this might make it even more difficult to track possible infected people.

Rather, I suggest that Western countries, because of the relative wealth, should fund the efforts to stop Ebola in West Africa. UN Secretary-General,Ban Ki-moon has issued another urgent appeal for funds to help fight Ebola. He said a $1bn trust fund he launched in September has received just $100,000 so far (from Columbia).

Ban joins a growing chorus of world leaders who have criticized the global effort to tackle the Ebola outbreak. Donors have given almost $400m to other UN agencies and aid organisations directly, but these funds are still inadequate. Much more money and other aid is needed immediately.

Ebola is the latest pandemic, but the world must not panic in fear. Ebola can be stopped, but that will require the best efforts from many countries to fund these efforts and provide the necessary manpower. 

Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia are unable to do so on their own. They need help urgently. If that help is not provided soon, Ebola threatens to become one of the worst pandemics of all time. The medical and financial consequences of the latest pandemic may exceed that of the Black Death.

Let us pray earnestly that that does not happen.