Friday, July 31, 2015

Euphoria in Toronto

This is my first post for several weeks because I have been busy around the house with repairs, etc.  I intend to post regularly again, especially with the forthcoming federal election in Canada. Politics and faith are always important issues during elections. Today I want to deal with sports and faith.

Euphoria is the best way to describe the mood of the people of Toronto after the PanAmerican Games ended. Many were giddy with delight. Canadians had won a record number of medals, especially gold. The closing ceremony was spectacular. Hard on the heels of all this, there have been suggestions that Toronto submit a bid for the Olympics Games in 2024.

"What a Blast!" was the headline in The Toronto Star the day after the Games were over. It was a blast, and most Torontonians thought so too. They flocked to the venues. More than one million tickets were sold. Some, such as the opening and closing ceremonies, were quite expensive, but people willingly shelled out the money.

Toronto is a city that loves sports. It has several teams that have had a mixed success over the years, yet Torontonians have continued to flock to see their teams play during the season, in spite of their mediocre records.

The last time the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup was in 1967, long before any members of the current team were born. The Raptors in their history have never moved beyond the semi-finals. The Argonauts are a CFL team that provides employment for football players who are not good enough for the NFL. The most successful franchise has been the Blue Jays who have won the World Series twice (1993, 1992).

The euphoria stems in part from the lackluster performance of Toronto's sports teams, which function as Canada's as well (except for some cities that have NHL or CFL teams). Thus when the largest number of Canadian athletes ever sent to a multi-national sporting event, a total of 723 who competed in 36 sports.

These athletes were the best that Canada has produced in many years and thus it did not surprise many Canadians that Canada won a total of 217 medals: 78 gold, 69 silver and 70 bronze. In the first few days of the Games, Canada was in first place in the medal count, but after the first week the US took the lead.

The goal for Canada had been to end up in the top two, and in that they succeeded, but the glory of the medal haul was tarnished somewhat by the realization that the US, which placed first, had sent their B team, Never-theless, Canada's medals were well deserved by a nation that has only as one-tenth of the population of the US.

The medal goal for Olympics will have to be reduced, since Canada has never won one more than 26 medals in anyone Game, and that was in the Winter Games that were played at home in Vancouver in 2010. Canada's medals at the Summer Games reached a high of 44 in Los Angeles in 1984 when Canada sent a record of 407 athletes. The average number of medals for Canada at all the Olympic Games combined is less that 9 while the average number of gold medals has never reached higher than 2.5.

Before Toronto, Canada had never won more than 196 medals at the PanAm Games with an average of less than 113. The increased medals total at the PanAm Games is due to the fact that at of only 41 nations were represented in Toronto instead of the 88 that participated at Sochi.

While I do not want to put a damper on the euphoria, these statistics illustrate that while Canada is a large fish in a small pond at the PanAm Games, it is a minnow in the larger pond of the Olympics, Canadians excel at many sports, especially winter sports, but the competion at the Olympics is brutal and thus Canada is unlikely to win many medals.

One reason for Canada's increased medal count this year, aside from being the host country, was the "Own the Podium" program that was inspired by the failure of Canada to win any gold medals at the first two Olympic Games that were hosted in Canada, in Montreal (1976) and Calgary (1988).

The success of the program was evident in Vancouver in 2010, where Canada won 14 gold medals, which is the most that Canada has ever achieved. In the next Olympics, however, there is little chance that Canada will win that many gold medals even after Toronto.

The euphoria is already subsiding. Toronto is faced with gridlock almost on a daily basis, but the people of Toronto are happy that that problem did not get much worse during the Games when one lane of many major highways were reserved for the athletes, officials, taxis, buses and vehicles carrying three or more people. In fact, there are already proposals to convert these HOV lanes into toll roads in order to generate more funds.

As a Toronto resident, I shared the euphoria, yet I have some questions that I want to share. First, how much will this event eventually cost when all the bills are in?

The total cost of the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto will be more than C$2.5-billion, roughly a billion more than the event’s organizing committee originally budgeted for. The increase is largely due to a series of projects, including a new waterfront district and a CFLstadium that the Ontario government built as part of the Games. Other sports facilities outside of Toronto were paid for by the province as well.

The province also helped to pay for the athletes'village that will be turned into condominiums, social housing and dormitories for students. It contributed as well to the cost for security, which turned out to be much higher than previously estimated. The total bill has still not yet been presented and may exceed 2,5 billion by far.

There was also money that was wasted. The Toronto Star cited the cost of washing rental vehicles before they were used for the Games. Some salaries and bonuses were deemed excessive as well. But that is small potatoes, as the saying goes.

There is a more fundamental question that I want to raise as well. What do these Games say about our sense of priorities as a society? Governments at all levels claim that they do not have the resources to pay for many much-needed services, yet when these Games came along, the purse strings were opened and money did become available.

A similar phenomenon can be noted in the run-up to elections. Politicians know how to find the necessary funds if it can help them gain power or retain it. Sports are popular and thus a vote-getter.

As I have stated previously in this blog, sports are a religion today. Are our priorities so skewed that we cannot properly provide for the poor and pay for the resettlement of refugees, to give just two examples, yet we can find billions for sports?

Why do governments lay off people in order to balance budgets, but can construct temples, aka stadiums, for the delight of those who can afford the price of the tickets. Like every religion, sports also need money to survive. But in this case, the funds come from the public purse.

Euphoria is fine, but let it be based on something tangible. The medals may be impressive for the athletes. Many worked hard to earn them. But I contend that the money that is used to fund sports could better be used for other purposes such as alleviating poverty. If that would happen, then Torontonians and indeed all Canadians could really celebrate!

P.S. Toronto should not bid for the 2024 Olympics, which are estimated to cost at least C$17 billion. The poor cannot afford it!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

How could they do that? Some reflections on the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

(This post will be the final one for a while because I need a break in order to do some work around the house. I hope to return as soon as possible so I can provide my insights on what is happening in the world today.)

By now most Canadians have heard about the six-volume report  of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up to investigate human rights abuses in the Indian residential school system.

However, unlike similar commissions in other countries, this one was not motivated by civil war, internal unrest or dictatorship, but by the treatment of First Nations children and their attempted assimilation at these schools.

These residential schools were operated by churches, primarily Roman Catholic Church (60%), Anglican Church of Canada (30%), and Presbyterian Church of Canada (part of United Church of Canada after 1925) (10%). Approximately 30% of native children were placed in these schools.

In addition, many children attended day schools. The Indian Act in 1876 had made the education of First Nations children compulsory, and thus residential schools were the only option for some of them. About 150,000 children attended these schools in total. The last school closed in 1996.

The phrase that was often used over the years to describe the purpose of these schools was to "kill the Indian in the child." This unfortunate phrase has led to many to use the term "cultural genocide" as the TRC report also does. This does not mean genocide in the technical sense, but rather the forcible assimilation of the native population who were widely regarded as primitive pagans.

This policy was implemented by forcibly removing aboriginal children from their families, depriving them of their ancestral languages, and even through sterilization. The physical and sexual abuse that occurred was a natural -- if unwelcome -- development.

Today we may and indeed should disagree with the policy to "kill the Indian in the child" as racist, but it was part and parcel of the "Doctrine of Discovery." This doctrine was based on a papal bull in 1493 that was later used to justify European expansion in the Americas (as well as western expansion by the United States).

I object to the term "cultural genocide" since it implies that that this policy was intended solely to destroy the native population, one easily overlooks the other purpose which was to educate aboriginal children so that they could read and write and were thus able to function in the larger Canadian society.

What concerns me, especially as a Christian believer, now that this commission has concluded, is that the Christian churches have received such a bad rap. The press has for many years, as the result of previous reports, falsely portrayed (or at least implied) the staff of these residential schools as sadistic perverts who physically and sexually abused the children in their care.

The TRC report again minces no words in condemning the atrocities perpetrated at these schools. Indeed, there is no excuse for such behavior, which was practiced by some staff and even a few students.

While some staff may have abused the children, most did not. Many nuns and other staff were sincere people who loved children and teaching,  They were loving Christian men and women who would not deliberately have abused anyone, let alone a child.

That corporal punishment was frequently used to discipline children was typical for their time. Do not forget that the strap was not outlawed in Canada until 2004. The city of Toronto was a pioneer in the abolition of corporal punishment in 1971. In most other Canadian municipalities, the strap continued to be used until the 1990s.

Of course, there is no excuse for sexual abuse. Yet the sexual abuse of women is still practiced in the RCMP and the Canadian military, as recent media reports testify. That such behavior is tolerated at all today is shocking and unacceptable.

The intentions of the staff in residential schools were generally noble, even if the disciplinary methods they used are unacceptable by contemporary standards, and therefore we should be careful about judging them too harshly for that.

Similarly, we must not immediately condemn them for their acceptance of European superiority, as odious as that idea may be to us today. Rather, their ideas and practices must first be understood in terms of their age.

Inter Caetera, the Papal Bull issued by Pope Alexander VI, 1493

The Christian churches involved have previously apologized for their part in what had happened in the residential schools. The Anglican church did so already in 1993 in the person of Archbishop Michael Peers:
I accept and I confess before God and you, our failures in the residential schools. We failed you. We failed ourselves. We failed God.I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were part of a system which took you and your children from home and family.I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity. I am sorry, more than I can say, that in our schools so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally.On behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, I present our apology.
The United Church of Canada first issued an apology in 1986 that was addressed to the First Nations, although it did not directly refer to the residential schools. It issued another apology in 1998 in which the Moderator, Rev. Bill Phipps, spoke on behalf of the General Council:
As Moderator of The United Church of Canada, I wish to speak the words that many people have wanted to hear for a very long time. On behalf of The United Church of Canada, I apologize for the pain and suffering that our church's involvement in the Indian Residential School system has caused. We are aware of some of the damage that this cruel and ill-conceived system of assimilation has perpetrated on Canada's First Nations peoples. For this we are truly and most humbly sorry.
The Vatican issued an expression of sorrow in 2009, though not yet the apology that the TRC in its report has asked for from the Pope (PM Stephen Harper was supposed to ask for that this week):
His Holiness [i.e. the Pope] recalled that since the earliest days of her presence in Canada, the Church, particularly through her missionary personnel, has closely accompanied the indigenous peoples. Given the sufferings that some indigenous children experienced in the Canadian Residential School system, the Holy Father expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity. His Holiness emphasized that acts of abuse cannot be tolerated in society. He prayed that all those affected would experience healing, and he encouraged First Nations Peoples to continue to move forward with renewed hope. 

These apologies were not all fully accepted by the First Nations people. The TRC makes 94 recommendations, including the apology from the Catholic Church. Central in these recommendations is the necessity of educating Canadians about what happened in the residential schools. It should become a part of the curriculum of all schools at all levels.

My hope is that this report not be put on a shelf to gather dust as has happened to previous reports. All Canadians need to learn the truth about these schools. But they also take part in the reconciliation process. Much work is required for reconciliation.

Among other things, Canadians collectively need to accept full responsibility for what happened at the residential schools. But that does not mean that all the staff at these schools need to be blamed for reasons that I have already outlined. They were children of their time. That does not exonerate them, but it does help us to understand why these Christian men and women did what they did. Not all of them had evil intentions; on the contrary, many were good people.

Nevertheless, all non-aboriginal Canadians must confess their involvement, even if very indirectly. Collectively we must share responsibility for what Canada at that time -- and until quite recently -- did to the aboriginal children at the residential schools. Only then will reconciliation be possible.

     Some good friends marching on behalf of reconciliation after the TRC report was published

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Does Islam Need a Reformation?

Does Islam need a Reformation? Yes, writes Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose newest book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, has recently appeared on bookshelves everywhere. In it she calls for a wholesale Islamic reformation. and she proposes five ways that Muslims need to change their faith.

Hirsi Ali suggests that Muslims should disown the parts of the Qur'an that demand them to wage holy war. They should not go around forcing people to follow Islamic law or practices. They must reject Shariah and accept man-made laws rather than those that were created by God. They should rethink the status of Muhammad as infallible. And, finally, they must question whether the Qur'an is truly the word of God. Obviously, these are non-starters for most Muslims.

Hirsi Ali speaks as a former Muslim. She was born in Somalia. In order to avoid a forced marriage, she fled to the Netherlands, where she became a citizen and eventually a member of the Dutch Parliament. Later, when stripped of her Dutch citizenship (although it was later reinstated), she left for the United States where she currently resides. She is visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, which has consistently tried to foster antagonistic relations between the US and the Muslim world.

She has been an outspoken advocate for the rights of women, especially Muslim women. That, together with her abandonment of Islam, has made her a target for violence by Islamic extremists. She lives with round-the-clock security. A journalist in Toronto who wanted to interview her was first interrogated by a security person (paid for by her publisher).

Hirsi Ali’s vicious attacks on Islam and her support for the war on terror, fought mainly in Muslim countries, have left her with few friends among Muslims, including women. Hirsi Ali once famously called Islam a "nihilistic cult of death" and has advocated a war on Islam.

Neoconservatives have rushed to her defense. It is ironic that, although liberals support her for her stance on women's rights, she is very critical of them for their unwillingness to get behind her through their refusal to take a stand against Islam and for secularism.

She argues that most Muslims do not understand their religion in violent terms. She divides Muslims into three broad categories: Mecca Muslims, the peaceful but largely passive and socially conservative majority; Medina Muslims, the militant believers who accept the call to wage religious war (a very small group); and Modifying Muslims, those who challenge Islamic orthodoxy. These are the ones who can and should reform Islam. However, this division is simplistic and does not account for the diversity that is evident everywhere in the Muslim world.

She devotes very little time in her book to explaining how the reformation she is looking for could be realized, or even what a reformed Islam would look like. She is intent instead of blaming the Islamic scriptures for the rise of Islamism. She adds that Muslims should not claim that their religion has been hijacked by extremists.

She also insists that mainstream Muslims have been unwilling to counter the violence of the extremists and that young Muslims in the West have no other choices than to embrace jihadism or leave their faith entirely. Both assertions are blatantly false.

Many commentators have remarked already that this book is dangerous in equating Islam with Islamism. If that is so, then she has no idea what the reformation of Islam means. Her solution involves the demise of Islam since the five changes she pleads for would tear the heart out of the religion practiced by the world's 1.6 billion Muslims.

Instead of using Hirsi Ali's polemical vision, those who also want to reform Islam can point to the changes that are already taking place within Islam. Since the days of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam has adapted itself in many cultures all over the world. There are many different forms of Islam, and thus people should not accuse all Muslims of -- to give just one example -- denying the human rights of women, even if some are doing that.

These rights are one of the negative issues that she focusses on, but there are many things that are are associated with Islam that are positive. The mistreatment of women is surely not unique to Islam. Similarly, religious violence can be found in every religion. Islam, contrary to her assertions that Islam is inherently violent, is a religion of peace, as its name affirms, even if some Muslims propagate violence.

The use of the word "reformation" is misleading since it suggests that Islam must be reformed the same way the Christian faith was with the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther had no intention of creating a schism in the Christian church. He merely wanted to urge some much-needed reforms -- the famous Ninety-Five Theses. He pleaded for a return to the golden period in the history of the church before all these accretions had accumulated.

Luther had no intention of destroying Christianity. He did not advocate that Christians should renounce their faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. He retained the core of the Christian faith, even if later some theologians would question Christ's divinity. But don't accuse Luther of this.

Martin Luther nailing up the Ninety-Five Theses (1517)

Hirsi Ali's reformation does not resemble that reformation at all. On the contrary, her intention is to destroy Islam. Her so-called reforms would obliterate the Islamic faith. She has drunk so deeply from the well of modernity and secularism that nothing would be left of the faith she once shared as a child after her reformation. 

The emancipated woman who has been interviewed about her new book on many TV networks in North America is listened to mainly because of her notoriety. There are many other Muslim women who deserve that forum; they have much better ideas of the kind of reformation Islam needs. 

Hence, one can easily discern why so many Westerners, especially conservatives, have idolized Hirsi Ali. She is waging the same "War on Islam" that they are. In her book, she favorably endorses Samuel Huttington's Clash of Civilizations. That is sad because Huttington's book, unfortunately, has become a metaphor for our all-too-violent world.

What is urgently required today are sane voices that urge dialog not jihad. That is the only way that the West can deal with the Islamic State and Boko Haram. As I have advocated more than once in this blog, "Make love, not war!"

All religions must necessarily continue to reform. That has happened countless times in Christianity, and it is taking place in Islam right now, and indeed in every living religion. My own tradition within the Christian faith expresses it this way: "Ecclesia Refomata reformanda est" (the Reformed church must always be reforming). 

Does Islam need a reformation. Of course it does, but that reformation should be led by faithful Muslims, and not by the likes of Hirsi Ali. Outsiders are not welcome during reformations. Thus I am staying well away from any prescriptions for an Islamic reformation. My own faith needs a reformation as well. That is enough for me.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The changing face of Africa

Recently I went to Africa for a few weeks to meet with university officials and church leaders in a West African country. That was the reason why my blog has not appeared for a while. This week I am finally able to return to it and to prepare a new post. I hope to be able to do this regularly again. I hope that you will enjoy these posts. Please indicate this by liking this blog. I need feedback.  I find it helpful and encouraging. 

When one trudges through sandy African streets, it seems as if the continent never changes. Everything seems to remain the same year after year. But that is not true as I discovered on a whirlwind trip to Africa. I have been going to Africa for more than a decade and have taught in several countries. Africa is changing quickly, even if the changes are not always immediately apparent.

In the last decade, Africa has experienced enormous growth. Only two years ago, it was the fastest-growing continent in the world at 5.6% a year, Growth has been present throughout the continent, with over one-third of Sub-Saharan African countries posting 6% or higher growth rates, while another 40% is growing at between 4% to 6% per year.

The growth is unequally distributed in Africa

Unfortunately, this economic growth is unequally distributed not only among the 54 countries that comprise this huge continent but also within each country. There are still too many people who are living in dire poverty. The only reason they can survive is because of communities where they share with each other.

Even so, there is a growing, although still very small, middle-class. Most African cities have areas where these increasingly well-to-do people reside. Their homes are surrounded by walls, and they often have guards. They ride around in relatively new cars, and may even have with drivers.

Then there are the super-rich whose mansions are miniature fortresses. They own a multiplicity of the latest luxury vehicles. They may also have several wives. It is not considered wise or healthy, however, to ask how they acquired their wealth. Millionaires constitute only 1% of Africa''s 1.1 billion people; the super-rich are only a small fraction of that, but they run most of the continent's countries.

Even after the commodities prices plummeted in 2014, Africa fared remarkably well. Nigeria's economy had been expected to grow by 14%, but the IMF reduced its forecast to 10%. That is still amazing growth.

Africa is no longer as dependent as before on commodities. Manufacturing output has increased while services are growing even faster. Tourism is booming in many countries, with the exception of those West-African countries, such as Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, that were directly involved with the Ebola crisis, But some neighboring countries have also seen tourism deccrease because of the Ebola scare, as I witnessed first hand on my recent visit.

Many African countries have witnessed a decline in their currencies in relation to the American dollar, but other countries in the world have experienced this as well. While such a decline makes imports more expensive, exports have become cheaper in dollar terms which benefits manufacturing.

Fiscal policies have also improved in much of Africa. Now, increasingly, African nations are saving money during good times so that they can spend it during more difficult times.  This is a big change from their behavior in their past.

Governments have also made it easier for investors.The mountains of red-tape inmost  Africa countries has been frightening. Corruption is fostered when red-tape flourishes; thus a reduction in red-tape will help to reduce corruption. There are many other factors, of course, that also influence corruption. These social factors will take longer to eradicate or at least to reduce.

Another feature of the changing face of Africa has been the growth of Christianity. This has been phenomenal. For example, Sub-Saharan Africa’s Christian population rose from 9% to 63% in the century between 1910-2010.

Together with the steady decline of Christianity in Europe and North America, the center of gravity of this faith has moved much further to the south. If decades ago the center could be found on the latitude of Madrid, today it is found near that of Timbuktu.

Christianity is now so large and powerful in Africa that it no longer accepts the charge that it is a Western religion that has been transplanted to Africa. African Christian scholars have assembled evidence to show that Christianity even reached Sub-Saharan Africa during the first centuries of the Christian era.

These scholars also dispute the Muslim claim of being original to Africa by pointing out that Islam arrived in Africa later than Christianity, and that Christianity has been more thoroughly indigenized that Islam. The latter still uses the Qur'an in its original Arabic (in fact, this is the only authoritative version), while the Bible has been translated in whole or in part into many of Africa's numerous languages.

Although there is supposedly religious conflict in Nigeria, where Boko Haram has created a lot of unrest through its massive killings, the capture of many women and children, and the displacement of more than a million people from north-eastern Nigeria, this conflict has ethnic roots. It is concentrated among the Kanuri people, even though the language that it uses is Hausa.

Today it has become a pan-Islamist movement that among other things wants to wants to create a caliphate, similar to that of ISIS, with which it is affiliated, in that part of Nigeria that it now controls. It would also like to spread to the neighboring countries of Niger and Cameroun, but they have already sent troops to fight Boko Haram. South African mercenaries have been enlisted as well by the Nigerian government in this fight.

In spite of the role of Islam, Boko Haram has not attracted the jihadists that are flocking to ISIS. Boko Haram thus does not pose the threat that ISIS does, except in a small part of Nigeria. This group is not the portent of a major religious conflict throughout Africa.

On the contrary, many African leaders are doing their best to reduce religious conflict. Even some Muslim-majority countries have made the promotion of peace betrween Christians and Muslims a national policy. This is a development that the people in the West should encourage. Both religions at their roots are interested in peace.

This is one of the reasons why my wife and I went to Africa. For many years, we have tried to start a program in Christian religious studies at a university in a Muslim-majority country. Such a program would contribute to better understanding and to peace relations. There are still some barriers that remain, but we continue to pray that the program will actually start in September.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Nigeria's amazing election

Nigeria is an amazing country, not only because it has the largest population and economy in Africa but also because the latest presidential election proves that Nigeria is really a democracy. It has been said that as Nigeria goes, so goes the rest of Africa. If so, this election is a harbinger of good for the whole continent.

What made this election so amazing is that for the first time since Nigeria gained independence in 1960 there was a transition from one civilian administration to another one. Before the current regime Nigeria had experienced a succession of military rulers. In this election, however, an incumbent president was voted out of office. That has never happened before.

Moreover, President Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat immediately and peacefully. He phoned and congratulated his chief opponent, General Muhammadu Buhari and promised his help with the transition.

Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari

Indeed, this time there was relatively little violence as compared to many previous elections. Previously there were probably ten times or more the number of deaths than in this one. Nigerians take elections seriously. Violence has characterized nearly all Nigerian elections since independence, but this time it was minimal,

Immediately after 1960 there were no elections, but only a succession of military rulers. There was an election in 1965, but that led the following year to a serious of military coups and a civil war (1967-1970).

Then another series of military juntas followed for almost two decades, interrupted only by a brief return to democracy in 1979, when Olusegun Obasanjo, a military president, transferred power to the civilian regime of Shehu Shagari.

In 1999, Obasanjo, a Christian, was elected as civilian president. He served for eight years when the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) transferred power to a Muslim, Umaru Yar'Adua, in the election of 2007.The PDP has a rule that the presidency should rotate between Christians and Muslims.

Yar'Adua died in 2010, He was succeeded by Jonathan, who served the balance of Yar'Asua's term and was elected in 2011 with a substantial majority. Internation observers declared this election as relatively fair, with less violence and voter fraud than compared to earlier elections.

That election and the most recent one speak volumes about Jonathan's integrity. Unfortunately, he did little to solve the problems of Boko Haram and corruption. He had promised to deal with corruption, but he was unable to address this issue effectively because it is endemic in Nigerian politics.

Muhammadu Buhari, the winning candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), will find it equally difficult to deal with corruption, since it is widespread in his party as well. He has a lot to prove, since the APC promised major changes.

Despite his military background and the authoritarian manner in which he ruled Nigeria during his first term in office, few people today question his commitment to democracy.

He will also have to deal with Boko Haram, the Islamist insurgency in the north-east that has already cost 15,000 lives and displaced more than a million people. "We will end Boko Haram," his party’s posters promised. In this election  people clearly put their faith in him. Buhari's fierce denunciation of corruption and his frugal lifestyle appeal to the poor, who make up the majority of Nigerians.

Buhari will be hampered by an economy that relies massively on oil for government revenue and foreign exchange. The federal coffers have emptied as the price of oil has tumbled. The economy is in serious trouble, with the poor suffering the most because of their large numbers.

As a Muslim, he will also find it difficult to deal with the insurgency in the delta, where Goodluck hails from and where he received sixeable support again thi this election. A peace pact was made in 2009, but some of the insurgents promised to fight again if Buhari won.

There were a few major glitches during the election with the new voter cards and biometric readers. In site of this, people gladly lined up for hours to cast their votes. In fact, they had to stand in line twice, once to certify that they were they were the same people whose names appeared on the voter cards, and a second time to cast their actual vote. In spite of this cumbersome procedure, people turned out in droves to vote. This procedure helped to prevent the massive ballot-box stuffing that characterized earlier elections in which the results were preordained. That clearly did not happen this time.

Nigerians, it appears from an analysis of the votes cast in each region, did not vote strictly on ethnic and religious grounds. This too is an important harbinger of good for all of Africa. If Nigeria can hold a largely fair and honest election, then other African countries can do the same. And they can also have a peaceful transition, as will probably shortly happen in Nigeria.

One Nigerian is reputed to have said after the election resuts were proclaimed, "We have won the most free and fair election ever to take place in Nigeria. This is a new Nigeria."  

I hope that this Nigerian is right: that a new Nigeria is here. Politically, Nigeria may have turned the corner and become the true, vibrant democracy that it always wanted to be. History reveals many examples where it has taken missteps and thus failed, but the recent election demonstrates that it is succeeding. That from now on Nigeria may be able to transfer presidential power peacefully.

Nigeria will then be a sterling example to all of Africa that democracy does work and that election violence may be a thing of the past.

My prayer is that it may continue on this new path.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Reflections on Easter 2015

Easter, which celebrates Jesus Christ's resurrection from the dead, is Christianity's most important holiday. Easter is a time for reflections: on the past, the present, and the future. I did that again this year, after an unusual (at least for me) and an unholy (for many) Holy Week.

The past for me was remembering many deaths during the past year. I lost several friends and acquaintances, as you no doubt did too. I also lost my mother, who died the week after Easter last year.

Easter Sunday a year ago I had to go to Ottawa urgently since my mother was not expected to live much longer. As it happened, she hung on for another week. She had prayed for a long time that God would end her suffering and take her home. The following Sunday, God did. What was a joy for her left her six children, their spouses, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, with a mixture of joy and sorrow: happiness for her, but sorrow for themselves.

The memory of Easter sustained and comforted my family at the time: Christ has risen! That is the guarantee of our resurrection and, indeed, the resurrection of the entire creation. The past already anticipates the future.

Christ is victorious; he has won the victory and release creation from the bondage imposed by sin. But death, as Paul reminds us, is the final enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26). One day -- very soon, we hope -- death will be no more. Maranatha! Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

Unfortunately, death is still here, as I was reminded again a few days ago by the news of the death of yet another friend. The present impinges itself harshly and cruelly every day when we hear about death and suffering or experience it personally.

Our world is an unholy one. We only has to open our newspapers to discover that. The past week they were filled with many horror stories.

A truly tragic story, coming only days before Easter, was the murder in cold blood of 147 Christian students and guards at Garissa University in Kenya by al-Shabaab. On Easter Sunday relatives of the murdered students had to identify the dead. Some way to spend Easter!

The week before the copilot of a plane committed suicide and took all the passengers and crew with him to their untimely deaths in the French Alps. This seems to have been a premeditated act by a mentally-ill man. What does Easter mean to those who lost loved ones that day?

All of us can add to this list of tragedies. All of us have witnessed many tragedies of a personal nature as well as experienced the numerous aches and pains that our mortal flesh is heir to. In fact, the whole creation is groaning in anticipation for its renewal (Rom. 8:22).

Then pain and tears will be no more: "[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (Rev. 21:4, NIV).

This year Holy Week was very different from previous years for me. Usually I attend as many church services as I can during that week, but not this time. A sore back derailed my plans so much that I was only able to worship in church on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Even though the pain has lessened appreciatively, even now I still experience some pain. Next week I hope to leave for Africa for a few weeks to help orient a colleague at a university there. Thus I want to be in good enough shape to do that.

I will not be blogging during those two weeks, but hope to do so again after my return to Canada.

Thus the present is a constant reminder that the past is still with us, and the future remains a promise and not yet a full reality. The gospel reading for Easter Sunday spoke forcefully to me, and thus I want to share it with you now:

Mark 16:1-8 (NIV) When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?" 4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6 "Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'" 8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Christ has risen! He is not here! In other words, he is no longer dead, but he is very much alive. The short ending of this gospel leaves the disciples afraid to tell anyone the good news, but soon Christ commanded them to tell the whole world. And the rest, as they say, is history.

That is why I am repeating it now. This was the good news I needed to hear again. All of us, whether believers or not, need hear it because the whole creation is involved.

Christ's resurrection provides comfort to all those who have lost loved ones. It is not only an assurance of their resurrection and that of those whom they loved, but it also assures everyone who experiences the groaning of creation. All of them and all of us, too, eagerly await a renewed world where all the painful things people endure now will disappear forever.

On that day all inequalities will end, all environmental problems will disappear, and all injustices will cease.  What a glorious promise!

I for one am eagerly looking forward to that day. It cannot come soon enough! A day when God's glory will illuminate everything and the kings of the earth will bring their treasures into God's holy city (Rev. 21:23-24).

This promise is not only for Christians but it includes everyone in the world. This is not an example of Christian triumphalism, but it points the entire creation to a future where the past and present will be seen in a new light.

These were some of my reflections on Easter Sunday. They helped me. I hope they can help you as well.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Overcoming fear

We must learn how to overcome fear. When I talk about fear in this instance, I am not referring to the fears that many of us have about death, heights, spiders, and so on. What I am talking about is the number one fear of many people today, according to polls, the fear of terrorist attacks.

The fear of such attacks is an induced fear. It comes from the outside, in contrast to many other fears that are internal and self-generated. This fear can be generated both by the terrorists themselves or by governments that use fear for their own political ends, as I have written about previously,

Ever since 9/11 and the "war on terror" that followed, many governments have played the fear card, Fear is useful in order to persuade voters to support their new measures, including war, or to distract people from the failures of the government by focusing their attention elsewhere.

Without 9/11, the US would not have plunged itself into the Middle Eastern swamp, where it still unable to extricate itself. In the process, the US created Al-Qaeda and the other denizens of this swamp.

The Canadian government is now playing the same card with the introduction of Bill C-51, which grants new powers to Canada's spy agency, CSIS, but does so at the expense of the rights and freedoms that the Constitution guarantees all Canadians.

The Conservative government also extended the term of reference of the forces that it sent to Iraq to fight the Islamic State. Not only will another year be added but it also mandates these forces to bomb Syria, even though international law does not permit this. The justification the government offers was that ISIS has declared war on Canada,and thus Canada needs to defend itself.

According to a Conservative party email, all these measures are necessary to protect Canadians from morphing into Islamic State North. But the tool that it uses is fear, in this case the fear of terrorists.

The government is using this tool for political reasons: in order to distract voters in the election that is scheduled for the fall from the economy, which is dismal because of the drop in the price of oil, as well as the potentially embarrassing trials of several former Conservative senators.

What can Canadians do in response to this induced fear? Thomas Carlyle taught, "The first duty of man is to conquer fear; he must get rid of it, he cannot act till then." Fear has been aptly described as a prison.

How do we escape that prison? I have four suggestions, although without doubt there are many more. The first of these is the truth. John 8:32 expresses it succinctly; "Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." Gloria Steinem presents the same idea, but in a rather pithy fashion, "The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off." 

Governments varnish their lies with a thin coating of truth, since lies always need a smidgen of truth to be believed. When it comes to terrorism, fear drives people to seek protection. And, if governments cannot provide real protection, they offer a surrogate, something that makes people feel good.

Sadly, many people prefer the false comfort that the lie provides to the harsh reality of the truth. Or, as Nietzsche puts it, "Sometimes people don't want to hear the truth because they don't want their illusions destroyed." Lao Tsu explains, "There is illusion greater than fear."

The lies have to be exposed, so that the truth can become visible again, even if the truth comes at the expense of having a false sense of security kicked out from under people. They need the truth which alone will set them free.

Is ISIS going to invade Canada? Not likely? But does the Canadian presence in Iraq and Syria place Canadians troops there under a greater threat? Probably, but that will not increase the threat to Canadians at home, where the main threat continues to come from "lone wolves." Those people act independently from ISIS, even if they do share some of the beefs that many jihadists do.

In addition to invoking the truth, we must behave according to that famous triad of faith, hope and love in 1 Corinthians. And we must encourage others to be similarly motivated. Then, and only then, will they leave the lies behind and boldly accept the truth.

On his death bed, Jack Layton, who led the NDP in the previous federal election to second place and thus became the Leader of the Opposition, penned these now famous words, "My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world." This is the same triad, with optimism substituting for faith.

Another way of expressing faith is found in these words: "Have no fear. God is near." Fear and faith are similar; the difference is that fear is faith in the wrong direction. As St. Augustine teaches, "Faith is to believe what we do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what we believe."

When people trust in God, they do not have to fear those who want to terrorize them or who spread such fears for political gain. Faith inoculates them against fear. Or to use another image, it drives fear away so that people are no longer fearful.

When people trust in God, they are also able to trust in one another. When that trust is reciprocated, there is mutual trust, an idea that Dwight D. Eisenhower has encapsulated in this warning: "This world of ours... must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect."

Hope follows faith just as despair is the product of fear. Goethe once observed, "In all things it is better to hope than to despair." To get rid of despair, people must first examine their souls and discover the hope that resides there.

Alexander Pope stressed that hope is always present: "Hope springs eternal in the human breast. Man never is, but always to be blessed."  Somewhere hope has been described as "the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all."

Hope makes it possible for people to see past all the smoke and mirrors of all the induced fears and to see everything as it really is. Hope restores 20/20 vision to everyone by eliminating fear. Then people can no longer be misled by their leaders whose only concern is themselves, not those whom they were elected to serve.

1 Corinthians 13:13 records these immortal words: "Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love."  Love is the most important tool in fighting fear, as 1 John 4: 18 explains: "There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear."

Perfect love is a mature love that does not divide the world into "us" and "them" as happens with induced fears that teach us to hate others. Erich Fromm explains what mature love is: "Immature love says: 'I love you because I need you.' Mature love says 'I need you because I love you.'" Mature love is able to love those those whom fear makes us hate.

In war, people are incapable of killing others until they have been demonized. Love rejects this demonization. Love is incapable of Islamophobia. Love accepts everyone unconditionally. Where there is love there is no room anymore for fear. Fear is gone forever.

We can escape the prison of fear, specifically the induced fear of terrorist attacks, Here are my four suggestions. You can add your own. Fear can overcome using these four tools. Spread the message, so that all those who are still in prison can be released as well.