Saturday, December 20, 2014

How both Christians and non-Christians can celebrate Christmas in a meaningful way


It was the week before Christmas and all through the city people were madly searching for gifts. If that is your idea of preparing for Christmas, I suggest you sit down, fetch a hot cup of something, and promise to change the way you prepare for and celebrate Christmas. Shopping is not the way to do it.

Christmas is not about gifts. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that. The frenzy of last-minute shopping detracts from whatever good feelings you may have had, especially if you already overspent your budget.

So, how can we better prepare for and celebrate Christmas? By "we" I do not mean only Christians. In an age when more than half the population of North America is non-Christian or post-Christian, "we" includes more than just those who clearly identify themselves as Christian. It means everyone else, from atheists and members of other faith groups to those who may call themselves Christians but rarely if ever attend church anymore.

Celebrating Christmas is not easy in our overly-commercialized society, where Christmas has been reduced to an opportunity for companies to use end-of-the-year,-- glorified as before or after Christmas -- sales to bolster their bottom lines and keep their stockholders happy.


For some groups, such as Jews, Christmas coincides with their own feasts and celebrations. Hanukkah, which resembles Christmas with an abundance of food and drink and, of course, candles, is a well-known example. Lights are appropriate to both faiths during dark December evenings.

In my family, we still practice gift-giving at Christmas time, but we avoid making gifts part of the celebration, by exchanging gifts on Christmas Eve or someother time. We also try to keep it simple. For us, as for many Christians, church services are the most important part of Christmas.

Celebrating Christmas means focusing on Christ's birth. He is "the reason for the season," as it is often said. That is true for all Christians who attend church with some degree of regularity and even for some of those who have neglected to do so for a long time.

Advent is the proper name for the period of preparation leading up to Christmas, but not all Christians are agreed on the need for Advent or how to celebrate it. However, all are agreed about necessity of preparing somehow for Christmas, even if that only means shopping for gifts.

But what about those who are not Christians? Advent is meaningless for them. Are they excluded from both the preparation and the celebration?

When you are living in a society where the dominant religion is different from what you believe, it is not always easy to avoid the feasts and celebrations of your neighbors. Non-Christians can be as carried away as Christians are by all the gift-giving.
Yet even atheists and nominal Christians are often disturbed by the commercialization of Christmas. Like many Christians, many are bothered by the crassness of the commercialization. For example, my wife and I recently noticed the emphasis on violence in children's toys, something that many other people have probably noticed as well. Such violence has nothing to do with Christmas but everything with money.

People of other faiths can get caught up in this commercialization, but they often reject the societal mores that contribute to the unhealthy mess that has today become an integral part of the celebration of Christmas.

Small wonder that the protests against commercialization are heard from every segment of society, whether Christian or not. Many people are offended, but they continue to perpetuate customs that have become deeply ingrained and, as a result, cannot easily be removed anymore.

How then can all of us, whether religious or not, prepare for and celebrate Christmas without falling into this deeply-rooted commercial trap? I would like to make a few suggestions. I do so as a Christian, but I hope that my suggestions can find favor as well among those of you who are not Christians.

My suggestions include some elements that are basic to all religions and are shared even by those who claim to have no religion at all. These elements are, in fact, embedded in our humanity.


The first is the need for peace. There is no major war being fought today, unless one counts "the war on terror" (which I think is neo-conservative invention), but there are countless conflicts that the media remind us of on a daily basis. The Taliban, ISIS and Boko Haram are perhaps the most well-known at the moment.

Who does not want peace? Every religion wants it. Among the titles of Christ is "Prince of Peace." Islam, as the name makes clear, is a religion of peace, even if extremists who defiantly call themselves Muslims seem to contradict this. We should not forget that no religion has cornered the market on extremists. They can be found everywhere, in every religion or even among those who have none.

Nor should we forget Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on -- the list of religions that advocate peace is endless. What would happen if all religions worked together to make peace a reality?

My suggestion is that we make Christmas the occasion for promoting peace in our conflict-ridden world. Everyone in the world has heard about Christmas, if only as an occasion for gift-giving. Peace could be the greatest gift that we can give the world.

What I am talking about involves more than making a years-end donation to your favorite charity, although that is still appreciated. Rather, it means working for peace through organizations that promotes peace in your country.

Imagine what would happen if thousands, no millions of people, all over the world would work for peace! Start now, just before Christmas, and continue to do so into the new year! Peace-making never stops.


Let`s not stop either with the issue of peace. My next suggestion involves the environment. This is crucial for the survival of the world.

All of us must become earth keepers. This is the only world you and I have, and we have to share it no matter what your religion is, or even if you have no religion.

As a Christian, I would emphasize God`s love for the world, which means more than just people, since all of creation is the object of God`s love. This is the love that made him send Christ into the world. Therefore, if God loves the world, so must we.

Again, I urge you to support and work with organizations that encourage taking care of the environment. In this season, imagine the effect if our governments realized how many citizens were concerned about the environment, Then many might actively support these efforts through legislation, instead of the token lip-service that was demonstrated again at Lima.


More issues quickly come to mind: justice is yet another example. There are many injustices that cry out for resolution. If only more of us would involve ourselves, imagine what the result would be!

So, make your year-end donations to these organizations, but be prepared as well to involve yourself in the efforts to promote peace, protect the environment and be an advocate for justice. That would be the best thing any of us could do to prepare ourselves for Christmas. It certainly beats shopping for gifts.

With my suggestions, the celebration of Christmas can also be meaningful for you, whether you are a Christian or not. Together let`s do what we can, not only in this festive season but also in the year that lies ahead.
     

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Torture and Deception by the CIA


The Central Intelligence Agency should get a new new name: The Central Deception Agency, after the release of the 500-page US Senate intelligence committee report that accused the agency of torturing detainees and then lied about the results of the interrogations.

John Brennan, the agency director at a news conference defended the interrogation program by claiming that it had saved lives after the September 11, 2001 attacks. However, he declined to describe the interrogation techniques as torture. In fact, he did not use that word at all in his remarks.

According to the report, agency officials for years told the White House, the Justice Department and Congress that the techniques had elicited crucial information that thwarted dangerous plots, but the report notes that none of the agency's "enhanced interrogations" yielded any crucial information. These officials practiced this deception for a long time.

Yet there is evidence that some politicians were duly informed and raised no objections. A former CIA director, Michel Hayden, claims that President Bush personally approved the interrogation techniques. Nevertheless, there was deception: the American people were never properly informed.

The report cites the CIA's own records to document how waterboarding and other techniques were regularly used to interrogate at least 39 detainees from 2002 to 2007, although the practices may have continued longer.

Needless to say, these detainees were not white middle-class Americans, otherwise such methods would never have been tolerated. They were Middle-Eastern "ragheads," as some have called them. Clearly, post 9/11 Islamophobia is involved.


Last year I reviewed Zero Dark Thirty in this blog. This film shows some of the torture techniques, such as waterboarding, that were used to extract information that according to the film led to the death of Osma bin Laden. Whether that was the case is doubtful.

Waterboarding was first used by the mass media in an article in the New York Times (13 May 2004) dealing with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was believed to have helped plan the attacks of September 11. CIA interrogators used this technique in which a prisoner is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water and made to believe he might drown. Alternatively, water is poured over a cloth that covers the face and the breathing passages of an immobilized prisoner. Unlike most other torture techniques, waterboarding produces no marks on the body and has therefore been favored, but it is widely considered to be torture.

Senator John McCain, who himself was tortured during his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, has unequivocally rejected waterboarding. He states that it is a mock execution, and thus an exquisite form of torture. Therefore it is not surprising that condemned the CIA for its interrogation methods.

Waterboarding causes severe physical and/or mental suffering, which is the central element in the definition of torture of the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture (which came into force in June 1987). In addition, it clearly fulfills the three additional definition criteria of the Convention for a deed to be labeled torture: that it is 1) done intentionally, 2) for a specific purpose and 3) by a representative of a state, in this case the US.


Both houses of the US Congress approved a bill on February 2008 that would have banned waterboarding and other harsh interrogation method, but it was vetoed by President George W. Bush. On 22 January 2009 President Barack Obama moved away from the position of the previous administration through an executive order that prohibits the use of waterboarding by US personnel.

In 1973 Amnesty International had adopted a very simple, broad definition of torture: "Torture is the systematic and deliberate infliction of acute pain by one person on another, or on a third person, in order to accomplish the purpose of the former against the will of the latter."

Even if there is no torture, at least not in the legal sense under the narrow definitions that the US prefers to use in order to justify the CIA actions, there is still an ethical issue that will not disappear. The Amnesty International definition places the morality of torture front and center, but other narrower definitions cannot dismiss the ethics of torture.

From an ethical perspective, torture is not justifiable under any circumstances, as I have argued previously. The war on terror was used for a decade to justify torture with arguments that would never have been accepted before 9/11. The need for information, according to the CIA director, outweighs the ethical arguments against it. But that is blatantly false.


A heavily redacted page from the CIA report

Brennan in the news conference did draw a distinction between interrogation methods such as waterboarding, which according to him were approved by the Justice Department at the time, and those which were not, such as "rectal feeding," a method that is so abhorrent that it does not need to be described further, death threats and beatings. If they were illegal, why was they used at all by the CIA?

He conceded that CIA officers at times exceeded the policy guidelines and the authorized techniques that had been approved as lawful. "They went outside of the bounds . . . I will leave it to others how they might want to label these activities. But for me, it was certainly regrettable." 

"Regrettable" does not cut it. These acts are reprehensible and must be forcefully condemned in the court of world opinion. However, it is highly unlikely that any of those who perpetrated these acts, much less those who authorized them, which may reach as high as the president, will ever be brought to justice. Former Vice-President Dick Cheney has dismissed the CIA report out of hand.

These acts cannot be dismissed merely as an aberration, and thus out of character for Americans. Nor can they be explained as just isolated events. They are closely connected and, moreover, are symptomatic of a much deeper problem. 


Ignorance on the part of government officials is not enough to justify these acts. Ignorance can be excused, but the type of behavior exemplified in the incidents cannot. It demonstrates a total disregard for the humanity of others, specifically those that the US was fighting against. The perpetrators and the higher ups all seemed to think that the enemy were sub-humans or even non-humans and could thus be treated any way they  wanted.

Atrocities take place in every war, of course, but that cannot be an excuse either. War is reprehensible and, in this nuclear age, can no longer be justified. There is no "just war anymore." 

The war on terror is morally ambiguous. It represents an unjustifiable and inappropriate response to 9/11, even if not everyone is prepared to admit this. This ambiguity may help to explain some of the atrocities that have been committed by Americans since then. If the American public is so divided on this issue, as it is on many others, it is no wonder that some people in the CIA were confused and thus perpetrated these unconscionable acts.

This ambiguity does not excuse their behavior, but it is at least a partial explanation for what happened. Yet the ambiguity of the "War on Terror" does not provide a full explanation. 

Perhaps a  full explanation is impossible. War does terrible things to people. It is evil, and makes people commit acts they would not do otherwise.

Americans are no more evil than the citizens of other nations. In fact, no country has the patent on either evil or good. Evil is endemic in the world today. Atrocities have been reported in every country. Thus no nation can self-righteously sit in judgment of the US. Other countries, were complicit in what the CIA did.  But, let me be clear, no nation should permit such atrocities to occur or be involved in them in any way.


The US needs to face the reality of these atrocities. Americans must not wait for other nations to judge them, but they need to ask themselves if they have lost their moral compass., especially in connection with the war on terror.  Americans must loudly condemn what the CIA did in the name of that war. 

Muslims have repeatedly condemned the US for waging war on Islam. But I do not say this in order to exonerate Muslims who have their own share of horrible acts to live down. It is no wonder that religion is blamed for so many evil deeds. 

Neither the atrocities perpetrated by supposed Christians in the West nor those committed by supposed Muslims in the name of the Islamic State or Boko Haram can be excused in any way. They must be punished, but sometimes that punishment must wait for a Higher Judge who is able to meet out justice with perfect impartiality. We must all wait until then.

All faiths have a moral compass. Unfortunately, not everyone in those faiths follows that compass they way they should. Thus no faith should claim moral superiority over all other faiths.

        

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Open Letter to Stephen Harper on Climate Change

This post does not include any pictures because I want to send an open letter to Stephen Harper about his government's policies on climate change instead of my regular posting. In this letter I am as forthright as possible. I intend to send a hard copy of this letter to his office as well. Please feel free to suggest any additions or corrections asap before I send it out in a few days. That is why I have not included an exact date yet.

_________________________________________________________________________


The Right Honourable Stephen Harper
Prime Minister of Canada
Office of the Prime Minister
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, ON
Canada
K1A 0A2

December 2014

Dear Prime Minister:

Like many other Canadians, I am very concerned about climate change. We are therefore upset by your government's perceived inability and unwillingness to take the actions that are necessary to stop it. Climate change is one of the greatest problems of our age, since it threatens the earth that we share with people from many other nations.

The world's top diplomat, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, has publicly chastised Canada for our inaction on climate change and insisted that Canada should stop stalling and provide much needed leadership con this issue, "It's only natural that Canada as one of the G7 countries should take a leadership role," he said in an interview on The National. He noted that Canada and Australia placed last among the developed nations when it comes to dealing with climate change.

Ban Ki Moon did not mince words in his criticism of Canada. As a Canadian, it pains me very much to hear such negative comments made about my country from this otherwise mild-mannered diplomat. I hope that you do not simply dismiss his words, but take them seriously.

While Ban Ki  Moon praised Canada for pledging $300 million dollars to the UN's Green Climate Fund, which is intended to help developing countries fight climate change, he added that Canada as a rich nation could do much more both to help other nations as well as here at home. I have calculated that Canada's contribution amounts to only a little more than 3% of the $9.3 billion that has been donated to this fund thus far. That is shameful.

Your government can no longer use the excuse that the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters have refused to take any action, since China and the United States, recently signed a deal that will see the US alone cut its emissions by 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Your government has thus far matched US emission targets, but targets are not enough. But will you be able to meet those targets? As Environment Canada's own reports show your government has fallen short of the target it agreed to five years ago, after the climate meeting in Copenhagen. These new targets will be even more difficult to meet.

By promoting the Alberta oil sands and the pipelines needed to bring that oil to market you are ignoring the efforts of other provinces who are trying to introduce alternative sources of energy, especially renewable ones. Some provincial ministers went to Lima to discuss what they are doing in the absence of  concrete federal measures. I need not remind you that you are the Prime Minister of Canada, not just Alberta or the oil sector.

Please excuse the forthright nature of my comments, but my concern about climate change is longstanding. I have written about it in my blog many times. My first post on this topic was in 2011 (http://hellemanworld.blogspot.ca/2011/11/global-warming-is-real.html) and many more posts appeared afterward.

By the time you get this letter, UNFCCC COP20 in Lima, Peru, will be over. But this conference is largely a preparation for the the major climate change conference to be held  in Paris in 2015. I urge you to provide the leadership that Ban Ki Moon is calling for. Many Canadians support this call.

The drop in oil prices is a good time for your government to change its policies on climate change. If oil prices remain low for a long time, the oil sands will no longer be viable economically and then the pipelines do not need to be built. Many Canadians will thank you for changing the policies.

The costs of extracting and refining the oil sands are extremely high, but they extend beyond the financial. The environmental costs are horrendous, as has been documented repeatedly. These costs will ultimately be borne by taxpayers, not the oil sector.

If you asked for my opinion, I would suggest that the oil in Alberta be left in the ground until better methods of extracting it that are less harmful to the  environment can be found. As Stephen Lewis has observed already, no politician will dare make such a proposal, but that does not mean that it should not be done, I am no a politician, hence my boldness. I hope that you will be equally bold.

All of Canada's natural resources belong to the people of Canada. As such, they must be used wisely. We must treasure them so that not only we but also our children and grandchildren can benefit from them. Oil cannot be replaced. It can only be used once. Now is the opportune time to look for alternatives.

Your refusal to regulate oil and gas emissions because of the recent drop in oil prices, as you stated in the House of Commons the other day, contradicts your earlier promise to do so. Canadians are already bearing the cost due to climate change in terms of violent weather. More costs will become due in the future. Thus the time for action is now.

I appeal to you not only as a Canadian but also as a fellow Christian to change the policies of your government before it is too late and the damage done through climate change becomes irreversible. Stop denying the reality of climate change. I recently heard on the radio of a scientist who denied climate change until very recently, but now he has changed his mind. Perhaps you will change your mind as well. Although I am not holding my breath, this is still my prayer.

Therefore, I implore you, Mr. Prime Minister, to heed the many voices that are calling for change. Do not think only of immediate political gains but about your legacy when you leave office. Remember, a day of accounting is coming -- one will be measured not by the number of seats the Conservative party garners in the next federal election but by the judgment of future generations, including your own children and grandchildren for what your government has done to the environment.

Ultimately all of us will have to stand before the Creator and provide an account of what we have done to the creation. I hope that you can do so without a feeling of shame and remorse. Are you willing to sacrifice the future of our country for the sake of politics? Not only the fate of Canada but also that of the entire globe hangs in the balance.
     
Sincerely,

(signed)
        

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Secularization of a Saint: How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus


December 6 is the feast day of St. Nicholas, but in the Netherlands he is celebrated on the previous evening and is known as Sinterklaas. This is one step in the secularization process that turned a saint into the commercialized figure we know today as Santa Claus.

Sinterklaas, when moved to the new world, became Santa Claus, who later has become confused, at least in the minds of children, with Christmas. That association is unfortunate, but it is the result of a long secularization process.

Although some people question the specifics, the broad lines of how this 4th century saint became an over-weight, red-suited man are well known. For me in particular, having spent my early childhood in the Netherlands, this story has a special fascination.

Saint Nicholas is a real historical figure. He was born on March 15, 270, in what is today Turkey  and died on December 6, 343, in Myra, where he was bishop for many years. He attended the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea and was one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed.

He is reputed to have performed many miracles. He also had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in shoes. Stories of him rescuing some poor girls and helping sailors likely have an historical basis. Thus he has become the patron saint of sailor, merchants, (repentant) thieves, students, and children, especially the last.


In the Netherlands Sinterklaas is celebrated with gift givng. Sinterklaas arrives carrying a bag with many gifts. I still remember one celebration when I was very young, My grandfather had disappeard for a while; when he returned he brought in a bag of gifts, pretending that Sinterklaas had keft them, but I immediately recognized the deception. That was my first lesson in demythologization.

Traditionally, Sinterklaas arrives on a boat from Spain, and then rides a white-grey horse into town, visiting schools and shopping centers,. He is an elderly man, with whiter hair and full beard, dressed as a bishop in white alb and red stole. He carries a book which records whether children have been well-behaved or not, and rides over the rooftops from house to house to distribute gifts.

He is accompanied by  a servant, Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), who actually climbs down the chimneys, like Santa Claus in North America. Treats are left in children's shoes, but Zwarte Piet also carries a birch rod to punish those who have been naughty. He throws some treats as well, much like St. Nicholas threw coins to save some girls. Children, in turn. leave treats for Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet.


The main gifts are often left in a sack outside the door, brought perhaps by a neighbor or relative, as my grandfather did. Eventually children outgrow Sinterklaas, as I did, and tafter that some parents in the Netherlands started giving gifts at Christmas time.

My parents, however, distributed presents at Sinterklaas. They continued to do so even after we emigrated to Canada in the early 50's. Only later did we join our Canadian neighbors in giving gifts later in the month, although like many people of Dutch descent we did so on Christmas eve rather than on the 25th. We continued that practice with our own children while they were growing up.

Similar customs are observed in Belgium and some other countries, but then on the morning of December 6, the actual feast day of St. Nicholas. This is probably because these countries are predominantly Roman Catholic. Protestants in the Netherlands have always had a problem with saints.

The celebration of Sinterklaas was brought by the Dutch to New Amsterdam (which later became New York). For many years the Dutch customs fell into abeyance, but Washington Irving is often held responsible for reviving them, although Irving did make some changes, such as introducing a wagon, which later became a sleigh. Thus Sinterklaas became Santa Claus.

This, in brief, is how a saint was secularized. However, today very few people realize that Santa Claus was originally St. Nicholas. Unfortunately, not only was a  saint secularized but also Christmas.


Especially in a multi-cultural city like Toronto, but now also throughout much of North America, it is no longer fashionable to wish people a "Merry Christmas." Instead, one must be inclusive and wish them a "Merry Holiday." As a result, Christ has been taken out of Christmas.

In the past many have said that ever since Christmas became Xmas, Christians should give that day back to the pagans. Some of the customs associated with Sinterklaas are probably pagan anyway, so then Christians no longer have to be embarrassed by the commercialization associated with that day.

Santa Claus has nothing to do with the real Christmas, so Christians should take a page from the Dutch and celebrate Sinterklaas. Gift-giving can be done on that day and not at Christmas.

That way Christmas can once again become a celebration of the birth of Christ. Santa Claus might share that day, but Christians can ignore many of the pagan rituals associated with that fat guy and instead can concentrate on the real meaning of Christmas.

If that sounds too difficult, let me make an even more radical proposal: Christians should move their celebration of Christ's birth to some other day. The likelihood that Christ was actually born on December 25 is minimal. My own preference is for an October date, since that seems much more probable, at least according to the biblical and historical evidence.


Moreover, December 25 has pagan connections, thus it may be wise to reject that date entirely and opt instead for an alternate date. Yet this may be too much for many Christians to accept. It is one thing to witness the secularization of a saint, but it is quite another to shift one of the major feasts in the Christian calendar to another date because of this secularization.

One final note yet about Zwarte Piet: Is the tradition of Zwarte Piet racist? A large majority of Dutch people have no problem with this figure, who for centuries was understood to be a black Moor. But others contend that this is racism and can no longer be tolerated in Dutch society.

The majority might respond that Zwarte Piet is dark only because he is covered with soot from climbing chimneys, but that story does not satisfy the protesters. There are already many ethnic tensions in the Netherlands, Is this yet another example of Dutch prejudice?

Turkey's foreign minister was recently concerned about the rise of racism in the Netherlands, directed especially against Turks. It is ironic that a saint who was born in what is now Turkey would be associated with such racism.

Yet it aptly illustrates the confusing world in which we live, where secularization has run rampant and charges of racism are heard everywhere: from Amsterdam, to Ferguson to New York City, as well as many other cities all over the globe.


Maybe it is time for people in the Netherlands to modify Zwarte Piet and make him more acceptable in the modern world. Many people, not only in the Netherlands but elsewhere as well, are not disturbed by secularization, but racism does concern them.

I am concerned about both. The secularization of St. Nicholas cannot be undone. Santa Claus is here to stay, as much as many of us, might bemoan that fact. But racism, even if unintended, must be uprooted wherever it pops up.

So must sexism, since December 6 also marks the 25th anniversary of the massacre of 14 women in Montreal by a deranged killer who hated feminists.

Clearly, we live in a broken world that cries out for healing. December 6 is indeed a day for reflection -- on secularization, racism and sexism.
           

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.