Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Tragedy of Orlando

By now we are all familiar with the tragedy at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where fifty people died and an equal number of people were injured, many of them seriously. This nightclub was a sanctuary for gay people, a place where they felt safe. That security was shattered in the wee hours of the night. As I am writing this, it appears that some of the injured may not survive and the total of the dead may increase. The perpetrator was among the dead. This was the deadliest mass shooting ever in the US.

The tragedy extends far beyond the victims, who were predominantly gay males . It also includes their families. In fact, the circle of those who are affected by this tragic event extends to everyone in the LGBTQ community, They are among the groups that are affected more than others.

This tragedy has exposed many fault lines in US society. These fault lines are so deep that they can hardly be bridged any more. Some examples are: racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and gun control. None of them show any signs of improving; quite to the contrary, in fact.

The polarization that characterizes US society has intensified even further as a result of the Orlando killings. Donald Trump has contributed to  that polarization in the comments he made immediately afterwards. Fortunately, both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have dome what they could to mitigate the damage that Trump has caused. Both have called for greater control of the purchase of guns by those who have been radicalized, but this call is falling on deaf ears.

Trump called for preventing all Muslims from coming to the US. By doing this he was feeding the Islamophobia that has rocketed him to be the presumptive candidate of the Republican party for the presidency. Trump sows fear and he reaps violence. No wonder the NRA supports him. The fear that such killings generate leads inevitably to an increase in gun sales. The Orlando shootings are no exception.

Omar Mateen was apparently a deranged individual who had planned his killing spree for a long time. The rifle he used in the shooting was not an AR-15, as was earlier claimed, but a Sig Sauer MCX rifle that he had legally purchased. He was a US citizen of Afghan descent. Afghanistan isa country well known for its homophobia.

No one knows for certain why Mateen attacked the Pulse club, but homophobia is indeed a strong candidate. His father stated that the shootings were not about his son’s religion, but that his son became very angry after seeing two men kissing in Miami months ago. He clearly blames the killings on homophobia. Thee are numerous reports that Mateen had been seen many times at the Pulse. He may have been casing the place, but many who saw him allege that he himself was gay.

There are other factors as well. Mateen called 911 just before the shooting and said he had pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS issued a statement calling Mateen an "Islamic state fighter," But this does not mean that he was part of ISIS. He seems to have had little knowledge of the many jihadist groups.

There are mixed reports about the level of his religiosity. Some suggest he preferred working out to studying religion. He certainly was not the first terrorist to cite Islam as justification for his actions while apparently being somewhat confused about the religion.

Trump capitalized on the alleged ISIS connection by calling for an intensifying the struggle against "radical Islam." He berated Obama and Clinton for their unwillingness to use that term. Trump later upped the ante by calling Obama a "Negro" and a "half-breed." Now Trump has added racism to the already volatile Islamophobia.

The Pulse Nightclub shootings can be blamed on a sad combination of homophobia on the part of Mateen and his self-proclaimed connection to ISIS, which is what Trump and others have capitalized on. The IRA again has benefited from Americans from both major parties who are deeply divided on how to respond to these latest killings. Guns can bridge over fear and provide a semblance of courage, but they are not the solution.

Christians too are divided. Some have identified with the LGBTQ community that seemed to be Mateen's target, They have participated in vigils commemorating the Orlando massacre in many cities all over the world. But others prefer to ignore the LGBTQ connection, except by using it to justify their dismissal of that community as evil and sinful, one that does not deserve a place in Christian churches.

The latter response is often characterized as typical of Trump supporters and of those who are opposed to gun control. Yet here are also many Christians who do not fit into either category, They are uncertain how to respond to these issues.

One one the hand, they want to respond in love and reject the voices that trumpet fear and put their trust in guns, and also acknowledge LGBTQ people; on the other hand, they are afraid to openly side with that community because those who oppose LGBTQ control the levers of power im many churches and have declared it evil and sinful.

That is where my own denomination finds itself at the moment. I doubt that other denominations differ greatly since similar issues are now being debated in their assemblies as well. In view of this division, how should Christians respond?

I suggest that Christians must begin by mourning those who lost their lives in Orlando, and include all those as well who are pained by the rejection they experience at the hands of fellow believers. When LGBTQ people are being murdered why can Christians not stand with them in their time of need and, indeed, identify with the entire LGBTQ community?

You may have heard this statement: "First they came ..."  This is part of a provocative poem written by Pastor Martin Niemöller about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis' rise to power and the subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group. One of the many versions reads as follows:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
LGBTQ needs people, whether Christian or not, to stand with them against those who want to rid the world of them, just as the Nazis did with Jews, gypsies and others who were deemed subhuman. Trump represents that type of reprehensible thinking.

However, when you support the LGBTQ community, don't qualify it in any way, by suggesting that you accept them but you cannot accept same-sex marriage. Love -- true or agapic love -- must be unconditional. Such love leaves no room for qualifications. You cannot say to your spouse or your children: "I love you, but . . ."

As Christians, we must weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. The problem we are facing isn’t a gun problem or a security problem. It’s a hate problem, a problem born of sin. The problem is that there are human beings out there that hate other human beings so much, that they kill them. That was Mateen's problem. He himself was killed in the aftermath.

That was also the problem of Dellen Millard and Mark Smich, who together planned to steal a truck and kill the owner. They happened to select Tim Bosma, a 32-year old husband, and father. A court has just found them guilty and sentenced them to a minimum of 25 years in prison. 

God loves and cherishes life because he is the creator of life. He created all of us in his image. He loves all of us. He loves us with an unconditional love. We too must love with an unconditional love.

Jesus wept and so must as well. We must weep for all those who are suffering in our world today. To love everyone in the whole world is impossible, of course. But we must love our neighbor, also our LGBTQ neighbor.

Even those who disagree with how LGBTQ people live are called to love them unconditionally. Such love should force them to change their opinion about such people, otherwise their love would false and they would not really love their neighbor. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The faith of Muhammad Ali

I have taken another short leave from blogging. Occasionally, I have still posted something, but for the most part I refrained from regular postings -- a sort of fasting. This has nothing with Ramadan, which has just started, but it is motivated by the many other demands on my time at this time of year as well as a desire to recharge my spiritual batteries. I hope to return to more frequent postings after a short intermission.

Muhammad Ali needs no further introduction. The media have been filled with articles about him. The day he died, TV and radio reports of his demise were almost non-stop. While not unexpected, his death, nevertheless, came as a shock. "The Greatest" was gone. "The Louisville Lip" had been silenced forever. This icon of many worlds had disappeared for good.

Many people will remember him for his boxing prowess. He has been rated variously as either the number one or two heavyweight boxer of all time. Others will cite his role in the civil rights movement. But for me, his faith has always piqued my interest.

Ali was born Cassius Marcelius Clay Jr. in 1942. His father was a Methodist who permitted his mother to raise him as a Baptist. At the age of twenty, he first came into contact with the Nation of Islam, although he was not admitted as a member immediately. When he was, it was publicized and he was renamed Muhammad Ali. He retained that name the rest of his life.

He remained a Muslim for the rest for the rest of his life as well. His new faith became important for him, much more important that his earlier faith was. That has much to do with the Nation of Islam and its beliefs. For Ali, Christianity was the religion of white people. His new new faith expressed that he was Black. "Cassius Clay is my slave name," he announced.

He explained: "I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me." These comments are a selfie of the man he had become after his conversion: a confident and cocky black man whose new religion accurately expressed him.

The Nation Of Islam (aka Black Muslims) has had a stormy past. Founded by Wallace D. Fard Muhammad in 1930, it has included Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Warith Deen Mohammed, and Louis Farrakhan, among its leaders. The Nation of Islam was founded to "teach the downtrodden and defenseless Black people a thorough Knowledge of God and of themselves, and to put them on the road to Self-Independence with a superior culture and higher civilization than they had previously experienced."

From the beginning, the Nation of Islam was a political movement that preached black supremacy. Elijah Muhammad called for the establishment of a separate nation for black Americans and the adoption of a religion based on the worship of Allah and on the belief that blacks were his chosen people. Whites, and even some blacks, however, viewed it as a black separatist "hate religion" with a propensity toward violence.

Ali used his influential voice to speak on behalf of the Nation of Islam. In a press conference he articulated his opposition to the Vietnam War: "My enemy is the white people, not the Vietcong." In relation to integration, he stated: "We who follow the teachings of Elijah Muhammad don't want to be forced to integrate. Integration is wrong. We don't want to live with the white man; that's all." And about inter-racial marriage, he said: "No intelligent black man or black woman in his or her right black mind wants white boys and white girls coming to their homes to marry their black sons and daughters."

By the mid-seventies, there was a movement to transition the Nation of Islam to mainstream Sunni Islam. Ali himself converted to Sunni Islam in 1975 and later to Sufism, leaving behind some of the stranger doctrines of the Nation of Islam, such as the Moon once being a part of the Earth, and the Earth is over 76 trillion years old.

Pointing to Islam, Ali declared himself a conscientious objector. He stated: "War is against the teachings of the Qur'an. I'm not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger [Elijah Muhammad]. We don't take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers." He famously stated: "Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong." He elaborated: "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?"

Ali's example inspired countless black Americans and many other Americans. Recalling Ali's anti-war position, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said: "I remember the teachers at my high school didn't like Ali because he was so anti-establishment and he kind of thumbed his nose at authority and got away with it. The fact that he was proud to be a black man and that he had so much talent ... made some people think that he was dangerous. But for those very reasons I enjoyed him."

Ali also inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been reluctant to address the Vietnam War for fear of alienating the Johnson Administration and its support of the civil rights agenda. Now, King began to voice his own opposition to the war for the first time.

Civil rights figures came to believe that Ali had an energizing effect on the freedom movement as a whole. Al Sharpton spoke of his bravery at a time when there was still widespread support for the Vietnam War:
For the heavyweight champion of the world, who had achieved the highest level of athletic celebrity, to put all of that on the line – the money, the ability to get endorsements – to sacrifice all of that for a cause, gave a whole sense of legitimacy to the movement and the causes with young people that nothing else could have done. Even those who were assassinated, certainly lost their lives, but they didn't voluntarily do that. He knew he was going to jail and did it anyway. That's another level of leadership and sacrifice.

Ali being Ali, he may well have adopted his antiwar stance without converting to Islam, but Islam did help to shape his thinking about war and to make him even more resolved to use his fame to promote the cause of black Americans and to resistance to white domination.

In 1966, when Ali refused to be conscripted into the US military, he cited his religious beliefs and his opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War. He was eventually arrested, found guilty of draft evasion charges and stripped of his boxing titles. The US Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971. His actions as a conscientious objector to the war made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation.

In spite of his prowess in the boxing ring and his struggle on behalf of the civil rights movement, there was one battle he did not win. Ali was unable to defeat the Parkinson's disease, first diagnosed in 1984, that eventually contributed to his death on June 3, 2016. 

Ali's faith continued to shine forth in the many decades since his conversion when he fought not only racism but also Islamophobia. Both racism but also Islamophobia are alive and doing well today, if Donald Trump is an accurate indicator. Therefore the struggle against both is not over yet. Ali's personal struggle is over, but his legacy of fighting them will remain. Ali, RIP.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Dancing with the Trinity

A little change from my normal political diet. This time, I want to  try to explain the Trinity and dance with God as I am doing so, since dancing lies at the heart of the Trinity.

As I have written frequently, Christians, Jews, and Muslims have much in common. They are all children of Abraham.Unfortunately, there is also much that divides them. Two major doctrines, in particular, separate Christians from the other two Abrahamic faiths. One is the two natures of Christ. According to Christians, Christ is not only fully human but he is also fully divine. In contrast, Jews and Muslims claim that Christ is only human. Muslims admit that he is a special prophet, but he is not divine. 

The other major doctrine is the Trinity. I want to examine this doctrine briefly in order to help clarify it a little and to promote better understanding between these faiths. This is not intended as a theological treatise but merely as a post in this blog. Nevertheless. I do hope to elucidate this distinctively Christian doctrine a tiny bit. This post is inspired  by Trinity Sunday, which is the first Sunday after Pentecost. This is the only Sunday in the church calendar that celebrates a doctrine. In 2016, it happens to fall on May 22.

How should this doctrine be understood? The traditional teaching is: the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. But the Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit, the Son is not the Father or the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father or the Son. There are three Persons, but only one God. There are not three Gods, but only one God. The divine math is simple, although confusing: 1+1+1=1.

It's no wonder that so many of the early church councils were called to formulate a correct understanding of the Trinity. In fact, the doctrine of the Trinity seems to be almost incomprehensible, so that it seems possible merely to confess it, but hardly to celebrate it. The doctrine of the Trinity seems much too dry, too confusing, and too distant to celebrate. Thus, the Trinity is ignored even by many Christians. That is sad, since they are unable to describe this doctrine to others, especially Jews and Muslims for whom the divine math is especially difficult to understand.

In my teaching for many years, I have often tried to explain this doctrine to those who claim that Christians worship three Gods. "How can one God be three Persons?" they ask. This doctrine is not explicitly spelled out in the Bible. In fact, the word Trinity is not found there at all. The term was the invention of an African theologian named Tertullian. The early Christians arrived at this doctrine when they applied their God-given reason to the revelation which they had received in faith.

In the story of salvation, creation is usually attributed to the Father, redemption to the Son and sanctification to the Spirit. Although they are distinct as persons, neither the Father nor the Son nor the Spirit ever exists in separation or acts in isolation from the other two persons of the Godhead. But the inner relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- in such a way that each of them is fully and equally God, yet there are not three Gods but only one -- is incomprehensible to the human mind. It is, and always will be, a mystery, not in the sense of a “who-done-it?", but rather something which finite minds are incapable of understanding.

The story is told of the great philosopher and theologian Augustine of Hippo, who wanted to understand the Trinity and be able to explain it logically. One day as he was walking along the sea shore and reflecting on this, he suddenly saw a little child all alone on the shore. The child made a hole in the sand, ran to the sea with a little cup, filled her cup, came and poured it into the hole. Back and forth she went to the sea, filled her cup and came and poured it into the hole. Augustine went up to her and asked, "Little child, what are doing?" and she replied, "I am trying to empty the sea into this hole." "How do you think," Augustine asked her, "that you can empty this immense sea into this tiny hole and with this tiny cup?" To which she replied, "And you, how do you suppose that with this your small head you can comprehend the immensity of God?" With that the child disappeared.

Perhaps it would be easier for Christians if God had revealed his triune nature more clearly in the Scriptures. Yet God has provided clues about himself from the very beginning. The Genesis account does not say, “Let me make humankind in my own image,”but “let us make humankind in our own image according to our likeness.” From the beginning, he is the God who exists in community. The triune nature of God assures us that he is the Creator, the Word, and the Spirit  and that all are involved in creation. God creates communally. There are many other clues as well.

Why did God reveal the mystery regarding his very nature in this way? The importance of this doctrine lies in this: we are made in the image of God; and therefore, the better we understand God the better we can understand ourselves. What does the doctrine of the Trinity tell us about the kind of God we worship and what does it say about the kind of people we should be? Here I have two points to make.

First, God does not exist as an isolated individual but in community, in relationship with many others. In other words, God is not a loner or a recluse. For Christians, it means living in relationships as well and shunning every form of individualism.  The Trinity shows us that three is community, three is love at its best. Two is not enough. A marriage is not a family. It is only two people who are living together. Not until a child comes along does it become a family; then it becomes a community, just as the Trinity is a community.

Secondly, human beings become fully human only when they are in a relationship with others and, although they may not realize it, with God. In that way, life becomes trinitarian. The doctrine of the Trinity challenges us to adopt an I-and-God-and-neighbor principle. Christians are commanded to live in a relationship of love with God and other people. Then, and only then, can we truly express our humanity. God intended human beings to live in community, as is clear from the Genesis story, when God created a helper for Adam and they both had a relationship with God -- a relationship that mirrored the relationship that exists within the Trinity.

The interrelationship between Father, Son, and Spirit has been expressed by Christian scholars using the term “perichoresis.” That’s a Greek word that can be translated as "dancing around." I like the implications of God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, engaged in a divine dance, interacting with one another, expressing their love for one another, and complementing the work each has to do. Each Person of the Trinity is engaged in a loving dance that includes all the work of all the others.

Salvation itself -- being made right with God -- proceeds from the Father who is incarnate in the Son; all this disseminated through the work of the Spirit. God’s work involves more than taking individuals to heaven when they die. God’s work is to restore his kingdom on this earth, so that all of God’s creation can know his shalom -- the peace that says all things are as God has intended them to be. God sent Jesus to bring the shalom of God to the entire creation. Today God sends Christians out into the world. Whatever work they have to do in this world, they do it from the standpoint of the triune God who has created, redeemed, and enabled them.

Don't think about the Trinity as just a doctrine, but rather as three Persons who love each other and who also love us. As followers of Jesus, the Son, we are loved by the Father, and inspired to love by the Spirit. All three persons of the Godhead are at work in our lives, in the life of the Church, and in the life of the world. As we live in new awareness of God in all God’s expressions as Father, Son, and Spirit, our spiritual lives will deepen, our vision of God’s kingdom will expand, and the work that God has chosen for us will take on a new vitality and urgency.

This image of the relational dance of God is wide enough to include us and all created things. Non-relational images of God do not allow such room, but the loving dance of Father, Son, and Spirit offers us and all creation the divine space in which to live into the fullness of our identity as children of God. The shared love of the Trinity inspires us to love all created reality. Thus we must be concerned for the environment. Climate change is real, and as humans we must accept responsibility for it.

There is a beautiful artistic depiction of the welcome that God gives into the life of the Trinity in a Russian Orthodox icon originating from the 15th century: Rublev's icon of the Holy Trinity. It depicts the story of Abraham welcoming the three visitors who represent God. The three figures in the icon are shown as angels seated at an altar table. They have identical faces, but their postures and clothing differ as though we are looking at the same figure shown in three different ways.

The way in which the figures relate to one another makes this icon so compelling. The Father looks to the Son gesturing toward this Word made flesh, Christ gazes back at the Father but points to the Spirit, and the Spirit opens up the circle to receive the viewer. Between the Spirit and the Father in the Trinity icon is an open space at the table in which the viewer is brought to sit in communion with the Godhead. Here we see an image of God’s relational circle into which we are welcomed: the Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Spirit, and the Spirit welcomes us to the table. It is a lush image of how God relates to himself and to us.

This triune God, who made himself known in the Scriptures, invites us to this relational dance. It might be a lot easier for everyone if we had a God who was a bit easier to peg down, but that is not the case. Instead we have a triune God who is difficult to explain. He reveals himself not in the minutia of doctrine but in community, in bread and wine, and in water. It is especially in the waters of baptism that we can swim in the crazy, beautiful promises of the triune God who welcomes us into the swirling dance of his love that led to Christ's sacrifice on the cross for the sake of the world.

Perhaps the Trinity is not such a dry, dusty doctrine after all, but one that bathes us with the love of God. The loving Trinity models community and inspires people to love those who are all around them, whether nearby or faraway. May that drive Christians to love Jews, Muslims, and those of other faiths or no faith at all. If this explanation has helped everyone to understand the Trinity a little better, then that is a bonus.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Call for a moratorium on Alberta oil sands

In this post, I don't intend in any way to disparage the extent of the tragedy in Fort McMurray nor the courage of those who fought the wildfire, much less the plight of those who lost their homes or are now unemployed for an extended period of time. What I do want to do is raise the crucial question about the future of the nearby oil sands. This is the elephant in the room that people prefer not to talk about.

It's now time to discuss further a moratorium on the Alberta oil sands. The ecological cost has been well documented, but thus far the oil companies that tap this resource have touted the economic benefits -- the thousands of jobs that the oil sands provide and the royalties that flow into government coffer. We all know who has won this battle. Even the new NDP government in Alberta has capitulated.

Is such a moratorium feasible? Probably not, since the forces opposed to it far outweigh the supporters, if not in numbers, certainly in economic and political influence. Therein lies the problem. How can this inequality be dealt with?

Now is indeed the time to do it. The wildfire that threatened to destroy this urban service area (to give its official title) of about 90,000 before the fire started has lost 16% of its homes. Many people have lost everything. Not only their homes but all their belongings are gone and hard to replace.

For some of the people of Fort McMurray, there is little incentive to rebuild their homes when the memory of seeing the destruction the fire wrought remains fresh in their memories. For others, their homes may have been spared, but they are afraid that next time another fire will sweep across Fort McMurray and consume theirs too.

Many experts agree that the exceptionally strong El Nino this past year led to this tragic fire. The unusually warm weather and the paucity of rain that resulted have made wildfires inevitable. In British Columbia and Manitoba The tragedy was this fire started so close to an urban center and winds brought it inside the city boundaries.

Humans have also contributed to climate change, in spite of protests to the contrary. Through fragmentation, as it is called, which is something humans did, fires are able to spread much faster. The number and severity of major so-called natural events such as fires and floods indicate this. These events take place whether there are El Nino years or not, As humans, therefore, we deserve at least some of the blame.

Now is the time to challenge the oil companies and their enablers to stop their misuse of the environment by exploiting the oil or tar -- as many prefer to call them -- sands. There are a number of actions that we as Canadians can take both to signal our disagreement and to punish the companies involved.

One way to do this is by divestment. Many churches and other groups are selling off all investments in companies that extract non-renewable resources. Instead, they invest in green companies, those that are concerned with the environment. Now is the time to do this, since oil prices are so low that companies are more sensitive to such sell-offs.

Another is to demand increased royalties from extraction industries. While this is not a propitious time to ask governments to do so with the oil companies, for example, crying poverty, nevertheless, the people that own the land -- that's us! -- ought to demand more money that can benefit the entire population rather than the shareholders of these companies. More money is also needed to restore the damage that has already been done to the environment as well as further damage in the future.

We should urge governments to pass more stringent regulations, in particular, those that relate to the environment. We are the owners and, thus, we have the right to regulate how our land is used.

First Nations people are already making such demands. The principles they use should be used more generally. The land is the central issue for them. It ought to be the same for all of us, especially for those who are Christians or Jews, since land plays such a central role in the Bible. For Muslims too, the land is important. Once a land has come under the rule of Islam it must not be ceded to non-Muslims.

The growing inequity in Canada and elsewhere will be addressed in part when these royalties are divided in a way that recognizes the right of citizens to the land and, therefore, to what that land provides. The concept of usufruct is basic to many cultures, including Canada's first nations. The Bible also accents this concept.

The call for a moratorium is not intended to punish the people of Fort McMurray after what they have already suffered. These people need help, and Canadians everywhere have contributed generously to help them through the next few weeks until they can return to their homes if the homes are still standing. Even if some leave the community for good, others will want to stay and pick up the pieces of their lives before the fire.

Nevertheless, now is the opportune time to ask the oil industry to stop extracting this precious resource. It is precious to the oil companies, but it is even more precious to those who own the land -- us ordinary Canadians.

The oil should stay in the ground, where it belongs. Maybe one day it can be extracted in a way that does not damage the environment. But that day has not yet arrived, Stop desecrating the land! That must be our cry.

What the oil companies are doing is not just theft but it is also rape. These crimes cannot be justified by pleading the jobs that the oil sands provide. That argument is a specious as arguing that prostitution is necessary in order to provide employment.

Now that many workers are contemplating their future after this devastating wildfire, it is time to urge the government of Canada to mandate a moratorium on oil sands extraction. Even if oil prices are stabilizing and the glut of oil is over, as seems to be happening at the moment, this is hardly an occasion for celebration. The tar sands are some of the most expensive sources of oil. Thus, the proposal of many is to leave it in the ground.

With the threat of another wildfire an ever-present reality, many people in Fort McMurray are no doubt fearful of what the future holds for them. While I do not want to add to their worries, it may be best for all of them to consider moving back to New Foundland or wherever they came from.

Other sources of employment should be sought for these workers. I and many other Canadians are concerned for their welfare but are jobs in the oil sands the best way to solve regional unemployment problems? Probably not. The cost is simply too high. Jobs for a few must not go at the expense of the rest of the Canadian population.

A moratorium is needed now! Now is the time to act! I don't want to sound heartless after this great tragedy, but now is the time. In a few months, everything will be more or less back to normal. But is this the normal that Canadians want?  I doubt it! Canadians are very generous, as this tragedy proves, but generosity alone will not solve the problem of the oil sands. But action will -- a moratorium.

While we are discussing the oil sands, we must not forget the new pipelines that the oil industry is asking for. If there is a moratorium, then these pipelines may no longer be necessary. There are already expert voices citing the lessening demand for oil in the near future and, therefore, calling for an end to future pipelines.


Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Why Only Study Muslims?

The Environics Institute just published a new report entitled Survey of Muslims in Canada 2016. This report, that was made together with five other Muslim and non-Muslim organizations, is an update of an earlier report made a decade ago.

The report is based on a survey done through telephone interviews conducted between November 19, 2015, and January 23, 2016, with a representative sample of 600 individuals18 years and older across Canada who self-identified as Muslim. The Institute also conducted a complementary survey of the non-Muslim public. This was also conducted by telephone with a representative sample of 987 non-Muslim Canadians between February 6 and 15, 2016.

The survey covers a large number of topics, including, Personal connections to Canada, Muslim identity and practice, Muslim community issues, Integration into Canadian society, Treatment of Muslims in broader society, and Extremism and domestic terrorism. I cannot review all of them in this post; instead, I suggest that you read the entire report for the results. The last theme, however, is worth looking at closely.

The question that immediately arose in my mind after I read the report was: Why did this report only study Muslims? Why not study other religious groups? The rationale for the report, in its own words, is:
Muslims represent the fastest growing religious minority in Canada today, but their emerging presence has been contentious, fuelled in part by security concerns (in the long wake of 9/11) and some religious practices (e.g., Sharia law). While Canada has yet to experience the type of ethnic violence and terrorist attacks that have taken place elsewhere, Muslims in this country do not enjoy the acceptance of other religious minorities, and are a focal point for discomfort about immigrants not fitting into Canadian society. By global standards, Canada is a welcoming multicultural society but the Muslim community faces unique challenges with respect to religious freedom, national security profiling and the threat of security detentions abroad.
The research also includes "a complementary survey of Canada's non-Muslim population, to understand current mainstream opinions about the country's Muslim community." But this concession is not enough to answer my main question: Why only study Muslims.

The answer is provided in the last topic of the survey: Extremism and domestic terrorism. The answer is clear in the title of the section: no other religion poses a similar threat of domestic terrorism and thus a companion study is not required.

However, is this fair to Muslims? Why pick on them? Is this report a response to Islamophobia? In order to answer these further questions, let us first look at the relevant section of the report.

I want to quote from the introduction to the topic of extremism and domestic terrorism:
Public concern about domestic terrorism stemming from the Muslim community stretches back to the September 11, 2001 attacks, and continues to this day. There have been no major terrorist events in Canada to date, but the two high profile shootings in Ottawa and Quebec in fall 2015 were carried out by individuals with apparent connections to Islamist extremism. Major incidents in western countries (most recently in Paris and Brussels) have kept terrorism on the front pages, along with the ongoing violent conflict in the Middle East and the recruitment of westerners (including some Canadians) to the struggle.
September 11, 2001, is cited as the day when the fear of Islamic terrorism which is now endemic in many parts of the world began, a fear that continues to this day. I can understand why this report includes a section on domestic terrorism, but why are only Muslims the focus of this investigation? Surely adherents of other religions have been involved in terrorist activities: think of the Sikhs and the Air India bombings. Jews, Christians, Hindus, and even Buddhists have committed terrorist acts.

Surprisingly, the report is very positive about the limited extent of Muslim involvement in terrorism. The survey concludes that very few Muslims believe there is much if any support within their community for violent extremist activities whether at home or abroad, and that no more than a handful of followers of their faith support violent extremists like Daesh, and that this proportion has declined since 2006.

According to the report, "only one percent now believe that 'many' or 'most' Muslims in Canada support violent extremism, and the vast majority estimate that this sentiment is shared by 'very few' or 'none' in their community."

In contrast, as the report states, "the non-Muslim population-at-large is more likely to believe there is domestic support for violent extremism abroad. Fewer than one in ten (7%) non-Muslim Canadians now believes that many or most Canadian Muslims support violent extremism, compared with more than six in ten (63%) who believe it is very few or none."

While most Muslims believe that there is little if any domestic support within their community for violent extremist causes, few are complacent about the seriousness of such activity. As the report makes clear, "Almost nine in ten say it is very (79%) or somewhat (9%) important for Canadian Muslim communities to work actively with government agencies to address radicalization activities that may lead to violent extremism either in Canada or abroad. "

'To be a Muslim in Canada today is to be a person of scrutiny," claims Katherine Bullock, a Muslim and research director at the Tessellate Institute, one of the study partners, as well as a political science lecturer at the University of Toronto. She praises the report: "This survey allows Muslims’ own perspectives to be registered through proper research, rather than hypothesized—sometimes hysterically—by others . . . this updated version will continue to inform politicians, academics, journalists, community activists, and all concerned about the place of Muslims in society."

This survey is an excellent snapshot of the Muslim community in Canada in 2016. As such, it is indeed a useful tool for many people, as Bullock says. Therefore, I hope that similar reports on other faiths will appear in due time. The focus on Muslims has resulted in a valuable study, but I cannot avoid feeling that the fear of Islamic terrorism was one of the motivating factors in its production.

Among its many findings, the survey reveals how young Muslims identify more with their faith than older Muslim Canadians. One reason for this is because young Muslim Canadians feel a strong societal pressure to have to answer for violence perpetrated by extremists in the name of Islam and, thus, they are struggling to reclaim their Muslim identity for themselves.

Without the prevalence of Islamophobia in Canada, young Muslim Canadians might not have had to face this identity crisis.  For the same reason, I would contend, this report might never have seen the light of day. 

This survey also reveals that Muslim Canadians have positive feelings toward Canada and non-Muslim Canadians tend to have positive impressions of Islam than negative ones. These positive impressions increase the more that Canadians encounter Muslims in daily life. That is a useful indicator for relations between Muslims and other Canadians.

Thus, these findings help to explain why we see so little conflict between Muslims and other Canadians and also why Canadians, in contrast to Americans, have recently accepted so many Syrian refugees to Canada through both government or private sponsorships.

This report shows that Muslims are proud to be Canadian and that they appreciate the same things about Canada that other Canadians do. The more non-Muslims learn about Muslims the more that the fear of extremism and domestic terrorism will diminish. Islamophobia may yet disappear from Canada. I pray that it does disappear soon!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Sustainable Tourism: The Stunning Example of Huatulco, Mexico

Sustainable tourism is the goal of many countries, but a good example of such sustainability can be found already in Huatulco, Mexico, as I discovered recently when I visited the area. I have written several times in this blog about sustainable development, but I was surprised to find it in this small corner of Mexico.

Huatulco (wha-TOOL-ko) is located on the Pacific coast in the state of Oaxaca which is renowned for its biodiversity and ranks first in Mexico for its concentration of species. Oaxaca also contains 23 of the 30 types of vegetation zones.

Huatulco's tourism industry is centered on its nine bays. The area is officially called Bahias de Huatulco, but this has been shortened simply to Huatulco. In the Mixtec language, Huatulco literally translates as "the place where the wood is adored," which is an appropriate name for it today. Huatulco has a population of 50,000 and is located on the southern Pacific coast approximately 500 km southeast of Acapulco. It also boasts a university.

I discovered Huatulco by accident. My wife and I needed a vacation after she finished her new book. We love Mexico, but we did not want to return to Cancun or the Riviera Maya which are flooded with foreigners. The only Mexicans one sees there are those who work at the resorts. Thus, we were ready for something different. What we did not expect was the ecological focus of the area.

About 80% of all tourism in Huatulco is domestic and only about 20% of Huatulco's tourism is foreign (it may have been as few as 5% when we were there). This is mainly because international air access is still limited, although there are frequent flights to Mexico City. There is a small international airport which has increased tourism in the area. Access by road is difficult since the highways have many speed bumps.

While searching for an affordable resort, I found out about Huatulco and was immediately intrigued. It was not difficult to invite two friends to go with us. All four of us thoroughly enjoyed the area We decided that it was the best place we had been in our travels all over the Caribbean.

The weather in Huatulco is gorgeous. Annually, it enjoys about 330 days of sunshine. Only when we got on the plane to return to Toronto did we see any dark clouds. The dry season extends from December to May and the rainy season is from June to November. It can get very hot -- an average of 28 degrees year round -- but we have lived in many tropical countries and know how to deal with the heat.

Huatulco is divided into four main districts. Tangolunda is the area where the large upscale resorts are located; Santa Cruz is a small town with the main marina which  is where cruise ships regularly dock. Our hotel was located not far from Santa Cruz beach. La Crucecita is a small town just inland from the beach areas.

Chahué, the fourth district, is the area between Santa Cruz and Tangolunda. The Chahué Beach Club is part of our hotel; this is where we had lunch every day and tried to swim in the Pacific. Unfortunately, we were unable to do so because of the undertow. However, our hotel had several pools to make up for this. Thus, we were able to keep cool.

To the west of Santa Cruz, the beaches are less developed. Most of this area belongs to the Parque Nacional Huatulco. This is a protected area that contains 6,375 hectares of lowland jungle and 5,516 hectares of marine areas, encompassing five more bays.  In these bays, the most important coral communities of the Mexican Pacific can be found. More than 700 species of animals live in the park, as well as a number of species of colorful fish, and it is open to scuba-diving, bird-watching, and hiking.

In 2005, Huatulco was awarded the Green Globe International Certification as a sustainable tourist area. Huatulco was the first sustainable tourist community in the Americas and the third worldwide, after Bali in Indonesia and Kaikoura in New Zealand, to receive this prestigious award because of its development programs for a culture that is environmentally friendly and wants to conserve its natural resources.

It is the only resort area in Mexico to receive this prestigious award. Green Globe is the worldwide benchmarking and certification system for the travel and tourism industry, focussing  on economic, social and environmental management. For many years, Huatulco has also received the Earth Check Gold Certification for complying to and exceeding the highest levels in environmental stewardship.

Large portions of the Huatulco resort area are located within this ecological zone. Much of the area is protected from future development; it is serviced by modern water and sewage treatment plants so that no waste goes into its pristine bays. There are  a few restaurants on these bays, but no one is allowed to stay overnight in this area. Instead, the workers live in neighboring towns.

There is still much work required to implement water monitoring campaigns, construction of toilets and ramps for the disabled, placing information signs and environmental recommendations, and locating containers for solid waste collection along the beach, among other tasks. However, there have been numerous strides made already and there are great things to come. We were impressed with how clean the beaches and resorts are. The towns are equally clean.

Huatulco Airport -- the thatched buildings reminded me of the Philippines

In 2010, Chahué Beach was awarded the “Playa Limpia” (Clean Beach) award by the Federal Attorney for the Protection of the Environment (PROFEPA). This was the first beach certified with such an honor in the State of Oaxaca.

The "environmental footprint" of Huatulco has been determined, by taking into account all economic, tourist, travel, and supply activities related to the area. A proposal was drafted and presented to neutralize carbon emissions, and an application was made for a voluntary green bonus program with the United Nations with the aim  of becoming the first tourism destination on the American continent, and possibly the world to become carbon neutral.

This ambitious project is part of the Equipo Verde Huatulco. Its main goal is to contribute to the mitigation of global warming by neutralizing emissions of all economic activities of this tourist destination and at the same time strengthen the sustainability of the tourism community through local programs that guarantee a better quality of life for the population of the region.

Some noteworthy results are that 100% of Huatulco’s electricity is clean, coming from a nearby wind electricity plant. Together with the low levels of fossil energy use, it is claimed that this places the energy emissions indicator at 61% above best practice elsewhere, and waste generation at less than 500gr daily per capita, which is well below the national and global average and weighs in at 7% above best practice.

These figures are astounding. The evident concern for the environment is totally unexpected, especially in this small corner of Mexico. Serendipity describes how I feel about my discovery of Huatulco. I don't often write about my vacations, but now I am compelled to do this.

Some years ago, I wrote about my experiences of a Cuban hospital which was the result of a nasty fall only half an hour after arriving at a resort there. I have also written numerous times about environmental issues and sustainable development. But never before have I been able to combine tourism and a concern for the environment.

If you are looking for a vacation that is different, I suggest you visit Huatulco. If you want a change from the Caribbean resorts, visit this Mexican jewel and enjoy an area that is noted for its concern for the environment. Sustainable development and tourism do mix: Huatulco is living proof!


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Celebrating the fifth anniversary of this blog

What in the World?

Happy anniversary! Admittedly, this is self-congratulatory, but who else is going to do it for me?

I am celebrating the fifth anniversary of this blog. Five enjoyable years of blogging on many topics -- too many to list now. Five years of sharing my thoughts about the interface between religion and the public square. I admit that I have digressed several times only to return to what continues to be the main focus of this blog.

On Wednesday, April 13, 2011, I wrote my first post in this blog. It was entitled, "The Middle East and the role of religion." It dealt with the need to accept Muslims as a result of developments in the Middle East. At the outset, I clearly stated my standpoint on interfaith relations, a topic to which I have returned many times:
I, for one, firmly believe that Christians and Muslims (as well as Jews) worship the same God. Thus all of us must seek to build bridges rather than destroying each other with all kinds of weapons, including the most deadly one of all: words. Love must replace hatred. Then and only then will we be able to live together in peace and harmony, as God intended. Please comment, therefore, with these remarks in mind.
In the second post, called "The world in which we live" where I explained a little more about who I was and what I intended to do with this blog:
I am writing this blog as a Christian to Christians, but not only for them. Thus I invite those who are not Christians to look over my shoulder and to respond as well to what I am saying here. Yet I want to issue the standard disclaimer that these are my personal remarks and thus should not be attributed to other Christians, especially those who do not agree with everything that I am writing. 
In my profile, I mention my family. I thought it interesting and worthwhile to introduce my family. Unfortunately, a current photo is not available largely because my family is too spread out (David in Istanbul and Pauline near Boston), but here is one that includes most of the adults (from left to right), Adrian, David, Wendy, Sharon, and Pauline. Two grandchildren, Grace and Chris (standing in front). Missing are Manolya (David's wife), Greg (Pauline's husband), and three (yet) unborn grandchildren (James, Tessa, and Ibo).

I am not going to quote from every post. That would take too long since this is the 294th  post, which works out to an average of almost 60 per year. During each of the first two years I penned 64 posts, the following year 61, last year 49, and this year I hope to complete one per week on average. Much of the time it is easy to find something to write about, although occasionally that has been a challenge.

At the beginning of July 2011, I started illustrating my posts which I hope has livened up this blog. As people say, a picture is worth a thousand words. At first, I used only one picture, but soon I added more. In my profile, I describe it as an illustrated blog. The intention of the illustrations is to add something meaningful and lively.

If you want to see all the posts, please consult the blog archive where all the posts are listed by year and by month. There are many posts on very diverse topics. Occasionally I have dealt with the same topic in a series of posts, but I am surprised by how many topics I covered during these five years.

Let me share a little bit about the process of writing a post. After I have drafted the text, I then look for suitable images. But there have also been times when an illustration provides ideas that I can incorporate in the post. Sometimes I can write it in only a few hours, but at other times, it can take me days because the inspiration didn't come quickly enough.

In five years, this blog has attracted more than a half-million pageviews. For this reason, I am providing a breakdown of the number of pageviews of the ten most popular posts. Clearly many people are reading these posts. Sometimes I wish I had more comments, but I prefer to referee them ever since I received a number of spam messages with pornographic content. These I can eliminate this way before they offend anyone. Here is the list:


Nov 15, 2011, 15 comments
Oct 11, 2011, 11 comments
Aug 3, 2011, 3 comments
Nov 4, 2011, 9 comments
Aug 21, 2012, 5 comments
Jul 20, 2012, 1 comment
May 22, 2012, 6 comments
Dec 3, 2011

Readers come from all over the world. Although many readers may return on a regular basis, it constantly amazes me how many countries are represented as well as the size of the audience in each country. Here is the cumulative audience by country to date (note that only the top ten countries are listed):

Pageviews by Countries

Graph of most popular countries among blog viewers
United States
United Kingdom

I have purposely refrained from using this blog to earn money. People have suggested several times that I use it to generate a small income, But I loathe to commercialize it, in part, because of the theme of religion which I don't want to demean in any way.

Notice that the most popular post by far deals with climate change: "Global warming is real." I wrote this back in November 2011. On a regular basis, people continue to read this particular post. I have returned to the topic of climate change many times since then. I am not afraid of stirring up controversy on important issues.

The second most popular post was "Inside a Cuban hospital." It describes what happened to me when I broke my armThis post, obviously, does not fit the theme of the blog, but many people have written since to inform me that have had similar experiences.

Whenever I write about Islam, there is a large audience. From my posts, Muslims know that I abhor Islamophobia and that I want to build bridges between faith communities. My PhD is in ecumenism, which deals with the unity of the Christian church. But I am currently concentrating on interfaith relations because of the way Islam is treated by people in the West. There are too many Western politicians who play on the fear factor in order to win elections. That fearmongering must stop.

When I examine the pageview list carefully, I notice that the audience is smallest whenever I deal overtly with the Christian faith. I know many readers are Christians, but those who are not may possibly be turned off by my faith or any mention of the Bible in this blog. If so, I deeply regret this, but that will not keep me from doing so in the future. Some of those who preach toleration the loudest can when it comes to non-Christian faiths be intolerant of Christians. Such intolerance is inexcusable.

An order of Trappist monks who live among Muslims in Algeria during the civil war. These men must decide whether to stay with their neighbors or flee the encroaching terrorists. This story based on actual events.

Occasionally, I have reviewed books and films, especially if they refer to faith. There were many readers for these posts, so I intend to continue with the reviews when suitable books and films are available.

I invite all my readers to provide feedback on issues and the types of material that you enjoy reading. Writing can become very lonely affair if there is no feedback. It is always heartwarming when people tell me how much they enjoy this blog. Please feel free to add your comments whether in person or in writing. That would be very helpful and enlightening, not to mention alleviating my loneliness.

Thanks for being part of this journey for the last five years. I pray that God will give me the strength and the wisdom I need to continue for many more years. I enjoyed doing the writing and I hope you enjoyed the reading.

Many centuries ago, authors or musicians would conclude the manuscript with these words: Soli Deo Gratia (Glory to God Alone). This was to signify that the work had been produced for the sake of praising God. That is also the sentiment with which I want to conclude this anniversary post: S.D.G.

This is was what G. F. Handel wrote at the end of a manuscript