Monday, May 30, 2011

Does pro-Palestinian mean anti-Israeli?

    Many years ago, while I was in the seminary, one of my profs urged my classmates and I to give the Palestinian cause a fair hearing. He himself was pro-Palestinian, in part because his research required extensive travel in the Arab states surrounding Israel. This travel had sensitized him to the needs of the Palestinians who were refugees in these states. Yet he did not consider himself anti-Israeli. This was wise, because he also worked in Israel. But, more important, he saw merit in both positions.
    His attitude was not popular in a region of the US that was solidly Republican and generally inclined to be pro-Israeli, although most people were not dispensationalists (who are typically pro-Israeli for theological reasons).
   Over the years, I have heeded his advice as I carefully studied the Palestinian-Israeli question. It is a complex issue with a convoluted history. Therefore I will not even attempt to trace the history nor describe this issue.
   Suffice to say, Palestinians and Israelis are two peoples who have long-standing claims to the same land. In the process of distributing that land during the last century, whether by UN resolutions or through war, many injustices have been perpetrated on both sides. Those who claim that their side alone has been an innocent victim, are blind.
     I strongly affirm the two-state solution, but this is becoming increasingly more difficult to achieve. Although a majority of Israelis still support this solution, a hardline faction of the population refuses to cede any of the Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel. On the other side, there are hardliners too among the Palestinians, and not just among Hamas, who refuse to acknowledge the existence of the state of Israel and are prepared to use violent methods to rid the land of the Israeli presence.
   The extremist on both sides are the first to argue that one cannot be be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli at the same time. "He who is not for me, is against me," is the maxim they might use. But there are others.
   AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee), the main Jewish lobby is the US, which held a 10,000 strong convention recently, with both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu as key note speakers, also falls into this category. The US Congress seems to fit this pattern as well.
   So too do other public institutions that want to be perceived as politically correct. For example, two years ago the University of Toronto at the last minute refused a pro-Palestinian group permission to speak on campus. The event was later moved to church. it should be noted that that UofT has been accused of antisemitism in the past. Universities are not always the bastions of academic freedom that they declare themselves to be.
   Some evangelical Christians are also pro-Israeli for theological reasons. This is why they refuse to listen to those who defend the Palestinians, whom they dismiss as terrorists. Thus too, their equation of Muslims and Islamists, and the burning of the Qur'an by pastor Terry Jones.
   Yet, as difficult as it may seem, there is room in my opinion for those who do not want to take sides, but consider themselves as both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli. They recognize that there is merit to the arguments adduced by both groups. How to resolve these thorny issues is too much to handle in this posting. In the next one, however, I want to make a proposal that may help, although it too is not in itself a solution.
   What is needed is willingness to listen to both sides. My prof many years ago did so, in part so that he could continue to do his research but also because through his work he had begun to see some merit in the various arguments.
   This is also my conclusion after having researched the Palestinian-Israeli issue for several decades. All of us, even the most ardent advocate for a particular position, must learn to listen to the other side.
   If we don't, then peace in the Middle East will continue to elude the world forever. Then intifada will follow intifada and war will follow war, until finally one side is victorious. But the price will be much more than the world is prepared to pay. Who will we have to sacrifice: the Palestinians or the Israelis? Can we not find room for both in such a way that their respective aspirations and integrity are maintained?
  Truth is not always as simple as many people believe. But that is the topic for another posting.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The one- and a half-state?

     Amid all the rhetoric that President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu have displayed lately, truth is one of the chief casualties. Both men again professed their faith in the two-state solution, an independent Israel and an independent Palestine living side-by-side, but each of them, in fact, has by their recent statements made such a solution difficult, if not impossible. 
    Let us begin with the Prime Minister. Netanyahu has imposed new additional conditions, chiefly that Palestinians recognize Israel as the national state of the Jewish people. But that goes far beyond the Palestinian agreement in the Oslo Accord of 1993 to accept the existence of the state of Israel. Yet today one in five people in Israel is Arab. Is there any place for Arabs in a Jewish state?
   The Palestinians also agreed in Oslo to give up 78% of the historic land of Palestine, in order to make.peace. But soon they will be "a people without a land," which was the condition of the Jews in 1948. At any rate, the land they have left will be useless to ever constitute a true state.
   To this day, many Israelis are unwilling to recognize Palestinians as a people, because otherwise they would have to give up part of the land that both claim as their traditional homeland. The Israelis justify evicting the Palestinians, since they are not really "a people," but are the debris of history who have no historical title to the land.

     As you will see from the above map, the brown areas, which indicate Palestinian territory, have steadily disappeared ever since the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. And every year more territory is lost. At the current rate soon there will be little Palestinian land left. Jewish settlements are eating up Palestinian land at an enormous clip. And many Israelis are unwilling to stop. Even without being able to read the color-coded key, it is readily apparent from the map below, when compared with the one above, how much land is already occupied by Israelis. This map provides more details.

     Turning now to the President. In his speech, Obama made it clear that he supported the 1967 border as the basis of any agreement, with some adjustments. This affirmation did not go over well with Netanyahu, who immediately dismissed Obama as "naive." Obama did try to redeem himself in the same speech by vowing that the US would not support any attempt by the Palestinians to go to the UN in order to be recognized as a state. According to the US, a Palestinian state can only come into existence through the mutual agreement of both Israelis and Palestinians. For some Israelis, that will never happen.
    The Palestinian request to ask the UN for recognition was the same path that Israel took in 1948. So why would the US not support the Palestinian request? The answer is obvious. In fact, according to news reports, Obama during his tour of Europe is asking European leaders not to support that request. In spite of his personal dislike of Netanyahu, Obama may have to exercise the US veto in the Security Council when this matter comes up. Next year is an election year in the US, and Obama needs the Jewish vote, as well as that of Christian Zionists (although he may not get many of the latter).
    The window for a two-state solution is quickly closing. Soon there will not be enough Palestinian land left to form a viable state. A one-state solution is hardly to be preferred, since in that case Palestinians would become second-class citizens in Israel. The other obstacle, widely recognized by Israelis, is demographic. In time Jews would be outnumbered by Palestinians in Israel. The one-state solution is the default position; it will result if nothing else is done very soon.
   Eventually this may end up being called a one- and a half-state. One full state for Israelis, and a half state for Palestinians, who would still be under Israeli military control and have to suffer numerous other indignities. Since that is not a viable long-term solution, the international community must exert pressure on all the parties involved to go back to the negotiating table. If that does not work, then the UN is the only recourse.
    The deadline of September set by the Palestinians is fast approaching. The international community must now urge Obama to be a statesman, in more ways than one, and support the Palestinian request at the UN. If he does not rise above domestic US politics, the Palestinians will never get the state they deserve. 
    That would be a tragedy not only for them but also for the entire world.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Second Great Disappointment

    Harold Camping has finally spoken in public about Judgment Day, May 21. He informed the world that he felt terrible when his prediction about the return of Christ did not come true. He now says that Judgment Day will come on October 21, which was the date he had originally predicted that that the world would end by being consumed in a fireball.
   Camping explained that Saturday was "an invisible judgment day," not the visible day he had predicted. Everything else remains the same," he added. "We've always said May 21 was the day, but we didn't understand altogether the spiritual meaning. May 21 is the day that Christ came and put the world under judgment."
   In 1994, Camping also admitted that he had made a mistake in dating the return of Christ, but then he explained it as a mathematical error. As I mentioned in my earlier post, there is a long history of such failed predictions, of which perhaps the most memorable took place in 1844 when the failure of the prophecies about the end of the world caused widespread consternation among the followers of William Miller. This was called "The Great Disappointment." 
    Camping's failed prediction may one day be termed, The Second Great Disappointment. Many of his followers sold all their possessions because of the coming judgment day. Some used the proceeds to pay for the many advertisements announcing this day. That they were disappointed is probably an understatement. 
    Jeff Hopkins, a former television producer from Great River, New York, has bared his feelings: "I've been mocked and scoffed and cursed at and I've been through a lot with this lighted sign on top of my car. I was doing what I've been instructed to do through the Bible, but now I've been stymied. It's like getting slapped in the face."
    Camping himself, it should be added, did not sell his possessions, nor does he plan to do so before October 21. "If it is Judgment Day, why would I give it away?" Nor would his ministry, Family Radio, tell others what to do. "That is between them and God," he added. 
    The overwhelming majority of Christians reject the idea that the exact date of Christ's return can be predicted. Even if we cannot know the date, most of them are agreed that God does provide signs that warn us about what is coming.
   Tim LaHaye, co-author of the bestselling “Left Behind” novels about the end times, calls Camping's prediction “not only bizarre but 100 per cent wrong!” He cites Matthew 24:36: “But about that day or hour no one knows,” except, of course, God. 
   "While it may be in the near future, many signs of our times certainly indicate so, but anyone who thinks they 'know' the day and the hour is flat out wrong," LaHaye makes this comment on his website: 
   Although one can commend Camping and his followers for not only warning people through the many millions they spent on advertisements, they also tried to convert them at the last minute so that these people too would be raptured by Christ and taken with him to heaven. Camping estimates that about 200 million people will saved and join Christ on Judgment Day.
   But, one may well ask, in response: why so few people? That is less than 3% of the world population. Is God's love for the world, for which he sacrificed his Son, limited only to such a small handful of believers? Hardly!
    Christ is returning one day, but we don't know when. Nor do we know how many will be saved. But thankfully God does know.  And one day we too will know; until then we can only wait patiently.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Great Disappointment

   Today is May 22, 2011, and Christ did not return yesterday, as predicted by Harold Camping. How he will explain this failure, no one knows at this point, since he has thus far not made any public pronouncements about it.
   This is the second time he has failed to correctly predict the date of the rapture. The first time was in 1994. When Christ did not return on September 6 of that year, he explained that he had made a mistake in his calculations. He had earlier admitted that possibility, but his followers were nevertheless disappointed. Yesterday their disappointment must have been even greater. Some had sold all their belongings to prepare for that momentous event. Millions had been spent on advertisements announcing the event in newspapers all over the world. Imagine how these followers feel today. How will they react?
    All over the world other people have already responded by making fun of Camping and his followers by, for example, holding parties, as well as making countless tweets mocking this failure. While I do not share their schadenfreude,  I do not feel the least bit sorry for Camping and those whom he has misled again. Their great disappointment should not come completely as a surprise. There is historical precedent for this. Let me give one outstanding example.
   "The Great Disappointment" is the term that is still used today to describe the experience of William Miller and his followers who had predicted that Christ would return in 1844. Miller employed various biblical prophecies to calculate the date. Several proposed dates that year, however, did not turn out as predicted. Although Miller himself had not announced a precise date, he did confess his error and assured his followers that he still believed that Christ's return was imminent. One of his followers, Samuel Snow, on the basis of his own calculations, picked a new date, October 22, 1844. This new prophesy spread like wild fire through the Millerite movement.
    When that date passed uneventfully, the Millerites were very disappointed, hence the term, "Great Disappointment." In addition, they experienced widespread criticism, and there were even examples of violence perpetrated against some churches. Do these reactions not sound eerily familiar?
    Historians note that the Millerite movement soon split into three main groups, not counting those followers who returned to their previous denominations. These three groups became different churches, based on their interpretation of the failure of these predictions. The Seventh-Day Advent Church is perhaps the best known of these groups.
   What will happen in the aftermath of May 21, 2011, no one, not even Camping knows. Perhaps his cult will disband, or it might split into various groups, as the Millerites did. Probably many followers will return to their previous churches, as also happened after 1844.
   The damage that Camping and his followers are doing to the wider Christian church is incalculable. Many people today are mocking all Christians for the behavior of this fringe group. That is perhaps the saddest legacy of Camping. He is welcome to make any predictions he wants, but if he causes damage to the rest of those who call themselves Christians, then he will have much to answer for, especially to God. The Christian community should condemn him as well. He has hurt the entire body of Christ. That is unforgivable.
   Camping's followers may go back to their homes greatly disappointed and eventually disperse. No matter what explanations are given and whatever happens as a result, the effects will be with us for a long time. Like the boy who called wolf too often, no one will believe the message about Christ's return. But he will return one day--we just don't know when.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Judgment Day, May 21, 2011?

     File:Judgment Bus New Orleans 2011.jpg

   Judgment Day, May 21, 2011, reads a poster that is held up by someone on a photo in my local newspaper. There is also a full-page ad with this title in the same paper. This message appears as well on an RV, bearing California plates (see photo). This, it is claimed, is the day of the rapture, when Jesus will return to rescue all who believe in Christ. All those who do not, however, will be damned, which here does not mean consigned to hell, but annihilated entirely. Five months later, on October 21, God will destroy the earth and the entire universe. In the intervening months, the world will experience the most severe earthquakes and natural disasters ever. And all this will start at 6pm, local time, on May 21.
   Harold Camping, a Christian radio broadcaster and the head of Family Radio, which has about 150 outlets in the US and elsewhere in the world, made this prediction. He previously predicted that the rapture would occur on September 6, 1994, although he did allow at the time that he could be wrong. But he has not expressed any similar reservations this time.
   Camping has many followers all over the world. One of them spent a large part of his life savings on a thousand advertising posters throughout New York City, proclaiming this day of judgment. Other followers have paid for similar ads in numerous newspapers.
   Camping was for much of his life a member of the same denomination that I belong to, but since then he has departed far from its theology, especially regarding his understanding of Christ's return and the doctrine of annihilation, that those who do not believe in Christ will be totally destroyed.
   Camping claims that all churches and denominations have become apostate. Family Radio, however, is not a church, although it does encourage careful Bible study. Such study is what convinced him and his followers to be able to date Christ's return accurately to this precise date. The arithmetic involved is complicated, and not entirely convincing, at least to me. In a similar fashion, Camping has precisely dated the creation of the world and the flood at the time of Noah.
    On the radio I just heard that Camping refuses to be interviewed about this judgment day. "Ask me on Sunday," he reputedly said, "but I won't be there."
    I am writing this post before this event. I do believe that the world will end one day, but but I reject Camping's position for several important reasons:
    1. I don't believe in the rapture as Camping understands this event. If by rapture, one means that Christ will return one day, then I do agree. But not, as Camping asserts, in the sense of Christ coming to rescue only those who believe in Christ. According to him, this is a very small group of people. By the calculation of some, about 200 million people. These true believers are not found in the existing churches. In contrast, I would follow Operation World and peg the percentage of people who are labelled Christians much higher: about 33%. Admittedly, my definition of a Christian is much wider.
    2. I believe that no one can predict precisely when Christ will return. The newspaper ad mentions some of the biblical texts that are often used by those who reject Camping's system of dating. But no one, not even Christ when he was still here on earth, knows the exact time of his return. God does provide signs, but these serve to warn us what he intends to do, not give an exact timetable. Camping refutes this. If you want to follow his reasoning, go to the relevant part at
    3. I reject the doctrine of annihilation. When Christ returns, God will not destroy the world, but he will restore it and will make it even better than the original creation was. Because of the fall, God is busy with the creation working towards a world that would otherwise not have been possible. I will write more about what God is doing with his creation in a future post.
   How Harold Camping will respond, if the rapture does not take place on May 21, only he knows.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sex and power

   The observation that sex and power are closely and intimately related is not intended as a bad pun. The relationship is as real as your daily news. If you had never heard the name of Dominique Strauss-Kahn before, you have now. You have seen his unshaven face on TV and on the front page of your newspaper. The head of the International Monetary Fund, who was occupying a $3,000-a-night suite in a New York City hotel, hustled out of an Air France plane only minutes before departure, charged with attempted rape, dragged into a New York courtroom, where he was denied bail, and is now staying in an 11x13 ft cell on Riker's Island awaiting further developments.
   How the mighty have fallen! These charges will no doubt end Strauss-Kahn's career at the IMF and they effectively dash his chance to become the next president of France. Polls had showed him to be the leading candidate in the upcoming election, even topping President Nicolas Sarkozy. In France, newspapers now call him "Le Perv," a title that needs no translation.
   What is strange is how quickly DSK, as he is known in France, has destroyed himself. Did he really think that he could run naked into the hallway and allegedly rape the maid, who apparently did not know who he was. Was it power that gave him the supposed right to assault a woman? If so, he was hardly the first powerful man who has made that claim. The names of some former US presidents can be found on such a list. One can also add figures from sports and business, and--sad to say--even the ecclesiastical world.
  Power seems to do that to otherwise sane people. They imagine that the norms that govern proper human behavior no longer apply to them. And then any woman is fair game, even as in this alleged case, an immigrant from Guinea with a 15-year old daughter. In the US, a former president had sex with an intern in the White House, but then compounded the problem by denying that it was "sex."
    Other presidents, as we now know, had sex with women other than their wives during their stay in the White House, but that was in another era when presidential "affairs" were not discussed publicly. The French too have a long history of looking the other way when it comes to the private lives of political leaders. Thus it was not revealed until after the death of former President Francois Mitterand that he had had a daughter with another woman. The French, however, do draw the line at sexual violence. That seems to be the case with DSK. There are apparently new revelations about alleged criminal charges against him by a woman writer who hid the matter for many years.
   Now we have Arnold Schwarzenegger's confession about the love child he had with his former housekeeper. The boy is already ten years old. But Schwarzenegger did not reveal they boy's existence to his wife until after the end of his second term as governor. This revelation has ended his marriage. He and DSK have shot themselves in the foot and effectively destroyed their careers. Tiger Woods and others show how difficult it is to recover.
    It is said that women hunt for men who have power, while men are looking for sex. Women, however, can display the same flagrant disregard for rules that men do. Think only of Catherine the Great of Russia, who historians agree arranged the murder of her husband so that she could ascend the throne. Later, in order to keep her bed warm, she had a long list of lovers.
   All these people, whether men or women, seem to have lost their moral compass. Their faith was put on the back burner and they were dominated by their subconscious. At the conscious level they may have been aware of what they were doing, but they ignored their conscience and did whatever they wanted to and, what is worse, felt entitled to. The results are devastating not only for themselves but also for those around them. DSK, according to latest reports, has been put on suicide watch. But the repercussions for the IMF world and the country of France cannot yet be measured.
   Lest we feel too smug, let us not forget that all of us have committed sins that stem from similar moral failures. While it is difficult for us to enter into the mind of people like DSK, we must avoid any quick judgments. We must realize that we too can commit such sins. But for the grace of God ...

Saturday, May 14, 2011

God, faith, animals and Life of Pi

   One of the advantages of being laid low with sciatica is the opportunity to do some extra reading for this blog as well as read a few novels. The most interesting novel I have come across for a long time is by Yann Martel, a Canadian, who won the Man Booker Prize and several others awards for Life of Pi.
   This post is not intended to be a new review of this book, since it is already too old to merit another one. It is, however, a  most unusual novel. President Obama reputedly loved it. In this novel, God, faith and animals all play significant roles, as indeed they do, or ought to, in real life. Martel is a master storyteller, who makes the remarkable believable.
   The purpose of the story, as Martel explains in the introduction, is to "make you believe in God." The narrator, Pi (as in 3.142, but an abbreviation for Piscine) Patel, a 16 year-old Indian boy, certainly does. His search for God leads him to become, at one and the same time, a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim. Pi's brother mischievously suggests that. if Pi should become a Jew and a convert to three other religions, then he could be on holiday for the rest of his life.
   Pi prays to God, as personified in each of his three faiths, especially when he is marooned on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, together with a 450-pound Bengal tiger (named Richard Parker, but don't ask why). Pi provides a daily schedule in which prayers are central. His faith is a profound example to a world that is divided by religion. While I do not endorse Pi's syncretism, he has found a way to unite these faiths that suggests that the search for truth does not have to end in the either/or alternative posed by most religions, but can be resolved as both/and. To use another image, truth can be seen as a white light that can be broken up into its spectrum of which each religion possesses only a part. Pi quotes Gandhi: "All religions are true." And thus he confesses to his parents about his spiritual struggle, "I just want to love  God." Who can argue with that?
   This lifeboat part of the story is the most fantastic. It is Noah's Ark with a fatal twist. It starts with the sinking of a Japanese ship which holds many animals that Pi's father is bringing to zoos in North America. Most of the animals die, as do Pi's parents, when the ship sinks. But a spotted hyena, an orange-colored orangutan, and a zebra with a broken leg also survive and end up on the lifeboat. They are soon eaten, however, by the tiger. Pi is able to survive for 227 days by training the tiger. Pi is the alpha male who reduces the tiger to the omega. But God clearly was with Pi, who lists among the occupants of the lifeboat: "1 God."
   Pi learns to eat everything in the ocean, whether fish or birds--all of it raw. If humans are to survive on this planet we must learn to utilize all the food that is available. Pi collects rain water and even distills it. He feeds the tiger and provides it with water. Eventually the lifeboat arrives in Mexico, where Pi is interviewed by some Japanese men on behalf of the owner of the sunken ship. They cannot believe his story, but when Pi tells them a version in which there are no animals, they have to admit that the animal version is better. Animals are essential too in the real world. As human beings we must share this world with animals (and not by putting them into zoos). Enemies of whatever type,  even religious, must learn to share. There is only one world, just as there is only one God. Why can't we share both, as Pi did.
   This world is a dangerous place. The author is under no illusion about that. This is not utopia. It is a world where a young man can survive, but only because he is intelligent and is not squeamish about what he eats. Nevertheless, Pi does not lose his humanity.  On the contrary, he becomes more fully human. He is Noah. But is it too much to also see Pi as a Christ-like figure? Pi saves the lifeboat even though the only occupants left at the end are Pi and the tiger. The lifeboat is a microcosm of the world. This world needs salvation, although it often does not realize it. Instead, the world is intent upon exterminating everyone and everything else. Does the tiger perhaps symbolize that part of human nature?
   Several countries are listed in the novel, especially India, France, Japan, Mexico, and Canada. where Pi ultimately settles, and attends the University of Toronto, taking a double-major for his Bachelor's degree in zoology and religious studies. He describes his fellow religious studies students as "muddled agnostics" who were "in the thrall of reason." His fellow zoologists get off a little better, as "friendly atheists" who were preoccupied especially with "sex, chess, and baseball." He concludes elsewhere that atheists can still be saved at the last minute, but there is no hope for agnostics. Some rather astute, if severe, observations.
    Life of Pi is a novel, not reality. It is a 350 page parable about life, God, faith, animals, and the world. Although this is not a review, nevertheless I must say that I am impressed by this deeply religious novel; it is religious because of the way all these factors or actors interact. Dare I say it? It is even a Christian novel.
   Religion does play a role in the world today. That is one reason why I am writing this blog and now include this posting.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Are Americans different from the rest of the world in their response to the death of Osama bin Laden?

   American responses to the death of Osama bin Laden were noticeably different from those in the rest of the world. When the news was announced by President Obama, Americans reacted in many ways: some were understandable, but others highly questionable. It is not difficult to understand why some of those whose lives were directly and personally impacted by 9/11 turned up at Ground Zero that evening and began singing. Yet their response was tinged with grief for the loss of loved ones almost a decade ago. What is questionable is the behavior of the people who immediately assembled in front of the White House and started waving flags and cheering bin Laden's death.
   For days afterward, politicians and pundits, from the President on down, spoke loudly about how justice had been done. People throughout the country on several occasions celebrated bin Laden's death. But is it right to celebrate the death of any person, even someone as evil as bin Laden?
   In the rest of the world the response was more muted. Political leaders spoke in moderate tones, and underlined the potential threat of retaliatory attacks. The Arab response was tempered as well. While there was widespread agreement that bin Laden's death was no great loss for the world, there were no celebrations. In many countries people, who universally deplored what bin Laden did, were shocked by the American cheers. This was especially true of Muslims.
  I do not want to condemn those who celebrated bin laden's death. They were caught up by the momentous nature of the news, and they responded accordingly. This death, however, makes a travesty of justice. Yet even those who claim that justice was done are welcome to their opinion, although I respectfully disagree with them.
   As I wrote in a previous blog, the new revelations about what transpired during the attack on the compound where bin Laden was found cause me, as well as many others, to question whether justice was truly done. It resembles the vigilante justice that was meted out at one time in the Wild West. But should the most powerful country in the world behave in a similar way in the 21st century? According to international law, are such killings justifiable? Probably not. Are they ethical? Emphatically not!
   I am disturbed by the comment that President Obama made on "60 Minutes" over the weekend, in which he asserted that those who question the justice of bin Laden's killing are "out of their minds." I feel insulted by that comment, and I am sure that many other people in the world, even in the US, feel the same way.
   My dismay is focussed especially on the lack of love that so many people in the US displayed, whether in private or, more seriously, in public. Political leaders must be careful not to chose short-term political gain at the expense of integrity. President Obama, in particular, must not sacrifice the ideals which earned him his election on the altar of a regained political popularity. He may gain re-election this way, but the rest of the world now has even more reasons to question his motives and that of his administration.
  The central message of the Bible is love. As all Christians know, God loved the world so much that he sacrificed his Son. But he also gave us the commandment to love him and and our neighbor. If we truly love God, we must also love one another. That means we must even love our enemies, as Jesus explained. Such love does not allow us to gloat over the death of anyone, even bin Laden.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The death of AV in Britain and its implications for Canada

   It is already clear that in the referendum in Britain the proposed alternative vote (AV) system has been decisively defeated. The latest figures I saw were 69% no and only 31% yes. It is abundantly clear that an overwhelming majority of British voters prefer the existing  first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. This system prevails in large parts of the English-speaking world, with notable exceptions such as Australia.
   AV is a system whereby voters list the candidates in order of preference: 1, 2, 3. When the votes are counted and no candidate receives 50%, then the bottom candidate drops out and his or her second choice votes are distributed among the other candidates according to preference. If necessary, other candidates are dropped and their third or fourth choices are distributed. This process continues until one candidate gets the required 50%. There are variations, but this is basically how AV operates.
   In most countries of the world some variation of proportional representation (PR) prevails. AV can be viewed as a variation of  PR, although AV too has limitations depending on the form that is selected. I don't want to debate the merits of these various systems in today's posting. I do want to note, however, that the defeat of AV in Britain will make it even more difficult for countries like Canada to introduce some form of proportional representation in the near future.
   Canada has historically often followed Britain in parliamentary affairs. The victory of AV in Britain would certainly have stimulated a  similar debate in Canada, but that debate now seems increasingly unlikely. The results of the recent election in Canada suggest that the Conservatives, who finally gained their much coveted majority, would be very reluctant at present to change the current FPTP electoral system.
    Although the final figures are still not finalized, pending some judicial recounts, on May 5, the Conservatives  won 167 seats, the NDP took 104, and the Liberals ended up with only 34. Percentage wise, these parties got approximately 40%, 30%, and 19%, respectively, of the votes cast. But in terms of the number of seats that were awarded, each party received about 54%, 33%, and 11%, respectively.
   Since the Conservatives won a majority with only 40% of the popular vote, which is much more than they would under a PR system. Thus there is little to motivate them to scrap the FPTP electoral system. The NDP earned a few more seats than they would have under PR, while the Liberals were cheated out of some seats they might have won under PR  Admittedly, all these figures are based on the national vote, but they do suggest which parties would or would not support PR, based solely on these results.
   Which system is fairer: FPTP or PR? Under PR, the Conservatives would still have had a plurality and been able to form the government. But then, the NDP and Liberals might later have formed a government through a coalition, which was a dirty word to Prime Minister Harper during this campaign. Now we will never know. Canadians can now expect at least four years of a Conservative majority government that 60% of the voters rejected. That does not seem fair to me.
   I would like to see a PR electoral system in Canada. If this were adopted, the final choice of a PR system may end up looking somewhat like the mixed system that Germany has. Commentators have remarked that Canadians wanted a majority government this time. That may be, but the issue of PR will not go away entirely. The death of AV in Britain has dimmed the PR flame in Canada a little, but it will not extinguish that flame completely. Sooner or later Canadians will have to debate this issue.
   Canadians, do you want PR or not? Speak up and let your voice be heard!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The killing of Osama bin Laden

     Was the killing of Osama bin Laden necessary? This question is prompted by the recent update that bin Laden was not armed when he was shot twice in the head. First reports had indicated that he was armed and had shot back at the Navy Seals who burst into the house where he was staying. And the earlier revelation that he had hidden behind a woman, presumably his wife, and was thus a coward is also not true, according to this update.
    This new revelation disturbs me greatly. If bin Laden was shot because he was armed and shooting back, while using a defenseless woman as his shield, his killing is perhaps justifiable. But to shoot a defenseless man, apparently in front of his daughter, is a highly questionable act.
    I am not a lawyer who is versed in international law. I am a theologian, and for me the killing of bin Laden is not justifiable. I have so far only read one newspaper report that has questioned the killing of bin Laden. But I did raise this question already on Facebook a few days ago, where I wrote that I questioned the ethics of killing people as a matter of government policy. George W. Bush some years ago ordered that bin Laden be taken "dead or alive." President Obama approved the mission to kill bin Laden, and apparently watched the whole drama in real time from the White House. As I asked on my Facebook page: "Is this proper for any government leader, much less a committed Christian like Obama?"
   While I am not a pacifist, I am an advocate of active non-violence. I do not want to debate any perceived inconsistencies in my position. For many years already, I have questioned the just war theory, especially after having taught about this theory to students all over the world. I am Reformed, not an Anabaptist. But many, like Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who have also pleaded for active non-violence, were neither.
   I do not want to upset those who lost loved ones on 9/11. I too watched with horror as planes smashed into the two towers of the World Trade Center. In my case, 9/11 inconvenienced me only a little, since my return to Moscow was delayed a week. But I did not lose anyone close to me.
   Does the "war on terror" justify killing people like bin Laden? Would bin Laden have been killed if he had been American, or if the killing had taken place in the United States? Even if the killing pf bin Laden is justifiable according to international law, where do the killings stop?
    Admittedly, bin Laden's death means that the world would not have to witness the legal fighting that would surround his trial. Where? By whom? And so on. The questions are endless. Now those problems have been eliminated. But this too does not justify his killing. Was justice done? In spite of many claims that it was, my position is a contrary one.
   This blog is not the proper venue to debate the ethics of assassination, but I do want to use it to raise some important questions. I welcome your response.
   Terrorism will not end with the death of bin Laden. Al Qaeda, according to reports, is still capable of bloody retaliation. Violence has not been eliminated from this world. On the contrary, by killing bin Laden we may be feeding this monster.     

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A few observations on Canada's election on May 2

   It is the morning after the night before. Canadian voters have finally given Stephen Harper the majority government that he has craved all his life. Polls had projected the possibility of official opposition status for the New Democratic Party, but everyone, including Jack Layton, was pleasantly surprised at the number of seats that the NDP earned yesterday. They almost tripled their seats, largely by almost eliminating the Bloc Quebecois. The NDP also won many new seats in Toronto, where my own riding went NDP.
   What few people expected was the Conservative's sizable majority. What worried me, even before the orange  tide washed across Quebec, was the possibility of vote splitting elsewhere in the country. I watched the Conservatives win many seats in Atlantic Canada. In many ridings the Liberals and NDP apparently split the left of center vote, and as a result the Conservatives shot up the middle and won their coveted majority.
   The Liberals were decimated in this election. Many voters, who had traditionally voted for the Liberals, deserted the party in droves. Some indeed voted for the NDP, but others feared a NDP majority and voted Conservative. This also contributed to the Conservative majority.
    Most worrisome for me last night was the polarization of politics in Canada. Chantel Hebert wrote about this in the Toronto Star:
   Hebert describes Harper as the most Conservative prime minister in Canada's modern history, and the NDP as Canada' most left-leaning party. But she warns that if Harper continues his trademark "take-no-prisoner" approach in the new Parliament, he might face the same fate as Brian Mulrony's Tories did in 1993. Only five years after winning a second majority, the Tories were almost wiped out.
    In the past pundits observed that a majority government was impossible in Canada as long as the BQ held so many seats in Quebec. The PQ, with only four seats left, has been largely eliminated. And thus the Conservative majority became possible.
    While I am very disappointed by this majority, mostly because of Harper's behavior in the last Parliament, I console myself with the thought that many friends and family members voted for the Conservatives. They are very happy this morning, even though other friends and family are as disappointed as I am. We can live together, I hope. But we may have to avoid talking about Stephen Harper or Jack Layton.
    One thing that does please me this morning is the thought that, while Canada has become more polarized, no lives were lost in this election, unlike in other countries like Nigeria. The leaders of two political parties did resign. In both cases, they lost their own seats. But neither they nor any followers died. That is good news.
    PS In a future posting I want to examine the first-past-the post electoral system in Canada, where the Conservatives can enjoy a majority with only 40% of the vote. This is too big a topic for today.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The privilege and honor of voting

   I voted today in Canada's election. For me it is a privilege. Many people in the world are dying at present for the opportunity to do so. They live in countries where free elections are not possible, and thus they are willing to sacrifice themselves so that their children may enjoy that privilege. In other countries, even where relatively free elections are held regularly, there should be, according to one commentator, two columns that might be published immediately after the election, one listing the total votes for each candidate, and the other recording the number of deaths during the election.
   It is also an honor for me to vote and thus influence in a very small way who will form the next government of Canada. I have lost track of how many times I have voted in Canada. I missed some elections while I was living overseas, but I have never consciously neglected the opportunity to vote. I admit that I have even voted in the Netherlands, while living there as a graduate student, since I have dual citizenship.
    Sadly, there are many people in Canada who do not vote regularly. They cannot be bothered to do so. This election in Canada, however, promises to be different. Since 1935 only 40-50% of the total population has voted in any election. The latter group includes many people who are too young to vote or are not citizens. Even if one compares the total of people who actually vote to the number of registered voters, then only about two thirds do vote. This percentage has been steadily declining in the last few elections, especially among those who are under 25.
   This election, however, promises to be very different by reversing these trends. If advance polls are any indication, we can expect the largest number of votes ever cast in the history of Canada. Two million people voted in the advance polls this time, an increase of almost 35% from previous advance polls. The Liberals had the largest number of "no shows" during the last election in 2008. Whether they will regain these voters this time is in doubt, at least according to published polls. The only poll that really matters, however, is today, and we probably won't know those results until the wee hours of tomorrow.
   There are also indications that young people will vote in unprecedented numbers this time. There have been "vote mobs" of young people, mostly students, throughout the country during the campaign. Young people are turned on by this election as never before. This may result in the New Democratic Party getting the largest number of seats ever in parliament, since many young people tend to vote that way.
   The NDP is the surprise of this election. This is largely due to Jack Layton, who has come across as the most personable leader of the major parties. This campaign started as extremely boring, but that changed after the TV debates a few weeks ago. Layton shone in both the English- and French-language debates. The NDP is also the recipient of a protest vote: kick out the incumbents! This protest was evident in the municipal elections late last year in Toronto and Calgary. Again, what the result will be we will not know until early tomorrow morning, but there is even a possibility that Layton can become the next prime minister of Canada, whether by his party gaining a majority (unlikely, but not impossible) or as the leader of the largest party in a minority government (more likely).
   I am glad that I voted today. I did so in spite of a sore back. But the pain was worth it, because I had the privilege and honor of voting in Canada's election. If you are a Canadian, and you haven't voted yet, please do so before the polls close this evening. Remember, in other countries people are dying to do so.