Thursday, January 31, 2013

Can torture be justified?

Zero Dark Thirty is a 2012 film that has been billed as "the story of history's greatest manhunt for the world's most dangerous man."  It is a dramatization of the American operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The title is military parlance for the time the raid on the compound in Abbottabad started. You can see the trailer.

This film has reignited the torture debate. It openly shows torture taking place and suggests that coercive techniques were essential to bin Laden`s capture. No waterboarding, no bin Laden, seems to be the underlying message.

Yet this film does not glorify torture either. Critics note that the torture left them nauseated. Thus both sides of the debate can find support for their position in this film.

Three US senators have criticized Zero Dark Thirty as “grossly inaccurate and misleading” in its suggestion that torture produced the tip that led to the capture of bin Laden. They contend that the CIA detainee who provided significant information about bin Laden did so before any harsh interrogation.

The director of the film, Kathryn Bigelow, reacted to the controversy by stating:

As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and speculation, I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work.

Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore.”

War, obviously, isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences.

The part of the plot that concerns me is the role of Maya (played by Jessica Chastain), a CIA officer whose brief career focused on the search for bin Laden. During the first few months she is involved in the torture of Ammar al-Baluchi, who is alleged to have helped transfer money to the September 11, 2001, hijackers.

Jessica Chastain

Ammar eventually leads the CIA to "Abu Ahmed," whose real name is Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. He was thought to have died earlier, but he turned up alive in the suburban compound where bin Laden eventually died, as did al-Kuwaiti, on May 2, 2011.

This film shows some of the torture techniques, such as waterboarding, that were used to extract information.

This term was first used by the mass media in an article in the New York Times(13 May 2004) dealing with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was believed to have helped plan the attacks of September 11.

According to the article, CIA interrogators used this technique in which a prisoner is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water and made to believe he might drown. Other ways in which it is done involves pouring water over a cloth that covers the face and the breathing passages of an immobilized prisoner.

Unlike most other torture techniques, waterboarding produces no marks on the body and has therefore been favored, but it is widely considered to be torture.

Demonstration of waterboarding at a street protest in Iceland

Senator John McCain, who himself was tortured during his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, has unequivocally rejected waterboarding. He states that it is a mock execution, and thus an exquisite form of torture.

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

Both houses of the US Congress approved a bill on February 2008 that would have banned waterboarding and other harsh interrogation method, but it was vetoed by President George W. Bush.

On 22 January 2009 President Barack Obama moved away from the position of the previous administration through an executive order that prohibits the use of waterboarding by US military personnel.

Unfortunately, Obama's action does not eliminate other forms of torture by the US, which continues to practice torture both within its borders and outside of it, through extraordinary rendition, which was the practice of transferring suspects for interrogation in countries that were known to employ torture. 

The US has also operated "black sites" or secret prisons to hold alleged enemy terrorists. Guantanamo Bay is not secret, but it was also intended to detain such prisoners where the niceties of US law would not apply.

Although renditions are no longer happening, or at least not as frequently as during the Bush administration, human rights groups are not yet satisfied that enough is being done to stop the use of torture by the US.

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

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

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

Zero Dark Thirty does not glorify  torture, but it does obscure the fact that torture has always been, and remains, not an intelligence-gathering tool, but a crime against humanity. For this reason alone, torture must be condemned by every democratic country.

In addition, torture is ineffectual, often a waste of time, the information gained this way highly suspect, and above all, anathema in a democracy, where the rule of law prevails.

As signatory to many human rights conventions, the American government should not participate in torture at anytime or anywhere. There is sufficient evidence to prove that it does, evidence that I cannot rehearse now.

Both legally and ethically torture is wrong. Even if the film has distorted history for the sake of a good story, that is hardly the first time that has happened. Nor will it be the last time.

In Argo (2012), which tells the story of the rescue of six American diplomats from Tehran in 1980, the CIA is given the leading role in the rescue, while Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador to Iran at the time, and the Canadian government are dismissed as junior partners. But this is a reversal of what really happened. However, the director, Ben Afflick, has defended his version of the events as "dramatic license." I would call it an example of American exceptionalism.

In the case of Zero Dark Thirty, even if there has been some distortion of history, it does reopen a debate that been neglected of late because of its controversial nature. It may be many years before we learn how the capture of bin Laden really happened.

The US admits officially to only a few cases of waterboarding, but there were many more cases, as this film makes very clear. We should be thankful for that development, even if we can be critical of the film itself.

In spite of the attempt made in this film, as some allege, torture cannot be justified.

A recent documentary on the Canadian Broadcasting Company's investigative program, The Fifth Estate, called "Target Bin Laden," concludes that bin Laden's hiding place may have been exposed by his first wife, who was jealous of the youngest and newest wife, whom he spent most of his time with.

This documentary raises many questions about the death of bin Laden that have not yet been resolved. Maybe we will never know whether torture helped capture bin Laden. It is regrettable that torture was used at all. There is no justification for torture.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The politics of forgiveness

"For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you"  (Matthew 6:14 TNIV).

What our world today needs most urgently to solve many conflicts is "the politics of forgiveness." But you may ask: What does this phrase mean? How are politics and forgiveness related? And why is forgiveness so crucial?

I heard the phrase used recently in a sermon, thus I cannot claim it as my own. Nor, for that matter, did it originate with the preacher. This phrase was the not the theme of his message, but it did capture beautifully what he was saying about the need for forgiveness in every area of life, including politics.

The preacher dealt with the conclusion to the story of Joseph in Genesis 50, where Joseph who had become the prime minister of Egypt forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery when he was in his teens. Joseph then explained why all this had to happen:"You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done."
Forgiveness is founded on love, and it is the most powerful weapon that anyone can possess. Mahatma Gandhi once affirmed, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Mark Twain described not only the power of forgiveness but also its beauty when he wrote,“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”

The story is told of a Sandanista minister of government in Nicaragua who, when visiting the prisons that housed those who had killed thousands of people, noticed a former guard who had tortured him.

When the man realized that the minister had recognized him, he asked, "What are you going to do to me? What is your revenge?" The minister replied, "I forgive you, that is my revenge." He too realized the power of forgiveness. That is how he took his revenge.

Bishop Desmond Tutu relates that Nelson Mandela before he was arrested in 1962 was a relatively young but very angry man. He had founded the ANC's military wing. But when he was released in 1990, he surprised everyone because he wasno longer talking about revenge but about reconciliation and forgiveness.

For Mandela there was no further need for revenge. As C.S. Lewis explains, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

Acts of forgiveness can and do occur in political contexts. Many questions relating to forgiveness are inevitably, although not exclusively, political: Who has the power to forgive? Who must ask for forgiveness? And who determines what is forgivable?

Forgiving is difficult, yet when people are forgiven, that is immensely liberating, not only for the one who is forgiven but also for the one who forgives. Lewis Smedes notes acutely, "To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you." 

Forgiveness is not just a personal or individual act that is limited to the private sphere. Increasingly today there is the realization that forgiveness is also necessary in the public sphere, thus also in the political realm.

The discourse about the politics of forgiveness is perhaps most evident in countries that were dictatorships at one time and are now in transition to democracy. Forgiveness is crucial if a country is to make that transition.

South Africa shows how this is possible. Mandela's willingness to forgive helped to avert a bloodbath as that country made the transition from the apartheid regime to black rule.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa provides an example of the politics of forgiveness. A similar commission was later established in Sierra Leone after the civil war there, as well as in Argentina, Brazil, Chili, Columbia, and many other countries.

Canada also practiced the politics of forgiveness when it set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with the abuse of aboriginal children that was practiced in residential schools for many decades.

I have many questions about this awful poster: Is Jesus a Republican?
Is this really what Jesus would do? And where is forgiveness here?
Or are some Republicans incapable of even thinking about forgiveness?

The politics of forgiveness is urgently needed in the Unites States, where the polarization is so great that it has virtually become two nations as the rhetoric surrounding gun control illustrates.

The only way that equally polarized Republicans and Democrats can live together and stop their partisan sniping is through the politics of forgiveness. That may not happen any time soon, but is a willingness to forgive others too much to expect from politicians, many of whom call themselves Christians?

If the parents of Newtown who lost their children are able to forgive, why not these politicians? Or does politics trump their faith?

Yet these conflicts pale in comparison with those that exist elsewhere in the world. Americans, at least, have not yet started another civil war, although with the immense stockpile of weapons that already exists in that country, the tools for such a conflict are readily available.

Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will also require the politics of forgiveness. Is it impossible for Jews and Muslims to forgive each other and learn to live peacefully together as they did for many centuries?

Christians and Muslims in Nigeria have lived side-by-side for centuries as well until a jihad was foisted upon them that put pressure on the Christians to leave. and the latter, not surprisingly, retaliated. The politics of forgiveness is again needed to mend these broken relationships and end the violence..

Further examples can be found of similar conflicts all over the world that require the politics of forgiveness.  Yet there are also many examples where the politics of forgiveness has helped to heal old wounds, as the many truth and reconciliation commissions show.

In Northern Ireland a long peace process put an end to the "Troubles," about thirty years of armed conflict between the predominantly Catholic nationalists and the largely Protestant unionists in which thousands died.

Now Protestants and Catholics can live together there in relative peace. Only as both sides learned to forgive each other has this become possible.

The politics of forgiveness does work, even if it does so imperfectly as in the very complex environment of Northern Ireland. The many countries where truth and reconciliation commissions have been established have all had similar experiences.

But this imperfection does not negate the politics of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a long process that requires daily reinforcement whether practiced at the private or the public levels.

Public forgiveness is even messier because of the many people involved, but it is imperative that this form of politics takes root in every country of the world.

Conflicts will never cease, but how people handle them is crucial. Forgiveness is imperative for resolving these many conflicts.
Every religion preaches forgiveness. Thus this message is not unique to Christianity. And indeed all religions practice it, including the politics of forgiveness.

Let all of us pray for the strength to forgive at every level, whether public or private, so that healing may be brought to a broken world.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Hope for the Palestinians?

Is there any hope that the Palestinians will one day enjoy their own state? Thus far there have been few signs of such a hope. It was kindled briefly at the United Nations when Palestine was officially recognized as an observer state, but this hope was soon dashed by the Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu.

Palestinians were not very hopeful when the current election in Israel. Many felt that little or nothing would change. The new Israeli government would be similar to previous governments, they insisted, and the peace process would stymied as always.

During the election campaign, the Palestinians were hardly mentioned, but the election results on January 22 may yet shove the Palestinian cause into the forefront. Much depends on the coalition negotiations that have already started and which will determine the shape and direction of the new Israeli government.

After the election, the question on many people’s minds now are how it will affect the stalled peace process with the Palestinians. All of a sudden, the Palestinian issue has been pushed to the forefront.

Netanyahu visits the Western Wall after voting on January 22

To the vast majority of Israelis, the election was a foregone conclusion: the current Israeli prime minister would be re-elected to lead the 19th Knesset. Netanyahu may yet return as the head of the new government, but his plans and that of his party were thwarted in the election.

Yesh Atid (There is a Future), the party of Yair Lapid, a former television talk-show host, which was running for the first time, got 19 seats in the 120-seat parliament, against 31 for Likud-Yisrael Beitenu, led by the incumbent prime minister, who may yet retain his post. But he will find it much harder in the next month or so to form a new ruling coalition.

Likud-Beitenu’s tally of 31 seats is 11 fewer than the previous combined parliamentary strength of the two parties in Netanyahu's  ruling coalition. His party, Likud, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Beitenu, had teamed up on a joint list just before the election.

The election results, according to the Jerusalem Post
(note how the scale has been adapted from Hebrew)

Netanyahu announced on Facebook on election night that he believed Israelis want him to “continue in my position as prime minister” and “form as broad a coalition as possible." He may be right about the second, but the first is far from certain.

The prime minister may no longer be able to depend on the hawkish and religious parties that propped up his previous governments in the past, although they together with Likud-Beitenu got half the votes and thus won half the seats in Israel's system of proportional representation.

Parties like Shas, which represents the ultra-Orthodox, whose young men have long enjoyed exemption from military service and have collected welfare while engaging in religious studies, may not be part of the new government. This represents a major shakeup of the Israeli political scene.

Since Netanyahu's former coalition did not win an outright majority, in which case they might have hunkered down and turned a deaf ear to the pleas of the world to engage in peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Now he may have to turn to Yesh Atid, which has pledged to begin drafting the ultra-Orthodox, reduce the cost of living, and return to peace talks with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu delivers victory speech on January 22

Netanyahu's claim of victory may be premature. If he does become prime minister for a third time, his victory could yet prove to be a Pyrrhic one. Israelis, far from moving right, have turned toward the center. The left and the right now share 60 seats each in the Knesset.

The Labor party, which shares some of the same concerns as Yesh Atid, has bounced back, while Bayit Yehudi, the party of Naftali Bennett, the hawk who rejects the idea of a Palestinian state altogether and did not do as well as expected, will probably not be brought into the government at all.

There is no guarantee that events will unfold as I have outlined. Netanyahu may yet turn to his former allies to form a new government, but now a new window has opened for the Palestinians. 

It seems that for the majority of Israelis a solution to the Palestinian conflict is not a priority.But given that Yisrael Beiteinu, the other half of Netanyahu’s newly merged political party, supports the two-state solution, there is indeed potential for change.

Further support comes from the party of Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister whose main policy is to cut a deal with the Palestinians; her party got six seats.

Yair Lapid is reluctant to join an anti-Netanyahu movement

Israelis did not vote massively for a resolution of the Palestinian conflict. They were focused especially on domestic issues, but some no longer want their government to ignore this issue. It has been on the back burner too long and needs to be addressed. Otherwise a catastrophe looms.

Many Israelis realize that the two-state solution is the only viable one. And all Israelis realize that the one-state solution, which has become the default position of the Israeli government, will result in a state that cannot be both Jewish and democratic at the same time.

A democratic Israel will eventually lose its Jewishness, because of the higher birthrate of the Palestinians. But to preserve the Jewish character of the state, it cannot continue to be democratic: then it must reduce the Palestinians to second-class citizens.

In the past Netanyahu’s policy was to continue building settlements on the West Bank and to play down the substantial role of the Palestinian Authority in delivering security for Israelis, thus dismissing the Authority’s success in building institutions of statehood.

Netanyahu delivering foreign policy address at Bar-Ilan University (June 14, 2009)

This policy will have to change. Netanyahu has spoken out positively about the peace process before. This election is perhaps the reminder he needs that the peace process must be rekindled before it is too late and a viable Palestinian state becomes an impossibility forever. 

Israelis must be offered more than the dilemma that the one-state solution presents. There is another choice, and many Israelis realize that, but that choice is quickly slipping out of their hands. 

My prayer is that the peace process may soon be rekindled. At present there is little in the way of concrete proposals on the table that can be discussed, but that may soon change when a new Israeli government is installed that bears little resemblance to previous ones.

The Palestinians can now hope that a Palestinian state will become a reality. Their hopes have been dashed many times in the past. The new Israeli government when it is finally formed may be their best hope yet. And it may be the last hope for a two-state solution.

Knowing a little bit how Israeli governments have dealt with the peace process in the past, I suspect that the US and other Western countries may have to put some pressure on the new government to move it forward.

How quickly things change. Who would have thought that only a few days ago? Pray that the Palestinians may not be disappointed this time. This may be the last chance they get.

Monday, January 21, 2013

President Obama: love him or hate him

The thousands who came out on Monday, January 21, to witness the inauguration of President Barack H. Obama testified by their presence their love and concern for him. 

The inaugural speech that Obama delivered so eloquently was punctuated repeatedly with spontaneous and well-deserved applause. It was a well-crafted speech in which the president appealed for unity in his sorely divided and highly polarized nation. 

The crowds may have been less than four years ago, but the Mall was filled with many Obama supporters. He enjoys the support and love of many more Americans than were able to come to Washington on this day. It is clear that numerous Americans love their president very much.

People, it seems, either love or hate Obama. This is a unique American phenomenon. Canadians, for example, typically do not love their politicians, nor do they hate them, at least not like some Americans do.

In the US there is a webpage that calls itself "I hate Obama," while another is called "Americans who hate Obama." These are only the most egregious examples of this hatred; they could be multiplied many times.

Some anti-Obama bumper stickers

Last year the Speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives, Mike O'Neal, sent a widely-circulated email in which he used Psalm 109:8 to suggest about Obama, "May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership,” and in the following verse, "May his children be orphans and his wife a widow."  O'Neal did not resign, even after a petition with 30,000 signatures was delivered to his office.

As Obama embarks on his second term, it is useful to reflect on the nature of this hatred. Where does this hatred stem from? And why the virulence? I don't claim to have the answers to all these questions, but I will make an attempt.

There are many issues that get some Americans so riled up that they want to express their hatred of this man. Obama alluded to some of these issues in his inaugural speech.

Several times he stressed the equality that the Declaration of Independence expresses so beautifully. He referred not only to racism but also to sexual orientation. Obama went further by connecting these individual freedoms with "the freedom of every soul on Earth."

Some Americans reject these freedoms, and especially the man who expresses them.
Racism is deeply rooted in the American psyche. In some parts of the country it is more overt than in others, and in some political parties it is more evident than in others.

Even some people who call themselves Christians are guilty of racism, whether they are conscious of this or not. After four years, some of them are still not ready to accept a black president.

Obama's courageous reference to the equality that "our gay brothers and sisters" ought to enjoy will not be well-received by homophobic Americans.

The president did not mention the contentious issue of gun control, but he did refer to Newtown and the need for all American children "to know they are cared for, cherished, and always safe from harm."

Obama has been criticized repeatedly for his denial of American exceptionalism. This speech did not glorify the US excessively, but like all inaugural addresses it did not neglect it. It set an agenda, "a journey" he called it, for"the most powerful country in the world," a country in which the "possibilities are limitless."

Admittedly, American exceptionalism does make many people outside of the US feel a little uncomfortable, but it was good to hear Obama lay out a course for his country to follow.

In a departure for the bipartisanship that marked the day, the president had a warning for Republicans: "We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate." This warning applies to everyone whose motives are less than loving.

People of faith in the US should examine their motives carefully. If there is any hatred at all, that should be removed. There is no place for hatred in the hearts of believers. Jesus commands his followers, "love your enemies" (Mt. 5:44). You may disagree with your political opponents, but hatred is not permitted.

Frank Schaeffer, the son of the late Francis Schaeffer, who played a leading role in the rise of the political right in the US, asks pointedly"What is the future of a politicized "Christianity" deeply infected by the politics of hate, intolerance, homophobia, xenophobia, victimhood, racism and willful delusion? Bluntly -- will it be Fox News or Jesus?" 

Later in this article, Schaeffer states resolutely: "Christians who care about our country and our faith have a choice: Circle the wagons tighter, deny reality further, hate more, or admit that once again -- as with the race issues of the 1940s through the 1960s -- that most conservative religious Americans have missed the boat of progress, hope and inclusion."

Schaeffer has said and done things that I too disagree with, yet here he lays his finger on some potential painful spots for Christians who consider themselves to be conservatives in both politics and religion. 

This identity does not necessarily follow in my opinion. Even if it does, people must be especially careful in the causes they espouse. As Schaeffer bluntly demands:  Who influences them more, Fox News or Jesus?

And they must admit that the Republican party has not choose the issues on which the last few elections were fought correctly. They were blinded by their absolutism and, dare I say it, by their hatred of Obama.

I ask everyone to pray for the president of the US. Obama needs your prayers as he begins his second term. There are many problems, both foreign and domestic, that require his urgent attention. Thus he needs your prayers, not your judgment or condemnation. 

May God richly bless President Barack Obama in the four years that lie ahead!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

How to feel safe after Newtown


January 14, 2013, marked exactly thirty-one days after the Newtown massacre. The days are counting and the bodies are mounting since that tragic event; the death toll does not seem to end. The following chart from Slate shows how many Americans were killed by firearms since the Newtown. 

It starts with the deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, and finishes on January 14.

The body count includes suicides, which account for 60% of all gun deaths, but the final tally of deaths for this period is probably incomplete, since many of these death may not have been reported.

How should Americans react to this report? Fear? Despair? Anger? Disgust? Resignation? Sorrow?

Many more questions immediately arise: How do we stop this carnage? How do we protect our children and ourselves? Is the NRA right in urging that armed guards be assigned to schools? Should we buy more guns?

Today President Obama introduced tough new measures to curb gun violence in the US, including ways to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. For obvious reasons, he does not call these measures gun control, but that is what it is. Such measure are urgently needed. They will not be enough, but they are a start.

When I saw this chart my first response was disgust mixed with anger. My disgust is aimed at a society that seems to worship guns. My anger is directed at the NRA and those who do not want to limit the use of guns. I see this as a form of idolatry.

Let me explain. The NRA is totally wrong in its proposal about armed guards in schools. The way to stop this carnage is not to buy more guns and turns our homes, schools, shopping malls, and even churches into armed fortresses.

How can we feel safe? Alex Jones, with all his raving and ranting on CNN about how the government wants to take all guns away, does not have the solution. More guns is not the answer.

There is only one solution. It may sound naive, but the only way to feel safe involves faith in God.

I suspect that some people will call this comment crazy and dismiss me as a nut case. But I ask you to be patient and hear me out.

After 9/11, many people were similarly fearful. The government took many measures, including establishing the Department of Homeland Security, although that did not eliminate their fears.

For Americans it was difficult to accept that terrorism had been brought to their shores. Now their safety was gone forever. American parents too, like parents everywhere, had to struggle how to make their children feel safe.

This poster distorts the message of the Qur'an by taking it out of context

A Muslim woman in the US was challenged to explain to her five-year-old daughter, Zaynab, the posters that appeared in subways in Washington, DC, that depicted the World Trade Center in flames on 9/11. These posters were intended to depict all Muslims as terrorists. They did succeed in making Muslims feel afraid.

She had to reassure her daughter that she was safe. The mother did so by teaching her about her faith in God -- a God who is always present. Indeed, God is present; he is with us all the time, and he is all around us.

She explains that she had learned this lesson already as a teenager. Later, soon after 9/11, the certainty of God's presence helped her feel safe and kept her from succumbing to the despair of other Muslims at the time. She was confident even when people stared at her because of her headdress. Now she imparted that lesson to her daughter.

This is a valuable lesson that we all have to learn. Many of us already know that, but we may have forgotten it, and thus we need to be reminded of it again.

After Newtown, many American parents again struggle how to reassure their children and make them feel safe. Some perhaps went out and bought guns, but that only compounds the problem. It increases the size of the arsenal, but that only provides a false sense of security.

The prophet Isaiah in the eighth century BC warned the people of Judah, who were threatened by Assyria, their powerful neighbor, about putting their trust in Egypt. Egypt could not save them, he said, nor could all their weapons; only God could:

"Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the Lord."

This warning is appropriate for us today as well. The carnage caused in the US ever day by guns will not end until all these weapons are removed. Other countries, such as Britain, have done that and watched the death rate plummet.

Unfortunately, Americans are not ready yet to give their guns -- not even semi-automatic weapons, it seems, even though these can hardly be justified as necessary for hunting.

Handguns, which are most commonly used for killing people, are responsible for more deaths in the US than in any other wealthy country of the world. That should not be necessary.

There are many legitimate uses for guns, such as for hunting. No one, not even the parents in Newtown who lost twenty children in December, is suggesting banning all guns, but change is urgently needed before more tragedies like Newtown occur. This carnage must stop.

How will Americans ever feel safe? Not by buying more guns. That is idolatry, which means putting one's trust in someone or something other than God. All three of the Abrahamic faiths roundly condemn idolatry.

All people of faith must put their trust in God alone. In order to feel safe, they do not need to resort to guns. They only need to believe that God is present everywhere. They must trust him to protect them. And thus they should reject the idolatrous cries of the NRA and other gun groups to buy even more guns for self-protection.

Trusting in God means that people stop resorting to self-protective actions and utilize the communal forces that are available in every society. While police cannot be everywhere, they do act as a deterrent.

What is happening is the US is an expression of individualism run amok. People feel the need to protect themselves and their loved ones through their own individual actions. They only trust themselves.

Some Americans, it seems, have carried their distrust of government to an extreme, so that they no longer trust law enforcement agencies. Their only recourse is to arm themselves and turn their homes into fortresses.
In Canada, where I live, I do not feel anxious when I go out on the streets. Nor do I worry that someone will break into my home and try to kill me. There is a very simple reason for this.

I believe that God is present everywhere. Thus I place my trust in him, and in him alone. I do not own a gun, nor will I ever purchase one. My family shares my belief. My youngest daughter, who lives in the US, has told her husband in no uncertain terms that he is not allowed to bring a gun into their house. He has not.

How about you? Where do you place your trust? If you truly believe that God is present everywhere, how can you buy a gun for self-protection? I just don't get it. If you do, please explain how you can call yourself a believer and yet want to arm yourself. That is a false and distorted faith. It is idolatry.

How can Americans feel safe after Newtown? The answer is the same as the one that this Muslim mother gave to her daughter: God is everywhere and he will keep you safe. That is true faith.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Tourism: a new form of colonialism?

Rudyard Kipling once famously wrote "East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet." He was referring to the difficulty of adapting to foreign cultures. Kipling was born in Bombay, India, and his model was probably the British who, rather than adapting to foreign cultures, required the foreign cultures to adapt to them. That was colonialism at its peak, but the question arises: does colonialism still persist today?

Instead of promoting a general discussion of this issue, which is too large for this blog, I want to restrict myself to the topic of tourism, and ask whether that has become a new form of colonialism. But tourism is still too much to discuss and thus I will focus on the all-inclusive vacation variant in the developing world. Even then, I will touch on only a few facets of what makes such tourism a type of colonialism.

All-inclusive vacations are very popular in Canada, but less so in the US, where the laws regulating them are different. In our experience most of the guests at all-inclusive resorts are Canadians and Europeans; there are very few Americans. Cuba, of course, is still out of bounds for most Americans.

Such vacations offer a package that includes airfare, transportation from the airport to the resort and return, accommodations, food and all the drinks one can consume. A wallet is not necessary; it can be left in the safe in one's room, opening it daily only for a few tips if one so desires.

These thought were prompted by a recent trip to a resort in La Romana in the Dominican Republic. In the past several years we have taken many such trips to many Caribbean countries, including Cuba. We often go with good friends, which doubles the fun. Such vacations often cost less than vacationing in North America.

Moreover, people can often feel good about providing employment to many people and helping the local economy. But such help is limited, especially at all-inclusive resorts, which tend to be owned and operated by large overseas corporations.

Experts in the hospitality industry argue that in Europe or North America people eat in local restaurants, shop in local stores, and take taxis or city buses, and thus their money tends to go to the people who live there. But that is often not the case with sophisticated all-inclusive mega-resorts that provide their own labor, food and other supplies. Huge corporations manage the entire chain. The profits accrue to these corporations.

They also point out that in a small, locally owned Caribbean hotel, every dollar that is spent has the potential to recirculate six to eight times within the local economy. By contrast, a dollar spent at an all-inclusive resort will often only recirculate 1.4 times.

They concede, however, that this is not as much an issue when vacationers engage in excursions outside the resort. In addition, the arrival and departure taxes, which many countries charge tourists and often cost between $20 to $50 per person do benefit the country's economy.

Aside from the economics of these resorts, which express the new colonialism of our age, colonialism is also visible in a way that is easier to see, as we discovered when we arrived at a luxurious resort in the Dominican Republic. We could easily imagine ourselves to be aristocrats with hundreds of servants at our command.

View of the pool and the ocean from our room at the resort

We were well aware of the poverty of those who work there. We have lived and worked in the tropics for much of our lives. The employees at this resort and many others like it are more fortunate than many people in such countries. They may not earn very much, but they do receive hard-currency tips that supplement their meager salaries. Therefore we always come prepared with a packet of dollar bills. 

It is interesting to note that many Europeans are not used to the custom of tipping. They are also notorious smokers. Their attitude to tipping may seem uncaring, but it does very starkly expose the issue of colonialism.

Is tipping a way of appeasing our conscience for helping to perpetuate this new form of  colonialism? Deep down all of us suspect that something is not right about this type of tourism. We benefit greatly from it, but does it benefit the local people in a country as well, other than providing work for a handful of them?

Is this type of tourism any different from what Walmart does by farming out its manufacturing to China and other low-wage countries? Many of us shop at Walmart to enjoy their cheap prices, although sometimes we have qualms of conscience about this. My eldest daughter refuses to shop there.

At these resorts we are pampered like royalty. We enjoy luxurious surroundings where we are feted by the innumerable staff. Especially in the drab winter months we can soak in the Caribbean sun without a care in the world for a week or so. As we sip our cold drinks, we think, "This is the life!"

View of a small section of the beach at the resort,
Wendy and our friends are hidden behind a tree

Unfortunately, for the people who serve us life is not as good. Yes, they do get to work in such surroundings,
but they are treated little differently from the servants in Kipling's time, except perhaps for the tips they get.

Many years ago, when I taught in the Philippines and Ferdinand Marcos was still in power, his wife had huge barriers constructed on the roads leading from the airport to the five-star hotels. She did not want the tourists to see the massive slums along the way, particularly a nasty one called "Smokey Mountain," where Manila's garbage was dumped. Families living nearby would first scavenge for metal and plastic before it was burned.

This was in the days before all-inclusive vacations, but the same principle applies today. Tourists are still ferried to and from the resorts in air-conditioned buses, from which they only get glimpses of how the local people live.

I have lived in many countries, some of which were tourist-friendly, while others were not. Those that are tourist-friendly benefit in many ways, even if the population as a whole enjoys little of that newly brought in wealth, except perhaps for improvements in the infrastructure for the sake of the tourists.

I would encourage countries like Nigeria and Russia to change their visa policies, so that tourists would be able to come more easily than at present. There are benefits from tourism that these countries reject for their own reasons.

Tourism is not inherently evil, even if it sometimes smacks of colonialism. There many other examples of colonialism today such as domestic workers who are underpaid and vulnerable to abuse. There are also many migrant workers in Europe and North America.

I am not suggesting that all-inclusive vacations are totally wrong. We can still enjoy them, but we must realize that the blessing is not unmixed. The same principle applies when we shop at Walmart.

That is all I want to affirm in this post. We live in a broken world, where there are still many injustices. We cannot correct all of them, but we must be conscious of what we are doing. That is all I ask of myself and of each of you.

On your next visit to some of these countries, enjoy the sunshine, but keep that in mind as you sip your drink. Then maybe East and West will meet.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Justice for women in India

The brutal gang-rape and death of a 23-year-old female medical student in India has prompted outrage and horror around the world. She was tortured and raped on December 16 by a group of six men armed with a metal bar on a private bus in New Delhi. She later died from her injuries in a Singapore hospital.

Five men and a teenager have been charged with rape and murder. This case has been put on a fast track in the wake of this incident. In contrast to decades of inactivity when it comes to rape, a special court has been set up to handle crimes against women. There are now many cries for the death penalty against these men, if they are eventually judged to be guilty.

The incident has sparked marches all across India where a woman is estimated to be raped every twenty minutes. People are voicing their outrage through huge demonstrations against the treatment of women in India, and demanding tougher laws on violence against women. The death of this young woman has become a rallying cry against the violence that all women in India face in some way.

India has an appalling record of crimes against women. Every day women are raped, assaulted, humiliated, and even burned for lack of an adequate dowry. But now, after this incident, women and men in India are demanding that justice be done. Additional demonstrations and protests have been held all over the world demanding action as well.

For too long Indian women have been shamed into silence. When a 16-year old girl from a lower-caste was gang-rapped by some upper-caste men, she was ashamed to tell anyone, including her family. Only after her father had found out about it and killed himself did she finally seek justice. At first, the police refused to take action against the rapists, but later a half-dozen men were arrested and will be put on trial.

In another case, a lower-class girl was also gang-raped. Congress President Sonia Gandhi later met with the family of this Dalit girl, who had immolated herself after the rape. Gandhi echoed the mood of many Indians when she said that the perpetrators of such “barbaric” crimes must be given a severe punishment.

Sonia Gandhi after she met the family of the Dalit girl 

The caste system was officially abolished when India became independent in 1947, but it persists, especially in rural areas. But caste is not the only factor that contributes to the high incidence of rape and which makes it very difficult for justice to be achieved, there is an another factor as well that may possibly play a role: the strong preference for male babies in India. This preference also exists in other countries such as China.

Time magazine attributes violence against women to the abortion of female fetuses and the neglect of girl children. Sex selection has led to an imbalance in the sex ratio, which in turn led to sex trafficking and bride buying. Now the lack of women leaves many men without marriage partners, and thus it contributes to the high number of rapes in India.

But the Time essay does not discuss the high number of rapes in the developed countries of the world. Even allowing for the under-reporting of rapes in developing countries, the high per capita rate of rape in some developed countries is remarkable. Thus the high incidence of rape in India can hardly be explained by sex selection alone.

Sex selection is important for understanding the propensity of men in India to commit acts of violence against women, but there are other factors as well that help to explain both the frequency of rape and the reluctance to report it. These factors are common in all of India, even if they are not exclusive to that country.

Women are treated in ways that are no longer considered acceptable in developed countries. In India and many other countries, women are treated as chattel. They are property and can thus be abused at will.

This is why Christians especially must protest violence against women. They must encourage Indians to adopt a view of women as created in the image of God, as men are, and thus not inferior to men in any respect. Men and women are equal in the eyes of God and thus they must be treated equally.

As God;'s image bearers, both women and men must be protected from violent attacks. Such attacks will happen because we live in a sinful world, but such violence is inexcusable and the perpetrators must be brought to justice. Yet one day men and women will be able to live in a world free of sexual violence.

Women in India need justice. Unfortunately, those who are mandated to uphold the law and maintain justice in India too often look the other way when women are attacked, especially if the perpetrators are upper-class men. Police and the judicial system must be trained to help women achieve justice.

Sex selection should be declared a crime, especially if it involves abortion. When it is practiced in developed countries there is no excuse for tolerating such a practice. Similarly, female mutilation must be condemned. Every practice that involves killing or mutilating women must be stopped.

This is true not just in India but in every country as well where violence against women is perpetrated. The brutal rape and death of a woman in India is a reminder that such violence can be found everywhere.

If her death has awakened the people of India to the reality of how women are treated in their country today, then she has not died in vain. May the rest of the world also head this clarion call to stop such violence.

That will not happen overnight, but eventually women everywhere will be able to walk the streets of every city in the world, even New Delhi, which has been labelled "the rape capital of the world." Pray with me that it will happen soon. As a father and a grandfather of girls, this cannot happen soon enough!


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Idle No More

Idle No More  started with a hashtag on Twitter It was conceived in November by four Saskatchewan women who were frustrated with the federal government's latest omnibus budget bill. Idle No More is a First Nations protest movement that seeks to obtain renewed government guarantees for past treaty agreements and to halt what the organizers view as a legislative erosion of First Nations rights.

An omnibus bill is a proposed law that covers a number of diverse or unrelated topics. It is a favorite device of the Conservative government to get controversial legislation passed by including it as part of a larger bill.

Buried in the more than 400 pages of the last budget bill are amendments to the Indian Act that would allow Aboriginals to lease reserve land to non-Aboriginals, which organizers allege would result in a slow erosion of Aboriginal culture and language. It also contains changes to the Navigable Waters Act, which would loosen environmental restrictions for waterways in First Nations territory.

Idle No More organizers have also criticized the legislation for including changes to education, safe drinking water and elections that they allege were drafted without proper consultation.

The movement’s most visible spokesperson is Theresa Spence, who is the chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation, a Northern Ontario reserve that was struck by an emergency housing crisis last year.

Since December 11, Spence has been on a hunger strike while camped on an Ottawa River island that is located only a few hundred meters from Parliament Hill, vowing not to consume anything, except broth and water, until she has been able to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Harper may be hesitant to meet with Spence is because of her request for a “nation-to-nation” meeting. While the federal government has actively pushed for aboriginal self-governance, it has always been hesitant to endorse the view, held by many First Nations, that they are full, sovereign entities within Canada.

Since early December, protests spurred by Idle No More have included a 1,000-person demonstration on Parliament Hill, a blockade of a CN rail spur near Sarnia, and a variety of demonstrations in malls across Canada and parts of the US, including a demonstration in Washington, DC, on New Year's Day.

The protests largely quieted down over Christmas, although on Boxing Day scattered demonstrations were seen at malls in the Prairie provinces, Sarnia remained blockaded, and Theresa Spence still had\s not eaten.

The Idle No More movement is not likely to disappear, even if Spence manages to meet the Prime Minister. The issues that it raises are too important for the government to ignore any further.

A major government report in 1996 called “People to People, Nation to Nation: Highlights from the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples” identified the problems and laid out a twenty-year plan to implement the recommendations it proposed. It included a cost/benefit analysis of all 444 recommendations.

The report notes that a careful reading of history of Canada shows that this country was founded on a series of bargains with Aboriginal peoples -- bargains that this nation has never fully honored. Treaties between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal governments were agreements to share the land, but they were replaced by policies intended to remove Aboriginal people from their homelands, suppress Aboriginal nations and their governments, undermine Aboriginal cultures, and stifle Aboriginal identity.

In the 16 years since this report was released, almost nothing has been accomplished. The Idle No More movement wants to change that situation. The status quo is not working, and is in fact a form of colonialism.

Successive governments have tried to absorb Aboriginal people into Canadian society, thus eliminating them as distinct peoples. The policies pursued over the decades have undermined, and almost erased, Aboriginal cultures and identities. That is assimilation and totally wrong.

Assimilation policies have failed because Aboriginal people have an enduring sense of themselves as peoples with a unique heritage and the right to cultural continuity.

The report goes on to explain that a fundamental change is necessary. Canadians need to understand that Aboriginal peoples are nations. That is, they are political and cultural groups with values and styles of life that are distinct from those of other Canadians.

Aboriginal people have lived as small, loosely federated nations for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. As nations, they forged trade and military alliances among themselves and with the new arrivals. To this day, Aboriginal people's sense of confidence and well-being as individuals remains tied to the strength of their nations. Only as members of restored nations can they reach their potential in the 21st century.

To say that they are nations is not to say that they are nation-states seeking independence from Canada. Together they possess a long shared history, a right to govern themselves, and a strong desire to do so in partnership with Canada.

These issues will not disappear in the near future, and thus the Idle No More movement will not soon depart from the scene. The First Nations through the Idle No More movement have once more placed their tragic situation on the national agenda. This time they demand a positive response from the Canadian government. 

Another report is not needed; instead, the recommendations of 1996 report should implemented. It is a shame that this report has been allowed to gather dust. Unfortunately, very few Canadians have read it.

It is doubly shameful that Canadians have not spoken out more about the intolerable situations in which their Aboriginal brothers and sisters have been allowed to exist for many generations. They have read about it and seen it on TV, but they have not responded in love and protested the injustices involved.

The Idle No More movement gives them an opportunity to do so. All Canadians who pride themselves on a sense of fair play and a concern for the underdog should speak out and side with Theresa Spence in her desire to meet with the Prime Minister. Add your name to this letter of support.

Especially people of faith in Canada should be in the forefront of protesting the intolerable situation of the First Nations. They must demonstrate their support for the Idle No More movement in whatever way they can. I am doing what I can by writing this post. Please do what you can as well.