Monday, December 29, 2014

A Wonderful and Meaningful New Year

Happy New Year to everyone! My prayer is that you may experience a wonderful and meaningful 2015. 

January 1 marks the beginning of a brand new year, 2015. It also gives me an opportunity to wish all of you a wonderful and meaningful new year. But you may wonder what I mean with those words.

Wonderful is a well-known word that means "exciting wonder." Some synonyms are: amazing, astonishing, astounding, awesome, fabulous, miraculous, stunning, stupendous, sublime, surprising, marvelous. Something that is wonderful fills us with wonder.

That is indeed my wish for you this year: May the new year fill you with wonder! And may wonderful things happen to you in 2015!

Meaningful in this context may be less familiar. It means "have meaning or purpose." A few synonyms are: pregnant, revealing, significant,

That is also my wish for you: May it be a year pregnant with possibilities for you! May it reveal new things to you! And may 2015 be a significant year for you!

You realize, of course, that January 1 is a rather arbitrary date, yet it has a strong historical basis. Although it marks a new year in most parts of the world, this is not true everywhere. Other groups have alternative dates, in addition to January 1. Nor has it always been this way in the English-speaking world.

January 1 has a long tradition. It goes back to about 700 BC. The Old Roman calendar began with January and concluded with December, just like ours does.

That calendar was superseded by the Julian and, later, the Gregorian calendars. The Julian is still used in some Christian churches today, while the Gregorian is universally used for secular purposes but also religious. 

When the Julian calendar was still used in Western Europe, the start of the new year was variable: March 1, March 25, Easter, September 1 and December 25. It was not until 1752 that England and its colonies, including the American ones, fixed January 1 as New Year's Day, after many centuries of other dates.

If you are an Orthodox Christian, you may celebrate the beginning of the new year a few weeks later, on January 14 (which is January 1 on the Julian calendar), at least for the religious ceremonies. But other Orthodox people follow the Gregorian calendar, except for Lent and Easter when they join other Orthodox who follow the Julian one.

January 1 still marks the civil new year, but the celebrations are often extended over a longer period, as happened in Russia when we lived there. Many factories would close for several weeks because many of their employees would be too drunk to be able to work.

If you are Chinese, or Japanese, or Vietnamese, you will also celebrate the Lunar New Year, which can fall on any date from January 21 to February 21. In 2015 it is on February 19. The Chinese also follow a cycle of twelve years that are named after animals. 

The new year, 2015, is the Year of the Sheep. There is always a bulge in births immediately before the beginning of that year, since the Chinese believe that children born then will likely be unlucky.

Indians and other South Asians have many new year celebrations during the Northern Spring or Autumn. There are too many to mention. 

Northern Autumn is also when Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah ("head of the year"). It is a two-day celebration, which begins on the first day of Tishrei, which is the first month of the Jewish civil year, but the seventh month of the ecclesiastical year.

The Islamic New Year occurs on 1 Muharram, which can coincide with any day of the year, since Muslims have a calendar of 12 lunar months that total about 354 days, thus it takes plave approximately 11 days earlier every year in relation to the Gregorian calendar. There may even be two Muslim New Years in the same calendar year, as last happened in 2008.

We can learn from history and these other celebrations that New Year's Day on January 1, while not entirely arbitrary, has no great or lasting significance. It is a day like any other day, except that it marks the beginning of a new calendar year.

New Year's Day is a time for new beginnings. For example, we make resolutions that often do not last longer than the day itself. Nevertheless, it is not a bad habit to resolve to improve oneself, especially as a new year begins.

I again want to wish all of you a wonderful and meaningful New Year. We don't know what lies in store for us this year. We don't even know what can happen to us tomorrow. But we can trust in God. That is all that really matters.

In 2014 many children were born, but many have people also died. I lost my mother last year, You may have lost loved ones too. I won't even mention all the tragedies that took place last year. May God comfort all of us as we reflect on the past year and enter the new one.

I pray that God will protect you in the new year and provide for all your needs so that it indeed may prove to be a wonderful and meaningful year.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Too much hatred, not enough love, and very little peace

Christmas 2014

I wish all my readers a Blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year. May you and your family enjoy this season and experience a wonderful 2015. May God richly bless you as you work for peace!

The main problem in the world today is that there is too much hatred, not enough love, and very little peace. A few recent examples, culled from newspapers; some from far away and some much closer to home:

The Taliban in Pakistan who killed 132 school children because they are opposed to education.

The Boko Haram in Nigeria who kidnapped schoolgirls and reportedly used some as suicide bombers.

The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq who have sold girls as sex slaves and committed other atrocities.

An Australian mother who killed her seven children and a niece before killing herself.

A deranged man who killed an unarmed soldier and then terrorized Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

A man who killed two policemen in NYC in retribution for the killing of two black men by police.

Police who have killed innocent men, yet grand juries refused to indict them.

These are only a few examples that could be multiplied many times. But there are others that are more covert yet even more dangerous:

The polarization of America where Republicans and Democrats can no longer speak civilly to each other.

The racism in many countries, especially in the US, which is becoming more and more apparent.

The sexism that many people reveal, even though they themselves seem to be oblivious to it.

Rich people who show no concern for the poor, and are unaware of the growing inequality.

Politicians whose only concern is themselves, rather than the people they are elected to serve.

A military machine that is intended to defend, but instead kills and needlessly soaks up money. 

Even this is only a small selection. I could provide many more examples, but I won't since I hope I have made my point: there is too much hatred, not enough love, and very little peace. All of them were motivated by hatred of some kind. If there were more love, none of these would had to happen.

During the Christmas season our thoughts are focused on love, not hatred. We give gifts to those we love. But for Christians this season is especially focused on the love of God manifested in the gift of his Son, which is the greatest gift of all.

The love of God encapsulates the whole world. It is a love that is multi-dimensional, incorporating all of creation. God makes everything new; people just cannot see it yet. It is the already but not yet that is a repeated theme of the Apostle Paul. Something that is already present, but is not yet fully revealed.

Our world longs for peace, but it eludes us every year again. We would like to start the new year with a clean slate: a world where crimes such as the ones I just listed will not happen, Yet on January 1 we learn again that this is not the case. There is still too much hatred, not enough love, and very little peace. These crimes do not stop when the old year ends, but continue into the new one. Of course, it would be utterly naive to think otherwise. Yet we can dream of such a time.

That is the promise of Christmas: not that wars will immediately cease, but that peace is coming. God guaranteed it when he sent Jesus Christ into the world. He who is the "Prince of Peace" has ushered in a new age that now we can only see dimly, but one day, when Christ returns, will become a reality that will be visible to the whole world.

There are those who retort that it has been almost 2,000 years and Christ has not yet returned. Moreover, they say, there is still hatred and warfare. I concede their point, but would nevertheless respond that Christ will return; when, however, only God knows.

Every Christian lives out of that hope. Without hope, life become impossible. Human beings need hope in order to live. Christmas brings hope to believers and unbelievers alike. Now we already can have a foretaste of the peace that will one day become universal.

Newspapers are filled with stories about an event that took place exactly 100 years ago. On Christmas Eve, 1914, during the first year of WWI, some British and German soldiers declared a truce for several hours. They came out of their trenches in order to exchange gifts and sing Christmas carols. For a few hours there was peace.

Unfortunately, by the next morning they were shooting at each other again. By the time that war was over four years later more than 8 million soldiers had died. But for a few, all-too-brief hours there was peace on a small section of a battlefield. What better time to do so than during Christmas?

Christ's birth was not an invasion by which he took immediate control of all the levers of power in the world, but it was more an infiltration, where Christ and his troops are slowly pushing back the hateful forces that dominate the news, also in our age. The victory belongs to God; we just don't see it yet

This is the language of faith. It is not a pipe dream, although many people today dismiss it as a hope or dream that is impossible to achieve and is not practical. On the contrary, it can be achieved and it is practical. One day it will become a reality that everyone will see and celebrate.

In the meantime, I urge all Christians to join Christ in the struggle against the hateful forces of this world. Each and every believer must join in that struggle. God wants all believers to help him bring peace into the world, by bringing love instead of hatred.

I will conclude with the Prayer of St. Francis, which is widely but erroneously attributed to the thirteenth-century Saint Francis of Assisi, who is the namesake of the current pope. This prayer in its present form cannot be traced back further than 1912, but it is nevertheless a beautiful prayer. I quote it in a lyrical form that is familiar to many, although it also appears in another form in the illustration below.

This prayer encourages all of us to become channels of God's peace. The, one day -- perhaps sooner than we realize -- Christ will return and peace will reign. Until then, we can hope and strive to bring God's love so that peace may become a reality.

The Peace Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi

Make me a channel of your peace,
Where there is hatred let me bring your love,
Where there is injury your pardon Lord,
And where there’s doubt true faith in you.

Make me a channel of your peace,
Where there’s despair in life, let me bring hope,
Where there is darkness, only light,
And where there’s sadness, ever joy.

O Master grant that I may never seek,
So much to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love with all my soul.

Make me a channel of your peace,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
In giving of ourselves that we receive.
And in dying that we’re born to eternal life.

O Master grant that I may never seek,
So much to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
And to love as to love with all my soul.

Make me a channel of your peace,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
In giving of ourselves that we receive.
And in dying that we’re born to eternal life.

Make me a channel of your peace.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Torture and Deception by the CIA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A heavily redacted page from the CIA report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Open Letter to Stephen Harper on Climate Change

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


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

December 2014

Dear Prime Minister:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please excuse the forthright nature of my comments, but my concern about climate change is longstanding. I have written about it in my blog many times. My first post on this topic was in 2011 ( and many more posts appeared afterward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, December 6, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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