Saturday, April 28, 2012

Do not pass go . . .

Athabasca Falls
CTV’s W5 replayed a documentary called “The Trials of Conrad Black” tonight with Lisa Laflamme interviewing Black and anchoring a variety of glimpses into his homes, his businesses of the past, his wife, Barbara Amiel and the notorious security camera tape of him carrying file boxes out of his office. According to Black he has never committed a crime and is the victim of a combination of stupidity in the US justice system and vindictiveness on the part of people who envy him his success.
               He may be correct in these assumptions, as well as in his confession that the way he acted and carried himself for many years invited the outcome he’s struggled under for the past 9 years. He’ll finally be released from prison a week from yesterday.
               One thing Black is right about; his return to his Toronto home (as a temporary resident; as a convicted felon he doesn’t qualify for anything more) will not be heralded by brass bands and parades. It’s my sense that a poll of the Canadian public would show that most people here consider him a criminal, despite what he or others might say in his defense.
                And therein lies a dilemma, both for Conrad Black and for us. So often, we are faced with the news that someone has been indicted of an offense or tried and found guilty. Unfortunately, we— the general public— don’t have access to the trial proceedings, have little or no background information except the more lurid bits provided in the media, and no good reason to make any assumptions about whether or not the court outcome is just or not.
               And yet, we decide. Once a person has been named by the justice system, the assumption needle swings quickly to “guilty” in the eyes of the public. There are, no doubt, logical reasons for this phenomenon, one being the supposition that innocent people don’t get arrested.
               Furthermore, we don’t forgive easily, even after a convicted person has served his/her sentence. People who are found not guilty by a court seem often to be assumed to have “gotten away with it” and therefore worse than guilty because of that outcome.
               It’s possible that Conrad Black never did anything illegal and was wrongfully convicted. How would I know? It’s certainly a fact that the punishment meted out by the court has been administered and that in the eyes of the law, Black has “done his time,” whether he did the crime or not. But I wouldn’t put big money on the possibility that the general public will help him rehabilitate his reputation.
               The rule as seen through this window? Stay out of the justice system, even if it means scrupulously obeying the laws of the land. The alternative is unthinkable, and largely irreversible.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Fig Leaf Couture

Some leaves not recommended for garment manufacture

Some more leaves not recommended for garment manufacture.

Our conversation turned to fig leaves, and how one might sew them together into garments. It was my fault. I was trying to make the point that Genesis 3: 1-7 wasn’t about nudity; that nakedness was a metaphor for shame, for being “exposed” as a liar.
               “I’ve seen fig trees,” a friend said. “The leaves are about the size of maple leaves.”
               “I wonder where Adam and Eve got needles and thread,” someone else mused. How easily we slip back into the literal, as if wresting meaning from allegory were just too much trouble.
               And someone said, “Can you imagine trying to sew maple leaves into garments?” Allegory interpreted literally easily descends into comedy.
               And I thought of Peter McKay, our minister of defense, furiously sewing maple leaves together in front of reporters, trying to cover up his nakedness with a suit made up of maple leaves. This would certainly be grist for some cartoonist with knowledge of Genesis 3: 1-7.
               This portion of the Hebrew creation stories has long been interpreted as “the fall,” but the act that signals the fall is generally the bite into the forbidden fruit, the disobedience. What has followed, historically and unfortunately, is the conjoining of nudity, sex and “the fall,” a plague as enduring and destructive as the weeds, the disease, the back-breaking labour that Adam and Eve were metaphorically consigned to when they were pitched out of the garden. Hijabs, long dresses and head coverings a legacy of the notion that body covering is redemptive somehow—primarily in women, as it happens.
               God’s first question to Adam and Eve, after the “Where are you?” is “Who told you that you were naked?” and then, “Have you eaten from the tree which I forbade you?” Whole theologies, indeed several religions have been built upon this conversation and its consequences. It’s most certainly not an unimportant allegory!
               I’m sure that most people would ascribe to the notion that somewhere, sometime in the past, human consciousness began to distinguish good from evil. This turning point—the birth of ethics and morality—distinguishes us from animals and our own prehistory and can be seen as the beginning of civilization. It is surely this turning point that the originators of “the fall” allegory were trying to understand, hence the forbidden fruit that grows on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There is here a deep longing for innocence, a pungent sorrow over the pain and suffering of living.
               For now, though, I save some thought for the sewing of fig-leaf loin cloths as a lesson in the allegory: the cover-up that replaces admission and repentance, the deception chosen as an escape from guilt, manipulation that poses as truthful dialogue.
What human tragedy cannot be laid, somewhat, at the feet of the sewing together of fig leaves?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

All the difference

Rosthern, April 15, 2012 -7:00 a.m.

Let’s assume for the moment that life is legitimately seen as a succession of choices, a pathway with cross-paths and branches each requiring a decision. Choices as simple as, “do I get up now or can I sleep for another ten minutes?” or as significant as, “do I marry this man, search for a more suitable one or remain single?”
 Last week I quoted Chief Poundmaker’s “ . . . we cannot go back nor can we just sit beside the trail.” In the latest addition to the Being a Faithful Church, document, Jack Suderman writes:     “. . . on a hike we need to walk and not just sit on the path and contemplate the map.” The convergence of ideas was for me revelatory, especially coming from such different angles. Both are urging action, courage and determination in finding and pursuing a vision; both are decrying the inertia that sometimes seizes us when we are faced with a fork in the road, or find ourselves on a path that appears dark and forbidding.
I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s The Road not Taken: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I/I took the one less traveled by/and that has made all the difference.”
Taking the “road less traveled by,” of course, takes the most energy and courage . . . but comes with the greatest rewards, according to Frost’s poem. But, what is the road less traveled by for you and me as individuals in 2012, in this country, given the circumstances that persist outside your window and mine? Obviously, if I were to dress in only a loincloth and spend my days preaching at the corner in front of the grocery store, that would be a road less traveled by—unique and certainly bound to “make all the difference.” In mine and my family’s life at the very least.
Contrarily, If I choose the road of least resistance, the “stay at home, watch entertaining TV, read only the sports page, ignore the neighbours, assume no responsibility for the world around me” kind of life, I would undoubtedly be taking the road most traveled by. That, too, makes all the difference—in another way.
I see great signs around me that people are choosing the less-traveled-by roads. Not only are they making thoughtful and unique choices, but they’re doing more than sitting beside the trail and gazing at the map; they’re actually walking the trail despite the hazards because they have great goals in mind.
So, I guess that today’s advice to all of us is 1) Reread Robert Frost, 2) thoughtfully contemplate the fork in the road ahead, 3) tune into the encouragement of Poundmaker and Suderman and, 4) live a life that makes all the difference.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Toward a Poundmaker Easter

John A. Macdonald

Chief Poundmaker
--- (purported to be Chief Poundmaker’s deathbed words, 1886.)
               “The fight” Poundmaker is referring to is the struggle to make the Canadian government live up to the terms of Treaty 6 in the face of extreme hardship on reserves. Little did he know that government perfidy would escalate and over the next 80 or so years, a campaign of culturicide would be waged against his people through a combination of neglect of treaty obligations and the residential school system. The trail for Aboriginal Canadians grew over, and finding the way forward became more and more difficult as time went by, to use Poundmaker’s metaphor.
               The “Truth and Reconciliation” process is trying to make a start on hacking out the trail. Our role in this process is to listen and learn, and in the learning to find how the institutions, attitudes and legislation in this country need to change so that everyone can live with confidence, dignity and the right to happiness.
               The Christian world has just been through its Lenten observations. The gist of it has been a revisit of the suffering servant theme through the story of the righteous man, Jesus, who is tortured and killed by the power structures of his day. Why have centuries of repeating this story not made us sensitive to dilemmas like those of Chief Poundmaker, his brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren? When did we lose sight of the possibility that we as Christians should intuitively align ourselves with Jesus and Poundmaker and not with the Chief Priests, Pontius Pilate and John A. Macdonald? The Canadian government conceived the culturicide plan, Christians carried it out through their residential schools. We, too, have to find the trail forward; for this, the truth must be told, repentance must be genuine, reconciliation must be given space.
               The Lenten period is followed by Easter; Christ is vindicated through the resurrection and His church rejoices. Today is that day.
               If only the Truth and Reconciliation process would culminate in a “resurrection morning” for the Aboriginal peoples of Canada. Or, at least, a clue to finding the trail forward.
               “. . . but we cannot go back nor can we just sit beside the trail.”

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Requiescat in pace

Electricity can be dangerous: My nephew tried to stick a penny into a plug. Whoever said a penny doesn't go far didn't see him shoot across that floor. I told him he was grounded.”
Tim Allen

Apparently it was NDP MP Pat Martin’s campaign – scrap the penny; it’s nothing but a nuisance! Pundits are saying it was a great gift to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, offering a neat diversion from less palatable items in the budget. An article I read equated the demise of the penny with the beginning of the end for the Canadian economic system.
A friend writes on Facebook that eliminating the penny will wipe out her entire pension plan, residing as it does in a small peanut butter jar under the bed.
I simply don’t get it. How can you have a decimal system of currency in which the basic unit is “the cent,” and have no physical form of that unit? I expect one will still be able to write cheques for, say, seventy-five dollars and twenty-nine cents and when the recipient deposits it, $75.29 will be added to that person’s bank balance. But it will be impossible to pay in cash exactly what’s owed at the local hardware store if the total doesn’t end in 5 or 0.
Which leads logically to the question: why stop there? Why make the nickel the new, basic physical currency unit? Why not the dime? or the quarter? or the looney? I guess the assumption is that nothing can be had for a penny these days anyway (gumballs used to sell for a penny) so why have such a tiny unit of currency? What, I ask you, does a nickel buy?!? Merchants are advised to round off to the nearest nickel, why not to the nearest dime, or to the nearest quarter, or to the nearest dollar, for that matter? Psychologically, I’d propose that we no longer think of prices below a dollar, unless we’re six years old or younger.
What is the smallest coin on the sidewalk that can cause you to stop, stoop, pick up and pocket? Assuming that you’re still young enough and fit enough to get down there without risking not getting up again, and assuming no one is watching, do you bend down to pick up a lost penny? nickel? dime? quarter? looney? Granted, this says as much about you as it does about the value of our coins, but if you’re changing in this regard, it’s probably economically prophetic.
What troubles me most is the effect on our literature and, in turn, our culture in which the lowly penny is the ubiquitous stand-in for all things monetary. Starting with Ben Franklin’s “A penny saved is a penny earned,” it’s not hard to find a virtual plethora of quotations referring to the penny. I guess we’ll have to teach our kids in future what this “penny” was, and why it was so much used as a figure of speech, a synecdoche if your high school English still haunts you.
I guess I shouldn’t be a curmudgeon about this; the English finally did away with that cumbersome system of “ha’pennies and shillings and half-crowns etc. etc. with which their literature is still replete and they survived . . .
. . . more or less.