Sunday, December 22, 2013

World's Oldest Profession and you

Colombian orchid photos courtesy Agnes Epp

Canada's prostitution laws have been struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada. The Canadian government has one year in which to come up with something better. Read all about it here.

The outcries are coming from many directions, of course, as they generally do when “moral matters” and state law rub shoulders. In a sense, all laws are based on somebody's definition of what is moral and what is not, but when it comes to enacting a good law that satisfies the sensitivities of a multi-faith, multicultural citizenry, answers don't come easily. Take gay marriage, prayer in schools, family planning, war on drugs, gun control and now, prostitution, and you have an encyclopedia of passionate controversy.

Prostitution makes an interesting case study in and of itself and as a platform for thinking through religion/state separation and cooperation.

On its face, sexual prostitution responds to a basic biological need, namely the drive to extract pleasure from sexual behaviour with another person. The exchange of sexual favours for cash has been a feature of every age since the invention of money and writing, and likely before that. In a way, one could apply the innocuous,  simplistic, “you have a need, I have the means; let's make a deal,” description. Viewed in this way, sexual prostitution is not radically different from general commerce: for instance, people exhibit a need to witness violence, so fighters beat each other to bloody pulps in the ring, observers experience an “orgasm” of vicarious pleasure and the fighters are paid.

But the professional hockey player, the owner of theme parks, the movie actor and opera singer don't wear the patina of sexual taboo that sex workers do, the ones who are seen as “hard prostitutes.” It's surely for this reason that organized crime and pimps are attracted to the benefits of controlling sexual prostitution exchanges. When have we seen criminals kidnapping budding hockey players, transporting them overseas and selling them to the highest bidder among foreign hockey teams? How prevalent is the incidence of opera singers being forced to pay a portion of their salary for “protection?” That which is forbidden in law often becomes a commodity in the criminal marketplace; drug trade, tobacco smuggling, gun running, rum running are phenomena comparable to sexual prostitution in this light. 

As a Christian (albeit one who has been described as being notoriously liberal on social issues at times) I see prostitution as a very sad symptom of cultural and/or economic dysfunction. There are paths in our growing up that lead to being a john or a prostitute, a pastor or a used car salesman. There are paths in our growing up that lead to violence against—and exploitation of—other persons, as there are paths leading to generosity and empathy. It is at this level that Christian witness and service must be aimed: education, nurturing and an indefatigable fight against those forces that contribute to inequality and poverty.

Making better paths, in other words.

On the state level, the tendency is to solve problems and inconveniences legally. For one, this approach generally deals with the aftermath of transgression and anti-social behaviour and seeks to deter behaviours through punishment. For another, the lack of consensus in the population often means that legislation ends up taking its cues primarily from the interests of those who hold power at the time—and hope to maintain it—and those with commercial interests and the means to sway parliamentarians.

As churches, we are—or ought to be—about prevention. Waiting for the government to enact laws as if our church were the whole world both flies in the face of our preference for church/state separation and diverts us from the tasks we've been given in the world.

How our government tackles the legislative changes on this issue will be interesting to watch. It's touchy when 40% of the vote can provide any party with a majority. Eliminating prostitution through legal means is a pipe dream; curbing the exploitation of—and trafficking in—women by organized crime might be the best we can hope for; how to make that happen is the government's challenge in the coming year. Distasteful as it will be to some, state regulated brothels as in the Netherlands is one possible consideration that will emerge, like safe injection sites for addicts and liquor board stores for drinkers. 

 Prostitution as it exists in our cities today is symptomatic of social dysfunction, and is likely here to stay. Recognizing that, how does the church respond? how does government? If you know, tell me and I'll pass it on. Just click here.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Vertical, Horizontal

I'm finally getting around to reading and contemplating Steve Heinrich's book, Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry, a great collection of essays on the settler/indigenous interface in North America. A great book to read and study for all of us “settlers” who are impatient for the finding of a solution that will finally bring about equality between us and the people whose land we bartered for in everlasting treaty arrangements.

I was reminded by several of the essays of a concept I used to present when teaching Hamlet to high school students, namely the “Great Chain of Being,” a hierarchical conception of creation that ranks all its components on a vertical line (see above and here). Going back to the philosophical musings of Aristotle and Plato, this construction implies degrees of authority and dominance so that men, for instance, have authority over women and women naturally defer to men. Animals, of course, are inferior to all humankind and rocks and minerals being at the base of the chain are there for exploitation by all the rest of creation. (It strikes me that when Paul wrote in the New Testament that women's relationship to men is as men's relationship to Christ that he might have been looking at a diagram like the one above.)

The horizontal plane in the illustration is roughly representative of an indigenous conception of creation, where the elements are seen in a side-by-side, roughly-equal configuration. This implies a very different concept of authority and deference, where men and women are equal and plants and rocks, minerals and animals are co-creations and not ranked hierarchically.

Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry is, in a manner of speaking, about the clash of the two concepts. Creation care, for instance, resides quite naturally in a spirituality that reveres all the elements of creation as residing on a horizontal plane. And there's a vast difference in outlook between a god that resides “high above” and one that resides in the creation “beside and in.”

Think for a minute about the Great Northern Pipeline proposal, the indigenous people of BC and the Canadian government in this light.

But all this, too, is simplified. Spiritual concepts on both sides are shifting and fluid. Indigenous people are Christianized, Christian doctrine is rethought, changing conditions demand new thinking, etc.

When I think about the residential school system and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at work right now, an image arises of men and women in black robes heaving at the horizontal plane in the hearts of their dark-haired charges, trying to drag the plane 90 degrees to the vertical. The tragedy being that in many cases they manage only to drag it 45 degrees, leaving their students in a state of limbo and spiritual confusion.

A real and pernicious tragedy.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Seduction of the Inevitable, or Not a Damn Thing You Can Do About It!!

Ornamental Apple Tree after hoar frost

Stuffed Racoon for sale - What would you offer?
The conversation was about pipelines and tankers and the Alberta Oil Sands and such, and the apparent change of heart of Christie Clark, premier of British Columbia, on the construction of a pipeline through her province to carry heavy oil sands bitumen to be loaded onto tankers on her pristine coastline and shipped to Asia so a great deal of money could be made, etc., etc.

It was actually a refreshing change from the endless talk of Rob Ford.

A British Columbian colleague was not surprised by Clark's apparent about-face on the subject. She opined that there is no better choice than the pipeline to transport the oil; a slam dunk compared with rail or road tankers. I said that there is a real choice: leave the oil in the sands where it is, fix up the mess and go on to some cleaner enterprise.

That's not the way the world works, I was informed. Selling oil sands energy to Asia will happen; we're better off just making sure we choose the least dangerous way to move it.

It's inevitable. Like death and taxes, puberty and menopause, earthquakes and typhoons, there's not a damn thing you can do about it, so get used to it.

It's true of course. Many, many happenings are inevitable. They will happen, like it or not. But wait, shipping oil sands bitumen to Asia IS NOT ONE OF THEM. There are choices possible here, different routes to take, debates and decisions to be had that are different from the status quo.

Much that we have resigned ourselves to is NOT inevitable.

There's a seductiveness about resignation, though; if nothing can be done, then nothing is required of us.

We can rest calmly in the arms of the creator, who promises a better world when the final, inevitable chapter has been written. This world, in that case, is not my home anyway.

Truth is, we waste more energy than we use; we travel far more than is necessary, for instance. Way too much light, way too much wasted heat, way too many five-passenger-vehicles-with-one-occupant driving.

“I have a dream,” Martin Luther King might have said if he was presently a living Canadian. “I have a dream of the tar sands covered up and the area restored to be bird, fish and people-friendly again. I have a dream of many, many men and women employed making solar panels, wind generators, tidal generators. I dream of roofs made entirely of solar panels, of wind generators in every town, of cities where only electric golf carts, bicycles, pedestrians and public transportation are allowed on the streets.”

I have a dream. A dream of clean air, clean water, clean land.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Get a Job, You Bum!

What the crow said

When it comes to governance in a democracy, conservatism makes an excellent opposition; allow conservatism to take charge, however, and the clean up takes years of tedious commitment.” - the crow

Having been an adult educator for a dozen or so years, my ears perk up when I hear announcements relating to that field. Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney met with the provinces and territories this week to sell a new plan for preparing the unemployed for the job market. I didn't get the details, but it apparently involves reducing the grants for this purpose to provinces and spending the difference on a joint training program involving industry. There's a logic to it; if Widgets, Inc. needs people to function on the Widget assembly line, they should probably bear some of the burden of training people to do that. Chalk it up to cost of production and raise your prices to cover the new expense.

The provinces and territories, as would be expected, balked on jurisdictional and budgetary grounds. 'Twas ever thus.

The concept of job training as a solution for the marginalized, the chronically unemployed and the ethnically marginalized needs a bit of sober second thought however. In the first place, there's a huge area of employment that may be short of workers but where skills training is not relevant. How much training does it need to teach Widget assembly? What able-bodied person can't nail down asphalt shingles day after day with just an hour of instruction and demonstration? There may me a myth afloat out there about skills training as a solution for employers who have only mind-numbing, thankless, routine, minimum-wage jobs to offer, but that remains a myth.

Secondly, a job does not a life make. Seen from the skills training perspective, people become widget-like in the public eye. “Get a job, you bum,” and all that. Never mind that training has been attempting to displace education in these times, the idea that a job is the relevant goal of all those years spent in school strikes me as penny wisdom and pound foolishness. Most of the people I counselled as an educator did not lack the ability to do the jobs that were out there, they were short on knowing how to live. Their lives were too chaotic for the consistent performance of even the most basic of life necessaries like managing relationships satisfactorily, postponing rewards for a distant goal, the minutiae that goes into successful child rearing, eating and feeding families with wholesome nourishment, etc. Most of my adult students had had jobs, many jobs in many cases, but chaos had undone them long before the prospect of advancement could be contemplated.

Two good ways to spend the billions we're currently throwing away on shadows:

First, employers have to be trained to make their workplaces amenable to family and social life of the people they employ. I could work at McDonald’s if the fact of being with the people there were something to look forward to, if the work were balanced with reasonable monetary and personal rewards and if the atmosphere was one of people performing a worthwhile service for deserving customers.

Second, training must never displace education. It starts in Kindergarten and never stops. It is the nurturing of the essences of being successful human beings, creatures who love, eat, travel, play, vote, hear and express opinions, read and understand, pursue artistic endeavours, and generally feel comfortable and self-confident in the communities in which fate has placed them. This is liberal education; it has no substitute.

To expropriate a Biblical adage—possibly ill-advisidly—seek ye first [a liberal education] and all these things—including meaningful work—shall be added unto you.

The idea that jobs build lives is very much a conservative way of thinking. Our current government is interested in labour supply and reducing public spending, the unemployed shall assemble Widgets as they themselves are widgets of the economy.

How long will it take a future government to undo this folly?

Monday, October 28, 2013

A rose by any other Name

If this is not a rose, email me and tell me what it is, please.
This story was told to me and others on Saturday:

A self-declared atheist was so enamoured with the peace and justice emphasis of some Mennonites that he began hanging around with them, participating in their activities and discussions, etc. At some time—while discussing this, that and the other—a partner in the conversation said, “You're a Christian, aren't you.” The atheist was indignant: “By no means; I'm an atheist, I believe in no God.” Troubled by this confusion, he began to read in a Bible that had been gathering dust on his bookshelf. What he read there filled him with consternation.

“Oh s**t!” the story has him saying. “I AM a Christian.”

Like most stories, the interpretation of this one belongs to the one hearing it. I heard it in a church, told to my fellow Mennonites so I pretty much know what interpretation was intended: the word of God is not bound by the strictures we place upon it. At least I think I know this. As I get older I'm finding that what I once considered ordinary concepts are muddier—rather than clearer—than they used to be. Go figure.

If I were to retell the story, it would be with the intention of illustrating that categorical thinking is rote thinking. When we declare someone to be “a Christian,” for instance, it's pretty much impossible to know what the declarer is saying unless you know where he's coming from. For a certain member of my family, it means the person in question is a “born again” person, a category that includes members of churches for whom “born again” is the essential, fundamental marker, and excluding all members of churches for whom it's not and, of course, all agnostics, atheists, materialists, secularists and any of the vast number of “ists” we talk about. (For a more refined definition of the “born again” Christian, a browse through the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada Statement of Fundamental andEssential Truths will help.)

There are signs that we are all becoming less “categorical” in our thinking as time goes by. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, for instance, includes 30 or so member groups and although it enunciates a common creed which most could probably assent to (in part, if not entirely), it's almost certain that if they were to begin a debate on the details of this common creed, their cooperation on mutually-held concerns would end. Such is the nature of linking faith to Creeds that seek to set in stone (or, at least, on paper) “what we believe.” As is, they are able to speak with one voice on many issues. Rote thinking has been set aside for that purpose.

So could even an atheist be a Mennonite or a Baptist, a Pentecostal or a Catholic? What if he attended worship, learned the songs, participated in the activities but continued to insist that he didn't believe Jesus was God, but rather a very good prophet worthy of our loyalty and the best pattern for living? Given that, would it come to him one day that, “Oh s**t, I actually AM a Christian?”

(Conversely, I imagine there's a “Christian” out there somewhere who picked up Christopher Hitchens God is not Great and said after reading Chapter 15, Religion as an Original Sin . . .

“. . . Oh s**t, I AM an atheist!”)

A rose isn't described by its name; call it pigweed if you like, its brilliant colour and pleasing aroma won't change. I think there's a famous quote that makes that point. By a guy named Shakespeare, if I'm not mistaken. Through the mouth of Juliet, I seem to remember.

Monday, October 07, 2013

You, me and Islam

Nature's first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf's a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief (Robert Frost).

Sometimes things come in bunches, even if you haven't given them a thought for a considerable time, if ever. Like the time you read the word syzygy for the first time, looked it up and then heard the word used on the news that same evening. Some would say, “Coincidence?? I don't think so!”

It happened to me the other day. Jacques Parizeau—former PQ leader and premier of Quebec—published an op ed slamming the proposed Charter of Values and I read a paper given to me by an acquaintance and member of the same church denomination I belong to. Sound unrelated? Not at all.

First, the paper given to me by the acquaintance purportedly summarizes a book by Dr. Peter Hammond called Slavery, Terrorism and Islam: The Historical Roots and the Contemporary Threat, a book I'd never heard of. The summary details why we should be very afraid of Islam:

Therefore, after much study and deliberation . . . perhaps we should be very suspicious of ALL MUSLIMS in this country (emphasis not mine). They obviously cannot be both 'good' Muslims and good Americans. Call it what you wish, it's still the truth. You had better believe it. The more we understand this, the better it will be for our country and the future.”

Second, the report of Jacques Parizeau's criticism of the Charter of Quebec Values says: “He accuses the Quebec government of reacting to a growing fear of Islam and its spread.”

There's the connection. There are people who are convinced that we Westerners should be very afraid of Islam, that we should buy into the theory that there is a plan afoot to Islamasize the whole world, place us all under Sharia law, dispose of all infidels, etc., etc.

Interestingly, nearly every point made in the paper (anonymous, by the way) to prove that Muslims are unfit to be Americans, can also be made of Christians. For instance, it's declared that a Muslim cannot theologically be a good American because “his allegiance is to Allah.” Substitute “Jesus Christ” for Allah and you have the reason why no Christian can be a good American.

My concern today is not that this hate literature is out there; my immediate concern is that it's being circulated in my church and in my circle of acquaintances. People are reading the apocalyptic literature of Islamic conspiracy and shuddering to know what to do. The paper offers no suggestion of how the reader should react to the “facts” it presents, except that he/she should be aware that our communal home is on fire.

The paper I was handed by a fellow Mennonite is reminiscent of the material through which bigots of the early 20th Century “educated” Christians on the danger represented by the Jews in their neighbourhoods. The paper speaks of the percentage of Muslims in a country and what's to be expected as their numbers increase:

“After reaching 20%, nations can expect hair-trigger rioting, jihad militia formations, sporadic killings, and the burnings of Christian churches and Jewish synagogues, as in Ethiopia [where Muslims represent 32.8% of the population.]”

Talk like this is frighting good people, softening them up to accept, even condone, more direct attacks on the Muslim minority in North America. And that's probably why a feeble old separatist politician saw fit to leave his home and spread the caution despite his one-time rant that the referendum was lost because of “the ethnic vote and big money.”

My grandmothers wore the hijab, only it was called a scarf, or in low-German, a Doek. She would no more be seen in public without her head covered than in her nightgown. It was a symbol of her fidelity to the faith in which she'd been steeped for 70 years.

I asked a woman of the Muslim faith recently what went through her mind when she saw nearly-naked women prancing about on TV—or in the street. She said that her first thought was that they would be wise “to protect themselves better.” Her second thought was that if she was free to dress as she does, that freedom needs to exist for everyone . . . or else it doesn't for anyone.

The Arab world is in a state of revolution these days. I asked a Muslim prof teaching at the Veterinary College at the U of S what thoughts he had about the civil war in Syria as he listened to the news. (His mother was Syrian by birth.) He sighed and shook his head. “We went from European colonialism to dictatorship and are just now realizing that freedom is possible,” he said. “I fear there will be much fighting and bloodshed before we find our feet in a new and and different world.” (This isn't a verbatim quote.)

Spreading fear about minorities in a country that considers itself a model of freedom and democracy—like Canada, for instance—is not going to help in the struggle to ensure that “we all get to invite our neighbour to sit under our own fig tree and drink from our own cistern.”

Quebec—and all of us, Christians and Muslims for that matter—should take warning from the holocaust; there is great danger in going down the “persecuting minorities” road. The measuring stick we use to judge others is the same stick with which we will be judged.

This, incidentally, is Biblical.

For now, let's at least get to know our neighbours on a personal level before categorizing them by someone else's standards and doing them some unnecessary injustice.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Goin' for coffee


And God created trees

“Goin' for coffee,” has become a mid-morning cliche at our house as it has for about eight or nine other guys in town who have one major trait in common: they no longer have to milk cows, write lesson plans, punch a time clock or warm up a road grader.

We get to choose what to do between nine and ten in the morning. Some would say what we choose is ridiculous; there's better coffee at home. But as Jake says, we're not paying for coffee; we're paying for a warm seat and conversation—better coffee would be considered a bonus.

The rumour around town is that men's coffee gatherings are all about doing what men traditionally accused women of: gossip. Talking about the lives of people not present.

Well there is that to it, but like most generalizations, the sweep is broad, its accuracy questionable. Some sage is purported to have said, there are three levels of conversation topic: ideas, things and people, in descending order of quality. I paid attention one day and we spent some time on ideas, a lot of time on things and, yes, we did talk some about people not present and the rumours swirling around them. We covered the gamut, in other words.

Someone recently characterized men's coffee gatherings as fault-finding expeditions. Definitely, there is fault-finding: the town doesn't clear snow properly, Stephen Harper has done something really stupid . . . again, old Beazley shouldn't be allowed to drive anymore (be careful with this one; we're all pushing the shouldn't-be-driving time of life!) Yes, there is fault-finding, but then, fault is easy to find and we've all been around the block a few times: we recognize crap when we see it. At least, we think we do.

So here's the truth about coffee time. It's not about the topic, it's about the conversation. It's a stage-of-life equivalent to “let's play catch,” a young-life thing where we would happily throw a ball back and forth for an hour or so—pointlessly, apparently. Figure out what it meant to us then and you've figured out what coffee time means to us now.

It's not about the ball.

There are women's coffee times as well. No men there; no women in ours. In fact, if I sauntered into the back room of the bakery and joined the dozen or so women who meet there every morning, I expect there'd be considerable consternation, very little approbation, great relief to see me go.

Now there's a sociological, psychological, anthropological conundrum with some teeth! A topic for coffee time, perhaps? About ideas, to boot! Or would it descend rapidly into gossip?

“Goin' for coffee, hon.”

Monday, September 23, 2013

Are we Moral Beings?

That time of the year

A friend and I were sharing opinions on the condition of the world recently when we hit upon a surprising polar-difference on our perceptions of the general state of morality. His view is that we are sliding ever further in the wrong direction, i.e. we are becoming less and less governed by solid and time-proven moral stances. My view is that the trajectory is upward, that since the renaissance and the rise of more humanistic ways of thinking we are becoming ever more conscious of the need to teach and practice fundamentally moral behaviours in our day-to-day lives. I gave as examples the emancipation of women and sanctions against beating children. (I should add here that the “we” is given tentatively; I myself am not sure where the borders of this generalization begin and end.)

I guess no such discussion can get off on the right track unless morality is defined first. And there are plenty of books and websites that would be happy to define it for us. Christ in YouMinistries, for instance, insists that the very concept of morality is anti-Christian, and they pose an alternative view: Jesus did not come to give us a standardized moral code to which all should conform, but to give us His life whereby the divine character might be expressed through our behaviour. The implication is that the person who is regenerated by Christ has no need of a code—he/she acts out of the impulses of that regeneration and no longer acts in any other way than Christ would act. The person becomes, then, an “expression of the divine character.”

That's good on paper, as we say, but the questions about morality—particularly behaviour in the sexual sphere—have almost universally brought Christian denominations to the brinks of “holy wars.” There are only two possibilities, given the above: either the combatants have never been truly regenerated, or else the view of Christ in You Ministries is oversimplified to the point of uselessness.

Take the question of gay marriage: moral or immoral, should-be-banned or should-be-seen-as-legitimate. Former Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, described his metamorphoses on the question of same-sex marriage more-or-less as follows: when after considerable study and prayerful contemplation he arrived at the conclusion that sexual orientation was not a chosen but a natural state, he could not in good conscience discriminate any longer against intimacy and marriage for gays and lesbians. This is seen as the liberal stance by many and when challenged scripturally on his position, he responded that the Biblical references to the homosexual act must be interpreted in the light of new knowledge, much as we have recognized women's equality in the church and home and have decided that slavery is immoral despite Paul's rejection of the first and his tolerance for the second.

Christ in You Ministries is decidedly right on one point: codified morality seldom resolves ethical questions satisfactorily. Take the following passage from Deuteronomic code 5:12ff:

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day."

Was this directed at the Children of Israel for a certain time and for a certain reason, or is it a commandment for all people for all time? What is work and what isn't? Is lighting the lamp work? Is milking a cow work? Can one morally cook a meal for a travelling stranger on the sabbath? Despite the commandments apparent clarity, applying it in each generation over thousands of years still taxes our interpretive muscles. The problem with our Sunday-shopping, worker-abusing economic culture is not that we defy the Sabbath outright, but that we have not reinterpreted it for the time: the need for rest and reflection has not gone away.

A code can't be written in enough detail to prevent debate over interpretation; the world just isn't orderly enough for that. There is, however, good reason—both Biblically and historically—to refresh our look at morality, particularly in the light of our ongoing confusion about sexual-sphere issues. Christ in You Ministries is probably onto something, even though we may not agree with their bottom line: moral people behave morally, end of sentence.

There's an interesting display in the public area of St. Paul's Hospital in Saskatoon. Posted on the wall are different versions of the same proverb as expressed by a variety of cultures and religions. It's the very simple: Do unto others as you would be done by. It's an almost-universal guide to behaviour that pretty much covers the content of any code one would care to promulgate. But are our imaginations up to the task? If you are a woman in love with another woman, for instance, can you expect to be treated as you would be if you were a woman in love with a man?

We have traditionally expected a number of moral behaviours of committed couples. They include fidelity, honesty, loyalty and faithfulness. I see no good reason to expect less of same-sex couples who wish to be partners in the adventure we call life. These broad attributes of moral behaviour as regards commitment between human partners—eroded and disregarded though they may be from time to time—can act as bulwark against the erosion of family while expressing the most universal of moral standards—don't disappoint your partner; treat him/her according to his/her human needs, which you recognize by examining your own.

That's why many support same-sex marriage.

I believe that position is consistent with the moral foundation so admirably depicted on the wall of St. Paul's: Be to others what you hope they would be to you.

Are we doing better at living in faith, hope and charity, or are we on the slippery slope down the hill? Either way, whether we are Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, atheist, agnostic or Christian, we will always fail to reach what we aspire to by attempting to codify our way to the peaceable Kingdom.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Maimonides on Charity

Butter Churn

Let's assume for argument's sake that I am a well-to-do person living next door to a poor family who apparently can't keep bread on the table without outside assistance. In other words, let's simplify the world artificially so we can take a look at how charity is done today in comparison to wisdom on the subject from Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher of the 12th Century.

We Canadians are said to be charitable people, after all, but like the Jewish community of Maimonides' day, we ponder the difference between charity that is self-serving and charity that is truly sincere and of maximum benefit to those who receive it.

So how do I best help the poor family next door? It's not cut and dried, is it? If that family is headed by a ne'er-do-well who will take any gift straight to the pub, the situation will obviously be different from the case of a family where parents are trying hard but are unemployable for health or fitness reasons. And then there's every other possibility between the two.

Maimonides ranks different ways of delivering charity as follows:

  1. The highest level of charity is where the donor and the receiver know each other and the donor partners with the receiver to take actions that will enable the receiver to become self-sufficient. It's similar to the current adage in NGO circles: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.
  2. If this is not possible, the second level of charity is to give to reputable charitable funds that administer aid to the poor but where the donor and receiver do not know each other.
  3. A third level—according to Maimonides—is to give anonymously to the poor. This might take the form of dropping off a basket of produce at night while the family is asleep. The anonymity indicates that the gift is not given out of self-interest.
  4. Maimonides' fourth level has the receiver know who the donor is, but the donor is unaware of the identity of the beneficiary. Food aid during a famine with the name of the donor stamped on the bags of grain might qualify here.
  5. The next level of charity is the giving of a gift to the poor family without being asked. The donor senses the need and goes over with hundred dollars for groceries, for instance.
  6. The sixth level has the poor man ask me for help and I gladly give him hundred dollars for groceries.
  7. Giving gladly to the poor man but giving stingily (say twenty dollars when hundred is barely reasonable) qualifies as number 7 in Maimonides' catalogue.
  8. The lowest form of charity is the grudging, stingy gift.

Maimonides had neither a tax deduction to contemplate in all this, nor could he have envisioned a time when most charity would be state-administered. Revisiting his thoughts on charity in his time—or lack thereof—can help us clarify our own responses to the cries for help that come to us on a daily basis, as they no doubt did to Maimonides. His list contains a curious mixture of piety and practicality: this consideration we have in common.

The big difference, maybe, I guess, is that Maimonides was writing about life in a community that contained both the well-off and the poor; in our day the separation of wealth and poverty is so complete that the haves need never rub shoulders with the have nots.

It's too easy today to fall routinely into Charity Number Seven, or Eight.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Everything in Moderation


Unidentified mushroom . . . Do Not Eat!
"Do everything in moderation, including moderation."

Although there's considerable speculation about whom Ben Franklin was quoting in his version of the moderation epigram, the sentiment has probably been around at least as far back as the Roman dramatist Publius Terentius Afer, 190 – 159 B.C. It's resurrected at times when alcohol is being consumed by people who still feel a tad bit guilty about cocktails and wine, or about gourmet feasting. “It's OK if you don't overdo it,” seems to be the thrust under these circumstances.

            Somewhere between the two poles of any indulgence lies the kingdom of moderation. Between the drunk and the abstainer, one finds the moderate user, the one who claims that he only has one glass a day with dinner, for instance. Somewhere between the anorexic and the glutton, you'll find the moderate consumer of food, the one who eschews a second dessert, desirable though it may be.

            There's no arguing the observation that life at the poles can be treacherous. The experimental rat who's been rigged up to experience sexual release whenever he pushes a button will do so repeatedly and continuously until he starves to death. I've been told that certain gambling addicts have worn diapers to the casino so they don't need bathroom breaks while they repeatedly push the VLT buttons like masturbating rats. Next to life at the poles, moderation can look pretty good.

            Our culture teaches us, however, that there must be a right answer for everything, and that value militates against the moderation principle. In my growing-up days, the right answer for dancing, drinking, swearing, movies, gambling, was JUST DON'T. The abstinence pole. The right/wrong determination was on a toggle switch. No space contemplated between the poles.

            Ben Franklin be hanged: moderation is manufactured in the devil's workshop. Moderation is that wishy-washy space where liberals and humanists live, the freaks who think laws are there to be tested and broken at will.

            Between the rabid socialist and the convinced capitalist there exists a moderate space, and it's always beneficial to think of the choices made in the public sphere with that in mind. If environmental conservation and resource exploitation are two poles of a set of choices, is the “right answer” somewhere in the moderation space between the two, and if so, where in that space does it lie? The moderation space can, of course, be vast: compared to the drunk and the abstainer, most of the world lives at varying places between; where someone lives in that space is a matter of thought, will and choice.

            Politically, the moderate space needs keen thinkers, activist organization and determination to find the balanced places: not zero, not ten, but four--possibly--or six.

            I think we're all a bit tired of flailing at the poles.

            As a footnote, I would argue that Franklin threw in the “even moderation” part of his epigram as a joke only; moderation is a noun and to “do” it, an active verb is needed. Grammatically, you can “exercise” moderation moderately, I suppose, or you can be a “moderate moderate” but that would be a frivolous redundancy at best.

            And as a footnote to the footnote, Ben Franklin is also purported to have said:

“Who is wise?

        He who learns from everyone.

Who is powerful?

       He that governs his passions.

Who is rich?

       He that is content.

Who is that?


            Maybe moderation, too, is a pipe dream.


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Binsey Poplars

Rosthern Poplars
A month ago, my neighbour and I agreed that we would remove some poplars along the adjoining line of our properties. Two were huge—their stumps measuring more than a foot in diameter—and a third was in critical condition, its roots too shallow to keep it from falling in a strong wind.

            Two days ago, a man and machine arrived to complete the obliteration by grinding the stumps down to a foot below the surface. but like chickens struggle for life when the axe approaches, left-over poplar roots begin to send up sucker-trees in the yard, struggling for another breath of sunlight, tiny leaves that gasp at the air, fight to stay alive just a little longer (or in the case of poplars, to fill my yard with a “revenge bush.”)

            In 1879, workmen felled a grove of poplars at Binsey in England. Poet and professor, Gerard Manley Hopkins, penned what might well fit in the “Psalms” portion in an environmentalists' “Bible” in response to the devastation. Some of its memorable lines are: 

. . . O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will [mean] no eye at all,

Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:

After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc únselve
The sweet especial scene . . .

Hopkins is not taking sides in the economic argument here, nor in the sustainability debate. There is no hint here of renewable or non-renewable resources, resource stewardship, etc. His lament is about beauty and the eye of the beholder; what have we done when we rob “after-comers” of the ecstasy of walking through a grove of rustling poplars on a summer's day?

                        My workman and his machine left me with holes in the yard and piles of wood chips and dirt. What do I do now to restore the beauty of the spot where the “Rosthern Poplars” stood?  “. . . even where we mean/To mend her, we end her/when we hew or delve.”
                        How true. What a mess!

                        Most of us find ourselves somewhere between the hunter who kills for pleasure and the vegan who can barely bring himself to end the life of a carrot in order to feed himself. Between the entrepreneur who evaluates trees in terms of board feet and the “tree hugger” whose heart bleeds to see a poplar wounded. We need poets to remind us that it's not just about economics or food for the belly, that our happiness depends also on beauty and the tenderness, the gentleness of the natural world,

                        . . . on poplar leaves winking and rustling beside a winding stream on a summer's day in Binsey.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

The Switcher's Dilemma

Sun through poplars

Graduate Room - Academy B & B
Imagine two people debating an age-old puzzle:

            It supposes you are standing at a junction where a spur line branches off the main line of a railroad and that you operate the switch. On the main line are five workers who can't possibly get off the track before a speeding train will arrive and they will be killed. On the spur line is a single man who likewise will be killed if you activate the switch and divert the train off the main line.

            What do you do?

            The one doesn't hesitate: the answer is clear; kill one man to save five; it's the right thing to do; it's simple arithmetic.  The other refuses to accept responsibility for any decision and says he would likely freeze or run from the situation. Still others might try to avoid the dilemma completely by arguing something stupid, like “I'd never be caught in that position because I don't work for the railroad,” or “How could they possible not get off the tracks when they realized the train was coming?”

            There are, of course, variations to the railroad switcher's dilemma: what if the single person on the spur line is not a man, but the switcher's young son playing on the tracks? Does that make a difference? What if the five men are known criminals trying to escape and the single person is a policeman pursuing them? Does that make a difference?

            Moral philosophy can begin with questions like the switcher's dilemma and when we debate possible answers, we are doing moral philosophizing. Heaven knows we're prone to run away from such questions and keep our fingers crossed, hoping we never find ourselves in such a situation. The fact is, the switcher's dilemma faces us in many ways, every day. In differing versions it haunts us (or should) when we spend a lot of money on a luxury knowing that while we could live without a certain extravagance, the same dollars could vaccinate a thousand children for polio, possibly save five lives.    
           Money is a switch we hold in our hands; we don't even have to “kill one to save five.”

            Debating the switcher's dilemma might even illuminate for us questions like pipelines for crude oil, yes or no. Tar sands development, yes or no. Suppose that human civilization continues on this earth for five more generations. That means that every single person now will be replaced in the future by at least five other people, give or take. Is it right to trade the future of the five for access to cheap energy for the one? In this case, I fear, we're deciding to kill the five, not for the life of the one, but for his pleasure and convenience!!

            It's not surprising that we don't like debating the switcher's dilemma; we want so much to be free of the responsibility for the switch that we'd rather clap our hands over our eyes and ears. (Not easy to do!) But the truth of the matter is that someone must always assume the switcher's responsibility.

            Unfortunately, our current government isn't good at moral philosophy.

            Meanwhile, the rest of us are whistling through the graveyard.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

From Whence Shall my Help Come?

Syrian Refugee Family - Lebanon

From Whence Shall my Help Come?
On the Lebanese side of the border with Syria, this very morning, a mother is nursing a newborn in a grimy tent huddled alongside hundreds of other grimy tents in the dust bowl that is a UN refugee camp. She watches her baby boy feed hungrily, notices that his cheeks are growing fatter even as her own body is dwindling, victim of refugee rations and the loss of appetite that comes with living in constant worry and fear. And she can't help but wonder if bringing this child into a world of war and madness isn't itself madness, and if someday soon, this baby boy will be nothing more to the warlords than cannon fodder.

            But she is just one casualty among the thousands rendered helpless and lost by the civil war in Syria. For all wars have at least these 10 things in common:

1.     principles of justice, honour and fairness are set aside when men resort to arms to settle their differences. The first victim of war is truth,

2.     food is stolen from the mouths of children to pay for guns and bullets,

3.     patriotism becomes the highest ideal and soldiers are lauded as the saviours of the nation,

4.     nothing is sacred any longer except an unconditional dedication to the cause of the conflict,

5.     dissenters to the military option are branded as traitors; prophetic voices must be silenced,

6.     good men turn into haters, trained to see the opponent as demonic and worthy of death,

7.     combat soldiers come home wounded, disappointed and, often, ill with an illness they pass on to their families and friends, their neighbours and the nation they thought they were defending,

8.     compassion for the vulnerable is set aside; power has bigger fish to fry than the needs of the poor,

9.     atrocities are disguised in euphemism: rendition, collateral damage, ordinance, just war,

10.  neighbour is turned against neighbour as every expressed opinion is met with suspicion,

            And in every war that ever was, women have sat in dirty places that are not their home and have looked down at nursing sons and wondered; for what madness have I given birth, for what unholy future am I nourishing this man child? Prophetic voices have been ridiculed, sidelined or thrown into wells where no one will hear their witness. It's in the nature of the beast we call war.

            As Mennonites, we are well-placed to speak up for all the men and women raising children in refugee camps. We too have been refugees. Our spiritual heritage has taught us what an abomination it is to take another person's life, even in battle. We have no Jeremiah among us, but we have our prophetic voices: John Howard Yoder, Rudy Wiebe, David Schroeder, Menno Simons who declared to us that true evangelical faith finds its Christ-like form in the feeding of the hungry and the clothing of the naked.

            The body of Christ has many parts; we have been assigned a role as that arm of Christ that looks out for the weak and the vulnerable, that speaks to power, urging them to make choices that don't resort to weapons of murder and destruction, that proclaims that history teaches us that there is no just war.

            In parts of our Mennonite community these days, flags are flying at the fronts of churches, the rhetoric of winners and losers is gradually replacing the humble admonitions of the Sermon on the Mount, the creation model is giving way to the economic, patriotic model. 

            We too have begun to find our prophets’ messages uncomfortable . . . and have been tempted to throw them and their rantings down the well.

            For the sake of the mother and child in the Lebanese refugee camp if for no bigger reason, we dare not be silent in times like these.