Sunday, September 21, 2014

How far can you count?

How come we seem able only to count to 2?

Pope Frances is visiting Albania whereCBC News tells ushalf the population is Muslim, the other half Christian. Two colours. Black and white. No grays.

Comments posted on North American websites hurl accusations back and forth; the labelsyou lefties or you redneckssuggest a world with only 2 political sides. (Some imply that in Canada, the Greens, the NDP and the Liberals are all "lefties," as opposed to the Harperites who are "that blessed ONE in a world of only 2," and vice versa, of course.)

I'm pretty sure ISIL, or ISIS, sees the world as 2: us and the infidel.

I remarked on this at the dinner table the other day, ill-advisedly declaring in defense of 2 that the entire population was either male or female, and was brought up short in support of all those many who are born with gender characteristics that are ambiguous, even scary to those who tenaciously cling to the fiction of a black and white world, a world of 2.

I grew up in the Mennonite Church in a predominantly Christian community. There we learned that "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters (Luke 11:23, also found in the gospels of Matthew and Mark)." We also learned that, "Jesus answered (Thomas), 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me' (John 14:6, not recorded in the other gospels)." There's really no easy way to interpret these passages other than as a description of a world of 2those with me and those against me.

I was diligently taught not to count past 2 in these matters.

Honourable Justice Murray Sinclairspeaking on the subject of Christian Church/Aboriginal reconciliationsaid that  "Christians and their churches must demonstrate respect for Aboriginal spirituality . . . they must no longer insist that Christianity is the only way for all people."  (Esther Epp-Tiessen in INTOTEMAK, Summer 2014, Vol 43, No 2)

If Justice Sinclair is right, then the kingdom of heaven is not populated by a monochromatic white but by rainbows of colour, not 1 as against 2, but 3, 4, 5 . . . ∞ together, a myriad of persons known not by the greenness of their leaves but by the flavour and nutrition in their fruit. (See Matthew 7: 16 - 20)

I've never been to Albania, but I'm guessing there aren't only Muslims and Christians there, and among those two groups, that there are liberal thinkers and conservative thinkers and any numbers of gradations between, plus Buddhists, Unitarians, agnostics and atheists, etc. I’m also guessing that good fruit doesn’t only grow on tree 1 or tree 2.

(What a bit of irony70+ and still learning to count!)

We do our politics, our religion, our social interactions, our very families great wrong if we can't bring ourselves to count past 2.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Human Rights, Political Rights

Browsing in the Amnesty International Annual Review for 2013 jogged my memory of a recently-heard declaration (I know not from whence it came) to whit: “There are no human rights, only political rights.” I concede that we use the phrase glibly, as if invoking a human right makes reference to something that is immutable, eternal and clearly understandable to anyone who is human.
      Political rights speaks of the privileges granted to citizens by a state, as in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They are legally enforceable, as in the guaranteed right to participate in elections in Canada.
      Human rights implies that beyond the political rights and freedoms written into the laws of states (or not), there exists an overarching charter relevant to every human being born on earth, whether Canadian, Sri Lankan, Colombian or Irish. If such a universal charter exists, then a state—for instance—that denies its citizens the right to participate in their governance is in violation of that charter. 
     In contrast to political rights, history has shown us that human rights are, by and large, unenforceable—except through indirect and usually ineffective means like shunning, shaming, pleading, bargaining, threatening, etc. It's one thing for the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights to declare that “Everyone has the right to education,” but the UN hasn't the means to prevent Boko Haram from bombing schools in Nigeria.
      Is an unenforceable right a right after all?
      The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a collectively-arrived-at attempt to enunciate an overarching charter, a visualization of what the dignified, contented life consists of for any person born on this earth. I am one of the lucky few; born in Canada, I experience political rights pretty well consistent with the UN Declaration. Had I been born an aboriginal Canadian or a female in rural Nigeria, not so much.
      Whether yours and my views on human rights tend more toward justice issues, democracy, humanitarian aid or possibly even the saving of souls in preparation for a next life, I'm sure we generally agree that the privileged and the powerful of this world owe the down-trodden a hand up. My choice has been, and continues to be, support for Amnesty International in their tireless work in support of persons suffering human rights abuses. Because Amnesty is non-sectarian and focused, it can do what sectarian organizations have found difficult, namely the supporting and/or rescuing of individuals whom neither political nor human rights charters and declarations have been able to protect.
      A friend once told me that he didn't like the language of rights because it smacks of demands for me, me, me without acknowledgement of related responsibilities to others. Certainly, we hear plenty of “I demand my rights” talk these days, but the squealing of privileged people selfishly suing for rights shouldn't deter us from recognizing that the means to dignified, contented life is being routinely stolen from the majority of our fellow humans by tyrannies, corporate exploitation, discrimination, crime, injustice and/or sheer neglect.
      Are there such things as basic, incontrovertible human rights? Among us privileged, it comes down to the question of whether or not we deserve the benefits we enjoy while others don't, both cases owing primarily to serendipitous accidents of birth.
      To begin lending your support to the fight for human rights world wide, please click here.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Please pass the potatoes . . .

Just listened to a 20 minute CBC podcast of the program “The 180,” with Jim Brown. He was interviewing Al Mussel; the descriptor for the interview reads: “Want to Save the Planet? Skip the farmer's market.” The argument wasn't hard to follow, if somewhat hard to swallow: the world population requires efficient, massive food production which local, intensive farming can't deliver. Hence, if we want to feed the world, relying on local, intensive production will require putting more land into agricultural use which, in turn, will devastate wet lands, forests, etc.
      Like many, we (my wife and I) have fallen in love with the local food markets. Recently, we went out to a nephew's small market garden and dug our own potatoes, beets, carrots and picked a bushel of tomatoes. A month ago, we joined a group of friends in butchering 113 free range chickens in exchange for our winter's supply. Our experience is that local production allows us to judge the quality of the product, thereby enabling healthier, tastier eating. (The emphasis, I think, should be on “tastier”: eat a tomato off the vine or a chicken off the grass and store produce begins to taste like cardboard.)
      But then, we North Americans have choices in this matter; much of the world doesn't.
      Obviously, the discussion about food consumption and production can't be just one dialogue. An individual household's relation to the sources of its food is not the same subject as the feeding of the world's population. Unless we have small farms of our own and energy generated off-grid, foodstuffs have to find their way to our kitchens through some means outside of our direct control. That reality alone propels us beyond the mere consideration of our personal diet choices. On a world scale, the fact that some regions can produce so much foodstuff that they're always in surplus and in search of markets doesn't present an obvious solution to world hunger. If the goal is nutritious, uncompromised, balanced diets for everyone, I have no problem reaching its achievement for my household; when I'm asked to contribute to reaching that goal for everyone in the global village, I don't know what more I can do than support emergency aid through MCC or another similar organization.
      Logically, everyone in the world should be near the source of his food. An imperative corollary to this would obviously be the curtailing of population growth to match the productivity potential of the general area, an extension of the simple admonition that a couple should never allow themselves 6 kids if they only have means to feed 2. A second corollary—to my mind—would be the internationalization of the world's food supply; when food is raised, bought/sold and consumed like widgets on the world market, it's difficult to see how its production and distribution can ever be made to serve the goal of good diets for all persons.
      A third prerequisite would, of course, have to do with ending all wars for all time. I'll get right on that as soon as I'm done this.
      Hopeless as it may seem, let's not give up. Thumb your nose at Al Mussel and shop at your farmers' market, dig up a plot in your backyard and grow your own tomatoes, send buckets of money to aid organizations, buy fair-trade coffee at Ten Thousand Villages, write your MP a letter whenever you see government skimping on their aid budget, shop at Mom and Pop rather than at corporate chains, bicycle more and drive less, and recycle, reuse and reduce.
     (I took a break right here to brush potatoes and peel carrots—garden fresh—for dinner. How anyone can sit down to new vegetables without thanking creation and gardeners first is beyond me. Segne Vater diese Speise, uns zur Kraft und dir zum Preise. Amen)

Monday, September 01, 2014

Milton's Dress

Milton's dress

So here’s a brush with history and a reason to ponder the nature of the historic. In museum jargon, we call the story behind an artifact its provenance. On my desk at the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Rosthern lies a small child’s dress, once white, now somewhat yellowed. The provenance card reads: “BABY DRESS – worn by Milton Siemens in 1916. He drowned on his 21st birthday. Accession #80-475.” (Small children wore dresses whether male or female in those days; it probably made diaper-care easier.)

       I guess I’ve always known the story of Milton Siemens; his brother and sister still attend my church. His tragic death was somewhat of a legend in my growing-up years and probably coloured my parents’ attitude toward youth excursions to water.

      The dress is very light—gauzy, almost. I held it in my hands for a while imagining Milton’s mother slipping it over his head on a Sunday morning in 1917 or so, preparing to go to church, possibly imagining the delighted chucks under the chin for her handsome little man. And I visualized the heartbreak 20 years later when she got the tragic news that her son had suddenly been torn from her.

     Provenance. I’m surrounded by stories.

      It’s possible that among the threads of this tiny garment, Milton Siemens’ DNA could still be found with modern technology—but I doubt it.

Also on my desk is a fine-china teacup. The manufacturer’s label is in Russian; the provenance note reads: “CUP from Russia – 1923. Helen Dyck family.” There are photographs on these premises of Mennonite migrants from Russia arriving in Rosthern in 1923. Somewhere in their luggage is this cup that was too delightful to be left behind. 
There’s a can of ground, roasted wheat on my desk as well; if I put a teaspoon of it in this cup and poured boiling water over it and drank it, how close could I come to the sensation of a mid morning pripz break in 1920 somewhere along the Dniepr River?

I’ve entered dozens of photographs into our new databases, faded black and whites of places in someone’s memory. This morning a friend showed me numerous photographs of his family history, especially of Osterwick, the village in Russian Ukraine through which his roots can be traced. Long overrun by progress, that place still must exist, some of the buildings erected by the Mennonites who once lived there must still be in use, I would guess. So is it still the same place?

For many people, places invoke both nostalgia and story like nothing else can. A year ago, my brother retired from the farm on which I grew up and the “Epp Place” finally went into the hands of strangers. A story ends—not without a few pangs of regret—and another begins. ‘Twas ever thus.

So, is it true as the philosophers say, “you can’t go home again?” Is there anything of us in the artifacts and places we leave behind? Is something lost if places and objects of the past are forgotten, their records abandoned?

Obviously, my view is that our lives are about more than just today or I wouldn’t be here in the Mennonite Heritage Museum on a stat holiday entering data for—and placing carefully into temporary storage—a small boy’s dress and a chipped Russian teacup.

Some would say there are landfills for that.