Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Niqab & Religious Freedom

I've said before that I don't believe the niqab is a requirement for Islamic women. I've listened to observant, scholarly Muslim women who reject the niqab, viewing it as a cultural expectation and nothing more. I've also said that despite my own strong reservations about the niqab and the possibility that it is primarily a form of subjugation of women I don't support legalized rejection of this form of cultural or religious dress. The niqab does not pose a security threat and there are many ways of insuring that the persons wearing it can prove their identity.

Of course, the Quebec legislature does not agree with me and passed into law a ban on providing services to women who are wearing facial covering. While the argument is that this applies to any facial covering including a balaclava or a scarf this is so phony it hardly deserves our attention. The National Assembly passed Bill 62 with the principle resistance coming from parties farther to the right which wanted the law to be even stricter.

Now niqab-wearing Quebec women who want to ride the bus, visit the library, go for a medical check-up or meet with their child’s teacher are legally required to uncover their faces while receiving provincial and municipal government services. This is absurd. Already bus drivers are asking how this law will be enforced and what their role will be. C'mon, how many women in Quebec wear the niqab? A few hundred, perhaps?

I'm hugely disappointed in the Liberal government's acquiescence to the latent racism and Islamaophobia of a vocal segment of the population. We have seen disturbing acts of violence against Muslims in Quebec, including vandalism, rejection of an Islamic cemetery, and even murder. The current government decries these acts yet passes legislation which may not stand up to a legal challenge on the grounds of religious freedom.

The news of this decision has been reported around the world and I am ashamed as a Canadian and Christian that this has happened in a country which upholds inclusivity and diversity.

What do you think about this?

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Tragically Courageous

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When The Tragically Hip announced lead singer Gord Downie's terminal brain cancer in May of 2016  Canadians were shocked. The guy was only 52, and the band was still active and beloved. I found it off-putting that people began to eulogize this icon of the rock scene as though he were already dead and buried, and I said so on social media. It seemed to be a macabre response to what was a difficult time in the life of Downie's family.

Remarkably, Downie made the best of the next year and a half until his death today. There was the memorable cross-Canada tour, culminating in a concert in Kingston, the band's hometown.

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Then there was the powerful project to honour a First Nations boy named Chanie Wenjack who died in 1966 while trying to return home after escaping from a residential school. There is a graphic novel called Secret Path which tells the story. It's written by Downie and illustrated by Jeff Lemire. When we watched the animated television adaptation Ruth, my wife, commented that this should be required viewing for older school children in Canada and I agree (as always!) Gord Downie also released a musical project called Secret Path, on this day a year ago. All proceeds from the album and book are being donated to the University of Manitoba's National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. It was touching to watch an ailing Downie connect with Chanie's family members in their home setting.

For all The Hip's musical success through the years, with unapologetically Canadian themes, the Secret Path project may be his greatest gift to this country. As we struggle toward truth and reconciliation and frankly make a hash of it, we can be grateful that he used his waning strength and considerable creative abilities to raise the issues before Canadians and presumably fans from other countries.

As denominations which participated in the tragedy of the residential schools look for ways to reconcile, The Secret Path might be an avenue for exploration within congregations.

God be with Gord Downie's family, friends (including members of the Wenjak family), and his life-long band-mates.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Tragedy in Mogadishu

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This morning I listened to a CBC interview with a medical doctor from Hamilton whose family emigrated there years ago. They were from Somalia and she has returned there to run a medical clinic in Mogadishu, her contribution to an emerging nation. She has become an essential part of the response to the horrific bombing which took place in the city over the weekend. At least 300 people were killed and hundreds more seriously injured. The Islamist fundamentalist militant group Al-Shabaab took responsibility for the massacre which took the lives of street vendors and shopkeepers in the blast area.

Why these groups, including Al Qaeda and Isis feel that killing the innocent will advance any cause, let alone the intentions of Allah is beyond comprehension. Al Shebaab has only a few thousands adherents and they are hated by most people in East Africa yet they inflict such great harm. When will these radicalized haters realize that their acts of terror do nothing to change the resolve of everyday people wherever they strike?

The doctor interviewed this morning had hardly eaten or slept for days. She was emotional as she wondered aloud about the hard questions others have raised about this incident. Why does the international press give less attention to such tragedies when they occur in Africa? Is it because of a veiled colonialism or racism? Is it because the perpetrators identify as Muslims, even though the majority of their victims are Muslims who reject their violent misinterpretation of the religion?

I think it's important for those of us who identify as Christians from so-called Western nations to examine our own biases when it comes to the tragedies and travails of those in developing nations. We can bring the same prayerful and practical compassion to these incidents we do when terror occurs on the streets of London, or in a public square in Los Vegas.


Monday, October 16, 2017

At Home With Monsters

Foyer at Bleak House

We were away for the weekend so that I could speak at a United Church in Ancaster, Ontario for their 63rd anniversary. 1954 is a very good year for births.

On our way we visited the Art Gallery of Ontario to see the Guillermo Del Toro: At Home With Monsters exhibit. Del Toro is a master of the fantastical on film with Pan's Labyrinth as his greatest accomplishment to date, at least in the minds of many.

At Home with Monsters is his stuff, from his place in Los Angeles called Bleak House, an homage to Charles Dickens. It is a bizarre, spooky, creative collection of art, artifacts, books, and props. As Del Toro puts it “To find beauty in the profane. To elevate the banal. To be moved by genre. These things are vital for my storytelling. This exhibition presents a small fraction of the things that have moved me, inspired me, and consoled me as I transit through life.”

A small fraction?! There are rooms and rooms of his stuff, including thousands of comic books, mock ups for the weird creatures in his films, and art work galore.

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The exhibit notes Del Toro's fascination with childhood, it's blossoming and it's wounds. Pan's Labyrinth is set in the years following the Spanish Civil War and depicts the horrors of war infiltrating a child’s imagination and threatening the innocence of youth. Del Toro is convinced that we are diminished when we see unusual others as outsiders and monsters.

The exhibit also highlights the themes of crucifixion and resurrection which recur in his work. There are paintings with crosses in them and an interesting set of graphic comic panels depicting scenes from the story of the Prodigal Son from Luke's gospel.

I would recommend visiting the exhibit and will probably get there again, even though I had one of my worst nightmares ever the following night!

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Friday, October 13, 2017

Afterlife Rituals

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Macabre.  Barbaric. Gruesome. These were all words that came to mind as I started into an article on a strange tradition of tending to the dead. In the Guardian piece entitled Cleaning the Dead: the afterlife rituals of the Torajan People I discovered that they continue to care for and clean members of their family as though they were sick, sometimes for years after their deaths. I found the article on my phone and I was stunned when I realized that the photos were of the dead.

For the Torajan people of Indonesia, death is part of a spiritual journey: families keep the mummified remains of their deceased relatives in their homes for years – and traditionally invite them to join for lunch on a daily basis – before they are eventually buried. Even then, they are regularly exhumed to be cleaned and cared for.

In contrast to Western norms, Torajans people, who live in the mountains of Sulawesi in Indonesia, treat their beloved relatives as if they are sick –not dead... In Toraja, it’ is customary to feed the deceased every day and to keep the corpses cozily bedded in a separate room of the family house until the family can afford a proper funeral.

I was appalled by the image of a child alongside the bodies of dead grandparents. Surely these children will be scarred for life?

While I'm never going to come around on these practices, they did get me thinking about our antiseptic, death-denying burial practices in North America. Our deceased loved ones are whisked away, embalmed and covered in makeup. Children are often kept away from funerals out of concern for their emotional wellbeing. Many services now do not address the realities of grief and when we go to cemeteries the artificial grass discreetly hides the actual earth into which a casket will descend.

Now that you've dealt with the shock, what is your take on this? Are we death-deniers in our culture. What is the balance between Western denial and the grim practices of the Torajans?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Santa Bones

Picture of St. Nicholas Church in Antalya
Earlier this year I anticipated retirement by letting my beard grow...and grow. I've had beards and goatees through most of my adult life but this is different. It's much longer that ever before and quite white as I enter my dotage. I tell people I've got a goal of seasonal work as a mall Santa.
Speaking of Santa --Claus that is-- there have been a rash of articles recently about the possible discovery of old Saint Nick. Here is the beginning of the National Geographic article.
Where is Santa Claus? Definitely not at the North Pole—but archaeologists still remain divided about the final resting place of St. Nicholas.
A team of Turkish researchers think they have found new insights into the possible grave of the real man who inspired the Christmas icon. Beneath the mosaic-covered floor of a church in Turkey's southern Antalya province, Turkish archaeologists have conducted scans they believe indicate the presence of a previously unknown tomb.
The church is located in the Demre district of Antalya, the same region in which St. Nicholas is believed to have been born and lived during the fourth century. Tradition holds that St Nicholas was famous for giving aid and gifts to the poor. (Over the years, his reputation as a generous saint persisted and he began to be called "Sinterklaas" in the Netherlands. You can thank 19th century author Washington Irving for the modern portrayal of St. Nicholas that persists today.

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Who knows whether this is the spot where St. Nicholas was laid to rest, and n the end it really doesn't matter. More important may be conducting the postmortem on the sad transformation of a Christian with a heart for the disadvantaged and vulnerable into the pagan symbol of largesse. While I don't get wound up about "keeping Christ in Christmas" and Nativity scenes in public squares I am saddened by the commercialization of Christ's birth and the powerful symbolism of God's generosity to the planet represented by the baby in a manger.

Don't you wonder if they'll discover the skeleton of St. Nicholas spinning in it's grave?

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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Cohen and the Choir

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A memorial tribute concert for Leonard Cohen will be held in Montreal on Nov. 6th titled Tower of Song: A memorial tribute to Leonard Cohen. It will mark the first anniversary of Cohen's death and the musicians will include  Elvis Costello, Lana Del Rey, Feist, k.d. lang, Philip Glass, The Lumineers, Damien Rice, Sting, and the late-singer’s son, Adam Cohen. Not too shabby a line-up. I hope lang will be singing Hallelujah.
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Adam commented “My father left me with a list of instructions before he passed: ‘Put me in a pine box next to my mother and father. Have a small memorial for close friends and family in Los Angeles…and if you want a public event do it in Montreal. I see this concert as a fulfillment of my duties to my father that we gather in Montreal to ring the bells that still can ring.”

When I snooped around online I couldn't figure out whether the cantor and choir from Jewish congregation Shaar Hashomayim will take part in this tribute concert. They are featured in one of Cohen's final song releases, You Want it Darker and there is a powerful atmospheric quality, a holiness, to their sound.

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The website for the Montreal synagogue says this about the music of worship:

At Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, music is seen as an extremely powerful force in the act of prayer. The music dignifies and beautifies the prayers and imbues the liturgy with meaning and reverence. A special environment and ambience is created that is conducive to an elegant prayer experience.

Wouldn't you love to be at this concert?

Monday, October 09, 2017

Whose Thanksgiving?

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Those of us who've grown up in Canada know the Thanksgiving experience and that our American neighbours celebrate the occasion at a different time in the Fall. The US Thanksgiving also has a different mythological emphasis, with gratitude to the aboriginal peoples who helped the pilgrims survive through the first difficult seasons in a new land. Of course the reward for this generosity in Canada and the States was to spread deadly diseases and steal their land. It doesn't seem like a fair trade, does it?

An article in the Toronto Star today offers an interesting historical perspective on our Canadian Thanksgiving, noting that our version was originally a solemn and pious occasion. All businesses closed for the day, and church services were the only activities of note. It may have been the response of mid-19th Protestant clergy to the disturbing ideas of Charles Darwin. Thanksgiving was a way to affirm the blessings of the Creator in the face of a theory of evolution. It also affirmed the Britishness of the colony. Over time the American traditions of family gatherings and turkey feasts infiltrated the Canadian holiday.

This weekend I've been thinking a lot about First Nations in this country and what mixed feelings many of them may have about this holiday. I reflected on our summer month on Change Islands, Newfoundland and my growing awareness while there of the proto-Eskimo (pre-Inuit) and Beothuk Indian peoples who would summer on these islands and others to fish and hunt. The Beothuks were hunted to extinction by European settlers even though they were not an aggressive people. While first contact might not have been as extreme in other parts of the country, it was nothing to brag about.

Last week we heard more about the troubles within the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, as well as a Supreme Court ruling about keeping the testimony of those who testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Surely we desire a nation where all can give thanks, and where we can work toward equality, and justice and reconciliation. I pray for this as a Christian who appreciates the gifts of the Creator.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Saturday, October 07, 2017

A Safe Place for All

Our attention has been focused south of the border this past week as we've attempted to understand the terrible carnage perpetrated in Las Vegas by a gunman whose motives we'll likely never know. Four Canadians died while at the concert which was the focus of the gunfire and a number of others were injured, some seriously.

Because of the enormity of this crime we may not be as aware of the trial of a multiple murderer here in Canada. In rural Ontario two years ago a man systematically hunted down three women with whom he'd had relationships and shot them dead. In the first days of the trial it's apparent that he is unrepentant and feels justified in committing these crimes.

I've mentioned before that during the decade Ruth, my wife, worked at a shelter for women and children leaving abusive relationship I became much more aware of the prevalence of this sort of violence. It's not always murder, but there are regular reports of physical attacks and injury against women, usually by their partners. It's not a matter of social class. A wealthy surgeon can kill his physician wife and dump her body as though it is trash.

I realize that this is a dark subject on Thanksgiving Weekend, but there are women who are wondering how they can leave abusive relationships right now, and whether getting out will result in the sort of retribution which is on trial at the moment.

We can be thankful for the life-giving relationships we enjoy and pray for hope for those who feel trapped.

Friday, October 06, 2017

The Prize of Peace

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The Nobel Peace Prize medal has taken on some tarnish this year as Aung San Suu Kyi, a past winner, has appeared to turn a blind eye to terrible persecution of the Rohingya peoples of Burma. However, the prize was awarded again this year --today-- with the recipients chosen from a considerable long-list (318 candidates, including Donald Trump!) and an intriguing short-list.

In the end the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).   ICAN is a coalition of non-governmental organizations from around 100 different countries around the globe, which advocates prohibition of nuclear weapons under international law. The organizations work is worthy of the prize, it seems to me, even though it has difficulty getting traction in our "might makes right" world. It is particularly appropriate and timely given the ridiculous nuclear posturing of "Rocket Man" and the "Dotard in Chief." And despite the encouragement of Trump's advisors to stick with the international "carrot and stick" agreement with Iran to mothball it's nuclear program he announced that he would decertify the program, almost as the Peace Prize was being announced.
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I was grateful that one of the nominees, Pope Francis, did not win. If you have been a regular reader of this blog you'll know that I'm admirer of Francis on a number of fronts, including the encyclical Laudato Si which addresses the environment and how we care for Creation. During this Creation Time, soon to conclude,  Francis has made some bold statements about those who deny climate change, including world leaders such as Trump.

Francis did not deserve the award because the Vatican has been disturbingly slow to address the abuse of children by priests of the Roman Catholic church through many decades. While Francis acknowledges the horror of this abuse we are not hearing enough about how the systemic institutional denial could go on for so long and why victims were and still are treated so poorly. There is no peace for untold thousands of those victims, so how could the spiritual head of the church receive a prize for this sinful history? Peace Prize candidates, as with saints of the church, have clay feet, but before Francis could be worthy of the honour much must change.

Now, I was hoping that the White Helmets of Syria, those who respond to bombing within the country with tremendous courage and dedication might win.

What are your thoughts about the recipients this year? Do you think my reservations about Pope Francis are valid? Did you pay much attention to the nominees?

Oh yes, congratulations to the winners!

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Thursday, October 05, 2017

Humans and Pigs and Ethics

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I came upon an article recently about the scientific developments toward what is called a chimera, a creature which has some of the attributes of a human and some of another animal, in this instance a pig. No, I'm not writing about world leaders here, but this does sound more like science fiction rather than fact. Actually, H.G. Wells explored this notion more than a hundred years ago in the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau and the outcome wasn't pretty.

The B.B.C. article was revisiting reports in January that significant advances had been made in implanting human cells in pigs. Why would we do this? There are already many thousands of people who have received pig heart valves to prolong their lives. If the genetic match could be even closer there would be tremendous implications for organ transplants. There are more than 4,500 people waiting for organs in Canada alone, and hundreds die while waiting for a donor organ. The growth of healthy human tissues in non-human animals provides a potential clinical alternative to donor organs, but it raises its own host of bioethical concerns.

I blogged once before about this subject and mentioned that fifteen years ago I was asked by the prof in a Dalhousie University course I was auditing on science and religion to speak to the class on the ethics of xenotransplantation, the use of animal organs in humans. I was clueless and it turned out that the United Church had done limited work in this area. But the Roman Catholic's had created a thoughtful position paper that was quite helpful. I hadn't given any prior consideration to whether raising creatures for the benefit of organ harvesting was "against my religion" but it was a worthwhile challenge and I survived the experience.

More and more we are asking whether eating other critters is ethical, because of the way they're raised and because of the effects of a carnivorous diet on the resources of the planet. Creating chimeras solely for our benefit certainly adds another level of complexity to our ethical pondering.

Are you musing about this while enjoying your morning bacon and eggs? Does the subject just make your brain hurt? Should faith groups spend time forming ethical positions on such matters?

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Dan Brown, Origin, and God

When Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code became an international bestseller thirteen years ago I was fairly determined not to read it. It sounded as though it was another lurid page-turner, this one with a time-worn premise that Jesus married and had children. This has been kicked around for centuries but Brown gave a different twist to the plot with Mary Magdalene not only as Jesus' spouse but showing up in Leonardo DaVinci's painting of the Last Supper. The "code" is that Mary is the Holy Grail rather than the cup which Jesus used to celebrate Passover and institute the Eucharist.

A year or so after it was published a parishioner gave me a copy of the novel and I did read it. I was exasperated from start to finish yet I kept on reading. C'mon, why would the police summon Harvard professor Robert Langdon, who is in town on business, to a murder scene in the Louvre? Would any Roman Catholic society commit murder to cover up "proof" of Jesus' marital status when speculation has surfaced repeatedly in the past? And who stops while fleeing from pursuers to give long-winded explanations of all the "symbology" of the story?! Hey, the man has sold 200 million books, so what do I know?

Brown does seem to have a fascination with Christianity and religion which persists in his novels. His latest is Origin, which was released yesterday. Here is the synopsis provided by the New York Times:

As the story begins, Edmond Kirsch — “billionaire computer scientist, futurist, inventor and entrepreneur” — is preparing to present a new discovery to an eager crowd (and to the world, via the internet) at the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain. He has promised that this announcement, the details of which are enticingly withheld until the very end of the book, will upend people’s view of religion by proving irrefutably that life can be created using the laws of science, thus excising God from the equation. (The theory is real, borrowed from the M.I.T. physicist Jeremy England.)

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In an interview for the Times Brown identifies that his father, still living, instilled him with a love of science, math, and intellectual puzzles. His mother, recently deceased, was religious but became fed up with church politics. He credits her for his sense of wonder and mystery.

The Times article concludes with this:
Though Mr. Brown comes out strongly in favor of science, both in person and in his novels, he cannot give up the possibility that there is something else out there. “It’s probably an intellectual weakness,” he said, “but I look at the stars and I say, ‘there’s something bigger than us out there.’ ”
There are lots of scientists who are rigorous in their methodological discipline and are people of faith. Science and religion aren't mutually exclusive, as I've suggested before.
Are you a Brown fan? Does Origin intrigue you? Is Tom Hanks now too old to run around playing Langdon in a movie version of the book? Have you made your peace between science and God's existence? Is there something bigger than us out there?

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Thoughts and Prayers are Not Enough

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21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
   and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
   I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
   I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
   I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

Amos 5

We've been having the "thoughts and prayers" conversation in our household over the past twenty-four hours. I expressed my disgust that certain leaders have been offering inanities about thoughts and prayers for the victims of the terrible massacre in Las Vegas where 59 innocent people where shot and killed, including at least three Canadians, while enjoying a concert. While President Trump described what happened as an "act of pure evil" --which it certainly was -- the systemic evil of the United States is the complicity at so many levels in allowing individuals to arm themselves as though they are going to war. Since the inception of the United States 1.4 million citizens have died in wars while 1.5 million have been shot to death -- since 1968. Intoning a psalm and bowing heads are a woefully insufficient response to this carnage.

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When Ruth pushed a bit as I spluttered we agreed that prayer is important in the face of loss and tragedy. We pray for friends and family, and over the years I prayed publicly for situations of distress around the globe, as well as for members of congregations. What many faith leaders are saying is that the "thoughts and prayers" phrase is being used as an abdication of genuine responsibility for change. Approved federal and state bills for changes to gun legislation and availability would be the highest form of public prayer in a nation which appears addicted to weapons.