Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Farewell, & Thank God for Angela Merkel


Credit...Clemens Bilan/EPA

Back in September the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, stepped down after 16 years at the helm of a country which has been a beacon of democracy during her time in leadership. It was often pointed out that during the dark years of President Voldemort Merkel was the leader of the free world, showing common sense and steadiness while Trump woofed and preened. It is remarkable that in what can be drearily the man's world of politics she chose not to be an "Iron Lady" in the fashion of Margaret Thatcher but managed to be firm and wise and courageous. 

In turned out that there was no rest for the virtuous after the election. As Germany sought to form a coalition government Merkel stayed on and finally, this week, she moves into retirement. 

I have written before about Merkel's Christian faith which began as the child of a pastor in East Germany before the wall came down. She has been open about the importance of her faith both at a personal level and in informing decision-making.

In 2015 she and her Christian Democrat party made the controversial decision to allow a million refugees into Germany. This was met with resistance at the time and the rise of right-wing, anti-immigration parties. It's been pointed out, though, that Germany's economy has remained strong, in part because these immigrants have meant that the country has not experienced the labour shortages of other Western nations. Compassion can make economic sense. 

Along the way Merkel was dubbed the "Climate Chancellor" for her efforts at international climate events to curb global carbon emissions, although she came up against stone walls put up by other world leaders. 

At her farewell event Merkelm who has a doctorate in quantum chemistry, offered that “The last two years of this pandemic have shown how important the trust in politics, science and societal discourse is — but also how fragile it can be... Democracy depends on solidarity and trust, including the trust in facts.”

A military band played three pieces at her farewell, including a punk rock song by Nina Hagen which was a hit during her teen years. The finale was an 18th-century Christian hymn Holy God, We Praise Thy Name: 

Holy God, we praise thy name. God of all we bow down before thee. 

All on earth your sceptre claim; all in heav'n above adore thee.

Infinite they vast domain, everlasting is thy reign. 

The hymn lyrics seems a tad archaic, but she's a Lutheran, so we have to give her some leeway! Thank God for Angela Merkel. We need a lot more leaders like her in these perilous times. 

                                                     Angela Merkel was born in 1954, a very good year. 

Monday, December 06, 2021

Anti-Misogyny Day

Yesterday at church the focus of the second Sunday of Advent was the campaign to end domestic violence called
Orange the World. The gospel passage was the encounter between Elizabeth and the angel, the divine silencing of Zechariah, then the meeting between Elizabeth and her relative Mary. There was an excellent skit involving several women and girls which cleverly told this story and Rev. Isaac interwove the theme through the service. 

Today is the The National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women which came about because of the massacre of fourteen unsuspecting young women at Polytechnique Montr√©al on this date, December 6, 1989. The perpetrator was a misogynistic coward who blamed women for his own failures, a grim reality so often with domestic violence. While that event was staggering in its scope we're told that 58 women have died by femicide in Ontario during the past twelve months -- more than four times the number who died in Montreal that terrible day 32 years ago. Numbers were up across the country and some experts suggest that the confinement of the pandemic may be a contributing factor. 

In December of 1989 I was a minister in Sudbury, Ontario, in my mid-thirties, a husband and father to three young children, two of whom were girls. I participated in a solemn vigil organized by one of my colleagues in ministry, a woman. 

Through the years I have been aware of the grimly matter-of-fact reporting about acts of femicide and extreme violence against women. I also think of wife Ruth's work for a women's shelter, the bullet-proof glass and security systems to secure the building where she worked, and the coordination with police to spirit women out of domestic situations where any intimation that a woman and her children were planning to leave would have been dangerous. There were times when I was concerned about Ruth's safety in her role, including when she went to court with clients who were facing their abusers. 

Perhaps we should call this Anti-Misogyny Day, knowing that what must be addressed in our society are all the systems which subjugate women and continue to empower men who perpetrate emotional as well as physical violence. While physical violence is a threat, so often abuse occurs without one partner even touching another, with control and denigration happening in other ways. 

We can pray and learn and act as people of faith, even though we may prefer "out of sight, out of mind." And we must remember that misogyny often flourishes under the guise of "God's plan." 


Sunday, December 05, 2021

Remembering Agnes MacPhail


I've seen a couple of reminders that tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the election of Canada's first woman Member of Parliament, Agnes MacPhail. I was aware of her name, but knew nothing about her personal story, so went on a search. 

MacPhail grew up on a farm in Grey County and eventually became a teacher. She was determined, clever, and had a quick and sometimes biting sense of humour when she was heckled by men. She was a feminist long before that term was coined and was passionate about a variety of social justice causes. 

MacPhail had a rather eclectic religious path which included several years as a Mormon before she became a Methodist. She read the bible thoroughly and was moved by the messages of the Hebrew scripture prophets. In 1925 most Methodists became members of the United Church of Canada because of church union and she was one of them. 

MacPhail served multiple terms in parliament and became an effective orator in the House of Commons. She said that she was guided by prayer as she addressed the challenging issues of her time. 

In an article from the Canadian Encyclopedia of Christian Leaders I found this: 

Agnes supported the Progressives’ anti-imperialism and their quest for Canadian autonomy, but it was her championing of the advancement of women, peace, and prison reform that really set her apart.

By working to remove laws that treated women differently from men in such matters as citizenship and divorce, Agnes strove to enhance the position of her gender. “I desire that women have equal rights,” she said. As a regular on the Canadian Chautaugua circuit in the 1920s, she once was confronted by a male heckler who yelled, “Don’t you wish you were a man?” She retorted, “Yes, don’t you?”

In 1929, her activity in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom along with Lucy Woodsworth led to her being appointed as Canada’s first woman delegate to the League of Nations in Geneva. 

Later in life MacPhail was asked the same question about whether she would prefer to be a man and she responded by saying that she was a woman who wanted to be treated equally with men.

Agnes MacPhail was a remarkable Canadian and Christian, peacemaker and rabble-rouser. We can all give thanks for her life and witness. 

Saturday, December 04, 2021

Will an Inuit Kayak Return Home from the Vatican?


Ten days from now a delegation from the Assembly of First Nations delegation will meet with Pope Francis in Rome seeking an apology. on Indigenous land, for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools. Francis has said that he will visit Canada for an apology which Indigenous peoples feel is required to advance reconciliation. 

This past week, likely in anticipation of this visit, the Vatican shared photos of a collection of 200 artifacts from Arctic Canada which are roughly 100 years old. In 1924, Gabriel Joseph √Člie Breynat, the French-born Roman Catholic bishop of the Mackenzie region of Arctic Canada, received a request from Pope Pius XI to send objects for a world exposition. Missionaries from the different continents were instructed to collect religious and non-religious objects made by Indigenous peoples and send them to Rome.

Amongst the Canadian objects is a sealskin kayak, fragile yet enduring, a marvellous reminder of the ingenuity of Inuit peoples. It is one of only six which are known to still exist. Almost immediately there was a call by Inuit leaders for this kayak to be returned. There has also been criticism that the exhibit, first shown to journalists, is another tone-deaf example of perpetuated colonization and cultural theft. 

I heard a moving interview this week by Matt Galloway of CBC's The Current with Indigenous historians and knowledge keepers who are working to repatriate objects which were taken, often brutally, by settlers and representatives of colonial powers, including missionaries. They view these not as artifacts from the past but as the possessions of their ancestors and their living communities. They have also negotiated the respectful return of the remains of Indigenous individuals, which when we consider it, was a particularly barbaric and ghoulish form of theft. Why were Indigenous peoples regarded as "savages" when European invaders were literally body snatchers? 


Ruth and I feel deeply indebted to Indigenous peoples for the invention of the canoe and the kayak because we enjoy both activities. As we paddle I am often aware that the waterways we travel have a meaningful history for First Nations. 

We'll see what happens with the kayak at the Vatican, with its powerful symbolism. 

Friday, December 03, 2021

Away in a Manger & Housing for All


                                       Sudbury Homeless Encampment, Memorial Park, Summer 2021

1 Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,

the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.

The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,

the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

We lived in the city of Sudbury in Northern Ontario for eleven years, raising our family there as I served St. Andrew's United Church, a downtown congregation. During that time we began a sit-down meal ministry which became a collaborative enterprise involving other congregations and community contributors. We also had a food distribution ministry. 

One of our St. A's members who was involved in that meal ministry, Deb MacIntosh, became a city councillor after we left town and because I check in on Sudbury news from time to time I saw yesterday that she and others on council are working to establish transitional housing for those dealing with homelessness and addiction. Council voted to support the project with $600,000 despite the fact that the provincial government has ignored requests for financial support. The project for 40 units has been scaled back to 20 but the city will proceed. At a meeting earlier this year Deb said: "These are our sons and daughters who are suffering. And it's time for long-term solutions towards a healthy community for everyone"

Several things came to mind as I read about this. The issue of homelessness has obviously become more acute in Sudbury in the decades since we left because of the lack of affordable housing. This past Summer there was a tent city in the public park immediately behind St. A's, something which would have unthinkable 25 years ago. 

The Sudbury situation is a reminder that communities across the province are dealing with the reality of a growing number of precariously housed people and struggling with how to address the demand, including finding funds to pay for it. No one wants homeless encampments but who will provide shelters and more permanent housing? Here in Belleville city councillors have mixed feelings about responsibility and as with Sudbury there is a degree of NIMBYism. 

I also thought about Deb's commendable persistence with this initiative, knowing that her commitment to marginalized persons is motivated, in part, by her Christian faith. Through the years I served four congregations which had meal ministries, In some instances these ministries expanded into other forms of advocacy. In retirement we attend Trenton UC which provides meals (one today) and will be home to a community warming centre for the first time this Winter. Literally hundreds of people from different faith communities have given their time to these various initiatives. I've always been impressed and grateful for their compassion and generosity. 

We might ponder these issues as we nostalgically sing Away in a Manger on Christmas Eve. 

And hang in there, Deb, as you fight the good fight! 

Thursday, December 02, 2021

Praying for the Just Choice about Conversion Therapy

Note: Since I wrote this blog yesterday the vote on banning Conversion Therapy took place in the House of Commons. It passed with unanimous support from all parties. I'm going to receive this outcome as an answer to prayer. 

It took far too long for the federal Liberals to reconvene parliament but MP's are back in Ottawa, mostly, and the minority government has set out its immediate agenda. One of the important pieces of legislation is actually the completion of a previouis bill regarding what is known as conversion therapy. Here is a succint description by CTV of what some regard as coercive brain-washing or even torture:

 On Monday, the federal government will be tabling an enhanced version of their bill to largely ban conversion therapy practices in Canada, moving forward with a stronger version of previously-halted legislation.The version of the bill coming next week is expected to include more teeth and potentially a wider reach when it comes to cracking down on the harmful practice.

Conversion “therapy” as it’s been called, seeks to change a person's sexual orientation to heterosexual or gender identity to cisgender, and has been opposed by numerous health and human rights groups.

It's likely that this bill will bass because it is supported by the NDP and to a degree by Conservatives. The CTV piece notes: 

After 62 Conservative MPs voted against the ban last year, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s platform stated that he wants to see the practice eradicated, though with amendments to clarify that “the ban does not criminalize non-coercive conversations,” a concern pushed by those opposed to the bill.

 O'Toole has announced that he will allow a free vote for the party's MP's but it is disturbing that roughly half voted against this legislation previously. The reality is that many of those Conservative Members of Parliament are also conservative Christians or are beholden to Christians who are anti-LGBTQ2+ within their constituencies. Some have used disturbing language to describe LGBTQ2+ persons, including "unclean." Even though there is plenty of evidence that these attempts at conversion are unsuccessful and psychologically damaging, often perpetrated by people with no credible training, we have elected representatives in our country who continue to support them.

I'll remind you about the film Boy Erased based on a memoir with the same title and which stars Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, and Russell Crowe. It tells the story of the son of Baptist parents in the US who is forced to take part in a conversion therapy program. It is both chilling and hopeful as the family finds its way to understanding and acceptance. 

There is also a highly rated documentary called Pray Away which explores the damage done by conversion therapy and the "pray away the gay" approach. So often these are vulnerable teens who are threatened with God's displeasure as well as ostracization by their families and communities of faith. 

We can certainly pray -- that MP's find the moral courage to respect all people as children of God and pass this legislation. 

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Pastoral Song of Creation

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.

    Leviticus 19: 9-10 

On Canadian Thanksgiving weekend back in early October I listened to a CBC Sunday Morning interview with James Rebanks, a British farmer and author. I had been aware of Rebanks before but I was struck by his wisdom and solidity while listening to his voice. 

The interview sent me on a search at our local library for Rebanks' recently published book, Pastoral Song: A Farmer's Journey. It is an honest, gritty lovesong for the hill country in which he was raised, a region where his family has farmed for hundreds of years. Sheep were and still are part of the farm, as are cattle, and since I was a shepherd of a different kind and intrigued by how people survive on the land I read the book and appreciated it -- he is an excellent writer.  

The book doesn't paint an idyllic picture of pastoral landscapes as it acknowledges that modern-day farming is a "rock and a hard place" enterprise. We've come to expect relatively low prices for a huge variety of foods which show up in grocery stores from around the world. Larger scale, industrial style farming has pushed out many smaller holdings yet resulted in crippling debt for many, along with degradation of soil and water, in order to compete. 

Rebanks learned a traditional way of farming as a boy alongside his grandfather, a patient and steadfast man whom he adored. His father was hardworking but often critical, overwhelmed by the endless tasks of each day,  as well as struggling to know which path to take in working the land and raising animals as agriculture changed. 

After time away from the farm to study at Oxford and engage in international work James has returned to the farm. Before his father's untimely death they became friends. They were brought together, in part, by their realization that industrial farming was a dead end, figuratively and literally. 

Rebanks writes about being awakened to the importance of balance by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, a classic of the early 1960's. As he puts it:

I felt as though I had woken from a long coma. I had almost conditioned myself to exclude nature from the way I thought about the farm.I had begun to view my grandfather's way of farming with contempt, to pity my father's reluctance to modernize. But now I felt like a bloody foolm because my grandfather had been right to resist, and my father was right to instinctively distrust it all.

Rebanks still has to make a living on his farm and there will always be compromises to do so. Still he has begun to put in place practices which are in fact the old ways which allowed his forebears to farm in the area for so long. He is reestablishing hedgerows for birds and creatures. He is working with different environmental groups and government agencies to rewild the river which runs through his property. Even though he has to relinquish control over the land in some respects he is creating a more balanced approach to farming which may be the hope for the future, including his own children. 

Even though he doesn't consider himself to be a conventionally religious person James quotes from the Older Testament book of Leviticus (see above)  when he considers the moral and ethical code of those who came before him which was different from the "total war" on nature which is exploitation. 

Let's pray that society as a whole wakes up from its collective coma for the wellbeing of Creation. 

While I'm on the topic, check out Topsy Farms on nearby Amherst Island. They are folk who are addressing these issues with much the same sensibilities and we admire what they're up to. https://www.topsyfarms.com/