Monday, July 16, 2018

Church Sex Abuse Scandals Both Bad and Good News

It’s been a tough couple of months for Christians lately, what with the media once again filled with news about sex scandals involving major church leaders.

For Catholics, the latest revelation involved Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington.

McCarrick, one of the most powerful and influential leaders in the church, has been accused of at least three cases of sexual misconduct with adults decades ago. Two of those cases resulted in settlements.

Then there was Monsignor Carlo Alberto Capella, a 50-year-old Vatican official. He was found guilty of possessing and distributing child pornography and sentenced to five years in jail.

In Australia, Cardinal George Pell is facing trial over alleged sexual abuse 40 years ago. Also in that country, Adelaide Archbishop PhilipWilson was found guilty of covering up child sex abuse by a priest in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, in Chile all the bishops in that country submitted their resignations at the request of the Pope because of their failure to deal with priests who abused children. Pope Francis has accepted three of the resignations, so far.

Protestants also had their own bad news to deal with in this time of #MeToo.

Three key leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention’s “conservative resurgence” movement—Frank Page, Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler—have have either been fired, resigned or are living under accusations of inappropriate sexual conduct.

Page resigned as president and chief executive officer of the Convention’s executive committee over what he described as “a morally inappropriate relationship in the recent past.”

Patterson was fired as president of the denomination’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for inappropriate comments about women, and for counseling women who were physically abused by their husbands to stay in their marriages and “be submissive in every way that you can.”

Pressler stands accused of sexual misconduct by a number of men. The accusations include molestation and soliciting them for sex as teenagers.

The revelations prompted prominent Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler to write in that “the avalanche of sexual misconduct that has come to light in recent weeks is almost too much to bear.

“These grievous revelations of sin have occurred in churches, in denominational ministries, and even in our seminaries.”

He put blame for the issues taking so long to come to light to a “conspiracy of silence.”

Another church dealing with the fallout of sexual misconduct is the influential Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois.

The church, which provides leadership and other resources to over 13,000 member churches in 45 countries through its Willow Creek Association, issued a public apology this month for how it mishandled allegations of misconduct against its senior pastor,  Bill Hybels.

Hybels stepped down from leading Willow Creek in April following an investigation by a Chicago newspaper that revealed allegations of misconduct with women, including a longtime affair with a married woman.

“I need to publicly apologize to the women who raised concerns about Bill,” pastor Heather Larson said of how the church had engaged in a strategy of denial and defense of Hybels, and attacking the accusers.

“To the women directly, I can’t imagine how painful these months have been for you and I am so sorry for the ways I have contributed to that,” she added.

Whew—that’s a lot of bad news. Why repeat it? Because it’s also good news.

It’s good news that the voices of women and others who have been abused—people long marginalized, silenced and disbelieved by churches—are finally now being heard in this age of #MeToo.

It’s good news that major church publications are reporting about these abuses—not covering them up.

It’s good news that more churches and denominations are recognizing that giving leaders (almost always men) unlimited power, blind allegiance, biblical justification for their actions and little accountability is an invitation to disaster.

And it’s good news for a watching world to see that more churches are finally willing to do the hard things when sexual abuse is reported—not brush it under the carpet.

(This isn’t only a Christian phenomenon, by-the-way; there are also Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, and atheist #MeToo movements.”)

This won’t be the end of the bad news. I’m sure there will be many more revelations of abuse and inappropriate conduct. 

But seeing those headlines also means that some churches and denominations are beginning to deal seriously with the problem. 

And that is very good news.

From the July 14, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

“I want them to think about Jesus" says Winnipeg's Homeless Street Preacher

Lucas Aragon like another homeless man in the Bible who felt a call from God to  preach repentance

If you drive downtown on weekday mornings in Winnipeg, or take the bus, you’ve seen the “Jesus is Lord” man.

He stands at the corner of Portage and Donald, shopping cart with meagre possessions in tow, with his homemade signs: “Jesus is Lord,” “I love Jesus,” or “only Jesus saves.”

Maybe you have wondered: Who is he? And why is he there?

As a regular transit rider who sees him there each morning, I know I did. So I decided to ask.

His name is Lucas Aragon. An immigrant from El Salvador, the 48 year-old has been in Canada for 28 years.

A pleasant, friendly and engaging man with long black hair and a beard, Lucas is quick to smile and say hello to passing pedestrians.

He is also homeless.

Lucas didn’t plan to be where he is today. At one time, he had a steady job and was in a relationship. But in 2013 he lost his job and the relationship turned sour.

A year later, he was on the street.

But then he felt God’s call to turn his life around and get a new job as a preacher. But not a preacher in a church—on the streets.

“This is my job now,” he says. “I do it for Jesus.”

His “pulpit” is the sidewalk in front of Mountain Equipment Co-op. He’s there each weekday morning, starting about 6 A.M.

Unlike other preachers, Lucas doesn’t use words. He stands quietly with his signs, unless someone talks to him.

Then he loves to talk—about Jesus.

About 9, he goes to the library. While there he uses the Internet to check his Facebook account, uploading Bible verses or inspirational videos.

He spends the rest of his time at other public locations, then comes back to the corner in the early evening.

“I try my best to be here twice a day,” he says.

That includes winter, although he admits sometimes the bitter cold can sometimes keep him from his corner.

At night, he sleeps downtown, his cart tied loosely to his ankle in case someone tries to steal it.

I asked him: Why he doesn’t stay in a shelter?

“I don’t feel safe there,” he says. Plus, he adds, “it’s hard to sleep.”

But surely sleeping outside, especially in winter, must be hard.

It is, he admits. But God has not only called him to preach, but to be homeless.

“It’s a test of my faith,” he says

What about food—how does he eat?

“God provides,” he says. “I’m not here to beg. I leave it up to God.”

It’s true. He has no cup or hat where people can toss change. He relies on kind people to give him food or money—unasked.

Sometimes he gets more than he can use. Then he shares it with others who live on the streets.

What if someone gave him a nice, free, safe place to say—would he take it?

“No,” he says firmly. “I’m afraid I would get too comfortable and not come here each day.”

I ask: Does he go to church?

For the first time, Lucas seems annoyed—maybe even a little bit angry.

“I go to church and see people with their hands in the air, praising God, and then I see people who are poor and needy on the streets,” he says animatedly.

“They praise God, but they don’t follow God—they don’t help the poor.”

He’s quick to add that just doing good deeds, like helping the poor, isn’t enough. People also need to repent and turn to Jesus.

What do people need to repent of? I ask.

“Evil deeds, drinking, drugs, love of money,” he says. “No matter how much money we have, we always want more.”

What does he hope people will think when they see him on the corner?

“I want them to think about Jesus,” he says. “He is the way, the truth and the life.”

As I head for work, I can’t help thinking about another homeless man who long ago felt a call from God to  preach repentance. His name was John the Baptist.

I’m not saying Lucas is a new John the Baptist. But there are similarities.

One thing I do know: He sure preached to me. 

Maybe he preached to you, too.

The Role of Religion in Civil Society

On May 28-29, a major civil society summit was held in Ottawa in advance of the June 8-9 G7 in Charlevoix, Quebec. 

The summit—dubbed the C7—brought together representatives from all G7 member states and the European Union, along with representatives from civil society groups in Canada, to discuss ways to create a fairer, more sustainable and safer world.

As a sign of how important the summit was to the Canadian government, both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Development, Marie-Claude Bibeau, attended. 

They emphasized the importance of civil society when it comes to influencing and working with government—and helping it achieve its goals on the international stage.

In the outcome document, C7 organizers noted that CSOs “drive action, mobilize resources and implement programs, generate evidence and advocate for change,” as they “work directly with local communities both at home and abroad” to bring “a broader and more diverse set of voices and human experiences to conversations and processes.”

And yet, as credit-worthy as it was, the summit was not as broad or diverse as it could have been. It was missing one of the most important civil society voices: Organized religion.

Although a few faith-based NGOs were present, not one speaker, presenter or panelist came from a religious group, and the subject of religion didn’t come up once.

In a conversation after the summit, an organizer said the idea of including faith community leaders never came up in the planning. In retrospect, he acknowledged this was an oversight.

I have to agree. By not including anyone from the faith community, or discussing the role religion plays in civil society, the summit missed hearing from the largest and most influential CSOs in Canada. 

On any given weekend, an estimated four million Canadians from different faith groups participate in worship services.

But, so what? Canada is becoming more secular, after all. Attendance and affiliation in religious groups is dropping, and the influence of organized religion in society is waning. Why should it be included in a discussion about the role of civil society?

I can think of at least five reasons.

1. Organized religion is one of the major gateways to participation in civil society.

As authors Brian Clarke and Stuart Macdonald point out in their new book, Leaving Christianity: Changing Alliances in Canada since 1945, “churches have traditionally served as one of the chief entry points—if not the chief entry point—to civil society.”

How do they do that? Churches, and other faith groups, are places where many Canadians learn how to be civically engaged through things like speaking in public, leading meetings, being part of boards or committees, engaging people with differing viewpoints, giving to charity, raising awareness about justice issues, and doing service in the community.

Not only that; people who are more religiously involved tend to vote more, be active in local community organizations, and stay up with the news.

Of course, other groups also contribute to society’s social capital. But “churches have been one of the major gateways to participation in the rest of society,” they state, adding “for whatever reason, they are unique in the ways they empower people to become active members of Canadian society.”

2. The charitable sector depends on religious people.

One of the best predictors of whether someone gives to charity—any charity—is if they are religiously active, as research from Statistics Canada shows.

This was confirmed in 2017 by the pollster Angus Reid, which found that people who are religiously committed are over twice as likely as members of any other group to say they are “very involved” or “quite involved” in their communities.

Non-religious people, by contrast, are the most likely to say they are “not at all involved” in the community.

As well, the pollster found that religiously committed Canadians are almost twice as likely as any other group to say they “try to donate to whatever charities they can,” and give about three times more than the non-religious.

3. Organized religion is key to helping NGOs, and the government, reach their goals for international relief and development.

Research by David Lasby of Imagine Canada, the umbrella group for Canadian charities, confirms that religiosity is one of the main drivers behind whether someone donates for international causes.

In 2013, 21% of regular attenders at worship services gave to international causes, according to Lasby’s research. This compares to 8% of people who never attend.

One reason for why religious people give more is that people who attend worship services regularly are apt to hear about world needs during sermons, prayers, sharing time, education time and the bulletin. 

They also receive regular opportunities to donate through the collection plate.

When it comes to humanitarian emergencies, people of faith also can be counted on to give generously. Research shows that when the federal government announces a matching fund for a humanitarian disaster, between 40% to 50% of donations to those appeals comes through faith-based NGOs.

4. Religion plays a key role in development.

Duncan Green, Head of Research for Oxfam in Great Britain is a self-declared atheist. But he says that aid groups, and the governments that support them, need to pay more attention to the role of religion plays in eradicating global poverty.

Religion, he says, “is central to the lives of poor people in a way that governments, aid and NGOs are not. All the research shows that poor people trust religious organizations, turn to them in times of need,” such as disasters.

Religion is also important when it comes to development, and changing the structures that keep people in the developing world—including women and girls—from reaching their full potential.

“As we think harder about how change happens, religion keeps cropping up,” Green says, adding that religion plays a key role in social norms around things like the role and education of women. 

As a result, he says, it is easier for faith groups—which are already accepted and respected by poor people—to change behaviours of their adherents than it would be for “secular aid agencies.”

Religion is also important in fragile and dysfunctional states, he says, places where government services are absent.

His conclusion? “If we [aid groups] are serious about development, we need to understand much more about the diversity, divisions and debates within each church on things like women’s roles,” he says.

In other words, for the government and aid groups to achieve the ambitious goal of assisting women and girls, they will need help and input from organized religion.

5. The Halo Effect At Home

It’s not only development overseas that religion has an impact. It’s also true at home.

According to Cardus, a Canadian think-tank, places of worship provide almost $20 billion of social, spiritual and communal capital to Canadian towns and cities.

That amount is what it calls the Halo effect, a calculation of things like free meeting space for community groups, programs, community development and the magnet effect of drawing people into a neighbourhood.

According to Cardus, every dollar a place of worship spends creates about $4.77 of common good benefit—the halo effect—is generated.

Additional value was produced through things such as working with refugees, soup kitchens, helping the homeless, job training, programs to treat substance abuse, programs for children, youth and families, community garden plots, hosting concerts and other events, counselling, recreational activities (gyms and playing fields), operating nursery schools and day cares, and volunteering in the neighbourhood.

"The value of religious congregations to the wider community is somewhere in the order of four to five times of a congregation's annual operating budget,” says Milton Friesen, who is the Social Cities Program Director for Cardus.

“This is money that governments don’t need to spend.”

For example, if a congregation with an annual budget of $250,000 should close, Cardus estimates a city or town would need to come up with about $1.2 million every year to replace what was lost to the wider community.

The value of the halo effect across Canada is $1.6 billion in Vancouver, $2 billion in Edmonton, $2.2 billion in Calgary, $489 million in Saskatoon, $1.5 billion in Winnipeg, $6.7 billion in Toronto and $2.1 billion in Montreal.

For Friesen, the halo effects shows how places of worship “are important parts of the landscape,” and should not be “ignored when calculating the social capital of a community.”

Where to from here?

Of course, organized religion in Canada isn’t the same force it used to be. And its record isn’t unvarnished; it has had both a positive and a negative impact on society. But it still plays a key role.

So the next time government and civil society organizations meet to talk about ways they can work together, they may want to invite representatives from religious groups.

After all, efforts to make the world a fairer, safer and more sustainable place depend on it.

A shorter version of this column was originally published July 4, 2018 in The Hill Times.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Easier Life Is, the Less Religious People Are: New Pew Report

The safer and wealthier people are, the less interest they have in religion. 

That’s the conclusion of a new study by the Pew Research Centre.

In a survey of more than 100 countries and territories over the last decade, Pew found that countries that are rich and at peace are less religious than countries that are poor or at war.

The countries where people say religion is very important in their lives are found in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America.

Countries where people have less interest in religion are in Europe, North America, East Asia and Australia.

And why would that be?

It’s pretty simple, actually. If you aren’t always worried about dying unexpectedly due to war, disaster or disease, it’s easier to push thoughts about God, mortality and the afterlife from your mind.

In fact, research by Pew has found a clear correlation between life expectancy and attendance at religious services—the longer you expect to live, the less interest you have in religion.

Researchers call this phenomenon “existential insecurity,” the degree of safety and security people feel as they go about their daily lives.

To put it another way, in countries where people face a constant threat of premature death, and where they feel they little or no control over what happens in their lives, they find religion to be a source of hope and security.

When everything is chaotic, then at least they can believe that God is in charge and knows what is going on—even if they don’t.

Conversely, in countries where most people feel safe and secure—a place like Canada—they feel they need less support from religion or reliance on God to provide an explanation for what it happening to comfort about the unknown.

Which leads to the obvious question: Can unexpected insecurity, such as might occur in a natural disaster, increase religious commitment?

There is evidence that suggests the answer is yes.

After 9/11, the U.S. had an increase in attendance at religious services. Another study found that 67% of people living in the U.S. gulf coast expressed more interest in religion after Hurricane Katrina.

But scientifically, it’s hard to draw a good conclusion with a set group of people. Since it’s impossible to anticipate a disaster, you can’t do a before-and-after survey.

But there is one place where that happened: New Zealand.

In February, 2011, that country experienced an earthquake that killed 185 people and caused thousands of injuries. 

It took place between the 2009 and 2011 phases of the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study, a national longitudinal survey.

Researchers who compared levels of religious affiliation before and after the quake discovered that people in the hardest-hit areas became more interested in religion, while the country at large became less religious.

According to the researchers, there was a “significant” and “remarkable” increase in interest in religion among those affected by the earthquake.

The survey also found that economic inequality is correlated with higher levels of religious commitment. Societies with very unequal distribution of income tend to be more religious, while those who live in relatively egalitarian societies say religion is less important.

In addition to measuring religiosity in various countries, Pew also looked at differences between how younger and older people view religion. 

In 46 out of 106 countries survey, people ages 18 to 39 are less likely than those ages 40 and older to say religion is very important to them.

According to Pew, this is true for in developing countries as well as advanced industrial economies, in Muslim-majority nations as well as predominantly Christian states, and in societies that are highly religious as well as those that are comparatively secular.

Countries where the gap in religiosity between young and old is widest are in Europe and North America, with Canada having one of the largest gaps.

There is much more in the Pew report, but the overall impression is hard to miss: The safer, richer, more secure people are, the less religious they become.

Concludes Pew: “Regardless of how religious commitment or prosperity are measured, the general pattern holds: Religious commitment is lower in places where life is easier. 

 “And in places where life is steadily becoming easier . . . younger adults generally are less religious than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.”

Find the entire Pew report here.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Can the Bible be used to Promote Reconciliation Between Settlers, Indigenous People?

When Mary Carpenter, an Inuk from Sachs Harbour, Northwest Territories, was a little girl, she was forced to go to a church-run residential school.

One of the first things the nuns who ran the school did was give her a new name.

They took away my Native name, Tungoyuq, and replaced it with ‘Mary,’ a name from their Bible,” Carpenter writes.

In class, the students “sat in long wooden pews watching and listening to priests and nuns as they instructed us from a strange, big, black book with a gold-embossed ‘BIBLE’ emblazoned on the cover,” she recalls.

That Bible, she adds, “was often used to justify the ill treatment of innocent children.”

Carpenter’s experience was not unique. As part of the Canadian government’s assimilationist policies, many Indigenous children were given new names to sever traditional ties and promote assimilation.

Many of those names were taken from the Bible—the same book that caused them so much pain and loss.

So it’s not surprising many Indigenous people today, and many of their Christian allies, have an ambivalent view of the Bible. How can anything good be found in a book that caused so many people so much sorrow?

That was the question facing Steve Heinrichs, who directs Mennonite Church Canada’s Indigenous-Settler Relations Program.

Heinrichs loves the Bible. He reads it every day as part of his devotional life. And yet he knows that many people distrust and dislike it because of how it was used against Indigenous people in Canada.

“The Bible has a bad reputation for many Indigenous people and their allies,” he says. “But can it be reclaimed and used to promote justice and fuel us in our efforts to promote decolonization?”

His answer is yes, and a new book, Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization, is the result.

In the book, which was curated by Heinrichs, 60 contributors—settlers and Indigenous people, Christians and non-Christians—engage stories and passages from the Bible to see if it can be re-imagined in a positive way for the current settler-Indigenous context.

For Heinrichs, the book is a way to “deal honestly” with some of the harder parts of the Bible, but also “rediscover some good things in it.”

The hard passages include things from the old Testament where the ancient Israelites are instructed by God to invade other countries, take their land and kill the inhabitants—something that has unfortunate echoes in Canada’s colonial past.

It’s easy to dismiss the war stories of the Old Testament, Heinrichs says, noting that “some texts are quite destructive and simply bad.”

But he also wonders about things like the Great Commission in the New Testament, which has been used to harm Indigenous people.

“What do we say about the spiritual violence inflicted on Indigenous communities as different churches compete for members in Indigenous communities, and show a lack of respect for Indigenous spirituality?” he asks.

In addition to addressing those questions, the book points to positive things in the Bible that can help settlers and Indigenous people find new ways to live together in Canada.

“There are whole streams in the Bible that talk about reconciliation, peace, and land reparations,” Heinrichs says. “We can use those texts to help make things right.”

As for those Christians who have written off the Bible because of how it was used against Indigenous people, he reminds them it is “more politically engaged” than many realize—many of the stories were written by and about oppressed and marginalized people, just like how many Indigenous people feel today.

Ultimately, Heinrichs hopes the book will spark conversations, that people will see how Jesus invited everyone into conversations and community—regardless of their political or religious leanings.

“In the Gospels, Jesus invites a tax collector into his group,” he notes of how he reached out to someone from the despised establishment of his day. “Who would that be in our context? There are no enemies in the Gospels. Everyone is challenged to change the way they view others. Can we all sit in a circle and hear each other? Can we listen with courage and care?”

He hopes that reading Unsettling the Word is one way many people will begin that journey.

Unsettling the Word is available from Common Word in Winnipeg. 

From the June 23, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press.