Thursday, December 18, 2014

A New (and Truer) Look at the Birth of Jesus, or Giving a Break to that Poor Innkeeper

Ken Bailey, author of the groundbreaking book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, died last May. 

It was Bailey who helped me understand that, in order to understand the Gospels, I needed to see them through the eyes of people who lived in that place and at that time.

His perspectives were confirmed by my own, very limited, experiences in the Middle East, where I experienced the legendary hospitality of people in that region. 

While there I was invited into many homes, served coffee, sweets and sumptuous meals. Even the poorest of the poor offered what they could; to fail to show hospitality to a stranger would be unthinkable, and a grave offence.

What’s true today was also true in the biblical world, where the arid desert climate and distance between towns and cities made hospitality even more important—access to food, shelter and water could mean the difference between life and death. To not extend hospitality was considered an insult, or even an act of hostility. 

Which is why the traditional interpretation of the birth of Jesus in a barn rings so false.

Do we have the nativity story all wrong?

We know the story by heart: Mary and Joseph return to his hometown of Bethlehem, only to learn there is nowhere to stay. They find shelter in a barn, and Jesus is born.

This cold and uncaring reception has become a metaphor for how the saviour was received by the world—or not received, to put it more bluntly. Unwelcome and unnoticed, except by the animals and a few poor shepherds.

But is the way it happened? Theologian and Middle East expert Ken Bailey says no—there’s no way it could be true.

In his article The Manger and the Inn, Bailey notes that what our Bibles translate as “inn” is, in the Greek, the word kataluma, which means literally “guest room” and not “hotel.”

In other words, Joseph and Mary did not go hunting for a room at the biblical equivalent of the Holiday Inn—they went to the home of a relative, where they naturally expected to be invited to stay.

But when they got there, they found that the house was full with other relatives who, like them, had returned to Bethlehem for the census.

It’s sort of like what might be happening at any house today at Christmas, when many relatives show up. People are sleeping everywhere—rec room, spare rooms, in the office, on the living room couch. Where would you put up a cousin and his preganant wife?

Not in a hotel, and certainly not in the garage or a tent in the backyard. And neither did Joseph and Mary’s relatives, says Bailey.

Back then, traditional Palestinian homes had two levels: The larger upper level was where the family ate, lived and slept; the smaller lower level was for the animals, which were brought into the house for safety at night.

The two levels were connected by a short set of stairs, and a manger—a feed trough—was built into the edge of the upper level so the animals could stand up and feed at night if they were hungry.

And it was on the edge of that upper level, says Bailey, where Joseph and Mary slept and Jesus was born—not in a smelly stable, but in the comfortable home of loving relatives. 

If that’s the case, then there goes the annual Christmas pageant, with the adoring shepherds and angels gathered around the manger in a barn. But who needs the hassle of messing with centuries of tradition?

Bailey thinks it’s important for at least two reasons.

First, it takes terrible weight off that “mean old innkeeper” and all the cruel inhabitants of first-century Bethlehem.

“Is the entire village of Bethlehem so hard-hearted that no home is open to a pregnant woman about to give birth?” he asks.

Second, it makes the Incarnation “more authentic.” 

Over time, he observes, the birth of Jesus has become so mythologized that it hardly seems real.

“The traditional inn-and-stable scene succeeds only in distancing Jesus,” he says. “It makes it all so far away and long ago, the make-believe world of Christmas cards and medieval carols. If he had been born in Caesar Augustus’ palace he could hardly be more remote from real life.”

The birth of Jesus, he concludes, took place “not in exceptional circumstances, but in a very ordinary setting. We may picture him surrounded by the laughter and bustle and family goodwill of a comfortable if not palatial home.

“Of course, there are the smells and noises of the animals--but that is part of normal village life, and no one would wish it otherwise . . . Jesus is born in a real, live, warm, loving, crowded home, just as any other Jewish boy might expect to have been. 

"In other words, he is one of us.”

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Pets and Spirituality, or do Pets Go to Heaven?

My dog, Rikki.

Despite the many media reports, Pope Francis did not say that pets are going to heaven. Still, it would be nice to think that they did. And even if they don’t, animals can help us be better people in many ways, including spiritually, as I wrote about a few years ago.

“Goodbye, Kitty.”

That was the subject line of an email I received from a friend. In the message, she shared the sad news that her beloved cat, named Kitty, had died.

I sent her a short note, expressing my sympathy. She thanked me for the reply, saying she wasn't sure how people would react to the news. She worried some people might not understand how deeply her cat's death affected her -- it was just an animal, after all.

As someone who owns a dog, I know that isn't true. 

We got Rikki, our mutt, from a pet rescue shelter in 2001. Her previous owners had left her tied up in the backyard when they moved away. She has grown from an anxious, frightened animal into an affectionate and much-loved member of our family. We can't imagine life without her, and will be devastated when she dies.

Why do our pets affect us so strongly? There are lots of reasons, but I think it's partly because they help make us better people. Looking after a being that is totally reliant on you for food and care makes us more responsible and considerate. 

Observant owners can draw a parallel between the way a pet depends on them for everything, and the way humans depend on God.

But that's not all animals can teach us; they can also help us learn more about the life of the spirit. 

At least, that's what Jon Katz has discovered. The farm where Katz lives is home to a 3,000-pound steer named Elvis. Elvis, he says, has taught him as much about spirituality as any book on the subject or worship service.

"I've attended churches, Quaker meetings, synagogues, and Buddhist temples," Katz writes. 

"I've taken yoga and read Joseph Campbell, Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, St. Augustine and the Bible. I pray often. But I had an unsettling realization recently, which is that my steer, Elvis, already has the spiritual equanimity I have been seeking. He is comfortable within himself, has no discernible anxiety, rolls with life as if it were a gentle wave, is uncomplaining, generous and loyal to his mate, and trusts and accepts people."

Cold, rain, snow, flies, ticks, mud and muck -- none of this disturbs him, Katz notes. "He is as peaceful covered in ice as he is taking in the sun with the Guernsey steer and his pal, Harold."

Elvis "doesn't have to work at acceptance, or retrain his mind to accept the bad with the good," he adds. "This, I think, is the spiritual centre of animals like Elvis, the thing that they can teach us and show us."

Thomas Merton, he notes, "wrote that one of the most important and neglected elements in the beginnings of an authentic and interior life is the ability to see the value and the beauty in ordinary things. Elvis seems to have that. I do not."

I have a feeling that Katz will be sorry when Elvis dies. Maybe he might want a prayer like the one below, that I found on the Internet. I sent it to my friend following the death of her cat.

"Thank you, God, for lending her to me. Because of her I learned a little more about loving, a little more about taking care, a little more about letting things be. Thank you, God. She is one of the nicest ways that I have ever met you. I really miss her. But I'm looking for some new sign of you. Please help me find it. Amen."

My friend replied with thanks, saying, "I sure hope animals get to go to heaven."

When I think of my dog, all I can say is: me, too. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Amble, Ramble or Hike: The Way is Made By Walking

One day I would like to hike the Camino in Spain. Until then, I will have to watch the new movie Walking the Camino, or re-read Arthur Boer’s great book The Way is Made By Walking.

My wife was in England a few years ago, teaching a course at a seminary near Manchester. One Sunday afternoon she went with her English friends on an eight-kilometre hike in the countryside.

At least, that’s what she thought it was. But, she was told, it was not a hike. It was  a “ramble.”

It turns out that the British have more than one word for walking. A ramble, for example, is different than “amble,” which is a long walk in a park.

A “walk,” meanwhile, is something you do to get from your house to the corner store. And a hike only occurs when someone walks 32 kilometres or more.

By that definition, Arthur Boers went on a very long hike—800 kilometres, and just to get to church.

Boers, who teaches at Tyndale University College in Toronto, hiked the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, in 2005.

The famous and ancient pilgrimage runs from southern France to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. It ends at a cathedral that is purported to be the final resting place of the Apostle James.

The journey, which crosses four mountain ranges, was “hard and tough,” he says.

The arduous trip took 31 days, and included a visit to a hospital to treat his badly blistered feet. But although it was hard on his body, it was a refreshing spiritual experience.

“Pilgrimage is a way to become totally involved, body and soul,” he says. “Very few things we do today engage us so totally.”

Boers has written a book about the journey called The Way is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago. 

The Camino de Santiago is one of the world’s oldest and most famous pilgrimages, rivalling Rome and Jerusalem in the Middle Ages. 

Over the past 1,200 years millions of people have walked the route; today it travelled by thousands each year. 

In the book Boers describes how a simple act like walking can become a spiritual activity, and how Christians today can experience pilgrimage even in the midst of their busy lives.

For Boers, the trip was a time to recall the history of the church, think about major themes of Christian faith, and reflect on the ancient practice of pilgrimage itself.

“Pilgrimage is more about the journey than the destination,” he says, noting that the days were filled with talking with the new friends from around the world that he met along the way. 

At the same time, he had a profound sense of meeting God as he walked, prayed and reviewed his life. 

“As I looked back, I had a deep sense of God’s presence and comfort in my life,” he says.

Some of his fellow pilgrims found it strange that a Protestant would go on a pilgrimage—something that has been traditionally thought of as a Catholic practice. 

But, Boers says, “the walls of the Reformation are coming down,” and more Protestants are thinking seriously about spiritual disciplines like pilgrimage. 

As well, he notes, many people who do not profess Christian faith at all are being drawn this ancient form of spiritual practice, he notes.

“A prominent paradox of my sojourn, and the one that surprised me and taught me the most, is the fact that so few fellow pilgrims I meet counted themselves as Christians,” he says. 

Even more surprising, he adds, is that “these folks ended up teaching me more than I realized I needed to know.”

Not everyone can walk the Camino de Santiago, but Boers believes that everyone can experience pilgrimage in their own lives by walking, or by taking time out of a busy schedule to serve poor people or fix up a house in the inner city. 

“Whatever expands your sense of spiritual direction can be a form of pilgrimage,” he says.

Even something as simple and everyday like going to church can be like a pilgrimage, as long as people go there “with the hope and expectation of meeting God.”

“Jesus calls us to live out and practice what he taught and modelled, to walk the walk," Boers says. “All pilgrimage unfolds as God leads and we are invited to follow. 

“The way commended by Christ has to be journeyed. It is made by walking.”

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Time for a Divorce Ceremony?

A friend is going through a divorce. Unlike when someone dies, she said, when a marriage dies there is “no commemoration of a life that you lived, there is no respectful acknowledgement of passage, and there is no announcement in the paper . . . it's an odd thing for a Christian to have to grieve the death of marriage by divorce. I feel very alone in the grief.” Actually, I told her, there are some churches and other faith groups that are offering divorce ceremonies to people whose marriages have ended, as I wrote about a number of years ago. 

I’ve been to a lot of weddings in my life. But I’ve only been to one divorce ceremony.

It happened a few years ago. I was visiting a Mennonite church in Pennsylvania. Near the end of the service the pastor asked the congregation to stand to read a “blessing of separation” for two members whose marriage had sadly come to an end.

As a congregation, we read a litany that invoked God’s blessing on the former couple as they went their separate ways. It was sad occasion, yet hopeful at the same time.

Later, I was told that this couple had tried counseling. They had worked on their issues. But in the end everyone agreed that divorce was inevitable. 

That Mennonite church is not unique. Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, Unitarian and Episcopalian churches now offer blessing ceremonies or special prayers for people who are getting divorced.

For some, any talk about blessing divorced people is tantamount to surrendering to modern culture’s belief that nothing is permanent and marriage vows are meaningless.

But none of these groups have abandoned their belief in life-long marriage. They are simply coming to terms with reality—Christians get divorced, too.

But it’s still a leap from there to actually conducting divorce ceremonies. So why do it?

In their book A Healing Divorce, authors Phil and Barbara Penningroth note that faith groups have lots of rituals to mark transitions from one stage of life to another—christenings, baptisms, weddings and funerals. 

But there’s nothing for divorce, which is a huge transition for the couple, their families and their friends.

“Whether one sees [divorce] as a failure or as a sin, it is without question a major life transition for millions of couples and their children,” they say.

For many this transition is “handled coldly and impersonally by law and the courts,” leading to anger, bitterness and pain.

By “reframing divorce as a life transition and using ritual to facilitate the divorce process,” they believe it can be an occasion to “heal hearts and transform lives.”

Divorce ceremonies vary. In one, a couple simply repeats their vows, replacing the words “I do” with “I’m sorry.”

In another, the couple confesses to each other about where they failed, asked forgiveness and blessed each other as they began their future apart. At that point, the pastor pronounced them free from their marriage vows.

After a friend’s husband left her for another relationship, she asked her pastor and some church members gathered in her home to read scripture and pray.

During a short ceremony, she took off her wedding ring and she replaced it with a new ring to symbolize a new beginning. “It was an incredibly emotional” experience, she told me, “but healing as well.”  

Couples who want help preserving their marriages often turn to the church. But where is the church when marriages end? Maybe the church needs to find a way to also provide healing and care for people experiencing divorce. 

Or, to put it another way, if marriages start in the church, maybe they can end there, too.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Can a Pacifist Wear a Poppy?

Every year, Mennonite Central committee urges people to wear peace pins that say "to remember is work for peace." I don't think they should do that. The days leading up to Nov. 11, Armistice, or Remembrance Day in the Commonwealth, is a time to remember those who went to war, and especially those who were killed and wounded. If feels small, somehow, for anyone else to piggyback on, or even hijack, that day for their own agenda. That's why I wear a poppy, not a button, in November, as I explained in my 2012 column in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Can a pacifist wear a poppy?

The answer is yes -- I'm a pacifist, and I wear one. A few others I know do, too. But many people who oppose war have ambivalent feelings about poppies. 

I think they're afraid wearing one will suggest they are, tacitly or otherwise, supporting war and militarism.

Some compromise by wearing red buttons that say "To remember is to work for peace." Every year the Mennonite Central Committee distributes thousands of them. 

It's a good message, but I think it says the same thing as a poppy. After all, I never met a veteran who thought going to war was a good idea. 

I don't wear a poppy to celebrate war. I wear it as a sign of respect for the many men and women who sacrificed years, youth and their lives during this country's wars. 

They did not plan those wars. They did not seek them. They did what they were asked to do and what they thought was right. 

As a veteran said to me, explaining his service in the Second World War: "Someone had to stop Hitler."

I also wear a poppy for personal reasons.

I wear it for my Uncle Harry, who was wounded in France in the Second World War. Each Remembrance Day, he would march with other veterans to the cenotaph in my home town, pausing to remember the dead.

Later, he'd go the Legion and drink and reminisce and cry with his buddies, remembering the friends who never made it home.

Uncle Harry, like most veterans, never talked about the war, even though I pestered him as a child. He'd just shake his head and change the subject.

I also wear the poppy for my father. Due to a medical condition, he was rejected for military service in 1944. This bothered him his whole life, especially since so many of his high school friends went overseas. Some of them were killed.

After he died, I went though his belongings. Among his prized possessions I found his "certificate for rejection for general service." 

Why did he keep it all those years? I think it was his way of proving, to himself, at least, that he was no shirker -- it was his special way of keeping faith with friends who served and died.

I wear a poppy for all the young men who fought and died in war -- many of them teenagers. 

Author and veteran Paul Fussell was in his early 20s when he fought in the Second World War. He was one of the oldest in his company.

In his book, The Children's Crusade, he wrote: "At this distance, it may not be easy to remember that the European ground war in the west was largely fought by boys 17, 18 and 19 years old. 

"Some of these men-children shaved, but many did not need to. Not a few soldiers hopeful of food packages from home specified Animal Crackers, which, one soldier said, 'can do wonders for low morale.' "

I wear a poppy for conscientious objectors -- for those who bravely decided to follow their deeply held principles by choosing not participate in the military during this country's wars.

During the Second World War, 10,782 Canadians chose to do alternative service -- serving on farms, in hospitals, planting trees, building roads and other things. 

Over 3,000 were from Manitoba -- more than any other province. By choosing a different path, they showed there are ways to serve your country other than fighting.

I wear a poppy for all who suffered in war. The widespread wearing of a poppy was popularized by a French woman in the 1920s; she sold handmade poppies to raise money for children affected by the Great War. 

In Great Britain, the first poppies for the public were made by disabled veterans, as a way to provide them with work. It was designed to be assembled by someone with just one hand.

I wear a poppy because I am a pacifist. Over my career in international relief and development, much of my work has been in response to hunger and suffering caused by war -- people uprooted by conflict, in need of food, shelter and safety.

According to Project Ploughshares, a Canadian peace organization, an average of one person a minute is killed directly or indirectly through armed violence. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, over five million people have lost their lives due to war.

The World Food Organization says that over the past 20 years, the proportion of food crises that can be attributed to human causes has more than doubled from 15 per cent to over 35 per cent -- with most of these emergencies triggered by war. 

In the developing world, conflict has displaced millions of people from their homes, leading to some of the world's worst hunger emergencies.

The effects of war on hunger are also felt long after fighting ends. Fields are often unusable due to mines and unexploded ordnance; people either abandon their farms or risk their lives to grow food.

Finally, I wear a poppy to show that pacifists can be patriotic, too. I love my country. It sometimes lets me down and disappoints me. But it has given me so much, too. 

I don't think I need to fight to prove my patriotism, but I respect those who did. And I think we can also serve by volunteering, by supporting charities that help needy people here and around the world and by promoting a vision of peace for everyone, everywhere.

That's why I wear a poppy. Why do you wear one?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Has Your Church Been Visited by a Mystery Worshipper?

On September 27 I published a column in the Free Press about a couple of church crawls—one by students at the University of Ottawa, the other by an individual in Barrie who decided to try to visit and blog about all 73 churches in that city in a year. Subsequent conversation about church visits on Facebook brought to mind this column I wrote a number of years ago about my family’s experience visiting local churches.

Has your church been visited by a Mystery Worshipper?

Never heard of it? The Mystery Worshipper project is a venture sponsored by the British Christian on-line magazine Ship of Fools. Through the project people clandestinely visit churches and then submit reviews to the magazine’s websitesort of like how mystery shoppers visit stores to help rate their staff and service. 

The aim is to “give the churches a shot in the arm by showing them how they look to outsiders.”

Anyone can be a Mystery Worshipper. All you have to do is fill out an application on the magazine's web site. Mystery Worshippers are given a 20-question survey that includes questions about the warmth of the welcome, the length of the sermon, the quality of the preaching and whether the reviewer would consider attending that church regularly.

They are also asked to indicate what part of the service was like being in heaven, and what part was "like being in . . . er . . . the other place."

The only clue that a Mystery Worshipper has visited your church is a calling card, dropped discreetly into the collection plate. The review is then published on the Ship of Fools website.

I am not an official Mystery Worshipper. But a few years ago I did a bit of mystery worshipping. Together with my family, I visited five different churches in Winnipeg. We tried to see each church through the eyes of a newcomer, with particular emphasis on hospitality—did we feel welcome as visitors?

All five churches did poorly on that count. Which is a bit of surprise, since reaching out to others is a core value for most churches. But in almost every church we were ignored.

People walked around and by us in the foyer, happily greeting each other and engaging in animated conversation. Even people sitting near us in the pews failed to offer a greeting. Only in only one church did one person stop to say hello. Otherwise, we were on our own.

Our experience was not unique. Jane Fisler Hoffman considers herself a “professional” church visitor. As a conference minister with the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ, she gets to visit a lot of different congregations.

“Nearly every church believes itself to be friendly and welcoming,” she says. “But that truth is not always readily apparent to the nervous first-time visitor who has just moved into the area or who is having a new sense of spiritual seeking.”

Ways churches can help visitors, she says, include listing the worship time on the answering machine and web site; by putting up lots of signs—regular attenders know where everything is, but visitors don’t; and having “visitor-friendly bulletins” which lists all the responses and instructions.

But the most important thing churches can do is to train some members to be on the lookout for visitors.

“The standard doorway greeters who look at you with that ‘are you a first-time visitor or an old-time member I should know?’ question in their eyes rarely do more than smile and shake a hand," she says. "Other members should be trained and, if necessary, assigned to watch actively for visitors and help them find childcare, coat racks, and so forth.”

Of course, a church is so much more than what happens in the foyer. But first impressions do matter; church growth specialist Herb Miller says that only 12 percent of first-time visitors ever return the following Sunday. 

Why do they come back? Because they are made to feel welcome, he says. 

And there’s nothing mysterious about that.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Do Rocks Have Rights?

Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki has announced what will likely be his last campaign. His goal: To enshrine clean air and water in Canada's Charter of Rights. His announcement reminded me of a column I wrote in 2007 on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire—about whether rocks have rights.

In 1807, the British Parliament signed into law the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, the first step towards the worldwide eradication of the African slave trade.

Today, over 200 years later, it seems obvious that people should not be bought, sold and enslaved. But back then the prevailing view was that the slave trade was necessary, even if it was brutal. 

Stopping it, it was argued, would have negative economic consequences; only a very few people believed that it was morally wrong. It took 20 years of tireless work by William Wilberforce, a courageous Christian Member of Parliament, before the trade was ended.

The abolition of slavery is just one example of how humans have evolved ethically. Other examples include the civil rights movement in the U.S., the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the extension of human rights to women, gays, people with disabilities and others.

It can be argued that the human race has often failed to live up to these ideals—shamefully, there are still parts of the world where people are enslaved, and there is still far too much discrimination. But most would agree that these are noble aims to strive for.

While progress has been made in developing rules to govern human relationships, we have not done as well when it comes to developing an ethic to guide our relationship to the earth.

True, there is a growing consensus that we need to change the way we live if humans are to survive. But real change won’t occur until we believe that it is morally wrong to pollute the planet.

Not wrong because it has negative economic consequences. 
Not wrong because it will negatively affect our way of life. And not even wrong because we will die if we don’t stop dumping on, paving over and polluting the environment. It’s wrong because that’s no way to treat anyoneor anything. 

Rocks, in other words, have rights, too.

It’s a radical shift in thinking. Traditionally, we have mostly thought of rights as belonging to human beings. But more and more ecologists are arguing that the earth is not to be prized because it sustains life, but because it has value in and of itself.

One of the earliest to promote this way of thinking was Aldo Leopold, considered the father of wildlife management in the U.S.

In his classic 1949 essay, The Land Ethic, Leopold suggested that next human moral evolution would be the expansion of ethics to govern our relationship to the earth. 

Leopold proposed the following ethic for the way we deal with the environment: A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the earth. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

More recently, Wendell Berry, a Christian environmentalist, author and farmer, has added a spiritual dimension to Leopold’s idea by suggesting that there is a sacredness to the material world, and all of its nonhuman inhabitants.

Berry argues that the earth, and all its aspects, are invested with value not just because they were created by God, but because they are expressions of the divine.

Says Berry: “We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us . . . we must recover the sense of the majesty of the creation and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.”

Many people today, including many religious people, are taking the issue of earth care seriously. That's all good, but maybe the next step is to believe that it is morally, religiously, spiritually and ethically wrong to abuse the earth—that rocks, trees, flowers and all other living things have rights, too.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Attaining Moksha, or Whatever Happened to Hindu Yoga?

June 21 is International Yoga Day, which will be celebrated worldwide. My bet is that few who engage in this ancient religious practice will wonder where Yoga came from, or who owns it. Those are the questions being addressed by the “Take Back Yoga” campaign created by the Hindu American Foundation. I first wrote about it in 2012.

When it comes to yoga, there are lots of different kinds being practised by North Americans these days -- hot yoga, power yoga, prenatal yoga, Catholic yoga, restorative yoga, Christian yoga, Jewish yoga, and even naked yoga, to name just a few.

One thing you don't find is Hindu yoga. Which is strange, since yoga originated with that 6,000-year-old religion.

It's estimated about 1.4 million Canadians, and between 16 million to 20 million Americans, do yoga. North America-wide, yoga generated about $6 billion in sales in 2008, once all the yoga-related clothing and other accoutrements were included.

For most people, yoga is a way to promote physical and mental health through stretching, postures and breathing techniques. 

Attaining moksha -- the Hindu ideal of liberation from worldly suffering and the cycle of birth and rebirth -- isn't usually one of the goals. In fact, many yoga practitioners might be unaware of its ancient religious roots.

That is something the Hindu American Foundation would like to change.

In 2010, the foundation launched "Take Back Yoga," a campaign designed to help people become more aware of yoga's debt to that ancient faith.

The campaign began with an essay posted on the foundation's website that lamented how North American yoga culture, magazines and studios had divorced yoga from "the Hinduism that gave forth this immense contribution to humanity."

According to Suhag Shukla, managing director of the foundation, the campaign was started to call attention to the "commercial appropriation and misappropriation of yoga which purposefully delinks yoga from its roots in Hinduism."

While emphasizing that Hindus are glad to share yoga with anyone, she added, "we simply cannot ignore, contrary to what's done by many Western yoga practitioners, the fact that yoga is rooted in core Hindu concepts of divinity in all of existence, karma, reincarnation and moksha."

In fact, the kind of yoga practised by most people in the West today has no real basis in traditional Hindu teaching says Ian Whicher, who teaches religious and philosophical thought of India, Hinduism and the Yoga tradition at the University of Manitoba.

"There is no real evidence in the Indian tradition for the kind of health- and fitness-oriented practice that dominates the global yoga scene of the 21st century," he said in an interview in The Manitoban.

Whicher would also like to see more people understand and appreciate yoga's deep spiritual roots in Hinduism

"Yoga has a very profound philosophical understanding which links up with our psychological natures, our ethical capacities and our physiological being," he said. 

"Yoga is really about liberating our energy and attention to know more and more what life is, who [we are] and what all this universe is."

What do local Hindus think of all this?

"Yoga is a gift from Hindus to the world," says Narendra Mathur, president of the Hindu Society of Manitoba.

In fact, the Hindu Temple on St. Mary's Road is offering yoga classes to anyone who wants them -- free of charge.

"It's a service to the community," he says.

At the same time, he would be happy if people who do yoga decided to learn more about Hinduism.

"Hinduism is linked to yoga," he says. "We invite people to come to the temple to learn more about it."

In the end, can anyone own yoga? Maybe it's become the Hindu equivalent of the Christian Christmas and Easter -- a popular but thoroughly secularized and commercialized activity divorced from its traditional religious meaning and significance. 

As Aseem Shukla, the foundation's co-founder put it: "Our issue is that yoga has thrived, but Hinduism has lost control of the brand."

As for those who practise yoga, maybe the least they can do while doing their bandha, mudra and pranayama poses is acknowledge that yoga has Hindu roots. As Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero says, yoga practitioners should "know where yoga came from and respect those origins. Then, when you chant 'om,' it will resonate not only in the room but down through the ages."

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Religion and the War of 1812

This summer is the centenary of the start of the Great War. I’m writing a column about important role religion played in creating and sustaining that War. It reminded me of a column I wrote in 2012, during the 200th anniversary of the war of 1812—about the role religion played in that conflict.

When it comes to war, religion is often one of the first to enlist -- or be conscripted. That was certainly true 200 years ago, during the War of 1812.

That war, which ended with both sides claiming victory, will be the focus of many commemorations, conferences, re-enactments and other events during this, its 200th anniversary.

As someone who grew up near some of the old battlefields in the Niagara region, I've read a lot about the origins, strategies, battles, heroes and outcomes of that conflict. But I can't recall ever hearing anything about the role of religion during the war. What impact did it have?

A big one, as it turns out, especially in the U.S.

In his book The Churches Militant: The War of 1812 and American Religion, William Gribbin noted the important role U.S. churches played in supporting the war.

"The pious part of the nation turned with confidence to the task of combating international infidelity and domestic godlessness," he wrote.

Many preachers welcomed the war, urging their members to take up arms against Great Britain.

"The Lord will plead our cause, and execute judgment for us," said one. "He will plead our cause in the highway of nations, on the banks of the Wabash, and before the walls of Quebec."

"Such a war God considers as his own cause, and to help in such a cause is to come to the help of the Lord," said another.

For one preacher, battling the British was almost as important as being a minister. Participation in the war, he said, "was second only to preaching the Gospel."

Although American churches were split along various theological lines, Gribbin writes many Christians were united in their hatred of Great Britain. 

"The heat and pressure of war fused religious sanction to national success," he stated, adding the War of 1812 contributed to America's ongoing sense of patriotism and divine purpose.

The war, he wrote, fuelled a "vision of the United States as a chosen nation with a special destiny to establish a secularized version of God's kingdom on Earth."

In Canada, Anglican Bishop John Strachan played a notable role in the conflict. Described by Pierre Berton, in his book, The Invasion of Canada, "as perhaps the most significant and influential Canadian of his time," Strachan used his pulpit and position to promote patriotism and support for the troops.

But not all churches were pro-war. Two of the groups opposed to the conflict were the Quakers and Mennonites on both sides of the border. Their peaceful witness in Canada is being marked this year by the 1812 Bicentennial Peace Committee, an Ontario organization that plans to hold events, post information on the web and place historical markers in the region about the role of peacemakers during the war.

One of the most interesting anti-war stories involved Duncan McColl, a Canadian Methodist minister in the Maritimes.

When war was declared, McColl -- who had parishioners living on both sides of the border in New Brunswick and Maine -- called together the men from Canada and the U.S. in his parish and persuaded them to declare they wouldn't fight each other.

According to one account, McColl said: "I've baptized you and married you. And I don't believe you want to fight each other." They agreed they did not.

Later, he personally confronted both American and British soldiers who came to the area, sending them elsewhere to do their fighting.

One consequence of the war was the disruption it caused within denominations that had members in both the U.S. and Canada. 

For Baptists in the Maritimes, the war severed a number of important cross-border relationships with their counterparts in the U.S. Once the war was over, the ties were immediately renewed.

The fighting also impacted Methodists in what is now Ontario. Not only did the war prevent itinerant Methodist preachers from visiting Methodist churches in Canada, it raised deep questions about how Canadian members of that denomination could support efforts to preserve their country, but at the same time preserve Christian unity with Methodists in the U.S.

In his bibliography of writing about Canadian churches and war, Gordon L. Heath of McMaster University notes "there is very limited research on the churches and the War of 1812." 

Maybe this anniversary is a good time to examine the role religion in Canada played in that war, and also in some of this county's other wars -- including recent ones like the first Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan.

For students and scholars, that field is wide open. According to Heath, nothing yet has been published about the role of religion in Canada in those two conflicts.