Friday, January 23, 2015

"Everyone in Canada is Rich"

Oxfam has released a report showing that the richest one percent own 48 percent of the world's wealth. I am not one of the one percent, but I am a member of the five percent who live in North America who own 34 percent of global wealth. And I a member of the middle class in Canada, one of the richest mid-level earnings cohorts in the world. So I, too, am rich, as inmates at Auschwitz noted a long time ago, and Somali terrorists a few years ago.

"Everyone in Canada is Rich"

That's what Amanda Lindhout's Somali captors told her in 2008 when she said her family didn't have $1 million to secure her release.
Lindout tried to tell them that her family didn't have that much money, but they wouldn't believe her. 

“They didn't really understand,” said Lindhout, who was released after 15 months in captivity. “They thought: She's Canadian, everyone in Canada is rich. She must have $1 million.”

Her Somali captors were wrong, of course; most people in Canada are not millionaires. But in another respect, they were absolutely right; those of us who are fortunate enough to live in Canada are rich in many ways, especially compared to most people in the developing world.

For starters, we are rich in opportunity. One characteristic of poverty is a lack of choice. Being poor isn’t just about lack of money; it’s also about lack of options. 

Most poor people in the developing have few choices when it comes to where they will live, or what career they will pursue.

Canadians and Americans may not have limitless possibilities, but we have many more than most on the planet.

We are rich in food. According to the World Food Program, over 800 million people are undernourished. 

We are rich in information. Almost all of us own a computer and can access the Internet. In Africa, only 16 percent do. 

We are rich in education. Every Canadian child can go to school for free. Many developing countries also offer “free” education—all parents have to do is pay for is books, uniforms and desks—and maybe the teacher’s salary, too.

We are rich in security. The last war on Canadian soil occurred almost 200 years ago, when American invaders were defeated and repelled. 

For these reasons, and for many more, Canada consistently ranks among the top places to live in the world according to OECD's Better Life Index. 

Despite this, many Canadians find it easy to complain about things that are, in the big scheme of things, only minor irritations. What we need is a little perspective. 

In American Mania: When More Is Not Enough, author Peter C. Whybrow's makes a statement that applies on both sides of the border: “As America’s commercial hegemony has increased . . . we have lost any meaningful reference as to how rich we really are, especially in comparison to other nations.”

Anyone who has traveled in the developing world knows the truth of that statement. I call it a “terrible knowledge." It’s the realization that grips you and changes you forever once you see what real poverty looks like. 

It makes me wonder how I got to be so lucky to have been born in Canada, while so many others in the world struggle every day just to survive.

Lindhout’s Somalia captors weren't the first to see Canada as rich. It also happened during World War II, during the Holocaust. 

When Jews arrived in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, they were stripped of all their belongings before being murdered. All of their worldly goods were taken to large warehouses in a section of the death camp.

The area where the warehouses were located was filled with such incredible riches that the inmates came up with a nickname to describe it. 

They called it Canada

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Muslims, Mennonites and Anti-Religious Backlash

Canadian Muslims aren't the first religious group in Canada who have felt backlash as a result of the actions of others done in their name far away. During World War Two, Mennonites were the subject of violence and scorn, as I wrote about in 2005 following the attacks in London, England.

Places of worship burned to the ground by arsonists.

Increased police surveillance of neighbourhoods where members of the community live.

An entire group viewed with suspicion and animosity because of their religion, language and association with people who are determined to harm innocent people around the world.

The plight of Canadian Muslims in 2015? No—Mennonites in Canada during World War Two.

When the Second World War broke out, Mennonites were viewed as Nazi-sympathizers for several reasons.

First, they spoke German at home and church.

Second, they often lived in isolation from other Canadians, choosing not to socialize or affiliate with non-Mennonites.

Third, they had strong pacifist convictions, and that many Mennonite men refused to serve in the military.

The fact that some Canadian Mennonites expressed admiration for Hitler, and held pro-Nazi sentiments, only made things worse.

The result? Suspicion, fear and hostility. In 1940, arsonists burned two Mennonite churches in Vauxhall, Alberta and one in Newton, Manitoba.

That same year, a Mennonite church in Leamington, Ontario was vandalized. In Alberta, Mennonites were forced to close their German-language schools and libraries. In other places, police surveillance was increased in communities that were home to Mennonites.

Mennonites responded by issuing official statements deploring Nazism and assuring Canadians of their loyalty to Canada. 

In 1940, Mennonite leader B.B. Janz wrote that Mennonites are “loyal to the King and their home country, Canada,” not “preferring any other country in the world.”

But Janz realized that simply condemning the Nazis and proclaiming support for Canada wasn’t enough—Mennonites also needed to show, in practical ways, their commitment to their adopted country.

Said Janz: “Mennonites, according to their confession of faith, have a conscience that does not permit them to shed any human blood. But on the other hand they have also a conscience, a love and an inward obligation towards their home country, which places the responsibility for its welfare upon them even to the degree of suffering for it."

He went on to say that “whatever the service may be, though it requires sacrifice, sickness, suffering or even death, we have no right to shrink back before anything.”

The result was the alternative service program, which found thousands of Mennonite conscientious objectors serving their country in non-violent ways in factories, mines, forestry, hospitals and farms.

Through the program, created with the Canadian government, Mennonites were able to show that they weren’t just going to enjoy the benefits of life in Canada without giving something back.

It helped. Through it, Mennonites earned the respect, if not always the acceptance, of their non-Mennonite neighbours. Today, despite a continued commitment to pacifism, no one would question the commitment of Mennonite church members to their country.

These days, it is Canada’s Muslim community that is dealing with fear and suspicion.

Like Mennonites during the Second World War, they have also issued statements and held rallies deploring terrorism and affirming their affection for Canada. But they may also need to do more by being seen to be involved in Canadian community life.

Following the attacks by Islamic extremists in London in 2005, Imans from four provinces encouraged Canadian Muslims to “become more engaged in civil society and public life, thereby creating a greater sense of enfranchisement and ownership.”

They added that “the Prophet Muhammad taught that we are responsible for the well-being of our neighbours, regardless of who they are or what they believe.”

It’s unfortunate that any group—today, or 75 years ago—needs to prove itself not to be a threat because of the actions of a few. But if Canadian Muslims are looking for practical tips on how to be proactive and more engaged in Canadian life, maybe they should talk to Mennonites.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Attack on Charlie Hebdo: We Need More Blasphemy, Not Less

There are no words to adequately express the sadness and outrage over the terrible killings of journalists and others in the attack on Charlie Hebdo today. But attacks on those who freely express criticism of religion are not limited to what happened in Paris. Religious people--in this case, Christians--attacked artistic freedom in Winnipeg this summer. I wrote about it in the Winnipeg Free Press shortly after the incident.

In 1972, the musical Godspell came to Toronto. Some Christians welcomed it, but many did not. On opening night, hundreds of people came out to protest.

Far from being angered by the protests, John Michael Tebelek, who wrote the book on which the musical was based, was delighted. He came outside the theatre and offered free tickets to the protesters.

As one of the protesters recalled: "The guy who wrote Godspell thought he'd died and gone to heaven" because of the great publicity the protest gave the play. "The next day, it was all over the newspapers. It couldn't have got them better advertising."

That story came back to me last week when I read about how some Winnipeggers were protesting Theresa Thompson's fringe play Lies of a Promiscuous Woman.

My guess is that the play, which suggests that Mary may have lied about the birth of Jesus, would have achieved only modest notoriety without the complaint.

Instead, the show became big news in Winnipeg and nationally after some protesters wrote the words "slut" and "blasphemer" on the show's posters and on Thompson's car.

In other words, the protest backfired spectacularly. Worse, it also made Thompson feel unsafe -- a particularly un-Christian thing to do.

Looking back, a few things arise for me from this incident.

First off, some media could use a bit of basic religious education. Some reports about the play got it wrong when they described the birth of Jesus as the Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception is a Roman Catholic doctrine that refers to how Mary herself was conceived free of sin, not about the birth of Jesus.

Then there's the question of whether the play is blasphemous. Thompson seems to think so. She told one interviewer that the play is "by definition blasphemy, a sacrilege."

According to the dictionary, the definition of blasphemy is "great disrespect to God or to something holy." By that definition, she may be right.

On the other hand, questions about the virgin birth have been around for centuries. There is nothing disrespectful about expressing doubts about it. Other artists have done this, such as Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand. In 1989, he directed Jesus of Montreal, a thought-provoking film that suggests that the father of Jesus was actually a Roman soldier stationed in Palestine.

Rather than try to shut down Thompson's play, I think we should welcome plays and movies like Jesus of Montreal and Lies of a Promiscuous Woman. People of faith may not agree with their points of view, but plays, movies and books like that can get people talking about religion.

One group that has taken the right approach to things like this is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. When the controversial musical The Book of Mormon came out, they didn't mount protests or write angry letters, even though the play contains a fair amount of profanity and explicit sexual references.

Instead, the church saw it as a chance to tell North Americans more about who Mormons are and what they believe. At theatres in the U.S. and Canada, members of the church can sometimes be found handing out literature and engaging people in conversation.

Maybe the problem isn't that there are plays and movies that are offensive, sacrilegious or even blasphemous, but that there aren't enough of them. After all, throngs of people are not going to show up at churches or other places of worship to explore issues of faith and belief. If people in Canada are going to encounter faith today, it will more likely be in places they actually frequent -- places like theatres or fringe festivals.

It has been said the opposite of love is not hate, but apathy. Today, when the dominant response to religion of any kind seems to be "whatever," maybe it's a good thing to be shaken up a little by an artist like Teresa Thompson.

And Charlie Hebdo.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Snow Shovel: The Secret of Happiness? (And Other Thoughts about Winter, Religion, Heaven and Hell)

T.S. Eliot was wrong—April isn’t the cruellest month, as he suggested in his epic poem, The Waste Land. In Manitoba, that dubious honour surely goes to January.

For me, at least, January is always the bleakest time of year. Christmas is over, with its festive lights and trees and presents and family gatherings. Ahead lies nothing but a seemingly endless number of long, wintry weeks until March comes along.

When I think of January, I'm reminded of how C.S. Lewis described the land of Narnia when it was under the rule of the evil witch: Always winter, but never Christmas.

And if that isn’t bad enough, for Manitobans there’s no escaping January’s hellish cold. Which seems like a mixed metaphor, until you learn that the ancient Norse found the two to be quite synonymous.

For them, the worst possible eternal torment in the afterlife wasn’t fire and heat, but the same thing they dreaded in this life—cold. Hell for them was a place of freezing temperatures.

Heaven, on the other hand, was a place where huge fires blazed and crackled while the mead cup was passed and tales of brave adventures were told. 

Contrast this with the idea of hell for the Christian, Jewish and Muslim religions.

For adherents of those groups, which originated in the hot and arid Middle East, the worst fate in the afterlife would be to spend eternity where the sun blazes. 

For them, heaven was cool and comfortable, which may be why Muslims imagine it to be like a garden paradise. In fact, the word “paradise” comes from the old Iranian word pairida─ôza, which means an enclosed, or walled-in, garden.

Muslims in ages past gave this heavenly ideal earthly expression by building elaborate gardens with enclosed courts, fountains, ponds, trees and shrubs, all surrounded by shady and cool arcades.

(I can't explain why Canadians accepted the Middle Eastern views of heaven and hell, instead of the Norse version.)

But maybe I’m being too hard on January, and on winter in general. 

In some ways, winter is an excellent religious metaphor. For one thing, it’s a great equalizer. We all look alike under our big winter coats, hats and scarves—rich, poor, old, young, male and female.

Before God, as before the chilling wind, we are all the same.

Winter reminds us of our puny place in the universe. We may like to think we are in charge, but once a stationary cold front—a dreaded phrase, if ever there was one—settles over the land, there’s nothing anyone can do to move it. We can only endure its power.

Winter also reminds us of how much we need each other. 

Your car might break down in July, but what’s the worst that could happen? A sunburn is nothing compared to frostbite or even death. But when a car breaks down in winter, or gets stuck in a snowdrift, people who might cruise on by in summer will stop whatever they are doing to help. 

Finally, winter can be a time for reflection. With many activities curtailed by cold and snow, we have time to sit and think about our life and its meaning—something best done with a cup of hot chocolate and maybe a cat or dog on your lap.

As the  Reverend Louise Westfall of Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio puts it, winter is a time when “we humans are forced to go inside, literally because of the cold, but also metaphorically, so we can use it as a time of renewal and rest.”

American humorist Garrison Keillor thinks that winter is good for the soul. 

Once it gets going, says the native Minnesotan, people can pick up their shovels “and recover a sense of focus and purpose and balance,” leaving behind “all of that emotional turmoil of balmy days, the romantic longings, the quest for individual identity and so forth.”

Winter, he goes on to say about Minnesota and, by extension, Manitoba, “is what we were meant for and we welcome it. We thrive on adversity and that's just the truth. The snow shovel is the secret of happiness.”

OK, that might be taking it too far. But there’s no denying the satisfaction that comes from a well-shovelled driveway. Or, better yet, the satisfaction that arises from shovelling your neighbour’s driveway—and maybe even the sidewalk, too.