Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Forgiveness, Restoration and Terrorism: The Case of Omar Khadr

Canadian Omar Khadr, who was convicted of war crimes committed as a 15-year-old in Afghanistan in 2002, wants to be released from prison in Alberta while he appeals his sentence. Now 28, Khadr says he only plead guilty to get out of Guantanamo. Many people have vouched for him, saying that he is a very different person today than when he was forced to fight as a child. This includes Christian friends at Kings College in Edmonton, who also see his case as a matter of justice. 

A cornerstone of Christian belief is forgiveness, mercy and the restoration of the sinful individual. But does message that extend to someone convicted of being involved in terrorism? Arlette Zinck believes it does.

Zinck, an associate professor of English at King's University College in Edmonton, has befriended Omar Khadr, who was captured at age 15 in 2002 after a firefight with U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

In a plea bargain, Khadr pleaded guilty to the death of a U.S. soldier, spying, aiding terrorism and attempted murder. He was given an eight-year sentence and sent to Canada in 2012 to serve out his time.

Zinck, 50, became involved with Khadr's case following a visit by his lawyer, Dennis Edney, to the Christian Reformed Church-sponsored school in 2008.

There was "something about his presentation" that moved her and many students at the school, she says.

Zinck decided to write Khadr. After he wrote back, they struck up a correspondence. 

Impressed by his responses, she was soon she providing him with tutorials, sending him books to read and quizzing him on their contents. 

In 2010, Khadr's U.S. military defence team asked her to turn the informal tutoring into a formal lesson plan. She was also invited to travel twice to Cuba to provide in-person instruction.

When Khadr was in prison in Edmonton, she worked with other professors from the school to offer lessons in subjects such as math, literature, history and geography.

One of his favorite books was Rudy Wiebe's classic tale of Mennonites dealing with the impact of war, Peace Shall Destroy Many. Since Wiebe also lives in Edmonton, he also visited Khadr.

"I found him to be a very amenable and understanding young man," says Wiebe, a member of Edmonton's Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church.

"What he found important in the book was how to live your convictions in a changing world. What do you do about your traditions and teachings when the world is changing?"

For Khadr, who was taken by his father to al-Qaida training camps in Pakistan when he was just 10 years old, it's a chance to get the education he missed out on as a child. 

For Zinck, who was raised Roman Catholic and attends an Anglican church, it is a chance to use her gift of teaching and put into practice her Christian faith.

As a Christian, "I believe in restorative justice," she says, "There is no other kind."

Canada, she says, "has a long and rich tradition of pioneering the best programs in restorative justice. We need to return to a day when we don't seek vengeance but true justice, which is restorative justice... the goal is to renew, restore and reconcile those who have erred, even those who have erred horribly."

This includes Khadr, who she believes has suffered a grave injustice at the hands of the U.S. and Canada.

"The court in Guantanamo was not a legitimate American court," she says. "No American could ever be tried in that court. What happened to Omar shouldn't happen to anyone."

At the same time, she is concerned for the widow of the soldier killed in the firefight that involved Khadr. "She also deserves meaningful support," Zinck says.

She knows not everyone agrees with what she is doing. But she feels that is because many Canadians have only heard one side of Khadr's story -- they don't know enough about how Khadr was also a victim, forced into becoming a child soldier by his father.

As for what all this has meant to her personally, Zinck says her work with Khadr has "affected me very deeply." This includes how she, a Christian, and Khadr, a Muslim, have developed a close friendship across a religious divide.

"When sincere people of faith get together, we can grow in appreciation for things we hold in common, and for the things that split us apart," she says, adding Khadr has "a vibrant and life-giving faith."

She has also discovered "what it means to live purposefully, and in a way that doesn't let me write people off," she says.

Of Khadr's aptitude as a student, Zinck says "he's a remarkably healthy, whole and outward-focused young man who wants to get on with his life. He's a hard worker and he has great academic potential."

As for the lessons themselves, "I enjoy it as much as teaching any student, but there is extra satisfaction in being a witness to the power of the human spirit, how he manages to focus on all that is good."

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Church of Baseball

A year ago, I posted a column about Baseball as a Road to God. In this one, written a number of years ago, I explore the similarities between baseball and religion. There are more than you might think.

Baseball is back!

Not officially, of course; the season hasn’t yet started. But spring training is well underway., and its return serves notice that winter, at long last, has really been vanquished—even if the evidence in some parts of Canada might suggest otherwise.

Baseball’s return inspires a sense of hope, renewal and new beginnings, all of which sounds sort of religious, in a way.

In fact, there are many parallels between baseball and religion. For example, baseball, like religions, has adherents, although in baseball they are called fans.

Baseball also has a holy book, in this case the Bill James Baseball Abstracts. And, like with other holy books, there are innumerable books of commentary and interpretation.

Baseball has a creation story. But just like the biblical creation story, the origin of baseball is in dispute. Was it really created by Abner Doubleday, or did it evolve from things like cricket and rounders?

Baseball has temples, called stadiums. It has a shrine in Coopestown, replete with relics, and every year hundreds of thousands of people make a pilgrimage to that sacred place.

Baseball has rituals—players cross themselves, touch each hand several times, wear certain clothes, put their hats on backwards, and adhere to all sorts of pre-game rituals that seem, to non-believers, to be completely devoid of common sense. 

But that's not al. Baseball has other things in common with religion, such  as falls from grace, prophets, heretics, deities, icons, sacrifice, devotion, miracles, saviours and  faith (“You gotta believe!”) 

Some fans take their faith very seriously. As Susan Sarandon’s character said in the movie Bull Durham:

“I believe in the church of baseball. I've tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones . . . and the only church that feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the church of baseball.”

Baseball’s similarities to religion prompted William Herzog and Christopher Evans of Colgate Divinity School in Rochester, New York to write The Faith of 50 Million, a collection of essays that “plumb how baseball illuminates significant patterns of faith and meaning.”

“People are incurably religious," said Herzog in an interview. “We have to have some form of religion, and for some people it's baseball. It's only a game, but it has elements that point beyond.”

The book’s foreword is by theologian Stanley Hauerwas, a baseball fan and professor at Duke Divinity School.

Mennonites can identify with his remark that “being a Cubs' fan and a pacifist are closely linked; namely, both commitments teach you that life is not about winning.”

Like religion, baseball also has sinners—lots and lots of sinners.

Why are baseball and religion so similar?

It's not just the superficial things. When you come right down to it, there’s something about baseball, and other sports, that is spiritually appealing. 

With its clear outcomes, distinct boundaries, universal rules and final judgments—if the umpire calls strike three, you’re out, no matter how much you dispute the call—baseball provides an alternate reality that seems to reasonate deep inside our souls.

It is very different from real life, where everything seems to be in flux, open to debate and subject to very personal interpretations.

But that’s not all; baseball, like religion, also offers something we all crave: Redemption. Losers can become winners, and sinners can come clean and be made whole again.

That keeps the faith of fans alive, and it keeps us going in real life, too. 

For if there’s one true thing about religion and baseball, it’s the promise of a brand new start. Or, in this case, a brand new season.

So, praise Goder, play ball!