Saturday, May 28, 2016

Guest Post: Time To Face The Facts of Death

Physician-assisted suicide is in the news these days as the Canadian government tries to come up with a new law governing the practice. In this guest post, my friend Doug Koop reflects on the issue from his work as a Winnipeg-based spiritual health practitioner.

I was fielding questions at a palliative-care conference when the issue arose. "Doug, I hate to ask you this, but what are your feelings on physician-assisted suicide?"

I was not particularly surprised. The matter of medical aid in dying is very much in the news, and many medical teams and palliative-care workers are wondering how its impending introduction in Canada’s health-care system will affect them.

It’s a politically and emotionally volatile issue, with strongly principled activists of various convictions currently holding centre stage in the public debate.

But while it made perfect sense for the question to come, I had not prepared myself to face it, and eased into the discussion with something of a disclaimer.

"At one level, it doesn’t matter what my feelings are," I began. "The freedom for qualified patients to choose medical aid in dying — and the responsibility of the system to make it available — is about to become the law of the land."

Meanwhile, I work in a major hospital where this option is likely soon to be a recurring reality. It’s coming to my workplace, and I’m certain to encounter it in the months and years ahead.

I returned to the original question and tried to make a general point.

"On the whole," I said, "I think it will be better if people with palliative-care and spiritual-care sensitivities are available to patients and families who are making these decisions for themselves."

When I do find myself in such a situation, it will be important for me to suspend whatever judgments I might be inclined to make in order to offer the best spiritual care I can provide, and that the patient and family can receive.

Another hand went up. "I’m going to have to disagree with you, Doug. I believe in the sanctity of life from conception until natural death. No life is ours to take. We cannot make those calls. It’s up to God to decide when a life is to end."

I listened attentively as she gave eloquent expression to her deep convictions, and concluded with an air of finality.

"Yes," I acknowledged. "And that perspective has very much been a part of the broader public conversation. However, it doesn’t have much bearing on my response as a spiritual-health practitioner in a public institution. I feel that it’s better to be present to people in these circumstances, rather than to be absent on principle."

We left it there.

Facts of death

Personally, I believe we all need assistance in both living and dying, and that everyone should be involved. We are interdependent beings. It takes a village for a person to live well... and to die well.

I’m in favour of person-assisted dying (and pastor-assisted dying, and physician-assisted dying, for that matter) when it means we honestly and empathetically help people to be at peace with their impending death.

We need to face the facts of death. For some, that means letting go of the unrealistic expectations that so often hinge on the fixes and cures medical science strives so hard to deliver. 

We are mortal beings, and our lives are ultimately beyond the reach of even the most sophisticated medicines and techniques.

I’m not one to try to either hasten or forestall the inevitable. Yet there is work for spiritual-health practitioners — and others — to do, even at the bedside of a person who’s deliberately choosing a medically induced demise.

It’s good when any of us can provide some assistance in the difficult work of releasing our tenuous grip on the things of this world.


Read more about the dilemma of my own dad's death and the issue of assisted dying.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Faith Groups Respond to Fort McMurray Wildfire

In the wake of the terrible wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta, there is a lot to be thankful for.

We can be thankful that the damage and devastation wasn’t worse.

We can be thankful for the safe evacuation of so many people, under the most difficult of circumstances.

We can be thankful for the heroic work of firefighters and other emergency responders.

We can be thankful for the work of the Red Cross, and for how Canadians have so generously responded by donating $67 million to help those affected by the fires.

And we can be thankful for how faith groups are stepping up to respond.

What’s that? Maybe you didn’t know, but across the country Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups are responding to help people from Fort McMurray.

If you didn’t know, don’t feel bad. Little, or nothing, has been mentioned in the media about how faith groups are gearing up to help, or already responding.

There are a couple of reasons for the lack of attention. One is that it’s hard for the media to take note if there’s nobody in the newsroom paying attention to faith. 

The other is that the Government of Canada decided to match donations only for one agency, the Red Cross. 

The result, predictably, is that all the media attention was driven to that agency, along with almost all the donations—over $65 million, to date.

Faith groups have felt the impact. Fundraisers for church groups I spoke to told me of donors calling to give money, only to decide against it when they discovered their groups had no government match. One of those lost donations was for $25,000.

I understand why; we all want our giving to go further, and the Red Cross is deserving of support. 

But every agency has a unique role to fill. All of them can really use help to do their work. Every donation, even if it isn’t matched, will make a difference.

And before someone takes umbrage at the new federal government, believing it’s an indication of how it is anti-Christian or anti-faith, I don’t think that’s the case.

I don’t think Government officials meant to consciously omit faith groups when deciding how and where to provide the match. 

In their rush to encourage Canadians to give. I just think they were unaware that faith groups would also be responding.

Like how the media missed it because they don’t have people on staff to pay attention to faith groups, it just wasn’t on the government’s radar, either.

If it was on their radar, they’d know that many groups are mobilizing to help. This includes the Salvation Army, which has been providing food and water to displaced residents. 

It also includes World Renew, the disaster response arm of the Christian Reformed Church, and Mennonite Disaster Service, which does the same thing for Mennonite churches. 

Both groups specialize in rebuilding homes for people caught in disasters, especially for low income individuals and families.

Other groups that are responding include Presbyterian World Service & Development, Canadian Lutheran World Relief, the Primates World Relief & Development Fund (Anglican Church of Canada), Canadian Lutheran World Relief, the United Church of Canada, the Adventist Relief and Development Agency, and Islamic Relief Canada. Various Roman Catholic parishes and Jewish organizations are also collecting funds. 

There are likely others that I have missed.

After the last election, I asked Liberal MP John McKay, an evangelical Christian, about his hopes for how the new government might view its relations with faith groups.

If the Prime Minister was going to fulfill his promises in the areas of foreign aid, refugees and other social issues,  McKay said, “he is going to need everyone, but in particular the religious community,” since “they are the main” players in those areas.

In the case of the Alberta wildfires, faith groups may not be the main players, but they have a role to play—and they could use your help.

From the May 21, 2016 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Is There a Non-Violent Alternative to the War on Terror?

Is the war on terror working? Not according to Scott Taylor, editor and publisher of Esprit de Corps magazine. 

“Bombing Syrian villages does not make Canadian streets safe, and it is impossible to wage war against a tactic,” says the former Canadian solider and war correspondent.

Attacking Daesh’s forces in Syria and Iraq “will in no way impact the actions of the Daesh fanatics who are launching attacks in Europe,” he adds.

Taylor is not alone. Others say it is impossible to defeat terrorism with war. So what’s the alternative?

For George Lakey, it is non-violence.

In a year-old blog post that was making the rounds on Facebook recently, the Quaker activist and academic proposes eight non-violent techniques to address terror.

The first technique is economic development. “Poverty and terrorism are indirectly linked,” he says. “Economic development can reduce recruits and gain allies.”

Second is reducing cultural marginalization. “As France, Britain and other countries have learned, marginalizing a group within your population is not safe or sensible; terrorists grow under those conditions,” he says.

Third is nonviolent protest and unarmed civilian peacekeeping. He points to the success of the civil rights movement in the U.S., which overcame terror by the Ku Klux Klan and other groups through non-violence.

He also points to contemporary examples such as Peace Brigades International, which puts unarmed civilians between warring groups in places like Central America, Africa and Asia.

Fourth is what he calls “pro-conflict education and training.” 

Terror, he says, “often happens when a population tries to suppress conflicts instead of supporting their expression.” Teaching people “skills that support people waging conflict to give full voice to their grievances” can reduce the urge to lash out violently.

Fifth is post-terror recovery programs. 

“Not all terror can be prevented, any more than all crime can be prevented,” he states. 

“Terrorists often have the goal of increasing polarization. Recovery programs can help prevent that polarization, the cycle of hawks on one side ‘arming’ the hawks on the other side.”

Sixth is seeing the police as peace officers. 

“Police work can become far more effective through more community policing,” he says. “In some countries this requires re-conceptualization of the police from defenders of the property of the dominant group to genuine peace officers.”

Seventh is calling on governments to check their impulse to respond violently every time terror occurs.

“Governments sometimes make choices that invite—almost beg for—a terrorist response,” he writes, noting that “to protect themselves from terror, citizens in all countries need to gain control of their own governments and force them to behave.”

The last technique is negotiation. 

“Governments often say ‘we don’t negotiate with terrorists,’ but when they say that they are often lying. Governments have often reduced or eliminated terrorism through negotiation, and negotiation skills continue to grow in sophistication.”

According to Lakey, “each of these tools have indeed been used in real-life situations in one place or another, with some degree of success.” The problem, he says, is “persuading a government to take such a bold, innovative leap.”

For Paul Redekop, who teaches conflict resolution studies at Menno Simons College, Lakey’s ideas “make a lot of sense.” But while he believes the ideas are viable, he isn’t optimistic they will be accepted.

“They fall into the realm of prevention rather than reaction,” he says. “Preventive action always seems to be a harder sell than reaction, whether it involves a response to crime or health care or public safety like fire prevention, even though it is always more effective in the long run.”

Governments “often react to what they think the public wants, and a strong reaction is more dramatic,” he notes. “We can make governments take such an approach more seriously when we can make the broader public more aware of the effectiveness of non-violent responses.”

Will non-violence work against groups like Daesh or Al-Qaeda or any of the home-grown terrorist groups in Europe and other places? We won’t know until someone tries.