Saturday, October 29, 2016

Religion and Sexual Abuse of Women: Time to Say Sorry

With Donald Trump’s recent comments about women reverberating in my mind, I posted an apology to my female friends on Facebook. 

In it, I told them I was appalled by what Trump said and did to women. But what disturbed me more, I said, “was hearing from my female friends that this kind of thing is normal—it has happened to so many, including to many who grew up in Christian churches.” 

To all of them, I expressed my sadness and outrage. 

I went on to ask if this was a topic I should write about on the Faith Page. The answers came quickly: Yes. 

“Please do, John,” said one woman. “It is time that we stop accepting this as normal and a woman's lot.” 

“You have no idea how prevalent sexual harassment of young girls and up to adult women is in our Christian circles,” said another. 

I then asked if some would share their stories. Those came quickly, too.

A female pastor spoke about entering a room full of her congregants and having an older man say “’Come sit here on my lap.’ I just laughed it off, but it made me very wary of him,” she said. 

Several women wrote of being inappropriately touched by male relatives back in the 1960s and 70s—men who were respected leaders in their churches. 

“It was done in plain sight,” said one woman of what happened to her. “There was an apathy among Christian adults in the generation before us to look the other way.” 

Another woman wrote about her father, also a highly respected church leader, who regularly touched her and her sisters in sexual ways. 

“He treated us like we were inferior, all the while being an elder of the church. You can't begin to know the devastation it caused!” 

There were more stories: A professor of religion who touched his female students in inappropriate ways; men who exposed themselves to women on buses; men who rubbed against women and girls in crowded places; or hugged too tightly and for too long. 

Reading the messages, I couldn’t believe how many women I knew had experienced those things—and I was probably only scratching the surface. It made me both angry and sad. 

We can’t fix the problems of the past, but maybe we can say sorry. Maybe it’s time for Canadian faith groups that haven’t already done so to issue apologies—to say sorry for the harm their religions haves caused to women over the centuries. 

What can they apologize for? Here are some things church leaders could say sorry for. 

They can apologize for not believing women when they complained about harassment, abuse and worse. 

They can apologize for not holding abusers accountable for their actions. 

They can apologize for how they have selectively interpreted the Bible to justify silencing women and treating them as inferior. 

They can apologize for taking so long to let women use all their gifts in the church in service to God. 

They can apologize for excluding women from the boards and committees that shape the mission and vision of their denominations. 

And they can apologize for not speaking out against injustices towards women in the broader society—things like denying them promotions and paying them less because of their gender. 

I’m sure there are other things that could be named, and other religions would have their own unique additions to the list. 

One of the leaders in promoting equality for women in religious groups is former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. In a speech in 2009, he summed it up this way. 

“The view that the Almighty considers women to be inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or tradition,” he said. “Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths, creating an environment in which violations against women are justified.” 

The truth, he stated, “is that male religious leaders have had—and still have—an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.” 

It is time, he stated “we had the courage to challenge these views and set a new course that demands equal rights for women and men, girls and boys.” 

Maybe that process can begin by saying sorry. 

From the Oct. 29 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

"Like When Someone Has Been ill a Long Time": Two More Canadian Church Publications Close

The print world is in trouble.

Almost every month there is news of another publication shutting down or reducing the number of pages or issues.

While most of the attention is focused on the troubles facing daily newspapers and magazines, church publications are hurting, too.

In September, two venerable publications shut down: The Presbyterian Record, after 140 years, and the Western Catholic Reporter, after over 50 years.

The death of the Record, which publishes its last issue in December, “was sad, but not surprising,” says editor David Harris.

“It was like when someone has been ill for a long time.”

For many years, the publication benefitted from what was called an every-home plan, where churches bought subscriptions for their members.

That worked when churches were full and growing, Harris said.

But as membership in the Presbyterian Church has fallen, along with giving, churches looked for places to cut—and the every home plan was one of the first things to go.

“We lost thousands of subscribers in the last few years,” he says.

The magazine tried fundraising, and also turned to the denomination for help. “But it didn’t have the money,” Harris shares. “It’s facing large cuts itself.”

Facing declining circulation and revenue—the magazine was down to about 10,000 subscribers from a high of 88,000, and was losing almost 3,000 readers a year—the board decided to pull the plug.

“We did our best” to keep it alive, Harris says, but “circulation fell below the critical level needed to sustain it.”

A desire to go in a new direction played a role the demise of the Western Catholic Reporter.

In a letter to readers about the closing of the newspaper, which was owned Edmonton Archdiocese, Archbishop Richard Smith said that “the world of communications has changed dramatically . . . the current media environment, the way stories are told, and the way people consume news are all changing rapidly.”

As a result, he went on to say, the Archdiocese is moving to all-digital distribution of news through its website and social media.

According to Lorraine Turchansky, the Archdiocese’s Chief Communications Officer, falling circulation, combined with an aging readership, was also a factor—the Reporter was down from 32,000 at its peak to under 7,000 when it closed.

By doing more online, the Archdiocese will be “in same space” as its members, she says.

For former Reporter editor Glen Argan, the move was disappointing, but also not surprising.

“I could see the closure coming for a while,” he says.

Although he acknowledges that “the way people are consuming news is changing,” he thinks the Archdiocese set the paper “up to fail” by eliminating its every-parish plan.

Under the plan, which the Archdiocese ended in 2014, each parish was required to buy copies of the Reporter for its members. When the plan was eliminated, circulation plummeted.

Why does he think the plan was ended? “They [the Archdiocese] wanted to use the money for other things,” he says, adding that the Archbishop didn’t think that “reporting the news of the Diocese would help build up the church.”

He worries that whatever replaces the Reporter will just be a cheerleader for the church—and that will turn readers off.

“People want something with texture to it, not just the party line,” he says of the importance of an independent publication. “Those in power need to hear from those who might disagree with them.

The changes will make it harder for those “dissenting views” to be heard, he says.

David Wilson is the long-time editor of the United Church Observer. The deaths of the Record and the Reporter are unsettling, he says, but not unexpected.

Denominational print publications are “an embattled medium in a shrinking universe,” he says. “The challenges they face are enormous.”

With a circulation of 36,000, the Observer is doing better than many other church publications. But it had ten times that many subscribers in the 1960s and 70s.

As church membership declines, Wilson says, denominational publications “are feeling the effects.”

For Michael Swan, Associate Editor at the Catholic Register in Toronto and President of Canadian Church Press, the umbrella group for Canadian church publications, the closure of Record and the Reporter “is a great loss.”

Unfortunately, he adds, they won’t be the last to close. “All church publications in Canada are struggling,” he says.

Swan believes many church members want good Christian journalism—the kind that “engages the church” and that reports about “how the church engages the world.”

But if that’s what they want, “someone has to pay for it . . . we need to make a case for this kind of journalism, make a case that it is important.”

From the Oct. 22 Winnipeg Free Press.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

World Food Day and Food Waste, or Eat All the Peas on Your Plate

October 16, is World Food Day. It’s a day to remember the almost 800 million people in the world who don’t have enough to eat.

Thinking about it reminds me of when I was a kid at the supper table. My parents would tell me to eat all the food on my plate because “people are starving in Africa.”

I didn’t know anything about food security or famine relief back then, but one thing I knew for certain was this: Eating all the peas on my plate wouldn’t mean people Africa would get more food.

My parents knew that, too. But that wasn’t the point. The point they were trying to make was that food was special, even sacred, and I was lucky to have so much of it—so don’t waste it.  

For people of faith, treating food respectfully, and not wasting it, is a widely-held value.

In Islam, the Koran tells Muslims to “eat and drink but do not waste; for Allah does not love those who waste.”

In Buddhism there is a concept known as “mottainai,” which encourages followers to always be grateful for the resources they have, such as food, to be respectful of them, to use them with care and not to waste them.

In Judaism, there is the ethical principle of “Bal tashchit,” or "do not destroy," which has been applied to all forms of senseless damage, including wasting food.

For Sikhs, food is part of spiritual life of every Sikh, and is referred to as rijak, or divine sustenance. Sikhs are admonished to eat only what they need, and to avoid overindulgence; gluttony is viewed as morally reprehensible. 

In the New Testament, Christians read about the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. After the meal, Jesus instructs his followers to gather all the leftovers “so that nothing is wasted.”

And yet, despite all this, food waste is a huge problem today. According to Value Chain Management International, a Canadian organization that specializes in the reduction of food waste, Canadians waste over $31 billion of food every year.

Forty-seven percent of that waste happens in Canadian homes—letting food get old in the fridge, forgetting that leftover pizza, buying too much and not being able to use it.

As for the remainder, 20 percent is lost in production, 10 percent in retail and on the farm, 9 percent in restaurants and 6 percent in transport.

It’s no better in many other countries. One estimate pegs food waste in the U.S. at over $160 billion a year. In the U.K., for every three tonnes of food that is eaten another tonne goes to waste.

Worldwide, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that over $3 trillion worth of food—a third of all the food that is grown—is lost or wasted.

Not only is that food not eaten, it contributes to climate change. Food waste, it turns out, is one of the largest sources of garbage in landfills. As it decomposes, it releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Someone who wants to make food waste in Canada a national political issue is NDP Member of Parliament Ruth Ellen Brosseau.

Brosseau has introduced a Private Member’s Bill to Parliament that calls on the Canadian government to declare October 16—World Food Day—as National Food Waste Awareness Day in Canada.

Her bill also calls for the development of a national strategy to reduce food waste in this country.

The goal of such a day, she says, is to “raise awareness, stimulate debate, support existing initiatives and perhaps encourage new ones,” and to “demand that the government take concrete action to tackle this scourge.”

A Buddhist blessing before eating says: “This food is the gift of the whole universe, each morsel is a sacrifice of life. May I be worthy to receive it.”

And, I would add, not waste it.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Povology: Not a Real Word-—Yet

Biology is a natural science concerned with the study of life and living organisms

Psychology is the study of behavior and the mind.

Theology is the study of the nature of God. 

Povology is—well, just what the heck is povology, anyway?

According to Kevin Wiebe, a Mennonite pastor in Tilbury, Ont., povology is a made-up word for “ways Christians can look at poverty through a theological lens.”

At the same time, he says, it is a way to explore “the intersection of Christian faith and charity, and the way the Bible informs our response to poverty.”

Povology is also the name of a new video series about the church and poverty being produced by Wiebe, 29, pastor of New Life Mennonite Fellowship, an Evangelical Mennonite Church in that southwest Ontario town.

Wiebe and his wife, Emily, came up with the word and the idea for the series when their church began asking about its role in alleviating poverty.

“We wondered what was the best way to use our resources, and what was the church’s role in addressing poverty,” he says of the discussions.

“We asked ourselves what Jesus did to help the poor, and whether churches today are doing more harm than good” when addressing poverty.

The video series, which will be released in 2017, will contain six segments and a study guide.

It features interviews with Christians who have wrestled with the issue including American anti-poverty activist Shane Claiborne; Rich Sider, author of the seminal book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger; and Bruxey Cavey, pastor of the Meetinghouse church in Ontario.

“I’m young—I don’t have all the answers,” says Wiebe of the decision to interview people who are working or thinking about the issue of faith and poverty.

“But there are people who have good ideas in this area, people who know what the issues are, what questions we should be asking.”

Wiebe hopes the series will show churches how they can be “actively involved in alleviating poverty in the communities where we live, and beyond.”

This includes “building relationships,” with people who are poor, “not just sending money to charities, and “studying and learning about the roots and challenges of poverty.”

Referring to the Bible, Wiebe notes that “Jesus spent a remarkable amount of time talking about poverty. And he didn’t just talk about it—he hung out with poor people, he spent a lot of time with them.”

If Christians want to be like Jesus, he says, “then we need to take this seriously.”

Looking back at how churches have responded to poverty over the decades, Wiebe acknowledges there have been “some major failures, but also many successes”—like how so many churches in Canada responded generously to welcome Syrian refugees.

At the same time, churches could do better, he says. Noting the large number of people who are poor in Canada, he says “we aren’t, as a church, doing as good a job as we could . . . we need to do more than just talk about these things.”

Through the videos, he hopes Christians will “think more about the link between their faith and poverty, and to make the gap between what we believe and what we do as small as possible.”

As for the word povology itself, he acknowledges that “it’s not a real word—at least, not yet.”

For more information, visit

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Brian McLaren and the Great Spiritual Migration

If the founders of Christianity, Islam and Buddhism came back to earth today, would they recognize the religions that bear their names?

That was the question New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asked earlier this month.

“Jesus never mentioned gays or abortion but focused on the sick and the poor, yet some Christian leaders have prospered by demonizing gays,” he wrote, adding that things would be similar for founders of other religions.

“Muhammad raised the status of women in his time, yet today some Islamic clerics bar women from driving, or cite religion as a reason to hack off the genitals of young girls. Buddha presumably would be aghast at the apartheid imposed on the Rohingya minority by Buddhists in Myanmar.”

Kristof asked the question as an introduction to a column about The Great Spiritual Migration, a new book by American Christian pastor, activist, speaker and author Brian McLaren.

“Our religions often stand for the very opposite of what their founders stood for,” McLaren told Kristof, noting that Jesus was known for being a poor, itinerant radical who challenged the establishment—but today the church that bears his name is, in many countries, the establishment.

“No wonder more and more of us who are Christians by birth, by choice, or both find ourselves shaking our heads and asking, ‘What happened to Christianity?’” McLaren said, adding that sometimes “we feel as if our founder has been kidnapped and held hostage by extremists.”

Intrigued by Kristof’s column, I called McLaren to ask about the book, and to ask where he sees Christianity in North America going today.

According to McLaren, a spiritual migration is underway as many people leave the church due to frustration and dissatisfaction with its rules, beliefs, doctrines, hierarchies and traditions.

Specifically, he sees three shifts, or migrations, in North American Christianity today.

One is a shift away from Christianity as “a system of beliefs” to a faith that is based on showing love for people and the planet.

The other is a “shift in our understanding of God,” away from a view of God as violent and judgmental to one of grace and acceptance.

And the third is a shift away from organized religion to what he calls “an organizing religion, one that organizes people for the common good.”

While this migration can cause a lot of anxiety for some Christians, McLaren sees it “as a good thing, a great opportunity for the world’s largest religion to find a way to be better at being Christian.”

And what is that better way?

For McLaren, it’s what he calls a “love-centred orientation” that recognizes that “the core of Christ’s teaching was to love God and your neighbour as yourself.”

In this regard, “it’s fascinating how little attention the church has paid to forming a people committed to showing love,” he says. “Much more attention has been paid to correctness of belief.”

As for those who are leaving the church, McLaren says “I don’t want to see them leave the faith.” Instead, he wants them to stay Christian, but to “find the true faith.”

All of this sounds very critical of the current state of the church, especially in America, where McLaren lives. But he also believes in its potential.

Besides, he asks, “what are the alternatives? I don’t think TV, politics or consumerism is doing  better,” at helping people live lives that show concern for others, peace, the poor or the planet.

And he sees hope in the upheaval and disruption facing organized Christianity today. “There is great spiritual dissatisfaction, but also great spiritual hunger,” he says. “That can also be a powerful motivating force for change.”

As an American, McLaren realizes he is writing out of that experience. But he says this spiritual migration isn’t limited to the U.S.; Christians in Canada and other countries also tell him of their frustration with church.

“Christians around the world are hungry for something new and different,” he states.

“There is a huge vacuum. The church is slow and cowardly when it comes to addressing the great questions facing the world. I hope Christians everywhere will step out in courage and creativity to create just and generous communities where they pray, interpret the Bible and worship differently.”