Saturday, January 28, 2017

Evangelical Scientist Katherine Hayhoe: Climate Change Evangelist or Old Testament Prophet?

Can you be an evangelical Christian and believe in climate change? Katharine Hayhoe says yes—she is one, and she believes it is happening.

Hayhoe, who is originally from Toronto, is the director of the Climate Science Centre at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.
There are, of course, lots of scientists who believe in climate change. But there aren’t as many who are openly and proudly evangelical—a group in the U.S. not known for being accepting of that issue.

Surveys in that country show that only 28 percent of white evangelicals say humans are responsible for climate change. That’s the lowest of all Christian groups in that country.

Why is that the case? After all, the Bible has a lot to say about how God loves and cares about creation, and evangelicals say they take the Bible seriously.

For Hayhoe, the reason is due to the way politics and religion is mixed in America.

“I see a difference between theological evangelicals and political evangelicals,” she says.

Theological evangelicals, she explains, “take the Bible seriously. They love God, and love others. But many evangelicals in the U.S. today are political evangelicals. Their main source of authority is not the Bible, but what some political parties or leaders say, or a particular political ideology. And these are the people telling them climate change isn’t real.”

A theological evangelical, on the other hand, sees that “humans are made in image of God, and that we are responsible for every living thing on the planet, we are stewards or caretakers of creation.”

For her, “objections to the science of climate change have nothing to do with being religiously evangelical. They have everything to do with being politically evangelical. They oppose it not on a religious basis but a political basis.”

Because she spends much of her time speaking to churches about climate change, Hayhoe has been given the moniker of “climate change evangelist”—something she doesn’t think really fits.

“An evangelist is someone who spreads the good news,” she says. “But I feel like an Old Testament prophet saying that you need to heed my warning . . . the clock is ticking. Every year that passes by without action means we are losing time to try to fix this problem.”

And yet, she is hopeful. “There is good news about how people are doing things to help the planet,” she says.

She is also optimistic that more evangelicals will come around and see climate change as an important issue.

“I believe that as Christians we are given a new heart by God, and with it comes a desire to love and help people and care for God’s creation,” she says.

This includes caring for others, including those affected by climate change.

“If we look on the effect of climate change on the poor and vulnerable in the developing world, all the climate change refugees, people suffering from drought, those near coastlines whose homes are being flooded as the seas rise, these are the people who our hearts should desire to help because of who we are as Christians, and as humans,” she says.

“As Christians who want to share God’s love in the world, when we see suffering how can we turn away and not help?”

And one way to do that, she states, is by caring “about a changing climate.”

Sunday, January 22, 2017

More Response to Pure: Stereotyping Mennonites by the Most Obvious Visual Distinctions

Dan Dyck directs communications for Mennonite Church Canada, one of two of the largest Mennonite denominations in Canada. I asked him a few questions about his response to Pure, out of his experience as a communicator and from his position with that church body.

What is your experience with what the public and the media know about Mennonites?

Both tend to conflate the culture and the faith. Both tend to stereotype Mennonites by the most obvious visual distinctions of a small minority of Mennonites in Canada (e,g. black dress and bonnets, horses and buggies, etc.). What most people don’t know is that there are more Mennonites in Ethiopia than in Canada, and that Mennonite culture in Africa (or other countries) is something entirely different than in North America.

The show gets many things about Mennonites wrong. But Mennonites are not an easy group to understand, what with there being so many different kinds in Canada. Could Mennonites do a better job of explaining themselves to the media and public at large? 

Yes, undoubtedly, but it’s a challenging task to break through the noise of media and culture until an attention grabbing opportunity arrives, like Pure. Mennonites tend to let their lives and actions toward others speak for themselves, rather than expending energy on explaining ourselves to an audience that probably doesn’t care a whole lot until a controversy or drama like “Pure” comes along.

Additionally, there is no shortage of information about Mennonites online. Anyone with access to the Internet can at any time learn more than they probably want to know about Mennonite faith and culture in Canada and beyond.

What kind of problems do you find with Pure?

Like many other Mennonites, I am surprised at what appears to be a poorly researched setting for this story.

The show depicts Low German speaking Mennonites from Mexican (Old Colony) with the visual life style distinctions of Old Order Mennonites who have been in Southern Ontario since the early 1800s. This is problematic for many, and perhaps especially for the media-shy Old Order folks themselves as they are now associated with criminal activity that to my knowledge does not exist in their community.

The Low German speaking Mennonites from Mexico depicted in the drama would not really be considered “Old Order” in the context of Southern Ontario, where the show is set; for example, Old Order Mennonites in southern Ontario do not speak Low German, and would not have surnames like “Funk” or “Epp”.

Do you think this show will be harmful for Mennonites in Canada?

I believe the accumulated positive weight of Mennonite faith and reputation of our churches and organizations helping out locally and internationally with aid, relief, disaster assistance, poverty alleviation, feeding the hungry, etc. will in the long run overcome any negative impressions the viewing audience of Pure will generate.

Can you see anything positive coming out of Pure for Mennonites?

A hopefully positive outcome for Mennonites is that this show has the potential to make us more empathetic and sensitive to other groups that have been stereotyped by the media and popular culture, such as First Nations or Muslims. Mennonites are by no means immune to stereotyping other groups. I hope Pure will help us reflect on what are feeling, and I hope it makes us more aware of our own assumptions of others.

The other faith group to have recently experienced this kind of exposure are the Mormons (the play The Book of Mormon). Mormon's decided not to fight it. Instead, they used it as a way to talk about their faith. Do you think Mennonites could do the same? 

The Mormon response of using the play as an open door, not being defensive, was the right response for them, and even courageous in their context. I would say Pure also gives Mennonites in Canada a responsibility to engage their faith, and walk through the open door this presents with integrity, sensitivity and grace. Angry, defensive responses to inquirers, whether in private or in public, will not serve anyone well. But your question raises another question: Who has the right to tell whose story?

Click here to read my Free Press column on this topic.

For Some Canadian Mennonites, New CBC Show is Anything but Pure

For two Mennonite historians, the new CBC drama about a drug-running Mennonite colony is anything but Pure.
For those unfamiliar with the show, Pure is the fictitious story of Noah Funk, a newly-elected Mennonite pastor who wants to rid his community of drug traffickers led by “Menno mob" leader Eli Voss.
Filmed in Nova Scotia, the show is loosely based on the real-life experiences of a few Old Colony Mennonites who were caught smuggling drugs from Mexico to Canada.
As a viewer, Royden Loewen, Chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg says he was “mildly entertained” by the show. 
But “as a Canadian who loves this culturally diverse country I was troubled and dismayed,” he adds.
Loewen, who has written extensively about both the Old Order ‘horse and buggy’ Mennonites of southern Ontario and the Low German Mennonite migrants from Mexico, says Pure is “based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the horse-and-buggy community in southern Ontario, and creates an error-ridden depiction of a vulnerable and highly visible religious minority group.”
To him, the show also “seems sloppily researched and produces a caricature of what it purports to be a real community.”
Among the things the show gets wrong, he says, are the accent, the names, the theology, the buggies they use, the church architecture, “and the very notion of the existence of a ‘colony.’” 
The show also “conflates a story” about a drug smuggling ring within a Low German-speaking Old Colony Mexican Mennonite immigrant community with the horse and buggy Old Order Mennonites of Ontario, he adds.
Sam Steiner, former librarian and archivist at Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, Ont., feels the same way. 
Like Loewen, he also says the actors get the accent wrong. (Which isn’t surprising, since Ryan Robbins, who plays Noah Funk in the show, said one of the ways he picked the accent he uses in the show was by listening to what he called “Anabaptist” women, who were “presumably” Mennonites, in a market in Nova Scotia.)
Steiner also notes that no Low German Mennonites in Canada use horses and buggies, nor do they wear straw hats—that’s what the Amish wear.
There are other problems, he says, such as the way the fictitious colony members choose their preacher; the role of women in worship services; and even the title of the preacher himself. It is always “minister,” not “pastor”—the title used in the show—Steiner says.
Both feel that the CBC has let down Mennonites in Canada, and Canadians in general, by making the show.
“It would seem that CBC, for reasons of entertainment, has contravened its mandate to bring understanding and respect to vulnerable groups within the Canadian multicultural mosaic,” says Loewen.
The broadcaster, he adds, is failing in its “responsibility to enhance respect and understanding among Canada’s diverse ethnic and religious groups.”
Canadians, he says, “expect much more from our national publicly owned media.”
Steiner agrees. He wishes the CBC had not “implicated part of the Mennonite community they knew had nothing to do with the ‘true story’ they based it on. I suspect it was deliberate, not sloppy research.”
While thinking about Pure, I was reminded of another CBC show about a religious group: Little Mosque on the Prairie.
That show, about Muslims living in the fictional town of Mercy, Saskatchewan, ran from 2007-12. 
As with Pure, it also got things wrong. But the spirit of the show was light and generous, and Canadian Muslims generally felt positive about how it depicted them. 

“At first there were some reservations, but younger Muslims like it right away while elders took some time to warm up to it,” says Shahina Siddiqui, a Muslim community leader in Winnipeg.

What she liked about the show is that it “normalized the Canadian Muslim community in all its diversity and dimensions. It encouraged conversations.”

Pure is encouraging conversations, too, at least in the Mennonite community. But it doesn’t sound like they are all that positive—or complimentary towards the CBC.

Click here to read a Q & A with Dan Dyck of Mennonite Church Canada about his response to Pure.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Can Indigenous Spirituality Save the Planet, Save Us All?

The agitated middle-aged Indigenous man wasn’t angry, but he was loud.

Very loud.

He was also in the middle of Smith St. in downtown Winnipeg, shouting as he walked among the cars stopped at a stoplight, bemoaning the fate of Indigenous people in Canada today.

“Look what Canada did to us!” he yelled. “Look at what they stole!”

When the light changed, and traffic started to move, he left the street. He wandered over to the sidewalk where I was standing, waiting for my ride home.

“We had so much land before the Europeans came,” he shouted at me. “Now look at us, squeezed into tiny reservations.”

I introduced myself, and he quieted down. I asked his name. George, he said. His name was George.

“The land,” he said. “They stole our land. Just think if we still had that land, and you paid taxes to live on it!”

And with that he gestured broadly around him, pointing at the office towers and other buildings in downtown Winnipeg.

I told George I agreed with him—a great injustice had been done to Indigenous people in Canada. Together we agreed it was time to renew and restore our relationship as Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, and also to make peace with the land—to restore our relationship with the earth. But how?

Before we came up with any answers, my ride arrived. George thanked me for the conversation. “You’re the first person to listen to me,” he said as I shook his hand goodbye.

It’s been four months since that chance encounter, but it has stayed with me.

Across North America, Indigenous people like George are crying out—about the state of the land, the air and the water, about missing and murdered women, about poverty, poor housing on reserves, and about the tragedy of residential schools.

Are we listening?

I know I am trying.  I especially tried hard to listen in December, when thousands of Indigenous people and others gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota.

For months, the Standing Rock Sioux protested the construction of a pipeline across their territory, saying it would endanger their source of water.

For a long time, it appeared that nobody was listening. But then something amazing happened: The U.S. government ordered an environmental impact review, and agreed to consider alternate routes for the pipeline.

As I listened to reports about the protest, the thing that struck me was how deeply spiritual it was. The protest camp was filled with prayer: communal prayers in the morning and evening and at mealtimes, and prayers in vigils and songs.

As Standing Rock tribal councilman Dana Yellow Fat said: “We began this with prayer, and we look at this whole movement as a ceremony. It began with prayers before we left, and in the end, it will close with prayers . . . we’re fighting the pipeline with prayer.”

Added Pua Case, an Indigenous woman from Hawaii who was part of the protest: “Standing Rock is a prayer camp. It’s where prayers are done.”

For Caro Gonzales, also at the camp, spirituality at Standing Rock wasn’t “a side effect” at the protest, but a “crucial driving force” behind the activism.

Jack Jenkins, a reporter who visited the camp, noticed this, too. Standing Rock, he wrote, gave witness to “an emerging Indigenous spiritual movement that is sweeping North America.”

In an article titled “The growing indigenous spiritual movement that could save the planet,” he added that spirituality “is a core mobilizing and stabilizing force” for the protest.

Maybe he’s right. Maybe movements led by Indigenous people like at Standing Rock can help save the planet. Just as Christian revivals, called “awakenings,” swept parts of North America in the eighteenth through twentieth centuries, maybe Indigenous-led or inspired protests in Canada and the U.S. can bring their own form of revival today.

Maybe they can help us all, no matter what faith we belong to, find new ways to be restored to each other, to the planet, and to God.

Maybe—but only if we listen.

From the Jan. 14, 2016 Winnipeg Free Press

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Time for a New Reformation?

“My God, what a sewer-stench is this! Who are you and what do you want?”

With those words, St. Peter greets Pope Julius II when he arrives at the gates of heaven in the 1514 satirical play, Julius Excluded.

In the play, written by the Christian scholar, priest and humanist Desiderius Erasmus, the Pope finds the gates of heaven closed to his entry after he dies.

“What the devil is this?” Julius asks.  The doors don’t open? Somebody must have changed the lock or broken it.”

After being told he brought the wrong key—the key of power, and not the key of wisdom to open the door to heaven—Julius loses his temper.

“Now I'm really getting mad,” he says. “I'll knock the doors down. Somebody come and open this door right away!”

St. Peter replies by saying “this is a fortress to be captured with good deeds, not ugly words.”

Reproved, Julius tries to make a case for entry. He proudly describes how much better the church is because of his work: Regal palaces, crowds of servants, well-trained troops, plenty of gold and so much money “there's not a king in the world who wouldn't appear base and poor.”

He also talks about his many political dealings, some of which resulted in wars across Europe.

“Madman!” St. Peter responds. “So far I have heard nothing but the words of a warlord, not a churchman . . .  you boast of having dissolved treaties, stirred up wars, and encouraged the slaughter of men. That is the power of Satan, not a pope. Anyone who becomes the vicar of Christ should try to follow as closely as possible the example provided by Christ.”

To which Julius replies: “He may find people to praise his example, but not to follow it, not in these days anyway.”

Thoughts about Erasmus and his play came to mind as I thought about how Christians will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.

Although Martin Luther gets most of the credit for that Reformation, people like Erasmus laid much of the groundwork for the reforms that followed. In fact, it has been said “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.”

Like Luther, Erasmus was troubled by the materialism, power and political ambition of the institutional church of his time—themes he captured in the play.

As David Fink, assistant professor of the history of Christianity and Christian theology at Furman University wrote, “the picture of Julius in this exchange is a grotesque caricature, but the issues in dispute were real enough.

“They were the central planks in Erasmus’s reforming agenda: the importance of earnest faith and holy doctrine for the Christian life, along with contempt for the world and, above all, an imitation of the life of Christ.”

The result was a play that shows a church of that day that was wealthy and powerful, but unfit for heaven.

What about the church today? Is it due for a reformation? In 2009, author and theologian Phyllis Tickle published The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. In the book, she wondered if the time hadn’t come for reform not unlike what happened in 1517.

In the book, Tickle posited that every 500 years the church has a garage sale—a time of upheaval and transition when it gets rid of things it no longer needs.

The last garage sale, she said, was the Great Reformation sparked by Luther. We are due for another one today, she suggested.

In an interview in 2009, she told me that during these times of rearrangement and upheaval, three things usually happen.

First, a new, more vital form of Christianity emerges. Second, the organized, institutional and dominant expression of Christianity is reconstituted into something new.

Finally, she said, “every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity are broken open, the faith has spread dramatically, thereby increasing the range and depth of the church's reach.”

The challenges facing the church today are different from 500 years ago. But the world is still filled with poverty, war and injustice.

Maybe the 500th anniversary of the Great Reformation is a time to ponder if a new reformation is also upon us. 

lIIustration above: Julius II with the wrong key for the gates of heaven.

From the Jan. 6, 2017 Winnipeg Free Press.