Sunday, January 18, 2015

Our image of God influences our actions


The pen is mightier than the sword
Last week in Paris the sword was temporarily mightier than the pen when militant Islamists attacked the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, and killed twelve people.  This was not the first time that radical Muslims targeted the publication; in 2011, its offices were fire bombed in retaliation for printing irreverent depictions of the prophet Mohammed.

The cold-blooded murder at Charlie Hebdo ignited the determined support of Parisians for the ideals of democracy. Even the deaths of three more people at a hostage taking at a kosher grocery store a few days later could not deter the French from gathering en masse.

“Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) quickly became the rallying cry, and lights projected onto the Arc de Triomphe proclaimed “Paris est Charlie.” Across France, an estimated 3.6 million people gathered to honor the victims and to show their commitment to freedom of expression and the ideals of democracy. Forty world leaders attended the rally in Paris, linking arms in a show of unity and friendship.

In a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the slain cartoonists, many stood in silent witness holding pens and pencils aloft. It was a living cartoon conveying the message, “The pen is mightier than the sword”.  And, as if to drive this message home, a political cartoonist for the Huffington Post drew a cartoon featuring a masked gunman standing in a pool of blood. The gunman is looking up at the end of a pencil as it erases the muzzle of his automatic weapon. The caption reads, “Ideas are bulletproof”.

Ideals of democracy promote the flourishing of human society
While it is relatively easy to kill individuals for expressing their views, as the massacre at Charlie Hebdo tragically illustrates, it is much more difficult to kill the ideals that promote the flourishing of human society.

Following the atrocities of the Second World War, the international community agreed upon the principles that are the foundation of freedom, justice and peace. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights articulates these principles that arise from the inherent dignity and the “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”  Freedom of speech and belief are specifically mentioned in the preamble to the Declaration.

Religious extremism gives religion a bad name
There have always been, and there will always be, individuals and groups who are intolerant of differences and who want to silence freedoms.  While Muslim extremists are not the only people guilty of intolerance, the post 9-11 world has become all to familiar with terrorist style attacks perpetrated in the name of Islam. 

Religious extremists of any stripe give religion a bad name and their actions sometimes fuel anti-religious sentiment, which in itself is a form of intolerance. An intolerant view of religion, and particularly of Islam post 9-11, needs to be balanced with the acknowledgement that the majority of people of faith do no harm to others; on the contrary, many of those people are actively doing good for others.  The principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights find a natural home in them because those principles accord with their view of God and of God’s desire for peace among people.

The way a person views God will determine how he acts. An individual who believes in a compassionate, merciful God of love will respond to life in a different way than someone who sees God as a harsh task master requiring strict obedience and exacting punishment for infractions.  An individual’s understanding of the character of God impacts his understanding of the sacred texts and traditions of his religion, and this influences his level of tolerance for others and their views.

Contrasting views of Islam
Last week in Paris, one of the gunmen was heard to shout “Allahu Akbar”  (“God is greater”) and “The prophet is avenged”.   He had a particular view of the character of God and the dictates of Islam. That view stands in stark contrast to this one, expressed in a January 9, 2015 letter published on the website of the Montreal Gazette.  Shafik Bhalloo wrote, “My Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance and forgiveness. My Islam teaches love, concord, sympathy and tenderness to one’s fellow men – not killing people for practicing their freedom of expression or speech.”

The actions of radical Muslims who feel it necessary to battle the west, wipe out Jews, Christians or other Muslim groups perpetrate crimes against the dignity of their religion, and against the compassionate God (however one names it) who wills the well-being of all people, including irreverent cartoonists.


Saturday, January 3, 2015

Pope Francis calls the Curia to a conversion of heart and mind


"...the significance of his comments should not be restricted to criticism of the Curia or to a commentary on the politics of the Vatican. The Pope’s message has implications for human conduct everywhere."

It wasn't a "have yourself a merry little Christmas" greeting
The Christmas greeting that Pope Francis delivered to members of the Roman Curia was anything but “have your self a merry little Christmas.”  Described in the press as a “blistering attack”, a “public rebuke”, and a “scathing critique” of the Curia, Francis called his brother bishops to account for fifteen “curial diseases”. 

While the Curia was the target audience for the pontiff’s address, the rest of us might think twice before we applaud this public dressing down of the “princes of the church” and shake our fingers at them; the Pope’s message is applicable to all.  

Francis catalogues fifteen "curial diseases"
Using the image of the Church as the mystical body of Christ, Francis warned that the Curia, like any body, is exposed to diseases. “A Curia which is not self-critical, which does not keep up with things, which does not seek to be more fit, is a sick body,” the pontiff said in describing “the disease of thinking we are immortal, immune or downright indispensable”. This was the first in the pontiff’s list of “the more common diseases” that affect the life of the Curia, which, he said is constantly called to “improve and grow in communion, holiness and wisdom”. 

Francis named another fourteen sinful attitudes and behaviors. Other “curial diseases” include “the Martha complex of excessive busyness”, “mental and spiritual petrification”, “excessive planning and functionalism”,  “poor coordination”, “spiritual Alzheimer’s”, “rivalry and vainglory”, “existential schizophrenia”, “gossiping, grumbling and back-biting”, “idolizing superiors”, “indifference to others”, “a funereal face”, “hoarding”, “closed circles” and  “worldly profit (and) forms of self-exhibition”. 

While the pontiff’s frank and unflattering appraisal of the state of the Curia will not  endear him to his detractors, Francis remains committed to reforming the culture of the Vatican. He has been leading by example, chipping away at clericalism, with its culture of superiority and privilege. With his catalogue of “curial diseases”, Francis continues to challenge the members of the Curia to reform their hearts and minds, saying that his reflections were to be “for all of us a help and a stimulus to a true examination of conscience” in preparation for the holy feast of the nativity.

While many see this as an attack that will draw the battle lines between the Pope and his opponents, it is also an invitation to conversion coming from a man who takes the need for his own conversion seriously, and who despite the title of “his holiness” refers to himself as “chief of sinners”. Francis is not asking any more of these cardinals than he asks of himself.  Individually and as a body, these men are to be exemplary servant-leaders.

After addressing the Curia, Francis met with the employees of the Vatican and their families. He is, incidentally, the first pope to do so. In his remarks to them, he referred to his speech to the Curia; he encouraged them to use it as a starting point for their own examination of conscience in preparation for Christmas and the New Year.

An invitation to reform our hearts and minds
In my view, through the public nature of these two events held on the same day, Francis invites all of us to reflect upon his comments in light of our own lives, our communities of worship, and our places of work. While the Curia was the primary audience for the Pope’s rather unusual Christmas greeting, the significance of his comments should not be restricted to criticism of the Curia or to a commentary on the politics of the Vatican. The Pope’s message has implications for human conduct everywhere.

The “curial diseases” that Francis describes are linked to self-absorption and to a preoccupation with advancing one’s self in the eyes of the world, frequently at the expense of others. They are linked to a false sense of autonomy, to forgetting that we live, move and have our being in the context of our relationships with others and with God. None of us are immune to these diseases. I know that I recognized myself in some of them.

With a New Year upon us, we might think about the ways these “curial diseases” find a home in us, and formulate our New Year’s resolutions accordingly. We may find ourselves feeling uncomfortable and exposed along with the members of the Roman Curia.

Link to the full text of Francis's speech

Saturday, December 20, 2014

"We Gotta Pray" and the meaning of Christmas


Alicia Keys is right. “We gotta pray.”

Keys released We Gotta Pray after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict a white New York police officer for the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died in a stranglehold. The Staten Island decision was the second decision in a matter of weeks that sparked protests and raised questions about racism, law enforcement and the administration of justice in the United States.  Keys tweeted that she had written the lyrics sometime ago, but “the lyrics have never meant more to me than during this time.”

While fans posted favorable comments on music sites, We Gotta Pray received a mixed reaction on YouTube, where more than a few intolerant and racist comments appeared. These comments, ironically, expose the need for artistic expressions, like this one, that capture both the failure and success of humanity to rise above its ignorance and hardness of heart.

We Gotta Pray conveys a message about change
The video version of We Gotta Pray conveys a powerful message about systemic injustice around the world in modern times. The video maintains a hopeful tone through images that depict prayer and peaceful protest. The inclusion of archival photographs of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Gandhi remind viewers that change is possible. Taken together, the lyrics and the video communicate the message that all individuals have an extraordinary capacity to become agents for change, a change that begins in the heart with the transformation of one’s attitudes and behaviors.

The video references two quotations that drive this message home. A quotation from Gandhi emphasizes forgiveness, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Another, from Martin Luther King Jr., speaks of loving your enemy as a pathway to peace, “Non violence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him”. 

To carry the spirit of Christmas forward, we gotta pray for a change of heart
The message of We Gotta Pray is a good reminder of the ‘reason for the season’ that we are preparing to celebrate. During the Christmas season, goodwill, random acts of kindness and messages of  “Joy to the world” and “Peace on earth” abound for at least a few days.  But, in order to carry the spirit of Christmas forward into the world as a force for transformation, “we gotta pray” for that change of heart if we want “to get ourselves back to the garden”, to quote from another protest song. 

While the lessons of human history teach us that there is no easy way back, no quick fix to repair the brokenness of human relationships, a visit to a stable where a babe is laying in a manger may help to soften our hearts.

Nativity: Gustave Dore

At the stable we discover our potential for goodness
In the Christmas story as retold in the Gospel of Luke, angels link the birth of this baby to peace on earth and among people. Papal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa reflected on the relationship between Christmas and peace in a recent Advent homily.  The coming of Jesus ushers in a new age for humanity and teaches us “the first peace is the vertical, between heaven and earth, between God and humanity. From it depend all other forms of peace.”  This peace comes not only from the subsequent death of Jesus on the cross, said Cantalamessa, but also from the gift of grace that came into the world with his birth.

In the manger where a tiny, perfect, yet utterly helpless babe lays, we recognize that we too are vulnerable, and that we hold within our self a tremendous potential for goodness. Through the diversity of the group gathered around the manger - in the baby’s Jewish parents, in the poor shepherds, and in the rich magi of the East who come from a different religious tradition - we experience equality and mutual respect.  We gain insight into the way of peace as we discover the graciousness of God who welcomes and honors us without distinction based on race, religion or socio-economic status.

Grace and peace are the gifts waiting for us at the stable. These are the gifts that lead us to a conversion of the heart and that can guide us back to the garden.  But, we gotta pray.
















Saturday, December 13, 2014

Charity at Christmas has a long history


Spend, spend, spend!
Since the middle of November, my inbox has been cluttered with emails designed to entice me to spend, and despite repeatedly hitting ‘delete’, the pressure from retailers to shop, either online or in person, has been relentless.  Retailers’ claimed that Cyber Monday was my last chance to save before Christmas, and then continued to bombard me with sales. Soon, those same retailers will begin emailing me with their pre-Boxing Day and then Boxing Day sales pitches.  They must not be subject to the same anti-spam laws as not-for-profits because on Giving Tuesday, only one charity emailed me.

Giving Tuesday
Giving Tuesday began in 2012 as a response to the consumerism that follows American Thanksgiving and has spread to Canada and across the Atlantic. According to the Giving Tuesday website, it is a “global day dedicated to giving back”, and everyone can take part, “Just find a way for your family, your community, your company or your organization to come together to give something more. Then tell everyone you can about how you are giving.”

Gift giving from the first Christmas and beyond
There is really nothing new about practicing charity in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  The idea goes back millennia, and may have had its origins with the magi who gave gifts to the baby Jesus.  The magi believed that they were in the presence of a king, despite the unassuming and humble circumstances of the baby’s family and home. The men honored the little, but relatively poor, prince with the giving of expensive gifts.

Fast forward to the 10th century in medieval Europe. As the Duke of Bohemia, more famously known as Good King Wenceslas, was surveying his lands on the day after Christmas, he encountered an improvished peasant. Moved with pity, the duke returned to his estate, got the leftovers from his Christmas feast, and trudged through a storm to deliver food and drink to the peasant. While the story may be more legend than fact, Wenceslas did have a reputation for generosity and almsgiving.  Some historians think that Boxing Day, which was traditionally a day for charity, originated with Wenceslas.

Boxing Day was originally a day for charitable giving
There are two traditions from English history worth mentioning in the context of Christmas charity. They, too, are associated with Boxing Day, which overtime morphed into a consumer holiday and has little, if anything, to do with charitable giving.

In the Middle Ages during the liturgical season of Advent, the Church of England placed boxes in its churches to collect offerings for the poor. On the Feast of Saint Stephen, December 26, the boxes were opened and the monies were distributed to the poor. This was the day that the poor received the bulk of charity for the year. December 26 was also the day that the British aristocracy gave gifts, in boxes, to their servants.

Charity as a means of healing spiritual and social poverty
In the Victorian classic, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens exposed the selfish greed of the affluent who ignored the poor at Christmas. Through the transformation of Scrooge from a bitter, greedy miser to a warm-hearted philanthropist, Dickens imprinted on our collective imagination the role of charity in healing spiritual poverty, as well as alleviating the ills of physical poverty.

"Ignorance and Want"
Scrooge meets the social consequences of his greed
Woodcut by John Leech 1843

Today, ethical giving at Christmas time is gaining in popularity as baby boomers and seniors come to the realization that they have more stuff than they want or need. Ethical giving involves buying a gift through a non-governmental organization for an individual, family, community or project in the global south. Popular gifts include things such as seeds, farm animals, birthing kits and mosquito nets.

Those who prefer the traditional gift exchange with family and friends, but still want to shop altruistically, often purchase items produced in artisan or farming cooperatives in the global south.  Gift options range from fair trade coffee to high-end items like quality hand made leather boots or bags.

Charity at Christmas is a long established tradition. While I am unconvinced that we need a specific day dedicated to giving, Giving Tuesday can serve as a reminder that the Christmas season is not just about shopping for the best deals; it is also about recognizing and honoring the princely dignity that resides within every individual.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Let's talk about dying ...just shoot me is not a plan


According to a 2014 Dying with Dignity Ipsos-Reid Survey, 84% of Canadians agree “a doctor should be able to help someone end their life if the person is a competent adult who is terminally ill, suffering unbearably and repeatedly asks for assistance to die”.  While the push to legalize physician-assisted suicide has Canadians passionately debating the right to die and what it means to die with dignity, the debate has had little effect in motivating those who are healthy to prepare for their own eventual date with the Grim Reaper.

We communicate our fear of dying in subconscious ways
Research indicates that most people are fearful of suffering during the dying process. I think we communicate this fear subconsciously through actions that let us believe we can cheat death. These actions are not necessarily bad for us, and may even motivate us to continue living life to our fullest, but they do nothing to ease the way into death or make our dying easier for those we love.

One way we may communicate our fear of dying is to pretend that we are not getting older, obsessing over aging, or jealously guarding our independence, symbolized in our reluctance to surrender our driver’s license, or downsize our home.

We avoid taking practical steps to make our death and dying easier for others. Only 56% of adult Canadians have a signed will, and less than 29% have appointed a power of attorney; fewer have designated a substitute decision-maker for personal care and health matters.  We are highly unlikely to preplan our funeral, even though 75% of us believe doing so would make things easier for our family.

Even our spiritual preparation for death can be limited to our last days when our families seek out the priest to hear our deathbed confession and administer the last rites. 

We think we have lots of time to prepare ourselves to meet our maker and to get our affairs in order, even though death is the one certainty in life and the Grim Reaper lurks in the shadows.

Creating an Advanced Care Plan
The Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association, partly in response to the public discussion about euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, wants to shift the public conversation towards the importance of quality hospice palliative care and away from some of the more negative views of death, which, in my view, have played a significant role in shaping Canadian support for physician-assisted suicide. The organization has a suggestion that can help us prepare for our own death and dying.

It recommends that we start talking about end-of-life issues with our family, friends and health-care providers, and suggests that individuals create an Advanced Care Plan (ACP) that will provide direction for our care when the time comes. An ACP can guide us in articulating our personal beliefs and values, and can help us clarify our own attitude about dying and what constitutes a good death. It gets the discussion moving about the types of medical interventions that we would accept or reject if faced with a chronic illness, or a life-threatening illness or injury. And, it provides information on the legal requirements and documents that will enable others to act on our behalf.  An ACP is not a sign-up sheet for physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia; it is a comprehensive plan that can help us live out our life until its natural end.

While the public discourse has Canadians talking about the death and dying of a small minority, most of us skirt around the topic of our own mortality. We avoid planning for that unavoidable dance with the Grim Reaper.

The Grim Reaper can be a motivating image
The Grim Reaper, incidentally, became embedded in the European psyche during the bubonic plague of the 14th century, when no one could forget the reality of death. It was sometimes depicted in an embrace with a young woman to symbolize that death is an integral part of life. Rather than frighten us, it is an image that can remind us to live well, to never give up on the journey towards wholeness and holiness, and to follow confidently in the footsteps of Jesus who embraced the world from the cross and shows us the way through suffering.

The conversations I have with others about death are largely superficial because the topic can become morbid and depressing. We talk about avoiding suffering, and we would prefer to die in our sleep after a long, healthy and happy life. And, should we become decrepit or senile, we joke about telling our kids to “just shoot me”, which really is not much of a plan when it comes to preparing for death and dying.