Better Than Television

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Returning Agency

In my global health class, the professor is leading a discussion about managing HIV in Botswana where 23.9% of adults have the virus. We’ve listed many causes of the structural violence that has led to the current situation including education, wages, diamond company policies, ineffective aid, lack of primary medical care and the list goes on. I raise my hand suspecting my contribution will not be popular; “What about people choosing to have multiple sexual partners? Despite the factors we’ve listed, some people still make the choice to engage in risky acts.”

Structural violence is real. The social, political and physical infrastructure in our world is too often unjust and commits real harm to our friends, neighbors and to those known only by statistics. This injustice does not merely exist on the macro level but intimately abuses its victims despite its apparent anonymity. For example, an Angolan family goes without food regardless of whether the cause is policy exempting oil companies from employing local people or if it they are robbed walking home from the store. Kids in Dorchester have medical problems regardless of whether a parent hits them or if they attend a school with no physical education program. People are injured by decisions outside their influence and have no agency in these spheres.

In our well-intentioned haste to combat and redeem the causes of this structural violence and restore agency to those victimized, have we instead stolen their agency by suggesting that sole responsibility lies with the structure leaving no responsibility with the community or individual? In trying to help those living in Botswana, might redemption include reminding people that they are able to make choices in some realms of life? A worker in a mining camp can choose to not pay a sex trade worker for sex. A high school student can choose to not have multiple sex partners but rather wait for a monogamous marriage. Applied beyond sexual choices, a father can choose to bring the paycheck home rather than gamble or drink much if it away.

I do recognize that there are those people so far in the margins that their agency has been entirely stolen. For example people in the sex trade, people suffering from mental illness and people with addiction have little or no franchise.

My caution is only to recognize that often the source of violence is both structural and personal. The Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven is also both structural and personal. The structures must be redeemed so that they are both merciful and just in accordance with God’s story. Likewise individuals and communities need to be redeemed so they can personify the fruit of the spirit in accordance with God’s story.

May we be a people committed to God’s redemption story; both its structural and personal implications.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Ethics would be easy if...

With my tongue firmly in my cheek I sometimes wonder if ethics would be simple if it weren’t for children. An editorial this morning in the Wall Street Journal got me thinking again about how the parents and communities are to train children. How do parents navigate the balance of faithfully telling the larger story into which a child is born and simultaneously allow the child to experience their own nuanced part in the epic narrative?

William McGurn contrasts two pending court cases; the second in which a seventeen-year-old ran away from home due to threats of violence from her Muslim father after she left Islam, and the first in which a 10-year-old girl was forced to attend public school because her, “Christian faith could use some shaking up” (WSJ, September 7, 2009).

Threats of violence are one apparent difference in the two cases and simplify the issue somewhat, but how much jurisdiction does a family or faith community have over the formation of their children? How do we react when children are being told a story that contradicts with the one we have experienced to be true? Are Hutterites neglecting their children by not training them in computer competence? Are Amish children disadvantaged by not watching television? Do headscarves stifle Muslim teenagers creativity? For better of worse, these alternative societies are experienced examples of how to train children while not succumbing to the myth of liberalism that states, “There is no story except the story you chose for yourself before you had a story” (Stanley Hauerwas, On Freedom and Death, 2009, Oakville ON).

Two principles come to mind that might be helpful as we followers of Christ seek to train children. The first is that there is a biblical mandate to do this work so we should not be ashamed to tell children the grand biblical narrative. “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Secondly, my friend Leanne reminded me once that this training needs to be age appropriate. There are beautiful, complex, ugly, violent, simple, and funny parts of the biblical story. We can faithfully tell the story in ways that are appropriate and useful for children at each age.

Children still make ethics more difficult than it would be with out them but what a privilege it is to be able to teach the story of God’s mission to redeem all things right from the start of their lives.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Egalitarian Chivalry

It is arrogance in us to call frankness, fairness and chivalry ‘masculine’ when we see them in a woman; it is arrogance in them, to describe a man’s sensitiveness or tact or tenderness as ‘feminine’.
-C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

I’m working my way through John Stackhouse’s book, Finally Feminist. Dr. Stackhouse sets out to present a theology of gender that is faithful to New Testament record, despite it’s apparent contradictions. In broad strokes this is what he proposes followed by my initial reaction.

The Paradigm

As is evident in the world around us there is a continued tension between the kingdom of the world and the Kingdom of heaven. Stackhouse says, “God’s direct and glorious rule is already and authentically here, through Jesus Christ, but it is not yet fully realized in this world still marred by sin.” This is the context then for the New Testament teaching about gender.

Jesus’, and by extension Paul’s, goal is to have the news of the Kingdom of heaven’s presence made known to as many as possible. In the early church then, there wasn’t an imperative to crate social change since the full manifestation of the Kingdom was understood to be imminent with Jesus triumphant return. This is the context of the “socially conservative” teaching of the New Testament with regard to women (and also interestingly with regards to slavery). Stackhouse calls the priority of the announcement of the Kingdom’s in-breaking over and above revolutionary social change, “holy pragmatism”.

Stackhouse quickly follows this up though by explaining that parallel with the announcement of the Kingdom, “we would expect to see kingdom values at work overcoming oppression, eliminating inequality, binding disparate people together in love and mutual respect and the like.” There are examples in church history where this has been the case but we have been slow to realize that the imminent return of Christ doesn’t exempt us from the work of joining with Jesus in expanding the Kingdom even now. While a conservative sociology was reasonable in Paul’s day, it’s hard to hold that excuse valid today. The pragmatism of announcing the Kingdom come still holds but the creation of a new social order, in partnership with the Sprit, under the authority of Christ, follows closely on its heals.

Gender inequality then is no different than poverty or stealing or lying in that as the Kingdom expands we the Church, play a role in bringing each under the lordship of Christ and his authority.

There are valid verse-by-verse and Greek-word-by-Greek-word critiques of Stackhouse’s paradigm and I’ll simply refer you to the book for a full discussion. For me the interesting bit is that the social understanding of gender is being redeemed as the Kingdom breaks in, no different than the rest of our fallen world.

The Implication

So if Stackhouse is correct and women and men are equal, both in worth and capacity, I wondered if chivalry was finally dead? I’ve concluded probably not.

As the Kingdom is realized and egalitarianism becomes normative I suspect we have the opportunity to be equal in one of two ways. It is possible that women and men could become equally selfish as too often seems to be the case or equally loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, gentle and self controlled.

Selfishness has been the default model of behavior for those with power. The examples are far too numerous: abusive husbands, corrupt CEO’s, absentee fathers, cheating boyfriends, parent’s-basement-dwelling-30-year-olds and too-busy-because-of-work friends. It was once just the men who had the power and the ability to act selfishly, but as egalitarianism finally began winning societal acceptance, women followed this model and became corrupt CEO’s, too-busy-because-of-work friends etc.

There is another way though. We can strive for an “egalitarianism of the fruit”. What if chivalry is not patriarchal because its core (values of sacrifice, love, gentleness and courage) could be extolled in both men and women? What if parenthood is still a viable vocation because gentleness, patience and love were valued in both men and women?

That is the kind of Kingdom I’d like to be a part of.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Two (not so gentle) Shoves Toward Action

Are you unaware that vast numbers of your fellow men suffer or perish from need of the things that you have to excess, and that you require the explicit and unanimous consent of the whole human race for you to appropriate from the common subsistence anything besides that required for your own?

-Jean-Jacques Rousseau

TV, computers, and the Internet
Democratize our sins, so that
The smallest child may have a dirty mind,
And this is progress for our kind,
Enriching those who most deserve to be
Enriched, leaving in poverty
The ones who're most deserving to be poor.
This way our art and literature
Serve our God-given freedom to express
Ourselves however we think best
And be as uninhibited as hogs,
Our electronic catalogs
Conveying all our everlasting hopes
While we glide down the frozen slopes
Of the statistical analysis
And the opinion poll.

Let this
Be a sign unto us: the plug, once plugged,
Cannot forever be unplugged.
When shocked by our electrifying diet
Of filth, inanity, and riot,
Official violence and family quarrels,
We pray to government to save our morals.

-Wendell Berry, "The air of the free"

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


An interesting article appeared in the Calgary Hearld this week. The headline asks the question, “Is the environment becoming the new millennium’s religion?” (Emma Gilchrist, Calgary Hearld, Thursday May 14 2009, N5). It goes on to profile the Unitarian Church of Calgary and there efforts to achieve “Green sanctuary” accreditation. One member of the congregation is quoted saying, “I see [environmentalism] as the future of the church, … that’s where the kids are.”

The little Christian community I am part of in Bowness, Calgary also values the environment. We’ve started a community garden on the lot beside the building we meet in and helped collect garbage and clean the neighborhood on the annual Bowness garbage day. I wonder what the paper would write about us? Is the environment taking over our theology?

I’m thankful that the answer is no. Reading about other faith communities placing their environmental endeavors at the top of their mission should give us at Awaken pause though and remind us that we need to understand the environment as part of God’s overarching plan for the redemption of all things. We can’t deify the environment itself but still must work to see it as the God who lovingly created it does.

Land is a recurrent theme through the whole story of God. Creation starts with the separation of earth from the heavens (Genesis 1). God was present in the garden at the beginning and called it good (Genesis 1). Among the first punishments from God was the requirement to work the land in order for it to bear fruit (Genesis 3). The people of God lived by faith that the land would be restored to them and allow them to live free from conflict (Hebrews 11). In the New Testament we hear apocalyptic tales of the earth being redeemed it’s status prior to sin entering the world (Revelation 21). No doubt this list is no where near complete but serves only to exemplify that our environment is not to be abused and discarded. Rather we are charged to, “Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.” (The Message, Genesis 1:28)

If the Hearld were to come and observe us at Awaken I hope this would be how they would describe us; a people taking this responsibility seriously because that is where God is at work not because it is, “where the kids are.” God is redeeming our neighbourhood, calling it to submit little by little to his will and his order for living. May we at Awaken learn to submit to God’s will for the sky and land and be faithful in our responsibility for, “every living thing that moves on the face of the Earth.”

"It’s good-natured land.... It responds to good treatment." It responds to bad treatment too, of course, and quicker…. The problem is how to maintain good treatment beyond an occasional lifetime.
-Wendell Berry in Hannah Coulter

Monday, May 18, 2009

Redeemable Powers?

I had to opportunity to hear Dr. Walter Wink lecture in Oakville, Ontario a few months ago. He delivered a keynote address at a conference entitled “Amidst the powers” exploring how the Church should exist in our current culture. He proposed a way of living that simultaneously avoids conformity and sectarianism; the powers of the world are at the same time good, evil and being redeemed. No doubt there is tension is trying to view the powers this way. Bear with me as I try to convey Dr. Wink's explanation and defense of his thesis. Any confusion is entirely on me.

The powers are good
It isn’t particularly difficult to look around and see that, as loath as we are to admit it, the powerful institutions do provide necessary and good services. The roads that allowed a safe drive to work today and the paramedics who brought an injured patient to the hospital this morning are both a result of the powers. This doesn’t imply that the powers are entirely or always good but does prevent us from entirely vilifying or condemning them.

The powers are evil
Again it’s not hard to find examples of this. I’ll cite just two examples. First, an elderly woman with a hip fracture complained to me recently that her nursing home was a horrible place to live. She felt that the management was more concerned with showing a profit for the investors than hiring enough qualified staff or spending money on interior decorating and quality food. Second, one year ago in Burma many people died because a powerful government refused to allow those affected by the natural disaster access to available aid. Also though is those of us in wealthy nations and our purchasing decisions that contributed to the poverty in Burma and therefore the lack of options available for the people displaced by the earthquake.

The powers are being redeemed
Redemption of the powers is the reality of the Kingdom of heaven. It is happening now and will not fully happen until Christ returns. Dr. Wink suggests that most powers have a proper vocation and that when they don’t perform this vocation they are fallen. Therefore being called back to this proper vocation can redeem them. For example my patients nursing home was created with the needed vocation of caring for elderly folks. It can be redeemed by recognizing this calling and placing it ahead of profit. In order for this redemption to occur though these institutions require leaders who are themselves redeemed.

Individual redemption from the powers in Dr. Wink’s view requires nothing short of death. He suggested, “we can’t elevate ourselves out from complicity with the powers but rather must make ourselves less.” He later stated that we need to, “die out from beneath their power and command so we are no longer complicit.” Death happens when our will is subservient to God’s will and his purposes. The paradox is that it is at this point we become a fully alive and free people able to challenge the powers.

Dr. Wink ended with the reminder that despite the importance of this individual redemption, “the gospel is not a salvation of individuals from the world but rather news about the transformation of the world right down to its individuality.”

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A Passionate Death

I’ve just finished reading Henri Nouwen’s, “Our Greatest Gift”. It was given to me by a friend in Kolkata. He told me that it had helped him learn how to care for the patients at Kalighat, the house for the dying, where he worked. Nouwen takes a very down to earth view of death so to speak. For him suffering isn’t some theoretical question but rather a preset reality as he tells many stories of his friends and loved ones dying around him.

Nouwen starts by suggesting that as we die and care for those who are dying we move into a second dependency and see ourselves as children of God. Probably my favorite piece of the bible is in 1 John where John says, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” We are loved as children dependant on the father and our dying reminds us of this in a practical sense.

Nouwen also supposes that there is great joy to be found in the communion that death and dying lead to with the rest of creation. He tells a story of a friend who made a pilgrimage to some holy site in an undeveloped nation to pray for healing. Upon arriving and seeing the suffering and sickness surrounding her she no longer desired to be healed but rather prayed to continue in her sickness because of the joy that being able to share the suffering of the others around her provided. We are part of something common to the living world when we die. As we care for those dying we are to be with the dying person so that the person dying catches a taste of the great community to which they belong.

In the hospital where I work there are many, many lonely people. I do not think that it is because their loved ones don’t want to visit them, but rather that in our western world we are more concerned with ourselves than our sick friends. As the people of God it is up to us to demonstrate the communion that occurs after death to the marginalized on this side of the grave.

Lastly Nouwen contends that just as Jesus death led to great fruitfulness so too can our deaths. He recognizes that it is impossible to speculate how this might look. “Something new will come to be, something about which I cannot say or think much. It lies beyond my own chronology.” As we help others die we must refuse to equate fruitfulness with strength, success, and accomplishment and view it rather as passion. Amy Carmichael the great missionary in India was ill and suffered in bed for the vast majority of her time overseas. In terms of success this was wasted ministry but in terms of passion she was able to say to those suffering:

…give Him time to steep the soul in His eternal truth. Go into the open air, look up into the depths of the sky, or out upon the wideness of the sea, or on the strength of the hills that is His also; or, if bound in the body, go forth in the spirit; spirit is not bound. Give Him time and, as surely as dawn follows night, there will break upon the heart a sense of certainty that cannot be shaken.

-Amy Carmichael

May we learn how befriend those who are alone in their dying and help them to see that death can indeed be passionate.