Tuesday 29 November 2011

It takes a congregation

In a 1996 book Hillary Clinton challenged the rampant individualism of modern western society by forcefully pointing out that, in the raising of the next generation, we all have a part to play. That is true whether or not we are directly related to the children in question. A society where the more affluent focus only on their children, abandoing a wider commitment to community, will be much poorer in the long run.

In recent weeks at Knox we've been hearing the phrase, "it takes a congregation." It's a sort of tongue-in-cheek way of raising volunteers and donations of materials and time for the annual turkey supper: "It takes a congregation to serve a turkey." Yes, I know, you can read that in a couple of ways! Every year our congregation puts on a turkey supper with all the trimmings. Not only does it kick off the Advent season, it also raises a portion of the annual revenue. I realized this year, that although the revenue is the "presenting reason" for the supper it's not the main benefit.

As with many such events staged by churches and other not-for-profit groups, if someone were to do a purely cost-benefit analysis of a typical fund-raising effort the truth is that if all the volunteers were to contribute $50 or $100 directly, they would raise a similar or larger amount with only a fraction of the effort. Of course, in most fund-raising efforts, many of the participants couldn't afford that contribution. Furthermore, dinners, yard sales, auctions and the like, hopefully allow others to contribute to the host organization's activity. Put bluntly, it provides the charity with another revenue stream! As well, it raises awareness that the organization - church or otherwise - is alive and functioning in the community. If someone comes for supper and is favourably impressed, perhaps they'll return for group's primary activities - such as worship. And, who knows, you might rub elbows with a long-lost friend or a brand new one, sitting on those awkward chairs at those long tables!

For the organization itself - like a congregation - the primary benefit is not financial, even if some folk imagine that it is. If the event really succeeds, it's because it draws people together in a new configuration. People who move in different circles of relationship are now side by side. New relationships are forged as plates are filled or gravy is poured; as patrons are served and places re-set for the next guest. In this case, both our youth group and Sunday School turned out in goodly numbers to help, which I know impressed not only our visitors but also regular church goers who don't always see the kids and youth because of different activity schedules. Think about it: particularly in an urban/suburban setting, how often do the generations outside of a family gather together for a shared task? How often do the children, teens, middlers and seniors get together at all, much less in a way that benefits others?

Of course, all is not shangri-la - the church is, after all, a divinely-instituted body populated by very human subjects! Always there are those who would organize this or that aspect differently. But, overwhelmingly, I was struck by the efficiency and effectiveness of the operation. And, far more importantly, by the joy being shown by those who were doing the work. They were having fun together. There was gentle teasing of one another, laughter when two servers ended up at the same patron with a plate of food at the same moment and times of pause where folk connected in very simple, human ways. No, from a purely financial perspective it wasn't terribly efficient. But the benefits to Christ's community of an opportunity to be in service together across the generations would make the event a success even if it lost money.

Sunday 20 November 2011

It calls to mind a scene from an old black and white movie: the incensed villagers converge on the castle of the rapacious lord with pitchforks and pruning hooks and torches.

A week ago, workers at the Bowater Mersey plant in southern Nova Scotia were faced with an incredible choice. In order to preserve the jobs of some, roughly 80 unionized jobs - close to half - would need to be cut from the work force. So said the employer: the alternative was to shut the mill. This is not just about the employees of course. It is about their families and indeed the economy of an entire county that has received several economic body blows in recent months. The vote was close and interviews with the workers revealed just how torn they were. This group of people has given and given and given in response to the company's demands over the years, rolling back one aspect of their contract after another.

Then came the word, not a week later, that two of company's senior employees shared almost $4million in bonuses and severance awards for making the plant more profitable! The new CEO will earn $765,000 plus performance bonuses of up to 100%. The new CFO earns $350,000 and is eligible for 100% more in short-term incentive bonuses and 125% in long-term incentive bonuses. Incidentally, the first two bonuses amount to more than the tax breaks given by the local municipality over the last ten years to encourage the company to maintain the plant and the jobs. And the company continues to plead its "need" for public assistance in taxes, power rates and the like.

Now, I don't know anything about the forestry industry. What I read in the paper indicates that it is an economic sector under tremendous pressure, particularly as the global market for newsprint continues to decline. But this isn't about cutting trees and milling wood and selling paper. This is about the just treatment of people who earn their living by the sweat of their brow and the communities that depend upon them. This about the incredible disconnect in our economy between those who actually do the work and those who pocket the lion's share of the reward. It is about the insistence that profits and executive pay must not be impacted by the financial challenges of a corporation.

I don't know anything about those Abitibi employees. They may indeed be fine , upstanding individuals, who are active in their communities and give to charity. But the system they are part of stinks! It reeks of an appalling injustice which sees the average CEO of a company in Canada make 155 times that of the worker in the company. By noon on January 3rd, the top100 CEOs in Canada will have garnered what the average employee will earn in in 2012. Henry Ford, crafty old industrialst that he was, recognized that at the level he was paying his employees they could never afford the cars running off his assembly lines. So he raised their wages. That attitude (called Fordism) and a strong trade union movement kept the disparity between the richest and the poorest in Canada in check for several decades. However, since the 1970s, income for working Canadians has been stagnant or declining, while profits for corporations and pay packages for executives have gone through the roof and continued into the atmosphere. I don't mind someone who invents a revolutionary new device or develops a genuine society-changing process gaining the rewards of their labours. But many of the highest paid are employed by companies that actually produce nothing, merely shuffling paper from one place to another. And now, recent research in Canada suggests that 10% of us would have difficulty, even with credit cards and lines of credit, meeting an unexpected $500 expense. And 59% of us would be in very serious problems if a pay cheque were delayed by one week.

Speaking of giving to charity: I applaud mega billionaires like Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett who challenge their peers to give away huge sums of money. Good for them!! But there is something radically amiss when justice is dependent on private philanthropy and the addressing of social ills relies on charity. That is a grotesque distortion of the values of our society which cherishes the obscene profits of the few over the well-being of the many.

I'm sure that some of the good people of Lunenberg and Queen's Counties would love to get out the pitchforks and torches! But, in a system where there is such disparity in values and lack of commitment to the community that has worked for the mill for generations, the risk is that the company would simply pack up and leave entirely. Imagine though, having to serve those executives in the local stores.

Saturday 19 November 2011

The Myth of Scarcity

I believe it was biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann who coined the phrase "the myth of scarcity and the gospel of abundance." The phrase sticks with me. The rest of this is from me, although it may owe something to Walter B as well. I just don't have the text in front of me to check! The myth of scarcity is a myth in two different ways. Perhaps you learned as a child, as I did, that myths were stories told by more primitive people "who didn't know as much as we do" to try and explain the way the world is. That use of myth - which represents a tremendous amount of European-North American arrogance - implies that "their" inferior lack of knowledge is replaced by "our" superior growth in knowledge - generally meaning through science.

Literary scholar (and United Church minister) Northrop Frye reminds us of the second, deeper meaning of myth. A myth is a story that is profoundly true. Despite its shape a myth isn't focused primarily on the "how" of something but the "why". Why is some aspect of the world around us or life as we experience it the way it is? So, four instance, the creation stories in Genesis are that kind of myth - a profound assertion of a people about why the world is the way it is. In summary, because God made it that way and declared it to be good.

The "myth of scarcity" is a myth twice over. At the surface level it is untrue: we demonstrate that it is untrue whenever we manage to find money to do something we really want to do. So when the government declares that there declares that there isn't enough money to have a credible national housing strategy but there is money to spend in a cabinet minister's riding. Or when world governments, confronted by the truth that an infinitesimal portion of the profits of banks each year could eliminate childhood deaths due to hunger and malnutrition and they do not step up to the plate - because money is scarce. Or when someone says that they cannot contribute to a charity or another worthy cause because money is tight - yet they have the latest gadgets or regularly take exotic vacations. In each of those cases those are myths that are untrue: the truth is not scarcity but our decisions around expenditures which, for whatever reason, we seek to hide behind the myth of scarcity.

The second, and more insidious form of the myth, comes when we have heard the claims of scarcity so often that they simply become accepted. So, when someone says, "Oh, we can't do that because money is tight" and everyone else nods sagely in understanding. That often masquerades as the practical, reasonable, commonsense response. And because we hear it so often in so many settings the expression has a currency and a credibility. Everywhere we turn there is someone declaring how times are hard and money is tight. If enough people say the same thing enough times it takes on an air of factuality regardless of the truth.

I am not denying that there are those - far too many in fact - in Canada, for whom life is very difficult financially. But, in how many cases, are their challenges related to the fact that the rest of us have bought the myth that resources are too scarce to address those grotesque differences? So let's bracket out those folk, not as proof of the myth of scarcity but as victims of it!

Like many myths that are repeated often enough and come to be accepted as fact (most racial and gender stereotypes are like that) the myth of scarcity which is so often repeated in our society creeps into the church. Governments have adopted the myth of scarcity to further the politics of division (promising to make sure that each group gets to keep its little portion when together we could be much stronger). In the church we often hear about how we can't do this, that or the other because there isn't enough money. In one sense that's true. In absolute dollars the Mission and Service Fund of my denomination is identical to where it was thirty years ago. Which means that the spending power has plummeted. Yet, when the Maritime Conference recently solicited funds to provide breakfast for survivors at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission meetings in Halifax, more than double the hoped-for amount was raised! Look at the outpouring of relief for drought stricken Africa, earthquake ravaged Haiti, flooded Thailand, and the list goes on. The issue is not scarcity - the issue is helping people realize that this needs to be a priority.

The gospel of abundance is what Jesus came proclaiming, and we've been trying to truncate it and limit it ever since. We try and explain away his assertions about the power of faith or the breadth of the kingdom's welcome or the incredible results if we act in faith. We don't teach tithing because we say it's not reasonable. Maybe what's not reasonable is to expect much from a carefully rational and controlled faith. Maybe what's not reasonable is to expect to do the work of the kingdom of God while honouring the myth of scarcity.

Thursday 17 November 2011


Halifax has shared with other, much larger cities, an Occupy movement. The Occupiers initially established themselves on the Grand Parade - the central plaza in the middle of the city. After an agreement with veterans associations they agreed to relocated for Remembrance Day (see the post for November 6th) There was certainly the impression amongst the Occupiers and in the media that the Mayor had given indications that the Occupiers could return to the Grand Parade following Remembrance Day. Here's what happened

At 11:00 a.m. on November 11th, a decorated Afghanistan veteran and one of the Occupy protesters, together, laid a wreath and shook hands with Mayor Peter Kelly. At that very moment, police were presenting notices to the Occupiers to permanently remove their tents from the park where they had relocated. They would not be permitted to return to Grand Parade.

Apparently, at a closed door meeting of City Council on Tuesday November 8th the decision had been made to enforce a bylaw forbidding camping in city parks. I say apparently, because no one is saying what happened in that meeting. Halifax City Council is very fond of such meetings. I haven't crunched any numbers, but our city must surely be near the top of the list for such gatherings.

In any event, a couple of hours after the notices were given, police showed up in force, in a driving rain storm, and with a fair degree of aggressiveness, removed the protesters, dismantled their tents and arrested fourteen. All this on Remembrance Day mind you.

Back to City Hall. This Tuesday, November 15th, two or three attempts by councilors to have an open explanation of the decision to remove the protesters were shot down. One that sticks out is when a councilor attempted to move a motion to put the matter on the agenda for the public meeting of Council, the Mayor muted her microphone and declared that the city's solicitor would need to rule on whether her motion was in order. Excuse me! Unless we've instituted a new system where the city solicitor is an elected position, staff can advise the council but the Mayor has the legal responsibility to preside. Staff advise - the elected officials choose whether or not to accept and abide by that advice and must carry the consequences for that decision as for all choices they make. A few hours later, when the same councilor attempted to publicly apologize for her part in the decision to shut down the Occupy encampment, her microphone was turned off and she was silenced because the matter is before the courts (recall those fourteen who were arrested).

So, now we have a situation where a significant action (at least for a city the size of Halifax) was undertaken for reasons that are not being made public. The Mayor is saying that once the decision was made it became "an operational matter" - which is code for, don't blame me it was the police who decided to act when and how they did On something with this kind of political optics? In the absence of fact, rumours are swirling and the political leaders are hiding behind the legal advice to not talk.

So, here's the situation. The lack of engagement by youth with the political process is often bemoaned. What can we do to get them involved, is the routine lament. Admittedly, I haven't been able to figure out a single clear message from the Occupy Movement - and I'm not sure anyone else has. But that may be because they are trying to embody a new way of doing social engagement, that takes multiple voices seriously and doesn't boil everything down to sound bites and attack ads. A way of being society that takes the time to raise multiple concerns and hear them out. Clearly they were offensive to some. Lots of folk are prepared to label them in very dismissive terms. I'm not sure how you compare someone living in a tent in a public park with someone else who passes politicians large sums of money in unmarked envelopes.

Apparently we (or our leaders) are not prepared to even consider engaging with a group that calls the entire system into question - in large measure because the system has brought us to the brink of ecological disaster, financial crisis, social decay and political gridlock. What the actions of Halifax's council seem to declare is that we're only willing to listen to your participation when the system co-opts you. It reminds me of congregations that moan about wanting new members but who really only want newcomers to sustain them in the ways they've become used to and get riled when a newcomer suggests something different. It's a sad day when politicians, meeting in secret and hiding behind advice that they've chosen to take, seek to snuff out a breath of fresh air and suppress a genuine possibility for engagement.

"'Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will rise up,' says the Lord; 'I will place them in the safety for which they long.' The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure, silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times." Psalm 12:5-6

Thursday 10 November 2011

Faith & Remembering

Every year around this time there's a debate in some church circles about how - and to what extent - congregations should enact Remembrance Observances. Personally, I think it's a good conversation to have, because it pushes us to think about why we do what we do. And I worry more about our untested assumptions than I do about offending someone who doesn't want to have the conversation. There are several factors that come into such a decision - in no particular order.

First, unless we have consciously chosen to separate ourselves from society - like the historic peace churches - most Christian denominations in Canada participate in and benefit from the institutional existence of the country. That doesn't mean we can't criticize. It does mean that we aren't free to "cherry-pick" what we share in. So, for instance, in the United Church's guidelines for ethical behaviour and practice for ministry personnel, there are considerations to be undertaken when a minister engages in acts which may lead to arrest. The guidelines don't say "don't do it"; nor do they say "you can ignore the law." They clearly set out that, as a part of a particular nation, those who choose to engage in civil disobedience need to ponder certain realities. So too with Remembrance. We are part of a nation that has benefited from actions undertaken in the past. That doesn't mean we have to glorify war or refrain from critical engagement with government when it commits us to war. It is part of our national reality that we cannot - and should not - avoid.

Second, when we look at the history of Christian attitudes to war and peace we find that the motivations of the early church in avoiding military service and action do not entirely apply to us today. While there certainly was concern for Jesus' commands about violence, much of the early Christian writing focuses on the army's policing role (suppressing minority Christian communities) and the danger of idolatry. Members of the legions were required to participate in the "cult of the Divine Emperor" (declaring, religiously, "Caesar is Lord") on regular occasions. Furthermore, the legion standards were treated as idols, objects of religious veneration. Neither of those concerns applies to military service today. As well, there are centuries of Christian wrestling with the matter of "just war" and how "Christian" nations and their leaders can, as much as possible, balance the competing claims impacting upon them. Those debates are not always satisfying in their results. At the same time, outside the historic peace churches we cannot, accurately, maintain that the Christian tradition has always been contrary to war.

Third, I hope that when a Christian community participates in Remembrance observances, we keep clear the lines between gratitude and glorification. We can - and I think ought to - be grateful to those who make huge sacrifices on our behalf. As many autobiographies make clear, the motivations for action and enlistment were as varied as the individuals involved. They were not all natural born heroes and, in some communities, the social pressures were tremendous. Similar forces apply today which is one reason why the economically challenged areas of the country are disproportionately represented in the ranks of the Armed Forces. That is all part of the human reality and does not detract, for a moment, from examples of courage, sacrifice and service. In several decades of conducting Remembrance observances I have never had anyone - veteran or not - object to the distinction I always draw between the individuals we remember and war itself. I have been privileged to know many veterans. While they often revel in their memories of comradeship and a sense of being fully alive (remember, most of them were barely out of adolescence) I've never encountered any who thought the actual fighting was glorious or who would wish it for their grandchildren. Veterans, perhaps better than anyone, understand the distinction between honouring the sacrifices made while deploring the need for those sacrifices.

Would that government could make that distinction: then we would be subjected to stupid observations that those who object to national military policies are "not supporting the troops"! One can be entirely critical of a national policy - such as involvement in Afghanistan - while simultaneously insisting that the women and men who are acting on our behalf (this is a national policy after all) have the tools they need to undertake that action as effectively and safely as possible. Those are not contradictions in terms, despite government attempts to make it so.

Finally (amongst many thoughts) it is crucial that the church continue to engage with the hard realities of life. War - and our often conflicted feelings about war - is one of those realities. We simply do not have the freedom to walk away from that engagement nor leave the field to those who would abuse it.

Here is the prayer I have used in Remembrance observances for so many years that I can't even recall if I wrote it or borrowed it:

The God of peace and love be with you. And also with you.

We come before you God, not to glorify war, but to honour and celebrate those who walked into the chaos and evil that is war: those who were civilians and those who were military; those who braved the censure of society and those who gave of themselves for that society; those who survived and those who did not; those who were friends and those who were enemies. None who have waded through evil, death and sorrow are untouched in body, mind or spirit; they are beloved of God. We all were affected and changed by conflicts past and present, and all are in need of reflection, renewal, comfort and healing. Amen.

Wednesday 9 November 2011


How we choose to regulate our common life is an important question. Whether it's a nation, a family or a church, the way we make decisions says a lot about who we imagine ourselves to be. How much meaningful participation are various people allowed in the normal decisions that affect their lives? What is the balance between routine decisions about which the mass of the governed don't really care and the decisions in which they are really invested - and who decides which is which?

These are not just abstract philoophical ramblings. They could be applied at different places in Canada. But my focus is much more narrow - namely my denomination. I'm pretty involved in the governance life of the United Church at all levels - national, regional and local. It's one of the subjects I teach. So shifts in govenance policy interest me more than they might the average person. In recent years there has been a shift in the UCCan to a form of "policy governance." The problem with that shift is that, like many incremental movements, it has been quite subtle. Suddenly we (the vast majority of the governed) wake up to find ourselves in a very different place and wonder how we got there.

Policy governance is also known as the "Carver Model" and it is employed successfully in a variety of not-for-profit and large educational bodies across Canada. In essence, the policy governance model works like this: the elected representatives set broad policy objectives and the senior employee of the organization is reponsible (through the other staff) for achieving those goals. In its purest form, the governing body sets objectives and names the ways that are not acceptable, and the senior employee goes to it. For example, "Our organization needs to break even financially in the next year. You may not employ any means that are illegal or immoral." From that point, the senior employee is free to choose the method(s) to achieve the goal and, if the objective is realized, then they have done their job and the governing board has no grounds to quibble. The model relies on the expertise and initative of that senior employee and other staff.

It has a lot to recommend it. Most importantly, it compels volunteer boards to do the "high level" work of goal and direction setting that we often find so difficult. Volunteer boards, at just about every level, gravitate to the minutae and the maintenance. Vision casting and looking to the future is tough stuff. Most of us don't do it in our own lives a lot of the time. Why would it be any more natural or automatic in an organization? It also leave the employees of the organization the freedom to respond in a nimble and effective fashion to various realities in a fast-paced culture without constantly checking in with often far-flung and infrequently gathering boards.

So what's my problem? Simply that, without any decisions actually being made and without any consultation occuring, the UCCan has moved, fairly rapidly, to a form of the policy governance model. That may be the right decision. That may be the model we need to employ. However, when an organization, like a church, makes such a shift it seems important that we think together about the theological and ecclessiological components of such a move. A church is not like any other "not for profit" organizations in important ways. Models and methods of church governance are not neutral nor are they prescribed in the New Testament. But an episcopal system (based on bishops) is different from a congregational system (where each local body has high degrees of autonomy) is different from a presbyterial system (where governance in many important matters is vested in a regional gathering of laity and clergy) and so on. No system is automatically holier than another, and the occupants of each model often look longingly at what they imagine are the benefits of all the others! But the models are different - not just in form. How churches govern ourselves is not neutral. It speaks volumes about our convictions regarding God, our shared call to serve God's mission in the world and how we believe the Spirit communicates truth and guidance. It effects the very nature of who we are as a community of Christ in the world. It's not enough to be effective and efficient we must also be faithful as we understand faithfulness. It's a decision that all need to share.

Monday 7 November 2011

The Truth about Reconciliation

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recently held hearings in Halifax. It was the third of seven stops across the country between last year and 2015. Since the only residential school in the province was the Roman Catholic administered school at Schubenacadie, our Roman brothers and sisters, bore the brunt of the anger. I know the rest of us will have our turn in other venues. That's a good thing. It was fascinating to see the range of responses from Roman Catholics I know - and some who made themselves known to me! They spread from horror and denial ("it could never have been like that"), through professed ignorance, to frustration ("What am I supposed to do? Or "I wasn't there.")

None of that is new to me. I've been through the range myself. My first exposure to the Indian Residential School issue really came when, as a newly minted member of the United Church's General Council Executive, we were called into a closed door meeting to decide whether, having been sued for our involvement in the schools, we would counter-sue the federal government. For years, First Nations groups had been stonewalled in their attempts to have governments meaningfully address this oozing sore in our national history. Suing the churches, and having us counter sue the government, seemed the only tactic that would bring the feds to the table. Not that the churches don't have much to answer for, but the feds have the deep monetary pockets out of which meaningful responses could be funded. Further, the Indian residential Schools were a national government policy, undertaken on behalf of all Canadians.

Since those difficult days in 1998 I've had the difficult privilege of sitting in a few sharing circles. I've heard the stories, a mixture of painfully common repeated patterns of abuse sharpened and intensified by each survivor's particular horrors. I've also been on the receiving end of a certain amount of very angry denial from church folks who don't want to (or can't bring themselves to) acknowledge the truth of what is being said. We are often hampered by the individualism of middle class guilt which does not know how to respond to larger systemic injustices.

I've been wondering what I would say in such a sharing circle. How could I make my "I'm sorry" have life?

I'm sorry - I had a good education, I majored in history and I've taught history and I didn't know. Not until those lawsuits began. My education failed me and I didn't look deep enough. I knew about the Japanese-Canadian internments in the Second World War and about how my Protestant ancestors tried to "convert" Ukrainian Catholic immigrants to the prairies. I had some good teachers and my education was not entirely Euro-Centric. But it totally overlooked something that was going on, even as I was in high school. I hope the TRC can push to include this crucial piece of history as part of the required curriculum across the country.

I'm sorry - and I'm moved. I have two grown daughters who are pretty close to the centre of my universe. I simply cannot imagine what it would be like to have them torn from me, to be unable to communicate in our own language and share our customs. I'm in awe at the number of survivors who are willing to sit down with the descendants of their oppressors and speak of a different future. I'm not sure I could.

I'm sorry for our pride and I'm worried that it still operates. How did we get from the gospel of Jesus Christ to the residential schools? Where are the values of God's Kingdom of shalom reflected in that system? Only through the lens of our pride and our conviction that we (whoever the dormant "we" are) know what is best for others. And I'm worried that we may be doing the same thing to some other group and to individual lives, right now.

I'm sorry for not understanding. In 1986 then moderator Bob Smith offered the United Church's first apology to First Nations for our failures in our interactions at so many levels. (http://www.united-church.ca/beliefs/policies/1986/a651). The elders received that apology graciously but did not accept it (http://www.united-church.ca/aboriginal/relationships/response). They wanted to see how we would live it out. Recalling the timeline noted above, I didn't understand then, but I do now. Words are always cheap.

I'm sorry it took so long. As a member of the governing councils I experienced the frustration that leaders in other situations and other denominations have expressed: the sense that we were kept from doing what our hearts and souls told us our faith demanded of us because of the warnings from lawyers and insurance companies. What I heard was, "If you apologize, we'll cut you loose." In a time when whole dioceses of other traditions were facing bankruptcy to pay lawsuit settlements, our concern for the financial well-being of the church trumped what we wanted to do. Fear won out. It took a lot of courage and a lot of struggling to get to the point of apologizing for our part in the residential schools (http://www.united-church.ca/beliefs/policies/1998/a623). Too long.

I'm sorry. The truth is that reconciliation is a very long journey that will change all of us.

Sunday 6 November 2011


A few days again our local paper published a cartoon. It showed a Canadian military veteran speaking to a member of the Occupy Halifax Movement and saying, "When I was your age I was occupying Europe." It would appear that the Occupy Halifax folk and the Canadian Legion have worked out a solution to the use of the Grand Parade - no thanks to our mayor who tried to politicize the exercise. The parties managed to solve it themselves.

A little geography for those unfamiliar with Halifax. In the middle of the downtown stands the Grand Parade. This is a roughly two block long and a block wide plaza. At one end is Halifax's historic city hall and at the other, the even more historic St Paul's Anglican Church. In between there are some green spaces, some lovely gardens, the city cenotaph and a memorial to police officers. Because of its location it is used for a variety of events of many different sorts. But the presence of the cenotaph makes it particularly significant this time of year. it is also the place where, on November 9th, a Holocaust Remembrance event occurs.

But that geographic and emotional centrality made it the logical place for the Occupy Halifax movement to set up camp - which they have done. The Occupy movement leaves me with conflicting feelings. On the one hand, the somewhat eclectic range of concerns makes it difficult to get a handle on the movement and some of the folk involved are easy to dismiss as unemployed and lazy attention seekers. Reporters seem to enjoy making fun of them by asking for 30 second answers to complex problems. On the other hand, the Occupy Movement, world wide, seems to be an indictment of our current ways of doing politics and economics and social engagement. If we look at Canada we see frighteningly low rates of engagement in politics by the majority of Canadians - and it gets worse the younger the group we examine. We don't vote, we don't go to all-candidates meetings, we don't join political parties, we turn the whole process off. Perhaps it is the complexity of society, perhaps it's the difficulty of seeing real change, maybe it's the conviction that the system is effectively static and real reform is impossible. But if a measure of the health of the system is engagement - ours is clearly ailing.

The Occupy folk have been compared to the character from the movie Network, throwing open his window and saying, "I'm mad as hell and I won't take it any more." I'm not sure they represent 99% of the population, but at least they're out there trying to make a difference. The problem is trying to fit a new way into an old pattern - new wine into old wine skins as someone once said. We expect "protesters" to have a single issue or at least be able to gather their different concerns into a clear slogan that fits a sound bite. The system expects a platform or a set of demands. The system expects those protesting to fit within the existing parameters. That can lead to huge and important social change. But what do we do with a movement which says, in effect, "The system is broken and we don't have a solution. But no one's talking about it and until we do we're bandaging the Titanic." What do we do with a movement that doesn't have identified hierarchies and doesn't decide by winner take all votes but by consensus?

So, the Occupy Halifax folk annoy some of the good citizens for different reasons. They inspire others. They made a good (quite savvy) decision to move off Grand Parade for the Holocaust Memorial and Remembrance Day. That will avoid a lot of antagonism. They promise to be back. I hope they are and I hope they can pull the rest of us into engaging their out-of-the-box way of doing things. because the box they're opposed to is pretty broken.

It may well be that the Occupy folks -around the globe - are correct. Perhaps "the system" was built (or at least has evolved) this way. To a point where competing and opposing interests can challenge one another at great length and considerable heat and some (sometimes substantial) changes can occur. But in the end, the system doesn't change. Barack Obama, for instance, seems to have shifted from his post-partisan stance to a quite partisan politician. There is no "we", in the public square, there is only us and them. I can still remember the first time a politician in Canada said that the role of government was not to govern for the good of all or for the protection of the most vulnerable but to adjudicate between competing interests. Somehow I became a member of an interest group, a stakeholder - no longer a citizen. That creates a very different kind of politics and certainly one that plays into the fashion in which political life in Canada is conducted. I think we're all poorer for it. I hope the Occupy folks can at least point the way towards another style of discourse. I'm not optimistic though.

Saturday 5 November 2011

Crime Laws

The Harper Government (because that's what we're told to call it) claims to want to keep me safer. That's reassuring. I like safe. A few months ago we were out for an evening walk and came around the corner to the aftermath of a pepper spray or bear spray (I don't know the difference) attack. I can't imagine what it would be like to get the full blast because what was hanging in the air was bad enough. There was also lots of swearing going on and one group of youths moving one direction laughing and boasting and another guy and the woman with him trying to recover. I want to be kept safe from that.

Similarly, if I believe the emphasis in my local media and what gets the headlines, I would have the impression that there's been an incredible increase in violence - particularly gun violence. And yet, crime rates are continuing to trend lower - across the country. They have been for nearly ten years. Of course there are exceptions and we should fully support victims of crime in any way we can. Maybe we need to do more. People who have been robbed tell me that it feels like an incredible violation and leaves them with all manner of insecurities. And I can't imagine what I would feel or want to do if someone close to me were the victim of violence or murder.

But that's me personally! I expect my government to try and lead us to a better level not accelerate the race to the bottom. If I want revenge I expect a civilized government to control that urge - not institutionalize it! We might say that it's a good idea for government to get out ahead of the curve in terms of emerging problems. To prepare laws in anticipation of developing areas of crime. We might say it but it doesn't happen often. In this case, the government is behind the curve - particularly the statistical curve of downward crime rates. But this is the government that trashed Stats Can. This is the government whose chief spokesperson on the file, Solicitor General Rob Nicholson, is quoted in the media as dismissing decreasing crime rate statistics, claiming to be more interested in Canadians' safety than in such numbers Some of us with long memories recall Mr Nicholson as a member of the Mike Harris ("Common Sense Revolution") government in Ontario, telling the constituents in Kingston and the Islands not to expect any government money (like roads, bridges, schools, hospital upgrades, etc) because the riding dared to return a Liberal MPP. This is the government which seemed, not long ago, to be caught up in the radical increase in "unreported crime," though I don't recall them explaining how they could track something that was unreported.

Like I said, I want to be safe. And I deal too often with the victims of our inhumanity to one another. And yes, when I'm hurt or those I love are hurt, I sometimes want revenge. But is there any evidence to suggest that we will be any safer if we build more jails, lock up more people, limit the discretion of crown attorneys and judges and lengthen sentences - across the board? Most studies indicate that increased rates of incarceration, after a certain point, simply lengthen the amount of time that people spend in "a school of crime." They emerge more hardened, more isolated from society as a whole, with fewer skills and face greater barriers to their efforts to reintegrate with the rest of the country. So, they re-offend and the sad cycle continues. There is no evidence that increased sentences serve as a deterrent. But all that comes from studies and Conservative members of Parliament dismiss such reports and their authors as being too remote from what's happening with real Canadians. Which being translated means, Canadians who agree with us.

Isn't it astonishing how we can find the billions of dollars for putting more people in jail for longer stretches (although increasing numbers of provinces are coming forward saying that if this is Ottawa's plan then Ottawa can pay the bills thank you) but we are one of the few countries in the developed world without a credible affordable housing strategy, where dozens of First Nations communities are under permanent boil water orders and where the numbers of children in poor families continues to increase? Will this massive crime bill make victims and their families feel better? Perhaps - and maybe if I was in that group my attitude would be different. But will it make us safer? Doesn't seem likely.

I guess I understand the politics of fear and division. It's been around for a long time. You create a sense of the group by cultivating a sense of fear of "the other." It works best if you can create a caricature of "the other" that no one has met, but who is lurking out there, just off stage, waiting to do horrible things. Then it becomes easy to cast oneself as the saviour of the "good folk." I'm not saying that everyone in the Harper government is that cynical. Some of them probably are but there are lots of people who believe that's the way the world is. Good folk and bad folk and everyone who is bad wilfully chose to prey on the rest. There are some wilfully bad folk - I've dealt with some. They see the rest of us as sheep for the shearing. But mostly I think that there aren't "good folk" and "bad folk" there are just "us folk" - all of us trying to get along on life's journey, seeking some very basic things, twisted out of our true humanity by the increasingly strident media voices, needing to be restored to our true humanity. Locking them up and throwing away the key builds up the divisions. It doesn't seem much of a way to accomplish healing for society or individuals.

Friday 4 November 2011

Why write?

Last fall I had the opportunity to participate in a seminar led by Brian McLaren at AST (see the link to Brian to the right). I happen to think he's one of the more astute and thoughtful reflectors on the church and world today. The fact that he sees the United Church as a helpful model to correct much of what's wrong with the church in the United States doesn't hurt either! Anyway, it was a very interesting and inspiring event. During the three days I had the opportunity to ask him: "How do you make time to write so much?" Because if you check out a lot of his writing - prior to 2008 anyway - was the lead minister in a significantly sized church near Washington D.C. He also has a growing family and gives every impression of being a pretty engaged dad. Nowadays he's one of those folks who are always headlining events. Everytime you turn around he's keynoting something somewhere - and that's just North America. He does it world wide.

So, how do you do it? Prior to moving to Halifax (2000) I did a fair amount of writing - at least for someone fulltime in a pastoral charge. I was very privileged. I even got to do a stint with the Kingston Whig Standard as part of the community editorial board. Newpaper editors are a lot less forgiving of wasted words than journal editors! Those various possibilities were an important creative outlet. In the last decade my writing was much more limited and very focussed on a couple of major projects. So, how to get back at it?

McLaren's answer? Actually there were two: "I write when I travel" and "Blog." Well, I don't travel all that much and when I do I am usually so whacked at the end of the day that it would be gibberish!! So, here's the blog. I look forward to my interactions with you and thank you for indulging me. I anticipate a variety of subjects which I hope will interest you as much as they interest and push me.