Four things that make me rather cross.

  • Transit strikes.

I can get on board with unions. They’re necessary to balance the interests of workers against the interests of corporations. I get that. Yet when it comes to transit workers, some of the most overpaid and impolite unionised individuals in existence barring perhaps automotive workers, I’m not on their side. Especially when the TTC members reject an offer that would make them the highest paid transit workers in the country, even in the face of their union recommending they take the deal. Especially when they give an hour or less notice that they’ve decided to strike, stranding tens of thousands of people who count on the TTC to operate. They could not possibly have engendered less public support for their actions. Almost everyone I’ve talked to about the strike is enraged at the TTC. Couldn’t the union have simply started a work-to-rule campaign wherein they stopped accepting fares? That would have put pressure on the city without garnering for themselves the further, aggravated dislike of an entire city.

  • Shark fin soup.

I watched Sharkworld last night. The film is amazing, but the events portrayed in the film are a travesty. An unmitigated, utterly barbaric raping of the oceans. Frankly, anyone who eats shark fin soup should have his arms and legs chopped off and be left to starve on the side of a road somewhere. If flaunting your wealth involves damaging the life-support system of the entire earth, perhaps you should be made to feel the cost of that. I hope future generations look back on the Chinese and Taiwanese as a sort of barbarian race of ecological terrorists whose actions severely diminished the richness of the world’s oceans. Not that I have much of a high horse to speak from; Canada’s seal hunts and government subsidised fisheries are just as ruthless and unconcerned with long-term impact. Personally, I stopped eating fish — any fish, at all — about six months back, after reading A Short History of Nearly Everything. And it’s sad to see that a bunch of nutcases at Greenpeace are doing God’s work (in their own strange, rabid way) while the vast majority of Christians don’t bother to tend to the world’s largest garden: the seas.

  • Evangelicals in bed with the Republican party

Certainly after Mr Bush’s disastrous dual terms in office, some of the Republicans in the States must be second-guessing their religious affiliation with their party. That it took a bunch of crooks to do that is a great tragedy. That some will never question that affiliation is a greater tragedy still. Still, with the mythology of the Pilgrims and Religious Freedom and Democracy and Fighting The Evil British and God Is On Our Side still going strong, it’s not really that strange. It’s just… sad. America is no more on God’s side than Charlemagne or Constantine (whose in hoc signo vinces should still ring as an affront to the very ethic of Jesus, and one of the greatest lies the devil has managed to perpetuate over the ages). You mix your religion with your politics and you find that they make very bad bedfellows. Your religion must of course inform your political views, but politics must not ever inform your religion. Politics is about the exercise earthly power; Jesus is about the exercise of heavenly power. These things are very, very different. They are oil and water. You should not mix them up, or soon you find people painting Jesus on the side of their nuclear warheads.

  • Cliches in sermons.

If you are attempting to preach an authentic sermon, something that resonates in the hearts and minds of your listeners, don’t use cliches. Don’t use marketspeak. You’re not a motivational speaker. You’re not an entertainer. You must approach scripture and let it inform your method of preaching. People do not need handy bullet points that rhyme and have a particularly pleasing cadence. Bullet points do not impart truth, at least not any sort of useful truth. As anyone trying to implement and idea will tell you, it’s not simply enough to have a great idea: you need a great implementation. That is to say that while a turn of phrase might be handy to encapsulate the thrust of your message, the nuances are where the magic lies. Or, you might say, the difference between Mac OS X and Windows. There’s a reason Jesus used parables and not a lot of handy tracts. You can mine a parable for ages, you can look at it from different directions and see things you didn’t see before, you can over-analyse it, you can approach it with too much gravitas, you can do all kinds of things. A bullet point is boring. A bullet point that rhymes and sticks in your head is annoying and boring.

I have to expand on this. Jesus told stories that had a particular richness to them. They weren’t simple anecdotes with simple points. They were designed so you have to look at them just the right way — often in hindsight — to get the point. And often you’ll quite dislike the point because it hits you dead-centre.

These days preachers tend to tell stories both brief and humorous that make a particular broad point that lines up with their sermons. These stories are blunt instruments. They’re not really narrative: they’re cleverly disguised bullet points. There’s no meat. There’s no content. They’re like a dancing monkey with colourful clothes: it might be briefly entertaining, but you certainly wouldn’t want to marry the monkey. It’s just a monkey. Take off all the clothes and strip away the dancing routine and it’s just a monkey. And you’ll find that monkeys are rather boring, after all.

I’d like to be told the truth. Not a particularly one-dimensional version of the truth that can fit in three points and thirty minutes. If telling the truth means you need to go into overtime and tell stories and confuse me and dig deeper than I’m prepared to go, DO IT. God knows I’m never going to do that myself, willingly.

The Separation of Church and State

When the founders of the United States first envisioned their country, it seemed they saw a country where religion would inform government, but government wouldn’t impose strictures on religion. Obviously, this sort of pragmatic stance resulted from the obsession old world’s states had with organised religion, as if without a state-mandated faith, their societies would crumble. It probably also had a lot to do with economics, but that’s a whole other topic.

We’ve come far from that point. In Canada, I’m pretty sure we never even were at that point. Now, separation of church and state means more that both government and religion should not inform eachother as much as is possible. This is what we call the secular state.

Christians of all stripes can view this a bunch of ways, I think. There are some that think that a secular state is an impossibility, and that trying to create one is a mistake. Others view the secular state as a sort of unfortunate necessity, a goal that can’t really be reached, but must be, under the circumstances.

I think both are fair positions to take. They both take a different kind of nation with different kinds of goals, sure. Yet they’re both reasonable.

I’m in the second camp, mostly. I say mostly because those categories are a reduction, a sort of boiling down of a whole range of though. I’m not expecting anyone reading this to fall exactly into either category. Life isn’t that binary. I’m mostly in the second on the list. Mostly.

Here’s what I think. The Christian faith has a bunch of goals, right? There’s an overarching purpose to it all, that God glorified himself, as he should. Yet there are smaller goals as well. Jesus restoring his creation to himself. His followers living like him and practicing true religion. Christians loving their neighbors, whoever that may be. Praise. Loving God. The pursuit of holiness. These are some of the goals of the Christian faith.

Nations-states, however, have a radically different agenda. Their overarching purpose, though it may unwittingly glorify God, is self-preservation. Like any other organisation, a nation-state takes on the agenda of its constituents, and exists simply to exist. There are smaller goals beneath that, like expressing ethnic identity, gathering around a shared value, or simply protecting a bunch of land. At the end of the day, though, nations are about self-preservation, whether offensively or defensively or both.

These goals clash. Christians simply don’t spread the faith through violence and force. Nations preserve themselves through force: it’s not a perfect world.

When these two entities co-mingle, the resulting monster is hard to put down. The state intrudes into the faith and suddenly there is tyranny and persecution. The faith intrudes into the state and suddenly there is fanatical nationalism and oppression.

Christians can be politicians, and politicians can be Christians, no problem. But the domain of the state is not conducive to the practice of true religion: you do not wage a “Christian” war, and you should not crouch a war in religious terminology. While the state must use force, the Christian absolutely must not.

On the other hand, though the government must not be a respecter of religions, religions are not bound by such strictures. Religions are about opposing truth claims. Christianity makes truth claims that say, among other things, that all the other religions of the world are counterfeits. And while governments must not make these sorts of claims, Christianity must be free to do so, whether it irks the tolerant soul of every civil servant labouring towards an equal commons.

This is essentially what I believe on this matter. Freedom of religion is essential, a secular state is essential, and the separation of the two is the guiding essential that keep both from collapsing into and ruining eachother.

I used to like Stephen Harper.

When the Conservative government came to power, I was excited. Finally, the Liberals were gone! Even a minority government, I though, was better than nothing.

Two years later, I’m having major doubts. Some recent developments — especially restarting the Chalk River reactor against the advice of the CNSC — are beginning to cast the Prime Minister and his government in a very unflattering light. Coupled with the government’s delegation to the latest environmental summit including oil company representatives (WTF, Mr Harper?), this year’s closed-doors meeting with the US and industry regarding water supplies, and the recently tabled copyright bill (an absolute disgrace to every Canadian ideal, a shameful travesty that essentially looks written by media executives themselves, and something Mr Prentice should be embarrassed to have even proposed), it seems my government is shackling itself to the very industries it is supposed to regulate and govern.

I’m quite certain that elected officials in the States are essentially bought and paid for by big oil, big media, big guns, and the like. But here? That’s not the kind of government I want.

I’m strongly thinking of voting Green in the next election. I have no faith in the Liberals (who have essentially handed Mr Harper a shadow majority with their political ineptitude). I’m just glad the Conservatives don’t have a majority: imagine the damage he could do to this country if Mr Harper were unfettered from consensus!

Past labels.

I’m 26, which is pretty old in the grand scheme of things. I used to look up at 26 year old people when I was maybe 10 and think how old and mature they seemed. Of course, I was 10, and when you’re 10 you don’t exactly have an accurate outlook on the world. I was probably mistaking the confidence that generally comes with age for maturity or something.

All I know is that some revelations come disappointingly late in life. For instance, I’ve looked at the world as it were somehow binary for the longest time. It isn’t, of course, though sometimes it is. There isn’t this one great liberal political issue, and this one great conservative issue, around which entire countries revolve. The categories “liberal” and “conservative” are almost meaningless in Canada anyway. There’s no particularly sound reason a conservative can’t care about the environment and social justice, and there’s no reason a liberal can’t want sane financial management.

What I’m describing sounds a bit like a middle-of-the-road thing, but truth be told, I’m not sure that politics or life or marriage or anything can be defined in terms of roads. I used to have discussions with friends where we’d say “okay, we’ve fallen into this ditch, but we have to make sure we don’t fall in the other ditch”, as if somehow the safest thing was to stay in the middle of the road.

That’s so limiting. As if somehow everything falls into one spectrum and can be described as a point on a line. People thought this sort of thing about genetics before Mendel opened that particular door with his (apocryphal?) bean plants; you mix two things and you get a combination of two things. Yet, this isn’t true. You mix two things and you get something different, something recessive or dominant.

Biology seems aware that everything would simply fall to the median if pre-Mendelian genetics were true: diversity is good, it contributes in a large way to the health of the biosphere. In the same way when you mix liberal and conservative you don’t get some weak-kneed hybrid. You get something new, something above liberal and conservative, something that critique both and praise both and take the good from both.

Isn’t the alternative less like a position and more like a cage? As a conservative American (or even worse, a conservative American Christian), you can feel as if you positions are written for you. But are they really? Do you have to believe in trickle-down economics? Individualism? The “war on terror”? Do you have to support a neo-conservative president like Mr Bush, even when his worst excesses tower over his strengths? Are you somehow required to believe that your nation is the culmination of history, the focal point of Christianity, and the beacon for freedom the world over?

Maybe. I mean, if those things are good, by all means. I happen to think they’re not. I certainly don’t like what a lot of liberals espouse. But I don’t want to be trapped in this one mode of thinking that says “this philosophy is good” and “this philosophy is bad”.

Social conservatism vs. social liberalism.

To the south, Americans seem more socially conservative than they have been in fifty years. Although social liberals in the United States most certainly exist en masse, it seems axiomatic that the States’ social policy is drifting right-of-centre. Partly driving this shift is the disproportionate power of the evangelical political arm, which is to the social conservatives as the gay lobby is to the social liberals. The shift is also driven by the hopelessly broken American electoral system, in which the only two parties of any consequence, the Democrats and Republicans, are essentially cut from the same cloth and advocate policies differing from eachother in (what looks like to the rest of the world) minor details.

Yet, the United States has the largest military force in the history of mankind. The country is a cultural hub for the entire world. It’s the consumer power that drives entire economies. It’s a geopolitical superpower unlike any other before or likely to arise anytime soon.

What’s a simple Canadian to do? I am not an American, yet I am affected by the actions of that powerhouse on my doorstep. I am affected in countless ways. Some of these ways are too subtle to quantify. Others are so obvious they’re not worth talking about.

I come from a long tradition of Canadian social liberalism, in that I’m Canadian. I also come from a short tradition of social conservatism, in that I’m third-generation immigrant stock. Depending on who you choose to believe, the influence of the United States in Canadian politics and social life is a terrible intrusion or conversely a long-needed correction.

I’m not going to spell out some long argument in favour of social liberalism, nor am I going to cast (too many) aspersions on our neighbours to the south. I will, however, point to results as a guide for my own cast of mind.

Canada is a secular government. This is, of course, ridiculous, as no-one can be truly secular. Everyone has a religious bias of some kind. Yet, secular government is the best thing we’ve found yet to protect disparate people from the ravages of raw religious power. We insulate everyone against that possibility by forcing those in power to separate church and state, to keep religion out of politics, to keep religion out of schools, and to keep religion in the churches and mosques. Impossible? Yes. But it works. It works most of the time. The balance sometimes sways too far in favour of anti-religious sentiment, but secular government works.

This secular government has resulted in acceptance in the form of multiculturalism, rights for minorities, gay rights, voting for women, abolition of slavery, tolerance, and that sort of thing. Some of these values are strongly antithetical to my beliefs as a Christian. Yet I accept that in a secular state, I cannot legislate lifestyle. If I could legislate lifestyle, I would be doing damage to my reputation as a Christian, and to the reputation of Christians as a group, and to the liberty of other consciences than my own. Thus I accept — and seek to protect — the secular state, and accept that this secular society will by definition accept and mandate things I find reprehensible.

What does this have to do with the USA? In the US, there’s a grand tradition of social liberalism as well. Yet there’s an even stronger current of social conservatism — the country was founded by religious fundamentalist extremists, after all — that stretches back to the USA’s very beginnings. Also, while Canada was founded by agreement, confederation, and negotiation, America was founded in the crucible of violence, civil disobedience leading ultimately to war, a war prompted almost purely by economic considerations.

The founders of the USA were, despite their origins, quite interesting people. They envisioned a secular state. They referenced a God that seems, in retrospect, to simply be some sort of elemental force. They separated church and state. They had seen what religion and political power does when mixed and didn’t want it repeated.

What happened?

Why is it now that some amorphous political arm of a bunch of squabbling evangelicals can command policy shifts in the world’s only remaining superpower? What happened to that secular state? Why does Canada embrace diversity while America embraces homogeneity? Why does America look like, to the rest of the world, verging on fascism?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. Part of it may be that the static political system in the US has existed so long that every participant instinctively knows how to game it. Part of it may be the almost comical fear that seems to pervade the US experience. Part of it may be the fierce nationalism that seems to periodically seize the national mindsphere.

As far as I can tell, it’s not a good direction to travel in. Isolationism? Bad. Fierce nationalism? Bad. Lack of tolerance? Bad. Religion dipping its censor into the inferno of politics? Superbad.

Election time is here!

And having read all five party platforms (NDP, Tory, Liberal, Green, Freedom, those that I feel might be relevant to me), I’m so very divided between voting Green and voting Freedom.

The Green Party’s focus on transferring taxes to environmentally costly areas, for instance, is quite attractive. On the other hand, the Freedom Party is, for me, a strong idealogical fit. What I like most about both parties, though, is that they simple stand for something. Greens are unabashedly Green, and don’t fear saying that the populace must pay for what the populace does, and in fact they should pay for that instead of paying for other things. The Freedom Party is unabashedly libertarian. Read it: their platform is like nothing else you will read in Canadian politics. These are not parties pandering to get votes; they exist so I can vote my conscience, to raise awareness, and perhaps even wait for their time to come.

(As a side note, I used to believe in the “throwing away your vote” view, that if you vote for a party no-one thinks can possibly win, you’re basically burning your vote. Which is, of course, a fallacy: if everyone does that, no wonder these parties don’t get much of the vote, even when people may find their platforms extremely attractive. Now, I think that voting according to your conscience is much, much more important than voting for the Tories or the Liberals — who are essentially the same party! — regardless of your party’s chances of winning. Do I go to the ballot box as an arbiter of the lesser evil? No. I go as a contributor to the greater good.)

The NDP are a bunch of left-wing nutbags, which to their credit is something of an impressive feat in Canadian politics. The Conservatives and Liberals are essentially the same party with different faces. (If you want evidence of this, note that the issues both campaigns are focusing on and consider whether these are anything more than niggling variations on each other. The Tories are Red, and the Liberals are Redder. They’re pretty much interchangeable.)

If there’s anyone out there who wants to help sway me to an alternative perspective, by all means, do so! In the meantime, read the parties’ platforms here:

The Freedom Party Platform
The Green Party Platform

Bullet points for a Thursday morning.

  • I have a cold right now, one of those three-alarm colds that crawls up into your sinuses with a hot poker and goes to town. Upon waking up this morning, I blew my nose, and though I’ll spare you the gory details, there must have been about 20mm3 there. And, according to the scale this morning, all that weight is coming directly off my waist. Colds are such strange things.
  • Note to self: do not blog after taking two Sudafeds.
  • Speaking of which, my sister is about to give birth to a baby whose sex as of yet is indeterminate. [Editor’s note: Chris Hubbs has reminded me that the sex of the baby is indeed already determined. This should read “unobserved”.] I have taken it upon myself to remind her in every way possible that the pain of giving birth is just the beginning of a wonderful journey in snot and poop and vomit.
  • Babies, they’re everywhere. This Sunday past, I attended the baptism of Marlene and Mark’s baby. Cutest little thing ever, by the way. It was actually awesome to see all her friends and family come together to celebrate the sign of the covenant, actually (and pardon me if my wording sounds too, well, grandmotherish). Even though I don’t really know Marlene or Mark that well, it was good to be there, and inspired this little poem. That is, in fact, the first baptism I’ve consciously attended (rather than just happening to be there by default) since Kevin’s baptism back in the day.
  • Note to self: “Drink lots of water” does not refer to coffee.
  • Either I have discovered in myself an ability to make even the most clear issues unclear, or the world isn’t as simple as we sometimes make it out to be. I have a hard time, for instance, with the idea that everything is either black or white; or perhaps I have a hard time with the idea that we can know all the time, that we can differentiate. Sure, a lot of things are perfectly and obviously black and white; but a raft of others seem to be grey, whether they are or aren’t. Maybe I’m just arguing that humans can never actually know everything.
  • I have a friend who holds himself above scripture: he discards whatever he likes if it sounds stupid or old-fashioned to him. Since I figured this out, we’ve stopped arguing about a lot of things — except politics, of course — since we just don’t share any common theological ground to begin on. We don’t really agree on the basics, so of course our end points are dissimilar. A wise man, a preacher, once told me that the only thing you can do for such a person is pray that they will one day accept scripture as authority. I find more truth in that idea these days than I used to.
  • If you leave your job and don’t leave them with adequate resources and information to replace you, you are irresponsible. If you don’t at least make the effort, I mean. Two weeks notice is sometimes enough, sometimes not.
  • If there’s one album you must buy this year, it’s Sean Hayes’ Flowering Spade. It’s, simply put, freaking amazing.
  • If you’re considering picking up Interpol’s Our Love to Admire, don’t. They’ve managed to make an expanded musical palette more boring than the original four-piece.

Addendum:

  • When you specify a tolerance to the fourth decimal place and then find it undersize to to the fifth decimal place by three hundred-thousandths of an inch, I’m going to explain to you the concept of rounding up, and how, if you want to specify five decimal tolerances, you can twenty thousand dollars per tool. Then you can either take the tool and use it, or throw it in the garbage and see if anyone else will kowtow. I tell you, I should not be in customer service.
  • Language is important. It’s the language of deity, the great divider between humans and animals. This is why, when I hear people talking in hillbilly/hiphop slang, I think they’re stupid. They may not be, but they’re acting like it. Intelligence and language go hand in hand.

It is a sad time for our southern brothers…

Read this and weep. It’s… astonishing. This, here, this is why so many people have an absolute antipathy towards George W. Bush. This is why they don’t like him. It’s because he absolutely reeks of absolute, total corruption; he is the most tainted president since Nixon, and maybe not even as bad as Nixon. His administration of the country seems, now that news like this is starting to leak out, like something out of a dystopian future, something vaguely smelling of rot.

In Canada, the Liberals were trashed in an election because a few bad apples stole a billion dollars or so. In America, your leader has started an unjust war, trampled underfoot your precious rights time and again, done irreparable damage to international relations, and last but not least has always toed that line–or bounded right over it–that divides what is right from what is wrong, and you people elected him and his cronies twice. It’s astounding, it really is.

In scripture–if you’ll allow me to veer off course for a moment–justice is a sort of holy grail. It’s one of the Israelite nation’s goals, and by extension ours, as well. You have to stop for a moment and ask yourself if any of this serves the good of justice, or the good of truth, or any of those things. You have to ask yourself if the president you elected is anything more than an embarrassment to America, Christianity, and the ideas of liberty and justice, those bedrocks that America would believe it was built upon.

I think the answer is obvious.

Can we at least attempt not to appear tranparently corrupt?

Every once in a while I hear a bit of news that disturbs me greatly. I guess this means that current American administration has decided to simply not care about appearing corrupt?

What I think we need to watch for now is a pardon at the end of Bush’s term; Scooter’s jail time was commuted now so he doesn’t have to serve, but that doesn’t carry with it an implication of guilt, as a pardon would. This allows Libby to fight the sentence without setting foot in jail. If, however, things aren’t going well with that fight, look for a pardon right before Bush leaves office. Even if it does imply guilt (though from what I’ve read any judge or jury with half a mind would convict him not only for perjury, but also for treason).

Two things that really disturb me about this are:

  1. The wording of the president’s statement sounded like something that might issue from a judge’s seat. Scarily similar, in fact. I don’t know if this is normal for pardons and commutations, but with the powers the executive branch of the US government has given itself of late, any move on its part — even posturing — to begin to usurp judicial control begins to sound creepy. Like the beginning of a monarchy, or fascism, or something.
  2. Republicans will find a way to make this about the good of America. They’ll justify it. While these same people hounded for Clinton’s head (pardon the pun), and though he didn’t even perjure himself, he was still impeached! Partisan politics is good and it’s bad, and this is it’s worst: when they do it, it’s evil and must be punished. When we do it, it’s good, and in the defence of freedom, or at the very worst a mistake that can be remedied with a fine, a bit of shame, and some commuted jail time. For an act of treason.

How a book called “Getting Anger Under Control” made me crazy.

I constantly marvel at the unbroken stream of offal emanating from Christian bookstores. Constantly. Now, I don’t like to be sexist, but it seems, from my experience at least, so take this with a grain of salt, that most of these books are bought by well-meaning but gullible women.

In church this Sunday I saw one of these woman with a book by Bruce Wilkinson, something to do with unlocking the secrets of abundance of some such. If sounding curiously like prosperity gospel isn’t bad enough, the cover of the book had three — THREE — trademark symbols on it, as if they meant to be remarkably clear that the secrets of abundance somehow involve having your own brand name and an enterprise whose mission is essentially to hoodwink people who have stopped using whatever critical skills they may have ever possessed.

All this is a preface to a little passage I read this morning, when I picked up a book called “Getting Anger Under Control”. Which, I might add, is a pretty noble sentiment and a good idea, etc etc. The only problem being I never actually got to read the book because the dedication in the front — the first few sentences — actually blew my mind. I mean, I’ve got a gasket loose in here now. I’m dazed and confused.

So, I’ve reproduced the passage verbatim, as is my fair use right:

The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, occurred as we were doing the final editing of this book … Americans responded in disbelief and wondered how this could happen to us, a peace-loving nation. But what was intended to dishearten and destroy us took a different turn. It brought out a heroic spirit of brotherhood and revealed that the church is still the soul of America … These deplorable acts of violence brought about a righteous indignation that caused our country to unite against godless terrorism.

There’s so much wrong with that little paragraph that I won’t even address the things I bolded up there (yes, that was me), except to ask this: Is that really what Americans think of themselves? Really?

I assure you not a single other nation on the face of the earth, including their beloved allies to the north, and their “special relationship” allies over the pond, thinks of America a peace-loving nation. Nor do they think that the church is the nation’s soul, or if they do, it scares the living daylights out of them.

And, in the last analysis, it would be hard to explain why America declaring war on “godless” terrorism is anything more than rank hypocrisy.