Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Voice and Voicelessness

As we in Canada slink our way toward a completely unwanted, gloriously stupid national election in January and are (yawn) going through the motions of party support and door-to-door campaigns (BYOS, bring your own snowshovel), the mind naturally wanders to thoughts about how we can do things better.

I am currently thinking about a theory I have about radical politics. I'm pretty sure it relates to Quaker spiritual concerns as well. But maybe it doesn't. I'll leave that to you...

Here's my theory in a nutshell: When a people feels voiceless -- that is, they have yelled till they are hoarse and are still unheard; they are under the invisible thumb of another people or estate; or they sense a mismatch between their reality and a political construct being imposed on them -- when a people feels this way, they will vote radical as a block so that they get a voice. The politics of the radicalism in question isn't as important as how loud it is.

In Canada, we see this in Quebec. Quebecers don't vote for national parties anymore: they vote for separatist parties. Maybe these voters aren't even separatists. It doesn't matter to them. At least with a strong separatist vote, Quebecers know that Quebec will not be ignored. And it's true: the power of the Bloc Quebecois Party to force or block issues for the whole nation is very real. So from a Quebec perspective, putting up with separatist politics is just the price you pay to get a voice.

The same for Alberta. Albertans vote as a block for ultraconservative parties because that gives the West a voice. If they voted like the rest of the country, their concerns would be drowned out by Ontario. In fact, their concerns probably wouldn't even make the radar. They know this from experience.

If you have no voice, you will do almost anything to get one.

If this theory is true, then it can apply equally well to the Middle East.

Arabic nations have long been under the invisible thumb of Western nations, particularly oil interests and US politics. Leaders have been elected, propped up, or eliminated through silent Western intervention. A good example is the Shah of Iran. The West was dumbfounded when he was overthrown by streets full of raging theocrats. We either weren't aware of or didn't want to acknowledge how cruel a leader he was and how much support we gave him. In order to get a real voice, the Iranians turned to the Islamic fundamentalists.

We see a similar trend across the Middle East. The Palestinians, hoarse from protesting the abuses of Israeli soldiers, Zionistic politics, and American support of both, have come to embrace religious extremism as a way to have a voice. Violence and hatred of Americans comes as part of the parcel: it just makes the voice louder. Other nations are flirting with Islamist government simply as a way of escaping the puppet-nation status of being a non-Western democracy.

I note with interest how South America is becoming a leftist block. Rather than giving in to the global capitalism and commodification promoted by the North, the South is saying No with one voice.

Basically, these voting blocks spread because there is fertile ground: a hunger to be heard.

Something tells me that the solution to political extremism and conflict between powerful and powerless peoples is to give powerless people a real voice. If the North wants to woo the South back into global trade talks, then it's going to have to listen to the South instead of talking all the time. If the West wants to reduce the violence and tension in the Middle East, it's going to have to examine its silent politics and its silencing politics, including how it interferes in Middle Eastern politics to serve its own purposes. It's also going to have to de-silence these issues and give them a full perestroika.

There is a proverb somewhere in the Hebrew Testament to the effect that one should not condemn what one has created. Perhaps that's the spiritual implication of all this.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Carrot of Truth

Christmas Eve is a daunting day when you're a parent.

In this city, people have organized carol singing that goes from pub to pub on the days before Christmas. I kind of liked that idea and had planned to go. It seems vaguely medieval, but I don't know why. But with Husband not working right now, I've had to take on more contracts, which swallows time. So does parenting. Maybe next year.

My kids are 7 and 9. They stopped believing in Santa last year. Now, I'd just like to point out that we never went in for the Santa thing. But the kids picked it up at daycare, etc., so we just didn't do or say anything to upset their ideas. I guess that's a kind of passive lying, but you've got to meet your culture halfway sometimes.

Last year, my then-6-year-old pragmatic daughter decided the Santa story didn't add up. So she and her brother devised a test, which they called the Carrot of Truth. They would leave out a carrot for the reindeer. If the carrot was eaten in the morning, then Santa was real. If not, then the story was bogus.

I didn't have the heart to tell them that Husband and I could easily take a chomp out of that carrot.

However, in the light of honesty, we did not do so. The kids saw the carrot intact in the morning and triumphantly waved it in our faces. Oh, they'd caught us, hadn't they! And they promptly ran off to trill their truth to all their friends, who still all believed in Santa.

And then I got it from their parents.

I still got it from them this year. Some gently took me aside while we were walking the kids to school to ask if we could muzzle them on the topic, just so they could "get another year out of Santa" for their kids. I mean, these kids are almost 10. In a moment of spleen, I wanted to say, "How mutton-headed do you have to be to believe in Santa when you are ten?!" or "I learned about Santa at school when I was six. This is how it happens!" Instead, I said, "This will require duct tape."

My daughter has since become an atheist. She's not believing anything she can't see, and she just pats me nicely on the head if I try to talk to her about such things. I sent her to a local church's vacation bible school. She said it wouldn't have been too bad if they didn't talk about God all the time. My son, on the other hand, thinks he's more of an agnostic: after all, you can't really know either way, he says.

These things I accept. Someone once said that being a communist at 21 just showed that you had a heart that worked. I guess being an atheist/agnostic at age 7/9 just shows you have a mind that works.

The tree went up four days ago, not too early so that things don't lose their shine. The kids love talking about every decoration (since they made most of them) as they touch them all and put them up.

We only buy them one present (like, one: they have to share). That's been our Christmas M.O. since they were born. They have begged for a GameBoy for years now. Mom, I'm the only kid in the class that doesn't have one. I held off as long as possible, but this year, that's what they get.

Sometimes you have to meet your culture halfway.

Filling the stockings is something that Husband and I do immediately after the kids fall asleep, which is about 30 seconds after their heads hit the pillows. This year, I badly miscalculated. Stocking stuffers will overstuff said stockings rather badly. I picked up odds and sods at second-hand stores, plus miscellaneous art and office supplies, some homemade treats and coupons, socks, mitts, a chocolate orange, too much for their knit hockey-sock stockings. Husband's socks may be called into service this year. I hope they don't stretch too badly.

These are our traditions. My children grow. They're growing so fast now I can hardly stand to watch. I remember how they used to crawl into our bed in the morning with their ice-cold feet, giggling and snuggling against us.

Not any more.

Some days I just want to stop time so that I can enjoy this moment, this day, this period in their lives until I've had my fill of it. But it passes so quickly.

We'll put out the carrot again tonight.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Yule is Cool

In this age of worshipping our craniums and picking apart our history and customs, looking down our noses at Christmas has become fashionable in certain circles. Yes, it’s not Christian. Yes, it’s basically pagan and thus rowdy and uncontrollable. Yes, it’s become overlaid with centuries of traditions to the point that it’s bulging set to burst. Yes, it’s not part of Quakerism.

But my argument always is: So is popcorn—and we still eat it.

What’s so wrong about having a nonChristian, pagan, nonQuaker, heavily traditioned, rowdy feastday?

Here in the north, our outer world has gone dark and cold. The snow is deep, and the wind has a particular howl to it that only leaves on trees can muffle. Survival is a real concept in the winter: only fools think otherwise. Who wouldn’t want to call back the sun?

What’s more important, our inner world has gone dark and cold too. We are a species of storytellers. We exist for myth and tradition. Without these, our minds and souls starve. And education has a way of nudging out myth and tradition, so that the story-hungry part of our psyche goes dark.

Christmas provides two ingredients we crave: myth and tradition. That these myths and traditions are ancient, predating history and spanning all nordic cultures, makes them all the more compelling.

The myth of the baby king born in the dark and cold of a stable, unwanted by all, but known to the lowly. The Godly in us, the surreal in the dirt, the frailty of greatness. People drawing closer in the darkness, led by something they don’t understand, to find someone for whom there was no room at the inn.

For children, the myth of Santa, reindeer, magic, baby Jesus.

These stories have helped create the landscapes of our minds, our collective unconscious in Jung’s terms. They’ve played again and again since our children, like a mantra repeated, or a hypnotism tape playing in the background. It’s time once again to visit them.

I know Quakers would rather not need myth and tradition, but we are no different than other people. We could choose not to have a Christmas tree because it’s wasteful, not to bake traditional foods because they’re fattening, not to sing carols because we don’t like the words, or tell stories because we don’t believe the events. But then, what would Christmas be? A day like any other day. And we would be impoverished for it.

I think of Christmas (and our other collective traditions and myths) as a chalice that’s been handed down from generation to generation, crusted with everything other ages thought was meaningful and worthy of celebration and filled with ideas, beliefs, fears. It’s now been passed to us. Our task is to take the cup, sift through the contents, touch them all, connect with the past, then put back in the cup--changed or unchanged--what we’ll pass to the next generation.

It’s about connection.

Having said all that, there are two relatively new traditions I could very much do without, and one old myth that I could do with.

The first tradition is materialism—a tradition that soaks the holiday and clouds the light. We try to change the focus on giving, rather than receiving; but to have a giver, you must have a receiver, so it’s really a bit of a cop-out. Sending shoeboxes of trinkets to third-world countries because we believe it’s so important to get stuff at Christmas shows how remarkably google-eyed we are about worshipping Mammon.

The other tradition is “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” This is from the people who would make Christmas copyright. “It’s only for us Christians,” they say, “so you others just stay out.” They take what was once everyone’s festival and then steal it entirely.

The myth I could do with is Peace on Earth. It’s now within our grasp. We have the teachings of Jesus and the model of Gandhi. New notions of global interrelatedness could make it happen.

We pray for it at Christmas. Then we need to go out and answer our own prayers.


PS Have a cool Yule, everyone.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Glove

I’d rather not write about evil, but it’s on my mind tonight. Being a pacifist means coming to terms with evil. Again and again and again.

The one that totally bites is religious evil. Evil in the name of God. Hurting people for Jesus. You don’t have to go far to find it.

Now cold, plain vanilla evil, that’s not so hard to figure out. Put it down to a lousy childhood, some greed and gluttony for power, and that about covers it. But religious evil takes more thinking, because it believes itself to be good. And therein lies the power of its evil – because vanilla evil can do only so much harm. It takes religious evil to do massive harm on a massive scale.

Religious evil comes from what was golden, what was the best. Like the myth of the angel Lucifer, the holiest falls to become its antithesis. Osama bin Laden is a deeply religious man in the sense of soulfully following his religion’s rules and praying regularly. He was for a long time the champion of his people against oppression, speaking out where others were afraid, helping those who needed help. But then he was offered arms to fight the Russians. And slowly, his religiosity twisted. He was still a champion of his people against oppression – but now he is doing so by using oppression. Now he kills for God. The light angel before, the dark angel after.

It's the same glove, only now it’s inside out. So now it fits on the other hand.

This is what became of Christianity during the Dark Ages—the Crusades and the Inquisition. The is what explains the hate-filled words of preachers when they talk about pacifists, “leftists,” nonheterosexuals, nonbornagains, and even women. This is how the religious right has come to serve the neocons. Vanilla evil just harnesses a body and mind in service of evil; religious evil harnesses a soul.

They tell us war is about good vs evil, and I know pacifists are supposed to argue against that. But I happen to agree with this idea. Evil is the war itself. Good is the human forces that try to undo the war. You can’t shoot evil: you can only shoot people. The evil is still there after the dying is over.

In effect, as soon as we pick up a weapon, we have joined evil’s side.

And as soon as we decide we get to hate those who carry those weapons, alas, we too have joined that side, perhaps less harmfully, but we know where this road leads.

Religion gets hijacked when we’re looking the wrong way.

I believe the reason is the dark connection between fundamentalism and evil. And fundamentalists come in many stripes: I know fundamentalist quakers, fundamentalist feminists, fundamentalist greens—those who become obsessed with the rightness of the dogma.

The German Lutheran theologian Dorothee Solle says a religion is dead when it can’t distinguish between its God and its Devil. Fundamentalism’s rigidity is like a spiritual rigor mortis.

I don’t believe in a Devil, but I admire the Solle’s metaphor. When a religion becomes preoccupied with rules and dogmas, it lets the rules become the religion. It edits the religion to erase the teachings that don’t fit with the rules. Soon the religion is emptied, quietly and surreptitiously, so that unless you were watching carefully, you wouldn’t have noticed it happening.

They then learn to equate the Spirit with the rules and dogmas, and they watch those rules and dogmas, believing their souls depend on it. So now they are looking the other way. They may have started out on a spiritual journey with God at their side, but they aren’t looking now. Ah, but who are you walking with now? Look away from those rules! See who you are walking with!

How easily the glove slips to the other hand.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


It's hard to take time to write a blog now. We wait and wait for news from Iraq. There is so little that can be done but waiting.

The news coverage of the abduction has been exhaustive here in Canada, and for that, I'm glad. I don't think people "get" nonviolence, and here they are seeing a very strong and heartbreaking picture of it. I think they get it now, maybe a little -- that people can die for peace as well as dying for war.

The four peacemakers had at different times made statements about not paying ransoms and not vilifying captors should they be captured. While they didn't condone or participate in violence, they understood that stress and oppression has a breaking point. They still wanted to hold all people in the Light and speak to that of God in them, regardless of the situation. They wanted their efforts at peacemaking to stand on their own strength, not bolstered with guns and institutions and wrangling over dollars and cents.

And their message has been very powerful. One of the most hearwarming things about this agonizing situation is the amount of global response it has evoked. Muslim leaders and clerics around the world, including those leading Hamas in Palestine, have called for their release, citing their strong peaceful witness to the world as the reason. The heads of both the British and Canadian Muslim councils have gone to Bagdad to do what they can. In the middle of a terrible war, at the place that is the closest thing to hell on this planet, the world is focused on the simple efforts of four men to be peace for some forgotten people.

It makes me think of Mary Dyer, returning again and again to fundamentalist Massachusetts despite being told she would be executed for being a Quaker. She bore no weapons and committed no crimes, just witnessed with her presence -- and eventually with her life -- for religious freedom. In the end, even though she was executed, the Light she brought to that colony survived and endured, as she had intended. It was her willingness to die for the Light that made people see it.

And so however this abduction in Iraq plays out, the efforts of the four peacemakers to bring the Light to a land wracked by violence will succeed. The peace they have lived all their lives, even in what could be their last days, has been heard around the world.

And we must accept that. Even if they die.

A quaker song has been going through my head all week: "That Cause Can Neither Be Lost nor Stayed."

"There by itself like a tree it shows;
That high it reaches as deep it grows,
And when the storms are its branches shaking,
It deeper root in the soil is taking.

Be then no more by a storm dismayed,
For by it the full-grown seeds are laid;
And though the tree by its might it shatters,
What then, if thousands of seeds it scatters?"