Thursday, March 23, 2006

Dear Pope Benedict

Pope Benedict XVI
Apostolic Palace
00120 Vatican City

Dear Holy Father of the Roman Catholic Church

It has been several days now since the death of Tom Fox, one of the four Christian Peacemakers abducted in Iraq last year. In many parts of the world, Christians have grieved his death and have worried about the fate of the other three Christian hostages. They, like me, have been awed and humbled by their powerful example of the spirit of Jesus.

We live in a world crippled by war – and not just by war, but by justifications of violence and revenge, partly by Christians. Churches throughout the world have been caught up in this spirit of war and vengeance, thereby doing great harm to the spirit of Christ.

Is it not time for the whole Christian church to formally proclaim that war is incompatible with Jesus’ teachings?

Christ taught that we must use kindness, compassion, and wisdom to turn our enemies into friends. He taught us to use pacifism and forgiveness, not violence and revenge. There is no end that is worth the cost of war.

I realize that most Catholics are peace-loving people and work throughout their lives to reduce war and suffering. They are responding to the spirit of Christ in their lives and to the gospels they have read. But the world desperately needs a formal declaration that war is contrary to the spirit of Jesus. Then those churches that do support war, either actively or passively, would be pressed to justify their position. I believe in time such a proclamation would bring the world closer to real long-term peace.

Your position as leader of the Roman Catholic Church is very powerful, even for non-Catholic churches. If the Roman Catholic Church were to proclaim that war and violence is contrary to the spirit of Jesus, then this would have an impact on all churches. Just as Pope John Paul tried to stop the war in Iraq and tried to bring the world’s attention to the plight of the world’s poor, you can use your role to bring the world to greater peace.

Please reflect on the spirit of this message. Thank you.

In peace,

Mailed today, along with similar letters to leaders of other churches in Canada and the US, before I heard that the other three hostages were freed.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Tom Fox: 1952-2006

His light shines for me. But what heartbreak to lose such a person.

David speaks more eloquently: In Memoriam.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Free Will

It's March Break, a time when families head off to warmer climes or barge in on relatives to share some time together. We were supposed to go visit my sister and play with the babies. But my son's medications started pooping out four weeks ago, so instead we are spending the week transitioning him onto a new drug regime. He has ADHD, Asperger's and an anxiety disorder, a heavy load for a 10-year-old to carry. His life is stress, agitation, fear, and insecurity. All we want for him now is some quality of life, some peace and calm in his days.

And maybe, if we're lucky, in ours.

I worry about him and about his future. What will his adult life be like? How much of who he is is this psychological imbalance? Can we separate that imbalance from who he is, or is it all one in the same?

And like him, are we at all separate from our biochemistry, or is our biochemistry who and what human beings ultimately are?

More to the point, how much free will do we really have to be good people, rational people, worthy of heaven and rewards? How much can our will guide our lives? I know we all want to say pip pip old chap chin up I think I can I think I can and all that. Certainly that's the dominant philosophy in the West. The platitude answer would be that everyone lives by choices they make. And twenty years ago, I know I would have said free will all the way. But in those twenty years since, I've seen the complexity of life and wonder if we aren't deluding ourselves.

The number of people I know on hormone replacement therapies, not for health reasons, but for mental sanity reasons. The number I know on antidepressants caused by sudden changes in chemistry (like menopause or surgery). The number I know who have developed anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders, autism spectrum disorders. The number who are angry and irritable all the time. The ones who are never angry, even when they should be. The ones who are constant over-achievers, always doing more, spurred by metabolisms that won't stop. Others who can't spare the energy to do more than the minimum. Others who have been damaged by childhood traumas that they never escape throughout their adult lives. Others who have been through hell and seem okay.

My aunt, who had a severely deformed child who was only supposed to live 6 years but ended up dragging on for 12. Her life of suffering, of putting on a brave face, of giving up everything that had been her life before, of losing her health, then succumbing to a slow-growing cancer caused by years of stress that took her life at 58.

Free will? Or were the Calvinists right?

I studied predestination in university religion courses. I thought then that it was kind of nutty, this belief that certain people are destined before their birth to be saved, while others are doomed from the same moment. Of course, Calvinists based this on a notion that since God knows everything, ergo God would know the future (an example of anthropomorphic thinking about God: see prior posts). But perhaps in their pre-scientific-world way, what the Calvinists saw was similar to what I see -- that most (all?) people have minimal control over their lives. The Calvinists put that down to God's will. In our age, we put it down to science. But the result is the same: that free will is limited.

Sure, certain people seem able to make the best of a bad situation, while others make the worst of a decent one. Yet is there something in their chemical makeup that pushes them in these directions? If they have friends that tend to guide them on the better path, is this because there is something in their make-up that prods them to create and maintain these friendships?

If we could find out who we our in our biochemical, DNA/RNA make-up, would we really want to know? Maybe it's better just to believe that we do have free will, even if we don't.

When I was at university, I had the fortune or misfortune of participating in a psychology study (I needed cash). The purpose, as I found out later, was to look at personality groups. In the debriefing session, I was told I was in the personality group called Survivors. It seems that regardless of outward appearances, principles, or motivations, Survivors ultimately and always make decisions in favour of survival. While other groups might lie down and die rather than give up a principle, or others might give up everything to fight against a adversarial situations, Survivors regroup, pull up the ladder, protect the food stores, do whatever they need to.

I cringe inwardly. That doesn't bode well for my Quakerly pacifist principles.

The nineteenth-century Quakers who didn't help out with the Underground Railway, the ones who withdrew, ignored the plight of the slaves, kept their stores running, kept their children fed, worried out their public image -- are these my real spiritual forebears, instead of the Lucretia Motts and John Woolmans whose sermons and journals I read? Were these weak-kneed Quakers just doing what their DNA was programmed to do, living out their biochemistry?

Am I, as a Survivor, only idealistic because the times are good? If times were bad, would my principles flee and Survivor DNA take over?

I want to believe that I believe in my principles. I want to believe that I believe in free will. On so many levels, I do believe. Otherwise, so much of what I have come to believe becomes nonsense.

Ah, but what I see, what I see.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

South Dakota Sharia

The news became surreal today, as if somehow it hadn't already been surreal enough.

Sometimes when I watch CNN, I have a sense that I'm looking at a nation that never quite made it to modern democracy. It's the nation that invented modern democracy for the world to take up, but then failed itself to maintain it, develop it, bring it to its full potential -- like healthcare, eliminating the death penalty, maternity benefits, respect for plurality and differences, all those hallmarks of modern democracy that are weirdly absent. The abortion debate that was considered and decided in virtually all other western democracies still rages here like a fresh wound. The nation's constitution is the same one that was written in the 1700s. Things got stuck and didn't grow. Meanwhile, the world changed. Maybe the effort of maintaining super-power pulled too much thought and energy from democracy. I can't quite figure it.

On the news, the governor gave his reasons. He wanted to protect the vulnerable.

Protect the vulnerable.

With one sweep of a pen, he has brought South Dakota back to the days of backroom abortions, women dead on motel floors.

Who decides who is vulnerable?

What about persistently low incomes and systemic barriers to financial independence? What about those who have been shuffled from foster home to foster homes all their lives so that they don't know what touch means anymore, or those whose bodies have been bought and sold, exchanged for someone's kicks or someone's cocaine or for what someone told them was love? What about those who are too old, too young, too mentally infirm, too broken or weak to bear more burdens? Those whose jobs will be taken away, who have no health care, who have too many other mouths to feed? Those who have been raped or defiled or taken? Those who die or become physically damaged through pregnancy and childbirth? Those with youth, intelligence, and a promising future, like their male counterparts, but whose birth control can fail and push them into a life of poverty, unlike their male counterparts?

These women will never have the power or wealth to influence public decision-making, never have the bus fare to get to a rally or demonstration. Who decides who gets to be vulnerable?

Oh, no, no, this is not about protecting the vulnerable. This is about sharia.

Sharia is religious law. It's based on the rules and values of religion, not open to rational discussion. It is imposed by religious people in power and does not respect laws, traditions, rights, or differences. It is opportunistic, sly, watching for the right moment to strike. It cares for nothing but itself.

In any sharia, women come last. They are told what they must suffer, what rights they can have, who is unclean and who is holy. They take a backseat to the men who sign the documents into law, who run the religions, who want their exclusive power uncontested. They take a backseat to the children, even to the scraps of DNA that create children. All these are greater than woman. She is the least, the last.

Sharia is the failure of democracy, of rights, of reason.

We who live beyond the US borders watch the debates in the US in great amazement. What we see is a culture spiralling out of control. The traditional divisions between the judicial, legislative and executive functions are gone. Laws and rights that have taken decades or centuries to create are now at the mercy of groups with agendas. Guantanamo Bay hangs like an offshore flag to the erosion of a culture of integrity and rights. Any law, any document can be ignored or overruled. Power rules, nothing else. More sharia is on its way.

Like you, I watched yet another man in history sign a document to remove women's self-determination. Inside, I wept for American women and the struggles they face. But I also felt a cold shiver, echoes of The Handmaid's Tale, that book I wish I'd never read.

Please God, don't let it come here.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Creator Dude

Last night, at our weekly reading and discussion group, we got onto the topic of concepts of the Creator. Some in the group considered the Light Within more of an abstraction of a great life force. Others saw it as a distinct thing of creative power. Some thought of Supreme Being as a verb, and some, as a noun. By this time, we were way off topic, so we just went with this idea.

BH talked about a painting class he'd once taken, where everyone had to paint the same collection of objects on the centre table. What he marvelled at was how everyone's paintings were completely different, yet all very clearly were paintings of the same set of objects. By the end of the course, he could look at a painting and know which person had painted it -- through the light and tone, the brush strokes, the favourite colours and textures.

That of the creator gets left in the creation. BH compared this to his concept of the Creator Being. We can't know It or see It, but Its creation bears its imprint. We carry that of the Creator in us, as creations ourselves.

William Littleboy in the old blue Faith and Practice (#82) says "God is above all the God of the normal." The Creator is invisible, soundless, beyond senses, inseparable from any part of creation because we lack the means to separate It out from what It made. We can see that of the Creator when we study creation, sit with it, rub against it. Nowhere is one more close to the Creator than when canoeing or showshoeing.

We talked about the problems that occur with images of the Creator. The fallacy is to assume the Creator is anything like us: that the Creator feels like us or thinks like us -- or feels or thinks at all. This is the heresy of anthropomorphism. It leads to more heresies: God as Bogey Man. God as Santa Claus. God who is always on our side in any war. God who has a Chosen People above all other people (usually ourselves). God who wants us to harm our enemies. God who worships our Bible or Koran or our rules for living. God who loves or hates, wants or doesn't want, says or doesn't say, does or doesn't do.

The greatest heresy of all is to think that the Creator in any way resembles what is described in the Bible or Koran. All we can glean is the ideas of the individual writer-creators of the stories -- their desires, their dreams, their experiences, their fears, their favourite images and words. Their stamp is in the stories. The Creator's stamp is in creation.

We decided that the truest and least erroneous image of the Creator that humans can come up with is that of an amorphous blob, an amoeba, a great glowing humming sphere. The image has to be so different from our experience of ourselves as to defy our projecting of our own personalities, shortcomings, and desires onto it. It would be hard to fight a war over a blob.

So then what can we know about the Creator? Assuming we conceive of the Creator as a being, we can see flickers of It in creation itself.

The Creator's favourite colours are green and blue. Its favourite shapes are the circle and the elongated ovoid. It likes numbers, especially big ones, but also 2, 4, 5, and 10. It loves sound, tonality, and rhythm. It likes things to spin and circle, bounce and roll. It likes yin-yang balances, complementary opposites. If favours brushstrokes of many colours that blend to form one great mass of a single colour, like hairs on a head, or pine needles in a fuzzy forest.