Sunday, September 24, 2006

Apocalypse Now

Kate gave post-meeting ministry today about how many sects of fundamentalist Christianity have a profound belief in the Book of Revelations as a prophecy. They believe this dream-story tells how the world will end. They look forward to the end of the world with the same joy and enthusiasm that suicider jihadis seek their own end. Never mind that the rest of us really like this planet: all they care about is getting their precious saved selves to heaven, and the rest of us can rot.

But this preoccupation with the "end times" is important because it means that Christian fundamentalist groups don't want peace in the Middle East. The Middle East is supposed to be the battle ground for the apocalypse, so the more unrest there, the better. In fact, there are many indications that conservatives are doing all that they can to make sure the fighting continues.

Consider the mind-boggling support for Israel during the clearing obscene bombing of Lebanon. Did Britain take such actions against Ireland for IRA attacks-- razing entire Irish communities to the ground? No. Then obviously these extremes of reaction are not necessary. Yet the United States and then Canada gave its support to Israel. How is this possible?

Consider also the unbelievable trail of failure at catching Bin Laden. The CIA has apparently been chasing him for more than a decade. Plenty of people have reported his whereabouts directly to the CIA, such as when he visits his relatives; yet the CIA has not moved in to capture him. This suggests that they want him free to continue his work.

I once saw a PBS documentary about a born-again convention in the States -- the Israeli PM was invited to speak. He was cheered so much he could barely start his talk. The crowd loved him because he had been aggressive in bombing the Arabs and in stirring up unrest.

It was a case of strange bedmates, as far as I could tell, because the born-agains did certainly not believe that a Jew like Sharon could get to heaven; and they certainly didn't care that Jews might die in the fighting (and then all of them die in the apocalypse that would follow). What they cared about was that the fighting continued so that they could get to heaven. What the Israeli PM cared about was that these voters kept the conservatives in power so that he could keep US support. They had complete cross-agendas. Yet they were working together, cooking up their evil plans each at the apparent expense of the other.

It was so weird I hardly believed it.

Politics doesn't make sense at the best of times. There are all sorts of hidden agendas, veiled threats, backroom deals, etc. that we don't know about. But when the absurdity of politics is combined with the wingnut, suicidal, we-don't-even-try-to-make-sense values of fundamentalism, we end up with something dripping with evil, a festering sore that is not allowed to heal, a torture that won't end.

The Arabs think the fighting in the Middle East is about a crusade.

I used to think they were nuts.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Nuclear Family (and Christmas Materialism)

I think it's called the "nuclear" family because it's about to blow up.

Two adults are not enough to raise children. I'm convinced of this. I watch my friends struggle to keep sane while working and parenting. My family is faring better than most, probably because we live in a small city with low housing costs, so I can afford to run a business part-time. But in big cities with long commutes and high mortgages, I honestly don't know how they survive. There simply aren't enough hours in the day to do what has to be done.

Imagine how different it would be if grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins still all lived together, as was the norm in our culture less than a century ago. All adults back then had paying work of some kind, but all contributed in some way to the household unpaid work and the parenting as well. In effect, the childran had more than one mother, more than one father, and extra brothers and sisters. There was flexibility and durability to this family unit. Nobody needed layers of life insurance, health insurance, and retirement plans to protect against all of life's travails -- that was what the family was for.

Compare that with two dead exhausted parents siloed in their "single family homes" and high-stress lives and paying big money for it, wondering if this is the dream life they were sold the bill of goods on.

Why? Because a highly industrialized economy needs more portable workers. For this reason, back in the 1940s and 1950s, our culture invented The Career, luring people into thinking that they must structure their lives around their work, rather than around their people. This made industry more efficient, because it could move people around like chess pieces. For workers to be this portable, families had to be divided into smaller units -- nuclear families. Somehow, they managed to make this sound normal.

Of course, at that time, only one person in the family could have The Career. The woman had to stay at home to make up for all the other adults who were no longer part of the family unit.

Now that both parents are working again, the nuclear family is cracking under the strain.

In the meantime, we've built entire cities of single-family houses and commuter highways. We've taught seniors that they don't actually want to live with their adult children. We've invented the idea of the "empty nest" to justify the feelings of grief that come when the already tiny family unit disintegrates further. It's as if we've tried to shore up the nuclear family and career ideals so that we can never return to the larger families of earlier times.

I think we are homesick for the extended family.

And that's where Christmas comes in. Nowhere is this homesickness more evident than in Christmas traditions. The warm-fuzzy images are all of big tables with multiple generations together. We get in cars and planes and trains to get back to whatever extended family we still have so that we can get a smidge of this warm-fuzzy. But it's not the same. These are people we hardly ever see, only a notch above strangers. We have to work hard sometimes to manufacture the warm-fuzzy we're supposed to feel. Besides, there are always relatives who can't come, who won't come, etc.

How many of us haven't seen our nieces and nephews in months? Our grandparents or aging parents? Our aunts and uncles? We're all so far away from each other.

The nuclear family seems like a thin, sad substitute for the support, warmth, and economic stability of a larger family. Christmas merely pushes this into our faces.

We're homesick.

So we solace ourselves with cheap plastic junk.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the rise of Christmas materialism in the 1950s coincided with the rise of the nuclear family and the rise of The Career.

Saturday, September 09, 2006


Two days ago, I learned that someone I had been involved with 15 years ago died last year.

D-- had been a youth minister, about my age, at a United Church. We were both young and single and spiritually active. Then after 1991, except for seeing him briefly at a Bruce Cockburn concert, he left Canada, and I hadn't thought of him since.

Last year, about this time, I googled his name, just to see where he was. Of course, he had his own website, his-own-name-dot-com. Why would I have expected anything different? He had gone to the States to have his own show on a Christian radio network and to be editor of a Christian music magazine. He had also done some stints with nonprofits. He had a long-running blog and was frequently quoted by other Christian blogs, among whom he had a loyal following. Yes, it was D--, all right.

He also had cancer and was going through some painful treatments. I remember I sent him a carefully worded email wishing him well. I did mean it sincerely. He had replied, briefly, sounding amazed to have heard from me, and very very tired. I had meant to check back again sometime to see how he was doing.

I checked two days ago. He'd died about four weeks after I'd emailed him.

Sigh. So it goes.

It was too late now, a year later, to send any condolences to anyone. I never knew his wife, and he had no children. I have lost touch with the other people in our little group from back then.

My emotional response is what surprised me. How is it that hurts from so many years ago can surface like that?

D-- was extremely intelligent and had a strong personality, two things that I had been immediately drawn to. I was Quaker then, but single and lonely and living in a new city, not averse to joining a church group for company. But soon I had found that in interactions with him and his group I was hitting against an invisible wall. I didn't understand it. Eventually I discovered (to my amazement) that behind D--'s keen, sensual mind and moving, articulate style was a doctrinal and patriarchal set of values; and behind the charismatic, attracting personality was someone who didn't believe in his own ability to be in error.

He taught; he didn't learn. He led; he didn't follow. He spoke; he didn't listen. He wanted his words never to be questioned. It takes a while to learn these things about people. When someone is clearly and obviously intelligent, one assumes.

I assumed. Then I saw. But even when one can see, the charisma can still draw.

He wanted Christianity to be cool. He wanted to be cool. In many ways, he was. He didn't like my presence there because it was a challenge to his image. What he didn't know was how much others simply kept out of his path, especially the women of the church, most of whom felt they couldn't work with him at all. Why did I stay? I don't know – I guess I was that lonely.

He didn't think much of Quakers – it was just "recycle and be kind to squirrels," he would say. I would say nothing in response. I had learned by then that Quaker silence can be as useful as karate, letting someone's words echo back so that they hear what they have said – and others hear them too.

But it hurt.

In 1990, the church sent a small mission down to Peru to work with children who'd had polio. I was accepted to go, mainly because I was the only person to apply who had ever lived down there and who could speak Spanish. This put me and D-- at silent loggerheads, because he was not the centre of authority for the trip he had planned and organized. He wanted to do bible readings to prepare for the trip. I wanted to talk about cultural expectations, sanitation, prevention of disease from insects, and terrorist activity.

The group looked to me for guidance.

Peru was an amazing experience. Our little group bonded well, and D-- remained very much on the outside. He spent his spare time off by himself writing in his journal or talking with the evangelical missionaries who were running the camp. He expected us all to take part in the religious aspects of the camp. But the spiritual practices were offensive to us -- shopping-list prayer sessions, hymn sings about being washed in the blood of the lamb, wild exchanges of miracle stories. We ended up holding our own spiritual sessions in a quiet room in one of the cabins. We shared and had silence. They led the sharing, I led the silence.

He had this habit of tagging on biblical quotations with biblical references at the end of any note he sent to the Peru group. I recall once sending out a note of my own to everyone, an update on our post-mission photo exchange. I tagged on the end: Someday my prints will come. (Snow White 1:67-68).

Everyone else thought it was funny.

Ironically, he would talk to me. I suspect it's lonely at the top too. I guess he thought I was a lost cause, so it didn't matter if he showed some of his true colours. Maybe he was trying to prove something to me. I don't know. We talked a lot, wrestled with ideas, exposed ourselves, learned from each other. We were both writers, both thinkers, artists, musicians. I wasn't in awe of him, saw him as just a flawed person, the way I saw myself.

Only afterward did I discover that I was too impure for him to take seriously. A real woman did not have the kind of thoughts, the kind of past, the kind of philosophies that I had. He'd only taken what he must have considered a man's privileges. Secretly, quietly. No one else knew.

I had mistaken it all.

I learned about his new girlfriend while listening to one of his Christian radio broadcasts, only a few days after we'd been together. I don't remember breathing for a long, long time. He hadn't even told me. I guess he hadn't thought it was important. She was Christian and pure and too young to have ideas of her own. She was a woman. I was not.

Years have passed. I have a husband who tells me he loves me every day. I have a home of my own. I, unlike him, am very much alive.

But for these two days the ghosts of hurt and bewilderment have been swimming around in my head. I wonder at it all, so many years later.