Cry, the beloved: a reflection on Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela’s death has prompted abundant reflections on his life and his life’s work.
He was a symbol of peace, justice, equality, and democracy, and at the same time he was an enemy of racism, oppression, systemic injustice, and exploitation.
But Mandela was also a complex person — he was both a political radical and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize — with a simple focus: to break the yoke of oppression and inequality. This was the purpose to which Mandela devoted his life.
Shortly after Mandela was arrested with four counts of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government, he addressed the court with what is now one of his most famous speeches. In that speech he said:
“During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Mandela did not die, but served 27 years incarcerated, 18 of which were on Robben Island as a political prisoner.
But he was more than just a prisoner, he was a symbol. And he knew it.
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela said,
“In a way I had never quite comprehended before, I realized the role I could play in court and the possibilities before me as a defendant. I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness and democracy in a society that dishonoured those virtues. I realized then and there that I could carry on the fight even in the fortress of the enemy.”
The fortress of the enemy for many of us is not a colonial, imperial, segregate system like the one Mandela fought against, but rather a subtle, almost innocuous system that, while good in many ways, still leaves many oppressed and exploited in its wake.
What is most interesting, or perhaps most distressing, is that although much has changed since Mandela’s incarceration in 1962, much has remained the same.
Consider this striking passage in Alan Paton’s famous South African novel, Cry, The Beloved Country, published in 1948, only a few months before the political establishment of apartheid:
“It is not permissible to mine any gold, or manufacture any product, or cultivate any land, if such mining and manufacture and cultivation depend for their success on a policy of keeping labour poor. It is not permissible to add to one’s possessions if these things can only be done at the cost of other men. Such development has only one true name, and that is exploitation. It might have been permissible in the early days of our country, before we became aware of its cost, in the disintegration of native community life, in the deterioration of native family life, in poverty, slums and crime. But now that the cost is known, it is no longer permissible.”
Having the tendency to add to one’s possession at the cost of other people, at the cost of community or family life, could be said of Canada, the U.S., Britain, or really any other developed nation with a soft-spot for unbridled economic growth.
Unbridled economic growth has long been the seedbed for slavery and oppression and exploitation. But this, as Paton says, is no longer permissible. The beloved, our beloved, should not be made to cry. They should not be treated as unequal, no matter their race, appearance, income, family, or gender.
We are called, in our humanity, to break the yoke of oppression and inequality. Mandela devoted his life to this, and maybe we should too.
@TipsForJesus: who are you?
This makes up for everything.
Rest easy, Jesus-followers everywhere. We can now move on from our gay-hating, cheap-skating reputation.
It’s once again safe for you to eat in restaurants.
@TipsForJesus is a modern-day Robin Hood, repairing the damage done to your spiritual-social collateral by dropping massive gratuities to flabbergasted servers around the United States.
(And lest you think he’s just showboating, he signs off with the mantra, “Fight On!”)
The campaign seems to have officially begun in September 2013. That’s when the first Instagram appeared: a repro of that ubiquitous cartoon Jesus statue giving a wink and a thumbs-up, with a caption reading, “Here we go.”
That same day, Ben at Bar Louie in Ann Arbor, MI made a $3,000 gratuity on an $87 bill. And about 20 more photos have followed since then, showing grinning servers, thumbs-upping golf caddies, and receipts with a gradually increasing tip-to-bill ratio.
I’m not going to lie. Keeping up with the Internets is exhausting. By the time this post goes up, we’ll probably all be rolling our eyes at the truth that has come out behind @TipsForJesus. At this particular moment, though, speculations include the following:
- @TipsForJesus is former PayPal VP Jack Selby. He has a lot of money.
- @TipsForJesus is a collective of individuals, rather than one maverick believer with a ridiculous amount of discretionary income.
- @TipsForJesus is a response to @TipsForAtheists (for which I could find no actual Instagram or Twitter account), which documented the hilarious quips that certain non-Jesus-followers left in lieu of a gratuity.
- @TipsForJesus isn’t a Jesus-follower because one of those receipts is for a bar tab.
But whatever or whoever @TipsForJesus is, I’m digging it. Fight on.
GTA 5 and strippers
So I’ve been teaching a high school film class, flying by the seat of my pedagogical pants while replacing the regular teacher until after Christmas break. Judging by his posters, his curriculum has focused on the Seth Rogen canon and the Predator series, although these students have yet to demonstrate a feature-length attention span.
My students were starting their first movie projects – short films – and I was listening in on each group’s collaboration. We had spent three weeks studying camera angles, sound design, and editing software; I could tell that they had had enough theory and were itching to start shooting. I had just taught a quick lesson on story structure, and was about to hand out the cameras. But before I did, I told them to first plan out their narratives.
When I asked one of the groups to talk about their idea, the five boys explained they were going to do a GTA 5 film.
“A what film?” I asked, honestly curious.
“Grand Theft Auto 5!”
They were hunkered around a piece of paper drafting an outline. “It’s a video game,” they went on, and described it with the detail and tenderness of a dear girlfriend.
“We’re going to be playing the game, and then get sucked into its world, and be inside the video game, living it out.” I had yet to see them this engaged; they were twitching with excitement.
I’m not sure this was an improvement from the previous group I had talked with. Their idea: “Redneck Mafia.” It would be a film where the only black kid in the group — who was notably silent throughout the explanation — sells cocaine to the other (white) members. The rest of the film would consist of the cast doing stupid stuff to each other. (“Like Jackass!” they said, as if that would convince me.)
To be honest, I was happy they were finally off their cell phones.
At lunchtime, I decided to Google Grand Theft Auto 5. Having never played the video game, I was intrigued as to why my students would want to make a film about it.
I got linked up to some YouTube clips, and not long after came across the strippers. In a video game, I kid you not.
At over a billion dollars in sales, I’m betting there’s a swath of gamers who would want to drive a Porsche through my mouth for suggesting the nude lap dances portrayed in Grand Theft Auto might be blunting their souls some.
And I would go so far as to say (here comes that Porsche) the half-clad peelers may not even be necessary for the game. It’s about heisting things, isn’t it? And bullets, and drug dealers, and bullion? Are the pole dancers really necessary? I can’t remember playing Pac-Man and wishing naked lady-ghosts would chase me around the maze. Were they worried they’d lose their 13-30 year old male demographic to porn?
I’m not trying to be a prude; I realize gamers won’t be jacking cars and offing civilians thug-style just because they played this game; they’re just playing, right?
(Of course, I could mention the research linking video gaming to obesity, attention disorders, and aggressive behaviour. But then you might mention the other research linking video gaming to increased brain matter, motor skills, and problem solving abilities. So let’s hold off on that line of questioning.)
What I’m curious about are the consequences of these simulated lap dances. The thing is, from my limited exposure of GTA, these dancers aren’t on the periphery, merely gyrating in the background; the game is in first-person, so the strippers are front and centre. And trust me, these aren’t Frogger graphics. Four sequels in, GTA images are high-end, and the designers made sure the breasts look real, impressively pixilated and digitally endowed.
Real enough to lust after, real enough for it to stop being just a game. Those strippers will break into your heart and hotwire your insides, and for many guys, they won’t be gone in 60 seconds.
I’m a case study: I had a tough time stopping the YouTube clip. When I told my wife about it that evening, it felt a bit like I had chipped a piece off of something I would never want to break. I felt ashamed.
I wonder how it affects those 15-year-old-boys.
Maybe they’ll get bored of the lap dances, and look for something more carnal in GTA 6. Maybe it is just a game, and they’re not affected by it. Or maybe they’ll grow to see women as controllable chesty objects, thinking of their wives as entertainment.
Maybe next class I can talk to them about this, and try to manoeuvre their thoughts and re-route their drives towards something better. Maybe I can get them to tell a better story with their film, and even with their lives.
Flickr photo (cc) by wizzer2801
5 things I’ve learned from Pope Francis
Flickr photo (cc) by Catholic Church (England and Wales)
If you’re like me, you’re captivated by the new pope. Pope Francis has a way of making even the most staunch Protestants consider what the Catholic Church has to say. (But isn’t this is the way it should be? Shouldn’t we be unified as one church?)
I recently read an interview with Pope Francis which, as The Washington Post says, was a “journalistic gold mine.” His candor allowed his heart to be on full display. So here are five things I’ve learned from him, out of so, so many.
1) An appreciation for art
Protestants have a long history of skepticism toward art and icons. Though this can be theoretically and theologically justified, it can also be devastating to creatives and art-lovers alike. In the interview, Pope Francis spoke of his love for the writings of Dostoevsky and for the film ‘La Strada’ by Fellini; he said the music of Mozart “fulfills” him and even “lifts [him] to God!” and that the paintings of Caravaggio “speak” to him.
But his appreciation for art becomes a locale for his Christian spirituality. At the beginning of the interview, when Francis was asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” (his name before he took the papal office), he referred to Caravaggio’s famous painting ‘The Calling of St. Matthew,’ explaining how he saw himself as a sinner. Francis said, “It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.”
2) A disposition of humility
Pope Francis, in the interview, said he is actually a “really, really undisciplined person” and that it was “crazy” that he was put in a position of authority in his Jesuit province in Argentina at 36. (This makes me feel better about my lack of authority on anything.)
Pope Francis said he also holds discernment as one of the most important spiritual gifts, because he is “always wary of decisions made hastily,” as there will always be uncertainty in every decision. As he said, “I am always wary of the first decision, that is, the first thing that comes to my mind if I have to make a decision. This is usually the wrong thing. I have to wait and assess, looking deep into myself, taking the necessary time. The wisdom of discernment redeems the necessary ambiguity of life and helps us find the most appropriate means, which do not always coincide with what looks great and strong.”
If you were to ask a church leader to describe what kind of qualities a good leader needs to have, I am sure “strong” would be high up on the list. Interestingly, I don’t think Pope Francis would say the same.
3) A need for community
Much has been made of Pope Francis’ decision not to live in the traditional papal apartment. Rather, he chooses to live in a “simple, austere” room. Here is how Francis explained that decision:
“The papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace is not luxurious. It is old, tastefully decorated and large, but not luxurious. But in the end it is like an inverted funnel. It is big and spacious, but the entrance is really tight. People can come only in dribs and drabs, and I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others.”
If more people in the church chose to live more simply in order to be more connected with people, I have little doubt that the church would become a more hospitable and relevant place.
4) The Church is a ‘field hospital’
Most of the commentary on the interview with Pope Francis has focused on the topics of abortion and homosexuality, but Francis is keen to remind people that the Church is actually much more than these issues. He said,
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
Pope Francis appears to want to get away from the idea that church teaching or doctrine is a “monolith” that needs defending without nuance or development — the church is much bigger than that. Instead, it’s a “field hospital” that must have “the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful.” He explained further,
“It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. … The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.”
5) “Consider the person”
For Pope Francis, the person — particularly the poor person – must never be forgotten. His focus on the poor has endeared him to many inside and outside the church, but it has also been the source of some of his most pointed criticisms. Last Sunday, Francis was speaking to an audience in Sardinia (an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea) about the current unbalanced state of the global financial market. He said, “I find suffering here … It weakens you and robs you of hope. Excuse me if I use strong words, but where there is no work there is no dignity … We don’t want this globalised economic system which does us so much harm. Men and women have to be at the centre (of an economic system) as God wants, not money.”
He went further, “To defend this economic culture, a throwaway culture has been installed. We throw away grandparents, and we throw away young people. We have to say no to his throwaway culture. We want a just system that helps everyone.”
Amen, my fellow Christian Brother.
The irony of Quebec’s charter of values
Flickr photo (cc) by wrote
OK, I get it. With its proposed values charter, Quebec is attempting to create a neutral public space where all individuals are treated as equals.
And for many reasons, that’s a noble goal. The Quebec government doesn’t want to be seen as favouring one religion over another. And they want to maintain that the truth or validity of any one religion should be evaluated on the merit of a religion’s claims, not on its ability to politically pressure or coerce people into accepting its claims.
But, I would argue, by restricting government employees to adorn any prominent religious symbol, like a hijab or a turban or a yarmulke, the government in Quebec will actually increase the inequality present in public spaces.
By implementing the values charter, a public space will be created where anything with particular value — in this case anything of particular religious value — will be deemed unequal to anything with universal value. The result? If the public identity of any individual is shaped or adorned by a religious symbol, that person will be pushed out of the neutral public place.
But isn’t the idea of a neutral public space a myth? Aren’t all public spaces based on particular values or pre-suppositions? It’s true, Quebec’s proposed charter of values is certainly based on non-neutral presuppositions — many of them religious presuppositions, by the way — which means that even if religious symbols were removed from the public space, that space will still be far from neutral.
This point has been made elsewhere, so I won’t pursue it further. But the question that lingers is: what are we going to do about it? What happens if the majority in a democratic society chooses to restrict the rights of a minority? Sixty-six per cent of Quebecers report they’re in favour of the proposed charter. Do we just stand by and let that happen? Or do we actively oppose it?
The answer, unfortunately, is not so simple. The paradox of democracy is that the majority will always have the ability to act disfavourably toward the minority. Thankfully, most democratic societies have checks and balances in place to protect the interests of the minority — and it seems like these checks and balances may be put in motion if need be — but there is always the danger that the minority will be forced to sacrifice its values for the sake of the majority. Sometimes this can be a good or even a necessary thing. But it can never be a neutral thing.
Quebec’s pursuit of a government devoid of any religious influence is more than just ironic. It’s incoherent. In the same way that we don’t want other countries to ostracize individuals for their religious beliefs, we shouldn’t want it in our own.
Am I Syria’s keeper?
Flickr photo (cc) by Christiaan Triebert
The fourth chapter of Genesis tells the story of Cain and Abel, the first story of human conflict. Cain and Abel gave offerings to the Lord, but the Lord looked with favor on Abel, not Cain, causing Cain to be downcast and angry. Seeing Cain in his anger, the Lord said to him, “Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” Evidently Cain did not master it because when they went out to the field Cain attacked Abel and killed him. When the Lord inquired of Abel’s whereabouts, Cain responded, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
God became angry with Cain for obvious reasons and banished him from the land to live a life of restless wandering, but Cain’s final question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” went largely unanswered; and unfortunately, it continues to be largely unanswered.
You may say that Christians should be able to confidently answer, ‘Yes! Of course we are called to be our brother’s keeper.’ The Bible is quite clear that we are to care for our brothers and sisters who need caring — the command to love our neighbour is, after all, part and parcel with the command to love God (Matt. 22:37-40) — but, the problem is that Cain’s question is not a yes or no question, it is a how question.
It is a question that goes beyond the idea that we have a stake in our neighbour’s well-being — any other notion would have been unthinkable in the Ancient Near East — it was a question that sought to get at the ways in which we are keepers of our neighbours.
We are certainly not responsible for all the conflicts in the world, but unlike Cain who used the question to deflect God’s attention away from the ways in which Cain failed to be his brother’s keeper, we must not deflect our attention away from human conflicts like the one currently going on in Syria. We may disagree about how our attention is best directed in these conflicts, but we cannot deflect these conflicts away as if we are not, in some way, our neighbour’s keeper.
We know that we are called to love our brothers and sisters, but how do we do that? How, for example, do I love and keep my Syrian brothers and sisters? How can I be a blessing to them in the midst of devastating death and destruction? Jesus gives us a picture of how this is to be done through his own life and teachings, but the details are largely left to us.
The first step involves two things: prayer and learning. These things may lead to further action, but further action should never be devoid of prayer and learning. I cannot help you with prayer, but below are a selection of articles to help you learn about the conflict in Syria and why the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” remains a difficult question to answer.
What’s going on?
Max Fisher: 9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask (The Washington Post)
Daniel Burke: Syria explained: How it became a religious war (CNN Belief Blog)
Jon Huckins: Syria: The stuff no one wants to talk about (Sojourners)
Should we intervene?
R.R. Reno: Does Syria matter? (First Things)
Nicholas Kristof: The right questions on Syria (The New York Times)
George Packer: Two minds on Syria (The New Yorker)
Michael Scaturro: Why human rights groups don’t agree about what to do about Syria (The Atlantic)
Rania Khalek: Syria’s nonviolent resistance is dying to be heard (Al Jazeera)
Should Christians support intervention?
Jonathan Merritt: On Syrian conflict, three Christian perspectives (Religion News Service)
Mark Movsesian: Christians, American and Syrian (First Things)
Interview with Stanley Hauerwas: What makes America so prone to intervention? (The Atlantic)
Stanley Hauerwas: Just how realistic is just war theory? The case for Christian realism (ABC Religion and Ethics)
Jeremy Weber: Should U.S. Bomb Syria? Evangelical Leaders Take Surprising Vote (Christianity Today)
Boston Bombing Movie: Too Soon?
Flickr photo (cc) by AirmanMagazine
My first reaction to learning that a Boston bombing movie was in the works was that it was too soon.
It reeked of opportunism. It felt like a deliberate attempt to be the first to cash in on an event that captured the imaginations of most North Americans for the better part of a month, and judging by the reaction to the most recent Rolling Stone cover story on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the said suspect, it is a story that continues to capture our imaginations.
There were many times in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombing when the story seemed to defy reality. The marathon runners kept running, but it was in the opposite direction. Social media exploded with accounts of the bombing, but many used it as an opportunity to participate in a sort of vigilante social media manhunt. The suspects shot and killed an MIT police officer before carjacking a Mercedes SUV, all of which helped police to identify them. The suspects had an “unprecedented” shoot out with the police in a locked down Boston neighbourhood where one of the suspects was killed after he was shot and then run over by the other suspect in the stolen SUV as he miraculously escaped. The remaining suspect was eventually found hiding under the tarp of a backyard boat, and his capture sparked many large street celebrations all across the city of Boston.
If truth is indeed stranger than fiction, this is a pretty good case in point, and it should not be surprising that a movie about the Boston bombing is now in the works.
Despite my better judgment, I feel I should suspend my criticisms about a not-yet-confirmed film about the Boston bombing.
One reason for my hesitation is that movies are much more than just a money-making venture. Movies are an art form, and like any art form they are multi-layered. Meaning can go far deeper than the surface. The aforementioned Rolling Stone cover story is a good example of this. If you did not know any better you would think Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was an indie rockstar in the vein of Bob Dylan, but the headline gives a more layered story: “The Bomber: How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.”
The cover of the August 1 issue of Rolling Stone magazine
There has been much fuss over the cover – it has been called “tasteless,” “trashy,” and “exploitative” – because it has the potential to mislead people and give them the wrong impression. The cover of Rolling Stone is usually reserved for celebrities so to put someone on the cover who is a celebrity because of their infamy is disconcerting for many. The disconcertion is valid, of course, because the Rolling Stone cover may do more harm than good, but to criticize it outright is to miss the deeper point that the cover and the story are trying to make: we are complicated people with complicated problems. We are not as different to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as we would like to think. We are both saint and sinner, friend and foe, hero and villain, capable of both great goodness and great wickedness. I do not see the story or the cover as a glorification of evil, as some have said, I see it as an honest investigation into the multi-faceted human condition.
My point here, however, is not to admonish or support Rolling Stone for trying to tell stories and sell magazines, my point is to argue that a purely surface level understanding of art will almost certainly distort the deeper purposes of that art.
This is why I fear for a Boston marathon movie. I fear that the movie may remain surface level and distort some of the dirty, messy, and essentially human elements of this tragedy. I think we are just too close to the bombing for filmmakers to faithfully create or for fans to fairly judge whether the movie successfully depicted the events and the people involved. History is the arbiter of wisdom and wisdom the arbiter of fairness. Hollywood seems to have very little wisdom as it is, and I fear that even less historical perspective will only perpetuate the problem. But, this might be of little consequence anyways because the majority of moviegoers may not even care whether the movie was faithful or fair. I mean, if we are entertained, what does it matter?
I could be wrong, though. I thought the Social Network and Zero Dark Thirty were made much too soon but they proved to be very good movies, which is another reason why I choose to withhold my criticism.
If I had a chance to speak with the filmmakers or scriptwriters currently working on the project I would ask them a simple question: why make this movie now? A movie never has to be made. So why now and not later?
My hope is that the filmmakers can honestly answer this question with something other than money or American nationalism. If so, then I eagerly await a movie about the Boston marathon bombing (it needs to be said that Boston is the best setting for Hollywood movies bar none). If not, then yes, I will be ready to be critical again, but even more than that I will lament the loss of tragedy, because tragedies should be moments for reflection, not opportunities for profit or propaganda.
Exodus Closes, yet more open
By now you are probably aware that the world’s largest homosexuality rehabilitation ministry, Exodus International, has decided to shut down its ministry. As of June 19th, over 10K people on Facebook had shared the statement made by Exodus’s President Alan Chambers, a former homosexual himself. So, why did so many people share a letter from the president of a Christian “anti-gay” organization?
Flickr photo (cc) by Iain Farrell
Well, for one, the statement was an apology. In the statement, entitled “I Am Sorry”, Chambers apologized for the hurt that he and his ministry has caused in the LGBT community:
“Please know that I am deeply sorry. I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly “on my side” who called you names like sodomite—or worse.”
Another reason is that any controversial story related to homosexuality will get attention. The ripples that Exodus International has caused in light of its closing is simply emblematic of the importance that homosexuality has in today’s society.
However, in this case, the attention seemed a little different. There wasn’t quite as much vitriol spewed by each side as there normally is. Most seemed to respond to Chambers’s statement with a sort of measured tolerance because although people may agree or disagree in principal with the now defunct ministry, it is believed that this is a step in the right direction – even if it is a small step.
For example, Christopher Yuan, a Christian who is author of Out of A Far Country: A Gay Son’s Journey to God, commented in Christianity Today:
“I do appreciate that Exodus no longer promotes orientation change. Although God does not bless homosexual sex or same-sex romantic relations, heterosexuality should not be the goal. … I think one weakness of Exodus (whether intentional or unintentional) had been a lack of emphasis upon biblical singleness, resulting in an over emphasis upon heterosexual marriage.”
From the other side of the fence, Wayne Besen, executive director of Truth Wins Out, an organization that combats ex-gay groups, was also (somewhat) positive about the recent happenings with Exodus International:
“While we are overjoyed to see Alan Chambers and the board of Exodus do the right thing by closing their doors, there is still far more work to do to put an end to the awful practice of ‘ex-gay’ reparative therapy. As we’ve seen with the recent formation of the Restored Hope Network, there are still enough charlatans and hucksters out there committed to pushing their discredited worldview, at the expense of LGBTQ people and their families, to keep us busy.”
Not all, however, would agree with Wayne Besen or Christopher Yuan or even Robert Moore, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and say that a rejection of a rehabilitative approach to sexual sanctification is a step in the right direction. Andrew Comiskey, a board member of the aforementioned Restored Hope Network, for example, tweeted that Exodus International’s recent decision to abandon a rehabilitative approach to homosexuality led to their downfall: “How merciful of God to shut down Exodus, which under Alan Chambers leadership had completely veered off the course of its mission.”
However, despite the attention that controversial stories about homosexuality will bring, I think the most important reason that Alan Chambers’s statement has garnered much attention and the reason that much less vitriol has been exchanged this time around is that his apology was sincere. For reasons that are at the same time obvious and perplexing, sincerity has become a lost heart in today’s society. Thus when we see it – especially when we see it connected to a topic that is too often devoid of sincerity – we see it as a truly remarkable thing that deserves attention. Being vulnerable is a truly terrifying thing, as Chambers attests:
“Our ministry has been public and therefore any acknowledgement of wrong must also be public. I haven’t always been the leader of Exodus, but I am now and someone must finally own and acknowledge the hurt of others. I do so anxiously, but willingly.”
But, sincerity does not mean renouncing or apologizing one’s deeply held beliefs, as Chambers did not:
“…exercise my beliefs with great care and respect for those who do not share them. I cannot apologize for my beliefs about marriage. But I do not have any desire to fight you on your beliefs or the rights that you seek. My beliefs about these things will never again interfere with God’s command to love my neighbor as I love myself.”
Sincerity means being humble, but not compromising, about one’s beliefs. You may disagree with Chambers’s beliefs and you may criticize his ability to “cultivate human flourishing“ without giving up his belief that homosexuality is wrong, but I think it would be narrow not to appreciate the sincerity that Chambers showed in apologizing for the pain he and his ministry have caused in the LGBT community. This is a difficult thing to do, especially when your deeply held beliefs go against the majority of public opinion – see the recent Gallup pole or the very recent Prop 8 ruling in the U.S. – but I think it is a necessary thing to do. After all, nobody ever said this whole humanity thing was ever supposed to be easy.
Neuroscience and Religious Belief [Converging the Week]
Flickr photo (cc) by Lisa Brewster
Converging the Week
Neuroscience and Religious Belief
Neuroscience is all the rage. By claiming to “unlock” the secrets of the human mind – said to be science’s final frontier – neuroscience captures the public’s imagination in everything from disease to economics to art to religion. Sally Satel, co-author of the book “Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience,” refers to this trend as neurocentrism: “the view that human behaviour can be best explained by looking solely or primarily at the brain.”
As a result, neuroscientists often drink their own kool-aid and become consumed by the endless possibilities that neuroscience claims to afford. Such is the case when Kathleen Taylor, an Oxford University researcher in neuroscience, recently said that unwanted beliefs could be treated the same way we treat unwanted illness. Speaking at a literary festival in Wales – case in point for the popularity of neuroscience – Taylor had this to say about the future of neuroscience:
“One of the surprises may be to see people with certain beliefs as people who can be treated. Someone who has for example become radicalised to a cult ideology — we might stop seeing that as a personal choice that they have chosen as a result of pure free will and may start treating it as some kind of mental disturbance. In many ways it could be a very positive thing because there are no doubt beliefs in our society that do a heck of a lot of damage.”
Taylor’s comments received international attention because she referred to radical Islam – which seems the most sure fire way to get in the news these days – as an obvious candidate for this belief treatment, but her comments were much more than just inflammatory comments against certain religious or unwanted beliefs. They were wrong.
Now, I don’t deny that neuroscience has great capacity to help us understand how our brains (or minds) work, but I do deny that neuroscience has the capacity to reduce all of life to the neurotransmitters in our brain and thus treat unwanted beliefs. There are two reasons why I say this.
First, to assume that certain unwanted beliefs might be treatable, we must also assume that we know how to identify unwanted beliefs. Who gets to decide, for example, what is a true or false, wanted or unwanted belief? Neuroscience can describe the electrochemical activities in the brain, but it cannot tell us whether these electrochemical activities are true or false. To do that we must define what is true or false before we attempt to interpret electrochemical activities in the brain; which is, not coincidentally, what philosophers and theologians have been attempting to do for millennia. In the end, neuroscience may be able to describe our beliefs, but it cannot not prescribe our beliefs.
Second, when neuroscientists reduce a person to the electrochemical activities in their brain, they are falling victim to what Alva Noë called the Cartesian dogma of neuroscience, which says that the real you is something inside of you – the real you is found in your brain. One problem of this is that it encourages individuals to evade responsibility for their actions if their brain is not functioning at full capacity. As Satal asks, “If every troublesome behavior is eventually traced to correlates of brain activity that we can detect and visualize, will we be able to excuse it on a don’t-blame-me-blame my-brain theory? Will no one ever be judged responsible?” Of course, this is not to deny the real and important role that brain function plays in the personality and actions of an individual, but it serves to debunk the idea that people and their beliefs can be reduced to neurotransmitters and neuro-pathways in the brain.
CBC: B.C. Opposes the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline
Gallup: Americans say religion is losing influence in the U.S, but they also say the U.S. would be better off if more Americans were religious.
National Geographic: Australia is the happiest country in the world for the 3rd year running.
CNN: The secular organization Recovering from Religion starts an atheist 1800 hotline for doubters.
Homosexuality and Religious Belief
Flickr photo by stevejb68
A former professor of mine once said that if you can’t say everything you want to say about homosexuality, don’t say anything at all. The implication being that if you can’t state your position in full, parts of your position will be taken out of context or misinterpreted entirely.
For the most part I have adopted this approach because homosexuality is such a charged issue that it is difficult to enter the discussion without hurting or being hurt. However, I enter the discussion here not because I wish to defend one position or another, but because I feel the discussion has lost its bearings. Granted, it has probably lost its bearings for some time now, but the recent discussion concerning The Boy Scouts of America’s decision to accept openly gay members but not openly gay leaders has only made this more apparent.
First, as many have noted, the decision to accept openly gay members and deny openly gay leaders is incoherent. If homosexual activity were morally problematic, why would Scouts allow members to proclaim acceptance of a morally dubious position? But if homosexual activity were not morally problematic, why wouldn’t Scouts allow openly gay men to be leaders? In trying to appease both sides, the Scouts end up appeasing no one.
I have seen this incoherence in churches as well. In attempting to be accepting of everyone, some churches allow gay members and even gay Sunday school teachers, but they do not allow gay elders or ministers. The message is confusing at best and destabilizing at worst. A house divided cannot stand; a choice must be made.
But this choice brings us to the crux of the issue of homosexuality: who decides whether homosexuality is to be accepted or rejected and on what grounds do they make this decision?
In a democratic society the decision is put to a vote, as it was with the recent Scouts decision, where individuals who claim to hold a correct opinion lobby to bring others to a similar opinion so that their opinion may eventually become the popular opinion. This is all fine and good, but it is not a process that necessitates a morally correct decision. All it necessitates is a general consensus. For a morally correct decision individuals must turn elsewhere. Christians, for example, turn outward to the Bible for guidance (note that I did not say rules) on moral decisions, while non-religious individuals (usually) turn inward to themselves for guidance.
Christianity, for its part, in no way devalues the guidance that an individual may receive when they turn inward. Christianity celebrates the experience, reason, and moral conscience of an individual. In fact, democracy itself was built on the Christian principle of listening to the voice of each and every individual. And as Lars Walker recently asked in The American Spectator, “Without the Bible, can there be democracy?”
But, this is not how Christianity is perceived today. Christianity is thought to foster “loathsome” and “bigoted” beliefs – to use the words from a recent New York Times Editorial on the Boys Scouts recent vote – when it calls something like homosexuality a sin. Now, many Christians are both loathsome and bigoted, no argument there, but the point needs to be made that this is not a Christian phenomenon or even a religious phenomenon, it is a human phenomenon. Religion has no special claim to intolerance or bigotry, especially when religions like Christianity explicitly speak against such actions.
The difficulty then with this whole debate is that bigotry has subtly become synonymous with religion. It is difficult to read things like the New York Times Editorial and not get the impression that all traditions with ties to religion – and I am not just speaking about traditions like marriage that deal specifically with sexuality – are archaic at best and bigoted at worst. Although I can reasonably guess that the editors of the New York Times do not think that all religious belief necessarily leads to bigotry, I can also reasonably guess that many people who read the editorial will draw the conclusion that it does.
So, unfortunately, in the debate over the moral correctness of homosexual action, Christianity has become synonymous with bigotry. According to a number of sources, for example, the number one association that people have with Christianity is that it is “anti-homosexual.” In many ways, Christians only have themselves to blame. We have for too long elevated the rejection of sin over love for one’s neighbour. Loving one’s neighbour does not mean affirming everything that they do, but it does mean listening to why they do it.
Christianity is a religion that is predicated on listening to those who are voiceless, but along the way, we have lost our own voice. Any doctor will tell you that when you lose your voice the best thing to do is to stop talking. Maybe this is what Christians need to do. Unfortunately, the ones who need to stop talking the most are also the ones who are least likely to listen. And again, unfortunately, this isn’t a religious phenomenon.