I never thought I’d say this, but…

…it’s past time to free Omar Khadr. Khadr, who was kept in Guantanamo after killing an American soldier in Afghanistan at the age of 15, had the misfortune to be born to a horrible, terrorist family, but by all accounts he has been a model prisoner for many years. Even Corrections Canada wants him out of the prison system. The Harper government wants him in, with media access to him curtailed to the point of non-existence.

I’ve always supported jailing terrorists, but at some point, Omar Khadr just looks less like a terrorist, and more like a malleable young man victimized first by the evil ideology of his family, and then by the evil prejudices of his captors, who were not above torturing him. He should probably have been considered a child soldier under international conventions.

The lawyers for the government claim that releasing Khadr on bail would damage our relationship with the US–even though the US State Department has explicitly said the opposite. Obama tried to get Khadr out of Cuba and into Canada years ago, but the Tories in Ottawa engaged in stonewalling and foot-dragging until forced to accept his return to Canada by the Supreme Court of our country. The government says Khadr is dangerous, but Corrections Canada, of all things, says otherwise–and wants him out of prison entirely.

Eventually, the government’s position ends out looking like a series of false narratives. In other words: lies.

I do not believe that Khadr is a serious threat to Canadian security. He has spent many years in prison, and has developed into someone who is by all accounts a good and gentle person, despite the fact that he was tortured. Indeed, it’s starting to look like he never really belonged in prison in the first place. After having read the Millennium Trilogy, by Stieg Larrson, I’m very much reminded of the endless efforts by the fictitious selfish men in the Swedish intelligence community to keep the character Lisbeth Salander incarcerated solely to protect their jobs and their influence. I believe it is more than likely that such is the case here, too.

An open letter to the judge, then: spring Khadr free on his bail application pending his appeal in the US court system. Let him tell his story. I think the likeliest situation involves him becoming an instrument of healing rather than division.

UPDATE, May 7: Khadr is free and speaking!

My Official Conversion, or: Go, Rachel, Go!

On Sunday in a small community hall packed with senior citizens, I got religion, or sort of. I became a dues-paid member of the federal New Democratic Party of Canada. Two days later, the the NDP trounces the conservatives in, of all places, Alberta!*

About the politics: this is very momentous news for the federal NDP. It’s a momentum builder that gives the NDP a chance to remind Canadians that it is the NDP, and not Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, that are the closest of the Opposition parties to achieving power in Ottawa. Tiny PEI just reelected a Liberal government after the NDP lost all power in the small Atlantic provinces. But who cares? Alberta has been making headlines for weeks with polls projecting a NDP majority or minority. But everyone remembered the last two times polls predicted things–in BC and in Alberta–only to find that the public had other ideas. This time, the polls were right, and if anything, under-predicted the scale of the NDP achievement under Rachel Notley. I hope the NDP can find a way to use Notley on the campaign trail federally, if her honeymoon period hasn’t worn off by October.

About the personal journey: in fact, I’ve been voting NDP for several elections. At some point, I realized that the NDP was the party that cared the most about social justice. It’s more diligent than the Liberals on the use of the armed forces, on the protection of individual liberties, and on the powers granted to CSIS and CSEC**. It’s thanks to the NDP’s previous iteration, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, that Canadians have a healthcare system that is the envy of the world, behind only the Scandinavian countries, and perhaps Japan. I hated the federal Liberals under Chretien, though I very much liked Paul Martin, and I would have dearly loved the party under Bob Rae. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Despite his baby-face and lovely hair locks, and despite his capital-L Liberalism, Justin Trudeau is in fact merely Harper Lite. Only the party of Thomas Mulcair stands up for people in my income bracket–everything under $44,000, which is where Trudeau’s tax platform begins to try to “assist” people.

I suppose I was hoping to find a community to belong to when I converted to NDP religion, even as I converted to Catholicism from Protestantism many years ago–before I became an atheist. I was a bit afraid, though, of too much community. Actually, I’m frightened of too much community. I remember the hurt caused by all those years of hatred in the Baptist church I grew up in, and I recognized the same tendencies even at in the secular Landmark organization when I attended a meeting by invitation. That is why I would never go to an atheist church, even if there was one near me, which there isn’t. As it happens, I was not welcomed in evangelical style, which was good. Rather, I sensed the maturity and politeness of a high Anglican-type welcome. And that was not unwelcome.

You could, perhaps, say that I had been getting desperate for community. And still, politics is politics–and I believe that the next election will be one of the most important, or at least could be one of the most important in my lifetime. Canada under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, and before under Chretien’s Liberals, has become a less kindly place. Housing prices are skyrocketing as foreign buyers buy up all the prime real estate in Vancouver, my city. Good, steady jobs are rapidly evaporating. The individual rights and freedoms of Canadians have been curtailed. Voters–particularly university students studying away from home–have been disenfranchised on a wide scale, deliberately. A vast class of temporary foreign workers, whose passports are practically owned by their exploitative employers, now operates from far out farmer fields to urban Tim Horton’s doughnut shops. Oversight mechanisms in government, from the environment to the tax department, have been systematically shut down. Climate scientists on government payrolls have been cut, and those left standing have been silenced in the interests of corporate greed and national pride. The trajectory the country is towards a dictatorship of corporations, and that is why I hope that the NDP will make significant gains in Ottawa in the fall.

Addendum: I noticed that as of right now, on election night, the Progressive Conservatives have nearly 28% of the popular vote, while the Wildrose Party has only 24%. But Wildrose has double the Tories’ seat count. Given that Wildrose Party is in general less mature than the Tories are, I can only wish that their positions were reversed. It really is a remarkable fall from grace, after 44 years of power, to mere third place rump status.

*Note to my US readers: the NDP, under the command of a woman, sweeping Alberta is about as shocking as the idea of someone like Elizabeth Warren leading a route of Democrats over Republicans in the capitol of the state of Texas.

**Analogous to America’s CIA and the NSA, respectively.

Just Read: Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy

Last week I finished the last two books of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. It has been a very long time since I last read any contemporary fiction, and it has been much longer since I picked up a book I simply couldn’t put down. I read all three books back-to-back in all my free time, and I delayed my bedtime until after 1:30 on two nights and after midnight on several others just so I could keep reading about Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist.

Much has been made of the violence against women in all three books. (The Swedish title of the first is “Men who Hate Women”–the English title is “Girl with a Dragon Tattoo.” There’s even a critical anthology of essays about the Larsson phenomenon called “Men who Hate Women and Women who Kick Their Asses.”) At times, it does seem like Larsson had some unusual sexual hangups. Violent sex or sexual themes occur often, and at times seem unnecessary. But “by their works, you shall know them”: the saying attributed to Jesus seems appropriate for these novels. And despite the repeated violence (usually occurring “off camera,” as it were, or in flashbacks), I feel that these novels have much to say. They aren’t just incredibly thought-provoking: they provoke soul-searching. And they give the readers many strong, intelligent women who overcome the hatred of the puerile and criminal males around them.

The novels fascinate partly because of the really neat way Larsson has you thinking you’re reading crime fiction in the first novel, only to pass into something like a spy novel in the second, with courtroom drama in the third. And the novels are very political: for one thing, they say much about the need to have appropriate oversight mechanisms on spy agencies so that individuals do not lose their human rights. With Canada debating Bill C-51 right now, I think that’s a debate well worth having.

The latent (and sometimes not so latent) misogyny even in advanced Western society comes under close scrutiny, of course, and I have just mentioned the issue of oversight of spy agencies. Oversight issues involving social workers or lawyers for children are also thoughtfully explored. There are issues of free speech, and the necessary limits on free speech. There’s also the matter of how a society treats consensual sexual relationships, and here I submit that the Swedish tolerance is a very good thing. In this context, it’s how in the Vanger family, whose members never divorce and remarry, there is a veritable cornucopia of sadists, women-haters, and anti-Semites, and racists.

Technology is ever-present, and the fact that Lisbeth Salander is an expert hacker, make for continued references to the present, something I’m not used to, but which I found enjoyable. Lisbeth Salander makes the series, of course. She is a delight to watch: she’s determined, intelligent, resourceful, and, in her own very unique way, highly moral.

All in all, the trilogy is well worth reading, and I am sorry that Larsson died before he could carry his series to its planned end at ten books.

Brief Thoughts on Plato’s Symposium and the New Testament

Some time ago, I re-read Plato’s Symposium, and I was struck by a few parallels to the New Testament. I may have remarked already over the fact that Plato has Love eulogized by many different characters just as Paul eulogizes Love in I Corinthians 13, one of the most famous and most beloved portions of the Christian Bible. Paul writes that “when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.” I couldn’t help thinking that he could have lifted that from the Symposium. Plato has his Socrates quoting Diotima to the effect that understanding Love is like a staircase: in the beginning, it’s about physical attraction to one person. But later, one understands that it’s possible to feel this for many, and then later again, it’s not about physical attraction at all–and such attractions are greatly downgraded in importance.

I was also struck by the figure of Alcibiades, who basically crashes a very philosophical dinner party when he shows up very drunk with a few courtesans hanging on to him. Alcibiades was one of the foremost political figures of ancient Athens, and he was part of the circle of Socrates. But he was Public Enemy #1 on several occasions, and he was associated with the Persian Empire in its war against the Greeks. Plato seems to be saying, “yeah, he hung around with Socrates and the rest of us, but he didn’t take Socrates’ wisdom to heart.” In other words, the Alcibiades portions of the dialogue are apologies–defenses of Socrates.

Jesus had a figure in his inner circle, too, who didn’t take his wisdom to heart: Judas. And like Alcibiades, Judas is not present for the whole of the Last Supper. Judas leaves early, just as Alcibiades arrives late. Both were involved in political games and failed to understand the meaning of Love.

In the Synoptic Gospels’ accounts of the Last Supper, mention is made of how the guests were “reclining”; similarly, the reclining of the guests at supper–the standard way to have such a banquet in the eastern Mediterranean in those days–is mentioned in the Symposium.

Mention is also made of hymn singing: in the Symposium, the hymn is sang at the beginning, whereas in the Synoptics the hymn is sung at the end of the meal, before going out to the Mount of Olives.

There is probably much more that could be said. Perhaps I will return to the subject at some point in the future.

On Religious Fundamentalism: A Personal Reflection Hastily Typed

The following is a somewhat-edited version of an email I just sent an interesting person who got in touch with me through this blog:

Hello A,

Thank you very much for this message. I enjoyed reading it.

I think the basic problem with religious fundamentalists is that they really are experiencing a failure to listen to others. For example, let’s say a fundamentalist is talking with you. When he’s “listening,” he’s really just being silent while you talk so he can plan his next line. In other words, for the fundamentalist, “listening” is a tactic. To put it in Martin Buber’s terminology, to the fundamentalist, there is no Thou; there is only I.

I must admit that it’s true that I no longer listen to religious fundamentalists. In fact, I can’t give them the time of day. I’m grateful that when I was a fundamentalist, my teachers and friends were much more patient with me than I might be with fundamentalists now! But I feel incredibly and permanently damaged by the version of Christianity that I was raised with.*

I was raised with hyper-Calvinism and a belief in six-day literal creationism. I believed in the doctrines of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection and the Day of Judgment, with some going to everlasting Hell, and others to eternal bliss in Heaven. When I was in Northwest Baptist Bible College (now defunct, though the seminary lives on) here in BC, Canada, I slowly began to change. Hyper-Calvinism and a literal hell were the first beliefs to go. During this time, I took courses in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, and I realized that when NT writers were quoting the Hebrew Bible (usually via the Septuagint), they weren’t just quoting, but actively re-interpreting it. This became problematic in certain NT polemics when “the Jews” were accused of failing to understand their own scriptures and then damned to hell for it! At that point, I used the term “misinterpretation” rather than mere “reinterpretation” of the NT passages in question.

The NT’s misinterpretation of the Hebrew Bible–for various reasons I prefer not to use the term “Old Testament”–bothered me and slowly ate away at the back of my mind.

Then I transferred from my Bible college to the private evangelical Trinity Western University, where I took classes in biblical Hebrew. I still remember one very brave professor who had us reading parallel passages in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. It was obvious that earlier biblical texts were being quoted and then altered by later biblical writers. Sometimes–say if they were writing about history–it was possible for both passages to be true, but other times, there really were contradictions. My professor used to say, “this is how to teach Christians about J, E, D, and P in the Documentary Hypothesis.” And indeed, when I read the first two chapters of Genesis in Hebrew, I quickly saw that there were two very different, contradictory accounts.

When reading the Hebrew Bible, I realized that a lot of traditional Christian beliefs about God were not actually biblical. Take, for instance, the idea that God is omniscient. This is a standard trope in Christian theology. But when you read in Genesis chapter 3, you read the following: “then Yahweh God brought the animals to the Man to see what he would name them.” This God didn’t know the future. He didn’t know what Adam was going to call those animals. Not only that, but the animals were actually his first attempt to make a partner for the man. It’s interesting that there’s a Jewish tradition that has Adam saying something to the effect of: “hmm, let’s call that one ‘Elephant.’ Nope–not a suitable partner. Next!” And then after God has finally made all the animals and none are found suitable, he improvises and casts Adam into a deep sleep, and then “builds” (in Hebrew) the woman from the man’s bone. This God is a very far cry from the omniscient, omnipotent, and immutable God of Christian theology. And so it is with many passages, especially those which describe God as “repenting.” Actually, I’ve since realized that fundamentalists read just as much into their texts as they read out of them!

At the same time, I also took classes in psychology, and realized just how much of our personalities are due to the chemistry in our brains. It’s ridiculous, now, for me to imagine a God who is spirit, not flesh and bone, as Jesus would say, and yet who still feels anger, sadness, love, hatred, and repulsion.

It’s been many years now, since my biblical studies culminated in a M.A. degree from the University of Toronto. I regard Christopher Hitchens as a hero, and I am much less enamoured of C.S. Lewis (though I still greatly enjoy The Horse and his Boy). I no longer believe in a soul, or in any life after death. And I have read too much of all the genocides, rapes, murders, and abuse of children and women and sexual minorities that have occurred in the name of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It’s not only second-hand. I have in my extended family two very religious men who beat their wives and abused their children. One of these was a Pentecostal pastor who said his wife deserved every blow he gave her on the basis of his interpretation of the Bible.

Nowadays, I tend to see these three Western religions as very evil and stupid in their natures. They hold man back from achieving Nietzsche’s Overman. But I fully admit that there are many truly warm, intelligent, and “spiritual” (in the good sense) people in each of these religions, and I know many. Some of them have touched my life and helped me at critical points. But, to twist a phrase from the NT, I still see the lump of the Abrahamic religions as they are in Western societies as being lightened by the leaven of the Enlightenment: skepticism and tolerance.

My basic problem with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (and also with Hinduism) is that the fundamentalists are growing in numbers and power while the mystics and everyone else in the middle is in decline. Thus you have, for instance, the Baptists and the Pentecostals (for whom I really have no respect!) growing or staying even in terms of demographics, while the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and the United Church are all less than a generation away from total extinction.

It is possible that if I had been raised with a less dogmatic, fundamentalist version of Christianity, that I might still call myself a Christian. But for me, there’s just no point. Even if we say that the violence, the homophobia, the Zionism, the racism, the prejudice, the misogyny of the Abrahamic religions was simply “cultural,” while the teachings about love of God and love of neighbour, and the necessity of community, etc., are the “eternal message,” what’s the point? I can have the Golden Rule from numerous philosophies untouched by Christianity; I can have the Rule of Law from secular tradition; and I can friendship that does not presuppose doctrine–and I can have all of these on a secular basis that accepts the findings of science and tolerates others. And if I want literary tradition for spiritual guidance, I can always approach certain strains of Buddhism, or even better, philosophical Taoism.

The funny thing for me, though, is that even though I can intellectually dismiss the God I was raised with, I still feel a vengeful, hateful, controlling God in my life quite often. This God creates feelings of hopelessness and despair until I tell myself again that he’s a mere chimera, a product of theological and social brainwashing. I do feel the need to be part of something larger than myself. I long for community, safety, and wholeness. I don’t really get these in the individualist life I have now.

Alain de Botton has an interesting TED.com talk in which he says something to the effect of: “we as atheists don’t have to say, I can’t have community,” but I’m tempted to be as skeptical of atheistic churches as I am of Christian ones. After all, a friend of a friend in the secular Landmark movement once told me of people nearly coming to blows over a disagreement in their meetings. That’s every bit as bad as the incestuous, backstabbing, backbiting, power-grabbing congregation of Baptists that I grew up in. But at least Landmark never has, and never will fight a Thirty Years War over some philosophical difference the way Protestant and Catholic Christianity have!

All in all, then, I’m longing for something like faith and something like God, but the Abrahamic religions are the last place I’d look for them. Paradoxically, then, I may be living a Thou-less existence.

Feel free to stay in touch, and don’t be afraid of disagreements!

Best wishes,
Nathan

*Hyper-Calvinism was current in the supposedly more intelligent circles of the church I grew up in, but by no means did all members of the church believe in Predestination. My mother, for one, did not. But somehow I spent my formative teenage years under the impression that Predestination was more orthodox than free-will.

First Ride of the Year to Pitt Lake: Pics from Cell Phone Camera

Dike, Mountains,and Clouds at Pitt Lake, April 2015

I just got back a few hours ago from my first cycling trip of the year to Pitt Lake. I usually bike to Pitt Lake multiple times every year, but especially in the summer. This year, a bike repair delayed my first visit, but it finally happened today. My destination is Pitt Lake, but it’s always the side to the south of the dike that I like the most. (That would likely change if someone ever gives me a boat ride to the north end of Pitt Lake, though!)

Swamp south of dike at Pitt Lake, April 2015

On the way back, I saw a family of deer. I believe this is the third time in three consecutive years I have seen three deer at exactly this spot:

3 Deer on the road to Pitt Lake, April 2015

I also saw what I think was a beaver swimming in the one of the ditches on the road about 10 kms from the lake. No picture of him/her, though. I also saw some of the most beautiful ducks I’ve ever seen in my life, and they weren’t ones I’d seen before.

Today’s trip encapsulates why I love this part of BC so much: it’s beautiful, and it’s my home.

On Religion and Discrimination against Homosexuals

With the law recently passed in Indiana (similar to the law that nearly passed in Arizona some months ago) legalizing discrimination against homosexuals, I find that the bottom line, expressly stated in the Indiana law among other places, is religious. God hates homosexual acts. So say the religious, and they know, because they’ve got a Book. But the problem isn’t merely the book itself–it’s most often in the interpretation of the book.

Recently, an unlicensed daycare in Manitoba turned away a child because her parents were lesbians. The parents of the girl have filed a complaint with the provincial human rights tribunal. Of this, one commenter, “kbubass23″ wrote the following:

Why does [sic] their rights out shine [sic] someone else’s freedom of religion? Why do they have to tolerate(daycare) others [sic] rights when their religious freedoms are being trampled on?

This was my answer, formulated primarily from my experience in the Christian religion*:

I think this quote gets to the root of the problem: “Why does their rights out shine someone else’s freedom of religion? Why do they have to tolerate(daycare) others rights when their religious freedoms are being trampled on?”

It comes down to religion after all. But here is what I don’t understand. What Bible passages would you use to deny care for a child on the basis of his/her parents’ actions? (Quite apart from any questions about the interpretation of certain biblical passages that condemn or appear to condemn homosexuality.)

In the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament), I can find verses like Deuteronomy 24:16: “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents.” That’s the law. The principle is this: guilt by reason of being related to someone is not valid.

Meanwhile, in the gospels of the New Testament, Jesus said that whatever was done to the “least of these” would be considered done to him. Matthew 25:31-46 has those outside heaven saying “Lord, when did we see you hungry and not feed you, unclothed and not clothe you?” Jesus says, “inasmuch as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Furthermore, Jesus never judged anyone for their sexuality. This is the man who said, of “a sinful woman” that “she is forgiven for she has loved much” (Luke 7:36-50). Not only that, but Jesus praised her gifts.

Jesus, never said “let the little children come to me–except those who have gay parents.” He is the one who said, “come to the water.”

Traditional theology teaches us that all work can be done “to the glory of God.” In this case, that would mean that the daycare provider would welcome the child of gay parents into her daycare and treat her with love, respect, and equality–and treat her parents with those same qualities.

Turning the child and his/her parents away is the last thing that Jesus would have advised the owner of the daycare to do. Turning the child away was not only potentially illegal, it was incredibly bad theology.


*I am no longer a Christian, but I do feel that most evangelicals and fundamentalists really misunderstand the most important messages of their Scriptures. The great prophets of the OT and Jesus in the NT rage bitterly and with great wrath against certain sins, but these are rarely sexual in nature: their anger is reserved primarily against those who oppress “the poor, the fatherless, and the widow”–in other words, those who are without the protections normally afforded full members of a society. At the moment, in a time of rapidly widening income inequality, the fundamentalists in the US repeatedly vote for wolves (as in, of Wall Street) in the Republican Party rather than others within the party and without who are far more deserving. That this happens on the basis of their profound misunderstanding of their own scriptures is oddly comic but also deeply tragic.


UPDATE: One of the best articles that really dismantles the prejudice against homosexuals from a philosophical perspective is up on the website of The Stone, a New York Times column that deals with theological and philosophical issues. The article is well-worth reading for those interested in this issue.