Just one question for the Tory leadership candidates

Tomorrow night Alberta will have a new premier. Either Doug Horner, Alison Redford, or Gary Mar will win the second ballot in the Progressive Conservative leadership race tomorrow and, since Alberta is virtually a one-party state, will become the new leader of our province as well.

During the campaign the candidates have debated many issues, but there is just one that is dear to my heart. I would like to ask the three remaining candidates this question: ‘Gary, Alison, and Doug: which do you think is more important: NHL hockey, or enough teachers to do a good job of teaching our children?’

I have a very personal interest in this question. You see, my daughter worked very hard to get her education degree, because the only financial help I was able to afford to give her was a free place to stay. She got a small inheritance, and she worked part time, and she worked a summer job through ’til Christmas one year, taking five years to get her B.Ed. instead of four, but she came out without a student loan to pay off. She then decided to take advantage of the opportunity to teach in England and ended up working over there for two years.

My daughter decided to come back to Canada in the summer of 2010, hoping to get a teaching job here. Bad timing! Budgets were so tight and there were so many unemployed teachers around that she was not able to even get her name on a sub list here in Edmonton. And as for getting a job this Fall – forget it! School boards across Alberta were laying off a thousand teachers because of inadequate funding from the government. Consequently, she is now back in England, looking (so far unsuccessfully) for another  job over there.

Meanwhile, here in Edmonton, what does our city council think our province should be spending taxpayers’ dollars on? A brand new hockey arena! Darryl Katz (a millionaire), who owns the Edmonton Oilers (another group of millionaires), apparently thinks that he doesn’t have enough money to build this piece of private enterprise himself. So, like so many capitalists, he wants to be socialist with his costs and capitalist with his profits; he wants the city to contribute money. The city has agreed to put a total of $225 million into the project, and is asking the provincial government – the same provincial government which is apparently too poor to continue to employ the one thousand teachers it laid off this summer –  for another $100 million.

Please understand – I know it is not a simple issue of the next premier of Alberta making a straight choice between $100 million for an Edmonton arena or $100 million to put more teachers in our classrooms. I know that there are many potential projects for funding and that the issue of provincial budgeting is a huge one. But nonetheless, the idea that I might possibly be a citizen of a province that laid off a thousand teachers while giving Edmonton $100 million to build a new arena for its millionaire hockey players somehow sticks in my craw. Just as it sticks in my craw that in our province child and youth care workers (who often put their personal safety on the line) working in group homes still make about $15 an hour, while provincial cabinet ministers make $184,000 a year (one third of it tax free!).

So far, to his credit, Premier Stelmach has said ‘no’ to direct cash grants to Edmonton’s arena project, although he has mused about other ways of helping. But of course, after tomorrow night Premier Stelmach will be out of a job. So I would like to ask the three people who are contending for his job this one question: Gary, Alison, and Doug, which do you think is more important: NHL hockey, or teachers?

I would really like to know.

Missing Felix Hominum

Of all the blogs I read, Felix Hominum was far and away my favourite. I loved Joe’s ability to write about Dante and Augustine, about parenting and making a backyard skating rink, about the Scriptures and about jazz. I loved his sheer writing skill and his down-to-earth and thoroughly mischievous sense of humour.

I find that the majority of blogs are fairly predictable. This one hates the Anglican Covenant, this one hates Obama and all he stands for, this one is absorbed in her own pain, this one thinks gays are going to destroy the world, and so on. But with Joe, you could aways be sure of finding something unexpected, something interesting and absorbing (he was interested in so many things). And it was all based on his deep rootedness in Christ and the long tradition of Christian spirituality and theology.

Since Joe died on August 10th I have continued to check my blogroll every day. I realised this morning that deep down inside, I’ve been hoping against hope for a new post on Felix Hominum. And it came to me in a fresh way this morning that this is not going to happen. And I can’t deny that this thought caused me a tear or two.

Rest in peace, Joe, and rise in glory. I hope there are blogs in the kingdom.

Update on Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani

Early this morning, the ACLJ received this troubling news from Christian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani’s attorney in Iran, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah. Mr. Dadkhah firmly denies that the court has agreed to overturn Pastor Youcef’s death sentence. He believes this is a lie spread by the Iranian secret service, even to members of his own family, to stop the media from reporting on this case.

Read the rest here. And please pray.

Please pray for Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani

The following article is lifted in its entirety from the website of Christian Solidarity Worldwide. Please pray.

Iranian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani has twice refused to recant his Christian faith during two court hearings held in Rasht, Gilan Province on 25 and 26 September. Sources close to CSW indicate that recanting will again be demanded at sessions scheduled for 27 and 28 September, and that if he continues to refuse, he will be executed thereafter.

Pastor Nadarkhani was tried and found guilty of apostasy (abandoning Islam) in September 2010 by the court of appeals in Rasht. The verdict was delivered verbally in court, while written confirmation of the death sentence was received nearly two months later. At the appeal in June 2011, the Supreme Court of Iran upheld Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani’s sentence, but asked the court in Rasht, which issued the initial sentence, to re-examine whether or not he had been a practicing Muslim adult prior to converting to Christianity.  The written verdict of the Supreme Court’s decision included provision for annulment of the death sentence if Pastor Nadarkhani recanted his faith.

Following investigation, the court in Rasht has ruled that Pastor Nadarkhani was not a practicing Muslim adult before becoming a Christian.  However, the court has decided that he remains guilty of apostasy because he has Muslim ancestry.  Pastor Nadarkhani’s lawyer, Mr Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, has made it clear to the court that the repeated demand for recanting is against both Iranian law and the constitution.  The court replied that the verdict of the Supreme Court must be applied, regardless of the illegality of the demand.

The death sentence for apostasy is not codified in the Iranian Penal Code.  However, using a loophole in Iran’s constitution, the judges in Rasht based their original verdict on fatwas by Ayatollahs Khomeini, the “father” of Iran’s revolution in 1979, Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, and of Makarem Shirazi, currently the most influential religious leader in Iran.

Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, of the Church of Iran denomination, was arrested in his home city of Rasht on 13 October 2009 while attempting to register his church. His arrest is believed to have been due to his questioning of the Muslim monopoly on the religious instruction of children in Iran. He was initially charged with protesting; however the charges against him were later changed to apostasy and evangelising Muslims. His lawyer, Mr Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, a prominent Iranian human rights defender, is also facing legal difficulties. On Sunday 3 July a court in Tehran sentenced Mr Dadkhah to nine years in jail and a 10-year ban on practicing law or teaching at university for “actions and propaganda against the Islamic regime”. He is currently appealing the sentence.

CSW’s Special Ambassador Stuart Windsor said, “CSW is calling on key members of the international community to urgently raise Pastor Nadarkhani’s case with the Iranian authorities. His life depends on it, and we have grave concerns regarding due process in this case, and also in that of his lawyer, Mr Dadkhah. The verdict handed down to Pastor Nadarkhani is in violation of the international covenants to which Iran is a signatory, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICPPR), which guarantees freedom of religion and freedom to change one’s religion. It also violates article 23 of the Iranian Constitution, which states that no-one should be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.”

Time is of the essence. Please take action today.

CSW is calling for urgent prayer and action on behalf of Pastor Nadarkhani today.  Please email the Iranian embassy as soon as you can, urging them not to go ahead with the execution following the trial.

Here is my email:

To: Mr. Kambiz Sheikh-Hassani, Chargé d’Affaires and Head of Mission, Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Canada

Dear Sir:

I am writing to express my Christian solidarity with my brother in Christ, Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, currently on trial for his life in Iran on the charge of apostasy, although in fact he was never a practising Muslim adult.

As you are no doubt aware, Pastor Nadarkhani has been charged, and faces execution, solely on the basis of his adopting Christian faith. As such, it seems that the Islamic Republic of Iran is violating its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 18 includes a provision for the right to “have or to adopt” a religion, which has been interpreted authoritatively by the UN Human Rights Committee as including the right to change one’s religion. Iran’s constitution sanctions Christianity as a legitimate minority faith and asserts that Christians are allowed to freely carry out their religious rites. Article 23 asserts that no one may be “reprimanded simply because of having a certain belief”. 

I therefore respectfully express my hope that the Iranian judiciary will cease to pursue their current course of action against Pastor Nadarkhani and will acquit him of all charges, in accordance with Iranian and international law.

I thank you for hearing my request and passing it on to the appropriate authorities.

May God bless you and your country.

Yours faithfully,
Tim Chesterton

More about world views

In my last post I talked about the fact that we each have a world-view, whether we know it or not, and that many of the tenets of our worldview are not in fact susceptible to what a scientist would regard as adequate proof. This is true whether or not our worldview is an overtly religious one.

For instance, many people today would find themselves instinctively agreeing with the idea that ‘You’ve got to follow your heart’. Where is the rational proof that this worldview is valid or helpful? Is it not responsible, for instance, for the breakup of thousands and thousands of marriages, and the subsequent misery of hundreds of thousands of children, whose parents fell in love again with someone they weren’t married to and decided it was more important for them to ‘follow their heart’ than to keep the promises they made when they got married in the first place (why did they think that wedding services included promises that talked about ‘forsaking all other, keep thee only unto her’ if they didn’t mean that you weren’t supposed to ‘follow your heart’?). I know children whose parents divorced thirty or forty years ago, who are still scarred by it today and who make it obvious by their behaviour over and over again. And yet we still cling to this entirely illogical and completely unprovable idea that ‘following your heart’ is the wisest and most honest way to live. It just seems axiomatic to us, and we simply have no idea how much we have been formed by the presuppositions of our culture in accepting it.

To take another example: universal suffrage, or the right of everyone to vote in elections and referenda. Today we take it for granted in the west that everyone (over a certain age) should have this right; it seems obvious to us that this is required by simple justice, but a moment’s thought will make it clear that this is by no means the only reasonable view.

Back in the early 1990s the Conservative government of Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney negotiated something called the ‘Meech Lake Accord’, a proposal to get Quebec to sign on to the Canadian Constitution Act of 1982 (something, incredible though it may seem, that it has never done). A further refinement of Meech Lake, the Charlottetown Accord, was proposed by the federal and provincial governments in 1992 and was put to a national referendum in October of that year. It was defeated, and since then no solution to the problem has been found.

I had given a great deal of time and thought to considering the Charlottetown Accord and even though I thought it was far from perfect, I thought that it was the best deal we were likely to get for the whole country, given the sharply contrasting views of Canadians, which is why I voted ‘yes’. However, I vividly remember having a discussion about this with someone else in my community at the time who told me that she was planning to vote ‘no’. When I asked her why, she replied, “Because I don’t really know enough about it to vote ‘yes'”. It seemed obvious to me that if you didn’t know enough about the issue to vote ‘yes’, you didn’t know enough to vote ‘no’ either, and that therefore the only reasonable course of action for her was not to vote at all, but this logic did not seem to convince her!

But seriously – why should everyone have an equal vote when it comes to elections and referenda? Some people spend hours and hours reading and researching on subjects before they make a choice and cast a ballot; other people are dyed-in-the-wool conservatives or liberals or whatever and simply vote as they’ve always voted. Politicians seeking to get elected do their best to reduce complex issues to simple sound-bytes that support their party’s view of a subject, but the reality is often far from simple, and it takes hard work and careful thought to navigate through the labyrinth of ideas and opinions to something close to the truth. Why should the vote of  a person who is not prepared to put in the work in order to grasp the issues and vote intelligently be given the same weight as that of a person who has burned the candle at both ends in order to do so?

The answer is, of course, because we think human beings have a right to decide their own political destiny, and this includes the right of all adults to vote. Personally, I support that right (although I think it carries with it a responsibility to educate oneself enough to be able to vote intelligently, and I don’t think that we emphasise this enough – or that politicians necessarily want it to be emphasised), but I think a rational case could easily be made for other views. After all, we ask politicians to make decisions for us on economic issues, and economics is a hugely complicated subject of which I personally have a very poor grasp. Even the elected politicians, I should think, have to be briefed for days on end by professional economists before they can begin to grasp it, and even then I think that in the end they make decisions about which economic theory they are going to follow (there are several, so I’m told) based more on political ideology than on impartial investigation of the facts. But the complicated economic proposals made by those politicians then have to be voted on by millions of people who have no understanding of economics at all. Is this reasonable? Is it rational? Surely it would be better to leave those decisions to people who have given years of their lives to studying the issues, wouldn’t it?

Well, I think not, but my thought has as much to do with my emotional attachment to the ideological principle that I have a right to take control of my own political destiny – and that the fundamental way I exercise that right is by voting – as it does with any rational, logical thinking I may have done on the subject. In other words, it’s my world view. Now, with regard to the issue of my previous post (should I take my world view out and wave it around in public, or force it down the throats of others) you might respond to me by saying that no one is forcing this world view down the throats of others. But you’d be wrong. Isn’t this just exactly how we Canadians justify our involvement in the war in Afghanistan, and how the Americans justify their ten-year adventure in Iraq? Are we not trying to export democracy to countries which have for centuries shown a marked preference for tyranny and dictatorship? In other words, we’re forcing our world-view on them (Unless, of course, they democratically elect a government we disapprove of, as happened in Chile with the socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1970. Then, of course, it was legitimate for the CIA to get involved in events to overthrow a foreign government and replace it with a non-democratically elected regime that would oppose Allende’s left-wing ideas. Yet another example of ramming our political world-view down someone else’s throat).

To us in the west, the Soviet Union was a brutal dictatorship in which only members of the Communist Party were eligible to run for election, while we in the west were the guardians of true democracy. Democracy was the absolute, and so everything else had to take second place to it. But think of it, for a moment, from another point of view. Andrei Gromyko was the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1957 to 1985 – a total of 28 years. How many American secretaries of state did he see come and go during that time? How long did it take each one to get up to speed on the major international issues? What happened to American – and international, since we all sneeze when the U.S. gets a cold – interests during the ‘learning curve’ of each of those Secretaries of State? Could Gromyko – who was described in the Times in 1981 as ‘perhaps the most informed minister of Foreign Affairs in the world’ – not have been forgiven if, from time to time, after another US election and the appointment of yet another new Secretary of State, he had sighed and thought to himself “Here we go again – here comes another young pup I have to start back at square one with”? Yes, the US Secretaries of State took office as the result of a democratic process, while Gromyko did not. But on the other hand, Gromyko’s years of experience surely counted for something important too? My world view says that the democratic process is better – but it is a world view, and it isn’t the only possible one. Many in the world today would disagree.

The sign I mentioned in my previous post says that ‘religion is like a penis: it’s fine to have one, it’s fine to be proud of it, but please don’t whip it out in public and start waving it around, and please don’t start shoving it down my children’s throats’. I argued in my previous post that a religion is simply a world view, something we all have, and that it seems somewhat discriminatory to allow non-religious world views to be taken out in public and waved around while religious world views must be kept private.

But in fact, as I have tried to show in this post, this is not happening. People talk about their world views in public all the time, and they try to persuade others of their validity as well. And in some cases, we as a nation are taking our own political world-view and shoving it down the throats of people in other parts of the world, many of whom have shown very little sign of wanting to accept it. So perhaps the issue is a little more complicated than the memorable and catchy language on that sign might lead us to believe?

Religion is like a what?

This photograph has appeared on the Facebook pages of several of my friends in the past few days. Not exactly calculated to improve civil dialogue between religious and non-religious people, I would think. I have several comments.

What is a religion? Most religions are simply world-views, or philosophies of life, that take into account a god or gods. and see the whole of reality in the light of his/her/their involvement in that reality (I say ‘most religions’ because at least one major religion, Buddhism, does not involve belief in a god or gods).

Now the difference between penises and philosophies of life is that, while approximately half the population has a penis, every adult with a functioning brain has a philosophy of life. You may never think about it – you may simply have swallowed it whole from the culture around you – but take it from me, you do have a philosophy of life. And the truth of the matter is that many of those philosophies of life are every bit as unprovable as religions.

Take, for instance, the well-known axiom from the US constitution that asserts it to be a self-evident truth that all ‘men’ (note the term) are created equal with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To millions of Americans this philosophy of life is basic to their worldview, but how provable is it?

Well, it does not seem self-evident to me that all people are equal: intelligence varies, physical strength varies, opportunity varies with wealth and race, and so on. And furthermore, what is a ‘man’? The constitution asserts that ‘all men’ are created equal, but we know that several of its authors owned slaves, and apparently saw no contradiction between this and the assertion that ‘all men are created equal’. Their original constitution did not give women the right to vote, and its interpreters have in recent years stated that its protections do not apply to human beings who have not yet been born.

And who gave human beings the right to ‘the pursuit of happiness’? In fact, where do human rights come from? Do they come from God? If so, the Constitution of the United States is a religious document and so we ought not to ‘take it out and wave it around’ in public (according to our sign). If human rights come from human beings, then are they decided by opinion poll? If so, can they be taken away by opinion poll too? Or are they, in fact, ‘just there’ – as unsusceptible to proof, in fact, as the existence of God?

In fact, unless your worldview is that nothing that is not provable by science is either true or fit for public exposure (in which case, forget about justice, love, morality, art etc.), then your worldview is just a matter of opinion, every bit as much as my Christian faith is a matter of opinion. And that includes your opinion that religion is purely a private matter that should not be taken out in public.

Who says you shouldn’t take your religion out in public? After all, many people enter public life, run for political office, get involved in causes and so on because of their philosophy of life. Jack Layton had some very strong convictions about what Canadian public life should be all about; because of those convictions he ran for public office and became leader of the NDP. And the current Prime Minister of Canada has a philosophy of life that emphasises private responsibility, law and order, and so on. Does anyone think that his philosophy of life had nothing to do with his getting involved in politics? So why is a non-religious philosophy of life allowed out in public, when a religious philosophy of life is not? Doesn’t that seem the slightest bit discriminatory?

This sign asserts that it’s fine to have a religion and to be proud of it as long as you don’t take it out in public or ram it down children’s throats. I take it this is an offensive way of saying that it’s fine to have a religion as long as you don’t try to spread it. But wait: at least one major religion, Christianity, includes numerous commands to spread its message to others and try to persuade them to become Christians too. So what this sign is saying is that it’s fine for me to have a religion, as long as I don’t obey it?

And when it comes to ramming a philosophy of life down children’s throats, I’d be delighted if my friends who are spreading this sign on their Facebook pages would join me in a protest at the way the media (TV especially) spreads its monolithic message to children everywhere – the view, for instance, that if you’re not thin and zit-free you’re somehow abnormal or invisible, or if you’re a teenager and not sexually active there’s something abnormal about you – not to mention the message of all the commercials that discontentment is just a normal part of life and that the desire for more, bigger, better is reasonable and sustainable. Are we going to see signs about those worldviews too? Are the media going to be told to zip up and keep their opinions to themselves? I’m not holding my breath.

Finally, I presume that one of the many things this sign is protesting is the fact that a good number of religious people are disrespectful of others’ viewpoints in the way they try to spread their beliefs. Fair enough; I accept that criticism. But does it not seem more than a tad disrespectful to respond with a sign that says that religion is like a penis?

I’m just saying, that’s all.