Election Day musings

IMG_1245Today I voted in the 2015 Canadian federal election.

I did not find the choice to be easy. I don’t tend to be a member of the faithful of any political party, although I have joined one or two of them from time to time. Each time an election rolls around, I try to listen to the positive message the parties are presenting – piercing through the rhetoric and the barbs and the attack ads and the point-scoring, and asking myself the question ‘What vision of Canada (or Alberta, or Edmonton) is being presented here? And how does it square with the vision I believe in?’

I have to confess that this time around, my mind was still not made up when Marci and I walked to the polling station this morning. I was caught between the choice I would make if I were voting according to my true beliefs, and the choice I would make if all I was concerned about was the likelihood of my candidate being elected. I had no doubt at all which party I really supported. The problem was that, in our first-past-the-post system, my vote for that party would appear to have been a wasted vote.

Eventually, I rejected that thought. My reasoning was that if that thought was universally valid there would never have been a British Labour party, never have been a CCF or NDP, never a Reform Party. None of these parties seemed electable when they were first created. Voting for them seemed like wasting your vote for the first few years, or even the first few decades, of their existence. But in time, they became movements, and those movements grew by presenting their vision to the public in such a way that more and more people were gradually inspired to join them.

I’m proud to say that today I did not vote cynically. I voted for my real beliefs. I don’t for a moment think that the person I voted for will be elected. But I do believe that the movement I believe in will grow. Maybe I won’t see the party I voted for in government in my lifetime. But I hope that one day my children and grandchildren will see it. And if that happens, my vote today will not have been wasted.

What comes after the niqab?

collarI don’t very often wear a clerical collar, for all kinds of reasons, but I’m thankful to be free to wear it. There are countries in the world where Christian clergy are banned from wearing any sort of clerical dress.

Apparently Daniel Dennett thinks clergy like me make it our business to control what our ‘adherants’ know. I assume that he sees my clerical collar as a symbol of oppression. One day Daniel Dennett and people who agree with him may be in a majority, and I may be part of a tiny minority. If the day ever comes when the vast majority of people in Canada are offended by a clerical collar and what it symbolizes to them, will someone try to ban clergy from wearing it?

I’m asking this, because I have seen links to posts on Facebook in which people are seriously saying, not only that women should not be allowed to wear a niqab at a citizenship ceremony, but that the niqab should be banned altogether. Those who claim that the niqab is a symbol of the oppression of women by men, and that no woman ever wears one by her own choice, now want to force women not to wear them. How is that not oppression?

This is the dangerous powder keg that our federal politicians have set a lighted match to in this election campaign. They may not have intended it to go any further than citizenship ceremonies, but extremists are already taking it a lot further.

In this country we have freedom of speech and freedom of expression. In this country I am free to practice my religion. I am even free to say that my allegiance to God is more important to me than my allegiance to Canada. I’ve been told that our prime minister claims to be an evangelical Christian; if so, I hope he would say the same thing.

Martin Niemöller, famous German pastor from World War Two who had the courage to stand up to Hitler, once said,

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me –
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Indeed. And if I don’t speak up when they come for those Muslim women who want the freedom to wear the niqab, who will speak up for me when my turn comes? That’s why I want to be included as one of the #peoplelikeNenshi.

A prime example of the hypocrisy of party politics

I work for a registered charity which is authorized to issue receipts for donations so that people can receive a tax deduction for their generosity. The more they give, the more they get back. When the federal and Alberta amounts are combined, the refund on donations over $200 is close to 50%, which is nothing to sneeze at.

However, our charity (which is a church) is, of course, strictly forbidden from engaging in partisan politics. If we were to do that, we would lose our charitable registration and would no longer be able to issue receipts to our members for tax deductions.

Does it bother me that I can’t engage in party politics in my official capacity as pastor of my church? No, not really. On the other hand, if I was working for a charity that was trying to alleviate child poverty in Canada, I might feel a little more constrained by the system. After all, child poverty can’t be solved by donations alone. To use an old illustration, if you start noticing that the river is full of drowning babies, it’s not enough to have an efficient rescue operation; sooner or later, someone needs to go upstream to find out who’s throwing them in. And the answer to that question may well have political implications. But charities aren’t allowed to go near that, or they lose their status and their ability to issue income tax receipts.

And now, behold the hypocrisy of the Canadian political system. Today I gave a donation to a Canadian political party (most of you will be able to figure out which one!). On their website, they promptly informed me that according to Canadian law, when income tax time rolls around, I will receive a tax refund equal to 75% of my donation!

That’s right, folks. Registered charities can’t get involved in party politics or they lose their ability to issue income tax receipts, but if you donate to a Canadian political party (which engages almost exclusively in party politics), you’ll get 75% of it back at income tax time. That’s over half as much again as you’d get for donating to a charity that helps to feed the poor, as long as they don’t get political about it.

You couldn’t make this stuff up, could you?

Ministers and Politics

Yesterday a friend whose opinion I respect questioned me about my decision, some months back, to go public on Facebook with my support for the Green Party of Canada. He was surprised that I felt it appropriate for a minister to do something like that.

Personally I don’t think my statement would have come as a big surprise to any of my friends. And my sense is that the St. Margaret’s congregational family were not in any way offended by it. We have members in our church from all political parties, and we seem to manage to get along with each other. I’m not offended or threatened by those in our church who vote Conservative, Liberal or NDP, or (provincially) Wild Rose. I trust that they’ve all thought carefully about their vote in the light of the teaching of Jesus, and they’ve made the decision that seems best to them. I hope they feel the same way about my decision.

I was, however, somewhat surprised to be getting invites from Facebook friends to ‘like’ pages supporting Stephen Harper and other Conservative politicians. I wanted people to stop inviting me to support a political party that they ought to have known (if they had known me better) that I do not support. That’s why I made the simple statement that I intended to vote Green in the next election, and I don’t anticipate that anything will change that. I consider our stewardship of the earth that God created to be the biggest moral issue facing Christians today, and I am using my vote accordingly.

But I would be interested to hear from members of St. Margaret’s, and other church members, on the subject tot whether or not they feel it was appropriate of me (as a minister) to declare my political opinion in public as I did. Were you offend by it, or were you entirely okay with it? I’m genuinely interested.

More on Bombings and Beheadings

Edmonton Ecumenical Peace Network board member Ike Glick had this letter published in the Edmonton Journal Friday September 19th:

Re: “Are beheadings a sign of miscalculation or desperation?” Commentary, Richard Spencer, Sept. 15

The West has been embarrassed by the ultimate put-down and the powerless feeling imposed by the beheadings of Western captives by ISIS. It is not hard to get consensus that “something must be done.”

But it is not likely that the bombing response will be any more effective than the Bush administration’s knee-jerk overreaction to the 9/11 embarrassment has been. Somehow the current response seems similar.

While giving the West a semblance of taking control and a hubristic demonstration of power, there has been no apparent attempt to understand the deep resentments toward the West by much of the world, nor recognition that our response only intensifies those resentments. By what logic do we imagine that repeating a more intense version of what didn’t work after 9/11 will be effective now?

Is the West’s conventional response because we lack the imagination for any other approach? Or just because we can? Perhaps we fear being reminded of our exploitive economic policies that favour the West and continue to make the rich richer at the expense of the poor, including unfair minimum wage levels in our own country.

Whatever the reason, a negotiated conversation with ISIS leadership, if such is possible, might at the very least provide some clues as to why young Canadians are being enticed to their ranks.

Ike Glick, Edmonton

Interestingly enough, it seems as if at least one Post Media writer might agree with some of what Ike has to say. In Friday’s Edmonton Journal Michael Den Tandt wrote:

OTTAWA – Tom Mulcair is deeply uncomfortable with the precious little we know, so far, about Canada’s involvement in the expanding war between the West and the Islamic State. He wants answers, more debate and a vote. For his troubles he will be dismissed as a naïf, willfully blind to the “dark and dangerous” reality in which we now live.

If only the NDP leader weren’t right…

He ends the column (which is well worth reading in full) by saying,

What do Canadians, even highly trained special-ops soldiers, have to teach the Kurds of northern Iraq about warfare on their home soil? If the 69 Canadians are JTF-2, which seems likely, it stretches credulity to suggest they are merely providing helpful advice. These are the most lethal, capable soldiers in the Canadian military.

In the earliest days of the Afghan war, though it wasn’t publicly known at the time, JTF-2 operators fought under American command. Mulcair correctly notes that, early on, that conflict too was billed as winnable through a combination of special forces and air power, with local armies and militias bearing the brunt on the ground.

As it turned out, Western ground forces were indeed eventually necessary in Afghanistan, in their hundreds of thousands – including 40,000 Canadians, over a decade – and even with that, the war was lost. In year eight, more or less, of a 20-year nation-building project, the international community – including one Prime Minister Stephen J. Harper – decided to cut its losses.

It is all well and good to rail against the Jihadists, chronicle their barbarisms, and insist that, as civilized people, Canadians have no choice but to join in the fight. Perhaps that’s true. But we’ve seen this narrative before. It didn’t end well. Mulcair is wise to ask tough questions. The government would be wise to answer them.

Indeed. And for Christians who are trying to figure out what it means to follow the challenging teachings of Jesus, who we call ‘Lord’, the questions get even tougher.

(Cross-posted to Edmonton Ecumenical Peace Network)

Church and State

Two pieces of reading today seemed related.

First, the Edmonton Journal carried this story:

EDMONTON – Canada’s Catholic bishops issued an open letter Monday calling on Canadians to stand up for their faith, even if they suffer for it.

The letter, from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said they are concerned “radical secularism” is squeezing religion out of public policy debate, while internationally Christians are being persecuted in violent attacks.

Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith said Monday that people who act out their faith are praised when they dedicate their efforts to social issues such as caring for the poor or housing the homeless. It is a different story, he said, when people speak out on issues of morality.

“Where things do get a little nasty sometimes is when the freedom of religion and its free expression challenges the status quo,” Smith said.

“For example, if the church speaks out on the right to life, if the church speaks on particular definitions of marriage or family. That’s when you start to hear things like, ‘Just keep this in the private sphere. Keep those beliefs to yourself. That’s OK for the privacy of your home and the privacy of church, but it should have no bearing on the public sphere, on the formulation of public policy.’ ”

(Read the rest here).

Predictably, the comments section included lots of people making loud noises about separation of Church and State – although I did not see the Catholic bishops challenging that principle, but simply defending the right of Christians to allow their faith to inform their views about public policy, just as other Canadians are permitted to allow their own philosophies of life to inform their political views (I’ve blogged about this before).

Second, I was re-reading the blog of our dear departed brother Joe Walker (rest in peace and rise in glory, Joe!), and came across this post from April 2005:

Jesus once said to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.  Jesus was perhaps the first figure to make a declaration about the separation of church and state.  A Christian in this life is the member of two kingdoms, or as St. Augustine put it, resident in two cities – the city of man and the City of God.

How am I as a Christian to live at once in these two cities, these two kingdoms?  And what is the relationship between them?  I did a very Canadian thing this morning.  I got a double double  and sat down to read, in full, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms .  Maybe it is an after effect of spending time with the Christian Law Students Association.

The Constitutional Act of 1982 begins with the following words:

“Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law”

These are foundational things:  “the supremacy of God” and “the rule of law”.   Now I find myself asking:  are these two completely separate things?; or are they supposed to be one and the same?; or are they intended to overlap and coincide on certain points?  Is it a relationship of equal principles, or does one inform and have authority over the other?

Read the rest here. Joe raises the right questions, although he didn’t get around to giving a definitive answer…

Something I never thought I’d consider

Something really interesting is happening in Alberta politics.

Thanks to the rather strange system the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta uses to elect a leader (i.e. anyone who is willing to pay $5 for a party membership the day before the ballot can cast a vote, and on the second ballot people’s second choices are also counted if there is no clear winner), approximately 40,000 people have elected Alison Redford, a political moderate, as leader of the PCs. Yes, she’s a Conservative, but she’s more of a centre-right Conservative (actually, she’s a Progressive Conservative! Remember when that first word actually meant something?). And she’s committed to public health care, and an adequately-funded public education system. These are not positions readily associated with her rivals for the Tory leadership (especially people like Ted Morton and Rick Orman).

The interesting question is, will she be able to carry the Tory caucus with her? After all, going into the leadership race she had the declared support of just one sitting Tory MLA. If she can’t carry caucus with her (and she has promised to lead in a more consultative style, which would exclude making pronouncements from on high and enforcing her views on an unwilling caucus), then we’re in for a few years of internal political strife in the PC Party.

If, on the other hand, she is successful in carrying her caucus with her, what will happen is that the PCs will move more toward the centre (Interestingly, the Alberta Liberals have recently elected a former Tory, Raj Sherman, as their leader, and he has caused disquiet among the rank and file by apparently moving the party toward the right! Perhaps they’ll meet in the middle!). At any rate, my guess is that if the PCs move closer to the centre, extreme right-wingers like Ted Morton will go over to the extreme right-wing Wild Rose Party. Which will mean that instead of governing with overwhelming majorities – as they have been used to in the past – the Tories might stay in power with a thin majority, or even go into opposition for a while. All of which, in my view, would be good, as it would remove the one-party hegemony this province has been under for decades, and actually give us the benefits of a multi-party political system.

If this scenario came about, I could see the PCs and the Liberals competing for the centre – and, given the visceral reaction the word ‘Liberal’ tends to evoke among ordinary Albertans, that contest can only have one outcome, in my view. The (smaller) PC party would then become the party of centrist Albertans, with the Wild Rose on the extreme right, and the New Democrats in their traditional position on the left.

In that scenario, pragmatic, left-of-centre floating voter though I am, I might just find myself doing something I have never done in my entire life.

Voting Progressive Conservative.

Making up your own political reality

Since the Government of Canada announced that it would be restoring the ‘Royal’ designation to the Canadian Air Force and Navy, I’ve been following the response in the letters page in the Edmonton Journal, and I’ve been struck once again by how people like to make up their own political reality. Alternatively, it might just be that my fellow Canadians really are ignorant about our country’s history and political system.

I’ve noticed this before. For instance, I don’t know how many times I’ve read letters to the editor in the Journal claiming that ‘separation of Church and State’ is a principle of government enshrined in the Canadian Constitution. It is not. It is in the American Constitution, but it is not mentioned in the Constitution of Canada.

Now, personally, I think separation of Church and State would be a good thing to have in the Canadian Constitution because, as my namesake G.K. Chesterton is reported to have said, ‘Every time the Church gets in bed with the State, the Church gets screwed’. But the fact that I wish it was in the Canadian Constitution doesn’t mean that it is. Some people, apparently, don’t understand this.

The current flurry of letters about the ‘royal’ designation illustrates this. Now, let me say right off the top that (a) I’m ambivalent about the role of the Royal Family, even in my country of origin, England, to say nothing of my adopted country, Canada, and (b) I have never voted Conservative in my life and so have no particular interest in upholding actions of the Harper government, and (c) I am a Christian pacifist. So – I really, really ‘don’t have a dog in this fight’!

However, I think this letter to the editor in today’s Edmonton Journal demonstrates either ignorance or wishful thinking:

Why would Canada add the “royal” word into the military names when it was decided earlier to remove the British chokehold naming conventions once and forever?

Why rehash this silly nomenclature more?

If anyone wants the “royal” headings, go back to Britain, where you obviously want to be, and let the Canadians make decisions for themselves. If you are still serious about the “royal” tag, then let’s put it to a vote; fair enough?

The assumption behind this letter is that the monarchy is a British institution which we Canadians have left behind as we have forged our independent way, and that therefore restoration of the ‘royal’ designation is a step back into servitude to Britain.

But this is political fantasy. In the real Constitution of Canada (not the imaginary one in which, amongst other things, we find the principle of separation of Church and State), it is clearly stated that Canada is a constitutional monarchy and that the Queen is our Head of State. This principle is shot through the Constitution from start to finish (you can read it, if you have the energy, here).

Therefore, in Canada, the Queen is not the Queen of England, and Prince William is not (as I heard him described so often during the recent royal visit) ‘Britain’s Prince William’. In Canada, the Queen is the Queen of Canada. That’s what our Constitution says. I might not like it; I might see it as an anachronism or an affront to democracy and I might decide to protest and get myself arrested to try to change it. But until it is changed by amending the Constitution, that’s the way it is, and just to prove it, if I do get arrested for my protest and go to trial, I will be prosecuted by someone called a ‘Crown Prosecutor’!

Jack Layton, 1950-2011.

OTTAWA – Like some political Moses, Jack Layton led his people out of the wilderness, only to die within sight of his own Promised Land.

In the preface to his 2006 book, “Speaking Out Louder,” Layton wrote a passage that turned out to be eerily prescient:

“Oftentimes, life’s highs and lows are inextricably linked. That has certainly happened to me and, occasionally, the ups and downs were virtually simultaneous.”

In eight years as leader of the NDP he took his party to heady heights, but fell himself to a tragic disease at the age of 61.

The end came with a terse announcement.

“We deeply regret to inform you that the honourable Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, passed away at 4:45 am today, Monday August 22,” said the statement from his wife, Olivia Chow, and children, Sarah and Michael.

“He passed away peacefully at his home surrounded by family and loved ones.”

Funeral details have not yet been announced.

Read the rest here.

Left, right, or centre, I think most Canadians respected Jack; even his political opponents were the first to acknowledge that he was a genuine public servant who had the best interests of the country at heart. He led the NDP to the greatest victory it has ever achieved in the recent 2011 federal election. His death is of course a tragedy for his family and friends, but I would also think it raises a big question politically; the 2011 victory was his victory, a result of people’s respect for his courage and his leadership ability. The Telus article compares him to Moses dying within sight of the Promised Land, but who will be his Joshua?


CBC story.

Jack’s last letter to Canadians, given to his partner Olivia Chow to share in the event of his death.

Statement from the Prime Minister.

Should ‘Money for Nothing’ be banned?

I would never use the word ‘faggot’ in my everyday conversation. Whatever one’s views on homosexuality, common decency and politeness means not using terms which have been used in the past as slurs and insults. And I would certainly not use the word in a song, if I was speaking in my own voice.

But that’s the issue, isn’t it? Not all songwriters speak in their own voice; I certainly don’t. Sometimes when I write songs, the ‘I’ is not ‘me’, and I may express ideas or views which are not mine, because they fit the character in the song who is speaking at the time.

Mark Knopfler does this a lot; that’s one of the things that makes him such a great songwriter. And he did it to great effect in his song ‘Money for Nothing’, which is found on the 1985 Dire Straits album ‘Brothers in Arms’ (the song became Dire Straits’ most successful single). Here is Knopfler’s account of how the song was written:

‘The lead character in “Money for Nothing” is a guy who works in the hardware department in a television/ custom kitchen/ refrigerator/ microwave appliance store. He’s singing the song. I wrote the song when I was actually in the store. I borrowed a bit of paper and started to write the song down in the store. I wanted to use a lot of the language that the real guy actually used when I heard him, because it was more real….’

In 2000, Knopfler appeared on another interview program and explained again where the lyrics originated. According to Knopfler, he was in New York and stopped by an appliance store. At the back of the store, they had a wall of TVs which were all tuned to MTV. Knopfler said there was a man working there dressed in a baseball cap, work boots, and a checkered shirt delivering boxes who was standing next to him watching. As they were standing there watching MTV, Knopfler remembers the man coming up with classic lines such as “what are those, Hawaiian noises?…that ain’t workin” etc. Knopfler asked for a pen to write some of these lines down and then eventually put those words to music.

(taken from Wikipedia).

Here are the lyrics:

Now look at them yo-yos that’s the way you do it
You play the guitar on the MTV
That ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it
Money for nothin’ and chicks for free
Now that ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it
Lemme tell ya them guys ain’t dumb
Maybe get a blister on your little finger
Maybe get a blister on your thumb

We gotta install microwave ovens
Custom kitchen deliveries
We gotta move these refrigerators
We gotta move these colour TVs

See the little faggot with the earring and the makeup
Yeah buddy that’s his own hair
That little faggot got his own jet airplane
That little faggot he’s a millionaire

We gotta install microwave ovens
Custom kitchens deliveries
We gotta move these refrigerators
We gotta move these colour TVs

I shoulda learned to play the guitar
I shoulda learned to play them drums
Look at that mama, she got it stickin’ in the camera
Man we could have some fun
And he’s up there, what’s that? Hawaiian noises?
Bangin’ on the bongoes like a chimpanzee
That ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it
Get your money for nothin’ get your chicks for free

We gotta install microwave ovens
Custom kitchen deliveries
We gotta move these refrigerators
We gotta move these colour TVs, Lord

Now that ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it
You play the guitar on the MTV
That ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it
Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free
Money for nothin’ and chicks for free


Apparently Knopfler himself is less than comfortable with these lyrics these days; in live performances he has taken to replacing the word ‘faggot’ with other terms like ‘Queenie’ and ‘Maggot’. Nonetheless, it’s clear to me that in the song he is not standing behind the term ‘faggot’; he’s faithfully reporting the words of someone else (should drummers sue him because he describes them as ‘banging on the bongoes like a chimpanzee’?). In the same way, John Grisham will use the word ‘nigger’ in his novels when faithfully reporting the speech of a racist, while not in any way standing by that term himself.

Well, from now on Canadians who listen to the radio won’t be able to make up their own mind on the subject, because the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has ruled that the unedited version of the song is unacceptable for airplay on Canadian radio stations; the Council made this ruling after receiving a complaint about a gay slur in the lyrics.

Like Mark Knopfler, I must confess to being somewhat ambiguous about this ruling. On the one hand, I can well understand the feelings of gay people on hearing that word. But on the other hand, that’s the point of the song! The song isn’t defending homophobic attitudes any more than it’s defending the other attitudes expressed by the speaker; if anything, it’s ridiculing them.

And of course, where do we stop? How many times have I sat in coffee shops and heard musicians sing John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ (which explicitly links having a religion to having something to kill or die for, and says the world would be a better place without religion at all) and then experienced their surprise when I won’t applaud for it. And that song is far more direct than ‘Money for Nothing’. Lennon isn’t parodying anti-religious attitudes; he is speaking with his own voices, and those attitudes are his own. I choose not to applaud that song when I hear people play it, and I’ll be happy to explain my views about it to anyone. But I would never suggest that it should be banned.

Underneath it all, of course is the growing attitude in our society that it’s my human right not to be offended, and it’s your responsibility to tiptoe around my sensibilities and say nothing that’s remotely likely to give me offence. I have a problem with that attitude. Yes, I have a Christian duty to love my neighbour, and that includes speaking to them, and of them, in a respectful way. But I also believe that emotional freedom includes taking responsibility for my own feelings, and realising that there are many times when taking offence is not a given, but a choice that I make. And whenever it’s possible for me to make the choice not to be offended, I believe I’ll be better off if that’s what I do.