Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas: Holding Forth Justice

Post 28—:

This post is being written on Christmas Eve, 2010. The Christmas event is too large to just let it slip by without at least a nod. So, I am interrupting the flow of thought to offer you something Christmasy. I am going to place this post also on my other blog, .

I am offering you some quotes from the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah. This is a prophet of peace and justice. He repeatedly talks of the future in terms of hope for peace and justice. The Messiah whom the Jews had long been waiting for would introduce a new framework for society that was to be characterized by those two features, peace and justice. A new set of standards, if you like. To be sure, even Isaiah’s vision was an Old Testament one that allowed practices that we no longer approve today but have not yet been able to stem in our own lives and nations. And, of course, it is all written in terms of an ancient culture most of us no longer understand. Hence, it takes extra effort to understand it all. Don’t even try. Just go over these passages a few times and appreciate the emphasis on and the hunkering for peace and justice.

Of course, some readers will object that it is all very nice and idyllic, but tell me about it once Christians actually demonstrate or live up to this perspective. I fully understand the objection and am ashamed to admit that it is a reasonable one. Christians will be the first to admit their failure to live up to this picture. We believe in Jesus, in God, to save us from ourselves. We do not believe in ourselves, in our own capacity to make this all come true. We cannot create utopia. It is God who will one day turn this hope into reality. In the meantime, we struggle towards it as best as we can and ask for forgiveness where we fail.

There are more such prophecies in Isaiah and in other prophetic writings in the Old Testament. However, I am giving you perhaps more than you can or care to chew for one day. I will probably continue featuring such quotations next Christmas. In the meantime, here goes. Participate in the poetry; ponder the promise.

Isaiah 2--The Mountain of the LORD

1 This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
2 In the last days
the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
3 Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
4 He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
5 Come, descendants of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the LORD.

Isaiah 9:5-7

6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.

Isaiah 11:1-9

(Jesse is the father of King David and ancestor of Jesus.)

1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD—
3 and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
5 Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together;
and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
8 The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
9 They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah 32:15-20

15 till the Spirit is poured on us from on high,
and the desert becomes a fertile field,
and the fertile field seems like a forest.
16 The LORD’s justice will dwell in the desert,
his righteousness live in the fertile field.
17 The fruit of that righteousness will be peace;
its effect will be quietness and confidence forever.
18 My people will live in peaceful dwelling places,
in secure homes,
in undisturbed places of rest.
19 Though hail flattens the forest
and the city is leveled completely,
20 how blessed you will be,
sowing your seed by every stream,
and letting your cattle and donkeys range free.

Isaiah 42:1-9 The Servant of the LORD

1 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
2 He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
3 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
4 he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”
5 This is what God the LORD says—
the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,
who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
who gives breath to its people,
and life to those who walk on it:
6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
7 to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
8 “I am the LORD; that is my name!
I will not yield my glory to another
or my praise to idols.
9 See, the former things have taken place,
and new things I declare;
before they spring into being
I announce them to you.”

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Transparency in Government (2)

Post 27—

I have for some time planned to do a post on transparency in government but was not quite ready for it. Then the WikiLeak issue sprang up and suddenly the entire (media) world is up in arms about a deluge of government documents flooding cyberland with promises of more to come. So I felt forced to jump on the bandwagon now rather than look like a Johnny-come-late.

The reason I have been planning to write on the subject is my growing annoyance with the BC Government for making it so difficult for people to access information. Vancouver newspapers regularly feature stories about the obstacles, the time and the money it takes to obtain information that should easily be accessible to the public. Government may need to keep some issues and documents secret, at least temporarily, but after all is said and done, Government has no interests beyond the interests of the people it governs. It has no interests of its own; even less, interests that clash with the interests of the people. Well, it shouldn't have.

I have been out of BC for most of my working life and so have to rely on written history. One thing I have learned is that government opposition leaders, like Gordon Campbell, frequently berated the government of the day for refusing to divulge information and even promised that if elected, the would make access to archives easy in the name of democracy. A subsequent premier, also by the name of Gordon Campbell, and his underlings have made it almost impossible and expensive, especially for reporters and journalists, to get the info they need for their research. I feel absolutely annoyed, cheated, humiliated and despised as a citizen. Downright angry and ready to punch those responsible for such high-handed treatment of info in the nose. Who do they think they are?! Please don't expect me to be polite in such an environment.

I am no expert on this issue of transparency versus secrecy in government, but when citizens, including journalists, routinely run into serious obstacles such as lengthy delays and high charges, if not outright refusal, then you know they are not served right. Then you also know, or at least, have good grounds to suspect that the government is up to something that cannot see the daylight.

Although I could reference many articles on the subject from various Vancouver newspapers, I restrict myself to a recent article by Vincent Gogolek, “Province Loses Fight to Keep IBM Deal Secret” (Vancouver Sun, Dec. 3/2010, p. A13). Gogolek reports that it took his organization, the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association six years—yes, six years!—to obtain a copy of the Government’s workplace agreement with IBM. Six years! Imagine that. Gogolek rightly argues that transparency of government contracts “is the best possible way to guarantee these arrangements are honest, free of conflicts of interest, and the best possible use of public dollars.” Both parties, Government and IBM, “fought tooth and nail to keep the contract from being released.” It was only the ruling by an adjudicator from the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner that forced the issue. And then I wonder why they took so long to act.

This one particular paragraph is written and inserted into this post a day later. Things are getting worse. After I wrote that post, I came across an article in 24th News Vancouver by Mike Klassen under the title :City's Chokehold Tightens on Info." The city he refers to is my city, Vancouver and its Mayor, the man who campaigned on such a populist platform. The info screws have become increasingly tight over the life of the current administration, according to Klassen.

With my apologies, this paragraph is inserted a few days later still. The issue is getting more serious. I've talked about the BC Government and that of Vancouver City, but now I'm running into stories about Canada's Federal Government (FG) as well. So, here's another insertion. Glen McGregor of Postmedia News reports that the FG took four years to release a requested expense report about Prime Minister Stephen Harper flying from Ottawa to Edmonton with six Members of Parliament along with some staff members in order to attend a Stanley Cup hockey game there. If you know Canadian geography, you will realize that this was a long trip. This lag of four years, according to McGregor, "is emblematic of the long delays that critics say are weakening Canada's open-records law." It is "unclear why the department resisted releasing the records." A member of the opposition commented that "most Canadians would have trouble with the idea that you load it [the plane] up with your friends and head off to a playoff game." Harper's office in due time provided some explanation of the adventure, but I will tell you about that four years from now, at least, if I get an official request for information. What's the hurry? [For your interest, I am member of the PM's party, but not sure I will remain there. Too many disappointments.] (Glen McGregor, "PM's Stanley Cup Expenses Released, 4 Years Later," Vancouver Sun, Dec. 20/2010.)

Gogolek and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham both ask why the public should have to file such requests for info to begin with. Why not make them routinely available proactively? It would be in line with a constant theme of legislative committees dealing with the issue.

To that I can only shout a loud, “Amen!” The people need to know and be assured their taxes are spent justly and judiciously. Obstacles that prevent the flow of legitimate info only serve to undermine the credibility of government. It is these obstacles that finally called for WikiLeaks. The latter is a reaction to unhealthy secrecy.

Authorities who resist transparency have things to hide and are not to be trusted. They should be booted out at first chance and never voted for again. As you can see, nothing strong or bullish about my opinions!

Friday, December 10, 2010

WikiLeaks and Government Transparency

Post 26—

In these days of Wikileaks, government transparency is once again on the front burner in the media. Article upon article and report upon report have been filed and published or televised. These leaks have caused governments both serious damage and embarrassment. By the sound and looks of it, will continue to do so for the immediate future. Of course, the US government, the world’s busy-body superpower, gets the brunt of it, but other governments feel embarrassed and threatened as well, including Canada. It also hits individuals. William Crosbie, Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan, offered his resignation after his slamming the corruption of the Afghanistan regime was revealed.

The question is whether all this unrestricted exposure of government secrets benefits anyone, apart from the operators of Wikileaks themselves—and, of course, all those in the media business and, yes, I need to admit it, it gives bloggers something to write about! But Fen Hamson of Carleton University is not so sure. Crosbie, he argues, was doing his legitimate job, but his kind of comment is not the sort “that can withstand public scrutiny.” Public servants should have the confidence that, in the pursuit of their legitimate duty, their confidential statements and reports created in the course of policy development are kept confidential. How can governments engage in their business of policy creation, especially when it comes to rogue and other hostile nations, without the confidence of confidentiality? This kind of exposure of documents is “corrosive to Canada’s foreign relations and to international diplomacy in general.”

Hamson is right, I believe. He goes further. These leaks are likely to have the adverse effects of governments creating more obstacles to the flow of information and make public access to it even more difficult, expensive, and time consuming. Probably more will be kept classified in the closet for a much longer time and more strictly controlled. Thanks, Assange.

But, as always, there is the other side of the coin. Please note that my question about benefits of such leakage is about “unrestricted exposure, ” not about all exposure of government documents, even secret ones. Yes, the Assange leakage shows allies spying on each other and members on the United Nations. Western democratic governments lecturing the rest of the world on corruption and human rights, turn a blind eye to these practices on the part of their “client states.” Secret backroom deals that are not meant to see the light of day and lobbying for causes and policies of doubtful benefit to some other nations are often conducted behind cloaks of secrecy.

Chris Waddell, also of Carleton, explains that governments often use national security as an excuse to hide the above kind of behaviour in order to “avoid embarrassment, to avoid having to explain the rationale for their policies and to say one thing publicly and something else privately.” He suggests that in general it is better for citizens to know more about the development of their government’s policy than to know less. We would be “better off if there were less of all three of those things” in the above paragraph.

I agree with arguments on both sides of the coin. But I would argue that the side we examined first should be much less common than it is. In our imperfect world, it would be impossible for governments to conduct legitimate business without secrets. At the same time, the tendency of the second side of the coin is all too prominent and makes a joke of transparency, a hallmark of democracy. This Calvinist blogger votes on the side of transparency, much more of it. At the same time, at the end of this article Iland up on the side of condemning the indiscriminate leakage perpetrated by Assange as too reckless and not having counted the cost and potential damage to peoples and their policies.

I close this post with a quotation that constitutes the closing of an article by the famous Canadian ethicist, Margaret Somerville of McGill University: “As I continued to read and think even more about WikiLeaks, I found it easier to know what was the ethical path to take with respect to it and its perpetrators. I believe that, overall, WikiLeaks involves grossly unethical conduct, some of which is also illegal.” (“Wiki-Leaks, Wiki-Leakers, and Wiki-Ethics,” Comment, 10/12/2010. I highly recommend reading this article for its first-rate professional ethical discussion.

The discussion to be continued.

(This post has made grateful use of Randy Boswell’s “Do Leaks Defend or Thwart Democracy?” Vancouver Sun, December 4, 2010, p. B3. Thank you, Boswell.)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Jesus in Any Colour

Post 25

What did Jesus look like? What was his colour? Since there are no photographs of Him or paintings by artists who have actually seen Him, His appearance, including His colour, has long been subject of discussion. In the Western world, the traditional homeland of the majority of His followers, people have long depicted Him as white skinned, often even with Teutonic or Nordic blue eyes like my own. Western artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Angelico and Michelangelo all depicted Jesus as white.

In our day of multiculturalism, such depictions are increasingly challenged, berated and even rejected as provincial, racist and wrong. People criticize the depiction of Jesus as a Caucasian as akin to the “sin” of creating Him in our own—I am Caucasian—image. A friend forwarded to me the following comments from a writer he did not, unfortunately, further identify:

"It has always bothered me that Jesus in the Sunday school pictures is white. Did they miss the part where it says he was born a Hebrew? Somehow I doubt he had blue eyes. There is a 10 000 Villages store not far from here that sells all manner of nativiy sceens -- African Jesus, Indian Jesus, Latin Jesus, even a curiously moving faceless Jesus. They're fantastic. Today I came across a site presenting "The Life of Jesus Christ: An African Interpretation by the Mafa People in Cameroun" and once again I'm taken by the beauty of a completely different view of a very old story. Who's to say that a black Jesus tending the sheep on the serengeti is any less valid than a white, blue eyed Jesus with little white children gathered at his feet?"

Well, I am the proprietor of the website where the writer found the artful Mafa depictions of all the Gospel stories in terms of West African, specifically Cameroonian, culture --< >. In this context, Jesus, His disciples and all the other people in the stories are depicted as Black and the surrounding culture as unashamedly West African. If you love West African culture, you will adore these paintings. We have had them all over our house for years and frequently use the various formats in which they appear for gifts and as greeting cards. Hospital patients and people in mourning especially appreciate the upbeat and inspiring messages embedded in these surprising and lovely Gospel depictions. My wife and I are proud to be associated with them. I urge you to check out my website for further info about this series and the various uses to which you can put them.

If some Whites are offended by depictions of a white Jesus, so are some Africans offended by black depictions of Him and the Gospel stories. When I first introduced the series to my friends in Nigeria, some of the more educated among them rejected them instinctively as presenting a false Jesus. He was not Black, they argued. So, what am I trying to pull off by foisting a Black Jesus on them? Their mistake was that they thought of these depictions as photographic instead of artistic interpretations. More traditional Nigerians did not have that problem and tended to enjoy looking at them. One recent convert from Islam was offended at one picture because he thought to recognize a large beer container. Beer in a picture with Jesus? Blasphemous!

If the Mafa materials are legitimate as a way of interpreting Christ in a specific culture, then so are all those expressions of the white Christ. Those are equally legitimate interpretations of Christ for white cultures. Too many people react negatively to a basically valid attempt to interpret Christ if He is portrayed as white. This is an unhealthy reaction, probably mostly driven by a guilty conscience for white racism. White racism cannot be denied, but attempts to interpret Christ for white cultures are legitimate. One could equally condemn the Mafa art because Blacks are equally racist.

As to whether we are creating a Christ in our image, whether black or white, that is not the issue. The issue is to make Him legible to different cultures. These are art works, not photographic representations. They represent meaning expressed in the various cultures. Do check them out.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thomas Jefferson Quotes

Post 24--:

The past few posts have been a bit heavy and, for some, perhaps a bit dull. Let me redeem myself with something "light," quotations from Thomas Jefferson (1746-1826), one of the authors of the American "Declaration of Independence." In reality, there is nothing light about these quotes. Every quote is worthy of time and serious consideration. But here is an internationally highly revered historical genius who, let's face it, sounds like today's Tea Party in the US, the group that today is highly "irrevered," at least in Canada, as something akin to a bunch of crackpots not to be taken seriously.

I must confess that I have not done research into the accuracy of each of these statements. I have decided to simply assume they are genuine quotes from Jefferson. Given today's discussions and arguments, I think they are extremely interesting and, to me at least, surprising. I present them here for your edification, reflection and debate, but not because I agree with all of them. You will find parenthetical comments from yours truly under each quote.

Before I proceed, here is a relevant Kennedy story--or myth?

John F. Kennedy held a dinner in the White House for a group of the brightest minds in the nation at that time. He made this statement: "This is perhaps the assembly of the most intelligence ever to gather at one time in the White House with the exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

The Quotes:

When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.
(Jefferson should know: He spent many years in Europe as American
diplomat. To make it more contemporary, an Al-Jazeera article of December 2, 2010, makes claims of serious corruption and wastage on the part of the European Union.)

The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.
(Do please note that he wrote "would not," not, "could not," a slight

It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world.
(Do we routinely contract trans-generational debt because we have
grown in wisdom, understanding and economic knowledge since
Jefferson's days? Just a question!)

I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.
(Though I would hardly reject all government responsibility for
supporting the poor and vulnerable in society, try applying the quote
to our current practice in Canada and see where you end up.)

My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.
(I could not agree more.)

No free man shall ever be debarred from the use of arms.
(I could not agree less, especially in view of the next one.)

The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.
(Do we really expect a situation in North America where we feel so
threatened by our governments that we need arms to keep them at
bay? Under normal circumstances, we do not need that. When circum-
stances demand it, we will have reached such chaos that law no longer
is in effect. Of course, Jefferson lived during the American revolution.
There was war and chaos.)

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
(This may be a trend in history, but to assert this as a historical law
is unacceptable to me. Liberty under threat has more than once been
released by public leaders who amassed the power of the people to force
change and refreshment without resort to bloodshed. I am the heir to
such a revolution started in The Netherlands by Abraham Kuyper.)

To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.
(A modern example in many North American provinces and states is where
your tax money goes to schools run on basis of secularism, even though
you disagree with that philosophy. Another is when governments spend my
tax money on abortion.)

Thomas Jefferson said in 1802:
I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property - until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.
(Why does this quote sound so contemporary?!)

Enjoy your reflections and debates.

I do hope that the Jeffersonian origin of these quotes will never prove to be a hoax!