Category Archives: Questions

Economy, Ecology and Ecumenism

I learned today, (in this remarkable book), that the words economy, ecology and ecumenical all share the same Greek root, the word for ‘home’.

I find this fascinating.  Globally, it is clear that in many ways we have a fractured and broken economic system, a fragile ecology that is facing many challenges, and likewise a fracture ecumenism.

These are all related.  Economics is the way we choose to structure and order the world that we all share.  Ecology  is our effort to understand our shared environment: every life form, every eco-system, and the complex and beautiful relationships between them.  And ecumenism is our attempts to figure out how we as broken and divided members of the family of faith can live together, bless one another, and celebrate our diversity rather than cling to our divisions.

I  am convinced that as a society one of our biggest failings is our failure of imagination.  As we think about economics, the only question we seem capable of asking is ‘how can we make more stuff?‘   This is, after all, the definition of a growing economy.  The financial press is full of charts showing rates of GDP, and worrying about output and productivity and interest rates and bond defaults.   What if, instead, we chose to ask ourselves ‘how can we build a healthy and sustainable world, with freedom, peace and opportunity for all?’

Then we’d really have to start looking at our ecology, our economy, and our ecumenism.  Because we all share this oikos, this house, this world.

Who are the Peacemakers?

“Blessings on the peacemakers!  You’ll be called God’s children.”

I’ve been thinking recently about this statement of Jesus’.  “Blessings on the peacemakers.”

Jesus also said that some other folks were blessed, too.  The poor.  The hungry.  Those who mourn.  The pure in heart.  The meek.  The persecuted.

Some of these groups are easy to identify.  We could go for a stroll through downtown Barrie and meet the poor and hungry quite easily.  It wouldn’t take long, I’m sure, for us to find someone grieving.   And we’ve heard many stories of people being persecuted for standing up for what is right.

But peacemakers.  Who are they?  Where do they live?  What do they look like?

I’m  convinced  that reconciliation and peacemaking are essential elements of the mission of the church.  But I realise I know little about the practicalities of peacemaking.  Who should my role models be?  Who are the people that are actively bringing about reconciliation between groups in conflict?  Between Palestinian and Israeli, between rich and poor, between labour and management?  Between landlord and tenant, between conservative and liberal, between Catholic and Protestant? Between Pakistan and India, between Sunni and Shiite, between oil company and environmentalist?

Who are the people that stand in the gap, that refuse to accept the inevitability of conflict, that believe and hope and work towards just and equitable resolutions?

Who are the peacemakers?

What Would a Kingdomology Look Like?

A few weeks ago I had a fascinating conversation in a downtown coffee shop with a new acquaintance.  Among the many topics we covered was his conviction that the Bible presents one concrete, straightforward pattern for church structure and practice.

This got me thinking.   In theological circles we call the study of the Church ‘ecclesiology‘, from the Greek word for church, ekklēsiā.  In fact, theologians have all sorts of ‘ologies’.

  • Christology is ‘talking about Christ’.
  • Soteriology is ‘talking about salvation’
  • Pneumatology is ‘talking about the Holy Spirit
  • Eschatology is ‘talking about the culmination of history’

Interestingly enough, however, there doesn’t seem to be a word for ‘Kingdom-ology’, or the study of the kingdom of God.  I’ve never, ever heard the phrase ‘Basileology‘, which would be the logical term to use.

This seems to me a strange omission.  The word ‘church’ is mentioned twice in the gospels.  But the phrase ‘Kingdom of God’, or ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is used more than 80 times!  So why do theologians talk about the Church so much more than the Kingdom?

Am I missing something?  Is this actually a subject that’s taught at seminary?  Is there such a thing as ‘Introduction to Basileology’ or ‘Kingdom Studies 101’?  What would such a course look like?  What questions would it ask?  Which experts would we study?

In fact, while we’re asking these questions, what is the Kingdom of God?  And who is teaching and studying and talking about this question?

 

Problems of Abundance

Nearly all the problems we face as a society today are problems of abundance.

Over the millennia, as a species we have become very skilled at dealing with scarcity.  Our ancestors often lived on the edge of survival.  They were one long winter, or one disease outbreak, or one failed harvest away from devastation.

And we have responded to these challenges by producing more.  We grow more crops, we mine more coal, we extract more oil, we build more cars.  But very soon our society will have to answer the question: how much is enough?

Unemployment is seen as an under-supply of jobs.  But an equally valid way of looking at it is as an over-supply of labour.  A society with unemployed members is a society that, as a whole, feels that it is using sufficient labour, and has no need for the efforts of some of its members.

Obesity, heart disease, diabetes and some cancers are also problems of abundance. A hunter gatherer society expends nearly every calorie it ingests in search of the next one.  But now we’ve figured out how to mass-produce calories.   Many of the health threats facing the developed and developing world are not due to lack of food, but to an over-abundance sugars, alcohol and tobacco.

Pollution, likewise is a by product of the increased ability of our society to make stuff.  Everything that we dig out of the ground, or make in our factories, has to one day find its way to the landfill or other resting place.

So how much is enough?  Is it possible for a society to say “we have enough, we do not need to increase production?”  Is it possible for an individual to say “I have enough, I do not need to acquire more?”  Can a society see its over-supply of labour as an opportunity, not a problem?

I don’t have the answers to these questions yet.

What is the Mission of the Church?

I guess this posts is part of my ‘church crawl’ series as well as my ‘unanswered questions’ one.  It’ll be short, because the question doesn’t really need to be fleshed out.  It’s very simple.

What is the mission of the church?

Maybe you can help me answer this.  Some other ways of looking at this question might be:

  • Why does your church exist?
  • What is it trying to achieve?
  • How do you measure ‘success’?
  • How does your church choose what activities to prioritise?
  • What are common goals that your church is working towards with other churches in your city?
  • What are common goals that your denomination is working towards with others?
  • If someone was wondering whether they should be part of a church at all, what would you say to them?  Do you think it’s important?  Why?
  • Is the church making progress in her mission?  What impediments exist? What tools are helping?

Maybe this is a question I should be asking as I visit churches in Barrie.  For now, I’d love to hear people’s opinions and suggestions.  Is there a common mission that applies to all the churches in the city?  What are your thoughts?

Question 4 – Is it the Purpose of Justice to Redress Past Wrongs?

The title of today’s question may be a bit of a mouthful, perhaps that reflects my lack of answers on this one.

The lead headline on BBC news today was Mahmoud Abbas presenting Palestine’s bid for statehood to the U.N.

The ongoing Israeli-Palestine conflict is obviously one of the defining long term geo-political issues of this age.  In an attempt to understand today’s U.N. address, I spent some time reading up on the last few decades of the history of Palestine.  If we are to understand today Abbas’ call to recognize a state with pre-1967 borders, we need to understand the Six Day War of 1967.  To understand the events that led to war we need to understand the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and so on.

I can’t claim that I’ve even begun to understand the complexities of the religious, ethnic and political tensions in the area, but I do realize one thing.  Many people feel that they or their ancestors have been wronged, and that justice requires redress for these past wrongs.  In this particular case, the PLO wants the return of territory lost during the Six Day War.

If we accepted as a principal that territory seized by one country from another should be returned, then how universally could we apply this?  And for how long?  Should Karelia be returned to Finland from Russia?  Should Libya be returned to Turkey?  Or possibly to Italy?  Should Quebec be returned to France?  Should Ontario be returned to the Iroquois?  Or maybe to the Algonquin?

Ultimately, when faced with such questions we realise that huge swathes of the Earth have been fought over, won, lost, occupied, colonialised, and traded.  And there are probably few people groups that cannot lay claim to some past injustice.

So should we try to redress these past wrongs?  Or should we abandon all striving for justice?  Or is there another way, perhaps that acknowledges what has happened in the past and at the same time works hopefully towards a better future for all?

 

 

Question 3 – What is Meant by ‘Job Creation’

So, another day, another election.  Today the Ontario Provincial election campaign begins, and despite my pleading for assessing each person standing on their individual merits I can’t name any of my local candidates.  But I’m sure that over the next few weeks we’ll be hearing a lot about the leaders of the parties, and especially about their election promises.

One thing they’ve already started talking about is ‘job creation’.  This phrase is frequently used in political discussion, but it’s rarely clearly defined.  A little story may illustrate the problem.

Once upon a time there was a politician called James.  James had a son, let’s call him Jim, around 12 or 13 years old.  Jim was a particularly active boy, and one day while playing in the back yard managed to throw a rock through the kitchen window.  His dad sighed, and picked up the phone to the local window company to come and fix it. 

Later that evening, thinking about the large bill he had just paid, and the hours of work that it had taken the two man crew to clean up his kitchen, James came to a realization.  He should be proud of his son, not mad, because he’d just stimulated the local economy!  The glaziers had had work for the afternoon, and their company revenue had increased.

So James immediately rushed into the back yard and picked up as many rocks as he could carry.  Then he headed out on his mission, and didn’t stop until he had thrown a brick through the window of every house on his street.  Then he went back home, pleased with his job creation efforts and looking forward to the praise that he would undoubtedly receive.

This story is known as ‘the Parable of the Broken Window’, and shows that it’s not simply more work that we want created.

But as it happens, we can create jobs without offending our neighbors.  I will do so now.

I will pay the first reader of this blog who responds one dollar a year to clean my house, mow my lawn, shovel my driveway, and perform any other maintenance  tasks I can think of.

Somehow, I think I’m not going to get any takers, despite the fact that technically I just created another job opening.  Clearly that’s not what we mean by ‘Job Creation.’

So what is it that we want?  A slave is not content because she has a ‘job’, even though she has the privilege of working 12 hours a day.  And, indeed, I suspect a huge percentage of Ontarians are deeply dissatisfied with their current jobs.

So when candidates start talking about ‘job creation’, perhaps we should ask them exactly what they mean.  And maybe we shouldn’t elect them until we’re satisfied with their answers.

Question 2 – What is Acceptable Use of Political Violence?

image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/gideon/

Another tricky one today.  One time when I entered Canada I was asked whether I had ‘ever been affiliated with an organization that used violence to achieve political goals.’

I was very tempted to say ‘yes, I’m a British Citizen.’

I doubt that an immigration desk is the right place to have a detailed philosophical discussion about if and when it is acceptable to use violence to further political aims.  A border agent probably isn’t that interested in debating Just War theory, or pacifism, or the culpability of the citizen for the actions of the state, or Weber’s idea’s of the Monopoly on Violence.

However, this blog is exactly the right place to have that discussion.

So, when is it justifiable for one group to kill people for political reasons?  Karl van Clausewitz said that “War is the continuation of policy by other means”, and then spent 10 (surprisingly readable) volumes discussing the best ways of conducting war.  But he only considered the actions of nation-states.  In today’s world we have national armies, but also private security outfits, militant groups, and indeed lone individuals, all of whom have both political goals and the ability and motivation to harm others in order to achieve them.

Even categorizing these groups presents difficulties.  In Iraq, anti-government forces tend to be known as ‘insurgents.’  In Libya, anti-government forces are referred to as ‘rebels.’  Members of the African National Congress, such as Nelson Mandela, were referred to variously as revolutionaries, militants, freedom fighters and terrorists.  Even the language that we use carries a heavy weight of implied judgement, making it hard to objectively consider when and where violence may be justifiable.

So, is it acceptable for one nation to invade another to acquire resources, or perhaps in pre-emptive defence?  Is it OK to bomb or shoot a corrupt dictator?  If so, must the killer be part of an organized national army, or a distinct political group, or does the rightness of the cause permit a lone actor to take matters into their own hands?  What about the use of violence against citizens, or ideological groups, or criminals?

And if we can answer these questions, can we then mold them into a cohesive theory that applies both to the actions of the state but also to the responsibilities of the individual?

Today I will go to work, and some of the tax I pay on my income will be directed towards the Canadian armed forces.  As a direct result of my labors, bombs have been built, guns have been loaded, and ultimately, on the other side of the world, people I’ve never met have been killed.

How do we respond to this?  Is it possible, as a society, to agree on the place and limitations of political aggression?   And can we do so in a way that acknowledges and cherishes the fundamental value of each human life?

 

Question 1 – is GDP a good measure of a country’s health?

image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/donaldtownsend/

GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, is a measure of the economic output of a country.  It seems to be an unspoken assumption by nearly all economic commentators that more GDP is better than less.  If the GDP of a country declines, then we call that a recession.  If it grows, we call that a ‘healthy’ economy.  Indeed, we seem to use all sorts of anthropomorphic adjectives to describe the world of financial transactions.  Think about it:

The economy is struggling.  The economy is recovering.  The economy needs to be stimulated.  The economy is crippled. The economy is healthy.  The economy is at risk.  The economy is growing.

In fact, if we didn’t know what the word meant, we might hazard a guess that ‘The Economy’ is the name of a friend’s slightly wayward toddler.

Which brings me to my question.  A toddler, of course, should be growing – physically, emotionally, and intellectually.  But not all growth is good.  We are told that it is good for a country to experience continuous economic growth of a few percent every year.  But unrestrained, exponential growth of living cells is know by a different name.

We call it cancer.

If our industrial output grows at, lets say a nice conservative rate of 2 percent a year, then after 10 years we will be producing 21 percent more goods and services than when we started.

After a hundred years we will be producing seven times as much.

After a thousand years, we will be producing just shy of 400 million times as much.

Seriously.  Try the math.  Enter 1.02 to the power of 1000 in your calculator.  The answer is 398,264,651.

400 million times as many cars.  400 million times as many cell phones.  And filling 400 million times as many landfills.

Does your city have space for 400 million landfills?

And if not, then how should we measure the health of a country?

 

Learning to Ask Questions

It’s been suggested to me that it would be a good idea to get in the habit of asking questions, as well as trying to answer them.  So in that spirit, I’ll be doing a series of posts about questions that I have on my mind.  Hopefully these will become themes that I explore in greater depth over the next few months, but for now we’ll focus on just outlining some areas of inquiry that intrigue me…