A Dangerously Radical Christmas

It’s a couple of days until Christmas, and this morning it struck me that there’s a bit of a glaring absence in most of our Christmas pageants.  I’m used to seeing kids dressed up in bedsheets and bathrobes and tinsel, portraying shepherds watching their sheep or angels singing hosannah or kings bringing gifts.   And we’ll be reminded, once again, that Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem at the whim of a far-off ruler, that wise men came following a star, that there was no room in the inn, and that a baby who would change the world was born in the humblest of surroundings.
But there’s one passage that strangely doesn’t seem to get recited by our kids, although it’s a regular part of the daily evening prayer in the Anglican tradition.  Perhaps it makes us a little uncomfortable.
It’s the bit where Mary’s cousin Elizabeth has just prophesied over her, and she’s contemplating how the world is about to change.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
    pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
    the callous rich were left out in the cold.
It’s at this point where she seems less ‘gentle Mary, meek and mild’ and more ‘Mary, radical anti-capitalist, Occupy Wall Street protesting, rabble-rousing activist.’  For some reason, in our art we usually portray Mary like this: a quiet, obedient girl calmly accepting the fate she has been given.

But frankly, in this passage she feels more like this to me:

In this Oct. 1, 2011 photo, police arrest a protester on New York's Brooklyn Bridge during Saturday's march by Occupy Wall Street. Protesters speaking out against corporate greed and other grievances attempted to walk over the bridge from Manhattan, resulting in the arrest of more than 700 during a tense confrontation with police. The majority of those arrested were given citations for disorderly conduct and were released, police said. (AP Photo/Stephanie Keith)

(AP Photo/Stephanie Keith)

A fierce-eyed protestor, calling out the corruption of power and the injustice of poverty, willing to risk everything to bring about a better world.

I’m not surprised we tend to choose the former imagery.  As a comfortable member of the middle class, I’m not sure I’m that keen on messages of social upheaval.  But if we’re going to tell ourselves the Christmas story, then I think we should let this bit back in, and I can’t escape the politically subversive content of Mary’s words.  What would a pageant look like that dramatized this scene?  I have a sneaky suspicion that it would look more Banksy than Botticelli.

In Flanders Fields…

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,

This poem resonates with me. I lived in Flanders for several years.  I walked daily through fields a few miles from the front line. Once I rode a bike from Mons, Belgium to Paris, following the line that the British Expeditionary Force took in their hectic retreat from the German onslaught during the first days of the War.   And as we rode, we passed countless roadside memorials and cemeteries, a silent witness to the conflict.

That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Before we left Mons, we visited a museum.  Outside, the wall still bore bullet pockmarks from where deserters had been executed by the retreating forces.  A few young men, probably not much older than me at the time, had been shot for trying to flee the coming storm.

I know this landscape. I’ve walked across the battlefield at Verdun, the most disturbing place I have ever been, where it feels like the earth still bears the psychic scars of thousands of men dying in trenches and tunnels inches from one another in a desperate fight for a few metres of ground, where the trenches still criss-cross the fields, where the gun emplacement still lurk malevolently over the brow of the hill, and where an almost unimaginable number of bones are piled up in the ossuary.

I’ve stood at the Menin Gate and listened to “Last Post” being played, as it has been every night for nine decades.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

I like this poem.  I often don’t ‘get’ poetry, but the simple metre and clear imagery of Flanders Fields resonates with me, and catches my attention whenever it is read.

And yet, in recent years, I’ve found it more and more disturbing.  Because although its artistry is undeniable, although its call to action is hard to ignore, there is one critical element that worries me deeply.

It could have been written by a soldier on either side.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.

German and English soldiers both lived, fought, and died in Flanders.  “The dead” could refer to English, Canadian, South African, Indian, German, Austrian, Italian or Hungarian troops.

No deep Casus Belli is explored in this poem.  Its message is simply this:  We fought, and died, so you should fight and die too.  It is a message that could apply equally well to the belligerents in any armed conflict in all of human history.  It could just as well have been written in German, in Hungarian, in Turkish, calling the young men of those nations to commit themselves to ongoing warfare simply because their countrymen have died doing so.

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

And so now I feel uneasy when I read it or hear it recited.  I cannot deny its cadence, its beauty or its emotional appeal.  But I worry that the core message of the most moving piece of art to come out of the First World War is simply this:

Humans have died.  Therefore, more humans must die.

No deeper reason than this is given.  We are fighting the enemy, therefore the enemy must be fought.We have a quarrel, therefore you must have a quarrel.  We have been killed, therefore you must kill.

And that’s a message I really don’t know what to do with.

Global Civics

Our world has changed dramatically.  The way we engage with each other must change too.

We are in the middle of one of the biggest social changes in all of human history; comparable to the dawn of agriculture.

For the first million years or so of human history, before the Neolithic revolution, we lived in small tribes of hunter-gatherers.  We had no large-scale social organization or institutions.    Everyone in the tribe knew everyone else – what their character was like, how much they contributed to the overall good of the community, who they were friends with, what they thought.

After the Neolithic revolution, everything changed.  Farming, probably the most important technological discovery ever, had a huge impact on the structure of human societies.  Agriculture led to a vastly higher population density, to fixed settlements, to division of labour, and to cities.

All of a sudden, we were living in groups bigger than we could keep track of.  No longer did we know personally all the people around us.  And so to manage this drastic psycho-social shift, we created new institutions and structures.

We created money to track the contributions of individuals to the shared economy.

We created laws to formalize what was acceptable behaviour in these new mega-communities.

We created courts, royal dynasties, and parliaments to organize these large groups of people.

And even our religious beliefs and systems changed.  Tribal shamans were replaced with formal priesthoods, with far-reaching social and political influence.

Eventually city-states grew into nation-states, and as they did so many people gave thought to what it meant to be a citizen.  Over time we developed the idea of a Social Contract, an agreement between the individual and the state.  The state provides stability, protection and  regulation, and the individual provides contributions of labour and  obedience to the laws and cultural norms of their country.

“civis romanus sum”

We may not talk about it much these days, but for centuries the exact relationship between the individual and the state has been a major topic of discussion.  The Latin word civis, or ‘citizen’ is the root of our words civil, civilized, civility, and so on.  A civil individual is one who understands his role and obligations towards a broader society.

Today, we live not just in connection with our local tribes, or our city, but with the whole world.  Each of us, daily, affects and is affected by people from around the planet.  This article can be read just as easily in Auckland as in Barrie.  The computer I’m writing it on was assembled in China.  In the news and in social media we can follow real-time updates from the sporting rivalry of the World Cup in Brazil or the horrific religious and ethnic violence in Iraq.

And so I believe we need a new, global, civics.  We need to be asking, and answering, these questions:

  • What does it mean to be a global citizen?
  • What are my responsibilities towards my co-inhabitants of this planet?
  • How do my economic and political choices affect those on the other side of the globe?
  • What positive, constructive steps can I take towards a healthier, more peaceful, more prosperous, more equitable global society?

Sometimes this world can be a depressing place.  When I read about the destruction of global ecosystems, the continued existence of concentration camps 60 years after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, or our failure to bring war criminals to justice, I can get despondent.  But I’m not the first to feel this way.  The prophet Jeremiah experienced his country being invaded, his culture nearly destroyed, and  his fellow countrymen forcibly relocated.  He would have had every right to hate the system he found himself under.

But instead, he chose hope.  Seek the peace and prosperity of the city you’ve been exiled to,” he told the survivors.  And I hope today that we can learn how to seek the peace and prosperity of the entire planet. In our purchase decisions, in our politics, even in our Twitter conversations, perhaps we can pioneer a truly civil way of interacting with each other.

Constructing Gender

I’ve been thinking a lot about gender recently.  In part this has been sparked by reading Margaret Farley’s excellent book Just Love.  Her work has  helped me realize two things.

  1. Gender permeates our thinking and speaking.
  2. Gender is harder to define than you might think.

We are forever talking about gender, and the differences between the sexes.

Books like “Men are from Mars…” become bestsellers.

Movies are categorized into ‘chick flicks’ and guy flicks.

Language itself is frequently gender specific.  In French, and in many other languages, objects are considered to be masculine or feminine, and referred to differently in each case.

Religions talk about gender a lot.  Many religions have codes outlining acceptable behaviour for men and women, and for the relationships between the two.  Even today, the Catholic church teaches that not only are women not permitted to be priests, they are not able to be – it is a kind of category error.  In the muslim world, there are strict rules regarding the participation of men and women in communal worship.

Gender-based violence is still a  huge problem in our society.  Perhaps 1 in 4 women in Canada have experienced some kind of sexual assault.

And yet despite this preoccupation with gender, I’m finding that it’s harder than you might think to define what we mean by the term.

When we talk about gender, when we talk about masculine and feminine, what exactly do we mean?

Maybe we mean the behavioural traits that are associated with one gender or another.   But what do we do if these vary from culture to culture?

Maybe we mean the physical characteristics that are associated with a gender.  But again, what if these overlap?  Men are said to be stronger athletes than women, but this is only true in the aggregate.  I will never run a triathlon as fast as Chrissie Wellington, however hard I train.

Perhaps we mean the social roles that men and women are expected to fill.  Nearly every society on earth divides task by gender, but interestingly they don’t always agree which tasks should be performed by which gender.

Perhaps when we’re talking about gender we’re simply talking about biology – the presence or absence of specific reproductive organs.  Although interestingly enough, these only start developing after a couple of months gestation, in response to certain genetic triggers.

So perhaps gender is all to do with genetics and chromosomes.  Fair enough, but even this runs into trouble when we start learning about the complex ways that humans and other animals determine gender.  Humans use X and Y chromosomes, other animals use Z, W, O chromosomes, or even environmental triggers such as temperature, to determine the gender of an infant.  Still other animals change gender during their lifetimes.   And even in humans, there are combinations of chromosomes and genes that lead to indeterminate gender.

So we’re left with this strange state of affairs – words that we all use, that we all assume have a common, shared meaning, and yet on closer inspection may hide some very complex realities.

I mean to consider the implications of these complexities in subsequent articles.

Autism and God

I am on the autism spectrum.  I am also a committed Christian.

This makes me a bit of an anomaly.  According to Catherine Chaldwell-Harris at the Boston University Department of Psychology, people with autism spectrum disorder are far more likely than their peers to reject religious belief and identify as atheist or agnostic.  The chair of a national autism organization has gone as far as to say that autistic children will automatically be atheist because they “lack a section for faith in their brains.”

A quick survey of people I know on the spectrum found this statement deeply offensive.  It is frustrating at two levels – it demonstrates a poor understanding of the nature of religious faith and it demonstrates a poor understanding of the nature of autism.

To understand the challenges that the church has when engaging with autism, let’s talk briefly about what autism is.  Autism is fundamentally characterized by difficulties in understand the mental and emotional state of other people, and a tendency towards systemizing behaviour.  In my case, this means that I struggle to know what other people are thinking and feeling; indeed I sometimes struggle to know what I am feeling.

And there we have a problem. Because faith is often talked about in terms of emotions, and specifically in terms of God’s emotions.   I’ve frequently heard people say “I really felt that God was telling me to change jobs”, or “I feel that God wants me to tell you something”, or “I felt a leading to go on a missions trip.”  

trinityIn the evangelical world this is a very normal way of speaking.  Historically, we have placed a deep emphasis on the personal nature of faith, on the idea that a relationship with God is something that is open to everyone, without the need for mediation through an institution or a priesthood.  And we have taught that the individual believer can receive direction and instruction from God.

And here is where I struggle.  Because when people say “I really feel that God wants…”, they’re telling me that they are intuiting the wants and desires and emotional state of a divine being.

But  I have difficulty intuiting the wants, desires, and emotional states of everyday people.  I have difficulty figuring out the emotional states of my friends and family.  I have difficulty sensing the emotional states of my wife.  Frankly, I have difficulty seeing my own emotional states.

So if active participation in my faith requires being able to sense how some Other is feeling, then I have a problem.  It’s almost like telling someone with club foot that running a marathon is a necessary entry requirement to this club that we call the church.

Before I started writing this article, I did some research to see what had already been written on the subject of autism and religion.  Unfortunately, there’s very little.  There is the study I referenced above that saw the correlation between autism and atheism.  There are a few articles that talk about how to bring your children to church without triggering a meltdown.  And there are a few resources that note that the churchgoing experience has the possibility to trigger some of the sensory processing issues that are so common in people on the spectrum.  Loud noises, large crowds, a requirement to sit still for an hour, strange sounds, smells and tastes; all of these can trigger sensory overload.  Going to church can become an exercise in crisis management, not an opportunity to engage in a faith community in a profound, transformative way.

But I believe that autism is a theological issue.  How we talk about it, how we describe it and how we think about it will affect how we treat people on the spectrum.  And it will affect how we learn from people on the spectrum.  Fundamentally, we will have to decide whether we see autism as a disease to be cured, or a difference to be cherished.

Changing the World Through Stories

JFK once said that the only reason to give a speech was to change the world.

I think this is wise advice.  I’ve been reading a lot recently about the art of speaking and presenting, and the true masters of the subject seem to agree on a couple of points.

Firstly, PowerPoint is evil.  Or at least, can be used as a tool for evil.  Consider the following slide, for example.




That’s part of a real PowerPoint presentation given by a real military commander trying to explain the goals of the occupying force in Afghanistan.  I don’t understand it.  I’m sure the audience didn’t understand it.  And I’m not at all sure that the guy giving the presentation really understood it.  If you can’t get your key point across in a few sentences, you’re probably not sure what you’re trying to say.

Fortunately, the masters of presenting agree on a second point.  Speaking and presenting is about telling stories.

Consider this example:


This is from a vastly better presentation, Pixar’s 22 Rules to Phenomenal Storytelling. Go and watch it now.  Seriously.  I’ll wait.

Done?  Good.  The author of that presentation had a clear point he wanted to make, and made it with simplicity, creativity, and a keen eye for design.  All the hallmarks, in fact, of the company that he’s talking about.

If, like JFK, we want to change the world, we’ll need to do better than endless bullet lists and obfuscated flow charts.  We’ll need to learn to tell honest, simple, engaging stories.


New Year, New Resolutions

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when magazines and websites are full of articles about New Year’s Resolutions.

Actually, I quite like this tradition.  While I’m only too aware of the low success rate of resolutions, I think the turn of the year is an excellent time to stop, take stock of your life, and plan ahead for the coming months.

I have some specific practices that I find extremely helpful in this exercise that I’ll be sharing on Sunday at Vox Alliance, but in the meantime, I’m interested in hearing from you.  Do you make resolutions? Do you stick to them?  What resolutions do you make?  And what are you looking forward to in 2014?


Happy New Year!


The Navy Yard

As soon as I heard about the shooting at Washington Navy Yard on Monday, one question sprang to mind and refused to leave.

We are shocked, and rightly so, at the news of yet another mass shooting.  And yet, for some reason, most of us aren’t particularly shocked about the location of the shootings.  But I can’t help pondering the location of this act of violence, the Washington Navy Yard.  I’d never heard of this place until Monday, so I took the time to read up a little on the site and its history.

The Yard started out more than two centuries ago as the largest shipbuilding facility in the US navy.  By World War II, it was the largest naval ordnance plant in the world. The weapons designed and built there were used in every war in which the United States fought until the 1960s.

To put it another way, this facility has existed,  for two centuries, to create guns, torpedoes, gunboats, frigates and shells.  In short, all the machinery needed for people to kill other people with production-line efficiency.  To be blunt, this site has been in the business of mass-producing death. This is not a value judgment, just a plain statement of fact. Many thousands of human beings have been shot, blown up, burnt or drowned by the output of this facility.

And yet for some reason this doesn’t elicit a strong emotional reaction, or indeed, any comment at all in the coverage of Monday’s tragedy.

Why is that, I wonder?

Social Business

I started reading Muhammad Yunus’ book, Social Business. He suggests that in addition to government agencies, charities and for-profit corporations, the world needs another type of enterprise – the social business.  This is basically a company set up to address a particular social need, such as public health, poverty or education, and is structured similarly to a corporation but returns no dividends or capital gains to its investors.  Any profit is guaranteed to be re-invested into achieving the social goal.

This might sound like a pipe-dream coming from someone else.   Yunus, though, is the guy who founded the Grameen bank.  Through his work millions of people have had access to banking services and small business loans that would have otherwise been denied them.  He has demonstrated in very practical ways that helping the poor can be about more than handouts – that creativity and entrepreneurship are key aspects as well.

In his advice for those considering starting a personal business, he says Start with a personal passion.  Too often, as businesses or individuals, we do whatever we need to do to earn revenue, and consider our ‘mission statement’ as something to be tacked on afterwards, maybe to please investors.   But what would happen if we looked at it the other way round?  If we asked ‘what is my mission in life’ first, and only then asked ‘how am I going to achieve it on an economically sustainable basis?’

Dennis Bakke, in his book Joy at Work suggested a very similar concept.  He argued that the goal of a for-profit corporation and a non-profit charity should really be the same thing: providing a service for society on an economically sustainable basis.

But regardless of how we choose to structure our enterprises – non-profits, corporations, co-ops, we must start with defining our mission, and then decide how we will go about reaching it.

Liberal and Conservative should be renamed…

…to Urbanist and Ruralist.

A quick look at the election results from the UK, Canada or the US shows a clear correlation between the Liberal/Conservative divide and the Urban/Rural divide.  Take a look at these maps:

A recent US electoral map, indicating population density and voting trends

Vote Density by US Counties



A recent UK electoral map.  Note the clustering of Labour voters in London, Newcastle, Birmingham, and other major cities










An electoral map from Ontario, Canada.  Again, the left-of-center votes cluster in Toronto and Hamilton, the largest cities in the area.



We should not be surprised by this.  Conservatism, in it’s classic form, arose to defend the interests of the rural land owning classes during the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution.

But beyond this, I suspect that urban dwellers and rural dwellers have very different perspectives on the world.  In a rural setting, you know the majority of people you interact with.  In an urban setting, you need to co-exist with vast numbers of strangers.  In a rural setting, tradition and social hierarchy provide consistency and predictability in your life.  In a city, agreed-upon rules and social agencies provide the same effect.

Given how much the world has changed since the 19th century, it’s surprising to me that we still define ourselves in terms of these political labels.  I consider myself both a conservative and a liberal.  I completely believe in the value of conserving social institutions that have served us well and been tested over the centuries: things like the rule of law, and clear property rights, and strong families.  And I completely believe in the importance of providing care and protection for everyone in society, regardless of wealth, race or background.

I think new labels are going to be needed.