Sunday, July 6, 2014

World Cup 2014: Did the bishops of Brazil miss the pope's memo?


Are the Bishops of Brazil and Pope Francis on the same page when it comes to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, or did the Bishops miss their CEO’s memo?

At the start of the tournament, the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil added their voice to that of Brazilians who for months had been protesting their government’s lavish spending on the tournament. When millions of Brazil’s citizens lack basic needs and are living in poverty, the construction of enormous stadiums was hard to justify.

The bishops issued a brochure in the shape of a “red card” to express their concern “regarding the inversion of priorities in the use of public money that should go to health, education, basic sanitation, transportation and security”.  They were concerned, too, about the displacement of the homeless, and an increase in sexual tourism and human trafficking. 

The bishops want the 2014 World Cup to be more than “bread and circuses”, more than a well-orchestrated government distraction from Brazil’s social and political challenges, and are pushing for reforms. Through a campaign called “Steilpass” (translated either as “the decisive turning point”, or, in soccer lingo,  “assist”), the Brazilian bishops, in collaboration with the Conference of Religious in Brazil, presented the Brazilian government with ten proposals focused on building a more just society.  Among the proposals are calls for universal health care, access to a complete public education, meaningful work for all, promotion and protection of youth from violence, respect for cultural diversity, and democratic control of justice and the media.

The bishops’ message to government seems to stand in contrast to the cordial message of Pope Francis on the opening of the tournament. While Francis makes no overt references to Brazil’s problems, the shortcomings of human relationships are implicit in his message.

Francis looks at the world’s beautiful game as a metaphor for the improvement of the human person and, therefore, of society.  “Football”, said the pontiff, “can and should be a school for building a ‘culture of encounter’ which allows for peace and harmony among peoples”. 

Francis draws three lessons from sport that can contribute to peace.  The first is the need to train so that one can grow in virtue.  The second is to look to the common good because “in life, when we are fominhas (individualistic and egoistic), ignoring those who surround us, the entire society is damaged”.  And, the third is to respect both one’s teammates and opponents. The pope indicated that teamwork and respect for others are key components in winning both on the pitch and in life.

“No one wins by himself, not on the field or in life!” said Francis, adding “that by learning the lessons that sports teach us, we will all be winners, strengthening the bonds that tie us together.”

Despite the difference in the tone and content of the message of the Brazilian bishops and that of the pope, their underlying substance is not all that radically different. Both are concerned with the dignity of the human person and the flourishing of human society.

Francis encourages individuals to forgo selfishness and to seek peace and harmony with one another for the good of the entire human family, while the bishops urge those in positions of power to use the resources at their disposal for the advancement of the common good. Whereas the bishops spotlight the messiness of human society, the pope illuminates the ability of the individual to help tidy the mess.

The bishops and the pope have the same currency in hand; their messages are different sides of the same coin. Flip the coin, and on both sides there is a call to conversion, healing and renewal for the sake of social justice, or, in soccer lingo, “fair play”.


Monday, June 23, 2014

Law Societies regulate conduct, not beliefs


BC Lawyers oppose a Faculty of Law at TWU
At a special June 10, 2014 meeting of the members of the Law Society of British Columbia, 3,210 lawyers voted against approval for a Faculty of Law at Trinity Western University, while 968 lawyers voted for its approval. While the vote seems to indicate overwhelming opposition, the majority of the 13, 114 members of the Law Society did not cast a ballot. 

The special meeting was called because a requisite number of lawyers were dissatisfied with the April 11, 2014 decision of the Benchers, who are responsible for governing the Law Society, to approve the law school at TWU for the purposes of the Law Society’s admissions program.

Non-binding vote
The vote, however, is not binding on the Benchers. In a press release following the special meeting, President Jan Lindsay, QC said, “The decision regarding whether to admit graduates from the proposed law school at TWU is a Bencher decision,” adding that, “however, the Benchers will give the result of today’s members meeting serious and thoughtful consideration.”

The Benchers’ decision came after an extensive process of consultation, and a thought-provoking debate that touched upon issues of equality, discrimination, freedom of association, religious freedom and the rule of law. I watched the debate live, and in my view, the Benchers arrived at a principled decision regarding a contentious issue that involves the conflicting Charter rights of two disparate groups.

The opposition to TWU is based on a clause in the university’s “Community   in Covenant” agreement which upholds a traditional view of marriage as between one man and one woman. Students, faculty and staff agree to abide by the covenant. Many, as the vote of BC lawyers indicates, object to this clause as discriminatory, and tantamount to placing a sign at the gate stating that LGBTQ people are not welcome.

TWU has right to its beliefs
While I dislike the idea of a university requiring its members to sign a covenant that governs the most intimate aspects of their lives, TWU has the right to uphold a particular view of marriage, and those who share the institution’s beliefs have the right to congregate and associate with others of like mind. 

I share the opinion of the BC Civil Liberties Association, an organization that has a record of supporting the rights of LGBTQ persons but who took the position, “to deny (TWU’s) application based on the university’s Community Covenant would infringe the Charter-protected freedom of association and religion of members of the faith-based private university”, adding that these are fundamental freedoms and “that’s what s. 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is all about, protecting our freedoms of association, of assembly, of belief and of expression.” (For greater depth, see also the BCCLA Submission to the Law Society of BC. )

In 2001, in Trinity Western University, the Supreme Court of Canada determined that the BC College of Teachers could not deny education graduates of TWU admittance to the teaching profession based on religious beliefs about homosexuality that were unacceptable to the College.

Unfair to assume a lack of professionalism because of a belief
There is no evidence that teachers trained at TWU fail to professionally and competently exercise their teaching responsibilities when employed in the public school system. Similarly, there is no reason to assume that future graduates of a law school at TWU will be incapable of upholding the laws of the land and representing the rights of clients of all persuasions.   If an individual lawyer trained at TWU should prove incapable of doing so, the public can reasonably expect that the Law Society will deal with that person according to the remedial and disciplinary procedures already in place for lawyers who fail to faithfully represent clients and honorably serve the cause of justice.

In my opinion, for a law society to deny candidates admission to the legal profession because of a religious belief that is socially anathema to a percentage of its existing membership is unjustified, and is discriminatory in its own way.  In the absence of evidentiary proof that TWU’s traditional view of marriage and its code of sexual conduct does harm to others, graduates of its law school should be eligible for admission to the BC bar.

The Law Society of BC is properly concerned with the training, qualification, ethics, competency and conduct of its members. It is not its task, however, to regulate belief by excluding those with whom some of its members disagree. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The digital environment is a double-edged sword


From telephone operators to text messaging
"Vintage Telephone" courtesy of Stoon/
 Free  digital photos.net
Communication technology has come a long way in a short time.  In my lifetime, we have moved from twice daily mail delivery and phones that required the services of an operator to connect callers, to the instantaneous communication of smart phones and text messaging. At the click of a mouse, we can “join the conversation” on any topic, or post our thoughts and images online for the entire world to see. 

The ability to be digitally connected around the clock creates meaningful opportunities for human interaction, but it also comes with some challenges; the digital environment can be a double-edged sword.

Technology can bring people closer, or separate them
On the plus side, technology enhances our ability to stay in touch with family and friends. Recently, my family enjoyed our own version of cross-country check-up via a three-way Skype call on the big screen TV with family members tuning in from Halifax, Montreal and Trail.  While it was not quite as good as sitting around the kitchen table  playing Settlers of Catan, it was an acceptable option for being together under the circumstances.

Just as technology can bring us together, it can also separate us, even to the extent that it can create distance between people in the same room.  I can think of no better example of this than the manner in which we frequently use smart phones. How often have you been in the company of a person who is obsessively checking their phone? In this case, the technology, despite its many excellent applications for augmenting communication, interferes with our ability to be truly present to those who are right in front of us.

A smorgasbord of options - healthy and not so healthy
The digital environment presents us with a smorgasbord of options for everything – current events, documentaries, online learning, and entertainment of many varieties. The Internet makes it possible for us to stretch our understanding of others and the world from the comfort of our recliners.   The accessibility of quality entertainment, online learning, and probing news analysis is truly a boon to human development.

On the down side, the communications media can also provide a platform for the expression of some of the shadowy sides of human nature. Cyber-bullying and access to pornography come to mind, as do television shows of the Jerry Springer variety, and reality television that makes a virtue out of stabbing others in the back.  Not all the options served up for consumption at the smorgasbord are healthy and wholesome.

Runners have a saying, “Garbage in, garbage out”, which means that what you eat prior to a run affects performance.  Our use of digital technology and our media choices can have a similar effect on our mind and relationships.  If we opt for a steady diet of mindless, violent, or sexually explicit entertainment, we may begin to treat others with less than the respect they deserve, and if we always choose sensational newscasts over thoughtful analysis, we run the risk of mistaking human tragedy for entertainment.

Pope Francis's message for World Communications Day
In his message for World Communications Day, Pope Francis writes, “Communication is about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God”, and his message encourages us to think of communication in terms of “neighbourliness”. The communications media and digital environment can help us become like the Good Samaritan who saw the wounded man as his neighbour and crossed the road to care for him. As the Good Samaritan  “tended the wounds of the injured man by pouring oil and wine over them”, our communication can become like a “balm which relieves pain and a fine wine which gladdens hearts.”

When we use digital technology and the communications media wisely, they are a powerful force for connecting people and for fostering positive human interactions.  On its own, the digital environment is neither inherently good nor bad; we decide which edge of the sword to use. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Abortion debate needs voices of reason


The leaders of Canada’s national political parties all agree on one thing; they do not want to talk about abortion.  Yet, with Justin Trudeau’s announcement that going forward all Liberal candidates must be pro-choice, abortion is back on their radar screens. 

Under Trudeau’s leadership, the Liberal Party joins the New Democratic Party in discouraging those who believe in the sanctity of life within the womb from the party folds and from running for Parliament. This leaves only the Conservative Party truly open to those with pro-life sensibilities.

While Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair may want to avoid candidates who are solely interested in codifying an uncompromising ban on abortion, party policy that precludes individuals who are not pro-choice from running for office violates a fundamental principle of Canadian democracy.

Representation is a pillar of democracy
As any well-taught sixth grader in the country knows, representation is one of the pillars of Canadian democracy. Canadian citizens have a right to select their representatives to Parliament. Collectively, these representatives should represent the diversity of Canada in race, creed and opinion.

Representatives have a responsibility to listen to the conflicting voices of Canadians on all matters, including those of conscience, even though they may disagree with those voices. The electorate is not well served when political parties pay lip service to Canadians of all views, but then stipulate, as Mr. Trudeau has in an email to Liberal party members, “incoming Liberal MPs will always vote in favour of a woman’s fundamental rights.”  

While it is true that the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the country’s last abortion law in 1988 on the basis that the law was unconstitutional, and contravened Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees a woman’s legal right to life, liberty and the security of the person, there are other ways to support pregnant women besides silencing the voices of those who believe that life is sacred from the moment of conception.

Canada needs voices of reason to move beyond polarized arguments
The practice of discouraging, if not down right excluding, those who are pro-life from vying for office implies that anyone who is not pro-choice is incapable of being an effective parliamentarian. There seems to be an assumption that all pro-lifers are radical zealots. This is simply untrue; many people who hold pro-life views and who have reservations about Canada’s lack of abortion laws are quite capable of approaching the issue rationally, realistically, and with regard for a woman’s right to choose.

Canadians need voices of reason on both sides of the abortion debate at the national level. Perhaps if national leaders were more open to dissenting voices on the topic, and to the concerns of the sixty percent of Canadians who favor some legislative restriction on abortion (such as on sex selective abortion), the debate could move beyond inflammatory rhetoric and polarized arguments. Instead of focusing on universal and unrestricted access to abortion or a complete ban on abortion, Canada could move towards the development of educational and social programs that would held reduce the number of abortions in the country, while at the same time respecting a woman’s freedom and right to choose.  Too often pro-choice means no choice for a pregnant woman because of a lack of practical support for other options during a difficult time.

National parties that prevent Canadians from running for office based on a single issue shut out many talented, principled, altruistic and reasonable people from participation in the development of the broad range of economic, environmental, legislative and social policies that affect Canadian life. 

As Archbishop Cardinal Collins of Toronto noted in his letter to Trudeau, Pope Francis "would have been ineligible to be a candidate" for the Liberals. And, as someone noted on a media discussion board, Mother Theresa would not have made the cut either.

With Trudeau’s “resolutely pro-choice” version of Liberal values, the Liberal Party follows the New Democratic Party in an exclusionary practice that has implications for representation in a parliamentary democracy, and at the end of the day, may do little to support women facing the difficult decision of carrying a pregnancy to term.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

We learn to be racist


Just who was Jesus?  

It’s a question that commands a lot of attention, and engenders a whole lot of heated debate.  While I have read scholarly books on the topic, I rather like a comedic set of arguments that attempts to define Jesus in terms of racial stereotypes.

It does not matter whether you believe in Jesus or not, these sometimes irreverent arguments challenge us to see an image of divinity in all people, and to acknowledge, respect and cherish the innate dignity of others.

Quoting from these anonymous arguments, Jesus was black because he called everyone brother; he liked Gospel; and, he couldn’t get a fair trial. But, there are three equally good arguments that he was aboriginal: he was at peace with nature; he ate a lot fish; and, he talked about the Great Spirit. Then again, there are three equally good arguments that he was Italian: he talked with his hands; he had wine with his meals; and, he used olive oil. 

Racism in sport
Two recent incidents of racism in sport  - the offensive comments of Los Angeles Clipper’s owner, Donald Sterling, against blacks, and an alarming number of racist tweets against PK Sabban of the Montreal Canadiens following his overtime goal against the Boston Bruins - provide striking examples of the inability of some people to accept others who differ from themselves.

While these incidents have sparked discussion about the prevalence of racism in pro-sports, and have drawn attention to racism in the NCAA, which Billy Hawkins, professor of kinesiology at the University of Georgia, dubs the “new plantation”, racism is definitely not limited to the sporting arena. 

and in Canadian history
Consider the legacy of Indian residential schools in Canada.   The very creation of the residential school system was an expression of the concept ‘the white man’s burden’, which held that the white man was a superior being responsible for the management of non-whites. All too frequently, this attitude of racial superiority resulted in terrible abuses to First Nations children as we are learning from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which wrapped up four years of hearings in late April of this year.

Racism perpetuates itself
None of us are born with racist views. We learn them, whether at home, in our social circles or elsewhere in our culture.

As an adolescent growing up in the late 1960’s, I had an early lesson in the perpetuation of racism that made racism much more real to me than the violent images on television coming out of the southern United States.

My older sisters were members of “Up with People”, a movement of young people that promoted racial equality through music.  Our hometown was pretty much white, and when a visiting choir from the States came to perform, some families were reluctant to billet the black teens, which was strangely ironic. My mother was indignant that race was an issue in placing these kids, and volunteered to take two black billets.

That night at the supper table, we talked about prejudice, including the prejudice that existed against Italians, and the derogatory term “wop” that cut deeply, and angered my Italian father and grandfather, who were both Canadian citizens. We did not talk about the prejudice against aboriginal people; while Canadians watched the civil rights movement unfold to the south, the majority of us were oblivious of the destructive systemic racism in our own country.

That conversation left an indelible impression on my developing character and sense of morality. The message that night was clear. People are people. There is no such thing as the “other”; we are sisters and brothers of one human family.

While my parents used the moment of welcoming two billets into our home to instill respect for the “other” in their daughters, I could have learned a very different lesson that night had I been sitting somewhere else, like in a hockey arena, listening to adults around me jeer at a skilled NHL player for being black.

So, just who was Jesus?  He is any person who is marginalized, ridiculed or abused.