Sunday, December 17, 2017

Unitarianism: A Place to Believe, Not Believe and Anything In Between

Have you given up on your religion, but still hunger for a spiritual community?

Are you unsure if there is a God, and wonder where to find people who feel the same way?  

Or maybe you’re an atheist—you don’t believe in God at all. But you still want to be with others to debate and discuss the big issues facing the world today.

If you said yes to any of those scenarios, then Winnipeg’s Unitarian Universalist Church would like to welcome you.

“We’re a place where people are encouraged to believe what they want to believe, or not believe at all,” says Reverend Meaghann Robern, minister at the church.

“There’s a mix of beliefs here—no God, one God, a mix of gods,” she adds, noting that member’s beliefs also change over time.

“You don’t have to believe in the same thing the whole of your life,” she says.

Unitarian Universalism—or UU, as adherents refer to it—is a liberal religious tradition that began in 1961 with the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist churches.

Instead of creeds of doctrines, UUs are united by a shared set of seven principles: A belief in human worth and dignity; a commitment to justice and compassion; the acceptance of others; a free search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience; the promotion of peace and justice; and respect for all existence.

In Manitoba, the UU movement traces its origin back to Christian freethinkers in the late 19th century who wanted a more liberal form of religious expression.

The church itself was founded in 1904. They moved into their current building on Wellington Crescent in 1997.

Canada-wide, there are about 3,800 UUs in 46 congregations. In Winnipeg, about 200 people call the local UU church home.

I met three of them a couple of weeks ago.

Lorie Battershill is a retired teacher who has been attending the church for 3 ½ years.

Unlike churches she attended before, Battershill likes how the UU church allows people to “develop their own theology and beliefs and come to whatever conclusions they want in life.”

She became attracted to UU when traditional Christian views about things like heaven and hell didn’t make sense to her anymore. 

She likes that the church is a “place where you can ask questions” about God, yet still feel welcome and accepted.  

Mya James, a high school student, has been attending the church for much of her life. 

“I like the youth group, I feel connected to them,” she says of her decision to attend the church. “This is the most important group in my life. We’re very close.”

As for her own beliefs, she is still figuring out what they are and who she is. “I think I have time,” she says.

Jim Gardiner works for the city of Winnipeg. He has been a member for 12 years.

“This is a safe place, with healthy relationships where people are accepting of others,” he says.

Gardiner grew up in the United Church, but has no hard feelings about it.

“There are people here who felt pushed away by their churches, but not me,” he says.

What he likes about the church is that it is allows people to believe different things.

“There are four people in my family, and we all think differently spiritually,” he says. 

“The community embraces that, and blesses that. It gives us a gift of being able to explore our spirituality.”

When I ask what they call themselves, Battershill says “Christ-follower.” 

Gardiner feels his belief system is a mix of Christianity, Buddhism and Indigenous spirituality. 

Mya prefers being known simply as a UU.

“People here can have multiple identities,” says Robern, noting that while UU came from Christianity, it’s important for her to also share teachings from other religions.

“We’re a community where we practice what it is to be human, to be better human beings, and to heal the world,” she says.

Or, as Gardiner puts it, “the longer I have been here the more my need to put my finger on what exactly I need to believe has decreased, and the more my need to take care of this world and others has increased.”

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Evangelical: Time to Lose the Label?

For many people today, there is no worse company than Monsanto. In their view, it is the face of corporate evil.

In a 2015 U.S. survey of the most hated businesses, Monsanto ranked fourth from the bottom. People write, blog, do social media and even march against it.

I’m not going to get into a debate about whether Monsanto and its products are as bad as people say. What’s undeniable is the company has an image problem.

And there’s pretty much nothing it can do to change the situation, except maybe one thing: Get rid of the name.

Which is what could happen next year when another major agri-business company, Bayer, will absorb Monsanto.

While they plan to keep its products, word is they plan to eliminate the Monsanto name from the corporate lexicon—in hope of a fresh start.

Something similar is being proposed in the world of religion for another brand in trouble: Evangelicalism.

In an article titled “A Suggestion for Younger Evangelicals: Lose the Label,” Tom Krattenmaker, author of the book The Evangelicals You Don’t Know: Introducing the Next Generation of Christians, writes that the word “evangelical” has to go.  

“I am convinced that ‘evangelical’ no longer means what it once did,” he says.

“And for the Jesus-following religious people it’s supposed to describe, it’s doing more harm than good.”

The original and intended meaning of the word, he notes, is “the good news of the gospel and the life-transforming power of Jesus.”

Created as a counter to the dour fundamentalism of the early 20th century, evangelicalism was a movement of “theological conservatives who smiled, engaged the culture, and were happy to share their faith.”

But all that has changed today.

These days, evangelicals in that country are the scolds, known for their angry criticism of the culture—like getting angry over the lack of a “Merry Christmas” on a Starbucks cup.

But the worst thing is how American evangelicalism has become synonymous with the Republican Party, and for how they supported Donald Trump in the last presidential election.

As a result, Krattenmaker says, for most Americans “the public face of evangelicals has become a snarl, not a smile. And the prospect of interacting with them is the opposite of ‘good news.’”

And that is why he says it’s time to dump the name.

“Given the baggage it’s taken on, the term is probably not salvageable. The effort to redeem it is probably not worth the cost in time and energy.”

Author and evangelical preacher Tony Campolo also feels that way.

According to Campolo, many Americans have come to view evangelicals as "homophobic, anti-feminist, anti-environmentalist, militaristic."

“We're heading in a direction where we can't even use 'evangelical' anymore," he states.

“We need to come up with a new identify, because the identity we have in the general populace, has in fact disintegrated," he states.

But if the word “evangelical” is dropped, what might replace it?

One suggestion is the oldest of all: Christian. 

That's what the 80 year-old Princeton Evangelical Fellowship at Princeton University did. In fall it announced it was changing its name to the Princeton Christian Fellowship.

“We’re interested in being people who are defined by our faith commitments and not by any sort of political agenda,” explains the group’s director, Bill Boyce.

But some, like Ron Sider, President of Evangelicals for Social Action, want to fight to keep the brand alive and vibrant.

“Over time, we can help the larger society come to a better understanding of what an evangelical is,” he says.

Of course, not all evangelicals in America are like those who support Trump and vote Republican. And evangelicals in Canada are very different from their American counterparts.

But many in this country, like in the U.S., don’t distinguish between the two. What tars evangelicals in the U.S. also sticks to them in Canada.

So: Can the name be saved? Maybe, with some deliberate and focused effort. Or perhaps, like with Monsanto, the hill is just too steep to climb and the name has to go.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Conservative Christians, Atheists and Fear of Death

“Why are evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics over-represented among those who experience higher levels of guilt, regret and uncertainty in the face of impending death?”

That’s a question a friend who works as a spiritual health care provider asked recently.

His question was prompted by being at the deathbeds of some very religious people who were deeply afraid of what would happen after they died.

He mentioned an older woman who had lived a full, productive and largely joyful Christian life.

“She was a very good person to whom God was mightily important,” he said. Yet, as death approached, she was worried that she wasn’t good enough to be accepted into heaven.

Or, as my friend put it, “the ‘blessed assurance’ of which she'd sung so confidently for decades had evaporated into question marks.”

Another devout Christian, who had also lived a full life of service for others, also worried about his worthiness as his life neared its end—he worried about the things in the Bible he had failed to do.

My friend wondered: Why was he now worried mostly about the things he should have done instead of being content with the many good things he had accomplished?

My friend realized not every devout believer felt that way. “Yet it seems to be generally true that the most devout of conservative Christians have a tougher time . . . at the end of life,” he said.

“They respond with guilt and self-loathing to a greater extent than those of more liberal practice, or, indeed, those with no declared religious affiliation.”

His comments made me curious. Was it true?

Eighteen percent of the studies indeed did find that some religious people struggle with death.

According to one of those studies, these tend to be people who have been taught to believe in a demanding and vindictive God, and who may have received a lifelong dose of sermons about the Hellfire and punishment awaiting those who don’t measure up.

Some of the studies accounted for this by distinguishing between what they called intrinsic religiosity—where belief motivates behaviour—and extrinsic religiosity—where behavior bolsters beliefs.

Those who had intrinsic faith tended to be more at peace about dying, compared to extrinsic believers who worried they weren’t doing enough to please God.

The review also found another group of people who approach death with a sense of peace: Atheists.

This isn’t surprising; if you don’t believe in an afterlife, whether that’s a belief in a heaven or in Hell, then there’s nothing to worry about either way.

As Hemant Mehta, host of the podcast The Friendly Atheist put it:

“It actually makes a lot of sense. When you realize death is just a natural part of life, and you’re confident about what will happen after you die, and you’re focused on making the most of the life you have, it’s not surprising that atheists don’t fear death.”

But back to my friend; what does he think about those people who were very religious, yet fearful of death?

For him, “guilt is the common denominator. And fear.”

This may be because their “spiritual formation likely included more of an emphasis on Hell than in many other traditions, and a sense that ‘I have to get it right’ in order to avoid damnation and experience paradise.”

For him, legalism and moralism “produce unhealthy guilt, leaving many dying people to wonder if they actually got it right. They seem to be projecting onto God the rigidity of their practice.”

When that happens, it’s hard for people “to truly relax in the arms of grace when you've spent much of your religious life emphasizing holy living.”

At the bedsides of people who feel this way, his goal is to “remind them that the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever . . . I suggest that God honours the direction of their heart's desire, and that a desire to please God matters more than the finer points of their doctrine. God can be trusted.”

From the Nov. 18 Winnipeg Free Press.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Mennonite Central Committee's Cry for Home Campaign: Some Jewish Views

At least nobody threatened to beat me up.

That’s what happened the last time  I wrote about the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.
The man who left the threatening message on my phone was angry because he felt I was attacking Israel.

I assume he was a Christian, since he also “cursed me in the name of Jesus.”

Over the years, I’ve learned that no issue I write about riles people up more than Israel-Palestine. I can count on getting angry e-mails each time I do it.

After writing last month about Mennonite Central Committee’s new Cry for Home campaign, however, the responses were reasonable and reasoned—although one person questioned my faith and another accused me of inciting “Jew hatred.”

At the end of that column, I indicated I was interested in sharing perspectives from members of the local Jewish community. I got a number of responses, on both sides of the issue.

“For decades, polls show most Israelis seek peace and are willing to make major compromises to achieve it,” wrote Adam Levene on behalf of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg.

But “tragically, the Palestinian leadership walked away from these offers without even putting forward a counter-proposal.”

Also disturbing for him is that Hamas “rejects all peace efforts and Israel’s very existence.” This, he said, “destroys hopes for a positive Palestinian future.”

The Federation, he added, shares MCC’s hope for “a peace in which Israeli and Palestinian children alike will only know security, mutual acceptance, and reconciliation.”

But this would require “acknowledging the real barrier to peace posed by the Palestinian leadership.”

Belle Jarniewski, Chair of the Freeman Foundation Holocaust Education Centre, said she opposes “the occupation, as do many Israelis,” but finds MCC’s campaign “frustrating” since it is “singling out Israel again.”

She agrees there are many injustices, but said not all “are Israel’s fault.”

A large segment of Israel’s population would “happily get out of the territories tomorrow if a safe and peaceful agreement were possible,” she added, but “for that to happen, Israel needs a partner in peace.”

Israelis “remember what happened with the unilateral pullout from Gaza, which led to missile attacks and incursions that no one wanted.”

What Alan Green, Senior Rabbi at Shaarey Zedek, finds difficult about the MCC campaign is that it “misapprehends the true intent of the Palestinian leadership, which is to destroy the state of Israel.”

Green also believes “the vast majority of Israelis” would be happy with a true two state Solution, “where Palestinians and Israelis both respect the right of the other to a land and home of their own.”

But this, he said, “is not, nor has it ever been, the Palestinian program.”

Sidney Halpern noted that Israel has no recourse but to defend itself when attacked.

“If Israel would put down its arms there would be no Israel,” he said. “If Palestinians would put down their arms, there would be a Palestinian state.”

Other members of the Jewish community indicated their support for MCC’s campaign.

Rubin Kantorovich, a son of a holocaust survivor who describes himself as neither a Zionist or religious, sees the campaign as “positive.”

“The rights of the Palestinian people are being trampled upon by the Israeli state and its backers,” he wrote. “This state of affairs must change and I support the MCC for their stand which all people should support.”

Mark Golden said he opposes the “ongoing Israeli campaign against Palestinian human rights.”

He feels this way, he said, “because I am a Jew,” and because he feels the “need to prevent and end the prejudice and suffering which characterizes so much of Jewish history everywhere . . . only in this way can Jews too be safe and secure.”

Harold Shuster is the Manitoba representative to the national Steering Committee of Independent Jewish Voices. He said he “applaud[s] the courageous stance” taken by groups like MCC in calling for “justice and peace in the Middle East.”

My conclusion? There are valid points to be made on both sides. But what might be more important than making one point or another would be for people with differing perspectives to meet and talk about this issue

Conversations like that won’t bring peace to the Middle East, but maybe they could create a little bit of peace and understanding right here in Winnipeg.

From the Nov. 10 Winnipeg Free Press.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Death of a Friend Prompts a Question: How Do We Make Sense of Huntingdon's Disease?

Huntingdon’s is a cruel disease.

The progressive brain disorder, which has no cure, usually appears when people are in their 30s and 40s.

Early symptoms can include poor decision-making, change in personality, irritability, and anger. It ends with loss of mobility and cognition, then death.  

Why am I writing about this? 

Because three weeks ago I attended the funeral of my old high school and university friend Jeff Fast (pictured top, in the late 1970s), who died October 9 from the disease.

At over six feet tall and close to 200 pounds, as a young man Jeff was a boisterous, friendly and easy-going person.

After graduation from university in the early 1980s, he married Janice and became a teacher in Ontario. His first eight years were great—he was remembered warmly as a colleague and good educator.

But things began to change in the 1990s.

Nobody knew it, but Jeff had Huntingdon’s. It caused his personality to change. He had run-ins with the school administration. He grew short-tempered with students.

Soon, he lost his job. In 2001, he was asked to leave the home.

Then, in 2002, he got the diagnosis. The discovery came after his mother was found to have Huntingdon’s.

While glad to know what was causing his problems, it was still “a terrible thing for all of us,” Janice says from her home in Ontario.

“He had lost everything. And we had all lost so much, too.”

The years following the diagnosis were a pivotal time for her.

“My heart changed,” she says. “While those difficult years before the diagnosis could never be undone, God gave me a strong sense of what I was supposed to do—to care for him.”

As Jeff became progressively weaker and more confused, losing speech and the ability to walk, she visited him regularly in the hospital, taking care of his various needs.

She did it for him, but also for her children. The terrible thing about Huntingdon’s is that if one of your parents has it, there’s a 50 percent chance you will, too.

“I wanted them to know that, no matter what, they won’t be abandoned if they develop it.”

The night before he died, the family was with Jeff, telling him they loved him, that it wasn’t his fault.

Together, they remembered who he was before the disease stole him away.

Thinking about Jeff, it’s hard not to wonder how such a terrible disease could exist. Why would a loving God permit Huntingdon’s?

That question was also on the mind of Arthur Boers, an Anglican priest and long-time friend of Jeff’s who preached at his funeral.

“How do we make sense of a man dying at age 60, after enduring the wasting disease that also afflicted his mother?” he asked.

“How do we make sense of Janice being a young widow and young adult children losing their father? How do we make sense of things that went wrong in Jeff’s life, pains and sorrows, when he was so gifted and passionate and exuberant and larger-than-life?”

Our only response, he said, is not to try to figure it out, but to give testimony “to what we know and experience of God” through suffering.

This testimony does not explain suffering, he said, and “certainly does not solve the problem of suffering.”

But it does “hearten us, sustain us, help us carry on and move forward, testifying to who God is for us, to how we experience God’s accompaniment, and, yes, also to how we at times feel let down by God.”

As for Janice, she has no grand theological understandings about what happened. All she knows is that she needed to “lean on God again and again” to make it through each day.

“I don’t know why this came into our family, and I don’t spend time asking why,” she says. “In a way, it doesn’t matter. There is no clear answer.”

But the experience taught her that “no matter how big the challenge is, I don’t have to do it by myself. People from our church helped out in so many ways. I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Huntingdon’s, she says, “took so much away from Jeff, and from us as a family. But I no longer debate with God about it. I just lean on him for support.”

From the November 4, 2017 Winnipeg Free Press

Saturday, October 28, 2017

In Palestine, "Everyone Needs a Home" says Mennonite Central Committee

“Everyone needs a home—where families are safe and secure, where their basic needs are met, where they can come and go freely, and where they can imagine a future.”

That’s the way a new campaign from Mennonite Central Committee on Palestine and Israel begins.

“But that is not the reality for Palestinians,” it goes on to say.

Living “under Israeli occupation, Palestinians regularly experience demolition of their homes, confiscation of their land, restrictions to their movement because of checkpoints, walls, and permit systems,” MCC states.

Thinking about MCC’s new campaign, some may wonder: With all the huge needs in the world today, why focus on this issue?

On the MCC Ottawa Office blog, Esther Epp-Tiessen, the agency’s public engagement coordinator, offered the following reasons.

We are responding because of the urgent plea of our partners,” she wrote, “especially Palestinian Christian partners.”

These partners, she added, have for years been urging MCC to take “a bolder stance in calling for an end to occupation, oppression and injustice.”

Another reason is “because of the increasingly desperate situation of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.”

According to Epp-Tiessen, “the theft of land and the building of illegal settlements for Israeli Jews in the occupied West Bank continues apace,” and the “demolition of Palestinian homes, schools and orchards goes on with impunity.”

Palestinians who resist “are increasingly bullied, silenced, imprisoned.”

They are also launching the campaign “because we care also about Israeli Jews,” who are also “harmed by the words, walls, and weapons that divide them from Palestinians.

MCC’s 68-year history in the region is also important, she said. 

“Our history and continuous presence . . . has given us insights into the ongoing conflict, as well as a special burden to help in supporting a resolution to the conflict.”

Another reason is “because of our faith.”

“Our commitment to Jesus compels us to stand with the oppressed, lovingly speak truth to power, and actively seek a just peace in the land where Jesus walked,” she shared.

Through the campaign, MCC is asking people to sign a petition that urges the Canadian government to “prioritize the human rights of Palestinian children and hold Israeli authorities accountable for widespread and systematic ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian child detainees.”

MCC’s campaign does not ask Canadians to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, which calls for boycotts of products made in Israel; for organizations to pull investments out of Israeli companies; and for government sanctions against Israel.

After reading Epp-Tiessen’s post, I called Rick Cober Baumann, MCC Canada’s new Executive Director. I had a different question for him.

Considering recent flare-ups of anti-Semitism in the U.S., and even here in Winnipeg, was he worried that the campaign might add to the anxiety of Canadian Jews?

He acknowledges this is a concern. “We want to make it absolutely clear that we don’t want to promote antagonism against Jews, in Canada or Israel,” he says.

That’s why the campaign affirms the fears of Israelis, who also “live with ongoing fear and trauma . . . they too long for safety and security.”

MCC “clearly recognizes the insecurity and lack of safety felt by Israelis,” he says, noting that in the past MCC had not fully taken this into account.

“This time we are making more of an intentional effort.”

MCC also wants to be “more responsive to the Jewish community,” in Canada, he says. This includes looking for ways to dialogue with Canadian Jews about this issue. They also want to dialogue with members of that community who also want to find a “non-violent and just peace in Palestine.”

Thinking about the campaign, Cober-Baumann recognizes that “not everyone will be happy” with it. Yet he still believes it’s important.

“Our advocacy effort is based on our experience,” he said. “It shows us there is an occupation, and that a deep price is being paid for that occupation by the Palestinians. It grows out of the reality on the ground.”

Through a Cry for Home, he hopes that MCC’s supporters, and other Canadians, will come “to a deeper understanding of the situation.”

What do Winnipeg Jews think about MCC’s campaign? That will be the subject of a future column.

From the Oct. 28 Winnipeg Free Press.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Religious Roots of the American Flag Flap

Americans are debating whether it is disrespectful for professional football players to kneel during the national anthem before games.

While many points of view have been proffered, one thing that hasn’t been mentioned very much is the religious angle behind the flag flap.

This includes one of the football players behind the controversy: San Francisco 49ers strong safety Eric Reid.

It was Reid who started the whole kneeling thing, together with former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

“My faith moved me to take action,” he wrote last month about his decision in the New York Times.

Citing James 2:17, which states that faith without works is dead, he said he knew he needed to do “what is right” about the deaths of so many black men in the U.S.

Kaepernick himself has been open about his Christian faith.

He has been quoted as saying “my faith is the basis from where my game comes from . . . I think God guides me through every day and helps me take the right steps and has helped me to get to where I’m at.”

But before Reid and Kaepernick kicked off the national controversy, two small American Mennonite schools took their own anthem actions.

In 2011, Goshen College, a small liberal arts Mennonite school in Indiana, decided not to play the anthem before sporting events on campus.

Citing their traditional Mennonite pacifist convictions, the school at first decided to just play an instrumental version of the anthem—no more mentions of warlike rockets and their red glare.

But later they decided to drop the anthem altogether, replacing it with America the Beautiful, followed by a prayer.

For Goshen alumnus Mark Schloneger, the decision was the right one.

Mennonites, he wrote on the CNN website, “recognize only one Christian nation, the church, the holy nation that is bound together by a living faith in Jesus rather than by man-made, blood-soaked borders.”

“Following Jesus and the martyrs before us, we testify with our lives that freedom is not a right that is granted or defended with rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air . . . I love my country, but I sing my loyalty and pledge my allegiance to Jesus alone.”

Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia also doesn’t play the anthem before sports events, or fly the U.S. flag on campus.

On its website, the university states that the practice is “rooted in deeply-held historical beliefs that God is ruler of all nations, not just ours, and that our allegiance to God as such transcends all nationalities, even our own.”

But all of this anthem protest was made possible long before Mennonites and football players, thanks to another religious group—the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

For members of that church, standing for the U.S. anthem—or any country’s, including Canada—or saluting a flag, is against their beliefs. It is seen as compromising their primary loyalty to God.

The court ruled it was unconstitutional for a local school board in West Virginia to expel Jehovah’s Witnesses children from school because they wouldn’t stand for the anthem or pledge allegiance to the flag.

In making the ruling, the court stated that “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Mennonites and Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t the only groups who have concerns about anthems and flags. The Amish and Quakers also feel that way.

For Canadians, this seems a bit strange—we respect our flag and anthem, but most don’t revere them the way many Americans do theirs.

But the point being made by people acting out of their faith in the U.S. is still worth considering: No matter what religion you belong to, where is your ultimate allegiance?

At the end of the day, that may be one of the more important questions being raised by America’s flag flap.

From the Oct. 21 Winnipeg Free Press.