Sunday, September 24, 2017

Can Robots Love God and be Saved? Questions about Artificial Intelligence and Religion

Truck drivers, accountants, barbers, taxi drivers, roofers, bricklayers, umpires, journalists, even surgeons—these are all occupations threatened by the rise of robots and artificial intelligence.

Fortunately for clergy, all of the websites that calculate the risk of losing your job to a robot show that priests and ministers are safe, with some putting the risk at zero and others at less than one percent.  

Unless you live in Japan, that is. A company in that country has unveiled a robot that chants traditional Buddhist funeral prayers.

Some may say that nothing beats a human priest at the end of a life, but you can’t beat the price: A live chanter charges 240,000 yen, but the robot only costs 50,000 yen.

That may sound strange to some, but what if you could ask Siri on your iPhone to pray for you? Would God hear it? Does God hear prayers spoken by any intelligent being, robot or phone, or just prayers uttered by humans?

These are the kinds of questions being asked these days by people interested in the intersection of artificial intelligence (AI) and religion.

One of those exploring this subject is Jonathan Merritt. Earlier this year he wrote an article in Atlantic titled “Is AI a Threat to Christianity?” In it he suggested that the rise of AI raises some “fundamental questions” for adherents of that religion.

One of those questions is what happens if robots develop the ability to make ethical decisions—something that only humans are—currently—able to do.

He notes that we already have driverless cars that make decisions based on traffic around them: slow down, move left, stop. But what if those cars could also make moral decisions?

This is something Google is working on. In the future, cars may be able to decide what to do if a child runs in front of a driverless car with four passengers. Should it swerve and risk the lives of those in the vehicle or hit the child—one life instead of four?

And what if the robots become fully sentient, rational agents—beings with emotions, consciousness, and self-awareness?

Merritt quotes Kevin Kelly, author of The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, who says that then there will be “a spiritual dimension to what we’re making.”

“If you create other things that think for themselves, a serious theological disruption will occur,” says Kelly, an active Christian.

“If humans were to create free-willed beings, absolutely every single aspect of traditional theology would be challenged and have to be reinterpreted in some capacity.”

Would this include the Christian idea of salvation? If artificially intelligent machines can think and make decisions, could they also establish a relationship with God?

Christopher Benek, a Presbyterian pastor in Fort Lauderdale, Florida who describes himself as a “techno-theologian,” thinks they could.

“I don’t see Christ’s redemption limited to human beings,” said Benek in an interview in Gizmodo.

“It’s redemption of all of creation, even AI. If AI is autonomous, then we should encourage it to participate in Christ’s redemptive purposes in the world.”

Christians aren’t the only ones asking these questions. So are some Jews.

In an article titled Are you ready for robot prayer quorums?” Adam Soclof asks if a self-aware robot that could hold a conversation, would it qualify to be counted for a minyan, a quorum of ten men (in some synagogues, also women) required for traditional Jewish public worship?

He quotes Rabbi Mark Goldfeder, a fellow at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion, who thinks they could.

“When something looks human, and acts human, to the point that I think it might be human, then halachah [the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the written and oral Torah] might consider the threshold to have been crossed.”

Goldfelder doesn’t think we are anywhere near that point now. But it’s coming. “I do think that Jewish thinkers should start tossing around the questions, because we’re probably 30, not 100, years away.”

Kelly feels the same way. What would happen if a free-willed, thinking AI machine says: “I want to believe in God”?

At that point, he states, “we should have a response.”

Sunday, September 10, 2017

White, Straight, Male Christians (Like Me) Need to Stand Up Against Hate

Organizer Shahina Siddiqui at the Winnipeg Rally Against Hate.

As a white, straight, Christian male, I have never experienced persecution, discrimination or exclusion because of my race, sexuality, beliefs or gender.

I don’t know what it is like to feel overlooked or underpaid, or worry about sexual harassment, like many women do.

I don’t worry about how I might be viewed or treated for what I wear or believe, or be lumped in with those who commit acts of terrorism because they claim to be part of the same faith.  

I don’t fear violence or discrimination because of who I choose to love and marry, like my LGBTQ friends.

And I don’t have to worry about whether or not my religion is acceptable. Canadian society is set up to accommodate my beliefs, even giving me Christmas and Good Friday off.

You could say that I am a lucky man, born into the right place, person and privileges.

So when something like Charlottesville happens, and the copy-cat anti-immigration rallies here in Canada, they alarm and concern me. But they don’t affect me personally.

I am not the target of their discrimination and hate.

If I want to know what it feels like to be fearful for my safety, or that of my family, I need to ask those they are rallying or marching against.  

And so I reached out to a couple of Jewish friends.

While Islamophobia is a constant and pressing concern, and should never be taken lightly, the chants of marchers in Charlottesville—“Jews will not replace us” and the Nazi-inspired “blood and soil”—still echo in my mind.

How do my friends feel about the current situation? And do they feel safe in Winnipeg? I asked  Rabbi Alan Green of Shaarey Zedek and Belle Jarniewski, President of the Manitoba Multifaith Council.

“For the last 20 years or so, Winnipeg has been a model of peaceful co-existence,” says Green of how different faith and ethnic groups have got along.

“In that context, I don't think there is anywhere on earth safer to be Jewish than Winnipeg, and I think most Winnipeg Jews would agree with me.”

That said, the anti-Semitic graffiti and alt-right marches “certainly are a concern,” he says.

But, he adds, “if enough people demonstrate visible opposition to what for now is a fringe phenomenon, I believe the white supremacists can be stopped dead in their tracks.”

Green especially welcomes statements from non-Jewish groups that condemn anti-Semitism—like the one issued by the Anglican Diocese of Rupert’s Land and the Manitoba and Northwestern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church following the events in Charlottesville. But he wonders why more local faith groups haven’t done the same.

“There is a fearful part of me that interprets the silence of so many others as the same indifference that made the acceptance of Nazism by millions of people possible in the 1930s,” he says.

For Jarniewski, what she’s seeing around her now is also “a repetition of history.”

In the 1930s, she says, “Hitler was spouting that kind of thing. Nobody believed him, or took it seriously, nobody thought he would follow through. Similarly, with Trump when he was running for office, nobody thought he would really believe follow through on all things saying. But he really is.”

She has learned “that when someone says hateful things, we better believe it. History has shown us it is true.”

She notes that the local Jewish community is always on guard, especially for the high holidays. That’s when her synagogue hires off-duty police officers are hired to provide security.

As for life as a Jew in Winnipeg, she personally isn’t frightened.

“But there are worrisome signs, like anti-Semitic graffiti, and when an Eritrean family is threatened by a neighbor,” she says.

“What is good to know is that the majority of Winnipeggers oppose this kind of hate.”

Winnipeggers who are concerned about the rising levels of hate and animosity towards Muslims, Jews and others were able to show their support for an open, welcoming and caring community on September 9 at the Winnipeg Diversity Rally Against Hate.

Everyone was welcome at the rally, including white, straight, Christians like me.

Maybe especially Christians like me.

From the Sept. 9 Winnipeg Free Press.

Monday, September 4, 2017

35th Anniversary of If You Love This Planet

Al Gore’s new climate change documentary, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, opened this summer.

The documentary, a follow-up to his 2006 effort titled An Inconvenient Truth, updates and details the danger facing the planet today from rising seas, warming temperatures and extreme weather.

Yet despite the urgency Gore expresses in both documentaries, he doesn’t seem to be sparking much in the way of mass public concern or outcry.

That wasn’t the case 35 years ago, when another documentary about the threat of global extinction was released.

Called If You Love This Planet and produced by Canada’s National Film Board, the 26-minute documentary featured Australian pediatrician and anti-war activist Dr. Helen Caldicott giving a lecture to university students about the dangers of nuclear war.

Appearing as it did during a height of cold war tension, Caldicott’s plain and passionate presentation caught the attention of a public genuinely fearful for the future of the planet.

“We are all children of the atomic age,” she stated in the documentary, which was interspersed with footage of atomic explosions and gruesome images of the burns and other injuries suffered by victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Nuclear war, she stated, would be an “extermination.” People would be killed by the explosion, and also by buildings collapsing on them, burns, suffocation and by flying glass and debris.

Survivors of the blasts would have to deal with disease, plagues and epidemics, along with lack of food and clean water.

A month after the explosions, she said, 90 percent of Americans, Canadians, Europeans and Russians would be dead.

The expressions on the faces of students in her audience said it all: Shock, worry, sadness, concern.

If You Love This Planet got an unexpected boost from the U.S. Department of Justice, which declared it "foreign political propaganda" and suppressed it in that country.

In 1983, when it won an Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject, producer Terre Nash thanked the Reagan administration for the publicity generated by efforts to ban the film.

Here in Canada, the CBC initially decided against showing the documentary, claiming it lacked balance. But it broadcast it after it won the Oscar.

If You Love This Planet had a huge effect on the peace movement in North America and Europe—and in Winnipeg. As many as 20,000 people participated in peace marches in the city in the early 1980s.

It also helped create and galvanize action by religious groups as people of faith came together to call for an end to nuclear proliferation.

Caldicott herself was invited to speak to the sixth assembly of the World Council of Churches assembly in Vancouver in 1983. “Nuclear war is the single most urgent problem facing the human family today,” she told the assembly.

The documentary led to the creation in 1984 of Project Peacemakers, the well-known inter-church Winnipeg peace organization.

Project Peacemakers closed in 2016, but for 32 years it was a key voice for peace and justice in the city.

Today the threat of nuclear war is on the back burner, despite recent sabre rattling between Donald Trump and North Korea. Now it’s climate change that is seen as the major threat.

But unlike with Caldicott 35 years ago, the issue doesn’t seem to be generating the same mass public response.

And why is that? One reason is that climate change, unlike nuclear war in the 1980s, doesn’t seem like an imminent danger.

Back then, we really did worry that the world could end soon. Today, however, climate change is seen by many as a problem in the future, perhaps many decades or even further away.

Looking back, it’s hard to say whether all those marches, protests and letters to politicians made any real difference. But it certainly made those of us who did the marching and protesting and writing feel better; we were doing something.

And for that, we have Helen Caldicott to thank. Through her passion for nuclear disarmament, she convinced many millions of us that “if you love this planet . . . you will realize that you are going to have to change the priorities of your life.”

From the Sept. 2 Winnipeg Free Press. If You Love This Planet can be viewed on YouTube.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Panhandling: To Give or Not To Give?

In late August Winnipeg Free Press editor Carl DeGurse wrote about the growing phenomenon of traffic light panhandling in Winnipeg. It reminded me of a column I wrote a number of years ago about my own experiences—and challenges—with beggars.

Anyone who works downtown in Winnipeg, or likely any major North American city, encounters panhandlers every day.

I’ve been asked for money so many times over the years I’ve become inured to the requests.

On a typical summer's day, I can be asked for money three of four times during a several-block walk.

I rarely, if ever, give them spare change. I comfort my conscience by reminding myself that I donate regularly to Siloam Mission, which offers meals, beds and other services to those who are down and out.

I’m sure there are some genuinely needy people out there. But being constantly asked for money has a deadening effect on the heart and spirit.

It’s just so much easier to look away or shake your head and say no.

British journalist Tony Parsons felt the same way. Writing in Arena Magazine way back in 1991 about the many beggars he saw panhandling every day, he wrote that begging “degrades the spirit. It dehumanizes you as well as them; it brutalizes us all.

“You learn to walk past these people, you have to, and it makes it easier to turn away from the truly needy . . . [they] harden your heart, put calluses on your soul. They make every cry for help seem like junk mail.”

I can empathize, even if guiltily so.

For people of faith, like me, a panhandler poses a unique problem.

All religions encourage their adherents to be charitable and to give to those in need. But they also teach the value of work and personal responsibility. What to do?

Perhaps we should give to everyone in need, and let God worry about how it is used. It’s not our money, after all—all of our resources belong to God.

But surely God also wants us to give wisely. Giving it to someone who may use it to feed a destructive addiction would not be a good investment.

Or maybe we can see panhandling as the 21st century equivalent of the Old Testament practice of gleaning.

Since not many of us are farmers today, perhaps the change in our pockets can be compared to those sheaves of old that were to be left for the poor.

It’s not only individuals that struggle with the question of whether to give to beggars; churches do, too.

Clergy receive many calls from individuals with the most incredible stories of hardship and need. They sometimes respond, usually after checking the veracity of the story.

Other times, they know they are being scammed because other clergy have tipped them off.

In some parts of Winnipeg, churches share the names of people who go church to church, exhausting the goodwill of congregations, in order to prevent them from taking advantage of other groups.

Former pastor Harry Lehotsky was well-known for his tireless efforts to help Winnipeg's poor. But even he admitted to being worn out by the constant requests for money.

Said Lehotsky: “I’ve heard countless stories and requests for cash over the years. Some requests are sufficiently creative to be turned into screenplays. After the first few minutes, however, it becomes evident that the engaging pitch is purely the creation of a desperate imagination or a powerful addiction.”

For Lehotsky, “the most difficult requests are when you don't know if the person is asking from need or sloth, from addiction or hunger, for their family or their dealer. I can usually offer an educated and experienced guess as to the legitimacy of a request. In the end, I have to balance the limits of my own resources with the trust I have in the request and the relationship I have—or can have—with the person who's asking.”

Of course, people who panhandle do so for a variety of reasons. Not all of them are asking for money to feed their addictions. But whether or not people should give to panhandlers is an eternal question that has no easy answers.

Lehotsky may offer the best advice. Over time, he became “more careful giving money to the people who are hurting themselves with my generosity. That way I'll have some left to help those who are helping themselves—with just a little assistance from a stranger.” 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

On (Wedding) Photography: A Clergy View

My parents at their wedding in 1952; one of only two
photos from inside the church itself.

Earlier this summer, a wedding photographer posted a complaint on Facebook about a church where he photographed a wedding.

The minister, he wrote, “tells me I'm not allowed to move around even though I assured him I'm discreet, unobtrusive and understand the ‘sacredness’ of the liturgy.”

At “secular” weddings, he went on to say, the officiants “usually come greet me and assure me I'm free to roam around and ‘will get out of your way during the kiss so you can get the couple nice shots.”

Ministers “need to be educated on the role of art & media in communicating the ‘sacred,’” he added.

As someone who has done some wedding photography, I was interested in his thoughts. But I also wondered: What would my clergy friends think?

But first, a bit of history. Wedding photography dates back to the 19th century. But due to the bulky nature of cameras, couples had to go to studios for posed pictures.

Fast forward to the 1940s and 50s, when cameras became more portable. Wedding photography became was more common, but it was still mostly posed shots.  

My own parent’s wedding from 1952 is a good example. There are many posed shots, but only two images from the wedding: One of the bride and her father coming in, the other of the couple coming out, both taken from the balcony. There are none from the ceremony itself.  

By the 1960s and 70s, that had changed. Wedding photography became wedding photojournalism, recording the whole event for posterity. And that is where we are today.

So what do clergy think of the state of wedding photography? “Individual rabbis may have differing levels of tolerance for photographers at the wedding ceremony, most likely depending on their past experiences of interference or distraction,” says Alan Green, senior Rabbi at Shaarey Zedek.  

I know of no formal prohibition of photography at Jewish weddings,” he adds.

For Green, there is “no conflict between the holiness of the occasion and capturing it on camera. In fact, I think digitally preserving those very special moments only emphasizes their sacred character, as they may then be re-encountered and relived for many years (and generations) into the future.”

James Toews, pastor at Neighbourhood Community Church in Nanaimo, B.C., feels a bit differently. He is, he says, “always polite to photographers, but my inner voice thinks of them like flies that buzz around,” he says half-jokingly.

“Making a big fuss about them makes things worse, but they can be annoying.”

For Marvin Dyck, pastor at Crossroads Mennonite Brethren Church in Winnipeg, wedding photographers “are doing it right” when he doesn’t notice them.

Dyck tells photographers to “please be discreet. This is a worship service. Try to stay out of the sight lines between the congregation and the couple.”

If the photographer forgets, “I deal with it the same way that I deal with all the other unforeseen glitches in a wedding ceremony. Namely, they become part of the memory about which we smile afterward.”

When Jeff Loach, pastor at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Nobleton, Ont., started in ministry 25 years ago, he had very tight rules about where and when photos could be taken.

He has “loosened up a bit today," he says. "No flash between the end of the processional and the beginning of the recessional, videography must be stationary and not in sight of the congregation as it looks forward.”

For him, the photographer must not take the focus off of God. “Do what you want without flash, and remain invisible.”

“I am forever trying to remind people that this is a service of worship first and foremost,” he adds, noting that the focus "is not on the bride and groom, but on the Lord who is uniting them.”

If the professional photographer is “truly professional, it’s not distracting,” he says, adding that in 99% of the weddings he’s done he hasn’t had any problems.

As a former wedding photographer, I understand how important it is to respect the sacredness of the moment. But I also knew how important it was to the couple. 

In the end, it’s all a matter of mutual respect, between both clergy and photographers.

From the Aug. 26, 2017 Winnipeg Free Press. The title is a play on the title of Susan Sontag's seminal book on the topic, On Photography.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Anglican or Alien? Priests Ponder Wearing of Vestments

As someone who didn’t grow up in the Anglican Church, I can’t tell an alb from a surplice from a chasuble from a stole.

After attending an Anglican church for a few years now, I am more familiar with those clerical vestments. But I still couldn’t pass a test on what each one was—or what they represent.

For people like me in England, it soon may not matter.

The Anglican Church in that country recently decided to let priests wear “lay garments”—normal clothes—rather than traditional vestments while conducting services.

One reason given for the change is how British society as a whole is more casual in its dress.

But another reason was because of how non-churchgoers—young people in particular—might be put off by the ornate robes; seeing people wearing them may make them look alien and disconnected from modern day life.

Whether or not that’s true, there’s no doubt that most Canadians today wouldn’t be familiar with Anglican clergy vestments.

Vestments have their origin in the ordinary street clothes from Roman times. In the Anglican Church, they are worn by bishops, priests, lay readers and others involved in the worship services.

While they make the wearers stand out to people unfamiliar with vestments, their role is actually to obscure them—to put the focus on the ministry they are providing, and on to Christ.

How do Anglican clergy in Canada feel about vestments? I posed that question to a few of them.

“I’m not aware of any national directives of what [clergy] should wear or not wear,” says Donald Phillips, the Bishop of Rupert’s Land.

“There is no written code in the diocese. It is assumed that priests know what to wear [the standard priestly wear],” although “nobody says they have to wear it. But it’s understood.”

For Phillips, vestments provide an appropriate sense of “mystique or solemnity,” although he acknowledges there might be “some wisdom” in what is happening in England.

“People have drifted away from church,” he says, adding that churches need to be more welcoming of newcomers. “But I’m not sure dispensing with the vestments will change that.”

Paul Johnson, Rector and Dean at St. John’s Cathedral—the mother church for the diocese—prefers to always wear them: the alb, stole, cassock, surplice and chasuble.

“I like to wear vestments for the symbolism,” he says. “It’s a visible reminder of what we believe, similar to the stained glass windows.”

He does dispense with the chasuble, a heavy poncho-like garment, in July and August, however. “It’s just too hot, and the cathedral isn’t air conditioned,” he says.

For him, staying with the traditional “is a good place for me, and it’s what the congregation expects.”

Jamie Howison is the priest at St. Benedict’s Table. St. Ben’s, as it is known, offers a looser and less formal style of Anglican worship. What’s his take on vestments?

“Not only would I go without vestments, I do soon a semi-regular basis,” he says of what he wears for presiding over communion at house services, family camps, retreats or for the church’s child friendly service.

For him, it’s “all about context.” Vestments in a house communion or at camp “simply feel overdone and really rather overly-earnest,” he says. But for the regular Sunday evening worship service, “they fit.”

For him, an apt analogy is mealtime. Some days “it’s grilled cheese sandwiches and soup at the kitchen table, and some days it is a more formal celebratory meal,” he says.

For the former, “paper napkins and ragged placemats are fine, but for the latter you set the dining room table with linens and use your best serving dishes, and you quite probably dress differently as well.”

At a practical (and tongue-in-cheek) level, vestments means he “never has to think about what I will wear to church”—unlike ministers in other traditions, who have to worry about their clothing choice each Sunday.

On a more serious note, “every time I put that stole across my shoulders I am aware that it symbolizes the ‘yoke’ of my work and vocation,” he says. 

“What a privilege, and what a marvelous burden.”

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Of Israel, Palestine and Threats of Physical Harm

Over my 14 years of writing a faith page column for the Winnipeg Free Press, I have received a number of responses criticizing the things I have written.

Ninety-nine percent are respectful, decent, and thoughtful. I always reply, addressing the issue at hand and thanking writers for taking the time to reach out—and encouraging them to submit their thoughts to the letters to the editor. (Few do.)

There’s almost no way of telling what will spark someone to write. Sometimes you think a controversial column will generate responses, but nothing comes.

Other times, you think nobody will care and the e-mails pour in.

But there is always one issue that I know will generate reaction: Israel-Palestine.

No matter how balanced or neutral I try to be, I know I will hear from people who condemn me for not being 100 percent unequivocal in support of Israel.

Who are these people? A few Jews, but almost always people who identify as Christians.

Most of them are reasonable, using the Bible to show me the error of my ways.

But others want to let me know how bad a Christian I am for even suggesting the Palestinians just might have some good points to make about their experience. For them, that is clear evidence of my anti-Israel bias.

I reply, as always, thanking them for their responses. And then I forget about it.

But not this time. For the first time in my column writing career, I have been threatened with violence.

In the column, I wondered whether sacred places like these were really worth fighting and dying over.

I thought it was a neutral kind of piece, criticizing both Israelis and Palestinians for using geography against one another.

A few people wrote in reply, two Jews and a Christian Zionist. The comments were respectful, suggesting I could have done more to promote the Israeli point of view.

But one person was different. He called and left two messages on my phone. I was out of town, so didn’t get them until many days later.

In the first rambling message, he began by casting doubts on my faith and intelligence for not taking the Israeli side.

He went on to describe the Palestinians as a "deadly, ugly people."

He then “cursed" me "in Jesus name” for not supporting Israel.

Not a big deal, I thought; I've been told before I will burn in Hell for my opinions. But this was the first time I was cursed.

His second message came about 15 minutes later. This time, things went darker. He wanted, he said, to come and “kick my teeth right in.”


It’s been about 50 years since I was last threatened with violence. Back then, it was a schoolyard bully when I was about 10 years old.

And now here it was happening again.

I have to say that, this time, his words struck home. Did he really mean it? Would he show up at my house one day? Did he know where I live? Was my family safe?

Or was he just blowing smoke?

It’s probably just an empty threat, I told myself. Just an angry man spouting hate and anger.

Or maybe there was another motive. Maybe he was trying to intimidate me, to make me reluctant to write about this topic in the future.

If that’s the case, he is mistaken. I will write about Israel and Palestine again, if the topic is relevant.

But I would be lying if I don't say this will be in the back of my mind, or that I won't wonder if a stranger might turn up at my door one day with malice in mind.

Since this was my first experience with a threat of physical violence, I reported it to my editor. 

When this happens, he said, they tend to ignore it unless they believe a real threat is posed. If that's the case, it is reported to the police.

Israel-Palestine, he added, is a topic that brings out the worst in people "no matter what we say or write.”

Like I said before, it’s probably nothing. But it certainly caught my attention. It makes me wonder about the kind of people who say such terrible things.

Especially when so many of them say they are Christians.

Monday, August 7, 2017

We Need More Peace, Fewer Sacred Spaces

It’s hard to imagine religion without sacred spaces.

These sacred spaces can be hills, mountains, rivers, caves, cities, trees and buildings—temples, mosques, cathedrals, and other places of worship.

For believers, these places are sacred because something religiously significant happened there, usually hundreds or thousands of years ago. 

Visiting these places is an opportunity to draw closer to God or the divine, to find inner peace and fulfilment, or to experience something deep and supernatural.

For others, however, they are reasons to fight and kill. Instead of promoting peace, they are sources of conflict.

That’s what’s happening now in Jerusalem, over the Al-Aqsa mosque.

The mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, is located on what Jews call the Temple Mount—the holiest site in Judaism—and what Muslims call Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary.

Muslims believe that the Prophet Mohammed was carried on a flying horse from Mecca to Al-Aqsa during his miraculous night journey. While there, he prayed with Abraham and Jesus on the rock that is now said to be inside the Dome of the Rock, whose golden roof dominates the Jerusalem skyline.

For Jews, it is the site of the first temple, built around 1,000 B.C. It was destroyed 400 years later by the Babylonians. In the first century B.C., a second temple was built; it, too, was destroyed in A.D. 70 by the Romans.

Over the past 50 years, the site has been a source of tension between Palestinians and Israelis. It is said the Second Intifada, which saw over 4,000 people killed, was sparked by a visit to the mosque by Ariel Sharon, then a candidate for Prime Minister of Israel.

This summer, the site has been the source of unrest and conflict after Israeli authorities restricted Muslim access to the mosque following the murders of two Israeli police officers. In response, Palestinians gathered to pray, and protest—mostly peacefully—in the streets surrounding the area.

Of course, the conflict is over more than what people believe happened on the site centuries ago. Israelis view it as a matter of security and safety, while Palestinians see it as part of the larger effort to control and humiliate them.

Both sides can justify their actions. But I still wonder: Are these principles worth killing and dying over? I posed that question to a Palestinian friend.

He agreed that any deaths arising from the unrest were terrible, but said answers are “not so easy when everything has been taken away from you.”

He noted that, over the centuries, Palestinians have welcomed and incorporated people from many nationalities and faiths—Arabs, Turks, Berbers, Greeks, and Jews, among others.

“Those who came as pilgrims and refugees, found space on the land. But an occupation is a different story.”

This is indeed a different story, for Israelis and Palestinians alike. The Al-Aqsa mosque today stands for much more than a holy place. Both sides, each for their own political reasons, seem to be looking for more confrontation rather than calm.

(And lest Christians think they are above this sort of controversy, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre proves otherwise. The Church, which is said to contain the tomb of Jesus, is administered by six Christian groups under a centuries-old agreement. They squabble constantly over who is responsible for what part of the church, sometimes resulting in fist fights between monks. So bad are the relations between them they don’t even trust each other with the church keys; a Muslim family opens and closes the church each day.)

As for me, my mind keeps going back to the prophet Isaiah, who delivers a message from God about sacred spaces.

As for me, my mind keeps going back to the prophet Isaiah, who delivers a message from God about sacred spaces.

In chapter 66:1-2, God says through the prophet: “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is my resting place? 

All these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine. But this is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word.”

I don’t know about you, but I think the world would be better off if we had more of those kinds of people today, and maybe fewer sacred spaces.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Andrew Scheer, Faith and the Media, or How Should the Media Cover Religion in Politics?

How should journalists approach Andrew Scheer's religious faith? That was the question posed by Paul Adams on iPolitics in June.

The election of Scheer, a devout Catholic and social conservative, as Conservative party leader “has raised a tricky question for journalists,” Adams wrote.

“How should they cover his religious beliefs, if at all?”

It’s a fair question. Here in Canada, religion has traditionally not played much of a role in politics, and candidates are not required to prove their religious bona fides when seeking office.

But many politicians are religious, and bring their faith to work. For Canadian journalists, this puts them on shaky ground.

Few reporters have any background or knowledge in religion—it’s not a required course of study in journalism schools. As a result, many are uncomfortable asking questions about faith, not knowing where to begin.

And so Adams’ question is welcome; at least he is acknowledging that the subject is worthy of attention.

But it did prompt me to wonder why it wasn’t also asked of the Prime Minister, when he became leader of his party. Trudeau is also a Catholic, but I could not find a similar article about how to cover his faith on the iPolitics website.

And why is that?

One answer is that Scheer is a social conservative, and many people are deeply suspicious of that kind of religiosity—including some journalists. It also makes them uneasy when someone is outspoken about their religious beliefs.

And Scheer has not been afraid, in the past, to talk about his faith.

In 2014 he stated that faith “is an important part of my life. [Faith] can be important for public policy for those who wish to express it and have it as a source of direction and motivation for their work. It is important for us to have public policy discussions in an environment where a person's faith is welcomed.”

While his faith has influenced his work as a politician in areas such as voting against gay marriage and being pro-life, if he should be elected Prime Minister Scheer  has said he would not re-open those issues, nor would he impose his beliefs on the Party.

He would, however, allow MPs to “bring forward legislation and to make statements to bring up topics that they care deeply about, either on behalf of themselves or their constituents.” This could, presumably, be a backdoor for legislation on things like abortion.

Not wanting to rely on other reports, I reached out to Scheer’s office several times asking to interview him about how his faith would impact his work as leader. I was advised he would not be available.

I’m not surprised. In the past, politicians had little to gain from talking about their faith to the media, I’m not surprised. In the past, politicians had little to gain from talking about their faith to the media, as the experience in Great Britain of former Liberal Democrat party leader Tim Farron showed.

Farron, an avowed Christian who led his party for two years, resigned from his positon over what he felt was an inability to reconcile his faith with politics.  

“From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith,” he wrote about how the media had often queried him about his beliefs, especially around gay marriage.

“I’ve tried to answer with grace and patience,” he said, admitting “sometimes my answers could have been wiser.”

The result was he found himself “torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader,” even if he was “passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me.”

He went on to say that “I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.”

Which brings us back to Adams’ question. How should journalists report about Scheer’s faith, or the faith of any other politician?

My answer: With respect, with knowledge, and with the same evenhandedness they would bring to anyone else about any other subject.

As for politicians who say their faith is important to how they do their jobs, they also need to respect the honest inquiry of journalists about how religion may influence the way they vote.

For journalists and politicians to act any other way would diminish both journalism—and faith.

From the July 29 Winnipeg Free Press.