Saturday, November 23, 2019

Beware: Community Ministry or Focus Won't Save Your Church.


            I have been to half-a-dozen “denominational-visioning” meetings over the past few years. My own congregation organized one, a few years ago, on church amalgamation. A month or two ago it was a meeting about “innovative” ideas for ministry. This morning it was a gathering to consider what to do with our valuable but decaying Toronto church buildings. We are all property rich but cash poor.          

            And at all these meetings, participants usually talk about doing ministry for and in their local communities as the long-term basis upon which the survival of their congregations depends.

            They are wrong. It is actually the other way around. Only churches that survive—and thrive—can do great ministry in their local communities.

            So first, a caveat. I love how, in the United Church of Canada, I am continually bathed in excitement to do local neighborhood ministry. We do soup kitchens and ESL, host the homeless and offer incubator space for startups; we house schools, provide community space for AA and ratepayer meetings, and we sponsor foodbanks and cafes. We send our members out to lobby for the homeless, protest US immigration policy, attend Gay-Pride parades and make space available for community gardens. And on and on and I love it all. 

The Food Bank at East End United Church,
Toronto
           But meanwhile, many of the churches that these activities are sponsored by are shrinking and dying. Community ministry is a necessary component of any church’s ministry. But—with perhaps the rarest of exceptions—doing community ministry cannot sustain a church.

            Why not? Well, the reasons are myriad, but there are a few key ones. 

           First, churches are much emptier than they used to be because many fewer Canadians go to church. As late as 1965 more than half of Canadians could be found in a church on Sunday morning. Now, less than fifty years later, probably less than ten percent, not more than thirteen, might be found in church. Community churches like mine, “Lawrence Park Community Church,” used to fill with neighborhood people who walked to church. But now, with only one fifth of the Canadians going to church compared to fifty years ago, it is as if four out of five of those local homes people used to come to church from are empty. What's more, the remaining houses have far fewer people in them due to demographic trends such as people having fewer children now compared to fifty years ago.

Can this congregation survive? Do ministry? Change?
            Second, this means that no Toronto neighbourhood has enough people to support a church that draws its membership solely from that neighbourhood, or especially from the even smaller number of people the church ministers to in that neighbourhood. Besides, every neighbourhood also has churches from different denominations—or synagogues or temples or mosques—vying for the same dwindling population of religious adherents. It’s a church-eat-church jungle out there.

            You might wonder, of course, if some newer high-density neighbourhoods are different. With many more people per square kilometer, perhaps neighbourhood churches are possible in such communities. Maybe. But these high-density neighbourhoods, such as Toronto's hip Liberty Village, also tend to be full of younger people whose church attendance is even lower than among older Canadians.

            Third, with increased immigration, the ethnic makeup of many neighbourhoods is also changing. Two of the larger ethnic groups in my church’s neighborhood are Iranians and Chinese. Many are well-to-do. They are wonderful people whose wide range of experiences and cultural capital are a gift to Canada. However, very few of them are Christian. And, if they are, they tend to go to ethnic-enclave churches. There isn’t much opportunity for growth there.

            Fourth, local ministry often and rightly means ministry to marginalized Canadians—the poor, the homeless, the distressed, and recent arrivals trying to fit in. This is as it should be. But these same people should not be mistaken for the people who can financially sustain a church, even in large numbers.

            Fifth, property redevelopment is not a panacea either. At the meeting I went to today, we discussed the possibilities. The idea is that some churches may be able to both improve their worship space and maintain their local ministries by working with developers to transform their old church into new condos or office buildings or schools or retail space.

How about condos in an old church, including
some new worship space for that dying congregation?
            This could be all well and good, except that by the time churches choose for such options, they are already tiny, tired, and full of members thinking of moving out of the GTA to retire in Collingwood or Cobourg. And, a lawyer who works with developers told us, most redevelopment plans take ten years from start to finish. In such cases will anyone be left in the redeveloped church to turn the lights on for the first time?

            So where are we at? I have a few thoughts. 

            A. Churches that survive—whether they are Fundamentalist, or Evangelical, or Mainline—draw their adherents from far beyond their local neighbourhood. These “destination churches” offer people good reasons for travelling some distance in order to attend and belong. And usually, these “good reasons,” are very intentional and well thought out. 

            Not always, of course. Some destination churches draw people from longer distances almost by accident, as it were. Ethnic churches, for example. The Christian Reformed Church—a church made up largely of Dutch immigrants—will attract people from a distance because ethnicity is its strongest glue. A very few churches will have that one-in-a-million preacher that people travel far and wide to hear. Very conservative churches may use theological guilt memes about hell or shunning to continue to draw people from a distance, after they have moved away. But ultimately, if congregations want to stay strong, they are going to have to be very smart and very intentional about drawing people from far away into membership and mission.  

            B. Destination churches do local ministry because they are healthy churches. But they do many other kinds of ministry too. They give to national and international causes. They reach out not only to the marginalized, but also to those who are not. 

            A key ministry healthy churches engage in is the ministry of giving meaning and purpose to people who are looking for it to use in their workplaces, their distant neighbourhoods, and when they sit in front of TVs to watch the news. 

            Does our relentless focus on community engagement distract us from other important ministries? Such as offering people “meaning?” When Jesus saw the crowds that followed him around the lake, he had compassion on them. But what did he do next? The text is clear—he taught them. Only after that did he (according to the story) feed them. Today, people are hungering for meaning, for insight about how to morally apply the levers of power that they have their hands on, for how to make sense of tragedy and loss, for how to raise children or fight the racism (or sexism or LGBTQ hatred) they feel is directed against them.

            To me this is one of the more important truths we need to hang onto. Ministry is not just doing—our ministries need to cover heart and mind and hands. And for all the priority we place on hands “doing” sort of ministry, we should not forget that however we now frame it, the church was founded as a locus of good news that transformed the hopes and dreams of people. We need both Martha and a Mary sides to our ministry and it even appears that Jesus prioritized the Mary-teaching side (though I recognize that this is a favourite area for scholarly debate). Churches must be incredibly intentional about sharing this “gospel.” What churches have on offer must speak to the longings and confusions of our current society in a compelling way that keeps people on the edge of their seats. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, years ago, “If a man can write a better book or preach a better sermon, or build a better mousetrap than his neighbour, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.”  

            I am not, by the way, here arguing for nothing but traditional sermons. There are other ways to share the gospel, from discussion on Sunday mornings to classes on Wednesday nights. And I am not arguing for an old-fashioned orthodoxy either. Meaning is not singular. It isn’t just one sanctioned teaching and no other that I care about. Meaning is something we make together as congregations on the way, with the insights—scriptural or not—that we all bring to the process. No one would ever mistake me for orthodox when it comes to Christianity’s old creeds! But Jesus' story is the good news deep in my bones that inspires my hands to get to work.

            C. Similarly, worship matters. There are 101 United congregations doing variations of Anglican-light liturgy and music and vestments and litanies and rituals. Fine. We need all that to be a part of our denominational mix. But Anglican light is not the language of a majority of the people of Toronto. Indeed, it may be impenetrable to people who rarely go to church. So, what are you or your congregation doing about that? How will you change the worship in your congregation without falling into worship wars? 

            D. Destination churches invest in getting out the word about their preaching, their worship, and their ministry opportunities for involvement. They experiment with new forms of bringing good news to people far and near. And when, through amalgamation or endowment they end up with a pot of new money, they don’t sit on it, or use it to fix their buildings (a renovated building never brought in a new adherent)—healthy destination churches use these resources to become more relevant, more engaging, more focused on sharing their take on the good news, instead. 

          All healthy churches engage in evangelism. In our mainline setting, this won't be evangelism based on the idea of getting people to choose for heaven (or not). It will be evangelism based on offering good news for people who are looking for meaning, understanding, a supportive community, healing, and all the other things our tradition has to offer. 

            E. As long as we have one or two United Churches in every city neighbourhood, we simply have far too many churches to expect that more than a tiny handful will ultimately survive and thrive. And until they die, in most of these neighbourhoods, these United Churches will be in competition with each other for the same neighbourhood members. They will all struggle with diminished resources at just that time they need more to offer robust reasons for new members to join. 

            So, many, many city churches must now amalgamate before they enter into almost absolutely irreversible death spirals. They must amalgamate while they still have imagination and people energy and financial resources to do D, above.

            We all know that the prognosis for people who have had CPR resuscitation to restart their hearts is never going to be as good as it is for people who haven’t had a health emergency. But the same applies to churches. We must take up healthy amalgamations long before churches need CPR to survive. Our world and neighbourhoods, our transportation systems and culture, our resources and preoccupations are way different now compared to 100 years ago when walking or a tram were the only ways to get to church. 

          Still, in spite of all the societal and city change, we too often expect the worship and architecture and music and locations of the past to still work seamlessly in this new setting. None of it will, however. So among all the other things we ought to do, we must cut back on the number of churches we have. We must amalgamate them to focus our resources—and the best locations—on taking on today's challenges instead of early-twentieth-century challenges. There are many models for healthy amalgamation: multi-campus, multiple-point, satellite locations, shared staff, re-launch, and so on. The trick is that they all work in inverse proportion to how soon two or more congregations get busy with such amalgamations. 

            F. If people are going to attend destination churches rather than a church they can walk to, they must have parking, and lots of it. Because when you attend a church you can’t walk to--a destination church that has figured out it needs to reach beyond its immediate neighbourhood--when you attend such a church you will usually drive. Transit may be an option for some, but people coming in from the further suburbs don’t always have great access to quick transit out there. Too many of our churches have no parking, or little parking, or force their aging adherents to walk ever longer distances to find street parking. This is not sustainable, and such churches will eventually close, no matter how much great neighbourhood ministry they do!

Even churches with access to transit need parking
for those coming from the suburbs.
            This means that one of our best options might be deciding to build a new amalgamated-church building in order to locate somewhere where both parking and transit are available. This relocation might not be to a church. Perhaps a former retail or industrial site? A mall that is closing (most are, for some of the same reasons churches are). 

            There is more to be said. And, I admit, this has taken the form of a Jeremiad—a sermon that is basically a rant. I sound like I know it all. The truth is, in my later ministry, some of this is just starting to dawn on me, and some of these actions are just in the experimental stage. Still, it now seems to me that these are the sort of things we need to talk about, whether my diagnosis is right or wrong. Because doing more local neighbourhood ministry with smaller, older groups of people is not a solution to the troubles we face.


Monday, November 18, 2019

Evolution Is the Solution (to One of Preaching's Biggest Problems).


I'm also trying to figure out evolution, and how it informs my faith. This blogpost is one such effort, shared with my congregation, and based, in part, on my reflections on Psalm 8, and the lofty (evolved?) status that humans are given there.

         An eighteen-wheeler semitruck has, well, eighteen wheels. Each one is important. If you ever find yourself driving down the highway in a semi you wouldn’t want any of those tires to go flat. 

         But, perhaps more than any of the others, you want the semi’s two front two tires to stay on track. If one of those blows it will be very hard, perhaps impossible, to steer. Blow one of your front tires and you may have an emergency on your hands.

         That is how it is for me too. I have at least eighteen interests: family, literature, birds, sailing, theology, and more. I like them all. If I had to drop any one of them, I’d be sad. But two of my interests have steered me, as a minister, more than the others. One is a hobby—evolution. The other is a passion—preaching.

         So first, evolution. Evolution is the slow process by which genetic mutations have transformed ape-like creatures that lived millions of years ago into modern humans. It’s a theory, of course, like gravity is a theory.

My Australapithicus Sebida tie!
         I have always been fascinated by evolution. One of the highlights of my sabbatical, five years ago, was the opportunity to visit the Cradle of Humankind, near Pretoria in South Africa. Many ancient human fossils have been found in these limestone caves. I crawled through them, deep underground, where archeologists were still working. 

          I also picked up the skeleton tie I’m wearing today at the Cradle of Humankind museum. It shows the skeleton of an individual from a species known as Australapithicus Sebida. This person lived about two million years ago, walked on two feet and used stone tools. We can’t be sure whether or not Sebida was a direct ancestor to humans, but if it wasn’t, Sebida was a first cousin. 

          This next picture is of a Homo Rudolfensis individual, who lived at about the same time, but in East Africa. The pictures I’m showing today are facial reconstructions based on the shape of the bones and marks left by ligaments. It’s a process much like that police use to reconstruct the faces of people whose bones have been found but can’t be identified. Scientists are pretty sure that our species, Homo Sapiens, is descended from Homo Rudolfensis. 

Home Rudolfensis.
         Rudolfensis, like Sebida, used stone tools—scrapers, knives, and axes. The shape of their teeth suggests they ate meat, but it was likely raw because there is no evidence they used fire. It doesn’t sound like great cuisine, but then, you know, some people still eat sushi. According to Psalm 8, humans are “a little lower than God.” Sebida and Rudolfensis were, perhaps, on the way—but they certainly did not yet have the “dominion” (v. 6) over creation the Psalmist claimed for us.

         The next picture is of Homo Naledi, a human species discovered in the Cradle of Humanity not long after I visited there. We are not descended from Naledi. They are another cousin species, like Sebida. 

Homo Naledi
         This person lived about 350,000 years ago, and compared to us, had a much smaller brain. A large number of individuals were found buried in a cave far underground, suggesting that they were deposited there ritually. And, they must have had portable fire to get so far below, in the dark. That would have been an impressive technological development. But, like Sebida and Rudophensis, Naledi is extinct. Human species do go extinct. Many already have. Think about that. Extinction is in the realm of human possibility because it has already happened—a few times.

         The last picture is of a Homo Neanderthal individual. Neanderthals are our kissing cousins because we Homo Sapiens sporadically interbred with them. Most humans outside of Africa have some Neanderthal genes. Neanderthals showed up in Europe about seven or eight hundred thousand years ago, and went extinct about 35,000 years ago, just a few thousand years after Homo Sapiens arrived in Europe. That means that Neanderthals were in Europe fourteen times longer than we Homo Sapiens have been in Europe!

Homo Neanderthal
        While Neanderthals look odd to us due to their huge nose and eyebrow bones, they used fire, managed to live in cold climates by sewing together clothes, had complex tools, and took care of their aged and wounded even when they could no longer work. Because they buried their dead with rituals and plants, Neanderthals probably had beliefs about an afterlife. They made jewelry and flutes. 

         However, as far as we can tell, Neanderthals never managed to domesticate and other beasts of the field, a feat the Psalmist does claim for us (vv 6,7). 

         “Us” are, in this case, a human species called Homo Sapiens—which means, ironically, translated from the Latin, “wise humans.” Not only do we control fire, we split atoms. We have perfected the technology of healing human bones, reading them for ancient DNA, or replacing them when they wear out. We live in unimaginable comfort and ease compared to Neanderthals. And, for better or worse, we do have dominion over all the earth and everything in it, and we do have god-like powers with respect to the earth, just as the writer of Psalm 8 observed.

         Unfortunately, we have also been implicated in the extinction of countless species of birds of the air and fish of the sea—never mind plants of the earth. We are changing the climate of the planet, perfected racism and genocide and nuclear annihilation as political tools, threatening ourselves with extinction. We can feed everyone on our planet, but don’t. We have the capacity to think morally, about what is right and wrong, but often refuse to do so in the search for short term gain.

         I said we have the capacity to think morally. That brings me to the second wheel that steers my semi. It’s preaching. My PhD is in Speech Communication. I’ve taught preaching in seminary and continue to think a lot about it. And one of the most irritating problems I face as a preacher has always been the problem of nagging. 

         You see, I am convinced that Jesus is a model for human morality. But that means when I get into the pulpit, I’m also tempted to tell my congregation what to do: imitate Jesus, be courageous like Jesus, heal like Jesus, love like Jesus, fight injustice like Jesus, treat the poor like Jesus. Every Sunday I’m off to the races and encourage Christians to go, go, go. But if that is my message, week in and out, I am going to sound like a noisy gong or clanging cymbal—a nag. And my congregation is going to feel inadequate because no matter what I say, they know they can’t do it all, always, as well as Jesus did, or Jesus told us to do, or I am tempted to nag them to do. 

         So, using my first interest, evolution, I want to suggest a way of thinking about my second interest, preaching, that will help get at solving the nagging problem. It’s called the Butterfly effect. Two science-fiction writers, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, put it this way in a recent book, Good Omens. 

It used to be thought that the events that changed the world were things like big bombs, maniac politicians, huge earthquakes, or vast population movements, but it has now been realized that this is a very old-fashioned view held by people totally out of touch with modern thought. The things that change the world, according to Chaos theory, are the tiny things. A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle, and subsequently a storm ravages half of Europe.

         The butterfly effect is obviously much more complex than described here. But it has also received a lot of attention recently, especially by both social and hard scientists. Basically, the theory recognizes that small, unpredictable events often have a huge impact down the road. What if, as related by Victor Hugo, Napoleon’s cuirassiers at the Battle of Waterloo had not plunged into the little hidden ravine between them and the English on the Road of Ohain? Hugo thinks Napoleon would have won. What if a Viking fisherman, five hundred years before Columbus, in Newfoundland, had passed on European diseases to First Nations back then? Would that mean that resistance to Western diseases might have been widespread by the time Columbus arrived? Would the Incan civilization not then have succumbed to Western diseases recently introduced by the Spanish? Would Spain have then been unable to commit their centuries of cultural rape and genocide in the names of God and King? The history of the world turns on many similar, otherwise unremarkable, events.

         There is an ancient proverb that gets at this mystery. It is about the nail that fastens a horseshoe to a hoof. It goes like this:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

         In an analogous way, the accumulation of small, evolutionary changes—but perhaps more importantly, the accumulation of daily events in our ancestors’ lives, has made humans—both with our good traits and our bad ones—what we are today. We are who we are, in part, because of a million, billion butterfly wing flaps by countless nameless saints through the millennia. 

         And now, when it comes to the planet, to how we act at work, to how we educate our children, to how we spend our cash—our small and unpredictable actions are also what the future of the human race will rest upon and be determined by. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t make a difference. Don’t let anyone try to convince you that your contribution has to be heroic, or it won’t make a difference. 

         Wrong. The accumulation of our simple actions, over the course of our lives and magnified by many other actions by many other people over thousands of generations changes the world we live in, often in unpredictable, but also potentially beautiful ways. And our challenge, our adventure in life, is to do good, moral things that can yet nudge us to fulfil all our potential, the potential the Psalmist bragged about—perhaps a bit prematurely.

         We face huge challenges. We are overwhelmed, individually, by climate change and racism, by our new social media habits and fake news, by homelessness in the streets and plastic in the ocean—and even by the knowledge that other human races have failed and are no longer with us. 

         And yet, the lesson of human biological and cultural evolution is that bit by bit both we and our environment change. And cumulatively, we transform the human prospect together, may even keep our rig on the road, by trying to be like Jesus in the small things first. Perhaps, over time, our culture and we as humans will not only get the dominion, but do so for beauty of the earth. 

         So, don’t lose heart if preachers nag you too much, at least occasionally. Don’t imagine that you really have to be the hero who does it all by yourself. Just try to follow Jesus today. In the small things. Those are the actions that will help determine the future of our world.


Monday, October 28, 2019

When Is a Church Not a Church?


            When is church not a church? When it is SoulTable.

            First some background

            This morning I read yet another article in the Washington Post about how Millennials mostly don’t like church, leave churches, and don’t go back (http://tinyurl.com/y6j6sfhq). This trend is even more pronounced in Canada, which has always been a more secular country than the USA (“Canada to lose 9,000 churches over the next Ten Years” http://tinyurl.com/y2rrguzt).

            Of course, not a few of these articles note that the trend is not quite as pronounced among Evangelicals. This isn’t saying much, since Evangelicals are also sticking by President Trump, which doesn’t suggest a high level of spiritual discernment or cultural insight among this group. It’s an old Christian mistake. Align yourself with power, because that makes you powerful! But when that power turns out to be oppressive and evil, the church will get painted by the same brush. 

            So, churches are dying, everywhere. Or setting themselves up for a massive comeuppance.

            Does this matter? Well, I suppose your answer will depend on whether you go or not. I go. In fact, I am a Christian minister in a liberal church (our motto: United, Unorthodox, Unlimited). The members of my church certainly lament the aging of our congregation, the small Sunday School and Youth Groups. I love traditional church music (even if I rarely agree with the theology), and the warmth of my congregation. Though aging, it is slowly growing too. I love the good things my church and its members do in the community and the way the children of this congregation have been taught to be responsible, caring citizens. 

            Beyond my personal feelings about church, there certainly are greater cultural losses as the church declines: loss of community in an increasingly lonely society, loss of cultural depth when it comes to understanding how Christianity has shaped the literature, philosophy, and values of the West, for example. Imagine reading Margaret Atwood’s Madadam trilogy, or The Handmaid’s Tale or her new Testaments without a good grasp of scripture. You’ll miss a lot. In fact, lots of readers miss most of it.

            On a more positive note, the waning of the church also means that it is being stripped of the coercive power that has embarrassed it so often in the past. 

            Sure, the church has done good things too, but it has also been a dependable champion of those in power, of the status quo, of sexual repression, of sexual exploitation, a supporter of residential schools, a racist institution that happily relegated non-whites to ghettoes and prisons, and so on. And all that is just in the past 100 years. Dig a bit deeper and you get Crusades and Inquisitions and Indulgences and pogroms and moral justification for any empire the church ever found itself in. The American Empire is merely the latest.

            But the same critique that I just made with respect to the church could be made for just about any powerful historical institution of the past few thousand years. Whether political regimes or banks, corporations or guilds or invading hordes of Steppe Tribesmen, when humans work together they tend to do both good things and bad. The church is not different. Which is a disappointment of historic proportions. 

            Still. There is the gospel! There is the good news! If you can believe it. The church’s (as, perhaps, opposed to the Bible’s) singular focus on salvation and life eternal has more often served as an other-worldly reward than motivation to redeem this world. I love the moral exemplar that Jesus is, especially considering his context. I am inspired by it. But I will make no claims about virgin births or children raised from the dead or resurrections or Trinities. (Not anymore, that is. There was a day.) Millennials, for the most part, find this sort of stuff unbelievable too.

            At Lawrence Park Community Church we’ve watched all this happen with some sorrow, some regret, but also count ourselves as part of the resistance. We want our church to grow, to make a difference in the city of Toronto, to inspire people to be good neighbours, to act on climate change. We want to inspire people to be more like Jesus.

            So, SoulTable. I’ve written about it before, and promised an update. SoulTable is a weekly gathering in our church’s large community hall. We launched on September 22. The format is meal/contemporary secular music (with a spiritual angle)/and a TEDx type speaker on a topic that we hope will accomplish our goals. We serve wine and beer, devote a good amount of time to discussion, and don’t pray much or read scripture much (not that we’re against it, but there is a lot of other good stuff to reflect on out there too).

            On Sept 22 we launched with 160 people in attendance. They were there to hear Neil Pasricha, author of The Book of Awesome. Attendance has ranged, since then, from 35 (Thanksgiving weekend) to about 80 or so. On Sunday we listened to spoken word artist Micah Bournes (from LA) riffing on race, justice and freedom. Next week Gretta Vosper (the United Church of Canada's atheist minister) will speak about how she approaches death and dying, funerals, and families all over the faith map.

            SoulTable is not really church. It’s an event built around Biblical themes, with music, striving to be community, and encouraging people to love like Jesus did. Or is that church?

            It’s radical. It’s different. Naysayers will laugh or complain that we’ve caved to culture,  that we don't treat scripture as authoritative or infallible or inerrant. We don't. Millennials, of course, just say “no” and leave the naysayer churches. Anyway, we’re investing our church's endowment into this. We’re trying to be relevant  and inspirational. 

            Check us out 5pm, every Sunday, at Lawrence Park Community Church, 2180 Bayview, in Toronto. We’re just south of Lawrence, and across the street from Glendon College and Sunnybrook Hospital. We have (Sunday only) free parking across the street. We’re trying something different, and so far, it seems to be working!

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

From Climate Change to Nukes to Plagues: The Coming End of the World as We Know It


            The end of all things has become a secular fascination.

            Consider, for example, just Margaret Atwood, all by herself. She’s written The Handmaid’s Tale—now an award-winning TV show on Hulu, and The Testaments, a Booker Prize short-listed sequel. Atwood has also written the MadAdam trilogy about a world destroyed by climate change, genetic engineering, and pharmaceutical malpractice.


            Post-apocalyptic, end-of-the-world fiction is all the rage. There’s Cormac McCarthy’s On the Road and the Hunger Games trilogy and Station Eleven and all of Hugh Howey and Stephen King and movies like World War Z and Resident Evil with their zombies and the Mad Max franchise, Deep Impact and Armageddon, TVs Walking Dead and on and on. 

            And now post-apocalypticism is an academic discipline too. So, for example, this week I read Bryan Walsh’s End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World, a summary of the existential angst that scientists are expressing. He writes:

            The end could be an asteroid. This has happened before. About 66 million years ago, an asteroid of about six miles across slammed into the earth. That explosion was 6500 times more powerful than the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Dinosaurs that had ruled the earth for 180 million years went extinct. Meanwhile, thousands of asteroids continue to orbit the sun. NASA is tracking them, and we think we’re okay for the next few years, but nobody is saying it can’t happen again.

            Or, the world as we know it could end with a super volcano blowing its stack. One such volcano, Toba, blew its top about seventy-five thousand years ago. Global temperatures fell by about twenty or thirty degrees for several years after, bringing humans to the brink of extinction. Perhaps as few as three or four thousand survived, in Southern Africa, our ancestors. There are still about twenty active super volcanoes today. On average one erupts every 25,000 or 50,000 years. We’re due. 

            Third, Bryan Walsh also suggests that we could end the world as we know it by nuclear war. We thought that the end of the cold war reduced this threat. But now Putin and Trump have cancelled the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and things are looking rather dicier. And there are the other nuclear powers chomping at the bit: India and Pakistan have gone to war six times in the last 70 years. Israel has nukes. North Korea has nukes and threatens to use them every week. Iran wants nukes. This week Turkey threatened to go nuclear too. 

            Fourth, we could also end the world as we know it via climate change. The five hottest years in recorded history have all been in the past ten years. We are seeing more horrific tropical hurricanes like Dorian. We are going to see massive movements of people from areas in the world too hot to live, too flooded to live, or too arid to live, and, they all love to come here. 

            The end of the world could be a pandemic. It has happened before. Justinian’s plague in fifth century killed half the world’s population. The Black Death killed 200 million people. New diseases caused by animal infections jumping to humans, as in SARS or Ebola, are an annual event now. Eventually, one is going to be really deadly. 

            Bryan Walsh isn’t finished. He writes further long chapters about the dangers of bioengineered pathogens and terrorism, as in the MadAdam trilogy. He writes about Artificial Intelligence about which no less an expert than Stephen Hawking said, “could spell the end of the human race.” And he writes, only half-seriously now, about antagonistic aliens invading earth. Thankfully, he doesn’t mention vampires or zombies.

            So, how does all this gloom and doom make you feel?

            I find it fascinating that at the end of the book, Walsh says that he nevertheless has hope we’ll somehow make it, anyway. They thing is, Walsh doesn’t anchor his hope. He doesn’t give readers any good reasons for hope. Walsh just hangs hope out there, unsupported, as unlikely as a baby managing to hold onto a helium balloon on a windy day.

            In fact, Bryan Walsh actually gives us a reason for abandoning all hope. It is called scope neglect. Scope neglect describes how humans deal with tragedy—or rather, refuse to. When personal, as in the death of a loved one, tragedy may overwhelm us and even break us. But when larger and more extensive tragedies are distant—as is the case with the Bahamas, this week, for example—we tend to mostly ignore that tragedy, and carry on as if it never happened.

            Scope neglect. Paul Slovic, a Psychologist, found that our “sympathy can begin to fade as soon as we’re presented with two needy people, rather than one.” This counterintuitive arithmetic of compassion makes it hard for us to empathize with or prepare for huge natural disasters. Our brains do their best to push such thoughts away. “Instead of our worry increasing as the size of the consequence increases, it degrades. Our attention is scarce, and so is our ability to worry.”    

            So, Joseph Stalin is reputed to have said, after starving nearly four million Ukrainians to death: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths just a statistic.”

            And that is how it is when it comes to the end of the world. Scope neglect. We can’t get our heads around oceans rising, nuclear weapons falling or pandemics, even though the risks are very real. The scope of such disasters is just too large for us to think about. So, our brains ignore or actively deny such risks. 

            Even those we pay to look after the bigger picture, our politicians, seem totally paralyzed. Scope neglect, you see, also means their re-election depends on giving you what you want rather than all of us what the world most needs.

            One more thing, stands out for me, in Walsh’s book, something that is ironically hopeful. He discusses the prepper phenomenon. Preppers are people who prepare for the end of the world by provisioning themselves with food and survival gear, guns and more guns, hidden shelters and caches full of fuel and more food and even more guns. Preppers plan to survive the end of the world by hiding from it while living on in their shelters with their families, killing everyone who comes near. Preppers. It’s a big thing in the USA.

            But it was Walsh’s analysis of Prepper strategy that got my attention. He writes that, “Sociologists who study post-catastrophe societies report that communities often grow tighter, like scar tissue that forms following a wound, even as they endure what seems unendurable.” What is remarkable about all the past disasters that almost drove humans to extinction is that it was human cooperation that saved them, human kindness for their neighbours, human struggling to carry each other’s loads that got humans through these crises. It was the village that survived, rather than the individual prepper; the community that created the conditions for survival, not hidden caches of food.

            Which brings me to one of Jesus’ (several) failed predictions about the coming apocalypse. In making one of those predictions, in Mark 8, Jesus said, in the same breath, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus added, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

            The point worth remembering here is that as Jesus faced the end of the world as he knew it, Jesus turned his back on scope neglect by picking up a cross on behalf of his neighbours to save their lives rather than his own. And he invites us to do the same, to save other lives, rather than our own.

            You see, cross carrying, Jesus’ crucifixion, was a subversive political act by one for the many, in the face of injustice, theological incompetence, and the painful suffering of his compatriots. Cross carrying is the invention of nonviolent resistance of the sort that Martin Luther King or Gandhi engaged in. Jesus’ cross was his refusal to be cowed by scope neglect and his insistence on doing something, even if it was costly to him personally, for the sake of all. Jesus’ cross was his way of saying we can make a stand when the odds seem impossible, and our stand can make a difference, if not now, then in a generation or two or maybe even a thousand years. Jesus’ crucifixion laid the groundwork for a new kind of morality that would eventually subvert Rome’s oppression by prioritizing neighbours.

            Scope neglect is people who refuse to think more deeply about the world than the taxes they must pay or the pleasures they do not wish to forgo. But humans are not bound by that approach. We can, for the sake of the world, carry each other’s—the world’s—crosses, doing whatever it takes artistically or business-wise, politically or at our service clubs, doing whatever it takes religiously or in our schools or labs or by donating or volunteering or in our FB posting--doing whatever it takes to see to not only our comfort but the world’s survival.

            Look. I don’t have a blueprint for where your area of skill or opportunity is. Discovering it will take your own act of imagination. Making your contribution might well involve a change of priorities or habits or generosity.

            But go for it. Pick up a cross and do your small but costly part to save the world.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Reflections on the Tabling of a Report on the "Genocide" of First Nations


Just over two months ago, I spent two winter weeks at a friend’s home in Florida, all alone. I never turned on the TV. I didn’t answer work emails. The neighbours were gone. I didn’t know anyone, anyway. I didn’t say more than ten words to anyone. My solitude was complete.

I loved it--staring at the Atlantic ocean waves; watching for birds I never see at home, in Toronto; hiking alone through scrub where everything was unfamiliar. Solitude.

Mistaking the Solitudes. Where are the First Nations?
But I have to be honest. What makes my personal solitude so delicious, so attractive, so healing is my partner, Irene. You see, when I’ve had my fill of solitude, Irene is always ready to take me back. When I come home from the cottage, we fall into each other’s arms; we kiss and hug. We sit on the porch and make small talk. Later, we might visit friends, go to church, or drop by our families. I love solitude, but what makes solitude safe and desirable is that it is rare, a sometimes treat, a chosen respite, and not how I have to live. 

You see, when solitude is the only option, or when solitude is fueled by resentment or anger or fear, it is usually a cancer. Historically, American isolationism leads to naval-gazing, Smoot-Hawley-style tariffs and economic ruin. North Korean isolation has led to unspeakable violence and decades of human rights violations. 

But Canada also has problems with unhealthy solitude--two solitudes, actually, usually described as English-speaking and French-speaking Canada.

Hugh MacLennan came up with that turn of phrase—two solitudes—in a novel by the same name. I have not read it in many years, since I was in college. I remember it as a huge rambling thing, covering generations of Canadians, both English and French-speaking, who are mutually antagonistic towards each other. 

The English in Quebec are portrayed as people building a nation on the backs of the French who are bitter. The French resent becoming a minority in a country they considered their own. They seethe because they have been made subject to a people who had conquered and humiliated them.”

And so, writes MacLennan, Canadians are, “Two solitudes in the infinite waste of loneliness under the sun.” Two solitudes: from the Plains of Abraham to two referendums on Quebec’s separation from Canada; two solitudes, from the WWII Conscription Crisis to FLQ terrorism to the Notwithstanding Clause. Two unhappy solitudes warily circling each other rather than falling into each other’s arms. Not like my wife and I at all.

And yet, this picture is tragically incomplete and out of balance. Could it really be that French-Canadians, as Hugh MacLennan suggested, or perhaps English-Canadians, or perhaps both of them together are “the only real Canadians?” 

Who after all, welcomed both the French and English to North America? Who brought them beaver pelts to get rich on, who showed the French and English the rivers and carrying places and mountain passes to get from Bonavista to Vancouver Island? Which confederacy  demonstrated and lived a constitutional democracy to invaders still mired in monarchial dictatorships in Europe? Who made treaties trusting that those who spoke English and French would keep them? Who are the real, or at least first, Canadians? On whose backs did both the French and the English ultimately both grow rich on by conquering and humiliating them? 

If there are two enduring solitudes in Canada, it is actually the First Nations on the one hand and everyone else on the other. 

In Canada, we have inherited a political and cultural system for keeping First Nations trapped in the solitude of reservations where there are no jobs, or trapped in inner-city ghettos where there are no jobs, or the solitude of jails, where they are vastly overrepresented compared to us. We have figured out how to relegate First Nations to the sort of solitude where, in living memory, just to leave for the city, a First-Nation person needed the signed permission of a white man to go. This Canadian system was used by South African whites as a model for their apartheid pass-laws. 

Perhaps you think this is just ancient history. Perhaps if so . . . then so is confederation, all of 150 years ago, or the battle on the Plains of Abraham, 268 years ago. But, as these events remind us, history does matter, and wants to be celebrated or atoned for. 

And yet, Canada’s First Nation children have been isolated in schools where they could not speak their own language or understand the new one their teachers spoke; schools where they were too often preyed on, physically, sexually, and culturally. They are still forced to go to schools that are grossly underfunded compared to our comfy suburban schools. They have been cheated of lands that by treaty-right were theirs or which they never ceded. They have been promised water treatment plants and social workers and health workers, jobs, self-government, and housing . . . but well, if you follow the headlines, you know how that has turned out for them. 

            And today, the report of the Canadian inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women was finally released. According to Marion Buller, the chief commissioner of the inquiry, it uncovered a cycle of violence that has claimed untold thousands of Indigenous women. “This report is about deliberate race, identity and gender-based genocide,” she said. 

            Genocide. By Canadians. By us. Something that is still happening under our noses. Our white, mostly Northern European, French- and English-speaking solitude’s approach to the First Nations.

            Genocide. I hate that word. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is treading water, carefully, with respect to that word. He has been supportive of the inquiry but is wary of how the word “genocide” will play, even among his supporters. 

            Genocide. A word that is harder to swallow, even, than “white privilege.”

            So, what level of cultural annihilation or ethnic cleansing or Anglo-Quebecois criminal negligence or murder would be required to make the word “genocide” stick?

            I’ve been thinking about that. And ultimately, I don’t think it matters. Canada is mostly English because of a victory won on the Plains of Abraham, and power has been shared between French and English since at least confederation. That’s old history we live with today.

            And the rest of the story, our history, is all about how we’ve killed, neglected, broken faith with, stolen land from, kidnapped kids, loaded our prisons with, underfunded social services for Canada’s First Nations. It is ongoing sin. It is evil and its stench is with us now.

            And if Canada is to become one nation rather than its two real solitudes—if First Nations and the rest of us are ever to fall into each other's arms—we better get busy with serious repentance, which involves atonement for what we’ve done and ongoing sanctification—that is, personal lives and a political culture dedicated to doing better.