Monday, October 27, 2014

Canada and Its Home-Grown Terrorists

Sure. I'm mad. Last week Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Corporal Nathan Cirillo both died in apparent terrorist attacks in Canada.

Vincent was run down by a car driven by Martin Couture-Rouleau. Cirillo was shot at point blank range by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. Both Couture-Rouleau and Zehaf-Bibeau were recent, radicalized, converts to Islam. Neither one was seriously attached to a Canadian-Muslim community, and both seemed to get most of their information about Islam from jihadi websites. Both came from broken families. Both were loners. Both were unemployed.

Given that he attacked the core symbols of Canadian patriotism and democracy—the Tomb to the Unknown Soldier and the House of Parliament—Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack was the most dramatic. The Twitter sphere and the mainline news media were both in overdrive all day.

I don’t blame media for the massive coverage. These two events were tragic, horrific, and just plain evil. Thousands turned out to see Cirillo’s procession down the Highway of Heroes—the sort of procession we hoped never to have to witness again. These horrific acts were also—just as the murderers intended—deeply symbolic. By striking at symbols that we identify with Canada’s best—soldiers, war memorials, parliament—the murderers clearly wanted to undermine our confidence in Canadian values—whatever those are, exactly.

At the same time, I’ve been very disturbed by political developments in the week following.

I’m concerned by the government’s insistence on framing these murders as terrorism—rather than as the complex acts they were. Sure, they were terrorist acts. But we’ll never make Canada a safer, happier place if we limit understanding of what happened to jingoism. There were many other facets to the story. For example, both attackers seem to have struggled with serious mental health issues. Both were, by the measures most of us use, “failures.” And both seem to have chosen Radical Islam not so much out of conviction, but as a way to dramatically leave their problems far behind.

There is an issue of scale. In 2010, just for example, 104 British Columbia traffic fatalities could be attributed to distracted driving—mostly texting while driving. The Canadian total is probably nearly ten times that number. And neither number touches on the thousands of other accidents and the property damage caused by distracted driving. In 2013 more than 700 Canadians died in accidents involving alcohol. First Nations women are five times more likely to be murdered than other women in Canada, but the Prime Minister insists the police can handle this, and that it isn’t a sociological problem. By the government’s own admission an average of seven to ten people are killed by lightning in Canada every year.

But when two people die at the hands of home-grown terrorists who are probably suffering from significant mental illness, we hear these words in parliament, from Steven Blaney, Public Safety Minister. "The first responsibility of the government is to keep Canadians safe. We will not over-react. But it is also time that we stopped under-reacting to the great threats against us." The government promises new, liberty-restricting laws to avoid under-reacting.

On the other hand, get tough laws on texting, inquiries into the deaths of and missing First Nations women, and laws making us safer from lightning—which after all, kills 400% more Canadians than home-grown terroism—are not on this government’s agenda.

Another concern. All the political posturing after the deaths of these two soldiers, including the public displays of sympathy and sadness by our politicians belies the fact that the government has largely failed the many, many soldiers returned from our battles overseas suffering from post-traumatic stress. This failure is regularly documented in the press as individual stories are often told of soldiers driven to despair, homelessness, and suicide in the face of the government’s unwillingness to make PTSD among soldiers a national priority.

Another concern. These two murders, as unjust and evil as they were, are also rooted in a rising tide of anger in the Muslim world with Western military intervention. I’m not offering a simple solution here, such as “well, if we quit bombing Iraq and Iran there wouldn’t be any home-grown Islamic terrorism here.” Still, we need a debate about the wisdom of military intervention in the Middle East; about the consequences and outcome of our involvement in Afghanistan; our unquestioned support for the current Israeli government in spite of its continual encroachment on Palestinian land and rights; and other ways in which we might support democracy and human rights in that region. Somehow, counting on Saudi Arabia as a stalwart ally, even as it exports extreme Wahhabi Islam, doesn’t seem consistent with our Canadian ideals. Unfortunately, talking about failed wars and undemocratic and autocratic allies seems harder than breaking up.

The murders of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Corporal Nathan Cirillo were horrific and evil. But we must not allow our justified rage obscure the deeper issues surrounding war, foreign policy, and national priorities and embarrassments that we need to address now. It is time for Canadians to demand—not more restrictive laws—but laws and government action that is willing to sacrifice much to live up to our ideals.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Blogging (Sometimes about Faith)

            I blog. In a way, blogging is, for me, an extension of the writing I did as editor of The Banner. I enjoy blogging in much the same way I enjoy writing my weekly sermon—that is, I don’t enjoy it much at all until I get to that ecstatic moment when I’m done. In the mean time, I have also learned a few things about blogging. I thought they might be worth sharing. I wonder what other bloggers—or readers—think.

            One: I wonder about my motivation. I think it is definitely a bit narcissistic—which also explains the time and effort I put into things like Facebook and Twitter. I like to see my name in print. I like to interact with people impressed by—or not—what I write. This is a confession. I think, however, it is a confession that many bloggers, if they were really honest, would make with me.

            Two: Which is not to say I don’t have some more altruistic reasons for blogging. I believe I have something to say. I want to promote discussion about important issues--especially the ones that interest me or that I know something about. I hope I can add to that timeless, unending conversation that theologians and public scholars and philosophers are having out there about the way the world turns. Or am I just being narcissistic again?

            Three: It is hard to find the time to come up with good, original material on a regular basis. Really. I’ve often forced myself to write something even when nothing was burning in my belly. Why? Well, the rule seems to be that if you don’t regularly update your blog, people stop reading it. And I want people to read my blog. Why? See number one, above.

            Four: One of the bigger challenges I face is staying real—writing in a way that resonates with what people are actually thinking. But to do this while also demonstrating that I’m aware of the many academic currents that surround my topic of the day is a real challenge. Balancing a plain-spokenness with depth is one of the hardest challenges a blogger faces. I often fail.

            Five: I find it much easier to “go after” someone or some institution than to express real delight in someone or some institution. I think, in part, this is so for the same reason that car accident stories are more likely to lead off the local news than “fund-raising goals met”stories lead off the evening news. People have evolved to focus on trouble and to relax when it is absent. Unfortunately, this tendency isn’t necessarily very charitable.

            Six: Just as I need to be careful about going after those I disagree with I need to relax about people who come after me. The truth is that I’ve changed my mind, and some other people who are threatened by that or angry with that or just sad that will never “get it.” I need to let them be angry or overly sympathetic or even pray for my soul without getting too upset.

            Seven: There is a whole side to blogging that I’m not very good at, but which is quite important if I want increase my readership stats. My webpage design has to be good. Old articles should be easy to search for and find. Search engine optimization should receive some attention. Pictures and other illustrations should abound. I’m thinking of plowing some money into this, but that old Calvinist taboo against self-promotion is pushing the other way. But, as I’ve noted, I’m also a bit narcissistic. We’ll see.

            Eight. Blog posts should be short. It is hard to read long blog posts on a screen in a way that it isn’t hard to read a long book chapter. Brain physiologists are starting to write about why this is—I’ve written about it in my book and in blog posts. But what is short? Less than a thousand words, for sure. Five hundred would be better. But then—how do you address topics with the depth they deserve? Interestingly, I always manage to keep all my written sermons to less than 1500 words and usually not more than 1200. I have a much harder time doing that with blogs. Today I think I’ll succeed.

            Nine. This may be related to the need to stay real. But the best bloggers know how to make strategic use of self-disclosure. Readers need reasons to identify not just with an argument, but with a person.

            Ten. Sermons—or revisions of them—can sometimes make it to the blog. But they don’t lend themselves to blog posts very often. Put them on your church’s website. Mine are.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

More Nervousness About Strategic Planning

So, I’d really like to see my church, Lawrence Park Community Church, grow and thrive! Among the many other things that churches do, we are embarking on a Strategic Planning process. I wrote about that in my last post.

I’ve done a lot of strategic planning in the past, both as a participant and as a facilitator, for churches, denominations, magazines, schools, and other NGOs. As I prepare for Lawrence Park’s process, however, I am becoming increasingly nervous. I think this is why I’m nervous.

Basically, the problems we face as church in today’s society are so large and pervasive that I’m not sure we’ll find a winning formula by doing Strategic Planning. One aspect of strategic planning, in particular, has me scratching my head.

Most discussions of strategic planning insist on the importance of consulting stakeholders early, often, and authentically if you want the process to succeed. That makes sense, in part. We need a high level of buy-in from the members of the church, so we need to bring them along as a part of the process. We’ll have congregational meetings, surveys, focus groups, and so on.

But here is the thing. Do I really think that this consultative process is going to reveal the insight our strategic planning process needs to really make a difference for LPCC? I worry that the answer is “no.”

Let’s face it. Churches are under intense pressure. The knock on mainline churches is that this is their peculiar issue. But attendance is dropping all over the place. I just read John S. Dickerson’s The Great Evangelical Recession for example. He documents a similar decline—twenty or thirty years later—in Evangelical churches throughout the USA.

The thing is, this broad and significant decline in attendance suggests that the issues the church faces defy easy or obvious solutions generated internally. Sure, bad preaching or ineffective youth programs or an uninviting congregation will not thrive. But the crisis the church faces isn’t just local. It is much broader and deeper than that. After two thousand years, most people are not convinced the church has a track record worth pursuing. Some of the roots of the church’s current decline are also matters not related to the church’s record. So, for example, people don’t read much anymore. People are suspicious of institutions. People are stuck in traffic. Kids play soccer and hockey. People have bought the media-driven suggestion that life is about having fun and consuming things, not about sacrifice and charity or trying to follow a first century Jew.

So, given the many layers of the complex situation my congregation and every other congregation faces, why would I look to the membership of my congregation for the key insight that will change everything? If making the right choices was as simple as polling the congregation, why are so many churches—including ones that did lots of strategic planning--failing?

To me, answering the  question of “where is the insight we need?” is key. We must  avoid the trap of thinking that the consensus ideas the congregation comes up with are the ideas that we need. One more SWOT exercise is not going to suddenly remove the blinders from our eyes (even if due diligence requires such exercises). But where then do we look for that insight we crave, if not among the members? An expert? A facilitator who will help us dig deeper? Do we read lots of books? Is there another kind of process that will unleash the congregation’s creativity?

Right now, I don’t know.