Archive for February, 2010

From change.org’s War and Peace blog post (emphasis mine):

In Somalia, Too Many Get Caught in Crossfire of U.S. Policy

Too often the U.S. and other Western nations are so caught up with today’s violent troubles that they fail to act to prevent tomorrow’s violent troubles. For twenty years, Somalia has always been at the top of humanitarian aid agency agendas, but in the middle of humanitarian donor and political mediators’ agendas. Only when body counts rise from rocket attacks or famine do the donors and mediators really get involved.

In St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, he compared us to the different parts of the body — see this really good analysis of the passage on Magdalene’s Musings.

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body.

I Corinthians 12.12-31,
One Body with Many Members

Indeed, our empathy extends further than our own local congregation, local community, or even the worldwide Church. We feel a connection with victims of natural disasters we see in vivid details on television, or read about in our newspapers; with victims of war and persecution. Yet this connection, unlike that talked about by St. Paul, often does not last. Out of sight, out of mind, as the old saying goes.

Philanthrocapitalism, in a wonderful blog post that managed to both correct certain misperceptions about Adam Smith as well as criticize how we donate, has this to say:

Effective giving needs the head and the heart. As all our hearts go out to the people of Haiti, we offer three thoughts about how to give. First, give money. This may sound obvious, but aid agencies are swamped at this time with offers of food, clothing and other goods. Even when these goods are needed, it is far more cost effective for charities to buy and ship exactly what they need than sorting out gifts in kind. Second, give it to an organisation with a track record of effective action. Thanks to the internet, it has never been easier to find out who those organisations are. Third, why not match fund what you have given to Haiti with a gift through kiva or globalgiving to someone suffering just as much, but less dramatically, elsewhere in the world?

To this Aid Watch’s Laura Freschi reminds us further:

  1. Don’t restrict (or earmark) your donations to be used only in Haiti, but rather allow your chosen NGO to spend the money you donate as they see fit. If you don’t trust them to allocate your funds effectively to where they are most needed, then why are you giving them money in the first place?
  2. Take up the Philanthrocapitalism blog’s advice to give an equal amount to “someone suffering just as much, but less dramatically, elsewhere in the world.”
  3. Space out your giving. Organizations with a history of working closely with Haitian communities will still be there in six months. They will probably be there in a year, and probably in five years too. They will need your money then as well, when the spotlight has shifted to the next disaster.

May we learn not only to give generously, but also effectively.


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Religious freedom for minorities is a complicated matter. After all, we still have Muslim-bashing in the States, anti-Semitic attacks in Europe, etc. But the myth of religious tolerance in moderate Muslim-majority countries (e.g. Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia), periodically comes into conflict with hard fact on the ground.

Latest case in point, from Indonesia Matters, about the recent spate of anti-church-building demonstrations in Bekasi:

The clerics said that if we didn’t sign (a petition against building a Batak church), they wouldn’t recite prayers at our funerals. I insisted on not signing it, but most of my neighbors were cowed by the threat.
Rudi, 38, a moderate Muslim

At night, their singing disturbs the locals’ sleep
Murhali, Bekasi FPI leader

For more about FPI, the Islamic Defender Front, look up Wikipedia. Your humble author does not wish to go through Indonesian libel law by stating it out in print. Suffice it to say that Murhali’s claim is rather preposterous, given that Christians do late-night services at most twice a year (Christmas Eve and Easter Eve), whereas, as Indonesia Matters’ Ross pointed out, local mosques blare out calls to prayer before dawn each morning.

Read the rest, and weep. We are all God’s creations, but some of us clearly have not gotten the memo yet.

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The day before yesterday, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the Lent season. Like many other important days in the Christian calendar, its significance is best understood in the context of the seasonal changes of Europe.

Just as Christmas falls shortly after the shortest day of the southern solstice (winter solstice in the north), and thus the birth of Christ is associated with rebirth; thus Easter falls after the first full moon following the vernal equinox, and marks the fulfillment of the promise of Christmas. Which leaves us with the Lent period, the forty days preceding Easter. What, you might ask, does it symbolize?

Lent is a period of preparation — of prayer, penitence, self-denial — and it does, like the other two, have agricultural associations, to the period when food stored during the autumn is beginning to run out, what gardeners call the hungry gap. The day before Ash Wednesday, Shrove Tuesday (or Mardi Gras in French), is thus traditionally the last day for frivolities before people buckle down for the period of semi-fasting, so much that the name “Mardi Gras” often refers to the entire Carnival season, instead of the day itself.

We are blessed to live in a world where, for most people in developed and emerging countries, food scarcity is no longer a perennial issue (though that’s not the case as late as 19th century Sweden, which led to the interesting discovery of epigenetics. Genes aren’t everything, as it turns out). And yet, too many of us assume that therefore the reverse is true: that there is no scarcity of anything — some because of a blind faith in divine providence, and some a similarly blind faith in technological progress.

Our excesses already have measurable impacts, some of which are more severe than others. We caused ozone depletion, though to humanity’s credit the countries of the world managed to coöperate to rectify the problem. Our food supply is increasingly dominated by large agribusiness companies — Food, Inc. is a terrifying reminder of how far gone we are, with practices that torture animals, poison our land and food supply, and where GM contamination results in the victim being prosecuted for intellectual property violations, rather than the companies and the lack of proper regulation of GM use. And our carbon-burning lifestyle is causing our climate to get increasingly more erratic over the years.

We could use the transition from Mardi Gras to Ash Wednesday to contemplate a change in our lifestyle. Turn off that lightbulb when you leave the room. Set your electronic devices to sleep when inactive, and turn them off if you won’t be using them for a while. Don’t make symbolic changes that actually damage the environment more — such as turning in a decent used car for a new one that gets only slightly better mileage — but learn to drive more efficiently, and use public transport whenever possible. Eat less meat (especially those from large meat-packers), and avoid fast-food joints, who collectively created the demand for large meatpackers and thus the unhealthy industrialization of animal farming.

Some of these changes are costly, and will remain costly as long as government incentives favor our current agricultural regime. There were critical responses to the UU World’s call,  Thanksgiving 2008, to switch to organic turkey. We cannot be holier-than-thou in our effort to better ourselves, and must realize that for the poorer among us, the budget simply is not there. But we can act. By buying the right kinds of produce, thus sending the right signal to food producers and supermarkets (even Wal-mart is paying attention now). By writing our Congressperson or MP. By donating healthy food to soup kitchens and orphanages. By, if you’re Jamie Cullum, teaching people healthy cooking, and reforming prison diets.

And it’s not all about food, though, as Napoleon once said, an army marches on its stomach. Today marks the birthdays of Svante Arrhenius, the Swedish chemist who discovered electrolysis (1903 Nobel Prize in Chemistry) and formulator of the greenhouse law still in use today:

if the quantity of carbonic acid increases in geometric progression, the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic progression.

ΔF = α ln(C/C0)

Fittingly, the discovery of electrolysis leads to the fuel cell, which might or might not form part of the solution in our impending transportation switch away from carbon-based fuels.

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The Lent season is almost upon us.  For us Christians, it is a call for introspection — we need to question what we believe in, as well as how we believe — how does being a Christian make me a better person, you might ask. The bible enjoins us to be the salt of the earth, but remember that salt is also the instrument the Romans used to lay waste to Carthage.

The Old Testament’s beginning is steeped in mythology — from the account of the creation, all the way to the stories about the early patriarchs (see a 1995 Time article for an introduction, and also Asimov’s excellent Guide to the Bible). The historical accounts in the Books of Kings and the Chronicles are certainly exaggerated — just as the book of Genesis underpopulates the earth, the historical books certainly describes an overpopulated Levant in which hundreds of thousands die at each battle. The final books are considered apocryphal by most Christians, starting from St. Jerome’s Vulgate translation to Latin.

We are called to humility in the practice of our faith. Subverting science teaching in public schools is not part of it, let alone falsely claiming persecution while in fact persecuting a family that brought this abuse to attention, in the end driving them out of town. As written in Exodus 20.16:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour

As Jesus himself instructed, in Matthew 22.21:

Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesars; and unto God the things that are Gods

Religion (as opposed to faith) corrupts itself as it gets mixed up with temporal affairs — we have the right, and in fact, responsibility — to act out of our moral concerns, but at the same time, having a near-sighted literalist belief, combined with the hubris of acting on G-d’s behalf, is surely un-Christian. The adage that power corrupts (and absolute power corrupts absolutely), sadly has been reinforced by examples too many times, and all too often, by people who think of themselves as righteous Christians.

At the same time, the acceptance that certain books may not be what they are on a surface level, actually opens our eyes to their deeper truths. Like Aesop’s fables, biblical writings do not have to be factually true to be instructive. One case in point is the Prayer of Manasseh, which calls us to penitence. It is almost certainly not written by Manasseh himself, yet we, as sinners, readily identify with its message despite the misattribution. Read more about the wonderful history of this prayer here.

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