Monday, December 19, 2016

Post-truth, the alt-right and the nativity

The climate of the stable stands in stark contrast to two trends that are gaining momentum in western society.

It is rare for me to feel embarrassed about being a Christian.  But, on November 8 as I watched media interview American Christians who supported Donald Trump, I was embarrassed. I simply could not reconcile the poisonous and frequently false rhetoric of the President-elect with the implications of the Gospel message. During the Christmas season, Christians and non-Christians can discover the implications of that message in the nativity.

Last night as I stuffed and stitched cloth nativity figures together for my grandchildren to play with as we read the Christmas story, I had plenty of time (due to my inadequate sewing skills) to reflect on the nativity as a metaphor for our time. 

Every nativity scene has a baby Jesus with open arms. The baby is ready to embrace everyone and everything. His open arms are a powerful symbol of welcome, friendship and acceptance.  He is also a symbol of vulnerability.  He is, after all, lying in a feeding trough filled with hay.  That ox and ass hovering around might start rooting in the manger for food.

Every nativity scene also includes the baby’s parents, some shepherds and three wise men, variously referred to as kings or magi. This disparate group of strangers might feel some trepidation about rubbing shoulders. They are a mismatch of cultures, religions, ethnicity and socio-economic status.  But before the baby, their differences melt away.  Male or female, rich or poor, Jewish or not, they are people equal in dignity.   

The climate of the stable stands in stark contrast to two trends that are gaining momentum in western society.

As recent political events have illustrated, truth is on its way out.  The Oxford Dictionaries choose “post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year. Use of the term spiked during the Brexit referendum and the US Presidential election. 

Oxford defines post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.  In plain speak, “don’t confuse me with the truth” sums up the present mood.  

A November tweet from the Independent lamented, “We’ve entered a post-truth world and there’s no going back.”  Apparently, people have no appetite for truth. Truth has become irrelevant.

The runner up to the 2016 word of the year was “alt-right”.  Alt-right refers to an ideological group that espouses ultra conservative and reactionary viewpoints. The alt-right rejects mainstream politics and uses online media to disseminate its content.  This content frequently smacks of white supremacy, racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism.

The word of the year and its runner-up are indicative of the troubling times in which we live. From the pushback on refugees and immigration to reports of an escalation in incidents of racial violence, western society seems to be trending backwards.  This trend is playing out internationally and in our own communities.

Racist flyers, for example, are cropping up in villages, towns and cities across the country.   In my village of about 1700 inhabitants someone removed an anti-Semitic flyer from a community bulletin board. In Richmond, residents rallied in unity against the distribution of anti-Chinese flyers. In Edmonton, police were on the lookout for a man believed to be delivering flyers targeting Moslems.  In Toronto, police were investigating racist posters urging people to join the alt-right.

In this climate of suspicion and hatred, the scene at the stable can be an inspiration for more harmonious human interactions. The nativity can remind us that being human has always been risky, that to love means to be vulnerable, and that the way to peace is one of inclusion not exclusion. In the environment of the stable, ego gives way to humility, suspicion to trust, prejudice to acceptance, superiority to friendship, bombast to silence, and falsehood to truth.

Whatever beliefs we hold, may the peace and goodwill that infused the stable with warmth on that first Christmas penetrate our hearts, correct our attitudes, and inform our actions throughout the coming year.

The Gospel message so beautifully presented in the nativity will never embarrass me.  I am embarrassed, though, that we still don’t get it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Smudging the lines

Smudging ceremony crosses the line into the realm of the sacred
Imagine if a public school put up a nativity scene to teach students the Christian view of Christmas, and invited a priest to bless the figurines, the school, and the school community.  Parents would accuse the school of promoting Christian beliefs. They would see the blessing as an imposition of those beliefs on their children.  

The parents would be justified in objecting.  The school would have blurred the lines between culture, traditional practices and spiritual beliefs. 

When a Port Alberni school held a smudging ceremony, it did just that.

Candice Servatius, a parent at John Howitt Elementary School (JHES), is taking the school district to court. In September 2015, JHES held a smudging ceremony. A teacher told Servatius’s daughter that she must participate. Servatius maintains that the smudging ceremony was religious in nature, that the school violated her religious freedom and breached its duty of neutrality. The Justice Center forConstitutional Freedoms is acting on her behalf.

The school district maintains that the smudging was cultural. It argues that the ceremony fits the mandate of incorporating Aboriginal perspectives into the British Columbia curriculum.  

I spoke with an Elder here in the Kootenays  about smudging. “It’s cultural, not religious,” she said. She went onto explain that smudging was not (and is not) a universal practice. In some communities, it was practical.  It cleansed the air of unpleasant odors and the smoke drove insects away.  It may be that the spiritual connotations commonly associated with smudging developed over time.

Niigaan Sinclair, Associate Professor and Acting Head of the Native Studies Department at the University of Manitoba, has a different understanding of smudging.  Speaking on the CBC radio show The Current, Sinclair called the ceremony spiritual, but not religious. He described smudging as the taking and burning of medicines to bring them to a person’s emotional, mental, physical, and, usually, spiritual side.  He described bringing the smoke to one’s self as a way of committing to a relationship with the Earth. 

Whether the Nuu-chah-nulth smudging at JHES was cultural, spiritual or religious, the school imposed a set of beliefs on its students.   This is evident from the contents of the letter that the school sent home to parents to explain the reasons for smudging.

“Nuu-chah-nulth People believe strongly that “Hii-Suukish-Tswalk,  (everything is one; all is connected). Everything has a spirit and energy exists beyond the end of one school year and into the next. This will be our opportunity to…experience cleansing of energy from previous students in our classroom and previous energy in our classroom and cleanse our own spirits to allow GREAT new experiences to occur for all of us.”  

When a school begins to talk about cleansing spirits, it is moving away from something that is strictly cultural in nature into the realm of the sacred.

A group of figurines in a stable tells a story about a baby sleeping in the hay surrounded by animals.   There is nothing inherently religious about that. But, blessing the scene illuminates the Christian belief in the incarnation, in God becoming human.  An innocuous tableau suddenly becomes a place of reflection for Christian belief. 

Smudging to cleanse the air of odours or to chase away mosquitoes falls under culture.  Smudging to cleanse spirits communicates a specific set of spiritual beliefs.  It crosses the line between culture and religion, between the ordinary and the sacred.

When the City of Saguenay, Quebec insisted on reciting the Lord’s Prayer before its council meetings, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the state could not use culture, heritage or tradition to justify a religious practice in the public domain.

Public schools, like other state institutions, have a duty of religious neutrality.

It will be unfortunate if this case pits two cultures against one another, and hampers the work of reconciliation. This case is not about whether schools should teach authentic Aboriginal content. Rather, the question is how to appropriately present that content.

Canadian schools can best support the national task of reconciliation with meaningful, well-developed curriculum.  This can include presentations but children do not have to be directly involved. Children can learn about aboriginal traditions without participating in a ceremony that blurs the lines between culture, religion and spirituality. 

When JHES held its smudging ceremony, it imposed a set of spiritual beliefs. And in doing so, it breached the duty of neutrality.  

Images: Nativity scene by Gustave Dore