Food for thought

Joseph Ratzinger, who steps down this week as Pope Benedict XVI, was not as popular, let alone as saintly, as his predecessor John Paul II. But he has acquired a well-deserved reputation as the “Green Pope”, making the Vatican the first carbon-neutral country in the world, putting thousands of solar panels of Vatican rooftops (a project which won the 2008 Euro Solar Prize) and committing the Vatican to having 20 per cent of its energy come from renewable sources by 2020.

Ratzinger has always been an animal lover. He practises the Church’s official teaching that we owe kindness to non-human animals and that it is morally wrong to inflict gratuitous suffering on them. In an interview with a German journalist, before he became Pope, he said: “Animals, too, are God’s creatures. Certainly, a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.”

In his first sermon as Pope he returned to this theme: “The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast. The earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction.”

The 40-day period of Lent in the liturgical calendar of the Church is intended to be a time of spiritual preparation leading up to Easter. But, in practise, Lent often degenerates into meaningless acts of masochism (from “I’m giving up coffee/chocolate for Lent” to ritual self-laceration in “folk Catholicism”).

If the purpose of fasting is to force us (well-to-do Christians) to be more attentive to the cries of the poor, to reflect on our self-indulgent lifestyles and to change direction, then instead of giving up (say) coffee for forty days, it would be better to use this period of Lent to study the conditions under which coffee is manufactured around the world, who gains and who loses out, and then perhaps to boycott gourmet coffee companies whose products we unthinkingly consume.

Indeed, food is a topic around which cluster numerous justice issues. Simply pausing to ask ourselves “Who makes the food on our table, and at what cost to the rest of creation and to future generations?” opens up a plethora of disturbing moral challenges. Here are just a sample:

1. Cruelty to animals. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to be appalled, like the Pope, by the horrific conditions under which many animals are bred and killed to meet the demands of a consumer society. Factory-farmed pigs, geese and ducks are treated as “commodities” (separated from mothers, artificially fattened and inseminated). Many of us in the Church participate in such structural sin by our silence.

2. Intensive fishing and farming practices. The use of massive trawler nets in the north sea has depleted fish stocks, and the same is happening in the Indian Ocean. South Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen attack each other almost every day around the island’s coast; the reason being that South Indian coastal waters have been denuded of fish by unsustainable fishing methods, forcing fishermen from Tamilnadu to poach in Sri Lankan waters.

3. Waste. According to the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, as much as half the food produced in the world ends up as waste each year. They blame this on unnecessarily strict sell-by dates, “buy-one-get-one-free” and Western consumer demand for cosmetically perfect food, along with “poor engineering and agricultural practices” and poor storage facilities in many developing countries.

4. Climate Change. Poor communities around the world suffer increasingly from severe climatic events and changing weather patterns caused by greenhouse gas emissions in the wealthier nations. Desertification, crop failure and major flooding are growing at a pace. Last year was the most arid in U.S history; while thousands of small farmers in India commit suicide every year because of failed monsoons, chronic indebtedness to loan sharks, and dwindling arable land.

5. Trade Injustice. Huge government subsidies paid to farms and agribusinesses in the U.S and European Union, combined with taxes on imported food, means that farmers in poor countries cannot compete and so give up agriculture altogether. While the jury is still out on the toxic effects of GM foods on humans and the environment, the question of who has access to GM seeds has a clear answer: only rich farmers who can afford to buy the seeds from giants like Monsanto. An unfair global system of patents worsens inequalities between and within nations.

The biblical prophets were scathing in their scorn at those who thought of fasting as a religious technique for getting God on their side:

‘Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not hide from your own kin? (Isaiah 58: 6,7)

Defiant witness

Why do men like President Assad of Syria prefer to rule over rubble than surrender power? Arrogance in politics is compounded of ignorance, willful blindness, and fantasies of invincibility. And when entire societies prostrate themselves before such arrogant rulers, what comes to mind are the controversial Freudian notion of a collective “death-wish” and the Biblical language of the “demonic”.

Perceptive observers of the human condition, like the Jewish political thinker Hannah Arendt, have reminded us that evil at its most radical happens not in acts of blatant, monstrous savagery, from which most of us may easily distance ourselves, but in the mundane banality of ordinary acts of routine de-humanization. No tyrant can last for long without a vast army of people, often decent and conventionally “moral”, who passively follow orders. They don’t have to be all soldiers, policemen and civil servants/bureaucrats. The Nazi regime from which Arendt fled was served by brilliant scientists, doctors and engineers who had anaesthetized themselves to the suffering around them and contributed, often as willing agents, to that suffering and never asking the questions: “whose interests are promoted by my work?”, and “who is bearing the costs of my work?” These are questions that all people in liberal democracies, too, should be pondering; but few, alas, do.

Christian parents and educationists can best serve the kingdom of God by teaching children, from an early age, the responsibility of disobedience. Of learning to say “No” and of questioning what they see and hear, not least in the pulpits of many Christian churches.

I am encouraged that signs of such responsible disobedience are beginning to emerge in the Christian community of my own country. Monday was the 65th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s national independence, and the Anglican church observed it with a 3-hour service in the cathedral in Colombo, not of thanksgiving but of public lament for the state of the nation and especially the collapse of proper governance (see my last post). It was attended by hundreds from other Christian denominations as well as non-Christian observers, all of us dressed in white (the traditional colour of mourning).

What weapons can the Church wield against oligarchic despotisms, apart from prayer, symbolic acts of protest and courageously saying “No”? Central are the word of the Cross and the simple signs of water, bread and wine, tokens of an alternative identity and supreme loyalty (if understood and practised properly).

And, of course, martyrdom.

A few days ago, I attended a fascinating lecture in a theological college in Singapore on the “Lost World of Genesis One” by a visiting American professor of Old Testament, John Walton. His central argument was that the opening chapter of the Bible is not about “material /physical origins” as much as “functional origins”: i.e. the ordering of a sacred space in which the God of the cosmos dwells. The literary genre appropriate to the chapter is that of ancient “Temple texts”. (Thus the framework of a six-day week because many official temple inaugurations took place over a week). The climax of the chapter is the “rest” of God, when God surveys the place of his habitation and comes to make his throne in it.

I have written and preached on this chapter many times; and I found Walton’s approach deeply respectful of the integrity of the text and sensitive to the thought-world of the first Israelite readers and their neighbours in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Canaan. I am persuaded by his interpretation of the divine “rest” by analogy with other texts such as Ps.132:8,14 and Is.66:1. The literal opposite of “rest”, after all, is “unrest”, not work. God’s “rest’ in creation signifies his sovereignty over the forces of natural chaos and social upheaval that always threaten to overwhelm God’s people. Seeing the material world as the Temple of God, with human beings (women as well as men) as both his image in the Temple and his priests engaged in service to the Temple, is religiously revolutionary and politically liberating.

But how does one believe in the sovereignty of such a God in a world that seems so godforsaken? When evil seems enthroned in places such as the nations mentioned above, and rich nations wreak havoc with the earth and its nonhuman creatures, how do the People of God witness to the “rest” of divine rule?

Much of twentieth-century theology, especially following the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has learned to interpret divine sovereignty in terms of the “trinitarian history” of a God who suffers with and for his creation without ceasing to be God. Our tears are but a drop in the ocean of God’s own tears. Easter is not only a reversal of Good Friday, but also its vindication. The risen Christ still bears his wounds, and his reign is the reign of a vulnerable, suffering love in which he calls his people to participate. The arrogant power-fantasies of Herods and Caesars are undermined not by force of arms but by the faithful testimony of men and women, in word and deed, to a way of life grounded in a different understanding of being human.

A political obituary

Several countries in the last century moved from being “tinpot dictatorships” to flourishing democracies. Sri Lanka has plummeted, since its independence in 1948, from a flourishing democracy to the status of a “tinpot dictatorship” today.

Last friday saw the sealing of the final nail in the coffin of the rule of law and constitutional democracy in Sri Lanka. Politicians of the ruling regime voted to impeach the Chief Justice, in total disregard of the judicial decision by the country’s two highest courts- the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal – that the entire process was seriously flawed and unconstitutional. We thus have a legislature that has lost all legitimacy, having shredded the Constitution that it was elected and sworn to uphold.

There has been a rapidly deteriorating political and human rights situation in Sri Lanka in recent years. Three years ago, I lamented the terrible carnage that was being inflicted by both sides in the final months of the war. There was much euphoria when the 30-year conflict with the Tamil Tigers ended in May 2009, and great hopes were entertained of national reconciliation, an end to militarism and the recovery of the economy. However, those of us who knew the nature of the ruling regime, and watched with dismay the chauvinist jingoism that attended the President’s boast that he had won “the war on terror”, had no such hopes. Predictably, what we feared has unfolded- the obstinate refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing on the part of the army, and the legitimate grievances that led to the war in the first place; the repression of the media and the manipulation of electoral politics; the appointment of the President’s family members and cronies to key positions in government and the economy; and the systematic elimination of dissent and the continuation of militarisation under the pretext of preventing terrorism from rising again.

Predictable it may have been; but not the speed at which it has all happened. What is most shocking is the way not only business leaders but highly educated academics and other professional men and women meekly capitulated and acquiesced in the nepotism, corruption and outright deceit that has become a regular feature of public life in Sri Lanka today. Whether through bribery, intimidation, or sheer apathy, people have chosen to remain silent and passively follow orders. It reflects badly on the nation’s educational system, let alone religious institutions- of which Sri Lankans have always boasted.

What has become stark is the division today between men and women in public life who are governed by a moral sensibility and those opportunists who are driven only by self-gain. This division is more fundamental than differences on policy or of political affiliation. The President’s loyal members of parliament are all either gangsters or otherwise intelligent men who have sacrificed their moral scruples for the intoxications of power or the material benefits that flow from being close to power.

I am happy to report that the 3 committed Christians in parliament (only 3 out of 225 members) have not compromised their moral integrity in discharging their political responsibilities. On the contrary, they have been the most well-informed, articulate and outspoken critics of the ruling regime. As a result they attract venomous abuse in the state media. Two of them are personal friends, and I am full of admiration for their moral courage.

Moral courage is not what comes to mind when one thinks of the Chief Justice. It is another political irony that, having been widely perceived as a “stooge” of the President, she should now become the nation’s principal political martyr! When a couple of recent Supreme Court rulings went against the President’s party, she became the target of a scurrilous media campaign and false charges of corruption were leveled against her.

We can only hope that more “stooges” will eventually rebel. The famous words of the Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoeller, in the context of the Nazi tyranny, echo throughout history:

“First they came for the Jews

and I did not speak out- because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the communists

and I did not speak out- because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists

and I did not speak out- because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me-

and there was no one left

to speak out for me.”

Speaking out is not easy in the face of political thuggery and restraints on the media. Also, as a young law student from the University of Colombo wrote to me yesterday: “An unfortunate thing about most political analysis today is that it makes the problems we face seem so huge that even those who want to change things, feel nothing is possible. I was wondering what sort of suggestions one might give people about how to use our individual spheres to help change society. Conversations on these issues with those we meet is one thing. Being informed, knowing our history is another. challenging minor injustices is another. But are there any other ideas you have on this? And, do you know if there is literature on this? I am sure social activists have struggled with, and written about, how individuals can make a difference for the good, in the small spheres of influence they have. Any thoughts?”

How should I answer him? We are eager to learn from those who have lived under similar political regimes and have seen justice and freedom restored, even in part.

Dr Ramachandra lives in Sri Lanka with his Danish wife, Karin, whom he married in 1998. She is a trained counsellor and Bible teacher. Dr Ramachandra has been involved for many years with the Civil Rights Movement in Sri Lanka, as well as with the global Micah Network and A Rocha (a world-wide biodiversity conservation organization). He is the author of several essays and books of which the most recent is Subverting Global Myths: Theology and the Public Issues that Shape Our World (2008).

Sounds of silence

The Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka was jointly awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for medicine. Five years ago, Yamanaka and his colleagues at Kyoto University showed how induced pluripotent stem cells could be derived from adult cells and potentially substituted, in research and therapy, for embryonic stem cells.

What the Nobel committee (in its citation and press release) and the major TV channels and newspapers ignored, however, was the fact that Yamanaka moved away from research on embryos on moral grounds, and not merely technical reasons.

It was not too long ago when “hype” about how embryonic stem-cell research would revolutionize medical treatments was rife in the global media. Politicians like Gordon Brown and Barack Obama were adamant that those who opposed such research on moral and religious grounds were obstacles to “progress”. Today those voices seem to have fallen silent. Even when the Vatican and other Christian leaders were encouraging work like what Yamanaka eventually undertook, the media attention was all on the promise of embryonic cells (after all, we have to do something with the thousands of frozen embryos languishing in fertility clinics, don’t we?)

The season of Advent in the Christian calendar brings multiple challenges to our taken-for-granted ways of seeing. Here is a God who catches us by surprise, breaking into peoples’ lives in unexpected and unsettling ways. This is a God who embraces embryonic life, identifies with the weak and vulnerable, and chooses to work through flawed women and men for the redemption of the world. There is also a challenge to fundamentalists: pagan Magi behave like God’ s servants, while the ruler of the Jews behaves like a pagan tyrant.

Not least is the challenge to journalists and the scores of “expert” commentators who are invited by anchormen and chat show hosts to pronounce on global events. Where would the cameras and TV crews have been focused on that first Christmas? Outside Herod’s palace, probably, certainly not in Bethlehem. But Judaea was too much of a political backwater, anyway, for the Roman media to bother.

Most histories of most countries focus on the actions of monarchs, warriors and industrialists. Howard Zinn is uncommon among historians in telling his nation’s story (the United States, in his case) from the perspective of the little people: blacks, poor whites, women, native Indians, common labourers.

“When I taught American history, I ignored the canon of the traditional textbooks, in which the heroic figures were mostly presidents, generals, and industrialists. In those texts, wars were treated as problems in military strategy and not in morality; Christopher Columbus and Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt were treated as heroes in the march of democracy, with not a word from the objects of their violence. I suggested that we approach Columbus and Jackson from the perspective of their victims, that we look at the magnificent feat of the transcontinental railroad from the viewpoint of the Irish and Chinese labourers who, in building it, died by the thousands.” (Howard Zinn, Failure to Quit, 1993)

As for Herod’s murderous rage which left many childless mothers in Bethlehem, only one evangelist records it (with no voluminous commentary) and links it to an ancient lament from an earlier time of national suffering. And a friend’s Christmas newsletter reminds me that Mary’s son was also born with a “death warrant” around his neck. She was warned that a sword would slash through her own heart. Would Mary have accepted her vocation if she had known the consequences for the other mothers of Bethlehem? Nowhere do the biblical writers seek to explain such events. Clearly God is not a Cosmic Utilitarian. There is great evil abroad in the world and most nativity plays sanitize away this dreadful reality. (The most repugnant aspect of Christmas for me is the sentimentalism, not the commercialism).

God has not promised to explain to us every terrible thing that happens. Every attempt to “explain evil” only trivializes it, reduces the horror and irrationality of it. And the trivialization of evil is what is characteristic of the narratives of secular modernity, whether Kantian, Utilitarian, Marxist or Freudian. In the words of Archbishop Rowan Williams, they leave us “linguistically bereaved”, lacking a vocabulary to make sense of our deepest motivations, let alone the deeply threatening elements in our social and cosmic environment. There are aspects of human behaviour that we cannot make sense of, aspects of our selves – and our collective humanity- that cannot be caught in rational schemes.

But parents continue to bring children into this dark world. They assume that existence is fundamentally good, despite the silence of the heavens. And the God Christians trust in is a God who bears the wounds of his world.

Perhaps the biggest challenge that Advent heralds is the revolutionary and “this-worldly” nature of the “salvation” that God promises. Mary exults thus in “God my Saviour”:

“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
but has sent the rich away empty.”
(Luke 1: 51-53)

Note that the verbs in her song are in what is sometimes called the prophetic aorist tense. So certain is God’s coming reign of justice, that it is spoken of as already having been established.

For whom is judgment Good News? Definitely not for those who profit from the present world order.

Inconvenient truths

On the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbour, it is worth reflecting again on the question: whose history do we read?

Towards the end of the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson presented to the US Congress an ambitious scheme for a new international order based on democratic government, the right of small nations to self-determination, the reduction of armaments, and free trade. Even as the US was suppressing liberty in central America and the Philippines (which they had annexed in 1898), Wilson was proudly declaring that “we are chosen, and permanently chosen, to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.”

Wilson’s rousing rhetoric, leading up to the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris, was seized upon by anti-colonial nationalist leaders from Egypt to China. Despite some glaring faults, Pankaj Mishra’s latest book From the Ruins of Empire deftly portrays the hypocrisies and brutalities of colonial rule and the responses of subjugated Asian and North African intellectuals. Mishra chronicles how their hopes were dashed when Wilson (who was, for a brief moment, the most admired politician all over the world) caved in to cynical imperialists such as the British Prime Minister Lloyd George and Clemenceau of France. Britain and France had dispatched hundreds of thousands of artisans and soldiers from all over their colonial empires to their battlefields in Europe, with vague promises of self-rule if victorious. After the war, both nations promptly forgot their promises.

Mishra tells us how racist slurs and jokes by Western powers marred the discussions about the constitution of the proposed League of Nations, with many Asian and African nations barred representation at the conference. Even the Japanese, an Asian imperial power on par with the Europeans, and who arrived in Paris seeking an end to trade restriction on Japanese imports in French Indochina and an end to discrimination against Japanese immigrants in California, were humiliated by being given a seat at the far end of the table, next to Ecuador and Guatemala.

The British manipulated Wilson, who was an Anglophile himself and surrounded by advisers drawn mainly from the east-coast WASP elites. They persuaded him to support British rule in Egypt, and informed him that even poets like Rabindranath Tagore were dangerous firebrands!

Among the people disillusioned by Wilson was a young Vietnamese man living in Paris, Ho Chi Minh, then known as Nguyen Ai Quoc. He was a poor menial worker in Paris when Wilson arrived with his bold plans for a new international order of self-governing states. He rented a morning suit and sought a personal audience with Wilson, “carefully quoting from the United States Declaration of Independence in his petition”. He was allowed nowhere near Wilson, or any other Western leader.

Like so many other anti-colonial thinkers and activists, Ho was then attracted by Lenin’s 1916 pamphlet which asserted that the US was no less an imperial power than Britain, France or Japan, greedy for resources, territory and markets, and that it was the inherent instability of the global capitalist system that had caused the Great War.

1919 was a crucial year for many nations struggling to be freed from colonialism. Ho Chi Minh joined the French Communist Party in 1921. “It was patriotism, not Communism”, he later recalled, “which had prompted me to believe in Lenin.”

In India, the 29-year-old Jawaharlal Nehru wrote of how the “Wilsonian moment” had passed, and “for ourselves it is again the distant hope that must inspire us, not the immediate breathless looking for deliverance.” A 25-year-old Chinese journalist by the name of Mao Zedong lamented, “So much for national self-determination, I think it’s really shameless!” He wrote to his friends in France to say that he was through with all other ideas save “the Russian Revolution” which was the only way to liberate China. Two years later, the Chinese Communist Party was birthed in Shanghai. Mao later recalled: “The whole of the Chinese revolutionary movement found it origin in the action of young students and intellectuals who had been awakened.”

We know how Germany took its revenge on Britain and France two decades later, having been utterly humiliated at the Paris conference of 1919 and excluded from the League of Nations. And Ho Chi Minh not only drove the French out of Indo-China but inflicted on the United States the most humiliating military defeat in its history. Over 50,000 Americans lost their lives, not to mention numberless Vietnamese and Laotians, because of Wilson’s decision to ignore the humble petition of a Vietnamese migrant worker.

One of the unofficial Chinese representatives to Paris, Liang Qichao, wrote back home that “China’s only crime” had been “her weakness and her belief in international justice after the war. If, driven to desperation she attempts something hopeless, those who have helped to decide her fate cannot escape a part of the responsibility.”

If the next generation of Maos, Hos, Osamas and Castros are being formed today in Gaza, the West Bank, North-West Pakistan, the Congo, or northern Sri Lanka, who bears responsibility?

And whose stories will be told in the global media in 2019, when the world “remembers” 1919?

Freedom or Fanaticism?

Stupidity breeds stupidity. That’s the only lesson one can draw from yet another exhibition of scurrilous anti-Islamic propaganda (in the US and later in France), followed by mob hysteria and the shedding of innocent blood in Libya and Egypt. Who takes the trouble to watch such trash? And are not those who broadcast it to the Arab world, whether they be “Muslim”, “Christian” or “secularist” rabble-rousers, also culpable for the ensuing murders?

Violence is fueled by ignorance. And ignorance about “human rights’ as much as ignorance about Islam (not to mention Christianity) is rife in the Western mass media. Fundamentalist secularists, paradoxically joined by some American fundamentalist preachers, can only see the issue as one of “freedom of speech”. In a pluralist society people have the right to make movies and print cartoons which other people may find offensive. No subject should be taboo.

But the most difficult decisions we make are not about right and wrong, but choosing between competing rights. Error has its right of expression, but every person, including the dead, has the right not to be misrepresented or vilified. Laws against libel and slander recognize this in every civilized society. And publicly insulting those who cannot answer us back (especially the dead, children, the mentally disabled, and those in other societies) is the hallmark of the coward. Those who replace debate with insults are every bit as fanatical as those who resort to violence instead of counter-argument.

The language of “tolerance” is selectively applied in the US and Europe today. Anti-Islamic rhetoric is tolerated, but not anti-Gay rhetoric, for example. Indeed, anybody even expressing a personal opinion that he or she believes that homosexual acts are expressions of a disordered sexuality are hounded out of a job or refused an opportunity to express their views in the media an even in academic fora. As for anybody who expresses mockery at blacks or women, there is no way he can run for public office. The media outrage will be deafening. Why, then this self-righteous hypocrisy when it come to hate speech against Muslims or Christians? (Jews in the US, being the benefactors of many universities and owners of media cannot, of course, be touched)

Furthermore, one can enjoy a right and yet choose not to exercise it. Wise newspaper editors do this all the time. Some article, cartoon or photograph may not be in the public interest, or run counter to the paper’s own views, or fan the flames of social conflict by exposing a particularly vulnerable community to derision and contempt. And that is the position many Muslims find themselves in, especially in the US and parts of Western Europe, after Sept 11 2001.

At the height of the controversy about the Danish cartoons a few years ago, a Danish woman theologian, Lissi Rasmussen, wrote: “The fact that almost on a daily basis the media portray one-sided, negative stories about immigrants in general and Muslims in particular (reproduced by politicians and by public opinion), affects the Muslim minorities who feel unwanted, insecure and unconfident. This may lead to detachment also among well-educated, second-generation immigrants and become an excuse for avoiding responsibility. It has resulted in an ingrained mistrust of the media and political processes, a lack of interest to integrate into the Danish society and taken away the energy to reflect critically and contextually on Islam.”

So, stupidity breeds stupidity, and fanaticism breed rival fanaticisms. No doubt the Internet cannot be controlled and it is better for governments not to try. But responsible service providers seek to protect their customers from unsolicited mail, aggressive advertising and computer hackers. The best way to combat lies is by speaking the truth. The best way to promote respect for others is by practising it ourselves. Governments can provide incentives for better inter-religious instruction in schools rather than clamping down on all such instruction in the name of a mythical “neutrality”. Responsible TV broadcasters and newspaper editors can invite the ablest spokespeople from religious communities to express their tradition’s perspectives on public issues, rather than focusing all the time on the “lunatic fringe’ that all such communities (including rabid atheists) have.

Ignorance about the history of Islam is rife in American church circles. I meet university students, even professors, who are amazed when I share with them how much Western universities owe to the madrasas and teaching techniques of early Muslim scholars in what (from an Eurocentric angle) is termed the Near East. Or how much Western classical literature, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, owes to Islamic poetry and piety. When the conversation turns to American support for anti-democratic Middle Eastern tyrants, including Saddam Hussein, Mubarak and Assad, and the many Muslims who have died promoting democracy in their nations, that’s when their eyes glaze over. What are American seminaries doing about broadening the education of future pastors?

So too with misguided Christian attempts to “reclaim Europe”. Montgomery Watt, the renowned Islamics scholar, noted in 1972: “Because Europe was reacting against Islam, it belittled the influence of the Saracens and exaggerated its dependence on its Greek and Roman heritage. So today the important task for our Western Europeans, as we move into the era of the one world, is to correct this false emphasis and to acknowledge fully our debt to the Arab and Islamic world.” One can respectfully criticize Islam without belittling its contributions to Western civilization.

Scientific mythbusting

The attitude of many laypersons to scientific and technical matters is one of reverence. They will drink in the fake profundities of, say, television science programs with a credulity quite as remarkable as that of any religious fundamentalist. Any statement has only to be prefaced with the words “scientists think …” or “scientists have shown …” for it to be received with exaggerated awe.

The advertising world knows this well and exploits it to the full. People dressed up to look like research scientists and doctors appear in advertisements for products from toothpastes to miracle diets. Economists and bankers follow suit: anxious to bathe their work in the aura that attends the hard sciences, they mystify the public with largely meaningless numbers. Few economists ask the simple human questions: what is wealth for? What is the good life? What are the costs of our “growth” and who bears them?

The London Olympics was sponsored by multinational giants like Coca-Cola and Nike whose scientific credentials had to be “hyped” for a gullible world public. The website for Coca-Cola’s sports drink Powerade, targeted at the general public, states: “Drinking sports drinks, such as Powerade Isotonic, before intense exercise helps to ensure that you begin in a well hydrated and well fuelled state. This can be particularly useful if you find it difficult to eat, or find you need many bathroom stops prior to exercising. Starting exercise well hydrated is vital; leaving it until you are on the field or track may be too late. This is particularly crucial for longer duration exercise, or activity undertaken in hot, humid conditions, and even for people whose primary exercise is actually manual labour.” Powerade advises customers that “To avoid dehydration … you should drink before, during, and after sport” and that, “You may be able to train your gut to tolerate more fluid if you build your fluid intake gradually”. It even provides a “Hydration calculator” to work out how much Powerade Isotonic you will need before exercising.

Other drinks manufacturers claim that “Stimulants such as caffeine, guarana and taurine with energising fast and slow release carbohydrates produces a scientifically proven range designed to enhance your overall performance.” Red Bull says “In extensive studies it has been repeatedly proven that Red Bull increases performance.”

Where is the real scientific evidence that backs up such claims? A joint study by the British Medical Journal and Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine has debunked the myth of “hydration”, a fictitious disease created by the advertising industry. The authors of the study write: “Drinking ahead of thirst may worsen performance in endurance exercise and carries a rare but serious risk of hyponatraemia. The body’s internal mechanism for staying hydrated is cheaper, easier, and seems to be the best way to optimise performance.” As for professional athletes, “Elite endurance athletes perform best when they drink to thirst; some studies suggest exercise induced dehydration can improve performance.” (“Mythbusting Sports and Exercise Products”, http://www.bmj.com/content/345/bmj.e4848)

Regarding the use of energy drinks by professional athletes, the authors conclude: “Limited, low quality evidence supports the use of energy drinks containing caffeine, taurine, or guarana to improve endurance in moderate intensity activity of around 60 minutes. No studies compare the effectiveness of these products with ingesting caffeine alone and there are important concerns regarding harms.”

The Internet has, of course, made such scientific knowledge available to a wider public but sorting out genuine science from the bogus is not easy. Unless a website carries peer-reviewed articles or belongs to a well-established professional institution, it is difficult not to be hoodwinked most of the time. Internet search-engines are not unbiased as some enthusiasts imagine. Sceptics about anthropogenic global warming, for instance, find it easier to migrate to websites that reinforce their views rather than to those that challenge them.

How do we combine a healthy respect for evidence-based scientific study with an equally healthy disrespect towards the pronouncements of scientists on topics outside their particular realm of expertise? One can share in the excitement surrounding the recent “discovery” of the Higgs Boson in the CERN Hadron Collider experiments, without capitulating to the myth that elementary particles are more important- indeed, “more real”- than the world experienced and inhabited by human persons; or labelling it a “god-particle’ in some pseudo-scientific act of worship. The “hype” by some scientists and popular philosophers about having come up with materialistic explanations for “everything”, including consciousness, should be treated with the same ridicule that most TV advertising deserves.

Raymond Tallis, the neuroscientist and philosopher whose book Aping Mankind is exemplary in how to combine good science with the debunking of scientific hubris, writes that: “Ultimately, a theory of consciousness will have to make sense of science and, more generally, knowledge itself: of the fact that the blind laws of physics have given birth to a sighted watchmaker who makes those laws visible and sees how they may be used to shape the world according to her perceived needs. There is at present nothing in matter as understood through natural sciences- no, not even in the wildest reaches of quantum mechanics- that would lead one to expect matter to assume forms in which it would become conscious, self-conscious and knowing, so that it might be able to formulate universal laws that encompass its own existence.”

Aid or justice?

Recently Aung San Suu Kyi warned against “compassion fatigue” in the case of rich nations’ support for her country, Burma. In my experience, most of those working in government aid agencies, non-governmental relief and development organizations (NGOs) – whether “secular” or “religious”- see their work with the poor as doing charity, stemming from compassion. Hence, “compassion fatigue” is a real possibility, and reinforced when the donors themselves have to tighten their belts in harsher economic times.

Some Western writers, most notably Rousseau, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, drew attention (in very different ways) to the manner in which compassion reinforces the shame that the poor experience, and often leads to paternalism, dependency and feelings of mutual resentment.

There is a long and venerable Christian tradition that speaks of justice for the poor. Justice has to do with rights. Justice is present in social relationships insofar as people are enjoying what they have a right to. When people do not enjoy those goods to which they have a right, they are wronged. And these rights stem from the intrinsic worth of men and women created in the image of God and provided for bountifully out of his fertile earth.

Jesus and the biblical prophets did not think of rendering assistance to the needy of the world in terms of charity but in terms of justice. Yes, there are those who are poor because of their own idleness or misfortune. Yet most are victims of injustice, and rendering justice to them requires dismantling the social and economic structures that promote exclusion, exploitation and oppression. But, whether “deserving or “undeserving”, it is need that constitutes the poor person’s right to be treated with respect by his or her fellows. To fail to meet that need, when we have the resources to do so, is to wrong that person.

As far as I am aware, the centrality of “justice for the poor” in the biblical and patristic writings is unique. You will not find the poor in discussions about justice in Plato, Aristotle, Kautilya, Mencius, Lao Tze, Locke or Kant. As I wrote in Chapter 3 of my book Subverting Global Myths (2008): “Unlike the Western republican tradition that puts the citizen (historically, male and property-owning) at the centre of the polis, the Christian biblical tradition, especially as it has been recovered in our day in Latin American liberation theology, gives ultimacy to the poor. This follows naturally from the recognition that life is our most basic right. The poor are all those whose life is vulnerable, threatened, and denied. And this ultimacy of the poor appears in God’s declared partiality toward them. Thus there is a rich vein of thought in the Biblical writings that champions the rights of the poor. For instance, ‘Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.’ (Prov.31:8-9). The right to life implies access to the resources that sustain life. To speak of the poor as having rights to sustenance implies that what we owe them is not simply charity but justice.”

Justice is the fundamental calling of governments. The biblical picture of the ideal king (e.g. Psalm 72) is of one who renders justice to the afflicted and downtrodden. Interestingly, even the healing ministry of Jesus is seen by Matthew as not merely expressing compassion, but as the fulfilment of the Messianic promise of justice realized (see Matt 12: 15-20). Justice restores human beings to a state of flourishing.

All this is deeply relevant to the debates taking place today, in Asia and Africa, as much as in Europe and North America, about the responsibilities of government. Churches and NGOs are often unwitting instruments in the hands of those governments who want to abdicate their responsibility to their poor citizens (and, indeed, the poor elsewhere who are affected by their policies). Governments would rather have the churches and NGOs alleviate the social discontent arising from their misplaced priorities. Alleviation we should do, but not at the price of silent complicity in those policies.

Whenever Christians unthinkingly join the right-wing protests against “welfare cheats” (a miniscule number in comparison with the number of rich folk and companies who steal from public funds), argue against government economic regulation (in the name of “minimal government” which, in practice, is government that gives charity in the form of tax breaks, subsidies and bail-outs to the wealthy and powerful), or speak of poverty as if it were simply a matter of individual choice, even their private charity (however sincerely motivated) may be cementing the walls of injustice in the world. Should they not be returning to their Bibles and delving more deeply into the Christian tradition that they profess?

Furthermore, should our churches and organizations be accepting aid for the poor from those who may be perpetuating injustice through their daily work and who refuse to speak up for the poor in their own contexts?

Keeping our humanity

I found myself last week in the unusual position of defending in public the United States government. The latter was the prime mover behind a resolution by the UN Human Rights Council calling on the Sri Lankan government to improve its human rights record and launch a credible investigation into war crimes. Some members of the ruling regime and their acolytes have been vilifying the resolution which was carried by a majority of nine votes in the Council, with China predictably defending us against “interference” in a nation’s “internal affairs”. (How China and even Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Cuba can occupy seats on the UNHRC is another of those contradictions that makes the UN such an ineffective agency today- see my last Blog post).

The behaviour of the Sri Lankan regime before, during, and after the UN Resolution was carried only illustrates the necessity for such a Resolution. Such was the main substance of a newspaper article of mine which was carried by two leading English-language dailies. (No Sinhala- the majority language- newspaper will carry it).

We have been treated to the pitiful spectacle of a foreign minister wasting huge amounts of public funds in desperate last-minute trips to Africa and Latin America to canvass support; and the continued use of the state media to whip up frenzy against local and foreign critics, instead of explaining to the populace the content of the UN Resolution; and the manipulation of schoolchildren as well as religious leaders, among others, who were bussed into the capital by the ruling party to stage noisy protests outside the American and Indian embassies. Local human rights activists who went to Geneva to support the resolution have been threatened.

At the same time as we counter state terror, we expose the hypocrisies of those well-to-do Sri Lankan Tamils in Western lands who rejoice over the UN Resolution but who don’t call for the arrest of those within their ranks who continued to pay for arms shipments to the Tamil Tigers when the latter were using civilians as human shields and forcibly conscripting child-soldiers during the dark days of the war. So-called “diaspora” Tamils in the US, like many of their Indian and Pakistani counterparts, carry American passports and very few of them will return to live in Sri Lanka, even if we had a just peace. You will not find any among them joining George Clooney to protest outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington; or challenging the US government to bring all those Americans responsible for torture and war crimes abroad to face trial. What brings “human rights” language into disrepute is the use of it against our enemies, and not our own ethnic group and nation-state.

I don’t find these articles, letters and Blog posts easy to write. I can handle the hate-mail, it is silence that depresses me. Even on this Blog, whenever I write on some traditional “mission” or “apologetics” topic, the comments flow thick and fast. However, mention the state of American politics and a deafening silence sets in. Try appealing to American Christians to write to their national newspapers or do what George Clooney or the Occupying Movement are doing – getting out there and protesting, for instance, the inhumanity of Iranian sanctions (a violation of international law, given that no evidence has been put forward to show that Iran has breached the nuclear non-proliferation treaty), and you will find the shutters rapidly coming down.

In the current New York Review of Books, Michael Ignatieff superbly sums up what I have been trying to say in recent posts about the US and global politics: “Since Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership in setting up the United Nations and the Nuremberg trials, the US has promoted universal legal norms and the institutions to enforce them, while seeking by hook or by crook to exempt American citizens, especially soldiers, from their actual application. From Nuremberg onward, no country has invested more in the development of international jurisdiction for atrocity crimes and no country has worked harder to make sure that the law it seeks for others does not apply to itself.”

Most Christian pastors are unprepared by their seminaries to think globally about local issues, which is surely what employing a Christian mind entails. To those who say, even before they try anything, that they are “powerless” to effect change, there are many stories one can tell of how little actions of faithfulness by ordinary people have led to social and political transformations on an unimaginable scale. Every community has such memories.

However, I prefer to recall this medieval fiction from the pen of the great Jewish writer, Elie Wiesel, tireless campaigner against crimes against humanity and himself a survivor of Auschwitz. It probably explains why I cannot keep silent.

“One of the Just Men came to Sodom, determined to save its inhabitants from sin and punishment. Night and day he walked the streets and markets protesting against greed and theft, falsehood and indifference. In the beginning, people listened and smiled amicably. Then they stopped listening; he no longer even amused them. The killers went on killing, the wise kept silent, as if there were no Just Man in their midst.

One day a child, moved by compassion for the unfortunate teacher, approached him with these words. ‘Poor stranger, you shout, you scream, don’t you see that it’s hopeless?’

‘Yes, I see’, answered the Just Man.

‘Then why do you go on?’

‘I’ll tell you why. In the beginning I thought I could change man. Today, I know I cannot. If I still shout today, if I still scream, it is to prevent man from ultimately changing me.’”

(From One Generation After)