Monday, 12 December 2016

Donald Trump

by Ian Harris                      Otago Daily Times                   December 9, 2016

Vox populi, vox Dei, the saying goes: “The voice of the people is the voice of God.” And then came Donald Trump. Another phrase bubbled up from my dim Latin past: Quem Jupiter vult perdere, prius dementat, loosely “Whom the gods (Jupiter was king of the Roman gods) wish to destroy, they first make mad.”

Have the Americans gone bananas? Vox populi, vox Dei is usually cited to promote the view that ordinary people should have the power, through due process, to govern themselves – in practice, that the will of the majority should prevail – because God works through them. This idea was abroad in northern Europe in the late 700s, so much so that the great English monk and scholar Alcuin advised the Frankish King Charlemagne to resist such a dangerous notion. Don’t listen to those who say the voice of the people is the voice of God, he warned, “since the riotousness of the crowd is very close to madness”.

Kings claiming to rule by divine right did not endear themselves to their subjects either. In 1327 the archbishop of Canterbury denounced the misrule of Edward II in a sermon titled Vox populi, vox Dei. By the people, of course, he meant barons and prelates like himself. But their excesses, too, could sometimes verge on madness. Ironically, the idealists who drew up the United States constitution in 1787 took great care to ensure that the popular will would always be tempered by wise heads like their own: “The separation of powers was designed precisely to create sturdy firewalls against democratic wildfires,” wrote conservative political commentator Andrew Sullivan in New York magazine, back in May.

At the time, Trump was barnstorming through the Republican primaries towards the presidential nomination. Wildfires were taking hold. Barriers to an unbridled popular will were crumbling before his populist – Sullivan calls it protofascist – demagoguery. This, he says, is behaviour typical of a late-stage democracy, as foreseen by Plato 2400 years ago, where everyone is aggressively equal, traditional elites are despised, and anything goes. Then vox populi prevails – but the restraint and responsibility that flow from vox Dei, intrinsic to which is a concept of the common good, are greatly weakened. 

“And what mainly fuels this,” says Sullivan, “is precisely what the Founders feared about democratic culture: feeling, emotion, and narcissism, rather than reason, empiricism, and public spiritedness.” Kindling those wildfires in the latest election season was a simmering frustration among many white Americans that the future was slipping beyond their grasp. Neoliberal economics have hugely enriched the top echelon of society, but generated inequality and stagnation for the middle and working classes.

White Christians, currently 43 per cent of the population, are steadily diminishing as a proportion of the whole. “So,” says Sullivan, “our paralysed, emotional hyperdemocracy leads the stumbling, frustrated, angry voter toward the chimerical panacea of Trump.” This helps to explains the part evangelical Christians played in propelling him to power. Indeed, one observer pinpoints religion as the missing piece in understanding Trump’s triumph. Trump presented himself to the Christian right as their last hope in their fight against the evolving culture in general, and abortion and same-sex marriage in particular.

According to exit polls, white evangelicals, who make up 26 per cent of the electorate, voted 81 per cent for Trump, only 16 per cent for Hillary Clinton. White Catholics favoured him by 60 per cent to 37 per cent. Most baffling of all, Trump’s sexual predations, lying, refusal to pay contractors and dodging of his tax obligations did not deter these one-time “values” voters. One evangelical leader explained that grace and forgiveness are at the core of Christianity, and “fussy moral values” were not the issue they used to be.

Another, Dr James Dobson, judged Trump “tender to things of the Spirit”, and “God’s man to lead our nation”. That’s weird. Last time I looked, the fruit of the Spirit in the New Testament were the virtues of love (not the Trump variety), peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, humility and self-control.

Not all evangelicals are so infatuated or pliable. Women’s ministry leader and broadcaster Jen Hatmaker condemned the way Trump consistently normalised violence, sexual deviance, bigotry and hate speech. She branded him “a national disgrace”. But the voters have spoken. Mrs Clinton won 2.5 million more votes than Trump – isn’t that vox populi? – but Jupiter gave Trump the White House. Vox Dei, which calls for dignity, respect, compassion, justice and the sharing of burdens, is shaping as a sad casualty of this bruising electoral circus.  

Put Away the Flags

Howard Zinn                      July 1, 2007                    The Progressive

On this July 4, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed.

Is not nationalism — that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder — one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred? These ways of thinking — cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from childhood on — have been useful to those in power, and deadly for those out of power.

National spirit can be benign in a country that is small and lacking both in military power and a hunger for expansion (Switzerland, Norway, Costa Rica and many more). But in a nation like ours — huge, possessing thousands of weapons of mass destruction — what might have been harmless pride becomes an arrogant nationalism dangerous to others and to ourselves. Our citizenry has been brought up to see our nation as different from others, an exception in the world, uniquely moral, expanding into other lands in order to bring civilization, liberty, democracy.

That self-deception started early. When the first English settlers moved into Indian land in Massachusetts Bay and were resisted, the violence escalated into war with the Pequot Indians. The killing of Indians was seen as approved by God, the taking of land as commanded by the Bible. The Puritans cited one of the Psalms, which says: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the Earth for thy possession.” When the English set fire to a Pequot village and massacred men, women and children, the Puritan theologian Cotton Mather said: “It was supposed that no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day.”

On the eve of the Mexican War, an American journalist declared it our “Manifest Destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence.” After the invasion of Mexico began, The New York Herald announced: “We believe it is a part of our destiny to civilize that beautiful country.”

It was always supposedly for benign purposes that our country went to war. We invaded Cuba in 1898 to liberate the Cubans, and went to war in the Philippines shortly after, as President McKinley put it, “to civilize and Christianize” the Filipino people.

As our armies were committing massacres in the Philippines (at least 600,000 Filipinos died in a few years of conflict), Elihu Root, our secretary of war, was saying: “The American soldier is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the war began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, and of peace and happiness.”

We see in Iraq that our soldiers are not different. They have, perhaps against their better nature, killed thousands of Iraq civilians. And some soldiers have shown themselves capable of brutality, of torture. Yet they are victims, too, of our government’s lies. How many times have we heard President Bush tell the troops that if they die, if they return without arms or legs, or blinded, it is for “liberty,” for “democracy”?

One of the effects of nationalist thinking is a loss of a sense of proportion. The killing of 2,300 people at Pearl Harbor becomes the justification for killing 240,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The killing of 3,000 people on Sept. 11 becomes the justification for killing tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And nationalism is given a special virulence when it is said to be blessed by Providence. Today we have a president, invading two countries in four years, who announced on the campaign trail in 2004 that God speaks through him. We need to refute the idea that our nation is different from, morally superior to, the other imperial powers of world history. We need to assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation.

Howard Zinn, a World War II bombardier, is the author of the best-selling “
A People’s History of the United States” (Perennial Classics, 2003, latest edition). This piece was distributed by the Progressive Media Project.

Some Thoughts on Flags

by Arthur Palmer 

Yes, flags. My first encounter was when, as a six-year-old, I began school at Naumai in Northland New Zealand. This was at the beginning of 1925, only six years-and-a bit since the Great War, as it was called then, had ended. I had to learn that the impressive flagpole which stood fifty yards from the school entrance door was more than simply the main mast of a vessel wrecked in the Kaipara harbour. Certainly it was that, and it must have been the envy of other schools. But it was also the centrepiece of a ceremony which occurred from time to time, when the British Union Jack was hoisted and saluted by the entire school of about 45 students.

We were roughly half-and-half Maori and white pakeha, but there was no acknowledgement that we differed in any way from a traditional English school in Britain. Our Principal was a very British woman who appeared to my young eyes quite elderly. She kept order without any corporal punishment or regime of fear. The only penalty that I can recall seeing was a pupil’s mouth being ceremoniously washed out in the corridor for swearing. It was patiently endured and the swearing continued unabated.

And so did the flag ceremony, supported by songs of Empire glory. The chorus of the only one that I can still remember included these lines:

Hearts of oak are our ships. Jolly tars are our men,
We always are ready. Steady boys, steady.
We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again.

And in the playground I often heard a very un-British song which puzzled me:

Take me over the sea, Where the Allyman can’t get at me.
Oh my, I don’t want to die, I want to go home.       

It was clear that the singers of that plaintive ditty felt themselves to be victims. Victims of what was not clear to me for some time. And flags were in the background of that one too.

Now here I am, many decades later, staying with my daughter Ruth in the home that she has just bought. And only ten feet from the window where I eat my breakfast there stands a stainless steel flagpole with all the necessary cords to hoist an emblem of loyalty to some important concept, of nationhood perhaps. Fixed on top is a small globe about four inches in diameter to deter any birds from alighting and polluting this semi-sacred erection which is there to declare the owner’s loyalty to the flag displayed. The pole is likely to stay unadorned while Ruth is living here.

We need to listen to the voice of Howard Zinn on this. He is speaking to his fellow-Americans, but we in New Zealand seem to regard the American military umbrella as our best guarantee of security, even as we  pay our dues by supporting US action in Iraq and Afghanistan. So Zinn’s warning is there for us too.

“Put Away the Flags” was written almost a decade ago. In that time US arms have been continuously in use to destroy the infrastructure and many of the people who live and die in this difficult area. This is not the road to a better world of peaceful cooperation. Nor to security. Yet in the near future with a Trump as US President we are likely to see more, rather than less, of confrontational politics, nation against nation, class against class. As Zinn tells us: “We need to assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation.”

Idealistic and fanciful nonsense? Yes, I can hear the dismissing comments. But I do believe that there is a growing anger and disillusionment with the assumption that we must concentrate on maintaining our dominant position, with the help of powerful friends and the most advanced weapons. The unexpected support for Bernie Sanders in the US Presidential election was a positive message, disregarded but still there. Trump is almost sure to serve no more than one term as President.

But what are your thoughts on all this? I welcome your comments. Meanwhile let’s listen to Howard Zinn.

This is the most dangerous time for our planet

Stephen Hawking on Inequality          Guardian/UK           1 December 2016   

As a theoretical physicist based in Cambridge, I have lived my life in an extraordinarily privileged bubble. Cambridge is an unusual town, centred around one of the world’s great universities. Within that town, the scientific community that I became part of in my 20s is even more rarefied. And within that scientific community, the small group of international theoretical physicists with whom I have spent my working life might sometimes be tempted to regard themselves as the pinnacle.

So the recent apparent rejection of the elites in both America and Britain is surely aimed at me, as much as anyone. Whatever we might think about the decision by the British electorate to
reject membership of the European Union and by the American public to embrace Donald Trump as their next president, there is no doubt in the minds of commentators that this was a cry of anger by people who felt they had been abandoned by their leaders. It was, everyone seems to agree, the moment when the forgotten spoke, finding their voices to reject the advice and guidance of experts and the elite everywhere. 

I am no exception to this rule. I warned before the Brexit vote that it would
damage scientific research in Britain, that a vote to leave would be a step backward, and the electorate took no more notice of me than of any of the other political leaders, trade unionists, artists, scientists, businessmen and celebrities who all gave the same unheeded advice to the rest of the country.

What matters now, far more than the choices made by these two electorates, is
how the elites react. Should we, in turn, reject these votes as outpourings of crude populism that fail to take account of the facts, and attempt to circumvent or circumscribe the choices that they represent? I would argue that this would be a terrible mistake. The concerns underlying these votes about the economic consequences of globalisation and accelerating technological change are absolutely understandable. The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.

This in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world. The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow
very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive.

We need to put this alongside the financial crash, which brought home to people that a very few individuals working in the financial sector can accrue huge rewards and that the rest of us underwrite that success and pick up the bill when their greed leads us astray. So taken together we are living in a world of widening, not diminishing, financial inequality, in which many people can see not just their standard of living, but their ability to earn a living at all, disappearing. It is no wonder then that they are searching for a new deal, which Trump and Brexit might have appeared to represent.

It is also the case that another unintended consequence of the global spread of the internet and social media is that the stark nature of these inequalities is far more apparent than it has been in the past. For me, the ability to use technology to communicate has been a liberating and positive experience. Without it, I would not have been able to continue working these many years past.

But it also means that the lives of the richest people in the most prosperous parts of the world are agonisingly visible to anyone, however poor, who has access to a phone. And since there are now more people with a telephone than access to clean water in sub-Saharan Africa, this will shortly mean nearly everyone on our increasingly crowded planet will not be able to escape the inequality.

The consequences of this are plain to see: the rural poor flock to cities, to shanty towns, driven by hope. And then often, finding that the Instagram nirvana is not available there, they seek it overseas, joining the ever greater numbers of economic migrants in search of a better life. These migrants in turn place new demands on the infrastructures and economies of the countries in which they arrive, arrive, undermining tolerance and further fuelling political populism.

This is the first section of a longer article by Stephen Hawking

The Anne Frank Story

By Robert Fisk                         Independent Online                             25 Nov. 2016

I’ve just visited the hiding place of some troublesome refugees who should make
Donald Trump very angry. You only have to glance at the family’s papers to see how they fall under Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. They fled a dangerous country full of extremists – a nation which threatened its own neighbours – and they sought their first new home for “economic reasons”. Worse still, they even tried to enter the United States. They were turned away – on the grounds that even if they had good reason to flee their persecutors, they didn’t have good enough reason to choose America as their place of refuge.

No, they’re not Syrians or Turkmens or Yazidis or Afghans. She was, of course, Anne Frank, the German Jewish girl who with her family fled the Nazis in 1933 and was given sanctuary in Holland – until Germany invaded the Low Countries in 1940 and she found herself under the rule of her own vicious country all over again. By 1941, her father Otto – realizing that the Nazis had in store for Jews in Holland the very same fate that was already being perpetrated against the Jews of Germany – sought visas to the United States. And the door was slammed in their face.

Anne Frank’s diary was the first book my mother wanted me to read "on my own" (without having it read to me) and this wonderful narrative of childhood-growing-into-adulthood, of fear and love and joy and fury – especially at the other refugees crowded into the family hiding-place behind Otto’s office on the Prinsengracht Canal in Amsterdam – has stayed with me all my life. It has been translated into 70 languages. It’s even been translated into Arabic.

No matter. So powerful, so tragic and so relevant is Anne’s story to us today that queues stand round the block in the cold Amsterdam rain to take their turn to walk up the stairs behind the false bookcase to see where these frightened Jewish men, women and children lived until, two years after they first hid here, the Gestapo arrived. You can still see – it’s so genuine, it allows of no clichés – the newspaper photographs of 1930s film stars (Ray Milland, Diana Durbin, Ginger Rogers) and of a very young Princess Elizabeth of England (plus sister Margaret and corgis) and of the Dutch royal family in exile whose nationality Anne wished to adopt after the war and whose pictures she glued to the wall of her room.

The Dutch nation would certainly have been more loyal to her than the Americans. Otto sought help for US visas from friends who were relatives of those who owned Macey’s department store. He had two brothers-in-law in the States. He wrote of the plight of his wife and two daughters. The State Department was not interested. Otto even pleaded for Cuban visas. He got one – on 1st December 1941 – but it was cancelled a week later when Germany declared war on Japan after Pearl Harbour. Thus did Japan as well as Hitler and the Americans join hands to doom the refugees on the Prinsengracht Canal. Roosevelt’s US – and Democratic – administration did a "Trump" on the Frank family.

Each time I read Anne Frank’s diary – and reader, if you haven’t read it, make up for lost time, as they say, and do so – I find something new which I missed on my previous journey through her pages. She wanted to be a writer. She wanted to turn her diary into a novel called The Secret Annex. And she wrote, on May 11th 1944, “my greatest wish is to become a journalist one day.” You can’t beat that.

But then her family was betrayed and three members of the Dutch Nazi Party and an Austrian (and therefore Reich) SS officer came storming up the staircase behind the false bookshelves on 4 August 1944. And that was the end of all of them. Except for Otto. He was eventually freed from Auschwitz by the Soviet army and travelled slowly back to Amsterdam to find that his family were dead. Edith died in Auschwitz, Margot and Anne at Bergen-Belsen, both of typhus. Anne, now 15 years old, died last. An old school friend says she caught sight of Anne in her last days and threw food to her over the camp barbed wire.

Four Dutch citizens helped Anne and her family and friends throughout their two years of solitude, at daily risk of their lives. They said later that it was a natural thing to do. Odd, that. Because today we are supposed to find it "unnatural" to help these people. I guess that’s Trump’s view. Yet in the streets around the Prinsengrach this week I found small cafes whose Dutch owners had written on their front doors the words: “Refugees welcome”.      [Abridged]

Monday, 7 November 2016

Just War Theory Is Obsolete

by Sister Joan Chittister

Excerpted from Becoming Fully Human: The Greatest Glory of God (2005) with permission of Sheed and Ward.

The Tao Te Ching, the ancient Chinese manual on the art of living, reads:

Weapons are the tools of fear... a decent person will avoid them except in the direst necessity and, if compelled, will use them only with the utmost restraint ....Our enemies are not demons but human beings like ourselves. The decent person doesn't wish them personal harm. Nor do they rejoice in victory. How could we rejoice in victory and delight in the slaughter of people? Enter a battle gravely, with sorrow and with great compassion, as if attending a funeral. (c. 550 B.C.E.)

The problem is not a new one. Over seven centuries ago, people began to recognize that war was an attack on the innocent by the ruthless for the sake of the privileged. They wanted it stopped. And if that was an unrealistic goal, given the thirst for power in the human condition and the absence of any overarching negotiating bodies, they at least wanted it regulated. They wanted the innocent protected. After all, the people were not fighting their neighbors. They wanted the defenseless made secure. After all, war meant that armies were to fight armies, not civilians. So they turned to the church, which, by threat of eternal punishment, might be able to bring sense to chaos. They popularized and developed the just war theory, first articulated by Augustine, and for a while it seemed to make sense. But over time everything has changed: the nature of the world, the nature of war, the nature of weapons, and the nature of nations themselves.

Adults seem to have a problem understanding such things. Children see it clearly: Some second-graders asked their teacher what was going on between the United States and the place called Iraq. So the teacher said, "Well, think of it this way: Somebody in your neighborhood has a gun in her house. All the neighbors are afraid of it, and they go to Margaret, the owner of the gun, to ask her if she'll get rid of it. "And Margaret said yes, she would. But after a while, the people began to doubt that Margaret had really thrown the gun away. So they went to see her again and asked her if she still had the gun. And she said yes, she did. "So they told her that the fact that she had a gun made them afraid, so she had to get rid of it. "But Margaret said no, she wouldn't because it was her house and her gun. "So all the neighbors went back to their own houses, got out their own guns, pointed them at Margaret, and shouted that they would shoot if she didn't throw her gun away. "Then a child in the room spoke up and said, "Teacher, that is a really dumb story. It doesn't make any sense." Right. When is war "just," or is war .already obsolete now?


"You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake," Jeannette Rankin wrote. But we go on trying. Why? What exactly is to be gained? The powerful stay in power. The innocent are expelled from their homes. Children grow up with fear and hatred in their hearts. Who wins what?


For war to be just, the first criterion is that it must only be waged in the face of "real and certain danger." So when did we start waging war "just in case"?


"All war is insane," Madeleine L'Engle wrote. Killing doesn't stop killing. It just gives the world a new reason to do it called "vengeance." In the meantime, the poor get poorer and the strong get stronger. Nothing really changes.


After years of Nintendo and shopping mall video arcades, Americans know that no one bleeds and no one gets hurt in war. In fact, we teach our children to love it. Or, as Ellen Glasgow said, "The worst thing about war is that so many people enjoy it."


War is not what happens in the military. It is what happens in the hearts of the rest of us who applaud it. Marianne Moore, the poet, wrote, "There never was a war that was / not inward; I must / fight till I have conquered in myself what / causes war.

Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump? The Independent view on who should win

A campaign that has exposed many flaws presents only one competent candidate       Editorial

After 30 years, The Independent has reached the point in its existence when as many readers are in the United States as the United Kingdom, thanks to the expansion of our online readership. Moreover, the election on Tuesday is arguably the most important in America’s history, with the choice on offer to the US electorate staggeringly stark. Its outcome will also have ramifications for the rest of the world.

We accept that for many it is hard to be enthusiastic about either
Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. It is a sign of the dysfunction of America’s political system that a process which has dragged on for 18 months has thrown up the two least trusted and unpopular candidates in the country’s recent history. Were they running against almost any other opponent from the other party, both would be near-certain losers.

What has unfolded in the US since Mr Trump declared his candidacy in June 2015 has much in common with the wave of populism sweeping the rest of the West, fuelled by fear and resentment of immigration, globalisation and supranational institutions in general, and stoked by anger at apparently out-of-touch and self-perpetuating domestic elites who failed to prevent the financial and economic crash of 2008, the aftershocks of which still reverberate. These forces contributed heavily to the Brexit vote. They are driving nationalist parties in France and other European countries. In America, the beneficiary is Mr Trump.

But Mr Trump is a man of breathtaking ignorance, vanity and shallowness. He exhibits alarming racist and xenophobic beliefs. He has mocked and threatened Mexicans and Muslims. He has a staggering disregard for the truth. His contempt for women is a disgrace. He has dragged political discourse down to levels until now unimaginable in an American presidential election, to the point of urging his opponent be sent to jail.

Breaking earlier assurances, he refuses to release his tax returns, unlike every White House candidate since Richard Nixon. His admiration for autocrats and tyrants is sinister, to put it mildly. His casualness about nuclear weapons is frightening. His concept of foreign policy, insofar as he has one, is purely transactional: what’s in it for the US? If that means the end of the Nato alliance, too bad. Such attitudes set the worst possible example to a world that still looks to America for leadership. Mr Trump, in short, is utterly unfit for the most powerful office on earth.

Ms Clinton sits atop the most powerful machine in Democratic politics, probably in all US politics. But she is secretive to a fault, sealed away behind a praetorian guard of longtime advisers, and inclined – as Clintons are – to assume there is one rule for them and another for everyone else. Such a mindset helps explain the fiasco of the private email server she used while Secretary of State. One may criticise the FBI for reopening the matter days before the election, but her problem is entirely self-inflicted.

Campaigning, however, is not governing. If her record as Senator and Secretary of State is any indicator, she has the makings of an extremely competent president. It is hard to imagine a better-qualified candidate for the job (a job, admittedly, for which there is ultimately no adequate preparation).

As her debate performances showed, she is a master of the issues. In foreign policy she might be more assertive than Barack Obama, especially towards Russia and China – no bad thing, many would argue. But she is an internationalist who would maintain and foster the West’s key alliances, and work constructively on the great questions of the day, from the Middle East to human rights and global warming.

At home, she is well aware of the country’s needs, alive to the left-wing populism that made Bernie Sanders so dogged a primary opponent. Her instincts might make her defer to Wall Street, but her political nous will tell her otherwise. In a Clinton administration, Obamacare, the most significant healthcare advance since Medicare/Medicaid in the 1960s, would be preserved and improved. Mr Trump, by contrast, has vowed to rip Obamacare apart.

Most important, as she proved in the US Senate, Ms Clinton is a pragmatist who is able to work across the aisle. Nowhere are such qualities needed as in polarised and hyper-partisan Washington. It would be a tragedy if Americans failed to make her the 45th President. [Abrisdged]

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Catholics and Lutherans sign joint declaration 'accepting common path'

Harriet Sherwood       Religion Correspondent      Guardian/UK      31 October '16

After 500 years of schism, will the rift of the Reformation finally be healed? Pope Francis is beginning a year of events to herald growing cooperation between Protestants and Catholics. The events also commemorate 50 years of dialogue and cooperation between the two Christian traditions to overcome the divisions of the past.

Tolling bells marked the pope’s arrival at Lund Cathedral, which passed from the hands of the Roman Catholic church to the Lutherans in the 16th century as part of the epic sweep of change across Europe. In the presence of the Swedish king and queen, Francis prayed that “the Holy Spirit help us to rejoice in the gifts that have come to the church through the Reformation, prepare us to repent for the dividing walls that we, and our forebears, have built, and equip us for common witness and service in the world.”

In his homily, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics said the two traditions had “undertaken a common journey of reconciliation. Now, in the context of the commemoration of the Reformation of 1517, we have a new opportunity to accept a common path, one that has taken shape over the past 50 years in the ecumenical dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic church.”

The anniversary presented an “opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another,” he added. The separation “has been an immense source of suffering and misunderstanding”, he said.

The joint declaration, signed by Francis and Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, said the past five decades of “sustained and fruitful ecumenical dialogue” had helped Catholics and Lutherans overcome many differences, and had deepened mutual understanding and trust.

The declaration said: “At the same time, we have drawn closer to one another through joint service to our neighbours – often in circumstances of suffering and persecution. Through dialogue and shared witness we are no longer strangers. Rather, we have learned that what unites us is greater than what divides us. While we are profoundly thankful for the spiritual and theological gifts received through the Reformation, we also confess and lament before Christ that Lutherans and Catholics have wounded the visible unity of the church. Theological differences were accompanied by prejudice and conflicts, and religion was instrumentalised for political ends.”

The two leaders prayed for wounds to be healed, saying: “We emphatically reject all hatred and violence, past and present, especially that expressed in the name of religion.”

Luther’s challenge to the corruption and elitism of the Roman Catholic church swiftly gained support across Europe, helped by new printing presses which allowed his theses, along with other papers, pamphlets and the newly translated Bible, to reach people. The Catholic church launched a counter-reformation.

Followers of
Catholicism and Protestantism persecuted and fought each other for decades. By the middle of the 17th century, Europe was divided between a largely Protestant north and Catholic south. Recent moves towards closer coexistence have been resisted by hardliners on both sides, and few people have suggested that the Christian church could reunite even though Francis has made ecumenicalism a hallmark of his papacy. On Tuesday, the pope is due to celebrate mass in front of a crowd of up to 10,000 people in Malmö before returning to the Vatican.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016


President Eisenhower on the military-industrial complex: “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government … we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.” 

Pope Francis, US Congress, 24 September, 2015: “A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did; when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work; the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.” [This quote and the quote that follows are from The Common Good, a newspaper of the Christchurch Catholic Worker.]

Thomas Merton : “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” 

Leigh Hunt
Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I'm growing old, but add,
Jenny kissed me. 

E.M. Farrelly “Civilisation demands both the freedom to let the village idiot speak, and the universal discernment to know, it is the village idiot speaking.” Sidney Morning Herald
Martin Luther King “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Spoken at the time of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma 1965

Erich Fromm
: “A spectre is stalking in our midst… It is not the old ghost of communism or fascism. It is a new spectre: a completely mechanized society, devoted to maximum material output and consumption, directed by computers; and in this social process, man himself is being transformed into a part of the total machine, well fed and entertained, yet passive, unalive, and with little feeling.” Page 1 “The Revolution of Hope”. 

Ecclesiastes 9:4: “For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope”. Quoted by Erich Fromm at the beginning of his book The Revolution of Hope

Paul Oestreicher: “If the aerial bombing of cities that kills thousands is now taken for granted as a normal way of waging war, or if at least five so-called civilised nations are prepared, in certain circumstances, to wage nuclear war, then to be outraged at the explosion of a car bomb, is strangely selective.” P 62 The Double Cross 

Winston Churchill: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

Dame Anne Salmond: “If life is understood as a struggle among cost benefit individuals, the idea of a fair and harmonious society retreats, even vanishes. As Margaret Thatcher famously said, “There is no such thing as society”. If one studies human history, however, driven as it is by collective achievement, it is clear she was wrong… Human beings are social animals, through and through. However if the aim of life is personal success, those who have failed are at fault and must bear the consequences, those who lose their jobs for instance, or the homeless… Much of life in the Anglo-American world looks like that at present.” NZ Herald 15/07/2016, “Ravages of neo-liberalism.”

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Time for church to start again?

By Ian Harris               Otago Daily Times              October 14, 2016

JJ Murphy & Co is a pub in Wellington with features that remind one of a church. Amid its recycled gothic-style windows, stained glass and snugs suggestive of confessional boxes, customers drain their glasses, chat, play pool or slip into the gaming room. Not quite the atmosphere worshippers would ever have imagined.

There we gathered one evening last month to hear a panel of four ministers and academics give their views on what is happening in church life. The organisers, St John’s Presbyterian Church in Wellington and Victoria University’s religious studies department, noted that though the church today is much critiqued and frequently written off, it was also proving surprisingly durable — "vitality and innovation abound".

Hence their topic, The Church in Question. It sounded promising, and the pub was crowded with people thirsty for answers. In the event, however, that proved too much to expect. For one thing, two Presbyterians, a Baptist and a Pentecostalist don’t reflect the whole church. Other denominations would bring different perspectives. All harbour a range of viewpoints within them and all would no doubt assume other churches would do better if only they were more like their own.

The Pentecostalist certainly left that impression. .For me, the most forward-looking comment was that the church needs to re-think its theological content. Dr Susan Jones, of St Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, said the community had moved beyond infantile and old-fashioned assumptions still current in many churches, and asked: "Are we brave enough to look again at the content of what we are offering?"

Content of faith was the detonator for the great explosion that split the Western church at the Reformation, whose 500th anniversary falls next year. New forms of church emerged after 1517 in protest at a corrupted Catholicism. Circumstances today are far different. The church that was once the bedrock of society is now very much in question.

One reason why pressure isn’t building towards another explosion is that secular reality is chipping away at church membership, leaving no great energy for change. Another is that many who see change as necessary have abandoned their unresponsive churches. On the churches’ inadequate response to societal change, Bishop Richard Randerson said from the audience clerical conservatism was a problem.

Also, many ministers were either not equipped to engage openly with people who were not church members, or were fearful of doing so. That is in marked contrast to a challenging definition of the church as "the only institution in society that exists for the benefit of the non-member". The churches’ social service arms do splendid work for many who are not members. If they suddenly ceased, many vulnerable people would quickly notice the difference. At least that aspect of the church should not be in question — but the churches have to have the people on hand to carry it out.

Theological content, social services — what else? Even to insiders, church forms, structures, rules and processes sometimes seem more important than what Christian faith is supposed to be about. Innovation is curbed and opportunities go begging under the weight of ecclesiastical bureaucracies that should instead be enabling them to proceed. Structures should certainly be in question.

Then there are the hallowed buildings. Places to meet are essential, and local churches are centres of identity rich in their associations. But if they were under less pressure to build, strengthen, maintain and insure, might the churches be freer to engage more openly with their local communities in spaces they can share — and thus exist more obviously for the benefit of the non-member?

Standing back from such practicalities, it’s worth pondering what the church might be like if it were to take its central symbol of death and resurrection so seriously that it ruled off and started again. An insight by Irish-American John Dominic Crossan, a former monk, would be an excellent place to start. There’s an essential distinction between Jesus the man of history and the Christ, best seen today as Christianity’s archetype of love, grace and transformation.

Crossan says: "I presume there will always be divergent historical Jesuses, that there will always be divergent Christs built upon them. But I argue, above all, that the structure of a Christian will always be, this is how we see Jesus-then as Christ-now. Christianity must repeatedly, generation after generation, make its best historical judgement about who Jesus was then and, on that basis, decide what that reconstruction means as Christ now." That’s not quite the church in question. But it is the fundamental question for the church.

Desmond Tutu: I want right to end my life through assisted dying  

Harriet Sherwood      Religion correspondent       Guardian/UK     7 October 2016
Just as I have argued firmly for compassion and fairness in life, I believe that terminally ill people should be treated with the same compassion and fairness when it comes to their deaths,” he added. “Dying people should have the right to choose how and when they leave Mother Earth. I believe that, alongside the wonderful palliative care that exists, their choices should include a dignified assisted death.”

Tutu had changed his mind over assisted suicide two years ago after a lifelong opposition but had remained ambiguous about whether he personally would choose such a death. He said: “Today, I myself am even closer to the departures hall than arrivals, so to speak, and my thoughts turn to how I would like to be treated when the time comes. Now more than ever, I feel compelled to lend my voice to this cause.”

He believed in the sanctity of life but also that terminally ill people should not be forced to endure terrible pain and suffering, he wrote. Instead they should have control over the manner and timing of their death. He added: “I have prepared for my death and have made it clear that I do not wish to be kept alive at all costs. I hope I am treated with compassion and allowed to pass on to the next phase of life’s journey in the manner of my choice.”

Tutu pointed to laws in
California and Canada that permit assisted dying for terminally ill people. But “there are still many thousands of dying people across the world who are denied their right to die with dignity”.

Desmond Tutu: ‘For those suffering unbearably and coming to the end of their lives, merely knowing that an assisted death is open to them can provide immeasurable comfort.’ He said: “For those suffering unbearably and coming to the end of their lives, merely knowing that an assisted death is open to them can provide immeasurable comfort.”

He concluded: “In refusing dying people the right to die with dignity, we fail to demonstrate the compassion that lies at the heart of Christian values. I pray that politicians, lawmakers and religious leaders have the courage to support the choices terminally ill citizens make in departing Mother Earth. The time to act is now…”

Tutu, who won the Nobel peace prize in 1984, has been admitted to hospital several times, most recently in September, for recurring infections as a result of surgery for prostate cancer.
Assisted dying is legal in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Albania, Colombia and Japan as well as Canada. Several US states have enacted measures on assisted dying, including Washington, California, Oregon, Vermont and New Mexico.

In September last year, the
UK parliament rejected a bill to allow assisted dying for the terminally ill, with 330 MPs voting against it and 118 backing the measure, despite an opinion poll showing it was supported by 82% of the public. The same poll suggested that 44% of people would break the law to help a loved one to die, risking a jail sentence of up to 14 years.

Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, who sits in the House of Lords,
urged MPs to reject the bill along with other faith leaders. Former archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey has argued for assisted dying to be lawful, saying such a move would be “profoundly Christian and moral”. Tutu wrote: “His initiative has my blessing and support – as do similar initiatives in my home country, South Africa, throughout the United States and across the globe.”

Pope Francis rejects rightwingers with US cardinals' appointment

Talk of ‘seismic shift’ in US catholic church with trio who have spoken out for women, immigrants and gun control
Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Rome             Guardian/UK              10 October 2016

Pope Francis has put his progressive stamp on the American Catholic church with the selection of three new like-minded cardinals – including one who has sparred with the Republican vice-presidential nominee, Mike Pence – in a clear rejection of bishops who have advocated for the church’s exclusion of divorced and LGBT Catholics. The American choices were among 17 new cardinals named by Francis. He has chosen more from the developing world and only one from Italy, reflecting his desire to decentralise power away from the Vatican in Rome.

In choosing these new cardinals – the “princes of the church” who serve as the pope’s primary advisers – Francis has made it more likely that his successor will be a moderate or progressive. It also partially balances out the influence of the cardinals chosen by his far more conservative predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

The choices could create a “
seismic shift” in the Catholic hierarchy in the US, according to John Allen, a commentator from Crux, a Catholic news publication. While the selection of Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis, Kevin Farrell of Dallas and Blase Cupich of Chicago could not be considered liberal by conventional political standards, Allen wrote that each was considered to be part of the “centrist, non-cultural warrior wing of the country’s hierarchy”.

Of the three, Tobin was the surprise choice, in part because cardinals are usually chosen from the main centres of power in the biggest Catholic countries, and Indianapolis does not fit the bill. He has sought a greater voice for women in the church and was involved in a high-profile battle with Pence last year, after the Indiana governor –
a former Catholic who converted to evangelical Protestantism – fought Tobin’s efforts to resettle Syrian refugees in the state, claiming they posed a security risk. The archbishop prevailed.

Cupich is also seen as an advocate for Francis’s agenda and has encouraged other archbishops to be a voice for workers and immigrants. Irish-born Farrell has been a vocal supporter of gun control laws.

“The picks show Francis wants the church in America to be more focused on issues like immigration, the role of women in the church and the need to bypass traditional centres of power in order to find leaders who smell of the sheep, as the pope has put it,”
wrote Michael O’Loughlin, a journalist for America Magazine, a Catholic publication.

Only 13 of the 17 cardinals Francis has elected will be eligible to vote in the next conclave because of age restrictions. Three of the new “electors” come from Europe.

The choices were noteworthy in part because of who Francis passed over for promotion, including the staunchly conservative archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, who presides over one of the largest Catholic archdiocese in the US. Chaput made headlines this summer when he released his own interpretation of a document that had been written by Francis that was meant to encourage priests to show more “discernment” in their treatment of Catholics who had divorced and remarried, as well as other practices that fall outside church doctrine.

Instead of emphasising the latitude Francis seemed to encourage in Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love), Chaput set out his own rules, including that
remarried Catholics who wanted to receive communion needed to abstain from sex and live as brother and sister, and that lesbian and gay Catholics could still opt for heterosexual marriage with children notwithstanding “some degree of same-sex attraction”.

There was only one Italian among the new cardinals: Mario Zenari, the pope’s ambassador to “loved and tormented” Syria. Calling the promotion a “surprise”, Zenari told Vatican radio that the honour was a gift to the victims of Syria and all those who suffer in the conflict.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Saudi Arabia is being attacked by both Sunni and Shia leaders

Robert Fisk                    Independent/UK                   22 September 2016 

The Saudis step deeper into trouble almost by the week. They are now reeling from an extraordinary statement issued by around two hundred Sunni Muslim clerics who effectively referred to the Wahhabi belief – practiced in
Saudi Arabia – as “a dangerous deformation” of Sunni Islam. The prelates included Egypt’s Grand Imam, Ahmed el-Tayeb of al-Azhar, the most important centre of theological study in the Islamic world, who only a year ago attacked “corrupt interpretations” of religious texts and who has now signed up to “a return to the schools of great knowledge” outside Saudi Arabia.

This remarkable meeting took place in Grozny and was unaccountably ignored by almost every media in the world, but it may prove to be even more dramatic than the terror of Syria’s civil war. For the statement, is as close as Sunni clerics have got to excommunicating the Saudis. Although they did not mention the Kingdom by name, the declaration was a stunning affront to a country which spends millions of dollars every year on thousands of Wahhabi mosques, schools and clerics around the world.

Wahhabism’s most dangerous deviation, in the eyes of the Sunnis who met in Chechenya, is that it sanctions violence against non-believers, including Muslims who reject Wahhabi interpretation.
Isis, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are the principal foreign adherents to this creed outside Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The bad news kept on coming. At the start of the five-day Hajj pilgrimage, the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar published online a database which it said came from the Saudi ministry of health, claiming that up 90,000 pilgrims from around the world have died visiting the Hajj capital of Mecca over a 14-year period. Although this figure is officially denied, it is believed in Shia Muslim Iran, which has lost hundreds of its citizens on the Hajj. Among them was Ghazanfar Roknabadi, a former ambassador and intelligence officer in Lebanon. Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has just launched an unprecedented attack on the Saudis, accusing them of murder. “The heartless and murderous Saudis locked up the injured with the dead in containers...” he said in his own Hajj message.

Yet the Iranians have boycotted the Hajj this year claiming that they have not received Saudi assurances of basic security for pilgrims. According to Khamenei, Saudi rulers “have plunged the world of Islam into civil wars”. However exaggerated his words, one thing is clear: for the first time, ever, the Saudis have been assaulted by both Sunni and Shia leaders at almost the same time.

The presence in Grozny of Grand Imam al-Tayeb of Egypt was particularly infuriating for the Saudis who have poured millions of dollars into the Egyptian economy since Brigadier-General-President al-Sissi staged his doleful military coup more than three years ago. What, the Saudis must be asking themselves, has happened to the fawning leaders who would normally grovel to the Kingdom?

“In 2010, Saudi Arabia was crossing borders peacefully as a power-broker, working with Iran, Syria, Turkey, Qatar and others to troubleshoot in regional hotspots,” Narwani writes. “By 2016, it had buried two kings, shrugged off a measured approach to foreign policy, embraced ‘takfiri’ madness and emptied its coffers.” A “takfiri” is a Sunni who accuses another Muslim (or Christian or Jew) of apostasy.

Kuwait, Libya, Jordan and Sudan were present in Grozny, along with – you guessed it – Ahmed Hassoun, the grand mufti of Syria and a loyal Assad man. Intriguingly, Abu Dhabi played no official role, although its policy of “deradicalisation” is well known throughout the Arab world.

The conference itself was opened by Putin, which shows what he thinks of the Saudis – although, typically, none of the Sunni delegates asked him to stop bombing Syria. But since the very meeting occurred against the backcloth of Isis and its possible defeat, they wouldn’t, would they? That Chechenya, a country of monstrous bloodletting by Russia and its own Wahhabi rebels, should have been chosen as a venue for such a remarkable conclave was an irony which could not have been lost on the delegates. But the real questions they were discussing must have been equally apparent.

Who are the real representatives of Sunni Muslims if the Saudis are to be shoved aside? And what is the future of Saudi Arabia? Of such questions are revolutions made. [Abridged]

Donald Trump on terror is just McCarthyism for a new age

imon Jenkins                          Guardian/UK                       21 September 2016

The Republican candidate for the presidency, Donald Trump, now reacts to any terrorist incident with crude cynicism. While the incessant killings of Americans by Americans prove only that America needs more guns,
a failed killing by an American Muslim is “a terrible thing that is going on in our country … an attack on America”. The hamfisted New York bombing suspect, Ahmad Khan Rahami, was to Trump not just guilty before trial but a “foreign enemy combatant”, to be detained indefinitely until the end of hostilities.  

Trump complained that the United States “will now give [Rahami]
amazing hospitalisation, the best doctors in the world, and probably room service”. Worst of all his “punishment will not be what it once would have been”. As for Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, he accused her immigration policy of being directly responsible. He said: “We now know why terrorists want her so badly to be president.”

In the potential leader of a great democracy, this is alarmist drivel. We should also be careful, since the exploitation of existential fear has long been a feature of America’s isolated political culture. In 1950, a little-known American senator, Estes Kefauver, achieved national fame by holding televised hearings into America’s “organised crime”, drawing on blood-curdling fantasies of a Sicilian-American “mafia”. 

The televised hearings were at times ludicrous. The search for “a mafia” was subcontracted to Hollywood.  

Two years later another senator, Joe McCarthy, decided to exploit a different “existential” scare. His committee investigated what he claimed was the “massive” penetration of the government and military by communists and homosexuals. Fear of a spurious threat to the state was turned into a witch-hunt by McCarthy and his aide, a certain Richard Nixon. There was a red under every bed – and a blackmailer in it. McCarthy, until his mental collapse, became a national celebrity.  

Likewise with Trump. The New York bomber was no more attacking America than, in Britain,
Lee Rigby’s killers were “attacking Britain”. Why lend them such glory? These are pathetic groups, sometimes just individuals, committing nasty crimes. For better or worse, it happens every day. That the criminals occasionally yell, “Allahu Akbar” should be neither here nor there. That they may have travelled to the Middle East or downloaded jihadi tracts is a legitimate concern to the police. It is not a threat to the stability, let alone the existence, of the state.  

The west’s response to jihadi terrorism since 9/11 has been wholly counter-productive. Under the pretext of “public reassurance”, it has sown the seeds of fear in the hope of harvesting votes of gratitude. If one harvest has come in votes – George Bush and Tony Blair did very well from 9/11 – the gourmand at the feast has been terrorism itself. Osama bin Laden’s tiny cabal has been turned into a global movement, drenched in blood, retribution and violent glamour.

Clinton’s reaction to the
New York explosions may have seemed pedestrian, but it was correct. It was to counsel responsibility, “smart law-enforcement and good intelligence in concert with our values”. This was the opposite of Blair’s response, which was to declare that 9/11 “changed the world” and “rewrote the rules of the game”. I could hear Bin Laden cheering.

Violence in a political cause is as old as history. Civil terror is a classic tool of the weak against the strong. In the case of modern jihadism, brutal mayhem has yet to deliver it a stable caliphate. But it has laid its groundwork in ethnic and religious polarisation between Muslim and non-Muslim. It has undermined the tolerance of western democracies. From America’s detention without trial to Theresa May’s snooper’s charter, it has slit open the soft underbelly of liberalism.

Such a gain for terrorism is the result of foolish politicians looking for cheap votes – and the media looking for cheap headlines. Scaremongering, the search for a foe against whom to pretend to defend the state, may be as old as terror itself. But given the absolute security of modern America and Britain, it is a dangerous self-indulgence. It should be excoriated. It is not the bomb that is the terrorist’s accomplice but the response to the bomb. It is not Rahami but Trump’s response to Rahami that we should fear. [Abridged]

Monday, 19 September 2016

Sport – A New Religion

By Ian Harris                Otago Daily Times                 September 9, 2016

Is sport morphing into a new religion? It shows traits, says Ian Harris, but it can never be the real deal.

I wondered if it occurred to many of us that sport is developing traits that overlap with religion.

Not the sport of backyard cricket, a swim at the beach or school athletics, but sport on the international scale. In a world becoming more globally conscious and, in many countries, more secular, is sport moving into the vacuum left by a diminishing religious awareness?

And as commentators breathlessly tot up their country’s tally of gold, silver and bronze – 18 for New Zealand this time – the further question arises whether nations promote and fund global sport for the benefits it confers on the athletes, or for nationalistic pride and prestige? In the end, who gains from the millions poured into top-level sport? Who loses out as a consequence?

The sporting multifest which are the modern Olympics certainly captures the imaginations and emotions of people in every country. Athletes exerting themselves, and spectators watching from their far-away couches, live the pulsating moments of extreme effort, the hair’s-breadth separating a winner from an also-ran/swam/rowed/sailed/jumped/threw/shot/rode/played. And burst with pride or shared the Watching the Rio Olympics – or rather, the snippets doled out on free-to-air television – desolation of yet another oh-so-close triumph or loss.

I see strains of religion in this. Many athletes obviously draw strength from faith that their God is blessing their effort, willing them forward, inspiring them to excel. Prayers back home focus on a competitor and his or her event – presumably offset by prayers on behalf of their rivals. That puts God, when conceived as intervening to determine outcomes from beyond, in an impossible bind: not even a God of miracles can make everyone a winner in the same event.

The focus then switches to how everyone trained and prepared, avoided the temptation to cheat with drugs (or didn’t), competed, “left nothing in the tank”, and carried their elation or disappointment.

Sport exalts the striving body, and there is everything to admire in those who attain the heights of Olympic and Paralympic competition. The basic challenge is to master a discipline and continually push beyond what they have achieved so far. That requires dedication to a goal of excellence, commitment to fitness programmes and training schedules, discipline in persisting through the bleaker patches. There’s a transcendence in this – not in any supernatural sense, but in “climbing across or beyond” (that’s what the word means) an athlete’s current limits to be better than before.

Challenge, dedication, commitment, discipline, transcendence – these are qualities equally at play in religion. The big difference is the context. In the Olympics it is human physicality, put to the test in front of a global audience. The honours go to the individual or team, purely on performance on the day. Other personal qualities are irrelevant, as we saw with the American swimming medallists in Rio who fabricated a tale of being robbed.

That points up another reason why sport will never amount to a religion, best defined as “a total mode of the interpreting and living of life”. While the demands of sport may determine how an athlete lives his or her life, and may even give it transitory worth and meaning, sport of itself has nothing deeper to offer on how to interpret life as a whole. In the heat of competition, nobody cares about that anyway.

Community is another major point of difference. A sense of being in life together with others for the long haul is central to religious experience. Ideally, religion offers communities where everyone participates, and which provide mutual support and opportunities for sharing and growth in the interpreting and living of life.

Contrast the Olympics, where the community of interest swells and dissipates as events and personalities come and go. By far the greatest numbers in sporting communities of interest are not participants, but spectators taking a vicarious pleasure in the achievements of others. Moreover, the glory of sport is fleeting. Heroes and heroines shine and bow out. Adulation waxes and wanes. The fresh and the new rub the gloss off the stars of yesteryear.

So while there are traits that overlap with religion, they hardly add up to a total mode of the interpreting and living of life. For that, there needs to be, at the very least, a sense of what people consider ultimate in the values that determine their behaviour, and in the concern they have for the world and for others. Such concern may or may not include a concept of God (or Godness). But for billions, it helps.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

40 years since Saigon's fall, napalm attack haunts woman in iconic image

Soo Youn in Ho Chi Minh City                   Guardian/UK                  30 April 2015

Nick Ut’s image of a screaming girl fleeing naked is credited with turning public opinion against the Vietnam war, but for one person in the picture, the nightmares go on. Nick Ut’s ‘Napalm Girl’ photograph, which altered the course of the Vietnam war. Ho Thi Hien was the girl on the right.

On 8 June 1972, Ho Thi Hien was at her cousin Kim Phuc’s house in the village of Trang Bang in South
Vietnam. The adults were out when the children heard the plane overhead and fled, trying to outrun their terror. A South Vietnamese Skyraider had just dropped a napalm bomb, propelling civilians down Vietnam’s Highway 1.

One of them was nine-year-old Phuc who, in a moment captured by photographer Nick Ut, was shown screaming as she ran naked down the road, having stripped off her clothes to rid herself of the poison on her skin. From that moment on she was known as the “napalm girl”. Ho, then 10 years old, ran alongside her cousin. Clothed but barefoot, she was captured on the right-hand side of Ut’s photograph. The image, for which Ut won a Pulitzer prize, was widely credited with turning the tide of public opinion against the war. Decades later, it lives on as one of the most iconic images of the century. Although her face displays no sign of trauma, so do Ho’s nightmares. “Every time I hear a plane I get scared,” she says.

As she has for thousands of days before, Ho sits patiently in the relentless Trang Bang heat on Thursday, occupying one of the weathered plastic chairs in her dusty roadside cafe, footsteps away from where her pain was immortalised. A framed print of the photograph hangs from a post. But the day is not completely unremarkable: it is the eve of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and Ut, as he does every time he returns to Vietnam, has come to visit. “They’re like family,” he says.

Forty years ago, on 30 April 1975, North Vietnamese tanks rolled into the former Saigon, seizing the South Vietnamese capital and capping a humiliating defeat for the US after a misguided decade of war. In chaos, Americans scrambled, abandoning the city. The conflict killed over 3 million North Vietnamese, 250,000 South Vietnamese and over 58,000 Americans.

Early on Thursday morning, in a move aimed at beating the tropical midday heat, Vietnam held a massive Liberation Day parade. It celebrated with thousands of goose-stepping soldiers, costumed performers, and card-flipping mosaics for its own dignitaries and representatives of other communist nations. The streets of downtown Ho Chi Minh City around the Reunification Palace have been blocked for days. Civilians watched from home.

After centuries of war, the Vietnamese psyche looks forward. Half of the country’s population of 90 million was born after the “American war” and an estimated 16,000 Vietnamese currently study in the US. The US is one of the biggest investors in Vietnam. South Korea, enlisted by the Americans to fight for the South Vietnamese, is also a major investor, and Korean culture in the form of K-pop music and soap operas is as welcome as its cash.

While Vietnam has changed hands and governments, Ho, now 56, continues to live and work steps away from the napalm attack that altered the course of her life and of her country. Her cousin Phuc lives in Toronto, has written a book and raised a family. Phuc’s brother – Phan Thanh Tam, the boy on the left side of the photo – lost an eye in the attack. He died of cancer a few years ago and his widow operates a cafe next door to Ho’s on the first floor of the Phuc family house. Phuc’s home is modernised, funded by donations from around the world. Money from Swedish benefactors provided refrigerators, furniture and a television.

On Thursday, Ut photographed the military splendour of a liberated Vietnam for the Associated Press, the news agency for which he continues to work. The pictures are good, he says, but none will ever compare to the napalm photograph. It lives on for Phuc, for Ho, and his own family. [Abridged]

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Past and Present Refugees

Robert Fisk                     Independent UK                     2 Sept. 2016      

The Trojans and the peoples of the Middle East today were and are fleeing for their lives. What both also have in common is the war which drove them from Anatolian shores. For burning Troy, read burning Aleppo. For the destruction of the ancient city of King Priam, think of the pulverisation of the Great Mosque and the soukhs of Syria’s largest city, and the slaughter of its peoples. Fire and the sword, shell and the barrel bombs.

And so we come to the flip side of this tragedy. Not the history of the past, but the history of the future. In the age of the internet, we have stopped thinking about this. The question is rarely ‘how did this come to pass?’ but ‘what should we do NOW?’ Don’t ask why 19 men who claimed they were Muslims committed the international crimes against humanity of 9/11. Invade Afghanistan! Don’t question how Saddam achieved power in Iraq. Invade Iraq!

Whether or not the Trojan wars were a Greek (and later Roman) myth or the husk of a real 12th century BC conflict, the story – whether it be of Homer’s Odysseus or Virgil’s Aenias – is as contemporary as the present Arab tragedy in the Middle East. Muslims and Christians leave their mosques and churches behind. Along with his father and friends, Aeneas could take with him only his household gods, his ‘penates’. All were fleeing the folly of kings and warlords, militia leaders and dictators.

Which brings us to the next, even vaster fleets of refugees who will trek from their homelands in the decades to come, victims of the ferocious Saddam-like autocrats and satraps whom we currently support in a different part of the Muslim world. I’m talking here of the little emperors – complete with praetorian guards, statues and president-for-life status – in the ‘Stans’ that lie between Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia and Iran.

Daniel McLaughlin, among the best correspondents in central and eastern Europe, has drawn attention to the dangers inherent in the Muslim Asian states which emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago. In a region of oil and gas wealth and strategic importance, their leaders, courted by both Moscow and Washington, are guilty of appalling human rights crimes, massacres and torture of their own people in their war – you guessed it – against Isis and the Taliban.

In Tajikistan, where a civil war in the 1990s claimed – with statistics as wild as Syria’s – up to 100,000 dead, a thousand of Rakhmon’s citizens have joined Isis, along with Gulmurud Khalimov, the former Tajik police commander. Khalimov, I should add, was trained in the US. The Americans maintained post-9/11 air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The ghastly Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, a creature whose torture chambers and abuse of civil rights are close to Karimov’s standards, pays millions to his hard-working adviser and would be scourge of dictators, Tony Blair. You get the point.

And when these vicious Ruritanias explode, the refugees will come again, the ‘exiles by fate’ and the ‘fugitives of destiny’; Uzbekistan’s 30 million population is almost a third larger than Syria’s. And they will drift across their frontiers and many will come to us, mixed up with more Afghans, Syrians and Arabs. And then we will ask not ‘why?’, not ‘how did we come to this?’, but ‘what do we do NOW?’. And it will be too late again. What was the name of that little chap on the beach, we’ll ask ourselves then? Aylan, wasn’t it? Or Alan? And behind those refugees will be the burning cities of the ancient Silk Road, as surely as Aleppo burns today, and Troy long ago. [This is the concluding section of a long article by Robt Fisk]

“Destroying the environment is a sin”

Pontiff says humans are turning planet into ‘wasteland full of debris, desolation and filth’ in call for urgent action on climate change

Josephine McKenna in Rome                          Guardian/UK                 1 September 2016

Pope Francis has called for urgent action to stop climate change and proposed that caring for the environment be added to traditional Christian works of mercy such as feeding the hungry and visiting the sick. In a message to mark the Catholic Church’s World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation that he launched last year, Francis said the worst impact of global warming was being felt by those who were least responsible for it – refugees and the poor.

The pontiff used the occasion to revive many of the powerful issues he highlighted a year ago in his provocative encyclical on the environment, Laudato si’, and his latest message seems certain to rankle conservatives. Francis described man’s destruction of the environment as a sin and accused mankind of turning the planet into a “polluted wasteland full of debris, desolation and filth”.

“Global warming continues,” the pope said. “2015 was the warmest year on record, and 2016 will likely be warmer still. This is leading to ever more severe droughts, floods, fires and extreme weather events. Climate change is also contributing to the heart-rending refugee crisis. The world’s poor, though least responsible for climate change, are most vulnerable and already suffering its impact. ”

The pope said the faithful should use the Holy Year of Mercy throughout 2016 to ask forgiveness for sins committed against the environment and our “selfish” system motivated by “profit at any price”. He called for care for the environment to be added to the seven spiritual works of mercy outlined in the Gospel that the faithful are asked to perform throughout the pope’s year of mercy in 2016.

“We must not be indifferent or resigned to the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of ecosystems, often caused by our irresponsible and selfish behaviour,” he said. “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence … We have no such right.”

The pope asked people to reflect on a society that lacked concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature. He called for consumers to modify their modern lifestyle by reducing waste, planting trees, separating rubbish and making more use of car pooling.

“The resolve to live differently should affect our various contributions to shaping the culture and society in which we live,” he said. Francis urged political and business leaders to stop thinking of short-term gains and work for the common good while taking steps to resolve the “ecological debt” between the global north and south. “Repaying it would require treating the environments of poorer nations with care and providing the financial resources and technical assistance needed to help them deal with climate change and promote sustainable development,” he said.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Vatican’s council for peace and justice, said: “The first step is to humbly acknowledge the harm we are doing to the Earth through pollution, the scandalous destruction of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity, and the spectre of climate change. And to realise that when we hurt the Earth, we also hurt the poor.”

The Ghanaian cardinal, who helped draft the original encyclical, has just been appointed to head a new Vatican dicastery that will be responsible for the environment, migration, justice and healthcare. He told a Vatican media conference it was possible to create change and arrest environmental destruction. “We should not think that our efforts – even our small gestures – don’t matter,” he said. “Virtue, including ecological virtue, can be infectious.”