Category Archives: Travel

Muhimu Matata

Having returned from my second trip to Kenya this week, I owe it to my friends, readers and spiritual supporters to give some sort of report on the matter. So what should I say? It was a wonderful time, full of contact with warm and sincere people who are looking for ways to be better Christians and to make their country a better place, yet there came many new perspectives on things there in need of repair. Both aspects were expected before I went; both were reinforced in surprising ways.

Some Kenyans have a charming way with the English language...

Some Kenyans have a charming way with the English language…

On my first visit to Kenya 8 months earlier I was somewhat surprised by the language situation I discovered. I was not surprised to find a variety of tribal languages with none of them having particular dominance, but I was surprised to learn that the public education system there operates in just two languages, neither of which either teachers or students tend to have native proficiency in: English and Kiswahili. Staying in predominantly Luo-speaking areas on my first visit, I got the impression that Kiswahili was nothing but an African version of Esperanto: an artificial language designed to be equally easy or hard for all of its second-language speakers, native for no one, serving as a lingua franca among those who speak it as a hobby but of little use outside of clubs for those who have such a hobby. Pidgin English seemed to serve as a more practical lingua franca for those who didn’t share a tribal language with each other, and who do not find each other’s tribal languages to be mutually understandable (on the level of potential interaction between speakers of Danish and Norwegian).

Being in the central part of the country this time around, however, I got a much more sympathetic perspective on the role of the Kiswahili language in Kenyan society. Particularly for older people with moderate levels of education, who neither want to stand for their particular tribe’s identity nor accept the heritage of British colonialism as their linguistic norm, Kiswahili is a very functional and living language. It plays a valuable role in many levels of social interaction in rural but inter-tribal areas of Kenya in particular. English still seems to be the language of choice among urbanized, well-educated and internationally traveled Kenyans of all tribes, and those rural people whose social interactions are only within their own tribe still tend to speak neither English nor Kiswahili with any proficiency, but in between those at the highest and lowest levels of integration there is in fact a broad band of people who function primarily in Kiswahili on a day-to-day basis. This was an interesting discovery for me.

DSCF2862So this time around my hosts were making a point of trying to help me pick up a smattering of polite social expressions in Kiswahili: “Asante sana” (thank you very much), “karibu” (you’re welcome), “sawa sawa” (OK, fine), and off course “hakuna matata” (no problems). This last phrase though, I must confess, started to bother me a bit, in that it seemed to always relate to papering over some sort of cultural misunderstanding. I usually heard it in contexts like, “By the way, we didn’t say anything before because we didn’t want to get you upset, but we need another 10,000 shillings from you to cover the cost of the afternoon tea service we ordered for the group… but hakuna matata.” Thus when it came to financial matters in particular I had to learn the opposite to this expression in their language: “Muhimu matata” –– there’s actually a significant problem here!

There is a difficult balance question in terms of how far to go in pointing out such problems for those of us wishing to make ourselves useful in post-colonial Africa these days. The message that colonial powers struggled to drill into the indigenous peoples there –– “You can’t get by with out us, so you need to thankfully cooperate with us and do whatever we tell you to do” –– has left all sorts of scars on modern Kenyan society. Some go to extremes in pre-colonial nostalgia, claiming everything was wonderful there before Europeans screwed things up; others still subconsciously believe the colonial propaganda and wallow in a consequent sense of helplessness. Both are thoroughly wrong. Both are conspicuously evident in various aspects of Kenyan society. So of course there are significant problems there. If there weren’t significant problems there I wouldn’t be involved in matters Kenyan to begin with.

DSCF2903Constructive paths for the future can be rather hard to build under such circumstances, but there is a certain human and especially Christian obligation to at least try to help build such paths forward. Expressing compassion while avoiding condescension towards those we are trying to help is easier said than done, but it is very much worth trying to do. Balancing an acknowledgement of Europeans’ collective historical guilt with an awareness of African traditional cultural dysfunctions that predate colonization –– and then putting all of that background information aside when it comes to helping individuals in critical need –– can be a very tiring process, but still very much worth doing.

The purpose of my previous trip to Kenya was to look into ways of providing help to those in the greatest need which could do long-term sustainable good. It was also a time for building initial contacts with those on the ground there attempting to help orphans in particular. Many of those who could provide the best assistance it seemed (and it still seems) are those who are motivated by a sense of Christian responsibility in the matter: church people. Kenyan church people in general, however, are a fascinating mixed bag, with plenty of problems of their own. They’re trusted more than politicians and government officials, but just barely.

The most financially and numerically successful churches tent to be those which preach a Christian version of something very close to the message of African traditional religions: “If you follow the proper beliefs and rituals, and believe in the spiritual powers we tell you about, you will get supernatural help in gaining the sort of material blessings you most desire.” Not surprisingly, this message has little credibility with more educated Kenyans, and it creates its fair share of crises of faith for those who sincerely believe in such. But worst of all, it actually does damage not only to the credibility of the Christian message, but to churches’ capacities to express God’s love by helping those in need.

A typical rural independent church in Kenya.

A typical rural independent church in Kenya.

Yet scattered among those who are preaching a magical Christian route to material success are many sincere and devoted pastors and Christian leaders who believe in the love of God as expressed through the person of Jesus, and who want to share that message with those around them and order their lives accordingly. What many of them lack is a thorough understanding of what they are doing, and how the message of the Bible can be related to the industrialized, commercialized and digitalized world that we live in.

Among those I met last June, the average level of education among preachers in independent churches seemed to be about 7 or 8 years worth of compulsory public schooling followed by 3 to 6 months worth of some sort of Bible School in Nairobi or some other relatively close by African city. That’s it.  All of them wished they could get more education, but they generally cannot afford the luxury. I had the idea of trying to arrange to provide such teaching for them as freely and ecumenically as possible. With that in mind I sketched out a rough proposal for what has now become the “Kenya Christian Leadership Development Mission”.

Driving with David and Wilfred

Driving with David and Wilfred

Bringing this project together were a couple of young men, David and Wilfred, whom I had never met in person prior to their picking me up at the airport on Valentine’s Day. Somehow they had got their hands on the proposal I wrote in June. As far as I understand both of these young men work as freelance chauffeurs to keep their families fed, but they both have strong interests in preaching, evangelizing and in building relations between churches. They managed to bring together a group of pastors from 5 or 6 different families of independent churches in central Kenya to organize this seminar, with hopes of building a continuous movement around such seminars. They proceeded to establish an official organization, open a bank account for the project, and reserve a rural public education center to rent for the occasion. It seemed like a good start.

There were some clear cultural misunderstandings between my Kenyan friends and I when it came to the groundwork for this seminar though. My understanding was that they would collect enough money among participants and their churches there to rent a classroom and provide a place for the participants from out of town to stay, and to pay for whatever catering would be necessary to make things work. I would pay my own expenses and I would further ask around here in Europe for sponsors for pastors who could not afford to participate otherwise. Their understanding, on the other hand, was that they could make all of the logistical arrangements there and get the pastors together for the event, and I would find European churches willing to pay for the whole project.

Their cultural frame of reference, it seems, related to American church organizations which have come to Kenya in the past with plans of establishing a foothold for their own denominational brands in that expanding market. With their significant denominational or mega-church funding, such groups could painlessly pay for food, lodging and entertainment for a week for as many future representatives for their brand as could be recruited. Such seminars, I now understand, have traditionally included free distribution plenty of professionally published teaching materials free of charge, and at times as a parting gift each participant has even been given a bicycle courtesy of the organizers to help him spread their message and thus increase their market share. It seems that David and Wilfred and their local helpers there didn’t really understand the concept of me coming as a solitary volunteer, without any sort of financial backing to pay for such things.

DSCN9973There was also a bit of a challenge in terms of finding the optimal target participants for such a seminar. My idea had been to make it available for anyone who was interested enough to take the time out of their other work to be there, and who could either pay their own basic expenses or find sponsorship for their participation for the week. As the organizers there never conceived of a seminar budget based on the participants’ own contributions though, their cultural premise was somehow to select those who were most deserving of such teaching being provided by foreign benefactors. Rather than everyone who was interested enough and who could afford to come being welcome on that basis, the operational principle became one participants being chosen on the basis of relationship factors. This led to some “important” pastors taking part, on whom much of the teaching seemed to be lost, with many others not having the possibility to join in.

As it came to be realized, the seminar ended up being a series of difficult logistical compromises, with lots of last minute practical support coming from the participating Kenyan churches, and with a bit of financial sponsorship coming from two of the churches in the Helsinki area which have a significant number of African members, but with the majority of the downsized budget ending up being paid for in the end on my personal credit cards.

Rather than pitying myself for my vulnerability on this one though, I have to say that many of the others involved also contributed everything they possibly could and then some. It would also be fair to say that this is not the first time I’ve been taken advantage of in trying to “do the right thing”, and over the years I’ve had plenty of “learning experiences” that have been more expensive than this one even. And when all is said and done I still have every confidence that David and Wilfred and their colleagues, given their own understanding of how such things are supposed to work, did everything they knew how to do to bring this seminar together in the best way possible.

DSCF2824So now the big question is, what good did it do? What did the participants in this seminar actually learn from it, if anything? What did the take home with them besides copies of my PowerPoint slides and a 25 cent participation certificate?

It is rather impossible for me to make any properly objective claims in this regard. I must admit that if my task would have been to prepare them to succeed in a standardized examination on the fundamentals of philosophy of religion, I would be more than a little bit nervous about their chances. As it was, however, my goal was just to provide them with a valuable learning experience which would at least marginally increase their capacity to interact with intellectuals, skeptics and/or non-believers in a fruitful manner. I don’t think many of them became ace apologists for the faith last week, but I do believe they all stopped to think about some of the basic issues involved a bit more carefully, and that especially for the younger ones this could have a very positive effect on their work as they go forward.

The week’s lessons were in practice squeezed down to three days of classroom work. In the first day’s talks I provided a crash overview of the field of philosophy: the focal issues of epistemology, metaphysics and ethics; and the broad outline of how academic philosophy relates to the history of western thought. It would be fair to say that the vast majority of this material went straight over the heads of even the youngest and sharpest participants there, but it gave them at least some sort of introduction to what philosophers do, and how it relates to matters of faith. Some participants strongly stated that this gave them a new interest in looking into such matters further in the future. That’s as much as I could have realistically expected.

20150218_090551Our second day was focused on the philosophical arguments for and against religion and the existence of God in general. I chose three on each side that I hoped would be most interesting and relevant for them. As arguments against religion I tried to explain the Theodicy issue, Occam’s Razor and the issue of evils committed in the name of God. As arguments in defense of the faith I offered the most convincing variation on the Cosmological Argument I could give, a Kierkegaardian argument from existential purpose, and Pascal’s Wager. All of this was very new territory to all of them and I did my best to make such matters at least somewhat accessible to them. Here too, however, I think the best I can hope is that they have a new awareness that such debates exist, and that these debates are relevant to their work as Christian leaders. Hopefully those with an interest in such things now have a basis for moving forward in investigating such matters.

Our third day was for many the most important. I confessed to them that, as important as many of the tools and understandings we had talked about thus far were, they were in many regards rather abstract concepts –– to the point that all of the defenses of faith I had offered could just as easily be used to defend Islam as Christianity. So the task remained to define in clear, somewhat philosophical terms, what precisely we as Christians believe.

I started by introducing the term “canon” in relation to scripture and comparing it to the term “benchmark”. We then explored together the question of what certainties we as believers are looking for in life; and how believers’ hopes, desires and certainties in life are the same and how they are different from unbelievers’. I then proposed a “mind map” regarding the key factors that identify Christian believers as such:

  • A sense of being forgiven and accepted by God’s grace
  • The interactive dynamics of faith, hope and love; particularly expressed in an ethic of kindness rather than cruelty
  • A mission to be “salt and light” to the world we live in
  • Rejecting the temptation to continuously compare ourselves with others
  • Following the moral teachings of the Bible in day-to-day life as an expression of our thankfulness to God.

Things got really interesting when we came to discussing questions of “spiritual warfare”. I proposed two premises on the matter as a basis for discussion: 1) The devil probably gets more credit than he deserves for the problems we have, and 2) The area of “evil” is broader than the work of the devil, per se.

20150218_112756As it happened, God had conveniently “blessed me” with a very troublesome sore throat over the course of the week, and this made a very apt illustration: My throat problems could have come from any combination of three factors: environmental stress (dust, weather changes, bicycling in freezing conditions the previous week, etc.), bacteria, and/or a virus. The warm concoction of lemon, honey, garlic, etc. that one dear sister there made for me, and menthol drops which they were watching me sucking on the whole time in an effort to keep my voice working, were going to be at least marginally helpful regardless of the cause, but a decision as to whether or not to take antibiotics was another matter. If it was a virus causing me to cough so much then taking antibiotics would do far more harm than good! The same principle, I proposed, is relevant to any decision they might make to try to cast out demons for example.

From there I opened the floor to a discussion of why it can be important to preach against the devil. It was clear that some of the older and more experienced pastors disagreed with each other about these matters, but there were some very useful and constructive debates on the matter without any trace of animosity between the participants. That in itself was a very useful result.

I tried to keep clear the whole time that I was not coming in as any spiritual father figure for these men and women, and that within their churches there are leaders to whom they should properly address more specific doctrinal questions. I was there merely as a teacher, not a pastor, to offer them more tools for thinking things through more thoroughly and communicating them more effectively.

DSCF2749I did have one piece of advice to offer regarding building their churches though, which I told them they were unlikely to hear in any Bible school: There are two methods of building a group of followers which are extremely effective, but which you should still always avoid because, because the success they bring to the organization is not worth the damage they cause to individuals: dogmatism and hate-mongering.

Many large churches have been built on the principle that you find on a humor sign that hangs in some offices: “Office rules: 1. The boss is always right. 2. When the boss is wrong, see rule #1.” As effective as it may be to insist on such absolute and unquestioning obedience to human authorities and even doctrinal standards though, in the long run it is neither honest nor constructive. I strongly encourage leaders not to make unquestionable certainty for its own sake the operational principle of their churches.

Beyond that one of the most effective ways of getting people to work together is by giving them a shared object of hatred. Hitler did that. Racist organizations around the world still do that. Too many churches also still do that. Don’t make yours one of them.

From there my message was, don’t be intimidated by large churches whose “fruit” is the result of operating according to such principles. If your church is worth building, its worth will be based on offering people faith, hope and especially love. Don’t ever lose sight of those priorities.

Needless to say, there were plenty of other important questions that we talked about over the course of the week, but these are the things I hope the participants remember, and which I hope stimulate further intellectual and spiritual growth in their lives. If this experience proves to have been important for them, if the senior pastors who were involved want more of their protégés to receive the same sort of teaching, and if the financial issues are properly settled –– if this message proves to be more important than the problems we had in getting it out –– this work will continue.

DSCF2840For myself, I’m just extremely curious to see what will happen next.

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Filed under Philosophy, Purpose, Religion, Spirituality, Travel

Epilogue to my Kenya Trip

For two days now I’ve been back in Europe after my two weeks in Ahero, Kenya. I still haven’t heard anything about my suitcase that Finnair misplaced in Paris, but other than that I am very pleased with the way everything about the trip worked out. I met many wonderful, warm people. I got some amazing photographs. I managed to stay healthy under somewhat risky circumstances. I was received with kindness and respect everywhere I went, and many people seemed to be touched and encouraged by what I had to say for myself.072

I also noticed many things that were uniquely valuable about the culture of the people I spent those weeks living among there. I am really not tempted to try and make Finns or Americans out of them, even if that would be possible. They have their own rich and beautiful way of life that, for all its problems, deserves our sincere respect.

Those qualifications in place, however, especially now after the fact of my trip it must be acknowledged that the most important reason for my trip was that there are thousands if not millions of people there who in many ways desperately need whatever sort of help I can arrange for them, because some things there are tragically dysfunctional. Thus the task I have set for myself now is to, on the balance, evaluate what I consider to be wrong with the situation there, what can be done about it, and what lessons there are to be learned from it. This entry, therefore, is my way of “thinking aloud” about those factors for myself. Your feedback on this process, regardless of your cultural and ideological perspectives, is more than welcome.

036The clearest way I know of to do this is to lay things out for myself in terms of a list of lists, and then to see if I have any profound conclusions to draw afterwards. My lists themselves are basically: a) the things I see as wrong with the current state of affairs in Kenya, b) the forms of constructive help that I would like to see those in the West offering to Kenyans, and c) the Kenyan mistakes that Westerners –– Americans in particular –– should be careful to learn from and not repeat. So here we go.

Kenya’s major problems

1. If there is one thing this country does not need it is more competing brands of Christianity. I might go as far as to say that in all my travels around the world I have never seen such a thoroughly over-evangelized and over-churched people anywhere. When it comes awareness of Jesus’ death for their sins and living up to the ideal of child-like faith in the Bible there is no nation on earth which is in any position to instruct the Kenyan people. If this were the key to solving the country’s problems it would clearly have no problems. This is not of course to say that all of Kenya’s churches are preaching “the pure gospel of Jesus” (however you care to define that) in a way that truly helps the people sitting in the stackable Chinese plastic chairs and shouting “Amen!” but that does not mean that introducing further new brands will be of any help. This in fact is a particularly complex problem to be addressed.013

2. Most people in Kenya seem to have entirely lost faith in the political process, and the rules and laws that result from it. There are of course many good reasons for them not to trust their politicians: nearly all of them are in one way or another preserving an oligarchy of insiders, working for their own selfish benefit rather than for the benefit of their people. To the extent that they are reaching out to the common people of the country it is frequently a matter of rewarding members of their own party and their own tribe for supporting their particular branch of the oligarchy over other ones. Thus laws are seen as politicians’ means of manipulating and further enslaving and impoverishing the people; things to be circumvented wherever possible. Paying a bribe or two along the way is frequently taken for granted as part of the status quo. But as long as people don’t believe that they really can make a difference in terms of holding their leaders accountable for their actions, the failure of government to genuinely help people and protect the human rights of its citizens will remain pretty much inevitable.

3. As with official laws, many basic health and safety rules are routinely ignored in Kenya. Nowhere is this more obvious than in traffic. Vehicle safety seems to be left entirely up to the discretion of the driver. Load limits and passenger protection considerations are a joke. Traffic patterns, especially during rush hours, tend to resemble a rugby scrum more than anything else. The same logic applies to pretty much every other form of communal activity as well: People do whatever they feel they can get away with, pay off anyone who might have the power to try to shut them down, and pray that their practices of cutting corners won’t come back to bite them. Many times they do, resulting in some fairly serious health problems and tragic accident rates.

Seeing these guys attempt to fix their car on the street in front of the hotel where I was staying, I couldn't help but recall the end of the quote from Jesus in the back window there: "...for they know not what they do."

Seeing these guys attempt to fix their car on the street in front of the hotel where I was staying, I couldn’t help but recall the end of the quote from Jesus in the back window there: “…for they know not what they do.”

4. There remains a tragic lack of self-reliance in Kenyan society. Part of this has to do with a conditioned habit as seeing white people as sources of support, empowerment and guidance. As one white businessman I met in Kisumu put it, “They think that if the put a misungu [white person] in charge, everything will work from there, but it really doesn’t.” And of course this is a bit strange and ironic for me to say something about, since I am one of the white people who has gone in hoping to offer support, empowerment and guidance… potentially leading to something resembling the classic scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian where he tells his followers to think for themselves. I was thankful, of course, not to confront major incidents of post-colonial hostility in my travels there, and I believe that looking for opportunities to work together across ethnic and cultural lines is a far more productive approach than demonizing the other colonial other and blaming all of the country’s problems on them, but… ultimately Kenya’s deepest problems can only be resolved by Kenyans themselves. That in turn requires breaking out of a mentality of seeing how many little forms of cheating they can get away with.

5. Many problems in Kenyan life are further compounded by a traditional lower status for women. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the anecdote told to me by one of my Kenyan friends that his grandmother considered it to be somewhat improper for a woman to eat chicken at all: not only are the choicest bits of meat generally reserved for the men at the table, but it is improper for women to indulge themselves in nicer foods even if the men aren’t eating them. This pattern of keeping women in a state of subservience is seen in many little routines ranging from norms of kitchen work to continued acceptance of polygamy. This makes the status of AIDS widows with large numbers of children all the more tragic for the victims involved.

Of course when you give women freedom from their traditional roles it often leads to them deciding to do things like leaving their husbands. It is hard to deny that greater freedom for women is the most significant factor in the catastrophic divorce rates in much of the developed world. We haven’t got the whole thing figured out yet, clearly. But I’m convinced that the problems for societies stemming from a culture of keeping women down are greater than the problems entailed in men losing control over women. Not all Kenyan men share my perspective on that matter.

One of the peasant women employed as a "human scarecrow" in the rice fields.

One of the peasant women employed as a “human scarecrow” in the rice fields.

6. There are a significant number of dysfunctional aspects in Kenya’s education system. In addition to the lack of material resources for schools stemming from official corruption, the high percentage of orphans and malnourished children in Kenya’s rural schools, the lack of qualified teachers (and secure salaries for those who are so as to keep them teaching), and the problem of school accessibility for children especially during rainy seasons, Kenyan schools that I visited all tend to rely most heavily on a pedagogy of rote memorization. Part of the challenge is that national examinations and higher education opportunities strongly stress the use of English as a language of learning. This eliminates a certain amount of tribal infighting by putting all Kenyan children –– Luo, Kikuyu, Maasai, Kamba or Kisii –– at equal disadvantage in terms of being able to write fluent exam essays. It also prevents the vast majority from thoroughly assimilating the lesson material in the way one is able to take in what one hears in one’s native language. Combine this with a lack of technical capacity to provide an interactive learning environment of any sort and you end up with a teacher copying materials from a standardized textbook onto a chalk board, students repeating this back to the teacher as they copy it down in their notebooks and evaluation being based almost exclusively on how well they can remember this material after the fact. In spite of this emphasis on English in education, and in the media for that matter, the level of spoken English in the population at large is significantly lower than in any country in central Europe where I have visited. So it is small wonder that the life skills acquired through the formal education process in Kenya are frequently not proving adequate for the challenges of the modern world.

The social studies lesson that was left on the chalk board of a primary school that I visited.

The social studies lesson that was left on the chalk board of a primary school that I visited.

7. Finally, as I commented in the last blog I wrote during my time on the ground there in Kenya, there is a problem of many churches offering magical solutions to practical problems rather than strength of character to confront these problems and deal with them constructively. This may come across as a liberal critique of those who are more theologically conservative than myself, or as a mainstream critique of more charismatic or Pentecostal forms of worship, but that is not my intent here. I see great value in people coming together and having a profound emotional experience of “the spirit moving” among them, especially for those whose lives are otherwise so often difficult and joyless. My problem is with those whose motivation for coming to church is to magically gain material advantage over non-believing neighbors, and with pastors who market their various competing brands of Christianity on such a basis. The border between ignorance and willful (self-)deception in this matter is hard to draw, but one clear thing is what I said at the beginning of this list: if strength of faith was the solution to social problems Kenya would have no social problems.

This brings me to the matter of the next list to be considered…

Constructive forms of help that the developed world can/should provide for Kenya:

Nyangoto 1941. Engagement with teacher education. It is quite likely impossible to have a positive impact on the dysfunctions of Kenya’s education system through a top-down strategy, especially given the sorry state of trust between political leaders and education providers throughout the country. The best hope for improving the state of education in Kenya is to instill in young teachers a vision for improving their country through equipping young people to become better citizens, neighbors and workers. When teachers genuinely care about those they are teaching and when they genuinely believe that they can make a difference, good things can happen. There are many levels on which this engagement can take place, ranging from exchange programs for students of education, to providing professional development seminars for teachers in service, to stipends for student teachers, to sponsorship for projects making some basic learning materials available in students’ native languages. Kenyans are by no means stupid or lazy people, and the structure of the education system needs to be changed from the bottom up so as to prevent them from appearing to be that way.

b0232. Pastoral training programs. Among the extensive number and vast variety of churches throughout Kenya, with their profound impact on the day-to-day lives of over three quarters of the population, from what I could tell those with leaders who have received more than six months’ worth of formal theological or divinity studies are a small minority. These pastors want to learn more about the Bible, about history, about how to discuss their faith with those outside of it, about how to council those in traumatic circumstances or with mental disabilities –– training which is a prerequisite for work in pretty much any sort of church in the developed world. The thing preventing them from getting such training is the time and money it would require, which their poor parishioners are in no position to sponsor. These pastors would also greatly benefit from sitting together for training seminars on a regular basis, to learn not only from an expert instructor but from each other, to fellowship and discuss their prayers and goals for their churches and their society. It is far more difficult for them to attack and demonize each other when they have been engaged in constructive dialog with each other about what it means to them to be working towards the realization of God’s will in their region. Such seminars need to be as denominationally and ideologically neutral as possible, geared not towards reinforcing particular dogmas but providing practical understanding in some very basic areas of human interaction. By training those pastors who wish to be trained in such skills, and by giving them more confidence in their capacity to have a positive influence on their communities there is a potential for bringing about many profound improvements in people’s everyday lives.

3. Emergency aid for those most in need.Setting aside all of the tired old “give a man a fish vs. teaching him to fish” analogies, there are many people who won’t live long enough to learn to fish for themselves without some immediate practical help. Of course the risk of creating a culture of dependence on outside help is to be taken seriously, as is the risk of feeding a culture of corruption whereby middle men are enriched using donors’ empathy with the poor as their cash crop. But there are many ways of making quite direct contact with those in the greatest need and ensuring that their hope is increased and their suffering is reduced. Programs can be instituted and supported for providing basic nutrition to malnourished orphans at specific Kenyan schools without enriching any middle men or reinforcing any particular church’s market position in the process. Specific children can be sponsored and interacted with by specific Western “God-parents” with very little being lost in the transfer of resources these days. There are countless other ways of making significant positive impacts on people’s lives in that part of the world without putting their long-term self-sufficiency at further risk. If this is not something you consider to be part of your basic humanitarian responsibility it is certainly part of your moral responsibility if you wish to call yourself a Christian; refusing to do so is something that fundamentally disqualifies a person from having any legitimate claim to be a follower of Jesus.

c0094. Building solidarity networks in the distribution of assistance. When in the process of receiving support from abroad local people are encouraged to work together with each other across clan, tribal, political and ideological boundaries, good things can happen. When people start to recognize each other as partners more than as competitors the potential for improvement in the society as a whole increases exponentially. This sort of approach goes beyond worrying about damaging recipients’ self-reliance with our generosity; it equips them to become part of a broader mutually supportive local community which might not have otherwise taken shape.

These are by no means particularly original concepts, nor are my friends in the newly formed NGO Bondoaid –– on the basis of whose work I went to visit Kenya to begin with –– the only ones doing valuable work in these sorts of regards. There are plenty of ways in which real good can be done for those in real need in such circumstances, and among the con artists there are plenty of honest organizations working to help those with the greatest needs. I claim no monopoly on any unique sort of opportunity here. If, however, you are lacking in some way to place yourself on the right side of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25:31-46 send me a message and I’ll put you in touch with some of “the least of these” that he was talking about.

Meanwhile I’ve got one more list to go here…

Kenyan mistakes for other countries to avoid:

If you’ve been reading this far I probably don’t have to spell these out in any great detail, but hopefully my American friends in particular will take these matters to heart.

1. Allowing negative expectations regarding the role of government in people’s lives to become a self-fulfilling prophesy: If you expect the government to be the problem and not the solution, you can cause the government to be the problem and not the solution. If you consider government to ideally be an institution by the people, for the people and ultimately responsible to the people to preserve liberties and to protect basic rights, you can cause it to move in the direction of conformity with those ideals.

2. Letting tribal rivalries stand in the way of working together for the common good. When defeating and/or demonizing the other guy becomes more important than working together to meet the needs of the most vulnerable and to protect the well-being of our “neighbors” (however widely we define that term) we have become self-destructive in ways in which Kenyan politics provide a strong negative example.

3. Letting public education atrophy into an irrelevant and bothersome experience for young people rather than a means of equipping them to build a better future for themselves and their country. When you cut corners on how much you invest in the minds of future generations, and when you make school into a ritualized status determinant rather than a means of personal empowerment, you condemn your society to a future as bleak as much of Kenya’s present.

4. Cutting corners on personal and public safety. There’s a lot to be said for limiting bureaucracy which exists merely for its own sake and to limit the possibilities of people succeeding through their own original thought and hard work, but there’s even more to be said for the enforcing of standards that protect people from dangerous business practices. Kenya’s roads and rural construction practices are not the sort of model that fiscal conservatives should be aspiring to in the Western world, but that is very much the direction they are going.

5. Looking for magical help from above rather than working on a system of caring for each other. Let me say it again in a different way: In my first few days in Kenya one profoundly sincere woman commented that God had blessed the nation I come from greatly, and asked what I believed Kenya needed to do in order to reap similar sorts of blessings. I don’t know how to make it clear to them, or to those in US “prosperity gospel” churches, without scaring them away, that they’re probably asking the wrong questions. Believing that following the right sort of ceremonial rules and exclusive standards of purity in faith will ensure material prosperity has little if anything to do with the message of Jesus, and even less to do with practical planning to creating a stable and prosperous society. If that is your basic method what Kenya now has is what you can more or less expect to get in the future.

The filing system in the vice-principal's office of a secondary school that I visited

The filing system in the vice-principal’s office of a secondary school that I visited

So those are my basic thoughts at this point as I unwind and digest my recent exotic experiences. Forgive me for getting a bit preachy in places. I fully realize that there are some things I am too close to still to see clearly, so if anyone can offer clarification on some of these issues from further away I welcome your input. Meanwhile thank you for taking the time to share in my process of sorting through these thoughts and my sincere wish for each reader here is that you also have the experience of being able to make your world a bit better by daring to care about others.

 

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Filed under Change, Economics, Education, Empathy, Ethics, Human Rights, Purpose, Religion, Risk taking, Social identity, Travel

“Misungu, How are You?”

Yes, for those who haven’t heard, this week I’m writing this from the town of Ahero, Kenya, where I’m spending a couple of weeks investigating the field of potential charitable cooperation with schools and orphanages and the like. When setting off on this adventure to “real Africa” (not just some enclave of Western culture on the African continent like Cape Town) I knew sort of what was in store for me, and that I was as prepared as I was going to get, but probably not sufficiently. So far that seems true enough in all senses. This is a basic report on my impressions from my first few days in Kenya –– how it has touched me and what hopes I am starting to develop so far.

c036The passengers on the Kenya Airways flight I took from Amsterdam to Nairobi were a good mix of cultures and skin types; perhaps a slight majority of white folk. The flight itself went without a hitch, other than that (typically for me, some might say) my assigned seat had the one broken entertainment console on the entire 777. But as there were a few passengers who missed their connection to be on the flight there were other places for me to sit where I could be as properly entertained as I wished. We arrived on time to Nairobi just at sunrise, with the temperature surprisingly cool at just under 15 Celsius. The sun and temperature rose quickly, however, burning off the fog before it even had time to give an emotional atmospheric impression.

One of the flight attendants started to give basic instructions for disembarkation, by telling us that those passengers who were transferring to other flights must take the ramp attached to the exit on the right side of the aircraft, and those for whom Nairobi was their final flight destination must take the stairs down from the left… except she forgot to specify the left and right bit, and she couldn’t remember the word for stairs in English. Her colleague where I was standing in the mid-section sort of rolled her eyes and smiled at that.

Getting to the stairs seemed to take a while, and when I got to them the situation was partially explained by the fact of the wheelchair waiting at the bottom, with special assistance staff on hand to wheel this white woman with conspicuously swollen legs through the airport… once she had managed to climb down the stairs on her own. This was my first impression of Kenyans perhaps being a bit lacking in certain aspects of logistical understanding this trip.

Customs clearance was also an exercise in mild communications difficulties making the otherwise friendly service a bit less efficient, but nothing to complain about too seriously. Before the last of my fellow passengers had their business sorted out I had all my luggage and was free to go. I was just starting to phone to my contact, Pastor Dan, when I spotted his face in the crowd.

He proceeded to make some inquiries about the best means of getting to the bus station in town from which we could get the coach to Kisumu. That turned out to be the basic “City Hoppa” service, which seemed to wind its way through most of the various outlying districts of Nairobi where service staff might live before working its way closer to the city center. There were some price guidelines of sorts from last year on the inside wall behind the driver, but near as I could tell ticket prices were subject to barter (which I left to Dan to negotiate). Traffic was hectic, of course, and not all of the roads the shuttle negotiated were paved. There was a pair of conductors who, in a fairly well practiced system of teamwork, took turns taking money from passengers, hanging out the window looking for new passengers on the sides of the roads, directing traffic in aggressive ways to get the bus in and out of informal stopping places and around ruts in the road of over a foot deep, and manually operating the passenger door latch, which consisted of a make-shift peg and loop system had been welded to the door frame where the original hydraulic door operating system once was. They communicated with the driver through a code of sorts which they hammered on the side of the bus as it drove. This daredevil form of transit thus successfully got us within 5 blocks of the coach station without serious incident. I’m really not sure how long each of these stages took but there were 5 hours between my flight’s landing and the coach’s departure from Nairobi for Kisumu, and that turned out to be just enough for the logistics of buying coach tickets and having brunch at a nice little local café that Dan picked out.

The view from the front window of the coach while waiting for departure

The view from the front window of the coach while waiting for departure

The coach itself was, by Kenyan standards, a fairly luxurious form of transport. There was no A/C, onboard toilet or video systems, but it still showed signs of being one of the better services on offer. On impressive feature was the broad reclining seats, which seemed to have been recycled from the business class section of an airliner from the 70s or something. It also had a strong smell of having been freshly disinfected as we boarded. I was the only white person on board, but among the Africans there none seemed to be anywhere close to the poverty line at least.

Once clear of the suburbs of Nairobi, the coach struggled up and down the hilly terrain across the country. Following what seemed to be the only paved road for a significant distance in any direction. Parts of the road were being reconstructed of course, with extended sections of semi-prepared gravel road bed to drive across and rather informal systems of for directing traffic as to which “lanes” to take in either direction. At various intervals there were also police checkpoints equipped with chicanes of spike mats to discourage anyone from trying to bypass them.

Then along the way there were also a number of “shopping centers” of sorts, constructed in what South Africans would call a “township style” of temporary architecture. Mud looked pretty deep surrounding most of them, and life there gave the illusion at least of being pretty relaxed. All of the advertising and direction-giving signs along the way appeared to be in English, but no one actually seemed to be speaking English. Some of these more populated wide spots in the road had some pretty draconian speed bumps installed on the main road to protect the lighter traffic going in and out of them from any momentum that passing trucks and busses might otherwise have built up.

066Another conspicuous factor was that each of these little shopping center villages, other than those set up for foreign tourists at “scenic view” locations, seemed to have 2 or 3 churches and/or church run schools of various brands conspicuously present in them. In fact while driving through the countryside on this main road I counted roughly a church of some sort every two minutes on average. If there is one thing Kenyans doing seem to be lacking then, it’s faith in Jesus. What they seem to be less secure in is how that faith is supposed to relate to building a safer and more secure life for themselves and their children, but I’ll come back to that.

Roughly 7 hours on this coach brought us to the town of Ahero, in the suburbs of Kisumu, where Dan’s wife and a few helpers were waiting for us. My conspicuously pale skin immediately began to draw attention from children on the sides of the dirt roads there. At that point Dan told me that the Swahili word for a white man is “misungu,” and that I would be hearing it a lot from children in particular. True enough. It also seems as though for many Kenyan children, especially at a preschool and early elementary level, the only active English vocabulary they have is “how are you,” together with one or two formulaic responses to such a greeting. Thus I have been more or less continuously confronted with the question, “Misungu, how are you?”

A group of children gathered to stare at the "misungu"

A group of children gathered to stare at the “misungu”

The only difficulty I have in responding to this inquiry from children is that not all of my responses fit within the social formulas they have been taught and memorized; so if I say in response, “I am very happy today,” I mostly get puzzled looks from the young children who are asking. Even so, I started to experience tiredness in some of my facial muscles from sharing smiles with so many little dark faces –– a very satisfying form of tiredness to experience.

On a deeper level though it is of course a more complex question to address: How am I really? I mean, what is this crazy white man doing here to begin with?

I got vaccinated up to the eyeballs for everything relevant to this part of Africa in the months before my trip, and the only health challenge I’ve experienced since I’ve been here thus far has been a few nose bleeds of the sort I am prone to when I get especially tired in travelling. In my first morning here, however, I had to join my host in a stop at the local health clinic, where he was helping a family deal with money transfer issues to pay for the treatment of an elderly aunt for acute malaria. Later in the afternoon I found out that my host himself had been experiencing malaria symptoms, and while we were visiting schools together he left me with an assistant and took off for a doctor’s office to get a prescription for drugs to help fight the disease. Now he is just hoping that the drugs he received will not turn out to be counterfeits, as so many of the drugs available in Kenyan village pharmacies turn out to be.

I was a little bit disappointed to discover that my accommodations had been arranged in a local hotel rather than in the home of some church member as I had expected, but Dan perhaps correctly surmised that it would be necessary to put a “misungu” someplace with running water, a private porcelain throne for his bowel relief needs, coffee service of sorts, and a bed with secure mosquito netting rigged around it. These things would be bit much for any of his very poor parishioners to provide. In this hotel room where I am then the television in the room doesn’t work, there is mold on the ceiling, I got a bit of a jolt from the electric shower system while adjusting the water flow, the toilet lacks a seat, and there are a number of other little details that don’t quite live up to western tourist standards, but overall it works, and I don’t think it will bankrupt me.

The street in front of the hotel where I am staying

The street in front of the hotel where I am staying

But it was Joseph, the headmaster at the first medium sized elementary school I went to visit here in Ahero, that really put the whole matter of “how I am” here in perspective for me. My first impression of Joseph was that he bore striking physical resemblance to my Palestinian colleague, “Mudi”, only slightly darker and older looking –– so I was slightly surprised to discover that he is actually close to a year younger than I am! But in many ways Joseph already thinks of himself as an older man for his community: most of the fathers of his school’s pupils end up dying long before they reach his age.

Of the 360 students in Joseph’s school, 27 are currently HIV positive from birth. So far this school year they’ve had one pupil suddenly die of AIDS. Over three quarters of his pupils’ families live below the poverty line, and many of them are mal-nourished to one extent or another. Illness is frequent and long lasting among these pupils, in part because their parents can’t afford medication, in part because medications are frequently counterfeit anyway, and in part because lack of proper food leaves their little bodies without sufficient energy to fight off even basic illnesses.

Joseph was more than happy to call all of the pupils in his school together in the school yard for a spontaneous assembly to greet this foreign visitor. As he explained it, for his pupils seeing a misungu is a significant source of hope in their lives: For some it raises their hope that some help might come to leave them just a little less physically hungry. For others it is symbolic of a wider world of possibilities, further away from their current challenges, but nevertheless possibly open to them some day. Representatives of the full spectrum of Christian churches are thus welcome, including those who focus on testimonies of having been delivered from lives of sin and crime, because it gave these little minds the message that people can really change, and that one’s early experiences and impossible background challenges don’t have to set the limits of one’s potential. The only sort of misungus he had any serious reservations about where those which came to promote new cults which are especially critical of Christian traditions.

b045It was thus rather humbling to stand in front of this crowd of hopeful children and try to find something spontaneously hopeful to say to them. My message was not that I could promise major material resources for their acute needs –– though I would try to spread the word about their needs –– but that the greatest and most reliable source of human happiness is the feeling that we humans can be important to each other and somehow part of each other in a deeply personal sense. I was there for selfish reasons in the sense that I wanted the sort of fulfilment that I know comes from living according to what we call the Twin Commandment of Love: loving God with my whole heart in terms of being fully committed to what I believe in, and loving my neighbor as myself in terms of coming to recognize even distant others as important elements in what makes me me. All I could offer them for certain under the circumstances was the advice to remember the importance of caring for and caring about each other, and the possibility of having one (more) crazy old friend from way up north to further expand the circle of people to whom they are important.

I spoke in English with some limited translation of key points being offered by Joseph when I paused to take questions. I guess it worked, because my host here who had arranged the visit to begin with said that the school had called him back and saying that they would really like to have me there for a full week of guest lectures. So in that sense, yes, this misungu is feeling quite fine this week.

If there are any other misungus out there (or people of any other skin color for that matter) who want to increase their own happiness by connecting with and supporting an orphan or two in this part of the world that none of the established NGOs have reached yet, or if they want to support a local school teacher or two here who currently live in poverty and work without a salary, or even if they would like to provide basic support for children’s education here in the form of one-time sponsorship of an infrastructure project like pouring concrete over the dirt floors in a primitive school building here to keep it from getting shut down for violations of the local health and safety codes (such as they are),  get in touch with me here and I can hook you up.

c026This is not a means of spreading a message or making converts to some particular brand of Christianity; this is a matter of living up to the ideals that Jesus taught as a means of experiencing the richer sort of life that Jesus talked about in John 10:10. It can be something as simple as brightening the lives of a group of five-year-olds for a moment by showing them the basic theory of how to throw, catch and kick a little American football. It can be something as profound as saving children’s lives through feeding them when they are dangerously hungry. In the end it’s all about love, in the many different non-erotic senses of the word, at least as much for our sake as for theirs. We’re not going to fix all of this country’s problems right away, but we can save some very important lives here, and help some very important people to reach their full potential as people. Seriously, what could be more important than that?

Meanwhile, for any of you for whom this report leads you to pray over what sort of contributions you might consider making to this cause, a few extra words to God on behalf of my own continued health and safety while you’re at it wouldn’t go amiss.

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95 Theses for Evangelical Churches of the 21st Century

Thinking about the meaning of Halloween, there is the playfully superstitious side of things, and then there is the historical factor: It was on this day, in 1517, that a particular German monk got terminally ticked off with the corruption he saw within the institutional church, and thus perhaps inadvertently started the Protestant Reformation. Luther has a mixed record historically as a moral and spiritual leader. The one thing that he can be given unqualified credit for, however, is seeing corruption and having the courage to speak out.

luther_wittenberg_1517-21

Though my own moral record is far from spotless, and some might anathematize me on this basis, I too see some major problems and disgusting forms of corruption in the church of my age –– in the evangelical Protestant tradition in which I was raised in particular. So in honor of Luther’s historical courage, I will hereby follow his historic example on this day. I claim no great originality in doing so, and for me this requires nowhere near the same level of courage as it did for Luther, but I believe challenging others to consider the essential message of Jesus and the Gospel is as worthy a way to celebrate this Holiday as any this year.

So think of this site as my cathedral door: Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed here under the supervision of yours truly. Those who are unable to debate orally with us may do so by letter.

In the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, Amen.

  1. The essence of Christian life and identity is not to be determined by whom we hate, but how we love.
  2. Our Lord defined the essence of the law he came to fulfill as being to love God completely and to unreservedly love our neighbor (the Twin Commandment of Love).
  3. Our Lord also made it clear that our neighbor is not to be designated in ethnic, geographical or religious terms.
  4. As “a friend of publicans and sinners,” Jesus had a further reputation for not basing a person’s worthiness of love on sexual purity or social respectability.
  5. Those who construe the Gospel to be primarily a message of ethnic, cultural or moralistic control and border-setting thus miss its most fundamental point.
  6. Loving God with one’s whole being is not demonstrated by outstanding morality so much as by moral humility.
  7. Moral humility is demonstrated through a recognition of the gap in moral worthiness between each of us and God as being infinitely greater than that between the best of humans and the worst of humans.
  8. To love God with all one’s being is therefor to see no other person as being personally repulsive to us. This is the high standard to which Christians are called to strive towards attaining.
  9. Sexual sin as a preoccupation of the church is entirely alien to the message of Jesus.
  10. As Jesus stated that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” this same principle should be applied to all aspects of Christian moral teaching.
  11. Jesus did not reject the Mosaic Law –– which prohibited all forms of sexual expression that could not lead to legitimate procreation (prostitution, adultery, masturbation, homosexuality, intercourse during menstruation, etc.) –– but he rather expanded it to include prohibiting any form of sexual objectification of women: “I tell you anyone who looks at a woman lustfully…”
  12. By expanding on the essence of the Mosaic Law, Jesus demonstrated to his hearers that preaching moralistic sexual restraint was a lost cause, because none could honestly claim to live up to an ideal of having no forbidden desires.
  13. Beyond demonstrating the need for moral humility, Jesus’ teachings on sexuality emphasize the importance of not using other people as disposable means of physical or material gratification.
  14. While heterosexual monogamy is strongly recommendable as a means of naturally enabling procreation and socialization of children born as the result of such a union, this is not an exclusively sanctioned norm within the Bible.
  15. The ideal of lifelong committed romantic love between a man and a woman is worth aspiring to and socially supporting as a norm for child raising (in other words it should be the norm for a child to be raised by his/her own biological parents, who remain partners, at least in that task, whenever possible), but should not be used as a basis for punishing those who are unable to conform to such a standard.
  16. Seeking to control a person’s entire life by seeking to control her or his sexuality does not conform to the essence of the message of Jesus.
  17. Early and medieval church teaching on sexuality was based on the premise that the basic form or soul of the child was contained entirely within the father’s sperm. Genetic research has since proven this to be untrue.
  18. Knowing now that the “pattern” for the infant is established at the moment of conception rather than at the moment of ejaculation does not provide us with any greater certainty than the medieval church had as to when the embryo or fetus obtains an “eternal soul”.
  19. The absence of any absolutely definitive transition points within the course of pregnancy from “non-ensouled” to “ensouled” does not prove that a soul must be present from the moment of conception.
  20. In pouring a drink into a glass there are no definitive transition points between the wetting of the bottom of the glass and an acceptably full portion having been rendered. Yet at some undetermined point before the liquid stops flowing into the glass we could already say, “The drink has now been poured.” This does not prove that the drink was already poured when the bottom of the glass first became wet.
  21. While the moral uncertainty regarding when a fetus should be given human rights should give pause to those contemplating abortion, our Christian duty to love our neighbors should be particularly focused on loving those who already draw breath (the original basis for the idea of a soul in Genesis 2:7).
  22. There is a special absurdity to the political action of those who work harder to protect fetuses than to protect children suffering from malnutrition and inadequate medical attention.
  23. This absurdity is quite apparently related to the desire to have greater control over the perspective mother’s sexuality as a goal unto itself.
  24. All women and all men are worthy of being loved and cared about as having precious souls. Respect for this principle must be the basis for all Christian ethics, especially sexual ethics.
  25. The priority of sexual ethics, beyond providing the strongest possibilities we can for children to be adequately raised by their biological parents, should be to discourage or prevent people from using others as disposable means of sensual gratification.
  26. Under no circumstances should it be socially acceptable to use the bodies of those who are unwilling, or unable to express willingness, for sexual gratification (the most basic definition of rape). This moral standard goes beyond those given in sacred texts, but it should nevertheless remain as a binding principle for all believing Christians.
  27. For the good of all children raised in our societies, both men and women should be respected and treated with dignity both as workers outside of the home and as nurturers within the home. Neither sex’s dignity nor value should be belittled or denied in either context.
  28. Provisions for the care of fatherless children should be of far greater concern to Christians than the matter of how they became fatherless to begin with.
  29. Especially in the all too common situation where a child cannot be raised by his/her biological parents, one’s value as a nurturer should not be determined on the basis of one’s sexuality, or lack thereof.
  30. To prevent fatherlessness happening to children in our societies, our first step should be to ensure that poor workers are not placed in the hopeless position of not being able to safely and adequately provide for their children no matter how hard they work.
  31. Promoting regional economic growth at the expense of just treatment of laborers does infinitely more damage to family stability than uncontrolled sexual immorality does.
  32. Thus, rather than focusing on condemning the behavior of those whose sexuality is outside of ecclesiastical control, to be faithful to the message of Jesus churches should be condemning those who fail to pay their workers a livable wage, or who support businesses which do so.
  33. When the apostle said not to “love the world” he was speaking of not accepting moral compromises for purposes of social or economic advancement. In that respect his exhortation remains more relevant than ever.
  34. Nowhere in Jesus’ teachings is the pursuit of wealth idealized or justified, particularly when it is obtained at the expense of meeting the basic needs of the poor.
  35. To the extent that Jesus’ followers were participants in systems of government, he instructed them to make justice for the poor the priority of their work.
  36. Thus any participation in government which provides dishonest advantages to the rich and refuses to tax the rich adequately to meet the basic needs of the poor is a direct violation of Jesus’ teachings on civil matters.
  37. Christian humility is not about accepting a condition of de facto slavery for yourself and your peers, but about rejecting the ambition of rising to the position of slave master yourself someday.
  38. The additional rewards given to those who are most fortunate and who work the hardest in our societies must not extend beyond the point at which those attaining the higher status cease to recognize their shared human condition with those who have the least.
  39. This may require laws which prevent the sort of extreme income disparity which we have today.
  40. It is not “playing God” to develop technologies that prevent people from suffering and dying.
  41. It is “playing God” to insist that only those who obey our commands can have access to means of preventing suffering and early death for themselves and their children.
  42. Like rape, enslaving others and slave trading are practices not directly forbidden in the scriptures, but which Christians must recognize as violating the basic underlying principles of Jesus’ teachings.
  43. Limiting the amount of stress placed on those who earn their living by manual or semi-skilled labor, and restricting the number of hours of labor required of them to earn enough to meet the laborer’s and his/her family’s basic needs, is part of the meaning of preventing slavery.
  44. Means of keeping oneself and one’s family alive, which are not in short supply within the society, should be considered as basic rights for all, especially if we consider the lives of others as sacred on account of their being formed in the image of God.
  45. This maintenance of life for all members of society should include access to nutritious food and to regular maintenance health care, not only emergency services.
  46. Restricting access to means of maintaining life out of greed to obtain higher profits through the sale of such means effectively amounts to murder, and it is a disgrace for Christians to condone such practices.
  47. Preventing theft and the spread of contagious diseases were considered valid grounds for border protection in biblical times; preventing an influx of cheap labor was not.
  48. Allowing the price of labor to be set strictly according to principles of supply and demand, without considering the importance of the laborer as a fellow human being who is entitled to certain rights as such, is a gross violation of the Twin Commandment of Love.
  49. Though the commandment not to kill (generally considered the sixth) has been traditionally granted certain exceptions, a generalized fear of the other person’s skin color or ethnic origin is not an acceptable excuse for killing him.
  50. Having a right to keep oneself equipped to kill those one considers to be a threat to one’s lifestyle (which Americans refer to as the Second Amendment) is not a principle of Christian teaching; quite the opposite.
  51. As we advance technologies beyond what the apostles, prophets and church fathers could have imagined, we are responsible to find ways of regulating these technologies so that neither their intended nor their unintended consequences harm people in ways that are contrary to the spirit of the teachings of the Gospel.
  52. Technology which serves to enslave people by restricting their access to necessities of life if they do not pay tribute to given authorities must therefore not be permitted.
  53. The process of justifying genocides, mass enslavement, monopolization of vital natural resources, and destruction of living environments in the name of promoting Christianity or “Christian nations” has been a historical disgrace to our faith, and is something which all true believers must fight against in the current generation.
  54. For Christians to offer collective restitution to (the descendants of) those who have been exploited and abused in the name of our faith is “fruit worthy of repentance.”
  55. For Christians to assist the Jews and the people of Israel in establishing a secure life for themselves can be seen as an act of making just restitution.
  56. Supporting the state of Israel should not, however, be seen as a means of bringing about Christ’s Second Coming.
  57. It is not Christians’ moral responsibility to try to bring about what they see as future predictions made in the Bible.
  58. This is particularly true regarding their expectations of the end of the world and a final climactic battle for all of humanity over the Middle East.
  59. Furthermore, in strictly genetic terms there is no reason to believe that contemporary Israelites are any more the “seed of Abraham” than the Palestinians, the Jordanians or any of the other traditional peoples of that land.
  60. Abraham was said to be a pretty potent guy in his old age, and over the millennia all of these populations have become genetically mixed to a considerable extent.
  61. Supporting the abuse of and ignoring the basic human rights of those being pushed aside by the on-going expansion of the state of Israel falls well outside of Christians’ moral duty as believers.
  62. History is littered with movements initiated by crazy people who started various sorts of fights or projects believing that Jesus would come and finish them for them. He didn’t.
  63. Reading the book of Revelation as “a future history lesson for our times” is one of the worst forms of hermeneutical abuse that the scriptures have ever been put to.
  64. Recognizing the abuse that the Roman emperors heaped on the early church, and the hopes that this persecuted church held to in order to endure such persecution, should be the starting point for the study of biblical eschatology.
  65. Preventing ourselves from becoming complicit in the same sort of abuses that the Roman Empire heaped on the early church should be our first moral and political priority when looking at apocalyptic literature.
  66. Believing in the return of Jesus does not justify failures to act responsibly in terms of preserving the life and blessings God has given us.
  67. Claiming that one particular political leader or another is “The Anti-Christ” based on speculation regarding “coded messages in the Bible” and hype generated by lying hate-mongers does a gross disservice to the Gospel.
  68. This is especially the case when the political leader in question is a professing Christian, working sincerely to promote a culture of respect for the Christian principle of loving one’s neighbor.
  69. The sincerity of a person’s faith, or lack thereof, cannot be determined by artificially assigning numerical values to the letters in his name.
  70. Nor can the sincerity of a person’s faith be judged by the religious background of either of his parents.
  71. Nor can the sincerity of a person’s faith be judged on the basis of what abstract categories of people he refuses to hate.
  72. The ultimate test of a person’s faith must be left up to God, the only true judge.
  73. The provisional, earthly understanding of who is a sincere believer and who is a hypocrite should be based on “the fruits of the spirit”, the first of which is a manifestation of love based on God’s compassion for all mankind.
  74. Pluralistic representative democracy, with universal suffrage regardless of sex, religion or status within the social hierarchy, is a relatively new form of government, not anticipated in the writings of the Bible or any other religious text more than 500 years old.
  75. Rather than taking this new democratic condition as a threat, believing Christians should be embracing this structure as an opportunity to return to the roots of their faith.
  76. One of the primary differences between Christianity and the related monotheistic religions of Judaism and Islam is that Christianity has no built-in norm of its believers being in political control of the societies in which they live.
  77. Having a secure position within society without being connected with the authority structures of the empire was the primary political goal of the writers of the New Testament.
  78. Traditions of interaction between empires officially sanctioned by the church and churches officially sanctioned by the empire are the basis of much of modern Western culture, but this is has been based very loosely on the teachings of Jesus, if at all.
  79. It is the acceptance of, and accommodation to, the political power of the Roman Empire (and subsequent empires) which the book of Revelation was warning the church against.
  80. Lust for political power, in this sense, represents the greatest threat to the original essence of Christianity. (Luther himself was too close to the medieval tradition to see this.)
  81. Thus the current international norm of secular, pluralistic democracy, not based on any official connection between religious and political powers, pioneered in the modern era by the United States, while breaking with long established European tradition, is in many ways idea for enabling Christianity to break free of these chains.
  82. Thus rather than fighting against the secularization of the state and the social diversity this allows for, Christians should be embracing this opportunity to draw closer to the roots of their faith.
  83. Efforts by Christian groups to reserve the right to sanction the legitimacy of governments and to be sanctioned as legitimate by governments run counter to this purpose.
  84. To say that Christian ethical standards take precedence over national laws is only true in those cases where the laws in question are intended to prevent us from loving our neighbors as ourselves.
  85. As a fundamental aspect of the Twin Commandment, the rejection of slavery and the maintenance of functional democracies, all young people should be given an education adequate for enabling independent thought and active participation in the processes of government.
  86. As a matter of ensuring the freedom of all, such education must be publicly provided, without disadvantage to the poor in terms of enabling independent thought and active participation.
  87. As a function of enabling the maintenance of pluralistic democratic societies (as the most promising environment in which Christians can strive to follow the teachings of Jesus), schools should not be used as means of reinforcing our identity in faith.
  88. As a matter of instilling the broadest sense of neighbor-hood possible, so as to optimally equip young people to fulfill Jesus’ command to love our neighbor, schools should not become segregated on the basis of religion, class, gender or perceived race.
  89. The failure of Christians to pursue these goals within their school systems, particularly in the United States, has been a disgrace to the cause of promoting the Gospel.
  90. Jesus’ greatest moral outrage was over the dishonest use of religious observances as a source of material gain, reflected especially in his cleansing of the temple.
  91. The acquisition of wealth and political power for their own sake, using the “Christian brand” as a means in the process, is the most painful on-going example of everything Jesus rejected in his teaching.
  92. “Mega-churches” can have moral legitimacy only in so far as they use their acquired wealth and power to meet the needs of those Jesus referred to as “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine.”
  93. If the leaders of the “Tea Party” and other organizations of the “Religious Right” were truly interested in following the teachings of Jesus they would start by ceasing to work to free the rich of the burden of helping to care for the poor.
  94. We must remember that, not being gods ourselves, the only moral requirements we are justified in placing on those who do not share our faith are those needed to protect the innocent from suffering within this (mutually acknowledged) lifetime.
  95. We must remember that the only evidence we have to offer to non-believers of the legitimacy of our faith is the extent to which it enables us to be compassionate to those outside of our own tribes.

I’m perfectly willing to change my mind on any of these… as long as someone can provide me with good reason why I should. But like my man Marty says,

luther1(1)

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Filed under Education, Empathy, Ethics, History, Holidays, Love, Politics, Racism, Religion, Respectability, Sexuality, Social identity, Travel

Syrup Season

Every school day morning for the past few weeks I’ve cycled to work over ice that‘s just starting to melt in the sun, and every afternoon I’ve returned over slush that is just starting to solidify, with irregular solid chunks of ice buried within. So far I’ve managed to avoid any significant injury or equipment damage in the process. It’s hard to get really frustrated with the conditions even, as they are the surest sign of spring that we’ve got here at the moment.

wannabe syrup

wannabe syrup

The other happy thought that keeps me going these days is that these are prime conditions for doing maple syrup. Relatively few people outside the northeast United States, where I grew up, seem to be aware of this important cultural activity. Around the world there are products labeled as “Maple (flavored) Syrup”. But few seem to have any clear idea of where the real thing comes from, when and how it is produced.

To get good maple syrup you need to have the right sort of trees growing in the coldest possible area. The trees need to be good and hopelessly dead for some months of the year for the process to work. If they aren’t frozen up solid on the top during the winter, you won’t get any decent syrup making sap out of them. Then once they have suffered enough, and they become desperate enough to make leaves to gather what energy they can during the summer, you need the sort of weather that cruelly teases them for a while. So in the morning they need to feel warm enough in the sun where they start saying to themselves, “Yes! We can live with this!” and they start shooting all sorts of energy-rich sap up into the branches to start making leaves. But then later in the afternoon it starts to get cold again, the trees start to think un-Christian thoughts about the weather again, and they start to suck their sap back down into the roots where it won’t suffer from the solid freeze coming again that night… only to be fooled again the same way the next day.

The earlier in the season you manage to get some sort of inter-venous tap into the tree to collect some of this energy rich life blood of the maple tree, the more pure sugar water it contains. There’s something particularly sweet about the trees’ time of innocence each spring, when they have their first few dozen false alarms about spring having come. Eventually though a woody cynicism starts to set in, and rather than just sugar water the tree starts sending up more of its deeper brown earthy wisdom as to the disappointments this world has to offer. Eventually the sap becomes too dark and woody for commercial syrup production, and the season comes to an end, leaving the trees to make their leaves and do their best to thrive in peace. The sap is then boiled down to the desired thickness, bottled up and stored for special occasions or shipped off to be sold to those who appreciate the finer things in life.

An assortment of wares at a maple syrup boutique in New England I passed by a couple years ago

An assortment of wares at a maple syrup boutique in New England I passed by a couple years ago

So there are actually an infinite number of grades of syrup to be had from any given patch of maple trees on any given year. Some connoisseurs particularly like the lightest, sweetest, most innocent syrup from the early season; others prefer the darker, more distinctively “mapley” flavor of later season syrups. In Europe and in more southern climates, however, you can’t really shop around much for finer grades and better years of syrup. You take what you can find and you’re thankful for it!

The Finns do something similar to maple syrup from birch sap in the spring, but it’s not as sweet and it has a pretty powerful laxative effect, so it can’t be appreciated as freely as the classic North American confection. I would image it would be rather easy to grow sugar maples in this part of the world, but to the best of my knowledge no one has done it with any noteworthy success; and with all of the problems that have come with other tree species that have been transplanted around the world, it could well be illegal to try. Besides, it takes close to a man’s lifetime before a sugar maple tree even starts to provide a significant amount of tappable sap in the spring. It takes a pretty old forest to really make it worthwhile.

 

Late season sap buckets, hoping for one last run of sap before the season ends. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Late season sap buckets, hoping for one last run of sap before the season ends. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Now buried within this philosophical acceptance of, and sentimental appreciation for, the current time of year, there are far more analogous lessons for life than I can even begin to tease out for you. I’ll just quickly note some of the basic understandings that all this brings to mind for me:

  • The sweetest things in life only come through difficulties and disappointments. 
  • Sometimes naïve hope is worth expressing even if it does end up getting frustrated. 
  • Not everyone can appreciate it, but the unique character that comes out of repeatedly facing difficulties without giving up –– the darker aspects of what comes out of us –– are part of the unique character that makes us special. 
  • When you move on to new adventures in life you can’t always take all of the best of your old experiences with you, but you can bring some little taste of them along, enriching the lives of those you meet along the way in the process. 
  • You need to be careful how you go about replacing things you start to miss. 
  • Every season has its purpose, its beauties and its rewards. 
  • When it comes to changing the world for the better, we need to remember that sometimes the process takes longer than what would allow us to appreciate the fruits of our own labors. 
  • Some of our best intentions may have unpredictable consequences, and sometimes when we are not able to realize our ambitions that might actually turn out to be a good thing.

With those things in mind, let me go on to say to those I know in New England, New York, Michigan and southeastern Canada in particular, count your blessings, friends!

People in other parts of the world have their own special blessings about which you can understand little from where you sit, but your own blessings are something special. Like everyone, you are able to experience some of these blessings due to your own persistence and hard work in life, but there are other aspects which have nothing to do with your merit and everything to do with random factors working in your favor, or your good fortune to be able to harvest what those who came long before you have cultivated. Enjoy your freedom and blessings in tapping into the bounty that surrounds you then, always being careful to protect the trees and keep this wonderful blessing going for those who come after you.

Those too are ideas worth pondering for their broader implications.

And if any of you find it in your hearts to send or bring me some of your early to mid-season syrup, I will do what is in my power to arrange blessings in return on your lives.

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The Borderland

This week I’ve had the first set of extra days off school since getting back to work for Espoo this autumn, so I treated myself to a bit of time in Estonia. I’m spending most of this time in the little university town of Tartu, which I can recommend to anyone as a fascinating cultural experience unto itself.  But on the recommendation of one of my new friends from Tartu I actually spent the day on Friday back up in the all too familiar city of Tallinn. It was the second day of an academic conference there, mostly run by Estonians, but including a fair number of international academics, on the subject of “borders”.  So being the habitual border crosser that I am, I had to dive in just for the fun of it.

Being me, of course I talked too much, but I don’t think I irritated too many people too badly in the process, and I had a wonderful time of it. I won’t try to summarize all of the fascinating discussions I listened to and took part in; I’ll just let some of my thoughts flow in relation to this event.

The borders to be discussed there were opened up as widely as possible thematically: from national borders to language barriers, to artistic framing processes, to borders created by religious difference, to the process of smuggling, to borders of good taste, to the cultural novices knowing their place in relation to experts. Some that I didn’t hear discussed were the thin border between genius and insanity, the difference we sense between what we are and what we feel we ideally should be, and the extent to which we have to keep others at an emotional distance at times to maintain our sanity. Perhaps there were talks on those aspects that I missed, but that’s beside the point.

In the past 20 years or so since I first crossed the border between Finland and Estonia on a number of levels this border has faded significantly. One of my more permanent memories was crossing over for a day trip just as Estonia was in the process of leaving the Soviet Union. They had already changed the official time zone to match Helsinki rather than Leningrad, but you still got a sense of the old joke, “Set your watch one hour forward and 30 years backward.” They still had the Soviet rubles as the currency, there were still signs of a Russian military presence around Tallinn, and even on a brilliant sunny day there seemed to be a dank grey cultural mist hanging over the decaying medieval and Stalinist monuments of the city. I got off the boat and was herded into a line where I had to leave my passport as assurance that I wasn’t going to run off on some spying mission around the country. I then proceeded to the currency exchange, where for a ten dollar bill I got a stack of rubles too thick to fold, that allowed me to walk around the town like I owned the place. It was also the first time when I went to a shop where they had an abacus instead of a cash register. Guess who ended up making an idiot out of himself there. It didn’t take too long after that for such trips to become something of a habit though. The next time I went they had their own currency already, and there were fewer and fewer remnants of Soviet life every time thereafter.

Since then Estonia’s own currency, the krooni, has come and gone, the shock of post-Soviet organized crime has given way to a spirit of respectable law and order, and it is no bigger deal to wander around Estonia than it would be to go from New Hampshire to Vermont. Things are still noticeably cheaper here than in Finland, but quality of goods and services suffers less and less by comparison. Gone are the flea markets with people selling for a pittance anything that could live without. In their places are standard western shopping malls. Stalinist monuments have been replaced by monuments to western consumerism. Medieval elements have been face-lifted and modernized to better attract wealthier sorts of visitors.

Tartu I visited for the first time in January of 1994, just after getting my permanent Finnish resident visa stamped into the second passport I ever owned. I was part of a mission to try to increase contacts between Finnish and Estonian theology students; the latter having just been legalized again following the end of the Soviet era. Not only that, but Tartu had only recently become accessible to foreigners again following the closing of a major Soviet air force base there in the late 80s. To say that it was a different world would be no exaggeration whatsoever.  But in spite of the major gaps and borders that still existed back then, the will to come together and the belief that we could overcome the remaining boundaries were infectious.

In some ways that experience reminded me of a quote from Mark C. Taylor that figured into my master’s thesis work around that time. I can’t find the exact reference on line so without running to the library I’ll just say that I think it was in “Erring” and it basically said that the things that make us alive are acts which violate the borders between what is inside of us and what is outside: “eating, drinking, shitting, pissing and fucking”, and it is no accident that most of those words are considered indecent.

But that brings me to the question of balance in these matters. While I’m not one to promote extensive fasting, constipation or celibacy, I do feel that there need to be limits on these processes. As I’ve said before, sexual abuse is one of the chief evils I see in the world. And even if you don’t religiously follow some code like veganism or a halal diet, there need to me some limits on what you allow yourself to eat if you wish to remain healthy. Likewise releasing bodily waste products needs to be done in a way that the smell and remains do not offend the aesthetic sensibilities of others or put their health at risk any more than necessary. And this is not even touching on some of the other means of violating the physical border between inside not mentioned in the Taylor quote: slashing, stabbing, injecting, shooting…

So while there is a certain thrill in overcoming certain kinds of borders, there is also a functional benefit in respecting and maintaining some sorts of borders relating to our personal integrity.  How do we decide where to draw that line?

One significant area of border crossing that needs to be considered is that of language. The Bible presents the Tower of Babel and the resulting difference in languages as a curse, intended to limit mankind’s ability to “reach to the heavens”.  If we take that at face value, how far do we want to go in overcoming that boundary in the interest of searching for universal theological truths that God was seemingly trying to prevent us from finding? Should we just accept language barriers as literally God-given limitations and just be content not to understand each other? I’m not enough of a Fundamentalist to believe that.

There are other complicated questions there though. Language is a blessing as well as a curse, even in the differences it creates. I had a very difficult time communicating with the building supervisor of the dormitory I’ve spent the weekend at, as she only speaks Russian and a little Estonian, and I only speak English and Finnish, but neither of us would want to wish any of those four languages out of existence. And to the extent that I am able to express the same thing in different languages, and express things in some languages that can’t be properly expressed in others, my life is richer for it. For all their problems and limitations, languages are important manifestations of the people who speak them, and worth maintaining on that basis. But at the same time the limitations of one’s language should not be accepted as the proper limitations of what one is able to or allowed to think about. Allowing the freedom to think beyond the current limits of one’s language while still using that language as a vehicle for one’s thoughts will inevitably corrupt the purity of that language. How big a threat is that really? For that matter how far do we need to go in the process of trying to artificially resuscitate dying languages, such as that of the Votian people living in a few scattered villages southwest of St. Petersburg? I don’t have an answer for that, but I plan to continue enjoying and corrupting the languages at my disposal regardless.

In some regards the same applies to religion. We have many different systems of faith that we use in our attempts to interact with the transcendental and with each other. Sometimes those help us understand each other better; other times they put us at each other’s throats. Sometimes maintaining doctrinal purity is more important to people than reaching any greater understanding of what is “out there”. For this reason my light hearted jest in the last sentence of the last paragraph could be much more dangerous to apply to religions. There is a word for those who corrupt them on purpose: heretics. And while heretics haven’t been burned at the stake in western society for many years, death for threatening doctrinal purity is still almost commonplace in the Muslim world.

Regardless of these risks though, there is much to be said for dialog between those of different religious traditions; for learning to communicate with each other regarding “spiritual matters” even when our traditional formulations of how such things are supposed to work come under threat in the process.  Yet this needs to be done in a way that respects religions’ individual integrity and means of expressing things. Just as I don’t want to try to stomp out the use of Russian because “English can say things so much better”, I don’t want to stomp out Islam or Hinduism on the presumption that Christianity’s world view makes them redundant. I know that many Christians don’t share my views on that one, and that relatively few Muslims would be ready to reciprocate the mutual respect in this regard, but such is life. I’ll pursue these ideals regardless.

However one of the most interesting papers I heard at the conference Friday was on the question of “merchandizing” ethnicity. It is clear that, in the process of seeking out the thrill of crossing various sorts of borders, there are many of us who search for the exotic, and who are drawn in by the lure of interacting with those who are in some ways radically different than we are. Estonia has recently been beefing up is PR campaigns specifically to attract habitual border crossers like me. But researcher Elo-Hanna Seljamma has come across people whose ethnicity is being merchandized in this sort of way who are actually sort of resenting it. Even if this is not done in a sanitized Disney style production, is there something “indecent” about taking the most intimate aspects of a person’s life and a culture’s self-identification processes –– its religious convictions and rituals, its language and folk art –– and displaying them as part of a broader national promotion package? Is this somehow akin to pornography and sacrilege? There’s a very legitimate question to be pondered there.

That being said, not to cross such borders or boundaries at all, from my perspective, would be to surrender the most important aspects of what really make us alive. In that regard I believe that Mark C. Taylor’s point still holds. I don’t believe in a literalist, Fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis 11, either as a historical record of how the world’s languages began or as the basis for an ethical norm of avoiding interpretation and attempts at mutual understanding. I want to be careful and sensitive about forcing others to culturally interact with me against their will, but I make no apologies for wanting to understand them better as a means of attempting to (selfishly) enrich my own life. I only hope that in going forward from here I will able to find the right balance in these regards.

And on that note I’d like to say thank you to all of the fascinating people I’ve had a chance to interact with over the past week and I hope that we will continue to enrich each other’s lives as time goes on.

 

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Catch my Drift?

I began writing this in flight last week, as the new post-South Africa phase of my life officially began. I had just surrendered the keys to my apartment of the previous 10 months the day before, and I was in route back to Finland, where I had arranged to stay with friends until I am “back on my feet.”

It was a strange feeling to be officially homeless just then; not so much frightening as just strange.

Since then I have agreed with my friends to stay on in their guest quarters here behind the garage for the next couple of months, doing yard work and pool repairs and the like to earn my keep, but I still have a limited idea of where life will be leading me from here.

In some ways I feel as though I am living out other people’s fantasy self-image: no long-term commitments to living up to anyone’s day-to-day expectations; and consequently no solid ground under my feet in terms of home, job, family, etc. In some respects I’m in the personal identity equivalent of the freefall stage of a bungee jump. I know that there are mechanisms in place to keep me from smashing onto the rocks below, but that doesn’t keep the feeling of helpless uncertainty from being very real.

As this situation has been taking shape some of my peers and acquaintances –– pretty much all of whom have more stable and anchored life situations than myself –– have been trying to encourage me with optimistic statements of faith that God and/or fate having something wonderful in store for me. Suffice to say, fate and I have a rather uneasy relationship. Yes, on the big scale of things I’ve been luckier than most, but that doesn’t mean that in cases of uncertainty I automatically assume that I’m about to experience some fabulous lucky break. Life hasn’t dependably offered me wonderful things right when I’ve needed them at any particular point along the way. Rather I seem to have batches of unusual, bizarre and painful experiences at times like this. As one fellow recently put it, I often seem to be more “at odds with the universe” than anyone else he knows. So not knowing what is likely to happen next is not a particularly positive experience for me.

I am still what many would call a rather religious person in some regards –– I believe that there is a God out there who fundamentally cares about life on our planet and who even takes a personal interest in funky individuals like myself. I believe that this God has some sort of a plan for my life, and that a lot of what we call “fate” can be more fruitfully considered in these terms. Overall I believe that looking at the world with this sort of optimism makes me a far healthier person, though it also has its risks. I acknowledge that if someone chooses to believe differently than I do in this matter there is little I can do to prove to them that I’m right and they’re wrong. And even if I’m not making a colossal mistake in entertaining such beliefs –– in other words, assuming that I’m essentially right about the idea that there is a God out there who personally cares about us –– that doesn’t necessarily imply that he would have a plan that involves giving me personal importance and/or a sense of bliss in the immediate future. In fact I must admit that trusting my limited understanding of what God might want to do with my life rather than putting a serious effort into practical strategic planning has, in retrospect, led to some of my biggest mistakes in life. In the balance I still think my faith has been a good thing in terms of enriching my day to day life –– believing that there is some sort of divine plan involved in my life has given me the courage to set off on adventures that would have otherwise been too intimidating to even consider –– it just doesn’t give me any immediate assurance that things currently beyond my control are about to work out wonderfully.

And that leads to the tricky question of balance, where I have to decide how tight a grip I must try to keep on things I associate with comfort and familiarity. How much control do I really need? How “in charge” does a person have to be? When is it time to make up our minds about what we want and pursue those goals with tireless determination, and when is it time to just unfurl our sails and see where the wind takes us?

I don’t believe there are general answers to such questions that apply in all circumstances. I must admit that my own process of relating to such things has been largely one of trial and error. Sometimes I’ve been accused of clinging to old ideas and certainties far too tenaciously, and sometimes I’ve been accused of being far too laissez-faire about my own life; oft times by the same people! So what does this tell us? Besides demonstrating once again that one should never take all of the ignorant and incoherent personal critiques that come at you too seriously, perhaps it shows that I have a long way to go before I have my lifestyle experimentation down to a science.

When it comes to taking such risks it’s hard to say which side is better to err on even. On the one hand people who have had long and respectable lives very often reach their end with serious regrets about what they didn’t do than with what they took risks on. On the other hand, the things that get people killed before their time, and which destroy valuable relationships with other people, are when they step out of the role that people expect them to play and set off on particularly crazy adventures without weighing the consequences carefully enough. We all face numerous forks in our lives’ paths; we all puzzle about the roads not taken, and none of us can escape that angst by always going to the left or always going to the right.

But then again it can be argued that the key to putting my situation in perspective might lie in looking beyond my own interests and circumstances, and focusing instead on how I can influence other people’s lives. What I should do to reach out and help those in greater need than myself? As a basic perspective this too has some merit. Rather than looking at how I can improve my own situation I can far better improve my level of satisfaction by putting more of my energy into helping others. Social science research also supports such a theory: the more a person spends time and money on others, the greater their overall satisfaction in life tends to be.

But here too there are some balance factors to be taken into consideration. To start with, just because you are doing unto others as you would ideally have them do unto you doesn’t mean that they, or anyone else, will actually do the sort of things for you that you would like. Being a kind and decent person to others is an entirely separate matter from being part of a kind and decent community. If it isn’t set in law in one way or another you can’t really expect other people to help you out in any way that they can’t see as being in their personal self-interest, and it is to be taken for granted that most people can’t see things as being in their self-interest unless it provides them with short-term physical pleasures or competitive advantages over those around them. In other words when you do things freely for others for that to work in terms of making you happy you really can’t expect anything from them in return. Those who feel cheated because they “freely” helped others but no one helped them in return really don’t have anyone but themselves to blame. If you’re expecting something in return you’re really not giving freely –– naively trustingly, but not freely. To get joy out of giving and helping you can’t really be expecting anything back but the joy of being able to give to and help out others.

And with that in mind it is important not only to be ready to give freely to some, but to give in honest exchange to others. One must have some sort of agreed upon role within the community, or a series of temporary roles, in order to accrue something to be able to give to others and to take responsibility for oneself. Lose track of that and slip below what is necessary for you to safely live on, and you’re in trouble every time.

But before my libertarian individualist friends and relations start jumping on this and thinking that I’ve finally come over to their way of thinking in terms of self-reliance, let me point out that I still consider the healthiest societies to be those which have laws enforcing a basic agreement of solidarity between people. In any traditional society based on self-reliance there still needs to be protections for widows and orphans and other severely disadvantaged folk. There also need to be laws which prevent people from freely and hatefully abusing others who they see as somehow discomforting or intimidating. And ideally there should be some basic understanding in place that assures us that when things get nasty for us there will always be someone there to help. Any society which actively destroys protections for the poor and encourages hate and suspicion towards “outsiders”–– whoever those may be –– is a fundamentally unhealthy society, and in this regard I wish to avoid living in “red” parts of the US in particular until the cultural implosions there have further run their course.

There are other interest groups besides American Libertarians who would like to take this opportunity to point out to me that my approach to life isn’t working so well just now, with hopes that they might convert me to their own religions or ideologies. Is my reluctance to take such invitations seriously a sign of my hanging on too tightly to my old dysfunctional way of thinking? Of course I don’t think so; but I wouldn’t, would I?

Seriously though, I’ve spent a great deal of my life around highly motivated, extremely idealistic and often profoundly intelligent and deeply admirable religious people. I’ve tried to absorb the most functional and admirable elements of each, while not taking for granted the truth of what any of them claimed for themselves. I hope to continue functioning in such a way, receiving from as many admirable influences as I can, but randomly submitting myself to none of those who would hope for such. It would take a far greater argument than I’ve encountered thus far to convert me to some radically new religion or approach to life. If those representing such interests get bitter about my refusal to join them in that sort of way, so be it.

All that being said, my personal drifting process appears to be on-going for the summer. As my dear friends here in Espoo have made this little apartment available to me for the time being, I will be staying here until I wear out my welcome here, or run out of ways to make myself useful, or important new opportunities present themselves. Though I’ve given freely to others whenever it’s been in my power, I don’t feel that I am naturally “entitled” to the hospitality I’m currently receiving, and I am truly grateful for it. Meanwhile I also have to acknowledge that the ugly old low-budget car I just acquired this week may or may not turn out to be dependable in the long run; that’s just part of how these things work. And as far as employment goes, if nothing else becomes available I can still return to a reduced role with my former employer, which could provide me with basic means of keeping body and soul together as they say, but it is no secret that I would prefer to move on. So in all these ways life goes on for me, following its own meandering path.

Or in terms of the previous metaphor, I’ve reached the point where the stretchy rope fastened to my legs starts to take some of my weight –– slowing my fall towards certain death and getting ready to jerk me around for a while. A strange feeling indeed. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to others, but I’ll try to keep you up to date on how things pan out.

The novelty sign really says it all.

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Filed under Change, Control, Ethics, Freedom, Purpose, Religion, Social identity, Travel

Integrity

Once again I’m approaching a major transition in life: my academic year spent on leave here in South Africa is sadly coming to a close. Somewhat to my surprise I have not been able to secure the sort of employment here which would enable me to extend my visa and subsist here as a teacher, writer or businessman. Thus I might then be returning with my tail between my legs to my old life in Finland, in somewhat reduced form, or I might be moving on to some entirely new for of adventure in my life; that still remains to be seen.

It’s too early to put this particular adventure into retrospect of course. Some years from now I should be able to say whether this was a colossal mistake or an outstanding opportunity that I can thankfully look back on. At this point I don’t really know. I’m only aware that things haven’t worked out as I had anticipated, but somehow life will go on. But it is important now to stop and consider how this has affected my fundamental sense of who I am.

One of my new perspectives: looking north from the hills above Simon’s Town

Philosophers and religion teachers like myself tend to have more problems with this sort of question than most other people do, even in the most stable and predictable of times. And in times of major stress like this –– largely flying solo and not even knowing what country I’ll be living in three months from now –– I doubt that any profession could provide me with a more secure sense of identity than what I have. But even though I’m really not into this sort of angst for its own sake, perhaps I don’t even want my identity to be all that fixed and predictable.

The essence of the question in philosophical terms is first to determine what essentially makes me me. Am I essentially just a body, or a non-material conscious entity (soul) functioning within this body, or the sum total of my memories, or just a wave on the vast ocean of consciousness and material cause and effect, or something else entirely? And then once I’ve figured out what I am, the next question is what to do about it. On this mater suffice to say I remain a metaphysical dualist of the monotheistic tradition that does not believe in reincarnation. Other aspects of the afterlife and the effect it can have on our current life remain open to speculation in my mind: as with my adventure in South Africa, I recognize that there could be many things in the afterlife that differ from my expectations, and thus I don’t intend to base my actions on the possibility of earning extra points there. My purpose remains to find value in life before death, and to do so with integrity.

This all comes to mind by way of a discussion I was having with a small circle of on-line friends regarding the question of racism. Much to my surprise, I was recently accused, by someone who I thought knew me fairly well, of having racist attitudes and views; this in spite of the fact that tolerance building and anti-bigotry campaigning have been a core element of my personal and professional identity for many years now. I was able to take this accusation in stride, but it surprised me none the less, and I must admit it caused me to bristle a bit. So in discussing this among virtual friends the first question was whether or not my views really were in fact at core racist, and after that –– at the suggestion of a trusted virtual friend –– why such an accusation would cause me to bristle.

It is a well established principle in psychology that when one becomes irritated or angry at some accusation –– or when a joke or a critique touches a nerve –– there is usually an element of truth to it. If it is obviously false it is unlikely to have any emotional effect on its object. So for instance if someone were to accuse me of having homosexual tendencies the jab would miss entirely; not only because I don’t consider gays to be inferior people, but because I am thoroughly and exclusively enough drawn to women where such a claim would really just show the ignorance of the person making it. To be a true homophobe, and to truly resent such accusations, you have to have a certain fear of your own attraction to those of your own gender; I just don’t. The same principle would apply if someone were to accuse me of being emotionally irrational, blindly ethnocentric, uncaring towards children or a dog hater. Whatever else can be said against me, those things are just patently untrue. Anyone who would say such things about me clearly doesn’t know me well enough to pick their insults carefully. (If anything I’m guilty of going a bit overboard to the opposite extreme on all of those issues.) I would thus be far more amused than disturbed at such accusations.

So if I am disturbed at being accused of racism, does that mean that I am at heart more of a racist than I care to admit? I’m willing to accept that as a possibility worthy of self-critical observation, but overall I still believe that not to be the case. What I am defensive about is not my latent tendencies in this regard, but my overall effectiveness in fighting against such things. As combating racism is one of the core elements of my personal and professional identity, any claim that I come across as a racist is not something I worry about in terms of defending what I am like at heart, but in terms of demonstrating my effectiveness at what I do. If I had built my career around animal rights campaigning and someone were to then accuse me of being a closet abuser of animals I might bristle in the same sort of way, not because it would threaten my core identity, but because it would call my professional integrity into question. That in turn is only hurtful to the extent that I am susceptible to self-doubt in those sorts of professional terms; and given that I don’t know what sort of job I will have three months from now, there are good reasons for me to have some uncertainty about my professional identity just now.

Another day, looking back at the vantage point of my previous perspective

But what does “integrity” actually mean to me? What does it mean by and large in English for that matter? Off to dictionary.com:

Noun

1. adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.

2. the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished: to preserve the integrity of the empire.

3. a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition: the integrity of a ship’s hull.

Other sources itemize the same three basic meanings. Two other related words come to mind: integral and integrate. “Integral” is an adjective which describes the sort of elements necessary to achieve integrity: belonging as a part of the wholenecessary to the completeness of the whole, or consisting or composed of parts that together constitute a whole. “Integrate” then is a verb used for the action of making things integral: to bring together or incorporate (parts) into a whole; to make up, combine, or complete to produce a whole or a larger unit. And of course “integrate,” particularly in its noun form of “integration” is commonly used to refer to bringing together people of different races, ethnicities, religions or classes; overcoming segregation. All of these relate to the sense of integrity I am hoping to develop.

Skimming through a book by Tariq Ramadan yesterday, I was struck by his thought (that I have also seen elsewhere in other variations) that there is something profoundly abstract and ultimately dishonest about tolerance and anti-bigotry campaigns which take place within the safety of an ethnically and religiously homogeneous social setting. If you don’t dare to genuinely encounter the “other” on a regular, respectful and equal basis –– without thinking of him/her primarily as a potential convert –– your exercise in overcoming prejudice is self-deceptive. In order to have integrity I need to be ready to integrate “other” elements into my insular little world. I need to confront any fears of difference and assumptions of inherent superiority that I have accidentally built into my sense of self.

But there’s a balance to that necessary as well: I also need to have a sense of self-respect, believing that what I stand for and my own perspectives on what is important in life are just as valid and valuable as those of the groups that would like to convert me to their own ways of thinking. Beyond that I need to recognize some sort of limit in my capacity to integrate. There is such a thing as opposition; as self-destructive tendencies; as evil. I need to be careful not to internalize too many elements that are out to destroy the value that is already within me. And among the elements that are already within me that don’t necessarily agree with each other I need to find ways of prioritizing and rationalizing them so that my identity does not become fractured and unstable as the result of internal conflict. Integrity demands that I become aware of what is most integral to my core identity and what is ultimately superfluous to “the real me.”

Another important balance element in integrity is the degree of flexibility or plasticity it entails. Like the ship’s hull or the empire mentioned in the later definitions quoted above, one’s honesty and moral character cannot be so rigid that it either shatters on impact or destroys all else in its path. It has to be able to flex and absorb a certain amount of opposing force; and in some regards the greater its ability to do so, the greater its overall integrity. Yet at the same time it cannot be so flexible as to consist of formless jelly. Integrity requires a specific form and shape to which its object returns after flexing to its limit, which is capable of withstanding pressure and bearing weight when necessary.

In order to maintain its political integrity a nation needs to be able to allow for emigration and immigration, for legislative and even constitutional reform, for the annexation and liberation of territories, and for major economic transitions from generation to generation. Any nation which lacks these capacities has a fundamental lack of integrity. Likewise any individual person who cannot recognize his own continuous processes of growing and dying, learning and forgetting, loving and letting go, cannot have integrity in relation to others either. One must maintain some sense of identifying form, but one must allow that form to follow its inevitable temporal progressions. If we deceive ourselves into believing that we can become eternal by denying the changes taking place within us and around us, we do ourselves no favors.

Whatever else can be said about my South African adventure then, it has given me an interesting collection of new experiences by way of which to re-evaluate and hopefully strengthen my personal integrity. It has given me a stronger awareness of what new possibilities there may be for integration, and a fresh perspective on what is and isn’t integral for me. As President Obama said after the 2010 elections, I would hope that others could learn the same sorts of lessons I have without having to take the same sort of “shellacking,” but that is not mine to determine. And in fact, even though the best laid plans of mice and men have once again gone the way they generally do in my case, objectively speaking I really haven’t suffered all that big a loss here. Above all, as Popeye would say, I still “yam what I yam.”

Like the shirt says…

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Filed under Change, Freedom, Individualism, Love, Philosophy, Purpose, Racism, Risk taking, Spirituality, Travel

Camping African Style

The weekend after New Year’s has to be the busiest time of the year for all sorts of outdoor recreational activities in South Africa –– camping in particular. This is the time when the warm weather and longer days reach their most enjoyable, and when families and office workers are stretching out the last glorious moments of their Christmas holidays. It was no small feat then that Z managed to book a place for 14 of us in a popular campground with all of the modern conveniences over that weekend.

But as the group’s official representative it also fell to Z to forward our collective complaints to the camp office. Part of this was requesting a security details to come around and quiet down all the parties going on around us all night over the weekend. Sunday morning, as she sat with tired eyes next to the came fire she gave us a particularly interesting report on her telephone negotiations with the campground administration during the night: In the wee hours of the morning, with drunken parties and ghetto blasters pounding away on all sides of us, she called and woke up the manager. In his groggy frustration over being hauled out of bed to deal with this situation he came out with a rather novel request: “Could you put that in writing for us?” As though at 2:00 in the morning the proper procedure for having peace and quiet enforced would be to find a pen and paper –– or computer and printer –– write a hundred word explanation of the situation, and then get up and deliver it to the office.

To be generous to him, it is possible that he might just have needed a complaint memo in writing after the fact to accompany his security guards’ overtime pay requisition form, but there was something comically Orwellian about the bureaucratic nature of his request. As we joked about this around the breakfast table the group suggested that Z use her credentials as an established journalist to write something with a bit of a bite to it about the experience. She had some reservations about that though, not the least of which was trying to avoid giving herself a reputation as the sort of trouble maker they would prefer not to have back as a guest in the future. So having no reputation to lose here myself, I figured that if something needed to be written about our camping experience I could do it. Not that anyone would take my writing all that seriously, but maybe that would be the point in my writing it.

The campground in question was over on the east side of False Bay, a couple hours drive from Cape Town. Once upon a time, probably during the Apartheid era, it was a very respectable place, with level grassy places for pitching tents, electric outlets at each camp site, a little camp shop, clean and efficient restrooms and showers, and direct access to both a white sandy beach on the Indian Ocean and peaceful little lagoon fed both by the high tide and fresh water from a little river flowing down from the mountains. It still had most of those charms actually; just in rather faded form. The camping sites had no grass left to speak of, and overall the facilities looked as though they had last received basic maintenance about 20 years ago. So it was rather sad to see how they had let the place go in general, as though once it ceased to be a segregated facility they had stopped caring about it.

The crowd there seemed to be predominantly younger folks, lower middle class, of mixed race. Some were there with families but most were just odd assortments of friends. Most were in tents, but a few camper trailers dotted the landscape here and there. In addition to ghetto blasters, our temporary neighbors’ basic camping equipment there included televisions with portable satellite dishes, snorkeling and rafting supplies, (including small outboard motors), gas stoves, large ice chests, acoustic guitars and homemade bongs made out of 2 liter Coke bottles.

The little group I was there with was quite interesting and diverse in itself. Of the 14 of us only 3 were under 40 years old. There was one couple who had been married for over 30 years, a mother and daughter pair, two older singles not in any sort of relationship, two older remarried couples, my girlfriend and I, and a young pair of brothers who were the grandsons of one of the remarried ladies. Most of the group then had some experience of divorce and remarriage. As the majority were practicing Muslims, we had one of the few alcohol-free camp sites in the park, but there were also Christians and agnostics in the group, with no religious tensions arising among us during the course of the weekend. Our group, however, seemed to be in the minority for the campground in terms of our middle-agedness, particular with regard to our party habits, or lack thereof.

The campground’s electric outlets at each campsite were clearly one of its main attractions. At most of the other camp sites these seemed to be used primarily for hooking up entertainment systems; at ours they were used for powering a makeshift communal kitchen, including a refrigerator and microwave oven. What our group lacked in active interest in intoxication we quite made up for in a passion for food.

As I understand it, the group I was with originally took shape as an early morning hiking and fitness club of sorts, but eventually the ritual of after-hike refreshments started to become as important as, or more important than, the hiking itself. Eventually it just evolved into a very fluid community of families and friends with a strong sense of camaraderie and a strong appreciation for food. Thus one of the key elements of this camp experience was taking turns making the communal dinner, and competing with each other both in cooking and complimenting the cooks. A few of the members in better physical shape also did some hiking along the river banks and into the mountains towering above us there to the north, but these were more peripheral concerns than the food and social banter. There was talk of many former members in the group, and the unlikely fame some of them had achieved. Members come and members go, but the likelihood of passing on this group’s traditions to the next generation seems somewhat limited. The second and third generation participants had no particular suggestions as to how to draw in other descendents of active or former members.

Someone joked that my lady friend was taking quite a risk in bringing me along on such an adventure: the group had been known to scare away romantic partners in the past. There is a certain personal intensity involved, joking with each other in ways that push the limits of social acceptability. The sort of trust that this requires does not come easy to some. In all honesty though, I found it quite refreshing.

The highlights of the trip for me were doing sand sculptures at low tide with the youngest members of the group, telling jokes around the campfire at night, and making some comical attempts at fishing along the way. I caught nothing and lost one jig, but had no regrets on that account. One of my more foolish moves was to spend hours walking back and forth through the tidal channel taking photos and letting the salt water wash away my sunscreen from the knees down. The resulting burn was rather painful at times. The group generally looked on me with pity: all of them had had their own experiences of sunburn at one time or another, but most of them were a bit darker than myself, and thus far better naturally equipped to deal with the sun’s rays than I was. The sight of my bright red calves really brought out their compassionate sides.

During this camping time I was also working on my last entry here about communal aspects of religion, and thus I thought it would be worth mentioning both as follow-up and as background for that piece. I wrote there about how I’m not considered to be “a very good Christian” because I fail to conform to the norms of particular congregations –– especially in terms of accepting their dogmas, submitting to their disciplines and practicing their rituals. This leaves me in a bit of an outsider’s position in terms of my group membership. So why not, some have suggested in reply, settle for a more casual and fluid sense of community? In fact that is exactly what I was doing while I was working on the essay in question.

My community membership here in the Cape Town area is still in its early stages, and still very dependent on the contacts I built up on-line before coming here. I’m not really an insider here yet, and it will probably take years before I’m anywhere close, but I really can’t complain about loneliness either. It’s “community lite” for me. I haven’t been figuratively speaking baptized into any group here, but nor am I shunned or placed under interdict by many at least.

The question is, will that level of community connection be enough for the rest of my life, and/or for coming generations? There’s the old proverb that it takes a whole village to raise a child. These days the social definitions of both childhood and of parental roles are in a serious state of flux, and when it comes to child rearing help we’re more and more expecting our fellow villagers to mind their own business. This is how our societies give rise to individualists like me, and many of my former students. Alliances between individualists like us get to be rather unstable at times, and given the speed with which the rest of the variables in our world are changing it’s hard to say whether or not these lighter, freer connections are such a good thing. We think more freely, but we lack an automatic sense of order and unquestioning loyalty to the causes our grandparents held dear. Yet we’re still capable of making friends, albeit on a broader but shallower basis.

Is that the sort of cultural norm I want to spread in Cape Town, and/or wherever else I go? Well, not necessarily, but in some ways, yes. Breaking down tribal prejudices is more important to me than reinforcing emotional certainties. Overcoming destructive hatred is more important than maintaining absolute loyalties. I recognize that those who find it particular useful to instill such hatreds and loyalties in the younger generations as means of maintaining their own cultural norms may feel rather differently than I do about the matter. I realize that some might even find me threatening to their way of life in this regard, but I can live with their suspicions and rejection if necessary.

And this brings me to the question of who we are justified in distancing ourselves from. What reasons do we have to be afraid of particular outsiders? What is it that makes us just plain uncomfortable with particular individuals, and what should we do about it? Who overall doesn’t belong in our social groups? And if we let these outsiders in, do they automatically get a say in the democratic process of setting the rules within the group?

At the campground that weekend if the matter were put to a vote among the campers I’m sure that no curfew rule would have been enacted. We non-partiers were in the minority, but we still insisted on our rights to be allowed to have it quiet enough for children and old farts to be able to sleep. We weren’t about to let that majority set the rules we lived under! If we were aware that party animals would be allowed to set the rules there we wouldn’t have chosen to spend the weekend at that campground to begin with. They weren’t invited into the little social circle that I was being initiated into, so we had to keep them in their place somewhat.

Perhaps the nicest places for enjoying holiday time should be kept clear of “their sort” of people, so that the grass can grow back and the air quality and noise levels can be kept at levels were “decent folks” can feel at peace. Not terribly long ago there was a system in this country to keep the less desirable people in society from disturbing the “better sort,” quite efficiently I might add –– it was called Apartheid. Of course one of the major failings of that system was that it was based on a premise that breeding and skin color were reliable ways of telling the difference between the decent sort and the less respectable folk. But if we were to eliminate that particular aspect of the evaluation problem, could such a system still have a valid use? Should certain areas be set aside for the use of those with a certain amount of status who don’t care to be subjected to the majority? Would there be a particularly fair way of doing that? Could opposition to “the others” in this sort of way create a sort of deeper loyalty and solidarity among the “in crowd” in such contexts? Could this be the key to bringing back “the good old days” of a tighter sense of community? And then there is the sticky little matter making sure that these regulations serve the purpose of keeping “them” out without restricting freedoms for “us.” If such exclusionary systems are enacted, which of us could still be allowed to go all the places we want to go and do all the things we want to do?

As you have probably gathered, I don’t have a final solution to such problems. My strongest suggestions are to have a system where a certain amount of private space is allowed, where public spaces are regulated according to democratic principles as a rule of thumb, but where certain exceptional public spaces are recognized as deserving to be preserved and protected for future generations regardless of shifts in public opinion about the matter, and where above all we avoid dehumanizing those we aren’t comfortable with for whatever reason.

On a less systematic and more personal level, I want to try to look into myself and recognize what it is I’m afraid that those I’m uncomfortable with might actually take away from me, and why that is so important to me in each case. Is it just that they are damaging my health with the way they keep me awake at night? Am I afraid that they might reduce the value of some symbol of my personal success, making me look like less of a winner in life? Am I afraid that they will undo something else that I have worked very hard on? This might require a long discussion unto itself.

Meanwhile, as I mentioned above, one of the greatest highlights of the trip for me was doing sand sculpture with the youngest members of our group. With a bit of help from my friends at low tide I designed and built out of the moist beach sand a scale model of an F-1 race car, just large enough for an 8-year-old to sit in and pretend to drive. We all knew it wouldn’t last, and it wasn’t going to win any art awards anyway, but it was good enough to earn the young ones’ respect for my skill and to form a bond with them based on a shared sense of fun. They went to bed that night and woke up the next morning raring to go back down to the beach to continue our creative efforts together. That positive energy in turn filtered through the rest of the group and further strengthened a positive atmosphere among the older campers as well. If the rest of my life were to be defined by a series of moments like that, I wouldn’t really need any more than that to consider myself to be a happy and successful man. If my creations and communities aren’t as permanent as I would hope, I can live with that.

 

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Filed under Empathy, Individualism, Social identity, Tolerance, Travel

Current Adjustments

Greetings friends and other readers.

Again I must apologize to any who’ve been looking here for regular inspiration, stimulation or information about yours truly. Allow me to sum up the last month a bit. Following my return to Finland from the United States I jumped straight into the process of settling my affairs in there to free myself to move on to South Africa. Without going into too many details about that process I can just say that I managed to get an extended multiple entry visa, sell my car, find a new home for my dog, secure my sabbatical pay for the academic year and sell, give away, throw away or temporarily store all but the 60-some kilograms of personal belongings that I was able to take with me. No mean feat, believe me!

The final emptying out of my apartment and settling of accounts with my landlord was the last thing that was left hanging. Since the former colleague who verbally agreed back in May to take over my lease this summer reneged on his promise in the end of July, I was rather left hanging. Curses on that individual aside, I had to leave my largest pieces of furniture in the house waiting for the people from the recycling center to come fetch them. My younger son who had shared the apartment with me thus inherited the job of letting them in and showing them what to take. As it turned out though, they refused to take most of my furniture even as donations, and poor Kris had to recruit some friends and rent a van to take most of it to the dump! Talk about adding insult to injury…

But with all of that said and done, as of August 5th, I have now arrived in South Africa and set up camp for myself in Cape Town, or more specifically on the False Bay side on the peninsula just south of the Cape Flats. Life here is sweet in many respects, but there are still many things that will take me months to adjust to properly: driving on the opposite side of the road, shadows moving counter-clockwise, a variety of local accents with entirely different vowel sounds than what I’ve learned to recognize thus far, and a heightened sense of security awareness necessary to prevent baboons (yes, real live, human-sized hairy creatures that I’d never seen in the wild before) and extremely poor people from attacking one’s belongings.

Somewhat complicating the process of adjusting to those matters is an entirely different adjustment: Ramadan. As many of my contacts here are from the Cape Malay Muslim community, I have chosen to join them in observing their sacred month of fasting from dusk until sundown each day. As it is now winter in South Africa, this is not a major physical hardship, but it does put some added stress and limitations on my mind and body. It has also involved its own learning curve for me in terms of what is and isn’t allowed, what works for keeping one’s blood sugar and mental energy at sustainable levels, and what is traditionally expected in terms of rituals to start the fast each morning and break the fast each evening. I’m not complaining; I’m more just providing explanations / making excuses for how little I’ve been able to observe and write about in the past few weeks.

Truth being told, I have at least 3 half-written or mostly written blog entries on file here. I still haven’t provided my personal perspectives on the philosophy teaching conference I was at in June, I still haven’t commented about the recent Norwegian tragedy, and I still haven’t given a retrospective on the half of my life (thus far) that I spent in Finland. (And to answer the obvious question: I’m officially scheduled to return to Espoo next year as my career default setting, but I’m not at all sure I will do so. Watch this space for further information as it develops.) But with my contemplations on each of those issues still somewhat “in process” I thought it the proper thing to do to at least provide this scrap of personal information for those who wish to know where my subjective perspectives are coming from.

As to the whole Ramadan thing in itself, it is important for me not to pretend that I entirely get it, but I can say a thing or two about what it has meant to me. To start with I feel there is a certain value to restraining ones appetites on purpose for a certain period of time every now and again, regardless of what religious or secular motivations one has in doing so. On other blog forums I have mentioned how giving up certain things for Lent has been a positive experience for me, even if I don’t necessarily believe that it brings me closer to God in the process. I can merely appreciate being able to overcome my own silly habits and mild addictions for such a time. Some people, however, are not so prone to do follow “suggestions” on temporary lifestyle limitations. It takes a pretty strong religious compulsion for them to inconvenience themselves in such a way. So if an absolute religious mandate is what it takes, that may well be the best thing in the world for them. Thank God some of them have Ramadan.

But beyond the individual experience of controlling one’s appetites, Ramadan also gives Muslims a sense of solidarity in their shared feelings of hunger. As I see it, the balance between a personal, individual sense of spirituality and a shared communal experience of worship is one of the key issues in any religion. Both aspects are entirely necessary, and emphasizing one at the expense of the other is inevitably problematic. Knowing that my own brand of Christianity probably errs a bit on the side of the individualized then, I can at least respect the practices of another faith which enforce a shared experience. Of course I see risks in going too far in the collective direction as well, but I’m not going to pretend that I know enough to judge my Muslim friends on such matters. For now I’m just trying to respectfully follow along with this aspect of their communal experience for its own sake, even though I’m not really part of their religious community.

To me it is obvious that the biggest reason for the difference between where my Muslim friends are at and where I am at is that we were born into different traditions and cultural customs. The fact that every human tradition has some gross human problems associated with it also goes without saying here. Mutual respect will be necessary regardless of the practical shortcomings of those on “the other side”, which are far too many to itemize here. As one old friend of mine who was a Baptist minister in northern England once told me that a wise old Imam once said to him, I don’t think we know each other well enough to argue yet. I very seriously doubt that they will convert me or that I will convert them, but that is not the point. The point, for me at least, is to understand each other in terms of the value we find in our respective traditions, and to eliminate as much of the ignorant and irrational hatred between our groups as possible. For me that has to begin with my making a sincere effort to understand and appreciate their teachings and rituals for what they are. In that I’m only in the very early stages, so it is no surprise that when it comes to the deeper spiritual meaning of this month for Muslims, beyond just the state of mind brought on by shared voluntary self-deprivation, I really can’t get it, yet.

Is it just crap luck or a good thing that this year Ramadan happens to fall right on my first month in a new country, where I am trying to build contacts with people of as many different backgrounds as possible? That I can’t say, other than it just is what it is. The bright sides of it include a certain element of taking things slow as I get started here, and a possibility to build some mutual respect through my voluntary participation, even if I am rather clumsy about it.

So in short there is a bit of mea culpa here, as usual, combined with a renewed claim that things are just getting interesting, so stay tuned. And until next time, for all of my friends and other readers –– non-theists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or from points in between –– I wish you a sincere “as-salamu alaykum”: peace and blessings be with you –– hoping that a bit of such good will bounces back at me.

 

 

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Filed under Change, Empathy, Holidays, Religion, Tolerance, Travel

Ups and Downs

In case you’ve been wondering what has happened to the past three weeks’ entries here, I’ve just returned to Finland from 2 weeks and change in the US: Attending a conference on the teaching of philosophy in American schools,PLATO conference opener exploring the haunts of my childhood with my new “significant other”, making contact with each of my parents (and their spouses) with to personally congratulate them on turning 70 this year, Mom's employer from the mid 70sand exploring what has changed and what has remained the same in the land of my citizenship and early socialization. Dad and Fadia as seen enjoying Gordon's Mustang convertibleI’ll write an entry here on each of those aspects of the trip in the coming days, but for now I just wanted to let everyone here who might care about such things know that I’ve made it back to Finland for now in one piece and I’ve found things here on the east side of the pond at least roughly as I expected.

In the past 5 days I have taken off and landed in commercial airliners a total of seven times. Since waking up at 6:00 a.m. EDT in Gun Lake, Michigan yesterday morning I believe I have slept approximately three to four hours. The time from checking in my suitcase in Grand Rapids to checking it back out in Helsinki was approximately 26 hours. The time from walking out the door of the house I was visiting until walking in the door of my own apartment was approximately 31 hours, including fetching the car and the dog and attending to the needs of each.

There was a slight delay in takeoff yesterday morning on account of an electrical storm blowing through which kept the plane from refueling on schedule. It was a fairly impressive little storm to watch at that.Clouds, from both sides... Coincidentally, when we came into Helsinki-Vantaa there were some impressive sized thunderheads drifting around, and when I finally got out of the terminal there was the edge of a very localized shower passing over the bus stop area, and the distinct smell of ozone in the air. Then as I drove out into the Finnish countryside to pick up the dog I passed through an area where rain was coming down in sheets, followed by the most spectacular rainbow I’ve seen this year.Mac's rainbow

Needless to say, all of this dramatic weather made for some rather bouncy flying conditions in places –– even more ups and downs. At no point was I seriously close to tossing my cookies from motion sickness, but there were plenty of times in which reading was out of the question. A couple times the normal coffee service in flight was either postponed or cancelled for safety reasons as well. But none of the connections were missed due to these weather challenges.

I had to leave my dear Fadia in a part of New York that was less than ideal, but I’m not worried about her in the slightest. Growing up on the “wrong side” of Apartheid as she did, and having run a successful business since, she knows how to handle herself in challenging urban settings. Nor is the ethnic mix in Queens Village anything for her to be afraid of. Even so, some of the signs of the cheapness in the neighborhood were rather disturbing.Cheap hotel But that being said, there was a certain Dutch satisfaction at least, after paying over $10 each to get to her hotel by mass transit, in figuring out how to get back to the airport for only $2.25 each.

We also had a chance to get a nice fried seafood combo plate from a local fish market, and then to take turns freshening up a bit in her room before I continued my journey. That turned out to be fairly significant: twice while being frisked by security agents after that I had occasion to say, “Good thing I had a chance to put of fresh underwear.”

And of course none of this has jack to do with philosophy, per se. If you think of some ways it might be relevant to the subject areas, do please tell me. But like I said, if you’ve been wondering what’s been keeping me from writing lately… now you sort of know.

More coming soon.

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