Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Unprecedented

Yesterday, Ottawa Citizen columnist Glen McGregor offered up Why a state funeral for Jim Flaherty? While I don't particularly begrudge the late Mr. Flaherty a state funeral, I do think it is a fair question. There are legitimate reasons to relax, expand or adapt protocol, but the rationale for doing so should be clear.

Lying in State of Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald

In Canada, serving Ministers of the Crown are entitled to state funerals. Governors General, former Governors General, Prime Ministers and former Prime Ministers are likewise so entitled. But former Cabinet Ministers are not. Cabinet giants like C.D. Howe and Paul Martin Sr. did not have state funerals. The rationale for giving a state funeral to Jim Flaherty is far from clear. Prior to 2011, the only exception to the established list was Father of Confederation D'Arcy McGee, who also had the distinction of being the first victim of a political assassination in Canada.

The reference to the year 2011 is significant, because McGregor then argues:
The tradition was sharply altered when Prime Minister Stephen Harper used his discretion to extend the honour to Jack Layton, then Leader of the Opposition.

Here I quibble with McGregor.

You see, the word unprecedented can be a bit funny. Sometimes, it means that there is no precedent for the specific action. For example, there are ample precedents that former Cabinet Ministers are not entitled to a state funeral. Therefore the granting of state funeral to Jim Flaherty is unprecedented.

But it can as easily mean that there is no precedent at all. In the late summer of 2011 there was no precedent that a serving Leader of the Opposition was entitled to a state funeral. As importantly, however, there was no precedent that a serving Leader of the Opposition was not so entitled.

Only one other federal Leader of the Opposition has died in office. In 1919, Sir Wilfrid Laurier died while still in office as Leader of the Opposition. Sir Wilfrid did have a state funeral, but he was a former Prime Minister. Thus the fact of his state funeral did not constitute a clear precedent that a future Leader of the Opposition who had not been Prime Minister would be so entitled.

Funeral procession for Sir Wilfrid Laurier

No other serving Leader of the Opposition had ever died in office, so while there was no precedent to say that Jack Layton should get a state funeral, there was also no precedent to say that he should not. The only (albeit tenuous) protocol guidance would be that, for most protocol purposes, a serving Leader of the Opposition is treated as the social equivalent as a serving Minister of the Crown.

At the end of the day, it was up to the Governor General (on the advice of the Prime Minister) to decide if Jack Layton would have a state funeral, and I think it showed tremendous grace and courtesy on Stephen Harper's part to choose as he did.

But he did not "sharply alter" the protocol. He addressed a gap in the protocol and thereby established a precedent going forward. Henceforth we know that a serving Leader of the Opposition who dies in office is entitled to a state funeral.

With apologies to liturgical purists, I leave you with Stephen Page's performance of Leonard Cohen's Halleujah at the state funeral for the Honourable Jack Layton.

Tragic Absurdity

Yesterday, on the eve of Passover, a known racist with a history of violence and threatening rhetoric entered the grounds of the Jewish Community Center in the Kansas City neighbourhood of Overland Park and murdered a teenager and his grandfather in cold blood. He then proceeded to a senior citizens home where he gunned down a woman who was caring for her elderly mother. When he was finally arrested, he repeatedly shouted "Heil Hitler."


All racism is the work of the Evil One, and those who claim that their racist violence is predicated on protecting Christian values is either deluded or a liar. There is no middle ground here.

But the incident happened at the beginning of the Christian Holy Week, a time that, to our collective shame, was often marked by persecution and pogrom. The Church is not innocent here. Most modern day Christian bodies actively and assertively reject anti-Semitism, but centuries of evil are not overturned in a generation or two.

I can't help, though, to notice the tragic absurdity that, in his eagerness to murder Jews, the pathetic Frazier Glenn Cross actually murdered only Christians, two Methodists and one Roman Catholic. That doesn't make the events either more or less tragic, nor the does it render his actions either more or less criminal. But somehow, like the attacks on Sikhs after 9/11, or the harassment of Chinese immigrants after Pearl Harbor, it shows that there is an inherent idiocy in racism and the irrational fear of the other.

But there is no question about who the shooter wanted to murder. He wanted to murder Jews. The Southern Poverty Law Center has described him as a notorious anti-Semite. And I have no doubt he considers himself a good Christian. 

Lord have mercy.
I grafted you into the tree of my chosen Israel,
and you turned on them with persecution and mass murder.
I made you joint heirs with them of my covenants,
but you made them scapegoats for your own guilt.
Holy God,
holy and mighty,
holy and immortal one,
have mercy upon us.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Sermons Online

A couple of months ago, I started recording the sermons at the parish where I currently hang my biretta. I've bee using Soundcloud to upload them, but that means they are on a stream so that, at the end of one recording, the previous recording begins to play.  There is also a limit to the recording space at Soundcloud. I'm open to suggestions.


BTW, here is a link to the page at our parish website where the available sermons can be found.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

On Christian Seders - Inappropriate Appropriation

In many Christian congregations it has been (or once was) the custom to hold a "Christian Seder" at some point during Lent, usually as part of their observance of Maundy Thursday.

Last Supper - Chartres Cathedral - Stained Glass
The Seder is the traditional Jewish Passover meal, usually observed by families rather than religious communities, during which participants rehearse the story of the Hebrew people's escape from Egypt as described in Exodus. If one accepts the chronology of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), then the Last Supper at which Christ washed his disciples' feet and then instituted the Holy Eucharist was a Passover meal. Thus there is an understandable logic to linking the two sacred meals and to attempt to "bring them back together."

There are several problems with this narrative however, and the fact that the chronology of John's gospel places the crucifixion on the day of preparation for Passover (that is, on the day the Passover lamb is slaughtered for the meal) is not the most pressing one.

The first problem is historical anachronism. While most scholars accept that a ritual Passover meal almost certainly existed in early first century Palestine, it is generally accepted that the Seder as a particular and widely observed structure for that meal is a much later development, likely at some point after the destruction of the Temple in 70CE. Indeed, there is a suggestion from some scholars that the evolution of the Seder meal was, at least in part, driven by an intention to create a ritual meal more distinct from the Christian Eucharist. So, even if the Last Supper was a Passover meal, it was almost certainly not a Seder that would be recognizable by most 21st century Jews.

A second problem is the propriety of some of the symbolism if moved from a Jewish to a Christian context. The most obvious example of that would be the closing expression of hope, "Next year in Jerusalem," since that makes no particular sense in a faith that is not tied - or at least not tied in the same way - to the earthly Jerusalem. Of course, one could reinterpret this as referring to "Jerusalem which is above," but that clearly isn't what our Jewish neighbours are talking about.

Which takes us to the larger problem about appropriation of voice and ritual. Should we play-act (however innocently intended) the rituals of another faith community? Moreover, given the long history of anti-Semitism in Christian history, should the (historic) persecutors appropriate the rituals of their victims? Indeed, by placing the Seder in the context of Maundy Thursday and by incorporating a celebration of the Eucharist, are we not engaged in a deliberate act of supercessionism whereby we expressly and overtly invalidate the very rituals we are appropriating? Holy Week already has a long, sorry and disgraceful history of being associated with pogrom and persecution. Do we need to add to it by aping a ritual that is not ours?

While the parallel is not precise, Islam (which reveres Jesus as a prophet) arose from Judeo-Christianity in a way not unlike how Christianity arose from Judaism. I've never heard of a mosque holding a "Muslim Eucharist," but I have trouble imagining that most Christians would find that appropriate, especially Christians in Muslim majority countries where Christians face legal restrictions and periodic harassment.

Admittedly Jewish opinion on this is not monolithic, and there are many Jews who interpret the "Christian Seder," very charitably, as an attempt to understand Judaism better.

Two fairly solid blogposts lay out both sides of this argument in ways I think are generally fair and reasonable, here and here. An excellent discussion on the problem of the Last Supper as Passover meal can be found here.

None of this is to say that Christians should not participate in a Seder in an appropriate context - as a guest of a Jewish family, for example. It could be a useful bit of interfaith learning to invite the local Rabbi to speak about Passover and the Seder. Learn about the Seder and about Passover by all means, and about the experiences of our Jewish neighbours. Christians who are part of interfaith marriages, or Jews who have become Christians while retaining their self-identification as Jews would hold or participate in Seders as they deem appropriate.

All that said, a "Christian Seder" is not and cannot be a Seder in any meaningful sense. It can only ever be an appropriation of someone else's rites. For ethnic gentiles to appropriate the Seder strikes me as no different than white comedians in blackface, professional sports teams named after derogatory terms for First Nations people or the archetypical rude uncle who tells ethnic jokes. The only defence is that, like the rude uncle, we don't realize we're being offensive. And that isn't much of a defence, really.

Jesus in the Tabernacle, Jesus in the Slum

Yesterday I attended a clergy day which included the reaffirmation of our ordination vows. A colleague soon to depart this diocese was the designated preacher and, although he didn't touch on this particular aspect of our shared ministry, he nonetheless led me to recollect Bishop Frank Weston's closing address to the Anglo-Catholic Conference of 1923. Weston was the Bishop of Zanzibar. a Christian socialist and a leading Anglo-Catholic churchman of his day. 


His complete address can be found here, but it's closing section sets our the principles which sets my Anglo-Catholic socialist heart a flutter:
I say to you, and I say it to you with all the earnestness that I have, that if you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum. 
Now mark that—this is the Gospel truth. If you are prepared to say that the Anglo-Catholic is at perfect liberty to rake in all the money he can get no matter what the wages are that are paid, no matter what the conditions are under which people work; if you say that the Anglo-Catholic has a right to hold his peace while his fellow citizens are living in hovels below the levels of the streets, this I say to you, that you do not yet know the Lord Jesus in his Sacrament. You have begun with the Christ of Bethlehem, you have gone on to know something of the Christ of Calvary—but the Christ of the Sacrament, not yet. Oh brethren! if only you listen to-night your movement is going to sweep England. If you listen. I am not talking economics, I do not understand them. I am not talking politics, I do not understand them. I am talking the Gospel, and I say to you this: If you are Christians then your Jesus is one and the same: Jesus on the Throne of his glory, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus received into your hearts in Communion, Jesus with you mystically as you pray, and Jesus enthroned in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters up and down this country. And it is folly—it is madness—to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done. 
There then, as I conceive it, is your present duty; and I beg you, brethren, as you love the Lord Jesus, consider that it is at least possible that this is the new light that the Congress was to bring to us. You have got your Mass, you have got your Altar, you have begun to get your Tabernacle. Now go out into the highways and hedges where not even the Bishops will try to hinder you. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Politics and its Worst and at its Best

Yesterday was Canadian politics and the House of Commons at their worst. Today was Canadian politics and the House of Commons at their best.


Former Finance Minister Jim Flaherty died today of a massive heart attack. He had resigned from Cabinet only one month ago with the intention of returning to the private sector and spending more time with his family. Coverage can be found in all major Canadian media, including here and here. The House of Commons rose for the day prior to the scheduled Question Period.

If yesterday was a case study in politicians conducting themselves like petulant toddlers, today was a case study in politicians putting partisanship aside and acting with grace and compassion.

It isn't that Jim Flaherty wasn't a partisan guy. He could be fiercely partisan - although today his colleagues chose to dwell on other times and other anecdotes when other qualities were on display. Even a fierce partisan knows that there are times to set such things aside. There is a human side to our political culture.

A week ago, I blogged about why I couldn't find any humour in the self-destructive saga of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. One of my memories of Jim Flaherty's non-partisan side was from last fall, when he was asked to comment on the scandal swirling around Ford.

Flaherty had served in the Ontario Legislature alongside Ford's father, and had been something of a mentor to the Ford brothers early in their political career. He did not choose the path of partisan pitbull, defending the mayor's indefensible conduct. Neither did he choose the path of partisan protectionism, distancing himself from Ford. Instead, he gave the very human response of one who sees a family friend committing slow suicide with alcohol and drugs. Watch the video here.

Last fall, I was asked to brief new members of our diocesan synod on how synod works, how to raise issues, how to get things done and so forth. Some of my non-church readers may be shocked to discover that ecclesiastical politics can sometimes be as fiercely fought as secular politics.

My closing admonition to that group was a reminder that, however heated the discussion, they should always remember that the person on the other side of the argument loved Jesus every bit as much as they did - and more importantly, Jesus loved that person just as much as he loved them.

We too often forget that most people get involved  in politics to accomplish what they believe is best for their country - even if they disagree with us about what that looks like.

Today the House of Commons remembered that.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Threats of Violence in the Canadian Parliament

During Question Period today, Conservative Trade Minister Ed Fast made a gesture in the direction of New Democrat MP Niki Ashton. You can see more on the story here. The video of the CBC story, including the House of Commons video, is embedded below. Shortly afterwards, another New Democrat MP, Dan Harris, raised a point of privilege calling on Minister Fast to apologize for having made a gun-pointing gesture at Ashton while shouting "boom."

Let me begin with full disclosure. Niki Ashton is my friend. I worked on her campaign for the federal NDP leadership in 2012. If you watch the video of her convention speech, I'm the guy in the blue shirt who hugs her as she comes off the stage. I am not unbiased about this story.

My son and I with New Democrat MP Niki Ashton
That said, it isn't particularly clear from the House of Commons video what gesture Minister Fast was actually making. He may simply have been pointing at Ashton. She didn't see the gesture herself because she and Fast are at opposite ends of the House. Harris sits directly across from Fast and seems pretty certain about what he saw and heard, however Fast vociferously denies Harris's description of his gesture or that he made any accompanying sound.

Female MPs, particularly young female MPs, have to put up with a lot of crap that male MPs simply don't have to deal with. Female MPs of all parties have been subjected to overtly sexist criticisms, from Liberal Chrystia Freeland's relatively high-pitched voice (women's voices are pitched higher - get over it) to accusations that Conservative MP Michelle Rempel's Twitter profile picture was overtly sexual (it wasn't). Sexism is alive and well on Parliament Hill. But implied violence during Question Period would be a new low, even for so sexist and patriarchal an institution as Parliament.

Even is one chooses to give Fast the benefit of the doubt (and the evidence isn't there to do more), the situation in the Commons proceeded to deteriorated further. 

First came Fast's response to Harris's accusation. If, in fact, his gesture was not intended to be a pointing gun (and for our purposes here we are giving him the benefit of the doubt), I can understand a vigorous denial. But Fast went beyond that, accusing Harris of making it up. Well, the video is pretty clear that there was a pointing gesture. It is possible that Harris misinterpreted the gesture, but he clearly didn't make it up.

But Fast's response to the Speaker was only the prologue. Next was the spectacle of Conservative backbencher Ron Cannan approaching Harris from the back of the Opposition side of the House. Reporters say he was shouting, and witnesses closer to the altercation say say Cannon expressly threatened violence against Harris. He was eventually restrained by two NDP MPs (House Leader Peter Julian and Northern Ontario MP Glenn Thibeault) and escorted back to his side of the House. Then Fast approached Harris from across the House (at least he didn't sneak around the back of the Chamber like Cannan), apparently also in an aggressive manner.


The initial gesture (if Harris's interpretation is correct) is highly disturbing. But regardless of what gesture Fast made, the behaviour of two Conservative MPs after the fact - one of whom had nothing to do with the issue - was simply outrageous. It is, however, in keeping with recent aggressive actions such as Justice Minister Peter MacKay throwing files on the floor of the House, or appointed Conservative Senators launching vicious personal attacks on elected Members of Parliament.

Considered in conjunction with the recent Conservative attempts at voter suppression through amendments to the Elections Act that have been opposed even by their own conservative elder statesman Preston Manning, it is clear that the Conservative government fears for its future when next it faces Canadian voters. It is not uncommon for governments in decline to respond in ways that are crude, immature and even violent - though fortunately we have been spared the latter in Canada to this point.

But if Conservative MPs are going to continue trying to cow their critics both inside and outside the Commons with both character assassination and physical intimidation, one is moved to wonder what comes next.