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Learning to Love

February 22, 2015

I write this post with some trepidation, aware of the possible fallout, but I know in my heart I have no choice.

My heart is heavy this morning. I have just learned that Brandan Robertson, whom I mentioned in my last post, and whose opinions on many matters I have come to respect and value, has had his book contract cancelled because he is gay. Apparently the publisher was under pressure from Christian booksellers who were refusing to handle the book, though the personal account of the writer’s spiritual journey made only the slightest reference to homosexuality.

What was clearly at issue was Brandan’s homosexuality. Somehow some Christians have taken it into their heads that homosexuality (or whatever other sins de jour they select) gives them license to hate and harm people. They feel justified in denying these “sinners” fellowship, housing, employment and even, as I recently read, medical care.

Although there is controversy surrounding the language of the verses typically cited as condemning homosexuality, I will not muddy my boots in it at this time. Rather I will wait until the dust settles and a clear verdict is rendered. But even accepting those passages do condemn the practice, when we set aside those among them that clearly refer to prostitution and rape, references specific to the practice of homosexuality are sparse, only two in the Old Testament and two in the New.

In contrast, there are many, many verses that tell us to love one another.

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35

In fact, those verses, as Jesus contends, are the very essence of Christianity. But somehow there are some scriptural cherry-pickers who believe the few verses take precedence over the many.

For those who would ungenerously insist that Jesus is referring only to fellow Christians when he refers to “your neighbour” and “one another” (a ludicrous position since there were no Christians when he spoke those words), or would hold that homosexuals are not truly Christians, I offer another of Jesus’ teachings:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. ’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45)

Jesus frequently sought out the company of sinners (the sexually immoral among them), defended them against the religious community who sought to judge them, and some would suggest gave them preferential treatment. Are we who call ourselves his followers not to follow, to emulate him?

Why homosexuality has been elevated above all other sins mystifies me. It seems to me that the materialism, greed and militarism in which virtually all of us participate are far more damaging to the Kingdom of God than homosexuality. Even more serious is the widespread indifference to the suffering of others. But no one is spewing invectives at us or discriminating against us for these sins.

Many years ago God taught me a lesson that I see as directly relevant. I had been involved in prison ministry for a while, but had firmly maintained that I wanted no truck with sexual offenders. One day the chaplain told me someone wanted to speak to me in his office. When I arrived there at the appointed time, I was introduced to a man I had never met before. This man told me he needed help, and hearing from others what I had done for them, believed I could provide that help. However asked that I hear his story before deciding whether or not I was willing.

As I listened to him, I was torn asunder. He was a pedophile, the worst of the worst in my opinion. I wanted no part of this! Yet I could clearly hear the Spirit within me reminding me that God had responded to my brokenness by forgiving my sins, pointing out that before me was a broken man who like me needed help, and that it would dishonour both God and myself to refuse him. Reluctantly, I agreed to work with the man.

That meeting changed my life. I developed a heart for men who had fallen into sexual sin, and in a short time they were the primary focus of my ministry. I learned that when I served them—gave them my time, a listening ear, an understanding heart and a helping hand—I learned to love them. I had truly become a friend of sinners. I am eternally grateful for that experience.

As Christians we must realize hurting and broken people who have been caught up in behaviours we find repugnant are not our enemies. They are our brothers and sisters who need our help, not our judgment and rejection. We need to welcome them into our company and love them as Jesus did. For they too are the Father’s children and he loves them just as much as he loves us.

…. Especially That You May Prophesy

February 21, 2015

The New Testament speaks of prophecy as a normal occurrence within the church. Yet in all my years of church attendance I have never to my remembrance heard a clear explanation of this gift, or heard any utterance by anyone identified as prophecy. (But perhaps I wasn’t listening.) I have never heard anyone lay claim to the gift of prophecy. (I definitely would have remembered that!) Perhaps present day Christians consider the shoes of the Old Testament prophets too big to fill. Or perhaps reading the Biblical account of the tribulation that wracked the lives of those men, they ask themselves who in their right mind would aspire to stand among them. Or more realistically, perhaps it is the fear of the very real consequences that may result from expressing an unorthodox view. In any event, although other spiritual gifts have maintained a safe, fairly utilitarian character, the gift of prophecy has been mystified, anointed with an otherworldly air tinged with danger. Musing on this goaded me to delve more deeply.

In the evolution of the English language the primary usage of the noun prophecy and its corresponding verb prophesy have been largely wrenched from the office of the Biblical prophet. Modern dictionaries settle both words exclusively within the realm of prescience, foretelling the future. It is my impression that in line with those definitions the common imagination of Christians understands the spiritual gift of prophecy to be the ability to predict the future. I do not. In my conception it is the ability not to add to Biblical revelation, but rather to provide new perspectives on the revelation already received.

Paul obviously considered prophecy of great importance. In his enumerations of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, Ephesians 4:7-13, and in Romans 12:3-8, prophecy is the only gift mentioned in all three. He wanted all believers to prophesy (1 Corinthians 14:5) and encouraged all to “earnestly desire” the gift. Although he grants it ascendency among the spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 14:39), and specifically warns not to despise it (1 Thessalonians 5:20) the church has largely ignored his warning. It has greeted the gift of prophecy with suspicion, misunderstanding, confusion and fear.

There are even some who have tried to kick it to the curb, claiming the gift of prophecy has expired. Citing as their proof text 1 Corinthians 13:9-10, “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away”, they maintain that the perfect—the full revelation of the truth of God—came with the completion of the New Testament canon, and with its arrival, the partial—the gift of prophecy—ceased to exist. They adamantly insist that everything that can be known about God is bound within the covers of the Bible, and no new revelation is possible.

To me, sola scriptura, the Protestant doctrine that the Bible is the supreme authority in all matters of doctrine and practice, is flawed. The gaping hole I have come to see in that doctrine is this: in elevating ink on paper to ultimate authority, we ignore the human element in the equation. The written word is merely information. To have any meaning at all it must undergo interpretation, a complex, holistic process involving analysis, synthesis and evaluation. In that very personal process it is influenced and tainted by the opinions, assumptions, values, beliefs, biases, prejudices and past experiences of the interpreter. In short, it shifts from being objective to being subjective, and far too often hubris overtakes humility. While scripture is fixed (although even that notion is arguable) interpretation is fluid.

To make my point I will saddle an oft-ridden horse. A couple of years ago I read George D. Armstrong’s The Christian Doctrine of Slavery, published in 1857, in which the author expounds on what many Christians of the time believed the Bible had to say on the subject. Certainly Christians today would consider Armstrong’s position totally without scriptural merit, and indeed repugnant. So what happened? Did scripture change? Of course not! It was the generally accepted interpretation of scripture that changed. This has occurred in the past, is occurring at this very moment (witness the rapidly changing attitude toward sexual orientation), and will occur in the future.

My other concern is that sola scriptura makes the Bible and not the person of Christ who lives in and among us the final authority. However I in no way wish to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Bible is unquestionably an important and authoritative guide for Christian faith and practice, but it isn’t the foundation or center of our faith—Jesus is. And, as Brandan Robertson, a prominent Christian blogger I follow, points out, although studying scripture is valuable, it is nowhere near as valuable as cultivating a day to day relationship with the God incarnate.

“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want.” John 5:39-40 The Message

I have written repeatedly that I give heed to the Spirit of God who is living and active within me. I trust my shepherd and I know his voice. Sometimes he speaks to me through the Bible. Sometimes he speaks to me through his creation. Sometimes he speaks to me through other believers. Sometimes he speaks to me through those who are of other faiths or of no faith at all. I know these ideas frighten some. They fear that following the Spirit makes faith subjective, that it will inevitably lead to confusion. But I know that as he promised, God has plans for me, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give me a future and a hope, and I trust that the Lord will lead me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

But I digress.

My reading of Paul’s letters leaves no doubt in my mind that he considered the gift of prophecy as important, even essential, to a healthy church. For “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” (1 Corinthians 14:3) Prophetic words exhort to obedience and service, admonish and correct error, edify the brethren. The Spirit gave the gift of prophecy to bring and maintain renewal in Christ’s church.

Paul’s expectation of the universality of prophecy is unmistakable. He clearly believed the gift is open to every believer. “For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.” (1 Corinthians 14:31)

If all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.” (1 Corinthians 14:24-25)

If it is our desire to build a vibrant church, we cannot afford to despise the gift of prophecy. We cannot let fear and misunderstanding prevent this powerful gift of the Spirit from developing and maturing to take its rightful place in the body of Christ according to the will of God. If we balance it against scripture, observing the caution of 1 Thessalonians 5:20 to “test everything”, the prophetic word will serve us well, edifying the church.

I find the idea of the gift of prophecy within the church exciting. I have recently begun attending a church where all voices are heard and honoured, where all are encouraged to add their perspectives to what is being taught. From what I have experienced so far, this provides a welcome balance, validates the experience of all assembled, and bespeaks the democracy of a “holy priesthood”. (1 Peter 2:5)

Prophecy, like all the spiritual gifts, is given to individuals for the benefit of Christ’s church. I would hope that Christians everywhere would encourage those who earnestly desire this gift, assisting them in every way possible to develop their Spirit-given talent. I would hope that all would give thanks for both the gift and for those to whom it has been given, and prayerfully give ear to their voices.

Whispered in the Sounds of Silence

February 20, 2015

I hold few illusions as to who I am. Like Pogo, I have met the enemy and he is me. I have faced my shadow self and the narcissism of my ego and have come to terms with them. Though I seldom blatantly rebel against God, I confess that rather, as theologian and Baptist pastor Walter Rauschenbusch wrote, I dodge and evade. While I kneel in lowly submission, I far too often put myself first, and caught up in the ludicrous self-deception that God is not looking, kick my duty under the bed. In more lucid moments, with the Spirit’s leading, I contritely determine to continue to walk the hard painful road of dying to self, stumbling three steps forward and falling two steps back.

Some accuse me of being a pessimist, seeing the troubles of the world wherever I turn. It is true I seldom hide from the darkness, for I do not fear it; the insistent inner voice of God and the consciousness of my personal communion with him assure me of his love, and that love casts out fear. In the midst of the malevolent chaos of this world I can sing with Robert Browning’s Pippa, “God’s in His heaven—All’s right with the world!” Therefore I would suggest that I am the most optimistic of pessimists, for I never doubt the ultimate victory of God, of his righteousness and justice, and of his people. Despite all appearances the kingdom of God is at hand.

Dualistic thinking may struggle with this paradoxical marriage of pessimism and optimism, holding the two in rigid dichotomy. By to some degree shaking off the well-practised habit of knowing things by comparison, and replacing it with the contemplative both-and, I have managed at least to some degree to reconcile for myself the apparently paradoxical. But I am a mere tyro at contemplative thinking. I find in the Bible true masters of the both-and of optimistic pessimism. They are the prophets.

Some months ago I sought out Abraham Heschel’s book on the Old Testament prophets. It seemed to me that if I was searching for a truly incisive, culturally attuned picture of the spokesmen of Israel’s God, the work of a preeminent Jewish scholar might be the place to go. I was right. Prophecy, as Heschel puts it, is exegesis of existence from a divine perspective. “The prophet hears God’s voice and looks at the world from God’s perspective.” In order to understand them, “we must think, not about, but in the prophets, with their concern and their heart.” While most of us from time to time criticize injustices in our society, those injustices remain tolerable to us. Our moral indignation quickly passes. Not so for the prophet. As I read the accounts these men left to us, their concern for God’s justice spews forth in an endless stream of lava, their searing words scorching the landscape and blistering everyone in it. Yet their heart unquestionably bleeds for the world God loves so much that he would give his son to die to heal the gash that separates him from it.

While prescience certainly played a part in the lifework of the Old Testament prophets, the lion’s share of their message is indictments of the practices of Israel—criticism. That word has donned a dark cloak as an expression of disapproval, which it can express. But criticism can also be an analysis of the merits and faults of something, though this application is now largely confined to the arenas of art, music and literature, and to a lesser extent, food.

Modern day Christians are fond of the Messianic prophecies and eagerly appropriate them. But as internationally known Franciscan friar Richard Rohr observes, the prophets are rendered harmless when we make their message simply, “They foretold the coming of the Messiah.” I don’t think when reading the prophets many see themselves in the crosshairs of the explosive incriminations and impassioned pleadings. Rather they blithely imagine these ancient whistleblowers’ agonized raging only a commentary on the sins of the people of their own time and place. I would advise sober second thought.

God is not constrained by time or space; he speaks through his prophets to all people in every age. The prophets’ horrified descriptions of the iniquities of Israel hold true for what is now considered normal in our own society, in our own churches, in our own lives. Their demands for justice, in reality God’s demands for justice, are no less relevant today. The prophets hear the silent sighs of God who cherishes his people, and when they are hurt, feels their pain as his own. As Matthew 25 makes abundantly clear, what we do to others we do to God: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

Despite the acerbic, strident tone of their denunciations, I believe it critical to recognize that the message of the prophets is always couched in hope. As Heschel writes, “Every prediction of disaster is in itself an exhortation to repentance.” I see the prophets not as harbingers of God’s judgment, but as witnesses bearing testimony to the broken heart of an estranged father who sees his beloved children on the road to ruin and in his anguish rails against them, attestants to his changeless love and relentless longing to welcome them home. “Return to me and I will return to you”, says the Lord. (Malachi 3:7b)

God’s call is always to justice. In the course of my meandering investigation I fell upon Deuteronomy 16:20. “Justice, and only justice, you shall follow.” (Please forgive my minuscule knowledge of Hebrew, but I believe I have this right.) The first Hebrew word for justice is tzedek, which is often translated as righteousness. The second justice is mishpat, a legal form associated with judgment. This double use is a common literary device in Hebrew, used for emphasis, as in Jesus’ frequent use of “Truly, truly, I say to you” in John’s Gospel to emphasize the authority of what he was about to say.

Following this thread I find numerous examples of this double use:

Psalms 33:5 states that God “loves righteousness and justice”.

Psalm 103:6, “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.”

Proverbs 21:3, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.”

Noting this repetition, it is apparent from these verses and many others like them, that justice is a very big deal to God. The prophets’ expansion on exactly what God’s justice involves is far beyond the scope of this post, but I think Micah sums it up nicely:

He has told you, O man, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God.

Perhaps we would be wise pay closer attention to God’s call for justice as it issues from the lips of his prophets. Perhaps we should give the prophets less occasion for their pessimism and more for their optimism.

The Urban Saint

February 7, 2015

In 2012 I published a couple of posts entitled Some of Those I Met Along the Road on My Journey Toward Calvary and Another Meeting on the Road to Calvary. Today I want to tell you about someone else I was privileged to meet on my journey.

Last week, after graciously setting a place for me at her family table for the umpteenth time, a dear friend insistently offered me some books to read. I tried to beg off, protesting that I already had a formidable stack awaiting my attention. Finally I relented and accepted one, in large part because I was somewhat familiar with its subject—Harry Lehotsky, the colourful pastor who left his indelible stamp on Winnipeg during his 23 years in the city.

I met Harry once. It was not too long after he came to Winnipeg to begin his ministry. Likewise it was early days for the ministry I had initiated, at first confined within prison walls but soon breaking out into the streets. As we shared our respective endeavours, I remember wondering what this young American was doing in Winnipeg, working and beginning to raise a family in the roughest corner of West End, one of the city’s most troubled neighbourhoods. I also remember being impressed with his contagious passion with which he so readily infected others, and the love he wore on his sleeve for the hurting people amongst whom he was living.

My reading of Paul H. Boge’s The Urban Saint, The Harry Lehotsky Story, got off to a shaky start. The account of Harry’s teenage involvement with drugs lacked authenticity, perhaps revealing the author’s naiveté about the subject. I wondered whether the book was going to be worth my time. But there were flashes of vivid reality, indeed irrefutable truths, in some of the words he ascribes to Harry. Those words leapt from the pages, seizing me by the heart and dragging me into the story. I was held hostage there, a gathering wind (the Holy Spirit?) fanning the fire that has burned in my belly for as long as I can remember.

“Why don’t we get angry at injustice?” Harry railed. I have been repeatedly asking the very same question for years. I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer, but I suspect I have arrived at one myself. For a few it may simply be bending to the tut-tutting of others to “be nice”, but more likely it is because, as I well know, to get angry at injustice pushes one to act, to become personally involved. And out of fear, laziness, a feeling of inadequacy, or more tragically, disinterest and indifference to suffering, people don’t want to do that.

For many who populate the pews on Sundays, it is far easier to bemoan every social evil, frame it as a spiritual problem, sin, and to argue that the best response is to pray and evangelize. Though this view is not in and of itself wrong, it does not fully confront reality. Should we as Christians, both individually and collectively, not follow the example of the prophets to speak out against injustice? Should we not, as Jesus did, confront those who abuse, oppress and victimize others and challenge systems that push the poor closer to the brink of the abyss? Should we not reach out those who are hanging by their fingertips from the bottom rungs of the social ladder? Should not some of us, in solidarity with the poor, move into their depressed neighbourhoods so that we may really understand what it is like to live there, and then work with them, using our resources and our voices to help make things better? Should we not with the psalmist stand collectively before God and cry,

“Examine me, O Lord, and try me; Test my mind and my heart.”

then confess our own part in injustice and repent of it?

I was amused as I read how Harry pounded on the door of the biggest drug dealer in the community to confront him, and how the man tried to legitimize the trail of carnage, the destroyed lives that were the fallout of his enterprise: “This is business.” “No different from the way the CEOs of many of the corporations we support uncaringly look past the harm they inflict in the pursuit of efficiency and profit,” I thought.

So is it the role of the church to be involved in social justice issues? I have heard the arguments on each side ad nauseum.   I cannot conceive of anyone who knows me or has read what I write not knowing in which camp I stand. It mystifies me how anyone can read the Bible, in particular the Prophets and the Gospels, and not hear God calling for justice. Alas, we see in the Bible what we have been taught to see there, sometimes even reading in what is not there, and what we have been taught to ignore never enters our field of vision. We can become so intent upon a “right” reading of the written word that we cannot hear the living Voice.

I am in no way suggesting we ignore evangelism. I fully recognize that even when all the worldly needs of a person are met, when he has been made as comfortable as possible, he may still be haunted by the emptiness of his life and seeming meaningless of his existence. We must never neglect to share where we have found meaning. But to neglect the practical needs of people is to stop our ears to the voice of the apostle James:

“If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “ Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” (James 2:15-16)

When a student suggested to Harry that Christians should forego social action in favour of evangelism, he replied, “So instead of splitting hairs about should I evangelize this person and not give them food, or should I give them food and not evangelize them, why not offer both in a way that is dignifying to them and to God?”

But when the church even considers how to honour both the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, it seems to me the balance is typically heavily weighted in favour of evangelism. (At the large missions conference I just attended I had to search among the more than 150 exhibitor’s booths to find the few groups who aren’t focused solely on evangelism.) What help is given often treats symptoms while ignoring the disease. Many times the help that is offered is conditional upon attendance of evangelistic presentations or becoming active in a church. Those who do not comply with these conditions are deemed undeserving. In my opinion, it’s not for us to decide who deserves help and who doesn’t. Everyone in need deserves help. To turn our backs is to fly in the face of Matthew 25:31-46, ignoring the indwelling Christ.

So exactly who should be involved in social justice issues? Our Western culture (and therefore our churches) is dominated by dualistic thinking that delineates and polarizes everything as black and white rather than recognizing the continuum that exists. Our thinking tends to be divisive—“them” as opposed to “us” rather than the inclusive “us” of community. When it comes to Christian service, as we do in most areas of life, we deal in specialities: it is only the “special few” gifted ones who are considered qualified to be preachers, teachers, missionaries, prophets or healers. But in reality, whether we realize it or not, don’t we all, if we choose to, preach, teach, evangelize, prophesy and heal? The Christian’s job description is very, very broad. Lack of specific gifts does not absolve us from any aspect of it, including fighting for those who cannot fight for themselves.

We cannot effectively minister to the disembodied, those who for us have no individuality, no personal story, no unique needs. We do not know them, so therefore we cannot really love them. Love is very personal. It is what allows us to cross the critical border between sympathy and empathy into the province of embodied compassion. As Walter Rauschenbusch, who ministered for 11 years to the people of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen and was “a beacon of inspiration” to Harry, put it, “We never live so intensely as when we love so strongly. To understand things and people, we must love them.” If we don’t understand a community and its people, if we don’t listen to how they describe their problems and envision solutions, any attempt to help will be at best mediocre, and may, as is so often the case, do more harm than good. Will we have the compassion and the courage to love people and help them where they are?

Sadly, as Harry observes, “So many thoughts by so many others on how to fix people. But so little compassion to take the time to love them and walk the road to recovery with them.” After his death from pancreatic cancer in 2006, the ministry he had built languished. Donations dried up and church membership declined. The Ellice Café and Theatre that was to Harry “a little bit of heaven” was put up for sale, along with half of the 100 low-income rental units his ministry had developed. It would appear New Life Ministries’ success was built too much upon the man who came to be loved and respected by so many.

As I think about what I read in Boge’s biography, I can identify with Harry in many ways. I can see myself in the author’s account of Harry as he wrote his first article for the Winnipeg Sun. Just as the book describes, there are times the words literally pour from my mind onto my laptop screen. There are times I read what I have written and think, “Not bad, Barry.” Then, like Harry, I wonder, “But is anybody actually going to read this?”

I can empathize with Harry’s early struggles. The book talks about how the churches that had commissioned Harry were concerned when after over a year the only visible “results” of his efforts was a tiny home Bible study. The model of “cold call” conversions and the “business model” of success measured in numbers ran deep within the evangelical community of the day, and still does. Unlike the angels, we don’t rejoice all that much when only one is brought to God. And when there are no converts, we tend to get downright surly. Our business model demands return on our investment.

I can also identify with Harry’s love for the “bottom dwellers of our society” as a reporter in the book disdainfully describes them. My love for “the least of these” (a somewhat gentler term) comes from the same source. In Harry’s words, “I really know that my Saviour loves me. A lot of Christians say that. But I wonder how many actually know that in their heart. I wonder if they walk around each day knowing that he really loves them. I have that, so loving other people is easy. When it comes right down to it, I’m no better than anyone else. When we elevate ourselves then we lose.” Amen.

As the author describes Harry’s relationship with his church, “Instead of feeling like their pastor, he felt like one of them. No better. No worse. Strong in some areas. Weak in others. Needing God as much as they did. Being just as capable as they were of losing sight of him and resorting back to the brokenness of his own humanity.” These words accurately characterize my own attitude toward those I have ministered to over the years, each of whom ministered to me as well.

I don’t find it difficult to love those who have fallen victim to the bad decisions they themselves have made, been beaten down by the callously abusive actions of others, ground between the millstones of our capitalistic economy that favours the rich and the powerful, or have been thrown by a stumble in some gopher-hole of misfortune. Through personal witness and personal experience I know that people can find themselves in circumstances that suck so much of their energy into simply existing that they have little left to pull themselves out of the morass. They need a hand up. I find it far more difficult to love those whose machinations to protect their own selfish interests keep the disinherited where they are—without decent jobs, decent housing, decent lives—in an existence of poverty and fear with little chance of a better future for themselves and their kids. Without hope.

I don’t claim to be able to love others as Harry Lehotsky did on a consistent basis.But I know where you were coming from, Harry.

I’m Tired of Eating Kleenex

January 30, 2015

Bread. Since man first learned to grind grains between two rocks it has been an important staple in almost every culture on the face of the planet. It is a mainstay of the human diet, the very staff of life. It is so ubiquitous that it has come to represent food in general. In our vernacular, sharing a meal is “breaking bread”.

There is something unquestionably sensual about a thick slab carved off a loaf fresh from the oven and slathered with butter. As cookbook author James Beard put it, “Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.” We slice it for sandwiches and toast. We tear off chunks to use in place of table utensils for scooping up our food. We dip in our soup or mop up our gravy with it. We enjoy it dry as crackers and rusks. We cube it to make stuffing for our Christmas turkey and croutons for our salads and soups, and crumb it to coat fried foods. We eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as for snacks. Bread is an appetizer, entrée, and dessert.

In the kitchens of the world bread is made in all manner of shapes—loaves round and rectangular, large and small, both thick and thin, sticks, rings, flat breads, braided breads. It is baked, fried, deep-fried and boiled. Yet despite the innumerable variations, the basic ingredients remain the same: flour, water, salt, and—although there are unleavened breads—in most cases leavening, most commonly yeast.

Bread’s importance is reflected in the traditions of the Abrahamic religions. The Torah commands that the showbread be maintained as an ever-present offering to God. “Put the bread of the Presence on this table to be before me at all times.” (Exodus 25:30) The unleavened matzo of Jewish Passover commemorates the exodus, symbolizing redemption and freedom, and its simplicity serves as a reminder to be humble. The two Sabbath challah loaves commemorate the double portion of manna that fell the day before the Sabbath, the twelve braids of the two loaves representing the tribes of Israel. In Islam, bread represents the food required to feed the body as well as eternal life. It is considered sacred, never to be wasted or abased.

Bread is integral to Christianity. There are hundreds of references to bread in the Bible, both literal and symbolic. In recognition of our need for divine and human nourishment, in praying the Lord’s Prayer Christians petition God to “give us this day our daily bread”. As we celebrate Communion bread represents the living presence of Jesus. My maternal grandparents were of Ukrainian extraction, and in the Eastern Orthodox tradition paska or kulich, Easter bread, symbolizing the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit, is essential to the Paschal table. Bread reminds us of our obligation to alleviate the world’s hungers. When we broke bread in my childhood home we asked the Lord to “make us ever mindful of the needs of others.”

I see bread as reflecting the cycle of life. The grain gives up its life to become flour. The flour feeds the yeast that gives life to the dough. The yeast then gives up its life in the baking of the bread. The bread gives life to us. In our dying we feed the grass that produces the grain.

I have long loved to cook, having gained some measure of repute for my culinary skills since I was a teenager. During my tenure as a volunteer firefighter I spearheaded a fundraiser for the department that centered on the publishing of a cookbook, many of the recipes borrowed from my own collection. As much as I love food, I love preparing it for others even more.

However, my expertise has been concentrated on entrées. I can occasionally whip up a pretty decent dessert, but bread making has somehow eluded my repertoire. I have done some baking over the years—pizza, biscuits and a cake from time to time—but bread…. that was different. There seemed to me to be a mystique around bread making, something akin to wizardry that was a just a slight bit intimidating.

But very recently I resolved the time had come to take the plunge. My motivations were twofold. First, in my opinion, most commercial bread, as Julia Child observed, “tastes like Kleenex.” There are some superb breads out there, but purchasing them necessitates something just short of taking out a mortgage. My second motivation I’ll get to later.

For my first foray into the art and science of making bread I tackled naan bread, common to the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. I enjoy Indian and more so North African cuisine, so naan seemed a good fit. The recipe is simple enough and the flatbread bakes in only four minutes on a blistering hot baking stone.   I prepared the oven and set to work. The fruits of my labour disappeared pretty quickly.

Basking in my initial success, I was ready for something more challenging. I have long appreciated the complex and interesting flavours and chewy structure of sourdough. It’s truly a bread I can sink my teeth into. I scoured the Internet for a recipe that appealed to me. Many offered the now-popular option of using a KitchenAid mixer, but even if I possessed one of those behemoths, I would have shunned it. I am a dyed-in-the-wool purist, adamant in my belief that baking authentic old-fashioned bread requires adherence to traditional ways. I would have been delighted to have had access to a wood-fired cookstove, or even better, a brick oven. I will never forget the smoky goodness of the bread from the clay ovens of Haiti.

Determined to maximize my learning experience, I selected a rather involved and labour-intensive recipe for the mythic bread. First came growing the wild yeast starter, a living thing that is sensitive to the environment and though forgiving, suffers if not tended carefully and fed regularly. That process consumed more than a week. Then came the day and a half evolution of the bread involving creating the sponge, fermentation of the dough, resting for autolysis, proofing, a third rise, an hour of hand kneading, pulling and folding several times over several hours. I further complicated things by opting to use a different baking method for each of the two loaves the recipe yielded.

I was generally pleased with the result. My mistaking wax paper for parchment (which I had never used before) threw a bit of a wrench into things, necessitating some persnickety picking off the welded-on bits of paper from the bottom of the loaves, but my bread was not substantially affected. My bread was a wee bit heavier than I would have liked, but had the sourdough flavour I was shooting for. Not bad for a novice. My daughter, who is an excellent baker, was favourably impressed.

Now to get to my second impetus for donning a baker’s apron, without question my primary one. It revolves around my personal all-time favourite bread—rye. Not just any rye, but Winnipeg rye. It’s different. It is made with white flour with only a little rye flour thrown in, relying on rye meal, coarsely ground rye, for its characteristic flavour.

There has long been heated debate in this city over just which particular Winnipeg rye is the best, but the majority of aficionados would undoubtedly insist that bread from that venerable Winnipeg institution, KUB Bakery, is the crème de la crème.  Their rye was for decades one of my personal food groups.  Its glossy crunchy crust, soft chewy center, rich flavours and heady aroma would instantly have me salivating like a Pavlov dog, strains of Carly Simon’s Nobody Does It Better wafting through my brain.  Paired with a chunk of kielbasa from Strikers Deli and Meats or some corned beef from Smith’s and a couple of Polski ogórki, it was a little taste of heaven!  But when in 2008 fire consumed KUB’s Stella Avenue plant, it was as if the recipe was lost in the flames.  To my taste buds, KUB rye bread was no longer quite the same—still good, but not the “original”.

I have always been solidly convinced that if someone else can do something, then I probably can as well. My four years of 4-H membership deeply carved the club’s motto, “Learn to do by doing” into my psyche, and having very frequently put its wisdom to practical use over the years, I was determined to do so again. I set out to recreate my “one and only” by trial and error. Armed with a couple of recipes published in the Winnipeg Free Press a few months after the KUB fire, I prepared to take my first stab at making rye bread. I combined elements of both recipes and went in search of the ingredients. Unable to find liquid barley malt in anywhere near the modest quantity called for, I ended up purchasing a tub from a brew shop that will last me for many years of bread making. Rye flour was readily available, but rye berries, cracked or whole, were a different story. After considerable searching, I was almost ready to order some online, interestingly from Fieldstone Granary in Armstrong, BC, where I lived before leaving for Haiti. Then someone suggested the good folks at Tall Grass Prairie Bread Company in the city’s “Granola Belt” who were kind enough to sell me a pound for a paltry sum.

Making this bread was so much easier than making sourdough; a couple of hours and I was done, everything washed up and the kitchen cleaned. Right out of the oven the loaves had the look I was going for. The crust was glossy and crunchy, and the bread was soft yet chewy with gritty little bits of rye. It was very tasty, definitely better than any of the commercial rye breads. However, it lacked the acidic hint that I savour. Immediately I jotted down a couple of modifications to the recipe that I will try at my next baking, which will be soon. One of the loaves was virtually inhaled and the second accompanied me to dinner with friends.

It is still a couple of months until Easter, so I will put trying paska on the back burner for a while. Challa is definitely on my list, as well as tortilla, although that flatbread looks very simple to make. I am not overly enthused about making white bread, but I very much enjoy raisin bread toast, so will probably give that a try.

The bread that you store up belongs to the hungry; the coat that lies in your chest belongs to the naked; the gold that you have hidden in the ground belongs to the poor.

– Basil of Caesarea

 

 

A Dearth of Empathy

January 18, 2015

Shortly after starting to write this post I experienced a few days without television or Internet access. The television was no real loss, but the Internet has become a lifeline to me. It is my main access to information. I use Skype as my primary telephone. I am not a “texter”; I depend on email. It is the Internet that gives me access to you.

Limited to working offline, I sorted through some files I don’t regularly access. In the process I stumbled upon the ebook King Leopold’s Ghost misfiled among some unrelated items. I had no idea what the book was about, but decided to look at it. I was drawn in from the first page. As I read on, I could see how this material fit like a glove as an illustration of my original thesis.

The author’s references to Joseph Conrad and his powerful novella Heart of Darkness made me consider revisiting that classic; it has been years since I read it and I had never considered it in its historical context. In the interest of time, I opted to take another look at the movie instead. During my search for a copy of that, I fortuitously unearthed Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death, a well-done BBC documentary by Peter Bate that includes some of the very disturbing photographs taken by English missionary Alice Seeley Harris. I then remembered I had a copy of the 1993 made-for-television adaptation of Conrad’s book, starring Tim Roth and John Malkovich, and watched that.  I went on to read Edmund Morel’s meticulously documented Red Rubber, as well as his King Leopold’s Rule in Africa, also featuring Harris’ photographs.  I still had Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Crime of the Congo waiting for me, but decided I had sufficient background material to write this post.

I make no apologies for its length; some subjects do not lend themselves to brevity. I do, however, warn you that parts of what I wrote about are violent and may be disturbing to some.  

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Leopold II, King of the Belgians, was dissatisfied with ruling a little nation surrounded by countries that could boast empires. He was desperate to have a colony of his own. Like his father before him, he made several attempts to purchase or even rent one, but was frustrated at every turn. Then in 1877, Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh explorer who masqueraded as an American citizen, succeeding in getting into the Congo by the back door, shooting his way down the Congo River, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Stanley had demonstrated what many believed but had been unable to prove—that the river indeed was an artery flowing from the vast unexplored heart of the Dark Continent. Leopold saw the opportunity to realize his dream at last.

The colonial nations of Europe showed little interest in the Congo; they already had enough on their plates with their existing territories. Neither did the Americans have any enthusiasm for acquiring an African colony. In fact some, like white supremacist Alabama Senator John Tyler Morgan, were doggedly trying to cobble together a plan to ship former slaves back to Africa. The Spanish and Portuguese, who much to the chagrin of the abolitionists still sanctioned slavery in their colonies, seemed content to lie at anchor at the mouth of the Congo River to load the human cargo delivered to them by Africans willing to sell their compatriots. Enlisting Stanley’s help, as well as that of General Henry Shelton Sanford, a former American minister to Belgium who had remained in Brussels after his tenure expired, Leopold launched an ingenious clandestine plan to lay claim to the massive drainage basin of the Congo River.

Stretching almost 3000 miles from its headwaters in the highlands and mountains of the East Africa Rift to its estuary, the great river flows first north across the equator, then scribes a sweeping counterclockwise arc through dense tropical rainforests on swampy floodplains, crosses over the equator once more and widens to 14 miles as Pool Malebo (formerly Stanley Pool) before spilling over the western rim of the plateau. Its tumultuous final 220-mile dash to the sea, called Livingstone Falls, descends almost a thousand feet in a raging torrent of 32 waterfalls, 34 violent rapids and enormous whirlpools, the current in places reaching 30 miles per hour. Finally, each second it empties an average of 1.4 million cubic feet of water (enough to fill 15 Olympic-size swimming pools) into the Atlantic, a flow that has carved a 4000 foot deep canyon into the sea floor that extends 500 miles offshore. Because its drainage basin includes areas both north and south of the equator, its flow is stable, as there is always at least one part of the river experiencing a rainy season. It is probably the deepest river in the world, with soundings to 720 feet. Its basin spreads over nearly 1.6 million square miles, and the river and the tributaries that fan out from it constitute 7000 miles of navigable waterways.

The land route around the rapids wound uphill through the rough, rocky country of the Crystal Mountains, cut through with deep ravines with treacherous cliffs. Some Capuchin missionaries twice made it to the top of the great rapids. A Portuguese expedition died trying.   Fifty-four men set out from England in 1816 to attempt the ascent, only to turn back after 150 miles, the men so exhausted and wracked with tropical diseases they were unable to go on. Twenty-one never saw England again. The interior of Africa remained a blank spot on the maps of the day.

Nineteenth century Europe was hungry for raw materials to feed the Industrial Revolution and many were eager to cash in on the profit potential of what came to be known as the Scramble for Africa. The cunning silver-tongued Leopold, however, vigorously denied he was looking to the Congo for material gain. He was, he insisted, serving “the noble cause”, the motives for his interest in the region purely philanthropic. Any revenues he might realize would go toward improving the lot of the people; he didn’t want a single franc for himself he sanctimoniously declared. Addressing the 1876 Brussels Geographic Conference, he ably deployed the rhetoric of Victorian humanitarianism: “To open to civilization the only part of our globe where it has yet to penetrate, to pierce the darkness that envelops whole populations, it is, I dare say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress.” Capitalizing on the missionary zeal of the time he vowed to bring Christianity to the region. Riding the waves of anti-slavery fervour and anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe, he pledged to bring a halt to the lucrative slave trade being carried on by Afro-Arabs in the markets of Zanzibar.

But his motives were not nearly so altruistic as he professed. He secretly coveted the Congo’s lucrative ivory trade, and saw the Arab traders as inconvenient competition in that enterprise.  To the later embarrassment of the world leaders of the time, he played his cards admirably, cleverly managing to garner international support for his dream. On July 1, 1885, the Congo Free State, a nation as large as the entire United States east of the Mississippi, came into being not as a Belgian colony, but the private fiefdom of the King of the Belgians.

Leopold immediately asserted rights of proprietorship, decreeing that everything in the country, the land and all it produced, belonged to the State (himself). In direct violation of his guarantees of free trade, he slammed the door in the face of the world. He pronounced the natives tenants upon his property, and therefore subject to taxation in the form of corvée labour. Any “unauthorized” use of his colony’s resources would be considered poaching and would be severely punished. He wasn’t about to share the wealth of his newly acquired state with anyone.

In his bestselling historical account King Leopold’s Ghost, American author Adam Hochschild unfolds an eloquent and grizzly story of horror, Leopold’s men terrorizing and brutalizing the Africans of the Congo. Atrocity was heaped on atrocity, fueled by greed and Victorian ideas about race. Hochschild stated his purpose in writing the book was to raise awareness of the history of the Congo, a history that has long been suppressed, what little once known largely forgotten. It certainly raised mine.

The author devotes a section of his narrative to Konrad Korzeniowski, the Polish author the world would come to know as Joseph Conrad. Conrad had dreamed of going to the Congo since childhood, and in 1889 had secured a position as ship’s officer on the sternwheeler Roi de Belges plying the waters of the Congo River. He spent six months on the river until he became ill with malaria and dysentery (from which he never fully recovered) and returned to his adopted country of England. Neither did he fully recover from his experience in Africa. Hochschild writes of Conrad, “Finally, he was so horrified by the greed and brutality among white men he saw in the Congo that his view of human nature was permanently changed.” In his Last Essays, published posthumously, Conrad would characterize Leopold’s Congo as “The vilest scramble for loot that every disfigured the history of human conscience.”

In 1899 he wrote Heart of Darkness, literature’s most scathing indictment of colonialism, and “probably the most widely reprinted short novel in English.” Although written as a novella, Conrad himself wrote, “Heart of Darkness is experience … pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case.” Hochschild gives Conrad full credence, carefully verifying those facts from letters, diaries, journals and official documents of the time describing the actions of the men who terrorized the Congo, many of those directly paralleling Conrad’s portraiture in his novel of the ivory company’s star agent, the brilliant and ambitious Mr. Kurtz.

The rape of the Congo was facilitated by relatively new technology—the steamship, the railway, the repeating rifle and the Maxim gun. Equipped with these, the Force Publique, Leopold’s private army of white officers and conscripted Africans (themselves de facto slaves, the rubber company agents paid a bounty for capturing and pressing them into service) was a law unto itself, intent upon wringing as much profit out of the Congo as possible for their royal master. The entire state was deliberately and systematically founded on slave labor. Africans were forcibly enlisted as porters to make the trek up the lower Congo. Often chained or roped together by the neck, they carried supplies, trade goods, guns and ammunition, as well as disassembled steamships to be reassembled at Stanley Pool to ply the lakes and rivers beyond. On the return trip they carried elephant tusks. Thousands starved, succumbed to injuries and disease, or were shot, beaten to death, or simply worked to death. Just as my research of Haiti revealed, it was considered more economic to replace slaves than to care for them.

In less than a decade, John Dunlop’s development of the pneumatic tire, the growing popularity of the automobile, and the necessity of insulating the wires that were rapidly electrifying the world sparked a sudden spike in demand for rubber. Leopold’s Congo Free State had the largest supply of wild latex producing vines in the world, and rubber soon surpassed ivory as the state’s most valuable commodity. Rubber plantations were being established in Indonesia and South America, but rubber trees take about six years to grow to maturity. For a time the Congo had a near-monopoly on the trade. (I found it puzzling that in almost all of the Internet articles I found on the history of the rubber trade, African rubber is rarely even mentioned.)

Now the thousands of slaves became hundreds of thousands. Harvesting rubber was difficult and dangerous, not something Africans wanted to do. The tappers often had to travel far from their homes and families to find enough vines to meet their quotas, and it was necessary to climb to heights of over a hundred feet to tap them. To dry the sap into rubber, tappers spread it onto their bodies. When the rubber was peeled off, it took body hair and often skin with it.

The strategy the rubber companies employed to coerce men into working in the rubber trade was codified in a manual distributed by the Congo government to the agents of the various tightly controlled rubber companies operating in the country. It involved capturing wives and children and holding them hostage until the men delivered the prescribed quota of rubber to the European company agents. Leopold even issued licences to agents officially authorizing the internments. Frequently young women held hostage were raped by their guards. Others, chained together in squalid stockades or remote hostage houses with little or no food, died of disease and starvation. Failure to deliver enough rubber resulted in not only extending the detention of a man’s family, but also in an appointment with the chicotte—a whip of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide, cut into a long sharp-edged corkscrew strip that cut into flesh. It was not uncommon for a man to receive a hundred or more lashes. Cutting off the hands of children was also used as a penalty for a father’s failure to deliver enough rubber. A village’s refusal to collect rubber saw men, women and children alike being shot, the village burned, the crops destroyed so there would be no food available to any villagers who managed to escape the onslaught. The fiendish viciousness ratcheted up as the production quotas imposed by agents, spurred by the system of escalating bonuses put in place by the State, approached the impossible.

It was common for soldiers and sentries to raid villages, helping themselves to crops and livestock, and murdering anyone who tried to resist. Some people, especially women, were forced to produce large quantities of food for the government. Often the ‘tax’ demanded left little or nothing to feed the people themselves.

The practice of cutting off hands came to be identified with the Congo rubber trade. The soldiers of the Force Publique and the paramilitary “sentries” of the rubber concession companies were issued limited quantities of ammunition, and were required to account for every bullet. To prove success of their patrols, for each bullet fired, soldiers had to deliver the right hand of a victim to their commanding officer. Since the penalties for not turning in enough hands were severe, soldiers sometimes resorted to severing the hands of living victims to make up shortfalls. The hands were smoked over a fire to preserve them until the soldiers could return to their base.   When some officers accused soldiers of killing more women than men, the soldiers brought back male genitals in addition to the hands. In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz has topped the posts of the fence around his yard with severed heads. Records were found that showed collecting heads was not uncommon.

The burgeoning industry demanded a more efficient means of delivering the rubber to the ships that would carry it to Antwerp. The Matadi-Leopoldville portage railway, a 241-mile narrow gauge line to skirt the unnavigable western section of the Congo River, took eight years to build and cost thousands of lives. Along with African forced labour, men were brought in from China, Sierra Leone and Barbados.

Although he realized profits estimated at perhaps a billion and a half in today’s dollars, Leopold never travelled to his private country. Instead he created his own version of the Congo in Belgium. He worked hard to sell the world on his carefully orchestrated fairy-tale version of his beloved Congo Free State, portraying what he was doing there as benevolence.   He stubbornly maintained, “What I do there is done as a Christian duty to the poor African.” Adjoining his palace he had constructed six acres of greenhouses to showcase among other flora, a miniature rainforest. He built the Royal Museum for Central Africa to display his prodigious collection of Africana; it is still one of the largest in the world today. At the 1897 World’s Fair in Brussels he put not only African animals on exhibit, but also 267 Congolese natives. Estranged from his daughters and determined not to leave his fortune to them as required by Belgian law, he undertook grand projects throughout Belgium—palaces, monuments, museums, gardens, a seaside resort, a racetrack and a golf course—and gifted them to the Belgian people.

But in spite of his elaborate attempts at duplicity, almost from the very beginning ugly rumours of the violence of Leopold’s rule were gaining currency. In 1889, George Washington Williams, an African American Civil War veteran, during an informal audience granted him by Leopold, stated his intention to travel to the Congo Free State. Leopold objected, but Williams made the trip anyway, in all likelihood the first African American to visit the new nation. The following year he sent a highly critical open letter to the king from Stanley Falls addressing the trickery used by Stanley to secure the land for Leopold and the inhumane treatment of the Congolese people by the king’s agents. Williams pointed out that since the colony was the king’s personal property and these men employed by him, Leopold was as guilty of the crimes as the men who perpetrated them. This letter was followed up by a report to President Harrison of the United States. Thus Williams sparked the first whispers of international protest against conditions in the Congo.

Leopold had invited missionaries to the Congo to give the appearance that his motives were “Christian”. Most maintained silence, likely out of fear of expulsion, but a few would not hold their tongues. William Sheppard, an African American Presbyterian missionary, arrived in the Congo in 1890. Over the next 20 years he regularly reported the abuses he saw to his superiors, emphasizing those he knew to be contraventions of European law. His boldness encouraged other missionaries to do the same. Swedish Baptist minister E. V. Sjöblom was also a painful thorn in Leopold’s side. Alice Harris, a British Baptist, wielded her Kodak Brownie as a weapon, photographing the atrocities she saw, sending them to magazines and touring extensively, especially in the United States, to exhibit them in “magic lantern” shows. The Presbyterian church in the United States and the Baptist church in Scotland became very strong opponents of Leopold’s officially sanctioned terror.

Leopold, displaying remarkable media prowess, countered the mounting criticism with a vigorous disinformation campaign. He flooded newspapers in Europe and America with articles impugning the accuracy of prejudicial reports and the motivation and character of his detractors. He frequently induced those beholden to him to write fictitious glowing reports of conditions in the Congo. His deep pockets were able to buy the allegiance of many.

In 1895, one of Leopold’s army officers made a pivotal blunder. Attempting to enforce the king’s orders to uphold his monopoly on slave trading in his state, he drew international attention to slavery in the Congo. He hanged Charles Stokes, a British trader working for the Germans, for operating in Congo territory. A cry immediately went up in both Britain and Germany, and compensation was demanded and paid. Stokes’ hanging made the world suspicious of what was going on in the Congo. I think it tragic that while the deaths of thousands of Africans drew little notice, the death of a single white man could provoke an international incident.

Gradually, as more and more voices were added to the hue and cry against the barbarism, the world began to wake up to the Congo government’s misdeeds. Mobilized by British newspaperman E.D. Morel, who had been a senior clerk with the British shipping company holding a monopoly on transport between Belgium and the Congo Free State, and Irish diplomat Roger Casement, who was sent as British Consul to investigate conditions in the colony, and bolstered by the Congo Reform Association and the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society, the opposition eventually developed into the first major international human rights movement of the twentieth century. When Leopold’s attempts to influence American government policy through bribery of high-level public officials were exposed, an international explosion of bad publicity resulted. In an attempt to turn the tide, the king appointed a handpicked commission to travel to the Congo to investigate the charges against his state and prepare a report that, he expected, would exculpate him. But the testimony the commissioners heard, especially from the Congolese themselves, was too much for them to ignore. At times some were moved to tears. They issued a damning indictment.

Refusing to publish the report, but grudgingly admitting defeat, the king brokered a deal to sell his interests in the Congo to the Belgian government for 155.5 million francs (the equivalent today of over $750 million dollars by my calculation) in November of 1908. Just over a year later, he was dead. Over the twenty-three years Leopold held sway over his Congo Free State, its population was reduced from 20 million to 10 million. The actual death toll is difficult to determine; the deaths of Africans were considered of little consequence, and many of the records that were kept were destroyed when the Congo Free State collapsed.

Leopold was determined that the truth about his Congo would never see the light of day. “I will give them the Congo,” he told an aide, “but they have no right to know what I did there.” Immediately after transferring control to the Belgian government he had the State’s archives burned; the palace furnaces roared for eight days. He also ordered his subordinates in the Congo to destroy all records there. The documents that escaped the fires were later locked in underground vaults by the Belgian government and declared out of bounds to researchers until late in the twentieth century. Belgians created a national mythology of events in the Congo, a version that portrayed conquest as benevolence, Belgians as heroes building a paradise for Africans, the Congolese people as grateful recipients of Belgian largesse, Leopold as a great humanitarian, and his critics as maleficent liars. The denial was so strong that even many Belgian officials were completely unaware of the truth. It was those who worked tirelessly to inform the world of what was happening in Africa who preserved for us some modicum of it. But the reality is that, as Morel wrote in Red Rubber, “Nothing even approximating the whole truth will ever be known.”

When Leopold ceded the Congo, many who had fought to bring an end to the abuses celebrated. But perhaps the celebration was premature. Leopold’s ghost lived on. The system he set up would not easily be dismantled; it was too profitable. As Morel pointed out, “As long as there was big money to be made from rubber, white men, with the help of the gun and the chicotte, would force black men to gather it.”

Just as slaves in the United States were released from the chains of chattel slavery only to be clamped into those of wage slavery, the Congolese moved from forced labour to taxation slavery. In order to pay the head taxes imposed after the Belgian government took control of the Congo they had no choice but to continue to work at gathering rubber for the white traders until at least 1920. The lucrative concession-company system continued with few changes. Forced labour, driven by the chicotte (now regulated rather than outlawed by the government), also became the tool of other enterprises. During World War I it provided the thousands of porters needed to supply the expanded Force Publique in its invasion of German East Africa. It maintained the workforce for the emerging mineral exploitation industry in its copper, zinc, gold, cobalt, diamond and uranium mines (most of the uranium used to build the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was mined in the Congo) and built the railroads to haul ore for foreign markets. The methods of recruitment of miners were very similar to those employed in the rubber trade. Village chiefs were induced to sell men they disliked or feared to the mining companies. The families of miners who ran away could be imprisoned.

Sadly, Leopold’s men were no more murderous than those of other nations carrying off the wealth of Africa. Similar atrocities took place in neighbouring colonies—France’s equatorial African territories, Portuguese-ruled Angola, and the German-controlled Cameroon. In German South West Africa, today’s Namibia, things turned even more sinister. In 1904, General Lothar von Trotha, sent to quell a rebellion sparked by the German confiscation of their lands, ordered the extermination of the Herero people. Within two years, three quarters of the population died in the genocide.

Marlow, the protagonist-narrator of Conrad’s novel, muses, “the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” Marlow, my man, it is not a pretty thing if you look into it at all.

Did it never occur to Europeans of the day that they were stealing the lands from the people who occupied them? What makes some feel superior, seeing others as somehow “less than”, or even more disturbingly, not human at all? What makes civilized men, many claiming Christian faith, devoid of either compassion or mercy, capable of treating others as things rather than people, of denigrating them, abusing them, injuring them, even killing them? Are they monsters?

I think not. As Hochschild quotes Primo Levi speaking of his experience at Auschwitz, “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are … the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” I believe it comes down to an unwillingness to die to self, a failure to love one’s neighbour. It is men being so full of themselves and their own interests that they are either unable or unwilling to put themselves in the shoes of another. Then and now, the world suffers from a dearth of empathy.

And so again and again we find ourselves whispering with Kurtz,

The horror! The horror!

Going It Alone

January 13, 2015

I didn’t attend a church service on Sunday. I find that happening more frequently lately. Since returning from Haiti I have not found a fellowship group in which I felt really comfortable. The churches I did visit did not particularly appeal to me. They didn’t appear to offer what I wanted. Nor did they seem to offer opportunities for me to participate in a meaningful way. At one, a pastor seemingly welcomed my offer to get involved in a church project, agreed to have coffee with me to discuss it, asked for my number to arrange our meeting, but then never called. When I phoned him (twice), he did not return my calls.

And that bothers me. It bothers me that I have become increasingly unenthusiastic about church attendance. It bothers me that I am “church shopping” rather than just seeking out a local congregation where I can fellowship. And it bothers me to have my offer to participate ignored. My discomfort has triggered an interrogation of my beliefs, something I undertake frequently. I am trying to better understand myself, the church community, the society I live in and those with whom I share it—and ultimately God.

How is it that I, and many others, have gotten so picky about the churches we attend? When did attending church become more about meeting my personal felt needs than about community? How did personal good gain ascendance over the common good? How did Christians become so cavalier in their attitudes toward others in their congregations? Just what is going on here?

We live in a society that places a high value on individualism—individual freedoms and personal rights. We see ourselves as separate and independent of others, free to pursue our own goals and interests, to do our own thing. We champion individual achievement, self-fulfillment, and ever since Maslow brought the concept to prominence, self-actualization. We see value in society and cooperate with one another to a degree, but we don’t see ourselves as having much responsibility for others. We are comfortable choosing to selfishly protect our own benefits even when we know that doing so will harm others.  We balk at the idea of sacrificing any of our self-interest for the common good.

How did we get this way? My quest to understand our way of thinking about ourselves and our society led me to the highly influential seventeenth century English philosopher, John Locke. Locke advocated a degree of individual freedom unheard of in his time, along with unlimited opportunity to compete for personal material well-being. But Enlightenment rationalism proved not nearly so constructive as is often supposed. Ruthless individualism has come to pervade every sphere of our society, undermining every institution that traditionally functioned for the common good, including the church.

The church today bears little resemblance to its first century forerunner or to those pre-Enlightenment. From its inception, Christianity existed as community. Being a Christian meant belonging to the body of believers in Christ, the church. The emphasis was on commonality, togetherness in a life in common, sharing in the lives of the brethren. There were no believers outside of the church.

This collectivism is evident in the more than two dozen Reciprocal Commands, the “one another” imperatives of the New Testament. These are instructions about how to live in vibrant communion with one another as God intended. They explain how “the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:16)

Collectivism runs contrary to individualism.   Though each member of the body is important, it is the body as a whole, the relationship between its members, that is paramount. Individuals are not sufficient to themselves. The needs of the individual members are subordinate to those of the collective, and when necessary, must be sacrificed in love for the good of the group. For the nascent church, it was not about integrating the Gospel they had received into their worldview; it was believing that God had broken into their world, upset their ordinary ways of seeing and believing, and offered them a counterculture life transformation that would change everything.

But today’s church has untethered itself from its early roots and succumbed to the love of individualism. We see ourselves more as an assembly of individual believers than as a body. Connection and accountability to a faith community is far less important than individual spirituality, which is seen as personal and private. In the evangelical circles in which I have circulated for more than thirty years, the emphasis is on accepting Jesus as one’s personal saviour, developing a personal relationship with God. In love with individualism, churches have become enlistment centers for heaven training recruits in personal holiness, focusing far more on orthodoxy than on the practicals of living with one another in love. The Great Commission call to make disciples has taken a back seat to making converts. But without discipleship, new faith often withers or stagnates. Many who move into the pews never get past a diet of milk.

We have adopted a dispensational view of the Bible that further promotes individualism. We see ourselves as autonomous individuals led through the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We prefer to see God as working through individuals, not through a communal entity, a holy people. Accordingly, we confer celebrity status upon talented individuals within the Christian community.

The Bible has replaced the church as a source of authority. In essence, every individual has become his own church. Tragically, this self-focused spirituality often leads to conflating God’s will with personal desires and privatizing morality. As the Talmud says, we do not see things as they are, but as we are.

No man (or woman) is an island. The Bible does not promote Lone Rangers for Jesus. Personal experience is simply not enough. Fellowship is not optional, and Christian fellowship is more than a warm smile, a polite handshake and a few cordial words once a week. We are called to discipleship, both to be discipled and to be disciplers, not for a season, but for a lifetime. Accountability only to oneself, or even bringing God into the equation is not enough. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that we are to be accountable to one another. By definition both fellowship and discipleship require community. The ember separated from the fire soon grows cold.

How do we turn this around? How do I rekindle my enthusiasm for church? What will it take for the church to stop considering the Reciprocal Commands as optional? When will someone calling me a brother in Christ mean more than we belong to the same club? For as John Wesley would say, we’re charged to “watch over one another in love.” That, the Bible says, is how the world will recognize us as Christians.