Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday Theology: John Milbank On The Church

Time to breathe life into a semi-regular feature of this blog.  It really depends on what I’m reading in any given week and whether I remember that it’s Friday.

John Milbank is a contemporary British theologian, sometimes associated with a school of thought known as Radical Orthodoxy.  He’s a difficult thinker to engage, since his project is a prolonged engagement with modernity and philosophy that demands a lot of the reader.   However, in this paragraph, from the Preface to the Second Edition of his book Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Blackwell Publishing, 1990, 2006) he offers a helpful comment on how the church, understood broadly, and its worship and liturgy can only be understood in terms of the economy of the Trinity.

“So in the Incarnation, God as God was able perfectly to fulfil the worship of God which is nevertheless, as worship, only possible for the creature.  This descent is repeated and perpetuated in the eucharist which gives rise to the ecclesia, that always ‘other-governed’ rather than autonomous human community, which yet is the beginning of universal community as such, since it is nothing other than the lived project of universal reconciliation.  Not reducible to its institutional failures and yet not to be seen as a utopia either, since the reality of reconciliation, of restored unity-in-disparity, must presuppose itself if it is to be realizable (always in some very small degree) in time and so must be always already begun.  The Incarnation was the ‘impossible’ arrival of that always-already and for that reason involved the coincidence of a finite personality with an infinite hypostasis.  The concrete social realization of the always-already must run, as Rowan Williams frequently emphasizes, only through and despite the mess of constant institutional wranglings and renegotiations, as well as inter-personal tribulations (since we must not forget that ‘Church’ may most be there when two or three idly or perplexedly wander beside a river).  Although ontologically non-reactive, it is always temporally present despite temporal false deprivations."

Military Picture Of The Week



A nice example of international interoperability.  A Polish helicopter overflies soldiers from the Royal Canadian Regiment during recent training in Eastern Europe.   More photos and background here.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Is PTSD A Defence For Moral Lapses? The Case of Senator Walsh


In yesterday’s post on military medals and integrity, I mentioned that embellishing one’s credentials is a fairly common failing.   A case in point is U.S. Senator John Walsh (Democrat, Montana), who has in past tweaked his resume to make it sound more impressive.  According to today’s New York Times, Senator Walsh’s congressional bio once said that he was a graduate of the University of Albany, State University of New York, when “he actually earned his B.S. degree from what was then known as Regents College, an adult learning institute that issued degrees under the umbrella of the University of the State of New York”.  That may not seem like a big deal, and Senator Walsh amended his bio (without comment) when a political newspaper looked into his credentials.  

A bigger deal, reported today, is that when Senator Walsh was an officer in the US Army, and was a student at the US Army War College in Carlisle, PA in 2007, he appears to have plagiarized the final paper for his Master’s degree.  The NYT piece offers numerous examples of how Walsh included the material of other authors in his essay without quotation marks, often changing a word or two.  While some of these sources were footnoted, the absence of quotation marks is crucial.  Any undergraduate knows (or should know) that quotation marks tell one’s reader that the words and thoughts are not one’s own, and any attempt to suggest otherwise is a serious instance of academic dishonesty. A War College faculty member is quoted in the NYT article as saying that the importance of academic honesty is something that is made quite clear to the students - “We drill that in incessantly”. 

A postgraduate degree in contemporary western militaries is a significant rung on the career ladder to senior rank, or, in military slang, a “check in the box” necessary for promotion.   While any university instructor will tell you that academic fraud is a serious problem on college campuses, one would hope that military officers would have a sounder understanding of personal and professional integrity than a callow undergraduate.

Senator Walsh has told the Associated Press that his war experience in Iraq led to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which affected his judgement.   “I don’t want to blame my mistake on PTSD, but I do want to say it may have been a factor.  My head was not in a place very conducive to a classroom and an academic environment”.   In the same interview, he said that he “didn’t believe” that he had plagiarized his paper.

It’s tempting to think that in the hyper-partisan climate of US politics, Senator Walsh’s opponents will try to exploit this story.   A Montana Democrat is already using the words “smear campaign”.   However, to be fair, the Senator’s military credentials, including his War College degree, doubtless made him an attractive candidate in the first place.  At some point the voters will decide, but the story does raise a troublesome question about whether PTSD can be used as a defence for lapses of moral judgement, even if, as in the Senator’s case, it is a curiously high-functioning form of PTSD.  

It would be interesting to hear the Senator comment on the following hypothetical scenario.   A young veteran, attending college, is sitting in his or her professor’s office.  They are discussing the student’s  paper which, like the Senator’s, uses other people’s ideas without properly acknowledging them.  The veteran pleads PTSD.  What should the professor say?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Medal Charges May Seem A Small Thing, But They Say Much About Military Culture

This is a soldier’s resume, if you know how to read it. 

Two days ago the Globe and Mail reported that an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force, Lt. Col. Debbie Miller, has been charged following an investigation to determine if she wore medals on her uniform that she was not authorized to wear.   It’s not clear from the article what the medals are.   In an earlier version of this post, I incorrectly inferred from the article that the medals might have been the Order of Military Merit, awarded for “exceptional” performance of one’s duty, and the Canadian Forces Decoration Medal, or CD, awarded to all ranks who have completed twelve years of service of good conduct. Thanks in part to blog reader Edwin King, I learned that Lt. Col. Miller was in fact awarded the OMM and has certainly earned the CD and clasp, since she was first commissioned in 1981.   In 2012, a court martial found Lt. Col. Miller guilty of twice presenting a document saying she had passed a Physical Fitness test which she had in fact failed, but the investigation mentioned in the G&M article appears to be about medals.

Napoleon once said of medals that “A soldier will fight long and hard for a scrap of ribbon”, which may explain why, in military culture, wearing medals (also known as decorations) that one has not earned is significant offence.   Google “Stolen Valor” and you will find websites dedicated to exposing or “outing" individuals, many of them civilians, wearing medals and/or military uniforms that they have no right to wear.

To those outside military culture, it may seem odd that a person would want to risk the humiliation of being caught in such a masquerade.   However, as Dr. Johnson once observed, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea”.  In a culture, particularly US culture, where the military may be the only public institution that still commands respect,  one could see why some might want the counterfeit respect of being taken for a member of the military.  But even within military culture, the wearing of medals is rather like walking about with one’s curriculum vitae pinned to one’s chest.   In general there are three types of medals, given for good service (like the Order of Military Merit), given for particular tours or deployments (such as to Afghanistan), or medals indicating length of service (such as the CD).   There are also uniform items that connote particular qualifications and elite status, such as the Ranger tab indicating special forces training with the US military, an especially coveted and respected item in the Canadian Army.   Some militaries are more lavish with medals than others.   Our American friends, for example, tend to wear more decorations than do their Canadian and British colleagues.

To go on parade with one’s decorations, earned through sweat, danger, and hard service, is an act of pride.   In military slang, a large collection of medals is known as a “rack”, and a “big rack” is looked on with favour.  I can attest that going on parade with few, or in my case, despite nine years of service, no medals, requires some humility, and I can therefore understand why a soldier, even a senior officer who should have known better, might give into the temptation of wanting to appear more seasoned than he or she really is.   I suppose it could be seen as the military equivalent of burnishing or falsifying one’s resume.    The temptation to exaggerate ons accomplishments has often proved irresistible for the high as well as the low, as is seen in this week’s New Yorker profile of US Vice President Joe Biden, who has been known to exaggerate his credentials during his career.  As Evan Osnos says of Biden in that article, “Looking over the record of his exaggerations and plagiarism, I came to see them as the excesses of a man who wants every story to sing, even at the risk of embarrassment”.

The four principle virtues of the Canadian Armed Forces are Courage, Integrity, Loyalty and Duty.   A soldier, particularly an officer, should understand that these virtues do not permit one to embellish one’s rack or resume, no matter how much they might want their story to ‘sing”.  Perhaps the best antidote to this counterfeit glory is the humility often seen in those who wear their medals lightly, as in the soldier who says that his or her award for valour was really earned by their unit, or in the saying, often heard by Canadian soldiers with the CD, that it was given for 12 (or more) years of “undetected crime”.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Even Genghis Khan Didn't Do This": Mosul Empties Of Christians


Several Christian news sites are reporting that jihadists in ISIS-controlled Iraq are marking the homes of Christians with a graffiti tag, the Arabic sign “nun”, the first letter of the word “nasara” meaning “Nazarene” or Christian.   The meaning of the tag is a warning that the Christians must flee or be killed.  Today one of my friends, Gene Packwood, has started using the “nun” sign as his Facebook avatar as a sign of witness.  

While I don’t know how widespread the use of this symbol is in Iraq, BBC News is reporting that a significant expulsion of Christians from parts of Iraq is underway.   The monastic community of Mar Behnam, southeast of Mosul, was given short notice by ISIS fighters to leave, and were forced to abandon the monastery’s relics.   Mar Behnam was founded in the 4th century AD, and has been a pilgrimage site and part of the Syriac Catholic Church.   The BCC also reports that Mosul’s Christian population has largely fled, after being given an ultimatum to leave, convert, or pay an ancient Islamic tribute tax known as the jizya.  A similar ultimatum was given to the Christian community in the Syrian city of Raqqa earlier this year.  The English branch of Al Arabiya reports that an 1800 year old church in Mosul and its library have been burned, and a tomb thought to be that of the prophet Jonah has been destroyed.

Christians mourning this persecution of our brothers and sisters in iraq should also remember that ISIS is doing much the same or worse to Shiite Muslims and destroying their shrines and holy places.   We need to pray for them as well as for our fellow Christians.

it’s tempting to see this mayhem as proof of the irrationality and dangerous nature of religion, but for a broader view, for those who have the time, I recommend a piece by Gregory Gause of the Brookings Institute on how sectarianism is being used as a weapon in a larger Middle East cold war.  Here’s an excerpt.

"The current confrontation has an important sectarian element, but it cannot be accurately understood simply as a 'Sunni versus Shia' fight. Applying such a framework can distort analytical focus, oversimplify regional dynamics, and cause Iran and Saudi Arabia's motives to be misunderstood. Riyadh and Tehran are playing a balance of power game. They are using sectarianism in that game, but both have crossed the sectarian fault line in seeking regional allies. The regional cold war can only be understood by appreciating the links between domestic conflicts, transnational affinities, and regional state ambitions. It is the weakening of Arab states, more than sectarianism or the rise of Islamist ideologies, that has created the battlefields of the new Middle East cold war. Indeed, it is the arc of state weakness and state failure running from Lebanon through Syria to Iraq that explains the current salience of sectarianism. Given how difficult it will be to reconstruct stable political orders in these and other weak states, the likelihood is that the new cold war will be as protracted as the Arab cold war was."



Friday, July 18, 2014

David Rothkopf on the "Ragged Edges" of Modern Conflict


 Barring some awful, “Guns of August” style massive conflict that may be waiting around the corner (an uncomfortable thought in July of the centennial year of 1914, when so many tinderboxes are scattered around the world), the conventional wisdom of military near-futurists is that wars will be messy but essentially small-scale, asymmetrical, low-intensity affairs, where smarts, technology, and agile use of politics and media will give one side or the other an edge.

The temptation of such scenarios is thinking that these sorts of conflicts can be managed and their human cost can be minimalized, marginalized, rationalized and generally explained away.  In the last few days, however, we’ve seen dead Palestinian children on a beach or a shattered civilian airliner, its human cargo suddenly and horrifically extinguished, reminding us that the human costs of even limited war will always be more unpredictable than the war-managers would like.

Today on the Foreign Policy website, David Rothkopf muses on these sudden and brutal costs occur at the “ragged edges” of contemporary war, and suggests that human cost, always unpredictable and surprisingly horrific, indicts the “hubris” of leaders who think that they can control the uncontrollable.   The medievals, with their idea of the Wheel of Fortune as a symbol for the uncertainty of the world and a warning for the ruler who might trust his fortunes to war, seem closer to us, and wiser, than we might think.

In the first half of the twentieth century, wars were formally declared and were governed by treaties and rights regimes such as the Geneva Convention, which went some way towards mitigating, or at least contextualizing, the grievous costs of total war.   Bombing cities and killing civilians was horrible, but it could be justified, however dubiously:  it was reciprocal (they bombed us first), it was necessary (those civilians also work in war plants and support their government), it was existential (we need to do whatever it takes to win, or our civilization will be lost), or even humane (the harder we bomb, the sooner they’ll give up and in the end we’ll save lives).    It was possible to bomb enemy cities and still expect that certain standards of humanity would prevail, so that, for example, captured aircrew would be treated properly as POWs by the same people they had bombed. As Rothkopf notes, in total war, the term “collateral damage” doesn’t make much sense, since one does what one has to do to prevail.  In total war, all damage is proximate.  There is no collateral.

Post Iraq and Afghanistan, the temptation for the West is to get out of these messy and indeterminate wars, to retreat to within the relative safety of ourborders, and to manage the risks of entering or avoiding small wars and conflicts as cleverly and carefully as we can.    However, in our globalized world, civilian airliners, like the ocean liners of the early 20th century, will continue to link cities. Last week I flew across the Atlantic to Rome, and other than the usual vague annoyances at airport security (which make us acknowledge, however lightly, the possibility of terrorism), I never imagined that there was any greater risk.   For the last decade we’ve thought about shoe bombs and underwear bombs and box cutters.  I am sure that the people on MH17, even if they looked at the maps on their TV screens and realized they were flying over the Ukraine, never thought for a moment that they could be swatted down by a conventional missile developed and built in the late Cold War.  Likewise, I am sure that most people on the RMS Lusitania never imagined that war would touch them until a German torpedo struck them.   While there were debates about whether Germany and Britain violated an international agreement known as the Cruiser Rules (the Germans by firing on a civilian ship without warning, the British for putting munitions on a civilian ship), it triggered a crisis that eventually brought the United States into the Great War.  That consequence was probably not foreseen by the German war planners when they first decided to use their submarines  to declare a zone of war around the British Isles.  Collateral damage then, as now, can have unpredictable consequences.

It will be interesting in the days ahead to see what can be learned about the downing of MH17, and about the responsibility for that act and where, if anywhere, it leads the world community that still wants to believe in the ideal of safe civilian air traffic, if not in any greater responsibility for the prosecution of war crimes.   As for Israel’s Gaza incursion, I heard an Israeil diplomat to the US make this statement of belief in the possibility of the carefully managed war on the PBS NewsHour this Wednesday.  

"And I think we should wait, hopefully, when this operation will come to an end, and we will get a good understanding of what happened.It’s important to realize Hamas uses the Palestinian population as human shields. They put missile batteries next to schools, mosques, hospitals. They are doing everything they can to put the Palestinian population in Gaza into harm’s way.Israel is doing everything it can, whether it’s dropping flyers, calling people, sending text messages, taking all sorts of actions to get the Palestinian civilians out of harm’s way."

I don’t personally know what to think about Israel vs Gaza.   I can see the validity of arguments based on Israel’s right to exist and its need to be recognized as a state as a precondition to peace.  I can see why Palestinians can see themselves as an oppressed and occupied people, living in what is essentially a walled ghetto.  But I fear, listening to the Israeli envoy on Wednesday, that there is the comfort of a script unfolding, a script that says war can be managed politically and technologically with minimum collateral damage, and I fear that this comfort is illusory and that, one day, this script will go horribly wrong.



Thursday, June 26, 2014

Military Picture Of The Week

His Excellency The Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, shows off a very impressive stride as he inspects the Ceremonial Guard at Rideau Hall on Monday.  Photo courtesy of the Ottawa Citizen, more pics and a video here.  This picture would only be better if a regimental goat was present, but to my knowledge, the Ceremonial Guard does not have a mascot.  Pity.

What's Wrong With Our Universities?

Apologies to those who find the use of fonts here frustrating.  There are some issues between MarsEdit, my blog composition app of choice, and Google’s Blogger.  Hopefully I’ll get them sorted soon.  MP

It may seem to some like a frivolous exercise, but friend of mine, an Assistant Professor of literature at a Canadian university, is among a cohort of 56 younger academics who have done something novel to draw attention to what they say are the overpriced salaries of senior university administrators.  Working in teams of four, each team has applied jointly for the position (and $400,000 plus salary) of President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Alberta.  As my friend explained it on her Facebook page;

"This began as a serious joke to protest the 'administrative bloat' taking place on many university campuses who are supposedly under 'austerity' regimes.  The event has morphed into a larger movement targeting the 'rhetoric of austerity' of large and expensive administrations and administrators, focusing especially on the increasing dependence on sessionals/adjuncts and the skyrocketing costs of tuition."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the UofA was not interested in any of these applicants.  In the rejection letter which my friend shared online, it states that:

Given the serious endeavour of pursuing the UofA’s Change Agenda and building on the strengths of the institution, we are focusing the search on a highly competitive field in which there are only a small number of candidates whose particular sets of experience and skills closely match the position profile."

While none of these young faculty thought that the UofA would seriously consider a job-shared approach to its top position, they were pleased that they drew media attention to the issue of the income gap between university administration and many teaching positions.  One of the job-sharing applicants was included in a New York Times debate on the issue, and it also got the attention of CBC Radio’s show As It Happens.
For those who haven’t been tracking the state of post-secondary education, there’s been a a lot of media attention to what some commentators see as its failing state of health.  

Particularly, these stories involve the perceived bloat in university administration costs, the hollowing out of rank and file university teaching as tenured faculty are increasingly replaced by temporary adjunct faculty (with a consequent CEO-worker pay imbalance that mirrors the trend in the corporate world, the increasing cost and declining accessibility of post-secondary education and the increasing debt burden of many students, the decline of humanities programs and the increasing corporatization of universities in general.

For those who suspect that the list of ailments in that last paragraph betray a left-wing bias, let me refer you to that starry eyed liberal columnist, the New York Times’ David Brooks.  In his essay “The New Right” (NYT 10 June 2014), Brooks wrote this:

We are moving from a world dominated by big cross-class organizations, like public bureaucracies, corporations and unions, toward a world dominated by clusters of networked power. These clusters — Wall Street, Washington, big agriculture, big energy, big universities — are dominated by interlocking elites who create self-serving arrangements for themselves. Society is split between those bred into these networks and those who are not. 

In other words, Brooks seems to be saying, whereas we once had social institutions and mechanisms that created opportunities for social mobility and advancement (“cross class organizations”), we are moving to a world where a self-replicating, even hereditary class with a monopoly on wealth, power, and management expertise (“interlocking elites”) reengineer these institutions and mechanisms, including universities, to keep themselves at the top of the food chain.

I suspect that Brooks might find my paraphrase of his words to be crass and reductive, but I think that is what he is saying.  However, if you prefer plain speech to Brooks’ polished prose, and you care about the relationship of education to a healthy society, you should have a look at this recent piece by Thomas Frank (June 10, 2014) in Salon on what he sees as a thirty-year tuition spiral that is turning the university education from a social good to a Chivas Regal-type brand that becomes the price of admission into the elite of our new “Neronian” gilded age.  Why is it, Frank asks, that American students and their parents are willing to mortgage their futures for a diploma when students of other countries fill the streets at the “tiniest” tuition increases?

Because in this country college fulfills a different role. Even if those peaceful campus quadrangles were originally laid out by Quakers or by the egalitarian Thomas Jefferson, we all know what they signify today: They are the central symbolic device for explaining inequality. College is where money and merit meet; where the privileged learn that they are not only smarter than everyone else but that they are more virtuous, too. They are better people with better test scores, better taste, better politics. College itself is the biggest lesson of them all, the thing that teaches us where we stand in a world that is very rapidly coming apart.

Again, you may decide that this is left-wing opinion, and indeed it is, but I would argue that there are at least three issues at play that are undisputedly factual.  They are:

1) Rising University Administration Compensation.  Last month the NYT editorial board reported that according to a report from the Institute for Policy Studies, at the 25 American universities where executive compensation was highest, pay for university presidents had gone up by a third between 2009 and 2012, with an average salary of just under a million dollars a year.  While the IPS report did not directly link this increase in administrators’ salaries to student debt or the increasing use of adjunct faculty, as one of the report’s authors told the NYT, “if you think about it in terms of the allocation of resources, it does seem to be the tip of a very large iceberg, with universities that have top-heavy executive spending also having more adjuncts, more tuition increases and more administrative spending.”

2) Spiralling Tuition and Student Debt.  Several nights ago, the PBS News Hour interviewed documentary filmmaker Andrew Rossi, whose new doc, Ivory Tower, looks at this issue.  Rossi found that since 1978, US university tuition costs have risen by 1100% and that on average, students are now graduating with $33,000 in debt.  You can find a trailer for Rossi’s film here.  I haven’t had time to research comparable Canadian levels, but you can start with a slightly dated CBC story here.  According to the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canadian tuition costs for post-secondary education are the fifth highest in the OECD countries (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), behind the US and several Asian countries.

3) The Rise of the Faculty Underclass.  Put simply, more than half of the undergraduate teaching at American universities is done by part-time instructors who do not enjoy the benefits of tenure and are paid, like academic sharecroppers, strictly for the courses they teach.   Some have incomes below the poverty line.  This situation (50% of faculty being non-tenured, temporary staff) may be similar in Canada, based on what little digging I’ve been able to do and what I hear anecdotally in grad school.  This problem is probably more pronounced in the Arts and Humanities than it is generally, and part of the problem, as Joshua Rothman notes in The New Yorker magazine, is that graduate faculties have been incentivized to overproduce PhDs for decades now.  This is not to say that tenured faculty are not expensive, and doubtless their salary costs have been rising for years as well, but one has to ask, if a university education is a commodity whose purchase increases one’s chances of prosperity, than does the brand (not to mention society as a whole) suffer if more and more of the teaching (which is, after all, the content filling that brand) is done by impoverished instructors who do not get paid to do the research that should, ideally, produce excellent teaching?

Besides these three issues, one could point to a whole host of trends that are working to erode, or at least, change, university education.   As mentioned in point 3, the rise of the adjunct underclass goes hand in glove with the decline of the Humanities as a discipline.  The NYT reported last year on a study indicating the decline of that archetypal Humanities degree, the English major, and while that finding has been contested by none less than a past president of the Modern Languages Association.  However, the people I know on the ground would say that the ethos of the liberal arts education (critical thinking, a well-rounded view of life) is being undervalued.  A thread I followed recently on Facebook, started by a respected English professor at a major Canadian university, noted that the success rate for securing funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada was about 15%.  the same professor was told that securing external funding was a significant metric used by university administrators in measuring faculty performance and whether they “added value” to their universities.  Other faculty in the same thread reported that SSHRCC funding criteria was increasingly moving towards rewarding proposals that talked about Big Data and Data Management, rather than, say, the small “d” data that a Humanities scholar might produce from reading books and thinking about philosophy and such, which is, presumably, what equips Humanities faculty to work in the classroom.

My thoughts on all of this are fairly pessimistic.  I am currently in a graduate program in Religious Studies, paid for by the Canadian Armed Forces.  I have a job to go back to when I finish my thesis next year.  Some of my friends in the RS PhD program at U of Waterloo want to go on and work in their discipline as faculty.  I wish them every success, and I suspect that the most driven amongst them will succeed, just as, twenty years ago, many of my peers in a PhD English program eventually found full-time academic work.  However, the evidence suggests that a lot has changed at universities in twenty years, or even in ten.   Among the younger faculty I know, I detect a certain pessimism and even despair at the direction universities are heading in.   For those younger people contemplating a university education, especially one in the Humanities, I would encourage them to proceed, but carefully.  I would ask them to look at debt rates versus employment success rates.  I would encourage them to ask, really ask, why they want that degree?  If they want it as a step towards changing the world, I would encourage them to proceed bravely but wisely, but if they want it simply as a guarantee of lucrative employment, I would encourage them to look at a vocational program, and maybe take a film or a poetry course on the side if they were so interested.

It’s past time that we as a society challenged the idea that a university education was a commodity to be bought to secure advancement.  We need to take down the walls of cant and corporate speak that universities are being allowed to shield themselves in.  Why, for example, does the UofA need to spend $400K on its President?  What possible value could that person deliver for $400K, and for that matter, why spend extra money on the inevitable headhunter if, as the UofA rejection letter told my friend, “there are only a small number of candidates whose particular sets of experience and skills closely match the position profile” ?   Exactly what skills and experiences are they?   If that $400K+ price tag is necessary to buy a member of the elite with fund-raising access to the rest of the elite, then doesn’t that mean that the whole idea of the university as a means to a thoughtful, egalitarian economics, society and politics, as we once understood it, is post-secondary education today fatally flawed and in need of a reboot?

Monday, June 9, 2014

How Not To Cover Religious Diversity In The Military

Not that I was expecting the UK’s Mirror of aspiring to the journalistic standards of more posh newspapers, but I was disappointed that a link from today’s UK MOD news service led me to this rather trashy story about religious minorities joining the British military, including this badly photoshopped picture with the caption, “Air power: how a soldier witch might look in action”.

 The content of the story is fairly thin gruel, and the main substance includes a reference to another Mirror story from March which reports that "Official figures obtained through Freedom of Information show 770 members of the armed forces declared their religion as "other" and, of these, are 120 devotees of paganism”.

The Mirror’s coverage reflects a general cultural prejudice that Wicca or paganism does not deserve to be taken seriously as a religion or, to put it another way, as a spiritually-based world view.   Perhaps this lack of respect is because of popular assumptions that it is about druids and faeries, or that it is a recently invented religion without centuries of tradition to lend it gravitas, or perhaps because of fears of some Christians that it is associated with devil worship.    Certainly,  as Ronald Hutton notes in this interview with the Religious Studies Project, contemporary Wicca or paganism is a modern construct, without documentable links to ancient practice despite some of the claims of its practitioners.  Other scholars have noted the diversity of pagan/Wiccan practices, its links to environmentalism, romanticism, feminism and the pronounced individualism of our culture.

In his study of the US military chaplaincy, sociologist Kim Hansen noted that even among (predominantly Christian) chaplains, the officers charged with guarding religious freedom in the military, there was an overwhelming tendency to dismiss Wiccans as being immature seekers and “whackos” “who are either malevolent or silly”.   In this respect, Hansen notes, Wiccans have not gained the same degree of acceptance in the military as Muslims, whose practices, while not always understand by non-Muslims, are intelligible according to widespread understandings of what religion looks like.  Military chaplains, whatever their own beliefs, have a duty to facilitate the sincerely felt beliefs of military members, provided that they are not prejudicial to order, discipline, and operational requirements.

Protecting religious diversity in western militaries is a serious business when citizens of diverse democratic societies expect their military to mirror, or at least resemble, its country.   Stupid articles by journalistic hacks filled with sniggering references to “HMS Hogwarts” do not further this goal.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Remembering Two Canadian Chaplains Who Fell On D-Day


Honourary Captain / Rev. George Alexander Harris.   Originally from Solihull, Warwickshire, England, Harris was the Padre to the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, and died on D-Day at the age of 34.  Details from this site on British Airborne padres.

From In This Sign by H/Major Walter T. Steven, Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1948.

"H/Captain G.A. Harris had been in the Army less than thirteen months when he was killed-in-action with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion on June 7th, 1944.  Harris at first had wanted to become a chaplain in the Royal Canadian Navy but when he discovered there was more need in the army, quickly wrote Bishop Wells that he would be glad to serve wherever he was needed.  For some time he was attached to the Parachute Battalion at Shilo, Manitoba, and was happy when he was again attached to this unit Overseas.  In the ordinary course of his duty Harris was dropped behind the German lines with the Battalion on June 6th, but, like many of his comrades, did not last long against the bitter attack of the enemy.  

That he conducted himself gallantly no one could doubt, but we have almost no details about his death.  A personal letter from a soldier in hospital to his mother came to the notice of H/Major the Rev. Canon Wm. Askey, E.D., of All Saints Church, Winnipeg, formerly Senior Chaplain, 4th Canadian Armoured Division.  This letter told of a report that had reached the writer that the grave of Padre Harris had been found with his identification discs and Bible on it.  The losses of the unit were so heavy that it is possible we will never know further details.  When he left Camp Shilo for Overseas his Senior Chaplain spoke of him as “one of the most capable and trustworthy chaplains” and as brave in preaching as in other ways.  He was an immediate loss to the Chaplain Serivce as, in longer terms, he was to Canon Askey whom he had assisted in All Saints’ Church, and the Church of England generally."



Padre Walter Brown, Chaplain to the Sherbrooke Fusiliers, 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, murdered while a prisoner of war, June 7th, 1944.

Again from In This Sign:

 "H/Captain W.L. Brown , a former curate of All Saints’ Church, Windsor, Ontario, went to France on D-Day and was missing on the same day.   On June 8th a wounded officer was brought in who reported that Padre Walter Brown had been with him on a sortie for wounded men.  They ran into a nest of the enemy and Walter was captured.  Long afterwards it was discovered that he was one of those prisoners-of-war whose life was forfeit, agaist all the rules of the Geneva Convention, to the whim of a brutal enemy.  He was a gallant young man, loved by his men and much appreciated by his fellow chaplains.  His Senior Chaplain, H/Major McCleary wrote, “Never will we forget the return of Walter Brown, as those stretcher bearers tenderly brought in his spent body, and on July 11th we buried him in Beny-sur-Mer, in the midst of the lads he loved and served so well.  Walter buried the first lad in the corner of this field where we have mad a resting place for so many in the subsequent weeks.

It is a tribute to Brown’s devotion and skill that when it was proposed, before he left Canada, that he be detached from the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade and sent overseas with another formation his Brigadier made an earnest request that he stay with the formation, putting up such a good case that the request was granted.  He was the sort of chaplain who knew his men intimately and had their confidence and that of the Commander so that he could render his maximum service in that particular Brigade.

Two years later the staff in the office of the Principal Chaplain was proud to go to considerable pains to recover some portions of the Communion set that had been used by H/Captain Brown.  As is necessary under battle conditions this equipment had been used by other padres but it was ultimately possible to recover and send to Walter Brown’s mother the chalice and paten that she so wanted to have as a memorial to him."

As a footnote, Padre Brown’s communion set was brought to the Canadian Armed Forces Anglican Chaplain’s Retreat in 2012.  It was a great joy to me and to my bears to use his chalice and paten in our Eucharist.  I wrote about that occasion here.



Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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