Sunday, December 28, 2008

Appropriate Hitler Humour?

When is it appropriate to make fun of Adolf Hitler, and when does that humour cross an ethical boundary into bad taste or, worse, trivializing the evil he stands for? Tonight I was discussiong books on the fall of Berlin in 1945 with a friend. He wants to read Cornelius Ryan's classic The Last Battle, and I was recommending Antony Beevor's Berlin 1945 book. Then I remembered the wonderful portrayal of Hitler by Bruno Ganze in the 2004 film, Downfall.

A gazillion peole have seen the famous bunker rant scene from Downfall on YouTube without ever seeing or even knowing about the film. Phillip Mosscovitch noted this phenomenon in a recent piece (Dec 22) in The Globe and Mail. Parodists have used the rant scene, with alternate subtitles, to show Hitler getting banned from online video games, expressing his disgust with Windows Vista or the atest Star Wars movie. Perhaps the most recent depicts Hitler as Stephen Harper reacting to efforts in the House of Commons to defeat his minority government. Mosscovitch raises the question, ``Where is the line between harmless humour and tasteless parody?`

A number of G&M readers weighed in, one criticizing the paper for being out of its depth and slow to note this internet meme. However, one good comment from a Sidney M in Toronto is worth repeating:

Mel Brooks has said that by making Hitler the subject of comedy, in such works as The Producers and his remake of To Be Or Not to Be, he intended to make his ideas seem so ridiculous that they would never again be taken seriously. On a similar note, the Jewish activist and spiritual leader Arthur Waskow once suggested that back in 1978 when a neo-Nazi group sought to hold a rally in Skokie, Illinois, the Jewish advocacy groups who tried to ban it might have done better to stage a parody counter-rally, with giant balloons depicting Hitler sprawled dead in his bunker. (Waskow wrote this in the context of a discussion of Purim, the holy day in which Jews commemorate the defeat of the would-be genocidal Haman by, among other things, staging skits making him look as ridiculous as possible.)

I don`t have anything more intelligent than this to add, but a friend of mine sent me this graphic, which is funny (at Hitler`s expense) and is worth sharing.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Preparing to Serve - A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

After three months away from the pulpit, it's a blessing to be able to preach again. This sermon is to be preached tomorrow at St. Mark's chapel, CFB Greenwood.

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, salm 89:1-4, 19-26, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38

"Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

As most of you know, I’ve recently returned from three months basic training at the chaplain’s school in Borden, Ontario. Our training prepared us for military service by focusing on drill, discipline, rank structures, fieldcraft and other essential survival skills. By the end of the course, we had some idea of what would be expected of us as soldiers. But we weren’t just training to be soldiers, we were training to be chaplains, and that required a different mindset. To use military jargon, it wasn’t enough to learn how to be (army) green, we had to learn how to be (chaplain) purple.

Several years ago, the Chaplain’s branch adopted new cap badges and a new motto, to reflect the fact that our branch is no longer just a Christian institution. The new motto reminds us that whether we are Christian, Jew, Muslim or some other faith, we all have the same mission. We are all “Called to Serve”.

Now if you are forced to spend three months up close and personal around 24 other people, being forced to work as a team, you learn a fair bit about service. You learn to help the other fellow learn to shine his shoes, because he in turn may be good with an iron and can help you with your dress uniform.

You learn to admire the various ways in which people are gifted. The strong chap who inspired you on a rucksack march and helped you set up your tent might struggle in the classroom and need help with academics.

As talents and gifts became obvious, it was tempting to look at one and say “He’s young, smart, and bilingual – he could be the next Chaplain General”, and to look at the other and say “He’s forty something and a real plodder, he’ll be stuck in Cold Lake as a Captain for Life”.

I found it very tempting to fall into this career-oriented thinking, and whenever I did so, I always tried to ask myself, Am I called to serve?, or am I called to serve myself?

Borden was thus a time of preparation for my colleagues. We learned more about who we were, and how we might live out our callings in the Canadian Forces. Hopefully we graduated feeling more prepared and more willing to take on the challenges of these callings.

Likewise, these four weeks have been a time of preparation for us as church. Advent is a Latin word (advenio) meaning “coming” or “coming to”. Our worship began this morning with the hymn “People look East”, reminding us to prepare ourselves for God’s coming as if he were a guest coming to our house.

Our custom of lighting the candles of the Advent wreath reminds us of our task to prepare for God’s coming. The Advent wreath is so much more than a four week Christmas countdown. Like the candles or lights we place in a window after dark, or the porch light we leave on, the Advent wreath is a sign that we want to be good hosts, that we are ready for the coming of “love the guest”. All through Advent we have heard voices warning us to prepare for God’s coming. The prophet Isaiah told us to prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isa 40:3). John the Baptist warned us that “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me” (Mk 1:7). Now we stand, like the expectant host, taking a last look at our house and our dining room table, praying that everything is ready for the guest who will be at the door at any moment.

Throughout the Bible there are stories of God showing up on people’s doorsteps like an unexpected guest. In Genesis 18, the aged couple Abraham and Sarah entertain three unexpected men who visit their tent. They courteously provide lunch for the visitors, who reveal that God will make Sarah pregnant. The news is too much for Sarah to believe, but God says to Abraham “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” (Genesis 18:14). Sure enough Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac (Genesis 21:2), and this birth is the first instalment in God’s promise to Abraham that he will be the father of God’s people (Genesis 15).

In Matthew’s Gospel the idea of being prepared for the coming of God is found in the parable of the Wise and Foolish virgins, which ends with the famous verse, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matt 25:13) when God will come. This idea of preparing for God the visitor is famously expressed in the Victorian painting “The Light of the World” by Holman Hunt, inspired by the verse in Revelations, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me" (Rev 3:20). These bible verses and Hunt’s painting are warnings that we never know when God will make demands on us.

All of these stories are of people being called by God to serve, and the greatest of these stories is today’s gospel story of Gabriel visiting Mary (Luke 1:26-38), commonly called the Annunciation. Here Mary has not been consciously preparing for God’s coming into her life – she is just a young girl getting ready to be a bride, just an ordinary small-town girl. However, the angel’s greeting to her as “favoured one” (Luke 1:28) says that there is something about Mary that is pleasing to God. Christians have traditionally focused on Mary’s virginity and purity as her greatest quality, but I think what also makes her pleasing to God is her willingness, her receptiveness to what God wants to do through her. When she learns how God wants her to serve, despite her fears and doubts, she says “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).

Many have noticed that Mary does not get a choice in God’s plan. Gabriel doesn’t ask her to be a mother, let along a disgraced mother out of wedlock. He simply tells her that “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (Lk 1:38). Some have even called this episode a divine rape, an example of submissiveness that embodies what is wrong with Christianity. Now it is true that God often seems to ignore our plans and choices, and makes decisions for us without consulting us. I remember one preacher’s spouse who made fun of a standard evangelical slogan by saying “God loves you and has a terrible plan for your wife”. But all too often it’s the case that God calls to serve way outside of our comfort zones, doing things that we never envisioned for ourselves. God will knock on our door, as he does with Mary, present us with a done deal and say “I need you to serve me”, and we don’t seem to get a choice.

But who said that we as Christians ever really got a choice in our relationship with God? Some people say that we have to choose to accept Christ as our personal saviour, but isn’t it really the case that God has already chosen us and called us to serve him? Isn’t it the case that in designing us in his image, God wanted us from our very beginnings to want what is good and what is God’s in the world? We didn’t ask to be born, but God gave us life and God wants us to spend that life walking and working with him. God called all of us to serve, whether we go to chaplain boot camp or whether we choose to embrace our callings as parents or as workers or as professionals. We may be called to spend our retirement doing church work or volunteer work while our peers pursue golf and sunny beaches. We may be called to teach others, to befriend others, to heal others, to feed others, the list goes on. The call to serve may be unexpected, it may, like Mary’s call, go counter to what we think our role and our purposes are. As the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, "Like Mary, our choices often boil down to yes or no: yes, I will live this life that is being held out to me or no, I will not; yes, I will explore this unexpected turn of events, or no, I will not." You can say no to your life, Taylor says, "but you can rest assured that no angels will trouble you ever again."

Today marks the end of our Advent preparation. On Sunday we will light the white candle at the centre of the Advent wreath, symbolizing the birth of Christ. Love the guest will have arrived. Our spiritual houses may not be as well prepared as we would like. We may not feel ready for God. We may not feel that we have any great calling, or that we have any great gifts to offer. But then again, neither did Mary. All God asked of Mary was to bring Jesus into the world. God will ask the same of us, Christ’s followers, that we leave church and show the light of Christ to the world as Christ’s servants.

Long ago, the Christian writer and mystic Master Eickhardt wrote these words.

We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? Then, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.

This Sunday the angel comes to us as he did to Mary and asks us the same question. “How will you bring the love of God in Jesus to the world?” This is how we are all called to serve. And may our answer be, with Mary, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”. Amen.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Afghanistan Honour Roll Reaches 103

Canada lost three more soldiers in Afghanistan on December 13th, killed by an improvised explosive device in the Arghandab distict,near the site of the three killed the week before. The latest three were all from the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, based out of Gagetown, New Brunswick. Two were fathers and all three were from Atlantic Canada. They are:

Corporal Thomas James Hamilton

Private Justin Peter Jones

Private John Michael Roy Curwin

This comment from the Department of National Defence website:

Members of Task Force Kandahar and the Provincial Reconstruction Team are committed to improving security and increasing development in Kandahar Province. We are all thinking of the family and friends of our fallen comrades during this sad time, but are determined to continue working with our Afghan and international partners towards a better future for the people of Afghanistan."

This photo shows the ramp ceremony in Kandahar, Afghanistan, which was shorter than normal due to a Taliban rocket attack.

Their commander, Brigadier-General Thompson, offered these comments in the press:

The three men were remembered fondly.

Cpl. Hamilton had volunteered for the third time to come to Afghanistan. Known as "Hammy" to his friends, he was also an outdoorsman.

"He loved to fish, hunt and barbeque, but his first love was his daughter Annabella. She was his pride and joy," Thompson said.

Pte. Curwin was described as a "quintessential family man," a father of three who said his wife Laura Mae was his best friend.

Pte. Jones, or "Jonesy" loved to play the guitar and continue his learning and was described by his friends as "one of the kindest people you would ever meet".

"I just want to pass on my condolences, on behalf of my team and behalf of the entire task force," said Lt.-Col. Dana Woodworth, the commander of the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team where the three men were stationed.

"They were fine Canadians, courageous men, they will be missed and I understand there will be much pain and much sorrow in the days that come for the family and friends and loved ones," he finished.

Gen. Thompson has overseen too many ceremonies at the other end while he was a commander in Petawawa, Ont.

"When you're here in the field it's actually easier to be here. I know it's a much heavier load to bear back in Canada," he admitted.

"At the ramp ceremony here we've said goodbye to our friends with honour and dignity and then we'll just return to our duty and it's very easy to get buried in your job here."

Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon them.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Robot Roundup

A lot's happened in the last week or so, including finishing my chaplain's basic officer training course, and I'll get to it in due course. Before I do, though, I can't resist revisiting the robot theme from my last post, a buddy sent me this link from the Globe and Mail, about an unemployed engineer who is building Aiko, a robotic girlfriend. I think we're a ways away from Bladerunner here, but it's kind of creepy watching her. I'm a little puzzled why he would program Aiko to say things like "Don't touch my face with your dirty hands". Perhaps it's because the inventor, Trun Lee, doesn't want his creation to be seen as a sex toy and is denying that she's his girlfriend.

I confess that if I were programming Aiko, I'd want her to say things like "That's ok, honey, you stay late at the Mess with your friends".

Continuing the robotic theme, I hope that Aiko and her like are well treated in the future (as opposed to the present). Otherwise, we risk suffering from the apocalyptic revenge of the robots as prophesied by the Flight of the Conchords.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The One Hundred

The announcement on Friday, Dec 5 of three combat fatalities in Afghanistan brings the total number of Canadian dead there since 2002 to one hundred soldiers and one diplomat, not including NGO workers and civilian aid workers. The latest three were all members of the First Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment. Their bodies will be returned with honour to CFB Trenton tomorrow, Monday, Dec. 8th. They are:

Warrant Officer Robert John Wilson

Corporal Mark Robert McLaren

Private Demetrios Diplaros

CBC news reports the three casualties here and offers some analysis of the casualties here. A list of the all the Afghanistan casualties is maintained by the DND webste here. That National Post prepared this moving graphic:

Click here for a larger view of that NP graphic.

Cpl. McLaren had been wounded in Afghanistan in 2006 when US A-10 aircraft mistakenly attacked Canadian troops during OP MEDUSA.

The same day two Canadian soldiers on foot patrol were wounded in a separate incident, one losing both legs.

Inevitably, the number "100" will be used by voices in Canada debating the wisdom of the mission, especially as Canada's government's longevity is in question. Numbers mau have weight as symbols, but each of these soldiers was a real person whose death leaves huge holes in those left behind. The Globe and Mail did a worthy job of reminding us of this fact in its weekend piece on Sergeant Robert Short, one of the first Canadians to die in Afghanistan, a story called "1 in 100". This account of Short's family, dreading the padre's knock on the door, hit us chaplain candidates hard as we wind down our course and prepare for the day when we might have to perform such a dreaded service.

In all of the discussion of these three deaths, one comment that seems worth repeating comes from Brig-Gen. Thompson, the Canadian commander of Nato forces in Kandahar province. He was quoted in the NP as saying:

"During my short time in Kandahar province, a female civilian member of our task force has been set on fire. A man has had his eyes gouged out in front of his family. Children have been used as suicide bombers against the security forces. A busload of young men have been executed in cold blood. And young girls have had acid thrown in their face on their way to school. Standing up to terror and injustice is not easy and it's not without a cost, as we've learned today."

So stand easy, you soldiers three. You're in good company. Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Will Ethical Robots Serve on the Battlefields of the Future?

Two weeks ago the New York Times ran a piece on a researcher, Dr. Ronald C. Arkin, from Georgia Tech, who is being funded by the US military to research robots that could "behave more ethically in the battlefield than humans currently can". The article claims that the technology, particularly software technology, to “allow autonomous systems to operate within the bounds imposed by the warfighter". is only a matter of time.

One of the rationales for this research, according to Arkin, is a "2006 survey by the surgeon general of the Army, which found that fewer than half of soldiers and marines serving in Iraq said that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect, and 17 percent said all civilians should be treated as insurgents. More than one-third said torture was acceptable under some conditions, and fewer than half said they would report a colleague for unethical battlefield behavior."

The study quoted here is the "Mental Health Advisory Team (MHAT IV)Operation Iraqi Freedom 05-07 Final Report" and it can be found here. One of the study's most interesting and most distubing findings is that one third of soldiers and marines reported encountering ethical situations in Iraq in which they didn't know how to respond" (p.42). The study's recommendations included making ethical training an important component of allbevahioural health counselling, anger management classes, especially those conducted in the combat theatre, and making ethics a part of all after action reviews. The study says nothing about intelligent robots, as far as I could see, but the study is obviously being used as ammo by Arkin and the battlefield AI researches.

The NYT article about Arkin's robot research is here.

By chance, I also came across an excellent discussion by the science journalists John Horgan and George Johnson on the website Bloggingheads TV on combat robotics and ethics. Hear their discussion.

A question for another day - would ethical robot soldiers require robot padres?

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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