A single light shining in a dark place

(December 24, 2020)

My favourite part of Christmas Eve church services in different places over the years was always singing Silent Night by candlelight.

There are many variations, of course, but it’s emotionally powerful to see a single candle, burning in the darkened room, and then to watch its light spreading out as all the other candles are lit from it. One by one, the room brightens into (literally) a blaze of light, as the song ends.

I don’t know why singing that carol and candle lighting has become such a western Christmas Eve tradition over the years — its words by Father Joseph Mohr, its simple melody composed by Franz Gruber, and first performed in rural Austria in 1818.

But the image of light overcoming darkness — even a single light — is rooted deep in ancestral memory. Humans have always been afraid of the dark. With eyes adapted to daylight, we are completely vulnerable to predators that see well when we can’t. So the light of a fire kept them at bay, and kept us safe and warm in the dark.

These symbols of light and warmth are most powerful in the northern hemisphere, as we pass the winter solstice on Dec. 21, the longest night of the year. It may not always be the coldest night, but the long darkness can certainly make it feel that way.

Close to the equator, there is little difference between night and day, all year long. But as you move farther north, to the latitudes where most of the people of Europe lived, the cultures there combined the winter solstice with the pagan feast of Yule (and no doubt a few others), the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and finally added the Christian celebration of Christmas.

Long before what we would recognize as math (or even geometry) in more southern climes, people measured and marked the longest night, the furthest distance away from the warmth and light of spring. The candle — or fire — lit at the winter solstice was a reminder that the sun would return, leading people toward the longest day and the first fruits of spring planting.

The famous passage grave in Newgrange I once visited — a megalithic mound built on an Irish hillside 5,300 years ago — precisely angled the entrance to illuminate the central burial chamber as dawn struck on the winter solstice. Similarly, 1,000 years later, the stone pillars at Stonehenge were arranged to have the light strike them at a unique angle at sundown, on the same day.

The image of a single light shining in a dark place transcends the religious and cultural settings in which it is found. “Light One Candle” was a powerful idea long before Peter, Paul and Mary first performed their hit song, because its symbolism extends beyond the duality of light and dark. Whether it is the lights of the menorah, celebrating the miracle of Hanukkah, the celebrations of Diwali lanterns lit for Chinese New Year or any of the local (or family) traditions involving fire and light, all make their defiant contrast against some background of darkness.

Whoever first said, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” understood the emotional relationship between light and hope. All it takes is that one first candle to defeat the darkness, no matter how large or strong it seems to be.

As that candlelight service always reminds me on Christmas Eve, we receive the flame from our neighbour to light our own candle. It is our choice to dip the unlit candle to the flame, knowing that when we do it, nothing will ever be the same again, as we then become light-bearers ourselves.

By our choice, and the choices of others around us, it spreads from that one flickering flame to light the whole room — and, once outside those walls, into the world around us and across the generations.

One of the individual lights that went out in 2020 was U.S. congressman John Lewis. Hero of the civil rights movement, because of his persistence in working for justice and equality right to the end, he set an example of hope that will continue to spread and grow.

Throughout his 2017 book, Across that Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Face of America, Lewis drew on that image of a single light in the midst of darkness. Bringing it all home, the last page began:

“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone — any person or any force — dampen, dim, or diminish your light.”

Whatever the darkness, Lewis’s words remind us that what is good, in ourselves and in others, is the fuel we need to keep that light burning.

This Christmas Eve, in a world darkened by pandemic, may we find ways to share with each other the light we all need.

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Justice is a three-sided coin

(July 3, 2020)

CIVILIZATIONS are based on a variety of structures that combine power and authority. Putting those two things together, however, can mean truth is a dangerous commodity.

When people object to the way they are being treated by authority, trouble starts. Power does not respond well to a challenge of any kind — especially if it reflects facts it doesn’t want to admit.

Lately, we have seen stark examples of how such structures react to the challenges that truth presents. #BlackLivesMatter put the spotlight on systemic racism, with global reactions to the death of George Floyd. Wearing a mask to slow the spread of pandemic disease has become a political act, especially in the U.S. Protesting ecological destruction, or even just protecting water and soil, will soon be a crime in Alberta (and perhaps, eventually, here). Economic recovery is placed ahead of the health and well-being of ordinary people, as environmental regulations are ignored or rescinded.

Resistance to these structures of power and authority doesn’t begin because of what journalists say, however. A free press just communicates the message, multiplying what a group of people, somewhere, has chosen to challenge. This is why speaking truth to power is a dangerous exercise, putting journalists in the crosshairs of angry authority — perhaps even risking injury or death — for doing their jobs.

Every year, more and more journalists are beaten or killed, making the work of journalists almost as dangerous that of environmental defenders, who die by the hundreds every year around the world, trying to protect the Earth and their homes.

This year, World Environment Day on June 5 passed almost without notice here in Manitoba. It was also the day thousands of Winnipeggers demonstrated peacefully against racism and in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, giving that day a different focus this year for environmentalists, as well.

There is a simple reason for the lack of conflict between these two causes: there will be no racial justice without ecological justice. They are two sides of the same coin. In fact, we should make it a three-sided coin, so you can add in social justice, as well. Each of them requires the other two, if we are going to change those structures, those systems, that combine power and authority in ways that threaten our global future together.

When leaders would rather listen to the ideological voices in their heads than the common sense of people in the streets, however, it is time for them to step aside — before they are simply set aside.

Fear of criticism is a sign of insecurity, not of conviction. It is fear the critics are right and you are wrong, so it is easier to ignore their voices, tune them out, shut them down, deny them the chance to speak — and, if that doesn’t stop them, then tear gas, truncheons and bullets should do the trick. You can always arrest and punish those who persist.

Yet few (if any) revolutions have resulted from some well-executed master plan. Instead, it is something small, a pebble rolling downhill, that provokes an avalanche of change.

The convenience store clerk in Minneapolis who called police because George Floyd had supposedly given them a fake $20 bill could never have imagined the global impact of such a minor decision.

It was a citizen’s cellphone, once again, that captured video of what happened and shared the news — not the journalists.

Yes, racism is systemic — because, otherwise, common sense and ordinary humanity would have eliminated it.

Social inequality is also systemic — because, otherwise, kindness and generosity would have made it disappear.

Ecological injustice is systemic, too, because if people respected the Earth around them and within them, there would be no other colour in our lives than green.

Yet if racial, social and ecological injustice are left unchallenged, accepted and embedded in the institutions of our society, then trouble is surely coming. Without warning, something small, whether local or global, will trigger a pent-up avalanche of change.

When that happens, everything familiar will be swept away — the good with the bad — and life will be forced to begin again amidst the rubble of what used to be. That “new normal” people talk about may be better than the old one, but not necessarily.

So, we need to speak truth to power — in the press, in the boardroom, in the law courts, and in the chambers of political authority.

That truth must be about racial justice, about social equality, about care for the Earth.

If these truths continue to be ignored, discounted or suppressed, then one day some small, otherwise insignificant event will be the spark that ignites a revolution whose outcome no one can predict.

Change doesn’t need to happen that way, but given the continued arrogance and privilege of those in authority today, it too easily could.

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Pointed questions for visiting PM

(January 18, 2020)

If I could ask Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet one question before their Winnipeg retreat this weekend, it would be: “Would you shoot the children?”

I admit this is a brutal way to start a column. But it does cut away the fluff and go straight to the heart of the problem.

As this is being written, RCMP officers in full tactical gear have barricaded the traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en in British Columbia, and blocked journalists from entering the area. We don’t know what orders have been issued around the potential use of lethal force against anyone who breaches their lines.

Forget the unresolved issues of Indigenous land claims, the court cases still unfolding, the opinion of human rights tribunals, and any other number of issues. The pipeline goes through. Period.

Forget the climate crisis, the need to keep the oil in the ground, and especially forget we signed the Paris Agreement to limit global warming. Ignore the fires in Australia — and ignore that, except for a miracle, the same fires could have burned in dry northern Manitoba this past summer. Spin the issue of carbon tax some more, offer smoke and mirrors, distract the crowds with bread and circuses, and make sure the pipeline goes through. Period.

Around the world, children are staying out of school, by the millions, to strike for the climate. Greta Thunberg became the face of that global movement, but there are many other young people, including right here in Canada, who will fight just as hard for their future.

But what does that mean? Will it mean the kind of civil action that #ExtinctionRebellion has led elsewhere? Does it mean there will be demonstrations, blockades, protests — attempts to block pipeline construction, among other things?

Of course, it will. The global system is not working. We are literally burning up our children’s future and yet somehow still avoid dealing with what is so obvious to them. There are very few predictions of what lies ahead past 2050, when today’s teenagers will only be middle-aged. We don’t even talk about that nightmare, anymore.

Young people can see we are not making decisions that respect the land and all of the children of Earth, as we should. Forget considering the seventh generation — we can’t even manage to care for the next one.

Because of our lazy luxuries, our sluggish and indolent response to the climate crisis, their future — and that of their own children and grandchildren — is going up in flames, as surely as that Australian bush.

Why should we expect them to say nothing, in response? Why should we expect them to do nothing, either?

Thankfully, the protests so far are non-violent — the next generation has learned what happens when popular opposition resorts to violence. The young people march instead.

But when young people take to the streets in increasing numbers, as they will — supported by the adults who care for them and understand their concerns for the future — what will our leaders do?

Will they order out the riot police, in mirrored helmets, to beat them down with clubs? Gas them? Use water cannons? Fire rubber bullets to maim them? Perhaps shoot to kill?

Before you say such things could never happen here, remember how the Harper government dealt with the G20 protests in Toronto a decade ago.

When unjust social or environmental policies are enforced by the machinery of the state, confrontation is inevitable. People may get hurt or die as a result. Situations such as the one on Wet’suwet’en land are the result of our failure to find another, better way forward, one that not only respects everyone involved, but offers ecological justice, too.

Political leaders who raise their own children to respect other people and the Earth they share can expect tough days ahead, because the next demonstration may see their own kids in the front row, walking toward those same riot police.

One way or the other, children are preparing for the future we have created for them. They would be in school, studying, if we had solved the climate crisis. But the fact they are on the streets instead is a sign of our failure, our cowardice, our hypocrisy — and what’s worse, makes me wonder about our apparent willingness even to use force against them rather than change the course of our society toward a sustainable future.

So, Trudeau, as the movement for climate justice grows, do you plan to deploy RCMP tactical squads or the Canadian Armed Forces to suppress Canadians, including children who object to government policies or protest government inaction?

Or will you publicly commit, here in the Heart of the Continent, to finding another way, one without such dangerous potential for us all?

Dance on a cliff, and someone certainly will fall.

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