Why the Levant-rant has caused far more harm than good.

As entertaining as Ezra Levant can be, at least in a face-meet-palm kind of way, I really wish that he never turned his gaze upon the Harbour City. In his 45-minute piece  he did far more harm than good. Let me explain why.

The Issue Has Already Been Resolved:

The Levant-rant if nothing else is steeped in unbridled passion. Its purpose is to inflame, to invoke righteous anger, and to elicit a response from angry viewers. He wants said viewers to make city council recognize the error of their ways. Levant wants  them to pay.  The problem, however, is that all of this seething anger, righteous or otherwise, is created in vain. As you can read in my last post, the city council has already responded by providing the thing that was of primary importance for Christians and other religious groups: a guarantee that the city would abide by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and be able to rent city property. The issue has been resolved.

Now in fairness to Levant, the statement issued by the mayor on behalf of the administration happened shortly before his newscast went viral. However, it certainly would not have been difficult for him to provide an update with this information attached.

Now to be sure, council’s affirmation of religious people’s rights does nothing to resolve the issue of Leadercast but Leadercast was never the primary issue for either the Christians in Nanaimo or for Ezra Levant. That issue needs to be worked out by the Daily News, Council, and Leadercast.

Misrepresentation of the Facts:

Through Exaggeration:

A significant problem with the Levant rant is that he frequently distorts the facts. He distorts first of all by exaggerating—a common strategy for our species when we really want to win an argument. For example Levant states that council voted to “ban Christians”. This is incredibly misleading. The language of the resolution does not mention Christians by name at all; there was worry from Christian groups that the language had potentially scary implications for events that they would want to host on city property. In this sense Christians and other religious groups could be seen as collateral damage but it was simply not the case that the city council of Nanaimo was deliberately and specifically targeting Christians.

A second example is found in Levant’s statement that council is trying to “drive Christians out of town” (see 20:00). This despite the fact that the mayor and some of the councilors attended the annual prayer breakfast for Christians shortly after this mess was started. The mayor even paid his respects to the Christian citizens of Nanaimo by reading some sections of the Bible. You can make the argument that council was naïve or even ignorant regarding the implications their resolution had for Christians but they certainly were not intending to drive them out of town.

Through Minimizing:

Levant also distorts by minimizing. My last post indicated that I am unable to confirm or refute the claims made about Dr. Cloud’s stance on reparative therapy. In Levant’s rant he refers to Dr. Cloud’s alleged views on reparative therapy as “funny ideas about the gays”. Reparative therapy is neither a “funny idea” in the humorous sense of the word nor in the benignly absurd sense of the word. No, reparative therapy is something that has done horrific damage to many LGBT people over the past decades. Even prominent supporters of reparative therapy from yesteryear have come forward to apologize for their prior beliefs and have distanced themselves from people who still promote it.

Through Conflating Issues:

Levant distorts by conflating issues. As I’ve mentioned there are two issues at play: the issue of cancelling Leadercast (the specific target of the motion) and the issue of Christians and other religious groups being potentially banned from renting city property (collateral damage). Levant’s-rant, however, tries to make Christians the specific target of the motion by referring to Leadercast several times in his rant as a Christian conference. This is despite the fact that the event is not religious at all but rather a conference about leadership in general.

Tone:

The second reason why Levant has done more harm than good is his poor use of tone. Christian leaders in Nanaimo worked very hard to phrase their critiques in a way that honoured and respected the councillors and the mayor. They wanted the administration to know that they aren’t despised or hated by Nanaimo’s religious groups.

Conversely Levant uses the tactic of demonizing.  As human beings it is very tempting to treat people with whom we disagree as horrible human beings with no redeeming qualities; this is basically what Levant does. He frequently refers to the councilors and the mayor as “blowhards” and “bigots”. He suggests that they are only motivated by the advancement of their own egos and is never willing to grant that they may actually be trying to do the right thing for the city.

Levant’s demonizing tactics are taken to such an extreme that he actually takes an important act of charity undertaken by one of the councillors and presents it as a vile act of self-aggrandizement. At one point Levant shows an image of councilor Pattje wearing a pair of women’s shoes. He refers to this picture as a narcissitic selfie, intended to make, in Levant’s view, some sort of political statement he cannot understand. What a horrific example of self-indulgence! That is unless one realizes that the picture was intended to raise awareness for a very important fundraiser called “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes”. This event, put on by the Haven Society is a walk in which men wear women’s shoes in order to raise funds to help end rape, sexual, assault, and gender violence. Thank you Mr. Pattje for participating in this important cause and shame on Mr. Levant for not recognizing this.

Now to be sure Levant in no way claims to speak as a representative of the Christians in Nanaimo but he does present himself as their advocate. If people mistake Levant’s uncharitable tone for the tone of local religious groups, then terrible damage has been done indeed.

It was also a key priority for the Christians in Nanaimo to address this issue in a way that was respectful towards the LGBT community. Regrettably, many Christians have failed to live up to their mandate to love their LGBT neighbours and as a result many Christians in town feel burdened to be better. Christian leaders want their churches to be comprised of people that respect and love LGBT people.

Yet in Levant’s rant, we see subtle digs toward the LGBT community. The one that caught my eye was when Levant referred to them as a “community” in inverted commas (see 10:45). When we call something a “community” we are effectively stating that the group in view is not something that fits the standard definition and can therefore only be called a community in a qualified sense—hence the inverted commas. As a Christian I know I would take offense if someone referred to my co-believers or my church as a “community”. This may seem like a subtle point but when we are talking about Christians and the LGBT community, we must be aware of the pain that is there. When there is a history of pain, subtlety matters even more than it does in normal conversation. Now again, Levant in no way speaks for the Christian leaders or churches of Nanaimo but if he causes more pain towards the LGBT people of Nanaimo than he has most certainly caused more harm than good.

Halfway through his 45 minute rant, Mr. Levant says that the actions undertaken by the city council of Nanaimo was for the purpose of showboating for the camera and not about the facts. The irony of this comment leaps off the screen. If only Levant was innocent of the very error he accused city council of undertaking, he would have been able to do some real good. The fact that he wasn’t leaves me mourning the pain that he caused and hoping that a blog like this one can help minimize the damage.

 

Note: There are several different versions of Levant’s piece. The one that led to the writing of this blog is the 45-minute version which can be found on youtube.

The Story behind Levant’s Rant

         By now you have seen the headlines or watched the report from Sun News’ Ezra Levant: Nanaimo’s city council has banned Christians from renting city owned property. If your reaction is “there’s no way that’s true” well, then, you are right. However, it is not as if Ezra Levant simply made a story up out of thin air. In this post I will explain the story behind the Levant-rant by outlining: the motion passed by city council that formed the basis of Levant’s story, the significance of the motion for Christians, how the church responded to the motion, and how council responded to the church.  My next post will outline why Ezra Levant’s viral video is doing more harm than good.

The Motion:

On May 5th during a city council meeting, councilor Fred Pattje introduced the following motion:

that the City of Nanaimo advise the VICC that as owners of the facility any events that are assoiciated with organizations or people that promote or have a history of divisiveness, homophobia, or other expressions of hate, and as such advice the VICC to not permit the upcoming Leadercast event to occur in a City owned facility that is scheduled for May 9th”.

First and foremost, the grammar of this motion is a mess. It starts with a general statement about the VICC and events that are associated with people/organizations that have a history of hate but doesn’t complete that thought before abruptly moving to specific language about not permitting Leadercast on May 9th. One can only assume that the first part of Mr. Pattje’s motion was intended to ensure that no other organizations associated with “divisiveness, homophobia, or other forms of hate” could host an event at the VICC or other city owned properties. It is important to bear this in mind in order to understand the significance this motion had in the mind of Nanaimo’s religious groups.

The impetus for this motion was due to “one or two” phone calls that Mr. Pattje received from members of the LGBT community who were not happy with Leadercast coming to Nanaimo. Apparently this was also an issue last year when the Daily News wanted to sponsor Leadercast but dropped their pursuit of the event after members of city council spoke to them.

What is Leadercast?

Leadercast is an annual conference based in Atlanta that is simulcast in hundreds of communities across North America and is viewed by over a hundred thousand people each year. The conference includes speeches on leadership by well known figures including Nobel-prize winning Desmond Tutu, former First Lady Laura Bush, and the renowned, Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell. Keep in mind the conference is not religious but rather is on the topic of leadership in general.

Why did council ban Leadercast:

There were two reasons given by Fred Pattje for the banning of Leadercast. He made it clear in the meeting that either one of these reasons on their own would be sufficient reason to ban the event.

  1. The first reason was because one of the sponsors of Leadercast is Dan Cathy, the president of the fast food restaurant Chick-Fil-A. Dan Cathy is well known for his opposition to same-sex marriage. In addition, the LGBT community has been critical of Cathy for funding organizations that make some dubious claims about homosexuality. For more on Cathy and the LGBT community’s feelings about him, read this.
  2. The second issue was that one of the speakers was a man named Dr. Henry Cloud, a psychologist who allegedly supports the theory that reparative therapy can “cure” homosexual orientation. For the record I can neither confirm nor refute this claim for Dr. Cloud as my google searches on the issue proved fruitless. If any of you can be of help in confirming or denying this allegation please comment below with your source.

So What’s the Big Deal:

The passing of this motion is a big deal for many reasons. First the arguments provided for cancelling Leadercast are weak.   The reasoning is classic guilt-by-association. It should not matter if the sponsor of the event is a saint, a villain, or whatever you think Dan Cathy is. The reality is that this event would do nothing to advance Cathy’s agenda about gay marriage nor would it in some way imply that the city was endorsing Cathy’s opinions on sexuality. It strikes me as ironic that a conference that included known gay-rights activists such as Desmond Tutu and Laura Bush was cancelled because Dan Cathy was footing part of the bill. Similarly it should not matter one iota what Dr. Cloud’s opinions are on reparative therapy, particularly since he was not addressing matters of sexuality at all but leadership.

Aside from the Leadercast issues, “the big deal” from a Christian point of view resides in the language at the beginning of the motion. Given the interpretation I have outlined above, many in the Christian community saw the motion as something that could be used to ban churches or other religious groups from renting city property such as the auditorium at Beban park which is rented for an interchurch Good Friday service each year. Christian people drew this conclusion because many churches in town, particularly of the evangelical variety, share Dan Cathy’s basic belief about marriage: i.e. that from a Christian point of view marriage is defined as a relationship between a man and a woman. While this issue was of primary importance, many Christian people were also upset by some of the language used during the discussion of the motion that can only be described as insulting and offensive towards Christians.

What did the Church Do About it?

The pastors of the evangelical churches in town held several meetings once they heard about what transpired in council.  They prayerfully considered how they could respond in a way that demonstrated the appropriate level of love and respect for the Nanaimo City Council, even while raising concerns about the potential of being unable to rent city property.  Many pastors wrote letters to council members outlining these concerns.  On June 16th, the Nanaimo Evangelical Fellowship came with an official delegation to council and outlined their concerns.  The video of this can be seen here.

How Council Responded:

Although I did not correspond directly with any members of council or the mayor, I am told that some members of the administration responded to the pastoral letters with an apology.  The mayor and some of the councilors also made their regular appearance at the annual prayer breakfast that suggests that they do value the religious citizens of Nanaimo.

Shortly after the Nanaimo Evangelical Fellowship’s delegation appeared before council, the mayor reaffirmed the administration’s commitment to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and guaranteed the rights of religious groups to rent city property.  It is important to note that the mayor made this statement before the Ezra Levant video went viral

Though the events at Nanaimo City Council generated a lot of hurt and passion, I am very proud of how the religious leaders responded to this issue.  The intention was never to embarrass, demean, or disrespect council but simply to urge council to recognize the rights of Nanaimo’s religious citizens.  I am also thankful for the mayor and the members of council who have reaffirmed religious people’s place in the public sphere.  My prayer is that the members of Nanaimo’s civic administration feel loved by the religious people in their city.

Fully Human: How to Think Part III Why we need all 4 sources

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In the last post we discussed why it is important to think in such a way that gives priority to Scripture.  In this post I outline, in bullet form, 4 reasons why our thinking must still value the other sources of knowledge (Tradition, Reason, Experience.  For a review of those 3 sources, click here)

1)   Because The Scriptures don’t tell us everything we need to know:  The Scriptures are perfect in regards to what they are communicating but we must also recognize that they don’t address every situation we find ourselves in.  The Scriptures may help provide the basic principles for thinking about a modern topic, like say for developing an ethic of social media.  However in order to really hash out an ethic like this we will also need to use our rational faculties and draw on knowledge gained from our experience.

2)   Because The Scriptures cannot be accessed apart from the other resources:  As much as we are to preference Scripture, we must always recognize that we cannot consult Scripture in isolation from the other sources of knowledge.  Our experience, reason, and tradition will inevitably shape how we read Scripture, even as our view of Scripture will shape how we view our experience, tradition, and reason.  They key is to have these four sources in the proper order and in proper conversation with each other.

3)   Because Reason, Experience, and Tradition can teach us some good things:  There are many insights that the other 3 resources can teach us:  for instance our tradition may tell us that being faithful in a marriage is important, our reason may tell us that things like stealing and lying are wrong, and our experience may tell us, particularly while we are growing up, that things are much more likely to go well for us if we honour our parents.

You may have noticed that the examples mentioned all refer to a few of the 10 Commandments.  I chose these examples intentionally to show that some of the morality of Scripture can also be gained through the use of our other faculties.  My conviction is that the types of morality that we can gain from our other faculties are those things that can be found in the moral “lists” or “laws” (for more on laws see my post here).  This type of morality may be referred to as the “common morality” or “basic morality”.  It refers to the things that people can agree on regardless of their religious conviction.  From a Christian point of view, the “common morality” is good but is not the greatest good.  To discover what is at the heart of morality in Christianity, you need Scripture.

Part of the reason why I share this insight is because as Christians we find ourselves living in a nation that does not give primary importance to Scripture; in fact as a society Scripture does not even exist as a unique category.  This means that as believers we must temper our expectations in regards to what type of morality we will find in our society.  It’s unrealistic and in fact unfair to expect our society to be organized around the morality of Scripture.  We must instead be willing to accept from our society a lowest common denominator of morality, something that is OK but not perfect.

4)   Because If Christians want to impact society we must be knowledgeable enough to converse using the language of reason, tradition, and experience:  It’s perfectly fair to be motivated by Scripture but it does no good to quote something as authoritative to people who do not see it that way.  The way broader society hears our Scripture quotations is similar to the way we hear quotations from the Koran or other religion’s scriptures.  They may be interesting, they may in fact communicate something that makes good sense; however their claims will not be held as valuable because they belong to the category of Scripture but will rather only be held as valuable if they make sense according to our reason, experience, or tradition.  For that reason, if we want to make an impact and change on our society we must speak the language of our time and place.

Fully Human: How to Think Part II

In the second part of the “how to think” section I explore the unique status ithat Christians grant to a 4th source of human knowledge:  the Scriptures.

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            The purpose of this course is to look at the difference that the fourth source of knowledge, i.e. the Scripture, has on our ethics.  We will look in detail at this source in future weeks but for now we will speak generally about the Scriptures as a concept. Christians place the Scriptures in a special category because they believe it to be the word of God.  It is understood to be an inspired and authoritative revelation to human beings of God’s character.  Now to be fair we may argue that God’s character can be known through the other 3 sources of experience, tradition, and reason just as well as it can be known through Scripture.  And indeed, I believe that people can obtain at least some knowledge of God through these other sources; however we must understand the knowledge from these sources in the right way.  Insights about God that comes from experience, reason, or tradition must be examined in light of what we know about God through in the Scriptures.  If the insights are congruent with Scripture they may be understood to have a degree of validity if they are incongruent or contradictory in comparison with the picture of God in the Scriptures than believers must defer to the Bible and reexamine/rethink their insights.

            Part of the reason why Christians defer to Scripture can be observed through lessons learned from our history.  For example I belong to a denomination that traces its origins back to Menno Simons.  Menno Simons was a part of a larger movement called Anabaptism and in his day there was an extremist minority within Anabaptism that justified all kinds of heinous behaviour and doctrine (including polygamy, a complete disregard of personal property, and the belief that they were God’s soldiers sent to purify the world of evil through violence) because they believed they had experienced God telling them that this was the case.  Menno Simons’ main contribution to the Anabaptist movement was to say that the reason why these extremist Anabaptists ran amok in their belief and behaviour was because they did not properly understand how to interpret their experience.  He said that our experiences of God come from the same Spirit that inspired the Scriptures and it is therefore impossible for that Spirit to communicate something that directly contradicts the Scripture.  For that reason Menno said that the inner word (i.e. experience) must be interpreted under the authority of the outer word (i.e. Scripture).  I think that Menno is right on the money here.  In my observation, understandings of God that privilege experience, reason, or tradition above the Scriptures tend to fall short.  They look far more like products of the human imagination rather than the dynamic, surprising, and loving God of Scripture who always does the unexpected and departs so significantly from anything that human beings could dream up.  

Fully Human: How to Think Part I

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 In this we move on from thinking about why it is important to think to examining how we think.  In this part I define and describe three of the sources of knowledge that human beings draw from:  Tradition, Experience, and Reason.

1. Tradition:

Tradition refers to those things—wisdom, knowledge, etc—that were prized by the people that came before us and were deliberately handed down to us.  Tradition may occur on a small scale, such as within families; my wife’s family for example has the “3 day rule” meaning that if they are staying at someone’s house they will never stay more than 3 days.  This is a piece of wisdom that was prized by Whitney’s grandfather and has been passed down to each generation.

Tradition may also exist on the broad societal scale.  As a nation, for instance, Canada prizes the value of being polite as its chief virtue and this trait is passed faithfully from generation to generation.  This tradition differs from say Australia, a nation that prizes truth telling as her highest virtue.  This is why Canadians believe Australians to be rude and belligerent and why, as my Australian professor Rikk Watts used to remind us, Australians think Canadians are a bunch of liars!

2. Reason:

Reason is another source of knowledge that refers to the knowledge that we gain through analysis and logic.  This includes the information that we as individuals or a society possess from the realms of science or the arts like history and linguistics.  When it comes to making ethical choices, we are using our reason when we attempt to take into account all of the information available to us and make the best choice.  For example a current hot topic is the matter of the oil sands in Alberta.  In order to make wise moral choices as a society we ought to decide what is reasonable based on all the data available to us:  environmental impact studies, economic impact studies, and of course that great wealth of hard data—the 1970s rock and roll star Neil Young…or not.

3.  Experience:

The third source of knowledge is our experience.  What we have gone through in life will inevitably shape how we process information and how we look at the world.  One example that comes to my mind is gardening.  Whitney and I love the idea of having our own vegetable garden.  Each year we plant a few things and each year we inevitably have far more failures than successes.  Now some use of reason can cut down on the failures: for instance good research can tell you the types of plants that grow best in your soil, knowledge of how much sun or shade a particular vegetable likes can also help, etc but as any good gardener can tell you, much of the learning only comes through experience, through that old standby method of trial and error…

Fully Human: Why Think Part III Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Moral Complexity

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the most famous pastors of the 20th century.  He was deeply committed to living a life that was pleasing to God as can be seen in one of his most famous quotes:  “only the believers obey and only the obedient believe”.  For him it was impossible to pull apart right living from faith; yet Bonhoeffer faced significant challenges that made living out his ideal extremely difficult.  He was born in Germany in 1906 and was just shy of his 27th birthday when Hitler came to power.  Bonhoeffer and like-minded believers quickly found themselves in the minority in their country when it came to how they responded to the rise of the Nazi party.  Most either welcomed or condoned the new regime; Bonhoeffer and others, however, quickly became known as the “believer’s church” a group which outwardly opposed Hitler.Image

As Bonheoffer’s life unfolded his radical commitment to Christ forced him to make many difficult ethical choices.  Here are a few of the more prominent ones:  he had to decide whether to remain in the United States in 1939 or to return back to Germany—the question came down to whether he valued his life more or the health of the German church.  He had to decide whether or not to participate in the customary Nazi salute.  Perhaps most famously, Bonhoeffer, a man who believed that following Christ meant living a life of non-violence, had to wrestle with whether or not he should become involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

Throughout all of these incredibly difficult circumstances, Bonhoeffer remained convinced of the need to discover the will of God and to act within that will.  Although our situation may never be as extraordinary as Bonhoeffer’s we can be sure that we will find ourselves faced with “moral dilemmas”.  We will face complexity.  We will face tension.  We will face times in which careful discernment will be required, when the answer to our problem is not as simple as “looking up the answer”.  For this reason we require a model for approaching ethical thinking that is, what my former professor John Stackhouse, would call “appropriately complex”.  This is a big part of the reason why it’s important to be careful thinkers.

Fully Human: Why Think Part II: A Lesson From the Great One

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When I was growing up my hero was Wayne Gretzky:  admittedly this isn’t a very original choice for a Canadian kid born in the 80s but no one can hold it against me for being mainstream on this one.  Wayne after all is the “Great One”.  The best player to ever lace up a pair of skates.  I used to watch his games, pretend I was number 99 during road hockey games, and put every hockey card of his that I had in a special plastic case.  However what was peculiar, even for the most die-hard, young Gretzky fan, was that I decided I was going to read his 250+ page autobiography—you know to really get to know who Wayne was—and that’s exactly what I did as a 6 year old.  While my classmates were soaking up the plot twists of the Bearnstein bears, I was learning about the role that characters like Nelson Skalbania and Bruce McNall played in the career and life of Gretzky.

One of the things that I loved about Wayne then and still admire about him now whenever I watch old highlight clips of his on YouTube, is how easy he made the game seem.  His ability to make split second decisions that were 9 times out of 10 the right ones is astounding.  Watching him play was to watch someone who didn’t think on the ice but rather reacted.  It’s this ability to intuitively know what to do that makes professional athletes so incredible.  In a fast-paced game they need to be able to trust their guts.Image

A similar need is found in the world of ethics.  Most of the time the moral decisions we make do not have a sense of urgency attached to them.  We are often able to defer a decision, reflect on it, pray about it, and consult with others.  There are however times in life where a moral decision must be made in a split second such as: when you observe an act of physical violence while you are going for your morning walk, when one of your co-workers slanders another fellow employee, or when you have to decide whether or not to lie to the people working customs about how much merchandise you purchased on your vacation.  We need our guts and instincts in these moments; however we cannot reasonably expect to end up with a good result from these instincts if we have done nothing to develop positive ones.  To do this we need to be like the elite athlete.  The great athletes have all been blessed with tremendous natural ability; however the reason why they are able to react at the speeds they do is through years and years of practice and through being students of the game.  To be able to trust our gut in the heat of the moment we need to similarly practice, practice, practice and to be students of good moral thinking.  Doing this involves thinking carefully about who Jesus was, what he taught, and why he taught it.