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December 31, 2005

Peace on Earth

What is your gut response to the question: is the world becoming increasingly violent and dangerous? This writer suggests the true answer is 'no'. But then, the perspective from which you answer might make a difference... And it might be worth pondering whether this account for personal attacks, etc.

Interesting thought, though. Perhaps with international terrorism, the shape of overall conflict is shifting. Or he might be right.


Peace on Earth? Increasingly, Yes.
By Andrew Mack

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Seen through the eyes of the media, the world appears an evermore dangerous place. Iraq is sliding toward civil war, the slaughter in Darfur appears unending, violent insurgencies are brewing in Thailand and a dozen other countries, and terrorism strikes again in Bali. It is not surprising that most people believe global violence is increasing.

However, most people, including many leading policymakers and scholars, are wrong. The reality is that, since the end of the Cold War, armed conflict and nearly all other forms of political violence have decreased. The world is far more peaceful than it was.

Why has this change attracted so little attention? In part because the global media give far more coverage to wars that start than to those that quietly end, but also because no international agency collects global or regional data on any form of political violence.

The Human Security Report, an independent study funded by five countries and published by Oxford University Press, draws on a wide range of little publicized scholarly data, plus specially commissioned research to present a portrait of global security that is sharply at odds with conventional wisdom. The report reveals that after five decades of inexorable increase, the number of armed conflicts started to fall worldwide in the early 1990s. The decline has continued.

By 2003, there were 40 percent fewer conflicts than in 1992. The deadliest conflicts -- those with 1,000 or more battle-deaths -- fell by some 80 percent. The number of genocides and other mass slaughters of civilians also dropped by 80 percent, while core human rights abuses have declined in five out of six regions of the developing world since the mid-1990s. International terrorism is the only type of political violence that has increased. Although the death toll has jumped sharply over the past three years, terrorists kill only a fraction of the number who die in wars.

What accounts for the extraordinary and counterintuitive improvement in global security over the past dozen years? The end of the Cold War, which had driven at least a third of all conflicts since World War II, appears to have been the single most critical factor.

In the late 1980s, Washington and Moscow stopped fueling "proxy wars" in the developing world, and the United Nations was liberated to play the global security role its founders intended. Freed from the paralyzing stasis of Cold War geopolitics, the Security Council initiated an unprecedented, though sometimes inchoate, explosion of international activism designed to stop ongoing wars and prevent new ones.

Other international agencies, donor governments and nongovernmental organizations also played a critical role, but it was the United Nations that took the lead, pushing a range of conflict-prevention and peace-building initiatives on a scale never before attempted. The number of U.N. peacekeeping operations and missions to prevent and stop wars have increased by more than 400 percent since the end of the Cold War. As this upsurge of international activism grew in scope and intensity through the 1990s, the number of crises, wars and genocides declined.

There have been some horrific and much publicized failures, of course -- the failures to stop genocide in Rwanda, Srebrenica and Darfur being the most egregious. But the quiet successes -- in Namibia, El Salvador, Mozambique, Eastern Slovenia, East Timor and elsewhere went largely unheralded, as did the fact that the United Nations' expertise in handling difficult missions has grown dramatically.

A major study by the Rand Corp. published this year found that U.N. peace-building operations had a two-thirds success rate. They were also surprisingly cost-effective. In fact, the United Nations spends less running 17 peace operations around the world for an entire year than the United States spends in Iraq in a single month. What the United Nations calls "peacemaking" -- using diplomacy to end wars -- has been even more successful. About half of all the peace agreements negotiated between 1946 and 2003 have been signed since the end of the Cold War.

With the Security Council often reluctant to act -- the abject failure to stop the Rwandan genocide remains a key example -- and with too many missions having been denied adequate resources, appropriate mandates or properly trained personnel, these successes are all the more remarkable.

In the wake of last month's global summit at the United Nations, many critics wrote the United Nations off as an institution so deeply flawed that it was beyond salvation. The analysis and the carefully collated data in the Human Security Report reveal something very different: an organization that, despite its failures and creaking bureaucracy, has played a critical role in enhancing global security.

The writer directs the Human Security Center at the University of British Columbia. He was director of the Strategic Planning Unit in the executive office of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan between 1998 and 2001.

Posted by gary at 10:35 AM | Comments (0)

A Christmas church service to go

With all the discussion about closing church services on Sunday (which also happened to be Christmas Day), here is one church which did so in a creative way...

...which makes me wonder whether Christmas is primarily about spending time with family... Although the message of the incarnation (is that an oxymoron?) is being spoken, is the real message about family being communicated much more powerfully?


Northshore Christian Church wants you to feel at home for Christmas Day service.

In fact, you will be at home.

Northshore's new interactive DVD kit is designed to allow the 1,500 members of the Everett church to spend more time with their families, by replacing the Sunday service with an in-home version.

christmascd.jpg"We are just so grateful that you've allowed us to come into your home on this Christmas Day," the Rev. Ken Long says in the DVD's introduction, which was filmed in his living room as he sits in a leather recliner in front of the fireplace.

A DVD Christmas might conjure up images of a family gathered around the television to watch a recorded service.

But the kit, called "Christmas Unwrapped," isn't a passive activity.

Besides viewing the disc, which includes meditative music and an abbreviated sermon, participants unroll and read tiny scrolls that describe spiritual meanings behind familiar Christmas symbols, such as candles, wreaths and candy canes. They take Communion, express thankfulness and say a Christmas prayer. The entire service takes 30 to 60 minutes.

"We're not canceling church. We're taking it out of our four walls," said Christina Bergevin, Northshore's music director, who helped create the kit.

Churches in Illinois, Tennessee and Florida also are offering DVDs in lieu of Christmas services, according to news accounts. Recordings include sermons, a drama, carols with words rolling across the screen and, in one case, a 30-minute image of a burning fireplace.

Some of the nation's largest and most prominent megachurches have canceled services Sunday, expecting smaller crowds because it is Christmas and wanting to give family time to the armies of volunteers who run the services.

Such cancellations aren't the norm in the Seattle area, where Overlake Christian Church, The City Church, Cedar Park Assembly, Antioch Bible Church, Christian Faith Center and Mars Hill Church, among other big congregations, will hold Christmas services, although some will have fewer services than normal.

All of those churches except Mars Hill will offer at least one service on Christmas Eve, anticipating high attendance and holiday visitors. Northshore, which is non-denominational, will have three services.

"We pull out all the stops on Christmas Eve," Long said. "Everyone is on deck for that. (But) we like to encourage families to be together on Christmas morning."

Although many megachurches routinely focus on services on Christmas Eve and not on Christmas Day, the issue drew attention this year because of the calendar.

The arrival of Christmas on a Sunday presents "two values, if you will, in competition with one another: the value of individual families and the value of the family of God," said Robert Drovdahl, professor of educational ministry at Seattle Pacific University.

"Churches that opted to cancel services put value on individual families," he said. "Others said, 'We value the family of God and gather as we always do on the first day of the week.' I wouldn't criticize anyone who thoughtfully weighed those two."

Long said it took more effort to create the kit than just to hold regular Sunday services. "This was a very intentional decision," he said. "It was not made because it was easier to do."

Though some churches have taken heat for canceling Christmas services, he said, Northshore promoted its alternative and received a "remarkably positive response."

The church initially produced 1,000 kits, was swamped with requests and ordered another run of 500.

Bergevin has incorporated aspects of the kit in her family's observance of Christmas for years.

"We take common cultural symbols and try to figure out the spiritual significance behind those things," she said. "It's a way for my husband and myself to share our faith with our family. It's kid-friendly."

For instance, candles originally decorated Christmas trees "as a reminder that Christ came to bring light to a dark world," a scroll reads.

These days, tree lights suggest "that galaxy of stars that shone in Bethlehem on the night of Christ's birth and that one very special star announcing his coming," another scroll reads.

"The most important thing that we can give our attention to on this Christmas is not just the symbols," Long says in his recorded sermon.

"My prayer is that we all come to that saving knowledge of Christ. ... Not just an awareness about him or a knowledge of him, but to personally understand the salvation that he brings," he continues.

Northshore member Fred Sirianni of Marysville believes the at-home service provides a non-threatening way for members to present their faith with friends and relatives who otherwise might not "darken the door of the church."

Tammy Gimbel of Lynnwood, another member, plans to open the kit when her extended family gathers on Christmas.

"We'll listen to a message from our pastor that we'd miss otherwise, right there in our front room," said Gimbel, whose background was "not steeped in the true Christmas tradition."

"For years it has been the goal in our house to celebrate the birth of Christ," she said, "but unfortunately we did not have the insight of how to truly do that. ... So for us this is a great gift and we joyfully receive it."


Posted by gary at 09:23 AM | Comments (0)

December 30, 2005

Turning 40

In his book, What Have We Learned? The Best Thinking on Congregational Life (Abingdon, 2001), Lyle Schaller writes, "While exceptions do exist, the general pattern is that congregations that have been meeting at the same address for more than forty years tend to give a higher priority to (a) perpetuating the past rather than creating the new, (b) taking care of today's members rather than seeking to reach the unchurched, (c) maintaining the real estate rather than launching new ministries to reach new generations." He concludes: "Never before in American church history have there been so many congregations that are vulnerable to this 'forty year syndrome.'"

What is your response?

Read the rest of the article here.

Posted by gary at 06:15 PM | Comments (0)

U.S. Christians at Guantánamo's gates

David Hicks has had to become a British citizen in order to gain some hope after four years in detention in Guantánamo Bay because the Australian government refuses to advocate on his behalf. Now Christians from the US are rising up because of torture claims tacitly admitted by the Bush Administration. This place - the war on terror as a whole - stands as a blight and disgrace upon the West, particularly in the light of claims to christian faith by the key leaders involved.

Recently, a group of 25 U.S. Christians began a water-only fast and prayer vigil on Monday at the gates of the detention centre and naval base at Guantánamo Bay. The group, calling itself Witness Against Torture (many of whom are Catholic peace activists), walked 50 miles from Santiago, Cuba, to the gates of the U.S. military prison where they are seeking authorization to enter the base and meet with prisoners ¿ some 500 of which are being held on suspicion of terrorist activities. The government says the detainees are enemy combatants, not prisoners of war, and are not entitled to the same rights afforded under the Geneva Conventions.

Read more here.

Posted by gary at 04:14 PM | Comments (0)

December 29, 2005

Narnia, Mel Gibson and sharing of faith

It has now been three times in recent memory that I have received news of the 'wonderful opportunity for evagelism'. It began with the release of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ", was followed by the (late) release in Australia of Luther, and came again in recent weeks with the arrival of Disney's translation of the first of C.S. Lewis's Narnia series - The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - appearing on the big screen on Boxing Day. Certainly two of these have generated significant public discussion. Gibson's tortured film certainly gained loads of attention, as has Narnia - not all of it positive. But general publicity aside, I wonder if this constant search for 'the next big thing' is really the essence of Christianity at all. Certainly everyone likes a good story, and such classics as Lewis's works have stood the test of time. And the use of modern technology to tell the story can add to its power. One wonders whether Disney might be the best sponsor of interpreting the story, mind you. Are we really welcoming the story, or being manipulated by Disney to turn around its stuttering film division?

The difficulty is that God has been known to use a donkey to get his message across, so Disney's involvement doesn't write out God being at work. The problem is not so much the desire of commercial organisations to exploit the christian market, but our gullibility in buying in to these things, often uncritically.

I will be taking my children to see the Narnia series. They have read the whole series and I will be interested in their critiques of the movie. I did see Gibson's movie, but found it improbable at many points. I found it to be an interesting but uncompelling interpretation of Jesus' Passion inasmuch as it was without context. "Luther" was an understated but powerful telling of the story of the reformation. For those with an interest in church history, it would provide some useful catalyst for understanding the Reformation.

It makes me wonder whatever happened to the simple personal relationship for sharing what Jesus means today, and the difference he can make in our lives if we let him...

Posted by gary at 02:05 PM | Comments (0)

December 28, 2005

Church Web Pages shutting down at Christmas?!?!

Things have been very quiet on-line, in stark contrast to the real-world status of life throughout December. Yesterday I managed an actual rest day, spending it at the cricket with the family, watching Australia and South Africa do battle. It was a slow day, but I'm not sure that it was the cricket or simply being in the one space and mind for such a length of time that made it feel so.

We enjoyed a festive Christmas dinner with 15 gathered around the table. It is a joy to meet new people at this time and hear where their journeys have taken them over the past 12 months and brought them to us at Christmas. It was a reminder that the Christmas story is based around travellers: every key person was a traveller to an unfamiliar place: Joseph and Mary, the shepherds came in from the fields, the wise men travelled from afar.... It was in the midst of strangers that the Christ-child was born. In the midst of people who had been strangers to us we encountered the one called Immanuel afresh.

I trust that you are all enjoying a restful and renewing time.

Posted by gary at 01:03 PM | Comments (0)

December 16, 2005

Harry Potter - not what you think?

Harry Potter the brave, resourceful wizard, who through his sheer cunning and nerve defeats evil... that's the popular myth. But one author suggests that Harry is "no braver than his best friend, Ron Weasley, just richer and better-connected...", that "Hermione Granger, is smarter and a better student..." and that Harry's fame is merely based on his pampered jock status emanating from Quidditch.

Harry is, according to the author, "a trust-fund kid whose success at his school, Hogwarts, is largely attributable to the gifts his friends and relatives lavish upon him..."

Is Harry Potter's fame based on illusory values? Read the full article here.

Posted by gary at 10:48 AM | Comments (0)

December 14, 2005

Churches shutting down at Christmas

News emanating from the US that some mega churches have decided not to hold worship services on Christmas Day this year (which falls on a Sunday). Although there is nothing sacrosanct about worship services on Christmas Day, this seems to be a strange decision. One of the reasons given by Willow Creek (one of the mega-churches going down this path) is that they wanted to give their volunteers time with family on Christmas Day. Yet the mandate as seeker-sensitive suggests that the first determinant of decision-making be the seeker rather than the church member. In Australia Christmas is one of those occasions when non-church people make a special effort to attend... which, if the trend were to translate in the US, would make the decision even more perplexing.

Our church does not hold services on Christmas Day, instead hosting an open lunch of sorts. It's not the decision not to have a Christmas service per se, but one which cancels it because it falls on a Sunday. Seems strange thinking to me... any thoughts?

Posted by gary at 10:55 AM | Comments (0)

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