Friday, March 19, 2010

The Paramount Moral Challenge

This week I finished reading an excellent, thought-provoking book. Entitled Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn (who are husband and wife), the book examines the injustices and inequality women around the world face simply because they are women. The authors present a lot of data but illustrate their arguments particularly effectively through the personal stories they tell of women they have met in their global work. They do not concern themselves with issues like equality in sports in America or the "glass ceiling" in the western corporate world. They concern themselves with the life and death issues that women and girls in the majority of the world face, issues like being sold into sexual slavery, dying in childbirth, being killed to protect so-called family honor and having the opportunity to gain a basic education. In the introductory chapter they summarize their conviction:

We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.

After reading their book I would wholeheartedly agree with this statement. These are not simply "women's issues," as they are often regarded. They are human rights issues that should concern us all because God created women and endowed them with value just as great as men. The authors are not inherently anti-male. In fact they readily acknowledge that much of the injustice and mistreatment of women comes at the hands of other women. At the same time they point out that most of the power structures in the world have been dominated by men and therefore issues that affect women have tended to receive minor attention. Issues affecting poor women in developing countries suffer this neglect in particular. As the authors write:

Maternal health generally gets minimal attention because those who die or suffer injuries overwhelmingly start with three strikes against them: They are female, they are poor, and they are rural.

As I read this book I felt at times deeply saddened and at other times very angry that we allow these moral failures to persist. I believe that God's people should be at the forefront of this struggle for women's equality, not lagging behind. I do acknowledge, as do the authors, that believers are actively engaged in promoting women's welfare on many fronts. But I wonder if for some believers theology subtly affects their view of women, blaming them for the fall and therefore ascribing to them lesser value. Or maybe people are just not aware of the situation that women and girls in the developing world face and therefore do not realize the great need for changing that situation. Reading this book will certainly change that. Sometimes our strong support for one area, such as standing against abortion, inadvertently causes us to oppose activities that actually provide great assistance to women and in the end actually reduce the likelihood of them seeking abortions. The issues are complex, far more so than they often appear to us in our western cocoons.

Even prior to reading this book I felt a strong desire to do what we as a family can to promote the equality and empowerment of women. But I didn't have a clear idea what we could do, other than the ways we are already engaged in supporting some of the women we know here and our support of two girls through Compassion International. The authors helped me by presenting a list in the appendix of organizations that work to protect and promote women and girls. Even if I can't travel to Africa, Asia or other area, I can direct some of my giving specifically to support these organizations. Some sites even allow you to make direct contributions to specific women or projects. Two of these are and Kiva allows you to loan money to specific women who are seeking to develop their businesses. The loans are distributed through various local organizations. In most cases the money is repaid to you after a period of time, allowing you to reinvest it in another woman or project. (Currently you receive no interest on your loan, but because it is a loan you cannot claim it as a charitable contribution.) Globalgiving allows you to donate to a wide range of projects including small business development, education and healthcare. Contributions through Globalgiving are tax-deductible in the United States.

These days we hear a lot about the need to fight against terrorism. Some have made this the most pressing issue of the century. I would agree with the authors of Half the Sky that fighting for the education, health and equality of women is actually more pressing and will in the long run prove more effective against terrorism than dropping bombs and waging military campaigns, even if at times those too may be necessary. I hope that this book will stimulate the growth of the currently small movement to change the situation of women and girls around the world. I for one am fully behind it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Small, Helpful Change

A couple of weeks ago I made a change in the way I handle my e-mail. Previously I had my e-mail program set to automatically check for and send messages every 10-15 minutes. While working on something at the computer, I would see that a message would come in and, more often than not, out of curiosity I would go read it. This often led to my focus shifting from the previous task to something new. Also, because I knew that messages could come in at any time, I often stopped to check even when I was not working at my computer but engaged in something else.

For various reasons I disabled the automatic send and receive feature in the program. Now if I want to send my messages or check for new ones, I have to consciously choose to do so. I didn't actually make this change primarily for this purpose, but I have found that it has helped me focus on my work better. No longer am I distracted by incoming messages, nor do I stop and check my inbox regularly to see if something new has arrived. I perform a send/receive two or three times a day, read through what comes in and decide how to handle the new messages. Sometimes a message will force me to change my focus and deal with something urgent, but more often than not after reading my messages I can return to whatever I was previously engaged in. My interaction with my e-mail has become more focused which has in turn helped me focus better on other tasks.

This seems like a very small and sensible change. Probably most people already work this way. Since I work at home and my personal and work e-mail is the same, I find it more difficult to separate work and personal life. This small step has helped me implement a better routine. I don't feel so distracted by the false urgency of my inbox. I am better able to choose where I want to focus my attention and manage my time more effectively. So I you write to me, don't expect an immediate response!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Don't forget the salt!

The other night I prepared the mixture to make a loaf of bread in our bread machine. I usually do this late in the evening before I go to bed so that the bread will bake during the night and be hot and fresh for breakfast. I set the timer for the bake cycle and went to sleep. When I woke up in the morning I checked on the bread and saw that it had baked a nice golden brown loaf. The smell was delicious. I removed it from the mold and left it to cool on the counter for several minutes.

After taking care of some other morning tasks I returned, sliced myself a couple pieces and put them in the toaster. Once they were toasted nicely I buttered them, added some jam and took my first bite. I was looking forward to the nice flavor of the fresh bread and jam, but the minute I bit into the bread I realized that something was not right. The bread was beautiful, but flavorless. It didn't take long to ascertain the problem. I mentally reviewed my preparation process from the previous evening and realized that I had forgotten to add the salt. The recipe calls for 3 1/2 cups of flour and only two teaspoons of salt, along with several other ingredients. You would think that in that much flour a couple teaspoons of salt wouldn't make that much difference, but it does. The bread that I baked looked nice but without the salt it lacked flavour. It is edible, but not enjoyable. It certainly wouldn't convince anyone to eat bread who had never tried it before.

Jesus compared us to salt. He said that we are the salt of the earth. Our salt is part of what draws unbelievers to his kingdom. Leave the salt out and the flavour will be ruined. No one will want to enjoy the "loaf" of his kingdom. As I think about this in terms of my own life, it reminds me that I can do lots of good things in this world and provide some benefit. But if I am not in relationship with my Saviour, I will lose my saltiness and became bland and flavourless. People will not be drawn to him through me simply because I do good things. They will be drawn because they "taste" the flavour of Christ in me. Without that salt, my life loses its purpose. Jesus spoke to this when he asked what use salt is that has lost its saltiness. It's not good for anything.

In a similar way if our churches simply become social gatherings where we come together to hear some good words, enjoy some coffee and fellowship and maybe do a few good things as a community, what value does it have? If Christ is not the center of our lives as communities of believers, then our churches are not really any different from any other community group. They may do some good, but they aren't really drawing people to the kingdom.

Next time I make bread, I'll make sure I add the salt. At the same time, I want to make sure I'm maintaining my saltiness by keeping Christ as my center.