Thursday, February 1, 2007

"...they were violating our little girl."

The clash of Human Rights is front and centre today. In two separate - but equal? - fronts, my rights vs. your rights vs. the rights of the community are in combat, thus raising questions as old as human history.

Let's get to the second story first.

In Regina, "the rights of a same-sex couple to marry faced off Wednesday against the rights of a Saskatchewan marriage commissioner who said he couldn't perform the service because of his religious beliefs." (The Vancouver Sun.)

Orville Nichols, the marriage commissioner, is a 70-year old Baptist who said that "performing same-sex marriages goes directly against all he knows."

While we all have a right to our opinions, there is something that Mr. Nichols apparently does not know. He is an officer of the law; and the law, in this case tells us, and him, that men can marry men and women can marry women in the sovereign state of Saskatchewan, whether some of us like it or not. Now, you and I may agree or disagree with this law, but that is at best idle popcorn chatter. We are not, most of us, officers of the law, or, except in our desire to be exemplary citizens, representatives of the state. Mr. Nichols is different. As are M.J. and B.R., the two gay men in search of a compliant marriage commissioner.

Mr. Nichols has a dreadful choice. He can offend his own, most deeply held, beliefs and do his job...or he can resign his duties and seek employment elsewhere. A friend of mine failed first year University because the crucial exam he needed to write and pass was scheduled for a Saturday morning, the Jewish Sabbath. We might question the practical wisdom of this decision, but we certainly cannot fault my friend for loyalty and observance.

The complexities and the stakes of the first story make it by far the more difficult to embrace.

A local couple are the proud and anxious parents of sextuplets. Two babies have already died.
A third child was seized by the provincial authorities on Monday evening to be given what the doctors believed to be an essential, life-saving blood transfusion. The parents are Jehovah's Witnesses, who deeply and utterly believe that the Bible in several declarations states that Christians must "abstain from blood."

This is hardly the first time the rights of believers and the rights of communities to protect children have collided. Such encounters appear with frightening regularity world-wide each year.

What makes this conflict all the more salient and compelling in February 2007 is the large context created by terrorism, civil wars, and the struggles of societies made newly "diverse" by large waves of immigration.

In France, the controversy rages over whether girls may wear head scarves to school, highlighting the clash in values between secular Europeans and fundamentalist Muslim immigrants.

In Holland, immigration officials are showing films and brochures that promote "European" values including equality of the sexes and tolerance of homosexuality, the clear suggestion being that if you want to live in our country, you have to accept these ideas.

Riots in Paris suburbs and arrests of London bombers and beheaders add to the flames.

Here, in a small town in Quebec, signs have gone up spelling out the do's and don'ts of local life - no concealing masks or scarves, for example.

In a country which prides itself on multiculturalism and diversity to the extent that we Canadians think we've practically invented these notions and that we are the strongest guards at the gate, in such a country, many thousands are still enraged that Mounties and motorcyclists can wear turbans rather than caps and helmets, and that children can wear ceremonial daggers to school.

Each of us, I believe, is tested daily in our ability to absorb and accommodate the unfamiliar. We are especially challenged to resist labelling, banishing and punishing that which we do not know.
Like many Western people, I do not like to see people in front of me in public wearing "masks," even if these shields have some religious significance. I want to see the person to whom I am speaking. I also don't want to see women subjugated to roles of lesser status, even if that is the tradition of a particular religion.

So you might rightly say, "Well, David, that's just too bad for you. That's your problem."

And you would be right. it's my problem that I have these reactions. But it is also your problem and yours and yours and yours and ours.

My own perception is that Jehovah's Witnesses have fundamentally misunderstood the directive they always quote in the Bible, which says, "abstain from blood."

I further believe that blood transfusion is a standard practice of modern medicine that not only makes sense, but saves lives both directly and in allowing complex procedures like heart surgery.

But I cannot tell you what to believe.

Where is Solomon when we really need him?