The Christmas concert (seasonal fiction)

By Dennis Gruending

The school Christmas concert is on in the town hall tonight and Dale has a big part in it. When they pull back the curtain on the stage and fourteen kids stand there holding pieces of cardboard with block letters spelling the words “Merry Christmas”, he is going to be the letter M. He is also Joseph in the crib scene. His mother has made him a headpiece from an old orange dishtowel. He has a fake brown beard, and sandals borrowed especially for the concert from his cousin in Saskatoon

Miss Melanson, the principal, has overseen three weeks of happy rehearsals. She stands five feet eleven. The scent of her perfume sets fire to your nostrils and catches in your throat. Her hair is a shoe polish black but white at the roots, and she wears framed glasses with thick lenses that magnify her eyes in such a way that any student who catches her stern gaze freezes like rabbit in the headlights. The awe inspired by Miss Melanson’s presence, however, does not prevent students from poking fun behind her back. Her Christian names are Mary and Theresa — Mary Theresa Melanson. She signs report cards and notes home with the initials M.T., letters that loop and flow on the page. M. T. Melanson. So the students call Empty. Empty Melanson.

Miss Melanson’s Christmas program has a little bit of everything. There are carols sung by a thin-voiced children’s choir; actually, it’s mostly a girls’ choir because even fear of Miss Melanson doesn’t move boys over ten years of age to sing. Then there are the dramas. Miss Melanson has produced a coup this year with Dickens’s Christmas Carol because a girl who has a bone disease and actually wears a leg brace is playing Tiny Tim. Then there’s the crib scene which involves every child in the primary grades, with many of them being shepherds and others sheep.

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Bev Oda ignored CIDA, betrayed KAIROS

By Dennis Gruending

A year ago I wrote stories about the Conservative government’s ham-handed bullying of the Canadian ecumenical social justice group KAIROS. The story is now in the news again in a way that would be comic if it were not so nasty. It provides yet another glimpse into the ideologically driven spitefulness of the government, not to mention the lack of competence and truthfulness on the part of Bev Oda, the minister in charge of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Let’s begin with some background. KAIROS is an ecumenical human rights and justice organization that acts on behalf of 11 of Canada’s churches and church-based organizations. It includes under its umbrella the Anglican, Catholic, Christian Reformed, Lutheran, Presbyterian and United Churches, as well as the Mennonite Central Committee, the Quakers and others.

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Blair, Hitchens and the Munk debate about religion

By Dennis Gruending

The much-anticipated Munk Centre debate in Toronto between former Prime Minister Tony Blair and writer Christopher Hitchens has come and gone. A sell out crowd of about 2600 people paid up to $500 each to sit in plush seats at Roy Thomson Hall and …

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Tony Blair: My Political Life

By Dennis Gruending

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is set to debate acerbic writer Christopher Hitchens at the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto on whether religion is a force for good or evil. Blair, of course, is the former three-term Labour prime minister who stunned most everyone by converting to Roman Catholicism just after he left office in 2007. He will argue that religious faith has a major part to play in shaping the values that guide the modern world, and can and should be a force for progress. Hitchens, also British, is a former leftist who now lives in the United States and is ill with cancer. He has become a fervent supporter of the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq and finds himself on the lecture circuits and at dinner tables of those on the political right. He is a harsh critic of what he calls “fascism with an Islamic face” — but his scorn embraces all world religions. He published a book in 2007 called, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

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Best books 2010, Harperland:The Politics of Control

By Dennis Gruending

[This brief piece was published in the November 22 edition of The Hill Times newspaper in Ottawa. The paper asked a number of us to choose a political book that we liked in 2010].

Journalism is commonly called history on …

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Harper extends Afghan war without parliament

By Dennis Gruending

Is anyone really surprised that, after years of solemnly promising Canadian troops would be pulled out of Afghanistan in 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has abruptly shifted course and is now saying Canada will stay an extra three years until 2014? It’s a cynical measure that puts me in mind of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, a book written in 2003 by American comedian (now Senator) Al Franken about George W. Bush and his cronies. Harper and Peter MacKay, his lame duck defence minister, are clearly not people to be believed. Who is to say that as 2014 approaches they don’t conspire with NATO member politicians and generals to move the Afghan goal posts yet again?

Harper says that he is not extending the war. Canadian soldiers will remain “inside the wire” and act as trainers for Afghan troops rather than as combatants. Why should we believe him? American generals and politicians in the Vietnam War maintained for years that their troops were acting as trainers and not as combatants. Of course, that proved to be a lie. The role played by Canadian soldiers will be ambivalent by definition. There is already talk that such training could well evolve into battlefield “mentoring,” which means leading Afghan troops in combat. And what about the joint task force commandos known as JTF2? They have been operating clandestinely in Afghanistan since late 2001 without any public oversight by Parliament. What will they be doing until 2014 and possibly after that date?

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Mark Juergensmeyer on global rebellion and religion

By Dennis Gruending

The American sociologist and professor of religious studies, Mark Juergensmeyer is known and respected for his investigations into global religion. His latest contribution is a book called Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, from Christian Militias to al Queda. Juergensmeyer believes that the contemporary world is experiencing what he calls a “religious rebellion” and by studying it he hopes to offer proposals that will lead to an accommodation between radical religion and the secular world.

This matters to us in Canada where we cherish our reputation as a peaceable kingdom and the vast majority of religious adherents live out their faith in peace. But there are no tranquil islands in an increasingly globalized world of ubiquitous jet travel and secured Internet chat rooms. It is in Canada that radical Sikhs built and placed the bomb on an Air India jet that exploded over the Atlantic in 1985. That ugly act killed 329 people, including 280 Canadian citizens, mostly of Indian birth or descent. It was the largest mass murder in Canadian history. Mohammad Momin Khawaja of Ottawa has been convicted of participating in a terrorist scheme being planned in Great Britain to build a remote-control device that could trigger bombs. In Brampton, Ontario 11 members of the so-called Toronto 18 have pleaded guilty and been sentenced for plotting, incompetently as it turns out, to mount attacks on Parliament, military bases and nuclear stations. We are not immune to religious extremism, much of it now based, at least in part, on the war that Canada and other Western countries have been waging for nine years in Afghanistan.

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Pulpit and Politics wins in 2010 Canadian Blog Awards

By Dennis Gruending

My Pulpit and Politics blog placed second in the Politics category of the 2010 Canadian Blog Awards. Winners are based entirely on the number of votes they receive from readers, so thanks to everyone who took the time to cast a ballot. You can find the …

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