Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Volunteers don’t set up succession plans

Author: Jim Taylor

In case you missed it, last week was National Volunteer Week. What, nobody volunteered to tell you? I’m hardly surprised. Volunteering typically occurs in the background, unseen, unnoticed. Only aspiring politicians publicize their volunteer activities.

            And yet an estimated 2.7 million Canadians contribute close to two billion hours of volunteer service every year. Without volunteers, every charity in the country would grind to a standstill. Non-profits would generate deficits. Hospitals, health clinics, airports – all use volunteers to ease your passage through their premises.

            In this context, I think particularly of a volunteer who has almost singlehandedly changed the lives of 45 single-mother families in Bolivia, the poorest nation in South America.

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The risks of unknown goals

Author: Jim Taylor

t’s a sure sign of spring. On a misty moist morning, the worms come out of the ground. By the hundreds. They emerge on one side of the road, and try to cross to the other side.

            Why does a worm cross the road? Might as well ask a chicken.

            But worms do seem to have some kind of deep-seated (if that’s possible in a tube measured more by length than depth) compulsion to surface from the soil to seek greener pastures.

           It takes a worm a long time to cross a road. Only when I watch closely can I discern movement at all. The front end slithers forward a fraction. Then it has to pause while it drags the hind end along. It extends. It compacts. So it can extend again.

        If the two ends of a worm could talk to themselves while they crossed a road, I can imagine a conversation something like this:

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Categories: Soft Edges

Tags: worms, flirting




Religion doesn’t offer ‘get out of jail free’ cards

Author: Jim Taylor

The polygamy trials have started in B.C. On Tuesday April 18, Winston Blackmore and James Oler were arraigned in court in Cranbrook, on charges of polygamy.

             The prosecution will argue that there is no doubt about Blackmore and Oler’s actions. Blackmore has boasted about having 27 wives, some as young as 15, and 147 children. Almost the entire student body at the school in the community of Bountiful, near the U.S. border in southern B.C., consists of Blackmore’s children and grandchildren.

           The defence will claim that polygamy was a legitimate expression of their religious faith. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the Canadian Constitution specifically identifies religion as the first of its “fundamental freedoms” for all citizens: “Everyone has… freedom of conscience and religion…”

            That will be the crux of the case – does freedom of religion take precedence over the laws of the land?

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Re-program your reactions

Author: Jim Taylor

Joan and I bought a new car recently. It almost makes me obsolete. It will brake if there’s something in front. It will brake if there’s something behind. It will slow down when the car in front slows down. It will stay in its own lane. It will warn me if I’m not paying enough attention.

            All these programs run on what’s called an algorithm. Basically, that’s a computer program, a step by step set of coded instructions that’s supposed to take into account all possible circumstances.

            An algorithm has no ethical principles. It is utterly amoral. It just does what it’s told to do.

            I wonder what it would do with the classic question posed by ethicists. There’s a beautiful maiden strapped to the railway tracks. And a runaway train coming. You can’t stop the train. But you could throw a switch and divert the train onto a different track, where it will wipe out a work crew.


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Categories: Soft Edges

Tags: ethics, algorithms, cars




Turning shame into celebration

Author: Jim Taylor

Some evangelical churches used to practice “shunning”. (I don’t think it’s as common as it used to be.) If a member was judged to have violated the moral standards of the community, that member was shunned. Shut out, essentially. Cut off from contact with other members of the community, sometimes even from members of their own family. 

            The purpose of shunning was not to make the person feel guilty. Rightly or wrongly, that had already been determined. The purpose was to make victims feel ashamed. 

            Shaming was also, I submit, the purpose of crucifixion. Crucifixion was more than a means of executing someone. A spear in the gut, a club on the head, a knife to the neck, killed much more quickly, more efficiently. 

            Crucifixion was designed to cause shame. 

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The man who didn’t die

Author: Jim Taylor

As Easter nears, I think about two men – one who died, and one who didn’t. Jesus died; Barabbas didn’t. Or maybe it’s the other way around, in the long term.

            By a cruel irony, when governor Pontius Pilate offers to free Jesus as a goodwill gesture for the Jewish Passover, an angry crowd demands that he release, instead, a thief and murderer named “Barabbas.” Barabbas -- “the son of the father”.

            And so the man who said “The Father and I are one” was executed on a trumped-up charge of claiming to be King of the Jews, while the man named “Son of the Father” was set free.

            The coincidence is so keen, it almost demands further exploration.

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Don’t blame natural disasters on an almighty God

Author: Jim Taylor

A week ago, a landslide, mudslide, or flash flood engulfed the city of Mocoa in Colombia. The city vanished. At least 200 died instantly; 200 more were injured; another 200 were missing.

            As early news reports filtered out, one despairing resident uttered the predictable explanation: “It must be God’s will.”

            No, no, no, a thousand times no!

            It’s too easy to attribute natural disasters to supernatural causes. Insurance companies call them “Acts of God.” When Hurricane Katrina devastated vast swaths of New Orleans in 2005, a member of Congress representing Baton Rouge declared, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans! We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

            Name any natural disaster, and someone will recite the mantra of God’s will.

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Immortality is coming! Immortality is coming!

Author: Jim Taylor

“What kind of work do you do?” the surgeon asked, tilting back in his chair. The two of us were having a get-acquainted interview.

            “I edit books,” I told him.

            “What kind of books?”

            “Religious books, mostly.”

            He leaned forward, suddenly intent. “And what’s religion going to do when medicine delivers immortality, instead of religion?” he demanded. 

            I tried to explain that religion wasn’t just about earning eternal life. And it isn’t, though many people do look forward to living forever in heaven. (No one looks forward to living forever in hell.) 

            I don’t think I convinced him.

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A First Nation rises from extinction

Author: Jim Taylor

Whack! The judge’s gavel came down, and the province of B.C. lost any undisputed authority over the West Kootenays -- essentially, the whole south-flowing Columbia River basin.

            The headwaters of the Columbia River flow north, through the East Kootenays. Then, at what used to be called the “Big Bend,” the Columbia turns south. It fills a series of lakes behind hydroelectric dams, runs past Revelstoke through the Arrow Lakes, past the Cominco smelter at Trail, and into the U.S. 

            Along the way, the Columbia picks up several large tributaries. The Slocan River, flowing down from one of the loveliest lakes in B.C., joins the Columbia at Castlegar. So does the Kootenay River, almost as big as the Columbia itself, with its own series of hydro dams that created West Kootenay Power, now known as Fortis. 

            Last Monday, Judge Lisa Mrozinsky ruled that a supposedly extinct First Nation, the Sinixt, still exists. And by implication, they can claim aboriginal rights to most of the West Kootenays -- roughly, from Trail in the west, to Creston in the east, to Revelstoke in the north. A huge territory – and hugely important for B.C.’s resources, industries, and tourism.

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