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

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Published on Sunday, September 9, 2018

Brazil’s national lobotomy

The video images of flames shooting skyward out of the National Museum of Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro, stabbed me in the heart.

            I spent close to 20 years alternating between president, secretary, and grunt volunteer with the infinitely smaller Lake Country Museum. I know from personal experience how hard it is to document the past, especially from societies that maintained no written texts. 

            Every artifact, every letter, every story, is like a clue in a mystery novel. Clue by laborious clue, a museum puts together a coherent picture of what life was like, back then -- whenever “then” was. 

            The Rio fire, in effect, ripped out almost all the pages from the novel about South America. 

            How can you read a novel that isn’t there any longer?

            Brazil’s National Museum held the largest collection of artifacts and archives in South America. Over 20 million items, ranging from the skeleton of a uniquely South American dinosaur to the skull of a woman who lived 11,600 years ago. 

            It had vast collections of textiles, of beetles and insects, of indigenous crafts. They’ve gone forever. 

            Also a number of irreplaceable mummies. One came from Egypt, where you expect mummies to come from. Others had been preserved by the thin air and bitter cold of the high Andes, or by the heat and aridity of the Atacama Desert. And a shrunken head from the Amazon, another example of mummification techniques practiced by indigenous tribes long before Columbus “discovered” the New World. 


A continental disaster

            It was not just a Brazilian museum. It was the museum of a whole continent. 

            Which befits Brazil’s unique status in South America. Aside from being the only Portuguese-speaking nation in a Spanish-speaking continent, Brazil’s land area is roughly equal to all the other countries combined. Its population is roughly the same as the total of all the other countries.

            Only the scientific library of some 470,000 volumes, including 2,400 rare works, survived the fire; it was housed in a separate building. 

            An estimated 90 per cent  of everything else is gone. Or damaged. If not burned in the fire, then soaked by the tons of water poured into the flaming ruins by firefighters. 

            Although two fire hydrants that could have put more water into the flames weren’t working – an unintended result of the government’s austerity measures. 

            Former environment minister Marina Silva called the fire “a lobotomy of the Brazilian memory”.

            AnthropologistMércio Gomes compared the loss to the burning of the library of Alexandria in 48 BC – a catastrophe from which the world has never fully recovered.


Misplaced priorities

            Yet there is a sense that the National Museum’s destruction is a symptom of Brazil’s own economic malaise. Rio’s fire chief Colonel Roberto Robaday said the firefighters did not have enough water to fight the fire. “The two nearest hydrants had no supplies,” he said. 

            Water had to be trucked from a nearby lake. 

            Brazil has taken a long time to recover from the military repression of the 1970s. Although its governments are democratically elected now, the legacy of privilege and corruption persists. 

            Austerity programs have meant that essential infrastructure – like fire hydrants – didn’t get maintained.

            And the museum itself had no insurance. Another economy measure. 

            I fell in love with Rio when I first saw it, early one morning after a sleepless overnight flight from Miami. I thought it was the most beautiful city in the world. Fifty years later, after travel to about 50 more countries, I still think so.

            Yes, I know, Rio also has some of the most squalid and desperate slums in the world, its favelas And taxi drivers who think they’re all Juan Manuel Fangio re-incarnated. Plus a level of street crime that makes it unwise to carry anything valuable with you when you visit Rio’s fabled beaches. 

            That doesn’t change the city’s beauty.

            Or the legendary joie de vivre – “alegria de viver” in Portuguese -- of its people. 


Once it’s gone, it’s gone

            Last Sunday night, thanks to its government’s financial priorities, a huge part of their collective memory went up in smoke. 

            Tragically, most of us give little thought to preserving the crucial clues of our past. We trash our grandparents’ diaries. We use precious china for a cat feeding dish. We sell military medals at yard sales.

            When annual budgets have to be cut down, archives almost always rank near the bottom of the priority list. 

            The tragic truth of the Rio fire is this – once it’s gone, it’s gone. 


Copyright © 2018 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

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Lots and lots of mail about last week’s column. Alleged abuse within the Roman Catholic Church seems to be as hot a topic as gun control. 


Tom Watson agreed that “no institution will ever act in a way that imperils its own survival. And thus, yes, abuse of power applies to all institutions. However, there is a difference in that the Church claims not to be like other institutions which are of human origin; rather it alone claims divine origin. Even though I don't agree with that premise and see the Church the same as all other institutions -- of human origin and design -- it's nonetheless true to say that the Church, over centuries of history, has been accorded a greater amount of both power and respect than that given to any other institution. Where the Church has failed is in not recognizing and adhering to the maxim ‘to whom much has been given all the more is expected’.”


Chris Duxbury in Australia made a similar point: “I think any abuse is terrible. But, when it happens in the church it is even worse. Why? Because faith communities are supposed to be places of love and compassion, where we are all valued and safe. Unfortunately, when abuse occurs in the church and nothing is done about it, then it is sending a message that it is okay with God that abuse occurs. Now that is horrid. The church is supposed to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. The hands and feet of Jesus Christ would never be used to abuse or hurt. You are right, abuse happens in other institutions and groups; this is not right either, but when it happens in a church... well that is evil and twisted and makes God's love into a mockery.”


Sandy Warren wrote, “I am surprised by your message, which seems to say that because abuse of power happens across all kinds of organizations, anger at the Catholic Church is misdirected? I believe anger is the appropriate response to abuse of children and to those who protect the abusers. The widespread culture of abuse and coverup is reprehensible, and even more so in an organization that exists to spread God's love in the world. The fact that it has happened before is not in the least a mitigating factor.”


I had commented that I thought the critics of the RC church were not being fair. Frank Martens replied, “Considering the background of the Catholic Church, I think everyone is being more than fair in their criticisms. Your list of abuses barely touches on the hurt the Catholic Church and Catholism has had on the world.

            There were a lot of priests and nuns who gave up their lives for the Church and were honest in their celibacy and loyalty. But it is the basic tenets of those individuals who came before the Church had even started its rise in the world that were responsible for what the Church became. I’m referring, of course, to the teachings and person of ‘Apostle’ Paul.”


Wim Kreeft connected obsessive institutionalizing to the decline of the church in general: “One of the stories in the Bible that I find most insightful is the Tower of Babel. To me this story is the story of our society.  Too many people are working on building towers -- whether that be church, corporation, or any other entity.  Soon the tower becomes the reason for existence.  New people come along and they cannot buy into the dream of building a tower – so they walk away.  Today many people have walked away from the church.  They couldn’t see the value of building a tower that no longer spoke to their experience.  They can’t understand the language.  Too often the church building, the corporate power, or the political party takes precedence over the value of people.”


Steve Roney disagreed with that basic point: “I think it is common to see institutions or corporations acting to imperil their own survival. One example is the current tendency to ridiculously large compensation packages for CEOs. 

            “The problem is that, as you say, corporations and institutions really make no decisions and do nothing. Everything is done by individuals [within them]. It is common for the individuals making the decisions to make them in their own interest, not in the interest of the corporation or institution.

            “In the scandals in the Catholic Church, the guilty parties seem to have systematically been acting against the interests of the institution. Just at the most obvious and practical level, pedophilia has cost the Church huge sums in lawsuits and settlements. It would, therefore, have been in the best interests of that corporation merely as a corporation to have cracked down hard on perpetrators, not shielded them.”


Isabel Gibson agreed “that all institutions are prone to abuse of power. Maybe the particularly outraged reaction to the Roman Catholic church's abuses has a few causes.

            “First, the victims of the abuse were children, towards whom we feel a special protectiveness.

            “Second, the hypocrisy of the perpetrators -- who were holding others to a moral code they were grossly violating themselves -- is galling. 

            “Third, they violated the trust of their communities. (Abuse by paramilitary forces in dictatorships is a dreadful abuse of power, but maybe no more than we expect.)”


Chris Blackburn: “The New York Times had an interesting article last week suggesting that Pope Francis may have been inclined to look the other way if the high-ranking individuals connected to abuse charges were liberals supporting his ideas for reform of the church, rather than conservatives. No individual, even the Pope, has complete authority over an institution such as the RC Church. In many ways this is good, but I have a feeling that the institution itself is not healthy.”


Helen Reid didn’t think the Catholic Church was the only institution at fault: “The difficulty of including the church with other institutions is that no other institution claims to have protection of the vulnerable, compassion for the weak, or justice for the oppressed as its core values. Sadly [the United Church of Canada] has its share of coverups and protection of the powerful, some that are ongoing.”


Linda Ames defended Pope Francis: “He's working against centuries of inertia and making remarkable changes from the top -- asking the renunciants to live like renunciants. Of course there will be resistance to taking back the 'vows of poverty' and insisting on chastity with his underlings who may have been living like potentates in their priories. As you noted in your article, the rules have changed in the church since 2002. We should give the man a break and the opportunity to do the changes he is trying to make.

            “It's so easy to criticize from the comfort of our armchair.”


Franklin Carter had a correction to an earlier article, in which I stated that Saudi activist Raif Badawi had been sentenced to 100 lashes and ten years in prison. “He was, in fact, sentenced to receive 1,000 lashes. He hasn’t received all of them yet. He was also fined approximately $300,000 Cdn.”






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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. (This is to circumvent filters that think too many links constitute spam.)

                       Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8

                       Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca

                       Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>

                       I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom

                       Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.

                       Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet



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