Medical Doctors and International Managers: Peter Piot’s Autobiography

A wonderful book to read: Peter Piot’s autobiography (No Time to Lose: A Life in Pursuit of Deadly Viruses, New York: Norton, 2012). With a great sense of urgency and humour, the Belgian medical doctor Peter Piot writes about his fight against Ebola and AIDS. It is a story about concrete people, patients and doctors, as well as about international organisations and institutions that are required to struggle against planetwide epidemies. Peter Piot gives us an interesting insight both in the concrete experiences of a medical doctor when working with his or her patients and in the political and managerial swamps of international organisations. His descriptions never lose the very human touch, as when he describes some of the crucial management lessons he learned, e.g. when a Malian companion, Michel Sidibé, tells him about the ways of the chameleon.

It is a refreshing and encouraging biography for all who have to struggle amidst managerial and political storms, or with prejudices, while being driven by a sense of urgency at the service of fellow human beings. There are some lessons to be learned here – also for the Roman Catholic Church -, but we learn them from a person who knows the art of building up alliances and friendships.

A Reply to Climate Sceptics

I feel grateful for Donald R. Prothero’s “How We Know Global Warming is Real and Human Caused” in Skeptic Magazine 17:2(2012) 14-22. Prothero first enumerates the evidence concerning anthropogenic global warming (carbon dioxide increase, melting polar ice caps, melting glaciers, sea level rise), then critically analyses the main arguments of climate change critics (particularly those who will admit the changes but not human responsibility), and ends with the important question “Why do people continue to question the reality of climate change?”.

To answer to this last question he points to the financial power and interests of “right-wing institutes and the energy lobby” and shows that we are facing here “a purely political controversy, rather than a scientific debate”.

I am particularly grateful that the article begins with a quote of Richard Feynman: “Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled”. Amongst scientists there is near unanimity concerning anthropogenic climate warming, while they agree and push that the matter be pursued even more thoroughly than the current Best Science Available (BAS – scientists will always, I think, agree on that point and, therefore, welcome articulate and well founded scientific debate). I fully agree with Prothero that “climate deniers have a lot of (…) things in common with creationists and other anti-science movements”. Let’s hope that political leadership will lend a better and more responsible ear to those scientists who attempt to be true to reality instead of attempting to obscure the facts out of political and financial interests. As a Roman Catholic theologian and Jesuit I also continue to hope that both the Churches and religions as a whole, as well as the worldwide religious institutions will assume their responsibilities and put their capacities at the best use to provide a decent response to the challenges of anthropogenic climate warming.

The Ambiguities of White Feminist Theologies

I finished reading the conclusions of “Hopeloos wit? Een feministische zoektocht naar de bevrijding van God op het kruispunt van racisme and seksisme” (Desperately White? A Feminist Quest for the Liberation of God at the Crossroads of Racism and Sexism), the doctoral thesis of one of our promising woman theologians at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies in Leuven, Anneleen Decoene. Her concern is that “white” feminist theologies are also at risk – and in fact succumb – to being oblivious and oppressive towards the situation and the thinking of non-white theologians … she confronts herself, as a white theologian, belonging to the self-evidently dominant tradition, with other theological movements, such as womanism or Jewish and Muslim feminism. Here is a white, West-European woman, becoming aware of her own prejudices and privileges, and attempting to overcome them. Is this a desperate move? Can one really overcome one’s own prejudice? Can one be fully aware of it?

It’s a question I often ask myself as a theologian – how much are we involved in power games? are we capable of unmasking them by ‘listening’ to our victims – as this victimhood often remains defined by ourselves: is the way we speak about victims not again a power game and a show of our (veiled) superiority? The question is important not only for white feminist theologians who become aware of their own racist or sexist bias, but for theologians in general, particularly in a global world marked by so much contradiction and injustice? What is it that will move “superior theologians” – and I count myself between these materially privileged people – to think and act differently? How would we, as Pharaohs, react to Moses’ plea for his people? How would we, as Pharisees, react to Jesus’ unyielding criticism? Can we do theology while standing in the position of the accused or of the powerful who abuses his or her power, wealth or prestige?

In a sense, this is the ever-recurring core experience of liberation theologies. It is also the experience at the core of the vows in religious life – poverty, obedience, chastity. How do we stand at the foot of the Lord’s cross, as those who continue to crucify him in our selfish power games? How can we not let the fact that we are whiskey priests (Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory”) overrun our commitments to the suffering and excluded people whom our loving God serves?

Rio+20

Tomorrow starts the Rio+20 Conference. An important event. I would just like to recommend the blog that two fellow jesuits, Pedro Walpole and José Ignacio Garcia, will maintain over the next week:

http://ecojesuit.com/

Europe’s Top Politician on Leadership and Climate Issues

Last Monday, May 7th, 2012, UCSIA invited Herman Van Rompuy, President of the Council of Europe, to deliver a talk about “Balanced Leadership in a Globalized Economy”. From his very challenging address – e.g. on the importance of institutions and on how, precisely in times of financial and economic crises, the political commitments of the European countries towards one another have to deepen -, I want to highlight two ideas that struck me particularly.

1. His reflections about leadership where those of a European top politician who, in these times of crisis, has a keen sensitivity for people’s anxieties and insecurities. I was struck by his very realistic considerations on the balance between long-term, visionary leadership (where the common destiny is emphasized) and the short-term leadership in need of the approval of the people. “Those who want to move too fast are prophets, those who move too slow are historians”. How does one balance the need for the larger and broader vision with the concern to bring people along so that one receives their mandate for the long view? How can a prophet respect the rhythm of the people his or her prophecy wants to serve? And, how can people, who live with day to day concerns and fears, become the heirs to a vision that moves them beyond their direct world into uncharted territory? How do politicians articulate a “patient firmness” in the midst of a crisis?

2. I was also particularly struck and happy with H. Van Rompuy’s clear statements about the seriousness of the climate crisis: it is, in his eyes, a “potentially dramatic situation” and he obviously considers it a priority, precisely in that tension between the long-term prophetic vision and the short-term challenge to involve people in profound changes. Unfortunately, I cannot say that this kind of public show of awareness of the crucial importance of the climate crisis appears often in the discourse of key politicians, and I hope that the words of H. Van Rompuy will have been heard. Sometimes, the discrete but firm statement of a matter may have more effect than the passionate prophetic shouting.

Good Introduction to Liberation Theologies

Those of us who are looking for a good introduction to liberation theology and who understand French, will value the November 2011 issue of the French-Canadian periodical Relations, which devotes a set of articles to liberation theology on the occasion of the anniversary of the publication in 1971 of Gustavo Gutiérrez’ Teología de la liberación. The various articles, written by Jean-Claude Ravet, Yves Carrier, Gregory Baum, Nidia Arrobo Rodas, Claude Lacaille, Carmiña Navia Velasco, Guy Côté, and François Houtart, focus on the history of liberation theology particularly in Latin America, on some of its methodological features such as the basic communities and the use of the bible, on special themes such as the indigenous theologies, the place of women and the challenges posed by the contemporary ecological crisis. Attention is also paid to the fact that liberation theological perspectives developed in several Christian denominations and also in Jewish and Islamic contexts. An evaluation of how liberation theology influenced the Christian social movement in Québec illustrates the on-going importance of its approach and methodology. Much information can be gleaned from a careful reading of the articles and one also finds a good introductory bibliography. This is a very well presented thematic issue of Relations.

Personally, I would have been interested also in ideas about how contextual theologies such as liberation theologies can be articulated in the face of worldwide issues and how theologies that are connected to particular geographic regions and particular challenges interact when they are responding to planet-wide realities that require addressing both at local and global levels. How can liberation projects in these new contexts be articulated in their mutual interactions?

A New Weblog

Today, Luc Reychler, a close colleague at the K.U.Leuven and an international specialist in conflict transformation, showed me his new blog: Diplomatic Thinking Garden. There he will post some of his articles, as well as some opinions on recent events and on peace building. Luc is very fond of metaphors and it is not surprising that he introduces the idea of a garden to illustrate the complexity of peace building. I recommend the blog very highly.