Toward the Repeal of Criminal Code Section 43

Dr. William Morrow
Professor, School of Religion

It’s often said that trying to get a group of academics to agree on something is a bit like herding cats. As a rule, people in universities take pride in their independent thinking and the virtues of healthy skepticism. Recently, I had an opportunity to herd some cats.

On the weekend of Oct. 20 and 21, a group of 25 people came together to hammer out a statement calling on Christian churches to support Call to Action #6 in the final report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Indian Residential Schools (TRC). This article calls on the federal government to repeal section 43 of Canada’s Criminal Code, which provides a defence for parents to use physical force (i.e., spanking) as a means of correcting children. Of course, corporal punishment was widely used in the Indian Residential Schools.

To this day, certain constituencies in Canadian Christianity are among the most vociferous advocates for the retention of section 43. However, many mainline Canadian denominations have committed themselves to carrying out the calls to action of the TRC. The goal of the conference was to craft a statement that provided a theological justification for supporting the widespread conclusions of social scientific research, which over the years has unambiguously demonstrated the deleterious effects of even “mild” corporal punishment on children’s development. Our hope is that churches can use our statement as an impetus to support current efforts to repeal section 43 of the Criminal Code now before the Senate.

The people who gathered for the consultation came under the auspices of a Canada 150 connections grant awarded by SSHRC with additional funding from Queen’s School of Religion. They included university professors, graduate students, prominent church leaders (including two bishops), undergraduates, and community members. Several were of First Nations or Metis heritage. It was appropriate that this event was connected with Queen’s not only because the University is committed to the TRC’s calls for reconciliation, but because of its own history. Queen’s University began as a college for preparing ministers for the Church. There is a strong likelihood that some of the graduates of what was once Queen’s College, as well as the former Queen’s Theological College played a part in the Indian Residential School system.

The conference provided some good lessons for all those who find themselves in the place of having to herd cats. While I was the Principle Investigator, the chief organizer was Dr. Val Michaelson. Together with her assistant, Kacey Dool she spent a great deal of time thinking carefully and consulting widely about how to set up a useful group process for decision-making. And that made all the difference. So, by the time I was called on to get 25 people of very different backgrounds to agree on a common statement, it was actually a pleasant task. The statement this consultation issued can be found through this link:

Democracy Without Dignity: A Confucian Critique of President Trump

Dr. James Miller
 Director, School of Religion

img_0122This post originally appeared on the Spirituality, Nature and Culture Laboratory blog.

The events of the past week have marked the point of absolute contrast between the world’s two most important countries and their leaders. In China, President Xi Jinping has consolidated his power throughout the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), beginning with the bravura performance of a three and a half hour opening speech, during which he touched not a drop of water. By the end of the congress, he was confirmed in his position for another five years, his supporters were elected to key government positions, and his thinking established as part of the CPC’s ruling doctrine for decades to come. 

On the other side of the Pacific, witness the continuing omnishambles of the Trump administration, which seemingly stumbles from scandal to scandal, one tweet at a time. Trump’s standing surely reached a nadir this week with Senator Flake’s excoriating indictment of the president’s character. “Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior,” he declaimed, “has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.”

The contrast between the two countries could not be clearer: China enjoys dignity without democracy; the United States has democracy without dignity.

But this apparent contrast masks many areas in which the political machinery of Beijing and Washington enjoys many similarities. Both systems rely on a network of relationships and the trading of favours among the political class to get things done. The Chinese term guanxi, which denotes the culture of relationships and favours that is central to the Confucian ethos, is no less applicable in the corridors of power in Washington than in the government compound of Zhongnanhai in Beijing.

Secondly, factions in both systems resort to politically-charged investigations into corruption and lawbreaking for political gain. President Xi consolidated power through a ruthless anti-corruption drive aimed at the highest levels of government, as well as the petty officials whose venality threatened to undermine the CPC’s popular legitimacy. At the same time, the use of special prosecutors and FBI investigations is no less a hallmark of contemporary US politics. Both can have a chilling effect on the machinery of government, where government officials fear the slightest misstep could result in investigation, summons, or even jail time.

Thirdly, both systems work hard to control media narratives through techniques of propaganda, ranging from the active suppression of sensitive issues in China, to the wholesale denigration of mainstream media in America. Both administrations worry about the spread of “fake news,” or narratives that challenge the ruling orthodoxy, and both are equally adept in their employment of social media for political gain.

At many levels, the day-to-day business of Chinese and US politics is a lot more similar than one might think, given the radical difference in the two political philosophies. But there is one thread that runs through the Confucian approach to ethical government, which emphasizes a key difference between Trump and Xi: the virtue of self-control, precisely and carefully displayed by President Xi during his marathon speech at the start of CPC congress.

In Analects 16.7 Confucius says,

“The gentleman has three things to be cautious about: In his youth, when his blood and energy are not yet settled, he must be cautious about sex. In his middle years, when his blood and energy are just strong, he must be cautious about fighting. In his old age, when his blood and energy are already weak, he must be cautious about greed.”

Trump seems to embody all three types of recklessness identified by Confucius. His behaviour towards women has been roundly condemned; his warmongering words regarding North Korea provoked fear and consternation across the world; he unashamedly made his lust for wealth and power into the basis of his media personality.

Why do these moral failings matter? Because democracy needs dignity if it is not to descend into disorder. This does not mean that our leaders have to abide by some impossible standard of personal moral purity; after all, they are only human. But it does mean that in a republican system, without the benefit of monarchs to take on the symbolism of the state, it is incumbent upon the president to act presidentially.

President Trump understands one aspect of this. When people disrespect the flag or fail to stand for the national anthem, he takes it personally. But Confucius long ago understood that the authority vested in symbols of power, such as the flag, has to be properly earned. President Trump has so far failed to demonstrate that he has the dignity and the self-restraint to command the worthiness of the flag, and the sacrifices of soldiers in its name.

Dignity without democracy runs the risk of being a clanging gong that signifies nothing. But democracy without dignity is an equally dangerous formula that threatens to undermine the very legitimacy of democracy as a political system.


The Handmaid’s Tale is Back

Dr. Bill James
Professor Emeritus
School of Religion


The Handmaid’s Tale is all over the place these days in a remarkable resurgence that Atwood herself declares as “weird.” It feels a bit that way to me too, as I recall the novel’s appearance in the mid-80s. I taught the book for several years in RELS 161, Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture. Its immediate referents were, as I recall, the AIDS epidemic, the Cold War, and feminism. Then and now, the strong underlying themes of religion and the state and of totalitarianism loomed.

This retrospection got me to dig up an article I had written and published in Japan in the early 90’s, “Narrative as Prayer and Politics in The Handmaid’s Tale,” which was reissued in 1994 for students in RELS 161. A scanned version is available here. I was relieved to reread it and find that it isn’t entirely an embarrassment. In fact, its focus on the narrator’s inner monologue as a form of prayer strikes me as perennially relevant. Augustine, in The Confessions, first helped us understand that one’s relation to the deepest aspect of the self is akin to the relation to the divine.

atwood1This inner monologue—which novels represent so well and which movies often fail at or ignore—disappeared as a feature of the 1990 film by Volker Schlöndorff. Though the film starred an illustrious quintet of principals, and though the screenplay was written by renowned playwright Harold Pinter, it was lamentable in many respects. Due to changes in midstream, Pinter felt the film became a “hotch-potch.” Natasha Richardson, the female lead, thought the Offred’s interior monologue would be handled by voice-over narrations, but then these were cut out, reportedly because Pinter was against them.


thehandmaidstale1The American television series of The Handmaid’s Tale by Bruce Miller just began airing in April 2017, in Canada on the Bravo network. The tv series is acclaimed as a visually impressive and an emotionally suspenseful drama representing the best of what television can offer. Elisabeth Moss, in the role of Offred, expresses her innermost thoughts in voice-over in assertion of rebellion against the totalitarian control and distortions of the regime. From the beginning as a viewer I felt that the novel had been restored to life.

The discussions about The Handmaid’s Tale continue in various media, usually revolving its relevance in the Age of Trump. But some of the tangential issues are fascinating too. For me it’s the revival of challenges to Atwood’s feminism as she continues a decades-long resistance against being called a feminist. An article in Jezebel recently challenged Atwood’s view that women’s rights are human rights. The Jezebel piece went on to query how Elisabeth Moss could belong to Scientology while portraying a woman living under oppression. Moss has refused to talk about the negative aspects of her religion, with the allegations of forced abortions, confinements, and various accounts of physical and sexual abuse.

Again, memories of old controversies return. It was in 1988 that I reviewed Russell Miller’s critical, though popular and unauthorized, biography of Scientology’s founder, Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard. At the time I wondered whether the religion would survive the founder’s death but here it is, still with us, and still the subject of movies and articles and investigations. Atwood’s feminism and Moss’s religion are versions of the old question of whether a bad person can produce good art. Or of literature and belief: What’s the fit between the worldview of the text and its author’s beliefs? In the Church it was the Donatist controversy: Is the Sacrament still efficacious when received from the hands of an unworthy priest? In some ways contemporary celebrity culture, which reveals all about about any public figure, augments the problem. The answer, too, may be an old one. As D. H. Lawrence said: “Never trust the teller, trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” Fascinating, recurring, and age-old questions.



Breaking Out Of The Guild

Dr. William Morrow
School of Religion

9780802868657My new book on biblical law has just been published: An Introduction to Biblical Law (Eerdmans). This was my first comprehensive effort to write something in my field for people who don’t belong to the guild, i.e., for more than “the twenty-five people in the world who care.”Actually, if you are schooled to the point of becoming a creature of the academy, it can be pretty hard to break out of the guild.

That insight struck me forcibly after recently giving a public lecture on the nature of the Islamic State. I used a number of theories current in the academic study of religion and violence to explain what I thought was going on. My audience, however, was not particularly interested in the theoretical perspectives I used. Q &A quickly moved to discussion of the current military and social challenges posed by ISIS. I came away from that experience wondering about the connection between scholarship and the needs of a general readership or public.

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For example, in Religious Studies we tend to spend a lot of time agonizing about the definition of religion—or whether there is one. But, I don’t think my audience cared very much for such nuances. In fact, I am sure they were confident they knew what religion was; if they didn’t like the religious vision of ISIS, they knew why. In part, I think that might be a function of the fact that I was addressing something of immediate concern. That’s one of the reasons why I prefer to discuss historical events rather than current events in my course on “Religion and Violence.” Time gives a certain kind of distance that allows for reflection and theorizing. Nevertheless, we scholars in religious studies have an obligation to speak to the publics that don’t belong to the guild.

I have undertaken that commitment in writing my new book. I am not sure what the experts will say about it, but I hope it says something to a public that needs to know how the knowledge we create can benefit them.


Teaching in an Age of Islamophobia

Dr. Brett Potter
Adjunct Professor
School of Religion

Last month, a Canadian university student walked into a mosque in Quebec City and gunned down six innocent people – critically wounding five more – who had simply been there to pray. This horrific event in a place of worship followed a grim week where the United States government issued a travel ban against seven Muslim-majority countries, a decision widely condemned as religious discrimination and resulting in countless stories of mistreatment, confusion, and fear. The American Academy of Religion’s official statement on the “Muslim ban” points out the way this policy “poisons the public’s understanding of Islam in particular and religion in general.” The fact is that many people in North America, including parts of Canada, have little understanding or experience of Islam, which creates an opening for fear-based distortions and mischaracterizations – in short, for the rising tide of Islamophobia which has resulted in escalating violence, threats, and assaults against Muslims in recent years in both the U.S. and Canada.

Such stories of xenophobia, exclusion, and violence against religious minorities, particularly Muslims, are uncomfortably close to home. Especially in our generally tolerant and pluralistic Canadian context, we find these events shocking and surprising. One thing they ought to remind us of, though, is just how important teaching and learning about religion is, especially for university students. It is not too much of a stretch to say that education – learning how to think – is the best countermeasure against propaganda, which tells you what to think. A university course in world religions offers the opportunity to correct misperceptions and allow students of whatever religious or non-religious background to engage with complex spiritual traditions like Islam from a non-reductive, non-ideologically driven perspective. Religious studies is the polar opposite of the online propaganda that has “radicalized” white nationalist killers like Dylann Roof and Alexander Bissonnette to enact terrible acts of violence on faith communities – it opens up questions rather than closing young minds.

In a media-saturated world where misunderstandings, inflammatory rhetoric, and distortions of truth are ubiquitous, teaching about the diverse array of global religious traditions is thus itself a subversive act – cultivating knowledge instead of ignorance, critical engagement instead of sound bites. Exploring religion from an inclusive, integrative, yet critically rigorous perspective works against ideologies of nativism and xenophobia by exposing students to differing points of view and alternative narratives – in short, to diversity rather than narrow-mindedness.

I would even go so far as to say that the academic study of religion also helps cultivate empathy and understanding, two qualities seemingly in short supply in 2017 but desperately needed in a political situation marked by fear and suspicion. In the Religion and Social Ethics course I taught at Queen’s this past fall, we took as a central image the figure of the stranger. Hospitality to the stranger or alien is a theme common to all major religious traditions – from the Jewish imperative to treat the stranger with respect since the Hebrew people were once themselves “strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33-34) to the Buddhist emphasis on kindness and welcome to all, regardless of class or creed. Though in practice religions can and certainly have become dangerously exclusive – trading in hospitality for hostility – the majority of religious communities hold out the ideal of embracing the other, not harming them, as a central ethical tenet.

Religious studies as a discipline does not ask students to become religious, or to choose a particular religious tradition or community; it focuses on context and change rather than doctrine and law. Yet at its best, religious studies, much like the belief systems it investigates, encourages open-mindedness and hospitality, especially to the “stranger” who may act or believe differently. I have been have fortunate to have students ranging from committed atheists to just about every religious orientation – Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Mormon – a benefit of teaching in diverse Southern Ontario. Teaching and learning about religion is a means to a deeper understanding of why the world is the way it is, and why people live, love, and pray the way they do. This understanding, paired with empathy and open-mindedness, helps cultivate students of any or no faith who are not easily swayed by ideologies of hate and prejudice.

Sense and Sensitivity

Dr. James Miller
Professor of Chinese Religions, School of Religion
Director of Cultural Studies
Queen’s University


Teaching and researching religion in China has been one of the enduring passions of my academic career. Contrary to what you might expect, there’s a wealth of research and teaching about religion that takes place in China. China is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, with 54 official minority nationalities, each with their own culture and tradition. China is also one of the most religiously diverse countries, and officially recognizes five faiths, Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism and Daoism. Only one of these, Daoism, originated in China, so China’s religious landscape is a fascinating and diverse patchwork of cross-cultural influences from all over the world.

Since 1979 the Chinese constitution has guaranteed freedom of belief. Given the previous crackdowns on religion, this has meant that there has been an enormous boom in religious activities, with temples, churches and mosques being newly constructed or restored all over the country in the past thirty years. But China’s ruling communist party remains officially atheist, and this revival of religion has inevitably been a cause for concern, in part because of China’s long history of struggle between surging sectarian movements and the state.

Last year I was involved in a project funded by Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, which examined the lives and livelihood of Muslim communities in Shanghai. Our international research team carried out this research with a Chinese partner organization, and although we managed to oversee several research projects, the process was fraught with difficulty because Islam was deemed a “sensitive” topic. Nevertheless along the way we sponsored a one-day workshop at Fudan University in Shanghai, that featured research on Islam in China that was being conducted by minority students there. The Canadian consul in Shanghai stopped by and I think we achieved a frank exchange of views about the hot-button issues of minorities, racism, and indigenous peoples in both Canada and China.

Although religion is a sensitive issue in China, it’s probably fair to say that it’s a sensitive issue everywhere in the world.

js60653723New Zealander Phil Blackwood spent 13 months in prison in Myanmar for posting this image on Facebook to promote a drinks special in the bar he managed. His crime was offending Buddhism.

A few weeks ago Dutch citizen Klaas Haijtema was arrested on a similar charge for pulling the plug from a loudspeaker relaying a Buddhist sermon that he claims was preventing him from taking a nap in his hotel.

Whether you’re selling beers in Buddhist Myanmar, researching religion in Shanghai, or studying world religions and native traditions in postcolonial Canada, it’s likely that you’re going to run into some kind of sensitive issue. Learning how to negotiate these issues requires scholarship and learning on the one hand, but also tact and diplomacy on the other. It’s a matter of sense, and sensitivity. Balancing the two can sometimes be difficult, especially when the a scholarly perspective conflicts with that of a religious community. But learning this balancing act is one of main benefits of religious studies.

Teaching Religion Through Bollywood Horror Films

Dr. Aditi Sen 


As a horror film aficionado, I have often wondered if Indian horror films, particularly, successful Bollywood films, could be used as a source for teaching Hinduism. Horror films are rich in themes like mythology, witchcraft, folklore, and it can even help open dialogues about issues like secularism versus sectarianism, western education versus traditional knowledge, and the conflict between religion and science.

purana-mandir-horror-vintage-bollywood-poster-1First, I will very briefly trace the history of horror cinema in Bollywood, and then focus on a few horror films that I consider to be excellent texts for teaching Hinduism.

How do we define horror cinema? Here, I find Noel Carroll’s definition, where he categorically differentiates between natural and art horror, to be useful.[1] In this case, the presence of the supernatural qualifies as a horror film. I will focus on monster flicks and films about evil spirits and witches, a genre that only became popular in Bollywood in the 80s. Before the 80s, horror was not even a recognized genre. There were scary films, but they were mostly murder mysteries and suspense thrillers. These films often had spooky content, but there was always a rational explanation for the supposedly supernatural events. In fact, the protagonist was almost always a man of science who investigated the inexplicable occurrences and solved a mystery. In fact, a very common dialogue that appears in most horror films is, “How can you believe in ghosts when you are educated?” In films, believing in ghosts has always been viewed as a sign of ignorance and lack of education. It is only natural that in the Nehruvian era of nation building the belief in the supernatural was seen as a hindrance to progress, and the film industry reflected that mindset.



So, what changed in the late 70s and 80s? The answer is neither simple nor straightforward. First of all, films like The Exorcist, Omen, and Evil Dead, did extremely well at the Box Office. These films included themes that Indians could easily relate to. Specifically, the idea of possession appealed to the audience. There are many Indian films on possession, but let me expand on two films. Gehrayee (Depth, 1981) is an excellent documentation of different types of exorcisms, and the continuous struggle between traditional knowledge and modern medicine. Another film on possession called Bhoot (Ghost, 2003) takes place in an apartment in Mumbai, thereby making possession commonplace and an urban event. Both the films explore folk shamanistic traditions, black magic, and also have an engaging storyline.

Another reason for the popularity of horror films is put forward by Valentina Vitali who maintains that the late 70s and 80s were a very difficult time for the nation. India witnessed the emergency, followed by tensions rising in Punjab, which eventually led to Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, followed by the retaliation against the Sikhs. Vitali points out that horror films helped people cope with that stress, because the population increasingly felt that they had lost control of their lives and their surroundings.[1]

Horror films are also inherently subversive in nature. They often give voice to the ones who have been ignored by mainstream politics and religion. Priests are replaced by shamans, folk traditions replace yajnas, and exorcism replaces science. These films provide a platform for discussing these paradoxes. For example, in Vikram Bhatt’s Haunted (2011) the evil spirit is a Brahmin and only a Sufi fakir knows the way of dealing with him. This film is also a very rich resource for studying secularism, and how Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity find a common ground for fighting evil through compassion.

Horror films are an untapped resource that can be a very useful tool in Religious Studies. My favorite films for teaching apart from the ones I have mentioned are Purana Mandir (Old Temple),Veerana (Deserted) Raaz (Secret), Raaz 3, 13B, Raat (Night), and Ek Thi Daayan (There was once a witch).



[1] Vitali, Valentina. “The Evil I: Realism and Scopophilia in the Horror Films of Ramsay Brothers. In Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood: The Many Forms of Hindi Cinema, ed. Rachel Dwyer and Jerry Pinto, 77-101. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011.

[1] Carroll Noel, The Philosophy of Horror, 12, New York, Routledge, 1990.