Thursday 28 August 2014

Commercial Fair Trade Chocolates!!

I've long regretted the inavailability of Fair Trade chocolates in New Zealand.  Bars of chocolates are available, but boxes of chocolates are not.

No more!

Tom Brinkel of Brinkel's Cake Art in Wellington makes delicious Fair Trade chocolates and truffles.  Go to 'chocolate gallery' to see the selection and make your purchase.  They're also currently available on TradeMe for $5.99 for a box of 9 with flat postage to Auckland of $5.50 no matter how many boxes you buy :-)

Unfortunately he hasn't yet found a source of Fair Trade white chocolate so not all his flavours are Fair Trade (despite what it says on the website).  These ones are, though:
  • dark chocolate truffles
  • kirsch and raisin
  • bourbon vanilla
  • banana liqueur
  • lavender
  • roasted almond and honey fudge
I haven't tried them all yet (I only got them today and I'm trying to make them last!) but the roasted almond and honey fudge is particularly good :-)

Monday 25 August 2014

Election 2014 - who should I vote for?

According to Radio New Zealand National this morning, the three big issues in the election this year are health, education and the economy.  I haven't listened to the programme yet, but, if they mean what I think they mean, those certainly aren't the issues I'll be voting on.  As far as I'm concerned, New Zealand is already doing fantastically well in all three areas and it'd take some monumental stuff-ups by a new government to do anything much to change that.

Our health-care system is great!  I heard on the BBC yesterday that most public hospitals in Nigeria don't even have running water.  In that context, we don't have a lot to complain about.  We do have issues with diseases related to poverty (like rheumatic fever in Northland), but dealing with poverty is what will fix that, not tinkering with the health system.

In the latest PISA survey, New Zealand ranked above the OECD average in performance in maths, science and reading.  Rich countries tend to have better education systems than poor countries.  There are 198 countries in the world (I think) and the richest 34 of them are in the OECD.  Ranking above the OECD average in PISA means we're already doing above the average of the richest 17% of countries in the world.  Of course we could do better, but that's basically good enough for me.  I'm not going to be basing my vote on trying to improve this.

The economy
If 'improving the economy' means 'increasing GDP' then I'm not interested.  As mentioned above, we're part of the OECD: the club of the richest 17% of countries in the world.  As of last year, our per capita GDP was in the middle of this group.  In other words, we're already richer than people in more than 90% of the countries in the world.  That's plenty good enough for me and I'm not going to be choosing who to vote for based on who'll make New Zealand even richer.

So, what am I going to base my vote on?

Last election I spent quite some time trying to figure out what issues I thought the Bible described as being important in the governing of a country.  Three things came up: character of the leaders, leading people to follow God and care for vulnerable groups of people (including those who weren't actually citizens of the country).  As I said then, I'm not going to consider whether the various parties want to lead people to follow God: unlike ancient Israel, modern-day New Zealand isn't a theocracy so I'm not sure how to translate this criterion into our context.  However, I will be considering the following things:
  1. Character of the leader
  2. Foreign policy
  3. Climate change
  4. Reducing inequality
Except for the first, these criteria encompass how I think 'caring for vulnerable groups of people' translates into our context.

Character of the leader
The two qualities that came up most often in my Bible survey were being truthful and being there to serve.  To see whether I thought the leaders of the parties had these qualities I decided to look at what seems to motivate them.  I believe that most politicians are in politics to make the world a better place.  However, some seem to be there simply to win.  I think that a leader who seems to be there to win isn't there to serve and can't be trusted to be truthful: they fail my 'character' test.  No matter what their policies, I'm not willing to vote for a party whose chosen such a person to lead them.

So, where do I think the party leaders stand?
  • There to make the world a better place: Colin Craig (Conservatives), Jamie Whyte (ACT), Metiria Turei/Russel Norman (Greens), Laila Harre/Hone Harawira (Internet/Mana), Tariana Turia (Maori Party)
  • There to win: John Key (National), Winston Peters (NZ First)
  • I haven't paid enough attention to them to make a call on why they're there: David Cunliffe (Labour), Te Ururoa Flavell (Maori Party), Peter Dunne (United Future)
From this, I'm not going to consider voting for National* or NZ First.  I'm also not willing to vote for Internet/Mana.  Its leaders, Laila Harre and Hone Harawira, are definitely in politics to make the world a better place but they're financially backed by someone who's there to try and make the world work for him personally (Kim Dotcom) and I'm nervous of his influence.

* If National had chosen their deputy leader, Bill English, as their leader things would be different: he's definitely a man of integrity who's there to serve New Zealand.

Foreign policy
Here I'm interested in:
  • easing the way for asylum seekers to come and seek asylum here;
  • increasing our intake of quota refugees (we're rank 88th in the world per capita for taking in refugees - even Australia does way better than we do);
  • increasing our foreign aid from the paltry 0.2-0.3% of GDP its been at ever since we commited to raise it to 0.7% maybe 20 years ago and spending it based on need rather than based on our own trade interests.
NB If I lived in almost any other country in the rich world my list would also include levelling the playing field on international trade so that it's not skewed against the interests of Majority World countries.  However, so far as I know, New Zealand doesn't have any such trade barriers in place so it's not on the list.

Looking at the parties still on my list (Conservatives, ACT, Greens, Maori Party, Labour and United Future):
  • Conservatives don't mention any of these issues;
  • ACT is pro-immigration, but only immigration that's good for New Zealand (they don't appear to be interested in immigration based on the needs of the immigrant, which is what I'm interested in in terms of asylum and refugee policies).  They also feel we live in a dangerous world, rather than in a needy world that we're in a position to significantly help;
  • The Greens want to increase our foreign aid to 0.7% of GDP but apparently haven't actually included that in their costings.  They also want to increase our intake of quota refugees.  However, given that neither of these policies were mentioned amongst the large number of policies they're electioneering on, I figure that they're not very high priorities for them;
  • The Maori Party won't commit to increasing foreign aid to 0.7% of GDP.  They don't seem to say anything about refugees or asylum seekers on their website;
  • Labour doesn't mention up-front whether or not they support increasing the foreign aid budget, but they do say that they want to refocus it to be used for eliminating poverty (rather than the current focus which is a mix of that and things that benefit NZ businesses).  They don't seem to say anything about refugees or asylum seekers on their website;
  • United Future doesn't mention any of these issues on the policy page of their website;
  • In general I'm not considering National because their leader failed my 'character' criterion.  However, I thought I might mention that in the last year or two wrote to the current minister of immigration to complain that they were taking fewer quota refugees and also making it harder for asylum seekers to get here.  My recollection of his response is that he told me we were taking fewer quota refugees because of the Christchurch earthquakes.  He was also keen to assure me that they were, indeed, making it harder for asylum seekers to get here.  It seemed beyond him that there were people in the electorate who might think that this was a bad thing!

Climate change
I believe that climate change is the biggest threat to vulnerable people the world over at the moment, and that New Zealand is definitely not doing it's bit to reduce it.

The four things that contribute the most to New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions are:
  • methane from dairy cows;
  • road transport;
  • agricultural soils;
  • consumption of hydroflurocarbons (this one surprised me - I'm not certain what it means but I think it's to do with refrigeration).
In order to address these, I'm interested in parties that have a 'carrot and stick' approach to climate change.  For the 'carrot' I want them to give people alternatives to engaging in these activities that cause so many emissions: e.g. fund research into how to reduce dairy emissions and support for starting other industries that emit less, give more support to freight trains and public transport and less for roading etc.  For the 'stick' I want them to put in either a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme (I don't care which) that has teeth and that includes all four of the activities that contribute the most greenhouse emissions.

Looking at the parties on my list:
  • Conservatives don't mention climate change directly, nor do they seem to have anything to say about road transport or agriculture;
  • ACT wants to get rid of the emissions trading scheme and let climate change happen.  They also want to commit more resources to roading;
  • Unsurprisingly, the Greens have a strong policy on climate change.  They also want to support industries in New Zealand other than those that currently contribute so heavily to our greenhouse gas emissions through their digital manufacturing strategy and their smart green innovation policy and they're big fans of public transport and freight rail;
  • The Maori Party don't directly mention either climate change or any of the issues I've identified as being related on their website;
  • Labour want to strengthen the ETS (although I'm a bit sceptical of that, given that the scheme they put in was pretty weak even before National gutted it).  They also want to 'rebalance' transport spending so it includes spending on public transport, ports and rail freight, not just roads.  They don't explicitly mention anything about reducing emissions from agriculture;
  • United Future supports the current ETS and opposes a carbon tax.  They want to establish forests as carbon sinks but don't mention dairy farming.  They're keen to build yet more roads although they say they're keen on public transport, too.  Interestingly, they want to "investigate a humanitarian resettlement plan for the thousands who will be physically displaced by rising sea levels in the Pacific region, such as the Tokelaus, Tuvalu and Kiribati.";
  • I haven't checked National's website as I'm not really considering them, but they've definitely significantly weakened the emissions trading scheme in the time they've been in office (and it started out pretty weak anyway), I've seen no evidence of them promoting less-greenhouse-gas-emitting industries and they strongly favour roading.
Reducing inequality
New Zealand is, apparently, a very unequal society: more so than most people realise.  This has a huge impact on the health and wellbeing of poorer people.  While I have no interest in increasing New Zealand's wealth overall, I have a strong interest in restructuring society so that this is no longer the case.

No one seems to have a magic bullet for how to reduce inequality, so here I'm looking for parties that are willing to try new things (ideally ones with some kind of decent research or rationale behind them) and see if they help.  I'm not interested in parties that simply want to increase wealth overall in the expectation that wealth will then trickle down and make everyone better off: that's what we've already been trying and it hasn't been working.  I'll also be giving only a few 'brownie points' to parties that want to make it easier for people to buy a house: it seems to me that that's a measure that will only help people who are already relatively well off, not those who are really poor.

In terms of reducing inequality I'm also looking for parties that offer a decent welfare system.  I don't think that welfare is actually going to fix the situation were're in but it provides an important backstop for those who haven't yet found a way to make it on their own.

Looking at the parties on my list:
  • Conservatives have "A belief that it is the responsibility of individuals to provide for themselves, their families and their dependents, while recognizing that government must respond to those who require assistance and compassion";
  • ACT is keen to grow the economy although they also want to make housing more affordable, primarily by getting rid of the Resource Management Act.  They also want to further weaken the welfare system.
  • The Greens want to reduce child poverty by direct redistrubtion of money and they want to support people with disabilities by increasing funding for various support services including ones that aim to get people into jobs.  They also feel that their smart green economy policy will raise wages for a lot of people;
  • The Maori Party have a bunch of ideas to reduce inequality.  There's their signature 'whanau ora' policy (the link to which on their website is currently broken!), they have many policies to increase employment (plus they support raising the minimum wage to $18.80), they're advocating better care for vulnerable elderly people (and their caregivers) and their Christchurch policy includes support for people with disabilities;
  • Labour's 'Economic Upgrade' policy aims to support innovation and hence increase wages for everyone.  I don't see much concrete information on their website about how they're going to do this, although they do talk about some specifics like restructuring the meat industry and supporting research and encouraging investment in processing in forestry.  They want to increase the availability of housing stock and slow the increase of prices via. a capital gains tax.  They also have a bunch of 'family' policies that mostly consist of wealth redistribution;
  • United Future supports regional employment initiatives to figure out why there's high unemployment in various particular regions.  They want to introduce programmes to upskill older adults who find themselves out of work.  They also want to introduce 'flexisuper' (a kind of regressive super where the earlier you take it up the less you get, significantly disadvantaging manual labourers over office workers).  They have policies to increase home ownership but also social housing.  They want to improve access to various services (like police and GPs) in rural areas;
  • I haven't checked out National's website but my impression is that their main strategies for helping the less-well-off appear to be growing the overall economy and making being on welfare as unpleasant as possible.
So, there we are!
I was disappointed that no one seemed to support the things that are important to me in Foreign Policy: the Greens came closest to it, but still fell far short of what I'd like.  The Greens also take Climate Change the most seriously and tie with the Maori Party on trying a range of strategies to reduce inequality.  Looks like it'll be party vote Green for 2014, then :-)

Sunday 17 August 2014

Big Fair Bake

The Big Fair Bake has come around again. It's an annual competition to bake something using at least two fair trade ingredients. You take a photo of yourself with your baking and the fair trade ingredients and submit it along with a statement about what you baked and why you chose to bake fair.  Here's my entry.

I baked Fair-nando bananas in their skins and served them with hokey pokey icecream, crushed roasted almonds and a chocolate sauce made with TradeAid cocoa.  They were yummy and we could really enjoy them, knowing that no one had been abused growing the cocoa or bananas.  I've heard that workers on regular banana and cocoa plantations are often treated really badly.  Men get punished for trying to get protective equipment to use when spraying bananas with chemicals that make them infertile, and children are even kept as slaves on cocoa plantations and beaten with bicycle chains if they don't work hard enough!  I don't want people to go through that just so I can have a delicious treat.

(last year's entry is here)

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Abortion - part two

This is a follow-up to my previous post on abortion.  Since I wrote that I've had many conversations on the topic of abortion and these, plus further reading of the Bible, are helping me figure out what I ought to think about abortion.  I think I've finished my reading of the Bible on this topic for the moment: my next step will be do read about what the early church thought about abortion, and my conclusions are all provisional until I've done that.

I'd like to start with my findings thus far, then move on to my 'working' as to how I got there.
  • Killing of people is wrong, but killing of non-persons is fine.  Pro-choice people argue that the embryo is a non-person until a particular point of gestation (or until birth or even, in some cultures, for a period after birth - I'm thinking here of places where it's considered OK to 'expose' newborns), pro-life people argue that it is a person (generally right from conception).  Thus whether/when the foetus is a person seems to me to be the key question here;
  • God's work of creating a person starts before they are conceived, at least in some cases and possibly in all;
  • God is at work in the shaping of an foetus in the womb, as He is in all creation;
  • Pro-life Christians put great weight on God's work of creation in the womb as indicating that an foetus is a person (yet few seem to put similar weight on God's work of creation prior to conception indicating that the potential zygote is a person);
  • In at least some cases, people that God is in the process of creating aren't people until God puts life into them (I'm thinking here of Adam and the people in the Valley of Dry Bones);
  • Biblically, there is very little to indicate at what counts as 'alive'.  The only two things I know of is a couple of cases of people becoming 'alive' when they were given breath, and the idea that 'life is in the blood'.  I'm uncertain how to apply either of these to this question;
  • An embryo has value under Jewish law but not the same value/rights as someone who is born (although the text on which I base that is read by some people as saying that their value is not intrinsic but is in the opportunity which they represent to the parents);
  • We have people living amongst us who were born at little more than 20 weeks gestation and who seem indistinguishable from anyone else, so it seems that you are a person at least by 20 weeks gestation.  Twenty weeks also seems to be the stage at which New Zealand law currently considers a foetus a person: on the one hand you can (in certain circumstances) abort up to that stage, and on the other hand a foetus who dies beyond that stage is given a death certificate;
  • Around18,000 foetuses are aborted in New Zealand each year.  If you tighten up on abortion law you will save the lives of at least some of them (assuming they are alive).  However, 18,000 women in New Zealand each year have a pregnancy that they feel will cause them significant hardship.  If we tighten up abortion law, we need to have a good reason, as that means we'll be imposing what they see as significant harship on those women;
  • Quite a few people have suggested to me that, in various circumstances, abortion is the lesser of two evils.  One person cited Matthew 18:6, saying that it would be a lesser sin for a person to send a foetus back to God than to bring them into an environment where they would be inevitably be turned away from God.  I'm uncertain about the truth of this;
  • Strong people have a responsibility to care for the vulnerable.  Living out your life within someone else's body puts you in a very vulnerable position;
  • Our society strongly values having control over our own lives, and this value is held especially tightly amongst the more 'advantaged' sectors of our society.  I suspect most abortions are carried out (and most contraception is used) in an effort to take control of one's own life.  This is not a Christian value and is not a good reason for a Christian to engage in either practise.
From all of this, I think there isn't good evidence to argue that abortion is definitely always wrong and akin to murder (at least before the point at which life can be sustained outside the womb - which seems to currently be considered 20 weeks).  I think it would definitely be wrong to abort a foetus byond that point.  Before that point, however, I'm unsure of the rights and wrongs so I'm unwilling to change the law to prevent it, especially given the perceived hardship it'd impose on a lot of women.  However, I think Christians should approach both contraception and abortion with great caution: there may well be reasons where practising either would be a godly thing to do*, but to simply do them in order to take control of your life is inappropriate.

* I'm using contraception so as to not bring into the world a child for whom we could not care (due to my medical situation).  Thus far, I still think that that's OK, although I want to think and pray about it some more since I've started this project.


So, that's where I've got to thus far.  Here's how I got there!

The main thing I'm trying to establish is whether the Bible, Christian tradition etc. see the foetus as a live human being.  This seems to me to be the key question to answer as it is the fundamental thing on which the classic pro-life and pro-choice advocates disagree.  If the foetus is a live human right from conception then obviously abortion is wrong: killing people is wrong, and to kill one in such a position of vulnerability is particularly egregious.  If, on the other hand, it is a tissue in which a biological process is occuring that will eventually result in a child then its right to protection seems much less clear.

I've yet to personally look into the question of whether the early church was emphatically anti-abortion but a theologian of my acquaintance, Mark Keown, assures me that they were.  He recommends Michael Gorman's book Abortion and the Early Church to find out more about this and I'm hoping to get a friend to get it out of the Laidlaw library soon and find out what it says.

But what else have I found found from the Bible in relation to my main question?

The texts mentioned in my previous post covered:
  • David speaking of himself as being a sinner from conception;
  • God knowing and/or chosing people before birth;
  • God making people in the womb;
  • God telling people they were going to conceive;
  • children engaging in prophetic acts in the womb.
I then searched in the NRSV in Bible Gateway for all occurences of the words conceived, womb, chose/chosen, elect and destined/destiny/predestined.  I was looking for examples of how writers in the Bible seemed to see the foetus and when they saw a person as being created.  I dismissed any examples that seemed to illustrate the points made in the texts covered in my previous post: I was looking for new perspectives/information.
  • Both Job and Jeremiah wished that they had never been born ( Job 3:10-11, Job 10:18, Jeremiah 20:17-18).  That could mean that they wished they had never existed and they saw birth as when existence began but it could also mean that they wished that they had never experienced the suffering that comes with living in the world and that birth is the point at which they entered the world.
  • Isaiah speaks of himself as being sustained by God in the womb (Isaiah 46:3).  This is similar to the many references to people being formed in the womb but is perhaps a little stronger.
  • Isaiah speaks of himself as being called by God before birth (Isaiah 49:1)
  • Paul speaks of Christians (at least himself and those living in Ephesus at that time) as having been chosen by God to be holy and blameless before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4)
  • The whole people of Israel is referred to repeatedly throughout the Old and New Testaments as a people chosen by God.  There may be some significance to my question in that this includes zillions of people who weren't even conceived at the time God chose Abraham and his descendants for this role.
  • Bible Gateways threw up 18 New Testament references to Christians being the 'elect', i.e. those who were chosen.  There is nothing in any of the texts to explicitly indicate when they were chosen but my understanding of the theology of electionis that it is generally taken as happening before creation.
  • Similarly, looking at references to things to do with 'destiny' throws up things like Acts 13:48 ("as many as had been destined for salvation became believers") as well as other bits of Ephesians 1:3-14 (which used the 'before the foundation of the world' phrase in verse 4 and so suggests that all of Paul's references to being destined probably also refer to this having been sorted out before creation) and the rather special case of Jesus.
One further example I found from something I was reading for our homegroup Bible study:
  • The writer to the Hebrews says that, in a sense, Levi (Abraham's great-grandson) was present at an event that Abraham was present at because he was within Abraham's loins at the time (Hebrews 7:9-10).
And, lastly:
  • a smattering of people in the Bible (Zechariah, Abram, Mary) were told that they would have children before they were conceived.
And of course there's Exodus 21:22-25, which seems to me to say pretty clearly that destroying a foetus is a lesser evil than killing someone already born.  Kind of relatedly, several people responded to my previous post by saying that they thought that various children would have been better off if they'd been aborted before birth, but wouldn't even consider that it might be appropriate to murder those kids now they're born.  It seems that many people instinctively feel that a baby isn't quite human/alive until it's born and treat the two a bit differently.

All of that has been looking at the problem from one end: trying to figure out how early on a foetus becomes a live human being and hence the beneficiary of the protections that entails.  What about looking at it from the other end?  There are plenty of cultures that seem to see a baby after birth as still not having full 'human' status.  I gather that, in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus, 'abortion and exposing infants' were often discussed in one breath: i.e. killing a foetus and killing a newborn had the same moral status.  What about the Bible: is there any indication that a newborn was ever considered not fully human?

I have thought of one thing that may indicate this, although I'm no expert and it's far from definitive!  In the Jewish law, a baby boy was to be circumcised on the 8th day after birth.  Circumcision was the sign of being part of God's people.  I don't know, but maybe he wasn't part of God's people until then?  Was he a person at all?  It seems a bit of a stretch, but I still wonder if it may have some significance in this direction as circumcision is a pretty minor and simple procedure so I wonder why else they waited so long.  However I know of absolutely no evidence suggesting that any Jew considered it OK to expose a baby less than 8 days old so this delay before circumcision probably relates to something else.

The last angle from which I've looked at the problem is: what does the Bible say it takes to make someone 'alive'.

Firstly, there are two stories of people being formed by God (just like God forms a foetus in the womb) but them not becoming alive until God gave them breath.  The first is the story of the creation of Adam and the second is the story of the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel.  So could it be that a foetus becomes alive when it is able to breathe?  You could take this as being when it is born, or you could take it back to the point where its lungs are sufficiently formed that breathing would be possible, or you could take both stories as being metaphorical and having no bearing on the question!

Secondly, the Bible is big on life being 'in the blood'.  That's why the Jewish food laws forbade them from eating blood, and this was seen as such an important principle that it's one of the very few Jewish laws that the Council of Jerusalem in the book of Acts said that non-Jewish converts to Christianity still had to follow.  So could it be that the foetus becomes alive when it starts making it's own blood?  I gather that this isn't a clear developmental point (plus it seems a bit wierd to argue that the Bible teaches that a foetus becomes alive at a point that there's no way the Bible's writers could have known about) so I don't know if there's anything one can do with this thought but I've included it as it feels like something that may have some relevance...


Next step: get hold of that book on abortion in the early church and commission Martin to read it for me :-).  As ever, thank you for reading through this.  I'd appreciate hearing your thoughts on it all.