India Rickshaw Challenge

Balakrishnan is the official mechanic of the Indian Autorickshaw Challenge, a contest intended to transform his country’s back-alley drag racing craze into an internationally recognized sport (or, more likely, spectacle). Auto-rickshaws – motorized, small-wheeled tricycles with room for a driver and two passengers – serve as taxis throughout India. With a high center of gravity and a tendency to roll, though, they aren’t known for safety, and police are cracking down on racers who risk their lives – and those of bystanders – by whizzing down gullies and drainage ditches in a quest for recognition and gold-necklace prizes.

The India 1000

While visiting southwest China in 2005 I saw auto rickshaws (san lan chi if I recall correctly is the Chinese term- ‘three wheel vehicle’) daily: everything from the speedy little ones that dodged around the buses and SUV’s and pony carts on the main  avenue from the countryside into town, to the ‘extended cab’ rickshaws that would be packed to capacity with farm workers riding in from town or the fields. All bumped and rocked on the unpaved (I think it might have been paved at one time in the distant past) road with a surface that looked like it had been cluster bombed repeatedly. When it rained some of the craters would become ponds and the rickshaws had to drive around the edges.

I only rode in a rickshaw a few times; a taxi or bus was faster. But a few times the only option was rickshaw; if off in the countryside it was impossible to get a bus or taxi, leaving only rickshaws and trucks. Riding in a rickshaw is rather like riding an unbroken horse. They- at least the ones I rode in- have no shocks, apparently, so every bump was felt- and there were lots of them. With several Americans in one rickshaw made for several Chinese: let’s just say there was a weight difference that neither rickshaw nor driver was used to!

See How They Pass The Buck

In the first centuries of Christianity the hungry were fed at a personal sacrifice, the naked were clothed at a personal sacrifice, the homeless were sheltered at personal sacrifice. And because the poor were fed, clothed and sheltered at a personal sacrifice, the pagans used to say about the Christians “See how they love each other.” In our own day the poor are no longer fed, clothed, sheltered at a personal sacrifice, but at the expense of the taxpayers. And because the poor are no longer fed, clothed and sheltered the pagans say about the Christians “See how they pass the buck.”

Peter Maurin

Narratives and Otherwise

From the New York Times, The Global Clash of Emotions:

The war that is unfolding is one that the culture of humiliation cannot win, but it is a war nonetheless and one that the West can lose by continuing to be divided or by betraying its liberal values and its respect for law and the individual. The challenge is not figuring out how to play moderate Islam against the forces of radicalism. It is figuring out how to encourage a sufficient sense of hope and progress in Muslim societies so that despair and anger do not send the masses into the radicals’ arms.

One of the immense strengths of the radical message that swept Iran by way of the Ayatollah was its ability to combide Quranic principles of social justice and righteousness with a powerful narrative of revolution infused with socialist, Marxist even, overtones. Not only was the power of Islamic social action (with its strong emphasis upon egalitarianism- at least within the Islamic community) tapped, but so were more modern ideas of leftist revolution, and in the aftermath a centralized welfare state economy was erected, again channeling a fusion of Islam and revolutionary spirit. While this specific course of narrative and action has not been repeated in precisely the same manner, its basic parameters have been picked up throughout the Middle East. Groups like Hamas and Hezbollah draw much of their power from such a narrative of justice, social action, and militarized Islam.

This is hardly anything new, of course- Marxist groups of the twentieth century (and to a lesser extent, this century) constructed narratives of social justice, morality, and action linked with a specific militarized ideology. The Peruvian Maoists Shining Path, for example, sought (initially) to exploit inequitable and unjust situations of the Andean and Liman poor to create a base for its ‘people’s revolution.’ In the face of increasingly diminished support from the people, it resorted more and more to simple brute violence to support an ever more vicious narrative of revolution by blood-bath. 

Shining Path, and most other such groups, rejected religion out of hand. Many modern groups- ‘terrorist’ and otherwise- however have ideologies strongly shaped by religion, or at the very least, ethnic identities closely tied to religion. Like earlier groups, they exploit the situations present at the ‘fringes’ of the globalized world, drawing people- particularly in the Islamic world, where, as the above author notes, there is an ongoing reality of decay, with a culture that has to a certain sense internalized that feeling of decay- into their narrative of justice, righteousness, religion, and violent action.

What is to be done? The above article lends the beginnings of an answer: an alternative vision must be offered. Against the narratives offered by the fusion of religion and violent ideology there must be a more compelling, more powerful narrative. And that narrative cannot be one of free-market economies, or welfare-state socialism, or democracy and civic society- whatever the merits of those things may be. Rather, what narrative is more compelling than that of the Gospel, spoken in such a way as to meet the very real and very valid concerns of people at these fringes of the globalized world- fringes that in many ways form the centre? For hopelessnes and despair, decay and inequity and injustice, are hardly confined to the Islamic world. Rather, they are forces thick over the entire world, even if they seem hidden behind a facade of McDonalds, Starbucks, and international airports.

Christianity possesses the narrative of all narratives, the message that proclaims the truth about the world, and offers hope and life beyond anything presented by other narratives. Eschewing violence, it proclaims a God incarnate and crucified for the life of the world, speaking hope to the poor and downtrodden. It is not a narrative of raw power or economic force, but instead of humility and powerful love: ready to meet the humiliated, the inhabitants of a decaying world. For us to carry this narrative means living it into the world, as people who love actively and wisely, recognizing the other in the light of Christ, and approaching the evils and inequities of the world honestly.

Democracy will not save the world. Representative government will not solve the ills of the Middle East. Only the incarnately spoken truth of Christ crucified will set men truly free, whether in Tehran or New York.

Around Town, Spring Time Early

Bay Street Presbyterian Church in the afternoon sun.

It actually felt somewhat like January today, at least this morning; this weekend however was downright humid, before the rain set in and cooled things off a bit. I also saw Japanese magnolias blooming; those usually don’t start until the end of February or so. Lots of other trees around are heavy with swollen buds. 

Broken World

Sri Lanka:

A suspected Tamil Tiger suicide bomber blew up a bus in Sri Lanka’s south coast resort area on Saturday, killing herself and eight passengers and wounding 50, police said of the second attack on a bus in as many days.

Kashmir:

“Unidentified militants threw a grenade at an army patrol but it missed the target and exploded in a busy market,” Farooq Ahmad, a police official, told Reuters.

India:

Police said the chain of violence began late Friday night when heavily armed ULFA guerrillas gunned down at least 32 people — mostly brick kiln workers and traders — in the state’s eastern district of Tinsukia.

A further 15 labourers, including a woman, were killed in two strikes in adjacent Dibrugarh district. Another person was killed when militants triggered a blast in Sivasagar district.

Lord have mercy.

Traditional Music & Tsarist Russia (In Colour)

The website of the Freer and Sackler Galleries has a fine little collection of podcasts for download of several different sorts of Asian traditional music, including a fine Palestinian ensemble performing traditional Arabic music that I’m listening to right now. They also have a collection of folk stories, and some curatorial commentary.

:: Freer and Sackler Galleries Podcasts :: 

Via Arts & Letters, a magnificent collection of photographs by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii of Tsarist Russia, rendered into colour. I particularly love the material from Central Asia, which Russia had gradually absorbed through the later half of the nineteenth century. Below is a photo of Jewish children and their teacher in Samarkand.

Postmoderns and Selling More Stuff

From the Economist, via Arts & Letters: Postmodernism Is the New Black:

More surprising, perhaps, than the pomos’ influence on the way business presents itself was the accuracy of their predictions and the perspicacity of their perceptions. Modern retailers are only just getting to grips with two of the consequences of the breakdown of authority and hierarchy that they hoped for half a century ago: the “fragmentation” of narratives and the individual’s ability to be “the artist of his own life”.

Edwards Avenue, Advent

I saw you, once, walking along the liminal space
The sculling off winter-weary clouds, your lace,
Drawn down to you and son in mothering
             arms ensconced,
Your brown eyes filling out the grown-dull world.
Christ-mass nearing, here you, and child,
Sojourners set on foot, what we strangers call:
Our Lord and Lady- these also we bid other, yet so close,
           flew to heart:
Flash of grace, beauty, fixed in your, their, paces
           and sure-to-signify faces.