Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 27, 1999
Solving the year 2000 problem
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
My favourite story of 1999 is the one about Boris Yeltsin, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates being invited to have dinner with God. During the dinner God tells them, "I need you three important people to send my message out to all people: Tomorrow I will destroy the earth."
Yeltsin immediately calls together his cabinet and tells them: "I have two really bad news items for you: 1. God really exists and 2. Tomorrow he will destroy the earth."
Clinton calls an emergency meeting of the Senate and Congress and tells them: "I have good news and bad news: 1. The good news: God really does exist; 2. The bad news is: tomorrow he's destroying the earth."
Bill Gates went back to Microsoft and happily announces: "I have two fantastic announcements: 1. I am one of three most important people on earth and 2. The year 2000 problem is solved."
In some ways I wish it were so simple. Unfortunately, the real problem remains.
For Christians the year 2000 is a jubilee year, a holy year. The notion of jubilee goes back to our Jewish roots and traditions. "You shall hallow the 50th years, and proclaim liberty through the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family" (Leviticus 25:10).
In order to capture an important jubilee theme, I would invite you to think back to a time in your life when you would have given anything to change the past, to right old wrongs . . . to start all over again and do it right.
Jubilee builds on the idea of "atonement," or admitting what's wrong so that a new start is possible; and the idea of "Sabbath," or a period of total rest.
Jubilee was and is a very practical idea. It accepts that we humans tend to make major mistakes, especially when it comes to treating each other and the earth with fairness and respect. And it gives us a way to clean up our act and restore good relationships between each other and God.
Jubilee invites us to imagine a different world as some things are pathetically out of joint on the planet that we now inhabit and calls for a change of heart.
On the 10th anniversary of the 1989 unanimous House of Commons resolution "to seek to achieve the goal of eliminating poverty among Canadian children by the year 2000" - we learned that one in five children in Canada now lives in poverty - an increase of 463,000 since 1989.
The reactions to Campaign 2000's report card on child poverty in Canada were predictable. A spokesperson for the Fraser Institute dismissed the whole report in two words: "utter nonsense." End of discussion.
Politicians weren't much kinder in their reactions as they challenged the accuracy of the Statistics Canada measurement tool and stated a preference for what is known as "the market basket measure." This is extremely attractive as it reduces poverty immediately by about a third, slashing 30 per cent or 1.5 million people from the official poverty level - without improving the standard of living of a single child.
On this point Mel Hurtig, in his book Pay the Rent or Feed the Kids, quotes a food bank volunteer: "If you come to work with me you'd stop all the damn academic nonsense about low-income cut-offs, low-income measurements, absolute poverty, poverty gaps and the rest of that garbage.
"I'm sick to death of bureaucrats and economists arguing whether the poor should be able to buy toothpaste, be entitled to bus passes, reading material or school supplies. If they came to work with me for a few days, they'd quickly forget all their fancy definitions and finally do something important about the poor."
How many of us remember that in 1981, Canada's first food bank was established in Edmonton, in the Prince of Wales Armoury? Most of the food was donated by food companies and was edible, but not saleable surplus inventory.
There would be no food hampers and it was estimated that perhaps a total of some 200 people would be helped. At the time fear was expressed that this supposed temporary measure might give government the opportunity to slough off its social responsibilities.
By 1998, more than 17,000 people a month relied on Edmonton's Food Bank. About half of those who rely on food banks are under 18.
Should the large increases in food bank usage come as a surprise? Not really, they could easily have been predicted.
They are a direct result of federal and provincial cutbacks to social assistance programs, and result from poor wages and inadequate or non-existent benefits for part-time workers, tightening welfare and unemployment insurance eligibility regulations, inadequate assistance for single mothers and the disabled, and increasing rental costs.
Rabbi Marc Gellman offers a midrash on creation that he calls Partners as a way of exploring what re-creation means. The midrash begins with the angels asking God to clean up the chaos that preceded creation, and after each major creative work - stars, oceans, four-legged animals - the angels ask God whether the world is finished yet. Regularly, God answers, "Nope."
Eventually, God makes a woman and man and says to them "Please finish up the world for me. I'm tired now and really, it's almost done."
The man and the woman at first resist this request, saying to God, "We can't do that. You have the plans and we are far too little." So God agrees to a deal where if they keep trying to finish the world, God will be their partner.
This divine-human relationship is described in the midrash as "finishing the world," but it is actually the work of repair and recreation. We've got a lot of work to do - that's the real Year 2000 problem.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
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