In the Religious Other

It has been a remarkably painful few weeks in Canada with the recent slaughter of four human beings in London Ontatio for being Muslim, and the discovery of 215 graves of innocent children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation, whose deaths were the result of racist and genocidal policies by the Canadian government, enacted by religious communities entrusted with the process of “civilizing” Indigenous peoples. What is especially tragic is the realization that the racism that killed the Afzaal family (leaving their nine year old son an orphan) last week is but a tiny tip of an Islamophobia that daily batters Muslims; and the 215 bodies in Kamloops are joined in their cry for justice from Mother Earth with thousands more since the government and church operated 146 Residential Schools across Canada.

Two items clearly link these two events: racism and religious intolerance. These two, of course, exist as an expression of fear of the other, who thinks, believes and lives differently. That religion, which ought to be a source of empowerment for the flourishing of all, becomes the site and source of intolerance ought to give people of faith pause and cause to question what is going on.

I recall, in my first parish, going from door to door in my neighbourhood, inviting people to worship. If people did not answer, I would leave a brochure in the door. I remember knocking on the door of a house and there was no answer. I left and moved to the next house, and saw an Indigenous man open the door, see the brochure and throw it on the ground in disgust. I was aghast at his seeming lack of respect for the church. Of course, I did not know much about residential schools at that time (itself a telling tale), and so was not in a position to understand this response. Now I consider it rational. What is surprising, to me, is that Indigenous people still hold to Christianity.

Last week I was a part of a virtual gathering with Indigenous Christians. The discovery of the 215 children loomed large in every conversation. In one breakout group the question “Why Christianity?” was asked and an Indigenous person there spoke of their experience of Jesus. I have heard this from others as well. Jesus remains attractive. The church, not so much. Of course, theologians (like myself) can wax quite convincingly that you cannot separate the too, and that too is true. But still for those who hold to any formal religious organization in this day, the events of the last two weeks remind us that we need to hold to the truths of our faith with a deep and abiding humility, commit to justice unflinchingly and practice a love that is generous, excessive, and curious. Curiosity and humility, I think, are at the core of authentic spirituality and the two together appreciate the diversity that is written into the very architecture of creation.

I suppose most people can readily give lip service in affirming the gift of diversity, but our cultures generally reward conformity that expedites expediency. Institutions, in particular, credit sameness. It was written into the governance of residential schools, and it is evident in the eyes of a young white Canadian male who sees five differently dressed individuals as demonic. It is hard to be hopeful in these days, but my Muslim and Indigenous friends give me hope, literally. I see them taking steps forward and hope fills my heart. There is something very parabolic about that, which humbles me and makes me curious. In the religious other I experience grace upon grace that best racism, hatred, and fear.

Old Friends

I just returned from the 2013 American Academy of Religion conference. Some 15, 000 academics or so descended upon Baltimore to discuss things religious. When I first attended AAR I didn’t know a soul. That was especially intimidating. As the years go by, this event becomes more like a homecoming. You might find four or five sessions you want to attend, and on the way to one or the other, you bump into an old friend and get chatting, and soon you have missed them all. For the last number of years, a kind of ritual has emerged that is increasingly important to me. On one evening, I have occasion to dine with a dear old friend, who is old in years of age rather than years of friendship.

I first met this octogenarian ten years ago. He contributed to a Festschrift for my advisor. At that time, T. was familiar to me only in name. He was an established scholar in my area – world renown in fact – yet had something of a teddy bear demeanor. Over the last few years the mutual friendship we had with my advisor became the bridge for our own friendship, and so I yearly look forward to his warmth and hospitality.

T. has so much to share, but is one of those gentle souls who have mastered the art of tricking his interlocutor into doing all the talking. He is genuinely interested in people, and draws out the best in everyone. This year, I managed to persuade him to tell me a bit about his experience in university life, and was astounded to discover that he spent his career in the Faculty of Education, where he taught on the topic of the philosophy of education. In fact, he published some 7 books in this area, even while he is famous among scholars of religion and theologians for translating and commenting on the work of a celebrated 19th Century theologian and philosopher.

It is always humbling to meet such people: brilliant yet warm – patient and down to the earth. Here is a stranger to pretension who invites those fortunate enough to be his fellow sojourners to join him in the art of deferring attention from the self to the subject matter. A little time with T. each year gifts me with curiousity, the very virtue that allows him to age without acerbity.

May his tribe increase.