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.

All of our Kneeling

George, Breonna, Trayvon, Ahmaud,
Chantel, Tina, Regis, Dudley…
these names all call to me
in the beat of my heart

sometimes with a rhythmic reminder that
I am alive and they are not

sometimes while racing in a fear
fashioned after theirs at their last

sometimes in a full stop – that
sliver of time between blood in, blood out…

And in that eternal between, those who are gone appear with You and
open my eyes to see again that all of our kneeling is not pious.

Walking and Boating in a Good Way

I spent last Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday learning a bit more about wampums from George Kennedy, a teacher brought in by ANDPVA for their Creation and Clan Workshops held at the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre. You can see some photos from the event here, with a shout out to Marissa Magneson for the awesome photography gracing these pages.

I have to admit I was a bit hesitant about investing three days at a wampum workshop. Time is precious, but by the end of the first day I knew I made the right decision. For those who do not know about wampums, they are treaties made in beads. The Two-Row Wampum pictured below was a treaty between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch. The two purple rows represent the two rivers they travelled on: one by canoe and the other by ship. The fact that these rows are parallel speaks to the commitment that the two communities will not interfere in each other’s business. The three white lines represent peace, friendship and respect. You can learn more about this wampum here.

Building a replica of this historic wampum was far more challenging than one might first imagine, and so was profoundly satisfying. The afternoon was structured around teaching, creating and eating, and the three wove together in a beautiful braid. I was reminded of the proverb that “a three-fold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:12) As we beaded, we all shared stories and got to know one another, and sometimes we just worked away at difficult bits in silence. A bit of a community of very diverse people developed. It was a magical time, and I am so very thankful to the organizers, George and my fellow participants: young and old, Indigenous and not, men and women and two-spirited, residential school survivors, and recent immigrants.

Since the event was held in downtown Toronto, and I did not want to spend three days fighting traffic on the infamous highway 401, I chose to sleep on my sailboat in a nearby Burlington, and take a commuter train to Toronto each day. From Union Station in downtown Toronto I took the subway to Dundas Street, and walked 15 minutes or so, traversing Dundas Square, replete with flashy larger than life screens before making my way, a few streets down, where I passed Margaret’s Respite Centre and its visitors who have great need of care and love. The character of Dundas changes every few blocks, as is common in downtown Toronto, and so I visited some very disparate worlds before landing in the warm and welcoming doors of the Toronto Council building. I did all of this in reverse at the end of each day.

Doing so allowed me to think about the teaching of the Two-Row, and the other wampums we discovered. I wasn’t exactly travelling by boat or canoe each day, but the lessons applied: even though we all travel our own paths, a commitment to maintain peace, friendship and respect does much to advance God’s mission to mend the entire universe. In Canada, that mending most surely includes working towards Truth and Reconciliation in Settler relationships with First Peoples. But these principles also travel well, and each of us is invited to imagine how the Two-Row might inform our relationships in our families, our neighbourhoods, our work-places etc.

I am so very happy for my time in Toronto last week, and pray Creator’s blessings on this ongoing work that advances God’s Reign of love and justice in Regent Park and beyond.

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Be of Good Courage

Yesterday, I met
a company of prophets
in Kitchener, drumming
hard truths under a
gazebo in
Victoria Park. Their
ceremonial ribbons raged
against justice denied and
their voices took shape as a
chariot of fire
bearing
witness to heaven. And
yet their circle was soft:
they spoke of hatred as
self-defeating, pleading
for our healing. For a
moment the snow receded
and from the winter ground
a lily shot forth like Christ
from the grave and an
odour of hope perfumed the air.
The wind from the south was raw,
but it whispered in my ear:
“Be of good courage.”

After Six

Friends, I wrote this poem after a conference at The Six Nations of the Grand River Nation this summer. Here is a recently edited version.

They awe me, these suffering
ones, enduring

our colonial slips,

our empire eyes.

Oogling their land, and
straightening their circles, like

gluttons we grab and ignore and then

we fetishize and tokenize them

for our justification

for our failure

just to be.

They have much to teach us – when

our fists finally loosen

our eyes softly open

our hearts beat still –

when our voices find silence.

A Morning Prayer for Reformation

Last Saturday Waterloo Lutheran Seminary and Renison University College co-hosted a symposium on the theme of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. I wrote the following prayer for the opening worship and so share it here for you. Allen

Holy God, as we gather together today around your redeeming and reforming will for this world, we acknowledge You:

In grand rivers rippling with grace

In soil saturated with stories of Your faithfulness

In mighty forests bearing You, and here, in this place:

Your finger prints in wrinkles, dimples and folds of skin;

Your scent in bannock, curry, sausage and sage;

And in your desire for a church as

Supple as a moss on rock and as

Solid as tall cedar tree.

We celebrate you, and pray your passion for peace among us. We plead your impatience for justice within us. Form us that we might be living sacrifices in your Reign coming to us here, now in your Son, Jesus. Amen. May it be so.

A Blessing for Pilgrims for Indigenous Rights

Friends, I was asked to provide a blessing for some pilgrims walking from Kitchener to Ottawa in support of Bill C 262, which requests the implementation in Canada of the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for truth and reconciliation, as per the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s report. This pilgrimage has been organized by the Mennonite Church Canada. My blessing followed upon a traditional sending by Myeengun Henry, an Ojibway elder in our city. The text for it follows:

God bless you in this journey of justice and peace.

May your feet feel each treaty
Holding you as you cross its reach,
Sustaining you as you walk in a good way.

May your ears be ready to hear
The stories sown in the territory you
Traverse step by step.

May your hearts beat in time with
Our Mother, the Earth
Who watches over you
In love, in delight.

May your minds be as one
In the community you are
On the way to truth and reconciliation.

And may you know

That your knowing is first being known.

And your loving is first being loved.

And your passion for justice and peace

Is first and finally God’s Reign in your midst.

God be above you, below you , behind you, beside you, before you and within you – as Holy Flame; as Sacred Word.

Poetic Justice

Not far from my ear
I hear my tongue slicing air
with jabs of hope.

I witness world
being carved by this to and fro;
the thrust of a trust
that truth will weigh in.

I’m never sure which will win:
this incessant stab at grabbing what-is
or that ever present slip-into-not.

At least I have a
ring side seat, a treat
when television bores and
my books are too, too heavy.

There are no Mirrors in Heaven

There are no mirrors in heaven, no
self-reflection on
    tied tongues, pride
    rung and hung before
    eyes to see or
on ears marred by wounding words;
no deer-in-head-light fright staring
me in the face
of demands remanding my freedom.
No, none of this in heaven.

There are no mirrors in heaven, only
windows and doors
neither locked nor exit-ready;
no need to capture,
no need to bolt,
no need to be back-against-the-wall
because there are no walls in heaven, only
bridges where
    righteousness and mercy meet, where
    justice and peace kiss and
        all is the biggest word of all.

Revenge Revisited

In the movie The Interpreter, the character Silvia Bromme (Nicole Kidman) speaks of her commitment to non-violence saying “Revenge is a lazy form of grief.” Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), who is a federal agent protecting her, is mourning the senseless death of his wife and admits that he would gladly and swiftly take revenge on the one who caused the death of his beloved.  He admired other modes of grief from afar.

 

Is revenge really a lazy form of grief?  Is it even a form of grief?

 

I can remember, still with knots in my stomach, events in which I was wronged and longed to make things right by a sharp word (that came to me a tad too late) or a swift kick (that would have had me thrown out of the game).   My desire for revenge has more often come in response to assaults to my person, rather than those I love – although there has been more than enough of the latter too.  So, while revenge may be a form of grief, I tend to think of it more as a form of preventative defense: I will respond to your violence with violence in kind, or with the threat of violence that holds you at bay.

 

My parents, however, taught me that vengeance isn’t mine to exact: it is the Lord’s, or the teacher’s, or the judicial system.  Sometimes I listen to their now internalized voices; sometimes not.  But even when I do, still doubt nags.  Will my honour truly be returned; my right to fair treatment finally fulfilled?  Giving up vengeance always seemed, and seems, to be a waiting game.

 

But maybe we can make of it another kind of waiting game; a flip from waiting for to waiting on.  While waiting for vengeance, we can wait on others needing recompense: victims of economic violence, those beaten by racial stereotypes, children deprived of hope, etc.  When we wait on while we wait for we discover a most amazing thing: waiting on becomes a waiting with which brings me back to grief.

 

Grief’s condolence is accompaniment.  Those who suffer with others find – not exactly erasure of suffering – but the possibility of experiencing hope in suffering, in grief, in lament.  Such hope seems to dissipate the press for vengeance.  Maybe vengeance isn’t the Lord’s so much because it is God’s to exact, but rather God’s to absorb.  And maybe waiting with victims while waiting on them gives us something different to wait for: justice graced by love and righteousness kissed by peace.