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On Contamination

We do a lot of driving in our family. Driving to volleyball, guitar, swim club, band rehearsal, grandma and grandpa’s, and on and on it goes. Many days it is in the car that some of the best, most important, and sometimes only conversations with our kids happen. Today my daughter and I were off to the doctor’s office for a routine visit and the talk turned to the trials and tribulations of teenage life. We talked about cyber-bullying, peer pressure, romantic dramas, sports, classroom dynamics, terrible teachers, and a whole host of other things.

We also talked about racism.

My kids are getting to the stage where they are paying more attention to the social realities around them. They notice that aboriginal people are looked at differently in our culture. They notice that aboriginal kids are treated differently at school. My daughter spoke of one particular girl who gets mistreated on a fairly regular basis, of how there are a number of indigenous kids who find themselves mostly on the periphery of the middle school world. It’s hard to hear this kind of thing. It’s hard to be reminded that my kids are in the middle of these toxic realities.

I gulp and swallow hard. “Do people treat you badly because you are indigenous,” I ask, afraid of what the answer might be.

“Sometimes people try,” she says. “But they know that they can’t get away with it with me. They know that I will tell them that it is un-ac-ceptable! I say that whenever anyone treats someone bad because they have brown skin!” She folds her arms and gives me her most piercing stare of authoritative rebuke. Then she bursts out laughing.

I smile and tell her that I am proud of her. And I am. So proud. Of this girl who sticks up for those who so often serve as the easy targets for the kids who have never known anything but being at the centre of their (very small) worlds.

She asks about her specific culture. Where were the Ojibway from? What about the Metis? It’s really sad that all those First Nations’ languages are dying out. It’s really sad that so many bad things happened, that white people did so many bad things to my ancestors.

“Yes, it is” I say, biting my lip.

We sit in silence for a kilometer or so.

“Would you ever want to learn Anishinaabe,” I ask. “Yeah,” she says. “That would be cool! Or German!”

I smile as she bounds out the door back to school…

One of the stories making the rounds over the last few days is that of a church in Manitoba that pulled the plug on an MCC event due to the fact that there would be a smudging ceremony by the Buffalo Gals drumming group. The Internet has behaved exactly as we have come to expect whenever a story like this breaks—there are the (mostly laudable) howls of protest, there are the (mostly regrettable) attempts to defend the decisions made, and round and round we go, where it stops, nobody knows…

But I was thinking about this story after the conversation with my daughter on the way home from the doctor. A thought occurred to me. Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that those attempting to protect this church from incompatible aboriginal practices are right. I don’t believe they are right—not for a minute. But let’s just imagine they were. Let’s imagine that opening the doors of a church that bears the name of Jesus of Nazareth to a smudging ceremony was to invite all kinds of unwelcome and potentially dangerous spiritual influences. Let’s just suppose that’s all true…

I wonder… Can we think of any other historical examples where a “foreign” set of beliefs and practices was allowed to insert itself into a context in which they were not “compatible?” A context where they were unwelcome? Where they inspired fear and confusion? Could we imagine such a thing happening?

Gosh, that would be terrible, if it were true.

Perhaps the church should be begging for things like smudging ceremonies to come into our buildings and “violate” our official policies and beliefs, to “contaminate” our carefully maintained theological edifices, to contradict our “values,” to mess up our clean and shiny sanctuaries full of gentle Jesus, meek and mild. Maybe then we would be one step closer to having even the slightest clue about what our indigenous neighbours historically endured, and what many still endure today.

Maybe then we might come to the uncomfortable realization that a steely resolve to protect ourselves from the incompatible “other” very often leads to mistreating the other. And to reducing the big broad world that God made and loves to roughly the size of our small selves and our small ideas. And to radically misrepresenting the love and the way of Jesus.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gordon Koppang #

    It’s been a long time since I thought as an evangelical (with the proof-texting and all), but if I were to give it a go, I’d say that the folks at Immanuel Pentecostal Church have forgotten the liberty of the Gospel. They clung to the law and forgot the spirit (2 Corintians 3:5, 6).

    On the plus side, this incident reminded me of a passage written by Inayat Khan, a teacher of Sufism who came to the West around 1910. Khan wrote:

    The mistake in this day is that we keep law higher than love. We do not see that the divine principle, which is love, stands above law. Man makes God a judge who is bound by law; who cannot do his will, but has to do according to what is written in His book. … Many of the dogmatic religions have taken away the love element which is predominant, which makes God sovereign. And they make a God who is limited, who is bound by the book, and who cannot show his compassion.

    November 17, 2014
    • 1 Corinthians 13 comes to mind. If we do x, y, z, but don’t have love, we are nothing but noisy, irritating gongs…

      Thanks, Gordon.

      November 18, 2014
  2. Brilliant, Ryan! Such a helpful perspective. This blog, along with James Sinclair’s letter (U of M) has been so helpful to read (the church is built on Treaty land). But more than anything, it has me wondering if some Christians really think that the Spirit of Jesus is that weak that we have to go to such lengths to keep it safe.

    November 18, 2014
    • Thank you, Doug.

      It’s a great question that you ask—one worth applying to so many contexts and conversations. If we say x, what does this imply about our views of God? This simple question cuts through so much of the nonsense that the church so frequently occupies itself with…

      November 18, 2014
  3. James #

    Great argument, Ryan. I only hope that the people who need to read this would. That’s the real tragedy IMO. To me the error of that church is so self-evidently anti-Jesus as to be astonishing – and yet I also quite sure that a well meaning collection of people thought they were defending orthodoxy. I’d love to be able to hear them out in an non-adversial context. That of course is not likely to happen and that’s sad.

    November 18, 2014
    • Thank you, James.

      I heard an interview with the pastor at the church yesterday on the news. He sounded like a respectful, decent man with a strong desire to protect the sacred space of his church. I get that, even if I don’t agree with it. He seems to have misunderstood where the smudging ceremony was actually to take place—the drumming group said that it was to happen outside the sanctuary prior to the event itself. Unless I misheard the interview, it sounded like this wasn’t even a part of the concert itself, it was just something the drummers do to centre and prepare themselves for their performance.

      But all that is more or less peripheral to what I see as the main point—what would a response that was dictated by the character of Jesus (and something approximating a historical memory) look like?

      As you say, though, once these matters leak out into the public it seems like there is no such thing as non-adversarial conversation. At the very least, it is an elusive target. And yes, this is very sad.

      November 19, 2014
  4. unkleE #

    Hi Ryan, thanks for this. I am Australian, and we have our own mistreatment of indigenous people on our conscience, but I don’t think I’ve heard from a native American before on this matter. I appreciate your perspective.

    Years ago I was much helped by teaching from Dean Sherman. He said, very graphically, that we don’t need to worry about “our salvation leaking out all over the footpath” because “greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4). I’ve never forgotten it.

    Provided our motive is to follow Jesus and we pray for the Spirit’s guidance, we should not be scared to go where we may not feel comfortable. Eric

    November 20, 2014
    • Thank you, Eric. Just a technical point of clarification—you mentioned a “native American” perspective. I’m writing from Canada. There are similarities in our two nations’ mistreatment of indigenous people, but important differences as well.

      Thank you for sharing that quote, and for the always necessary reminder that because the one who is in us is greater than he that is in the world, we need never—indeed, ought never—have fear as our starting point in our interactions with others.

      November 20, 2014
  5. mmartha #

    “Un-ac-ceptable !”
    First Nation periphery?
    not for a moment

    let’s just imagine
    the big broad world that God made,
    the way of Jesus

    (fr above)

    November 22, 2014

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