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Posts from the ‘Faith’ Category

Friday Miscellany (On Race, Identity, What We Can Say, and How We Can Say It)

A few days ago, I was meandering through a museum in a small BC town on a lazy summer afternoon. I was lingering over a historical image (the image to the left) of several Ktunaxa men and an inscription about how the gold rush had affected their people. The image itself was fairly nondescript. Six faces staring blankly back at the camera in front of what looks like a bush of some sort. I forget what the inscription beneath the photo precisely said, but I won’t soon forget a passing comment made by one of my fellow museum-goers as she passed in front of my view. “Look at the one in the top left, eh? Pretty good evidence that we come from apes! Hey, I just call it like I see it!” [knowing chuckle] She said it all so quickly. I wasn’t even sure if her comment was directed at me or to someone else within earshot. She was gone before my indignation had time to properly register. I simply stood there dumbly, staring at the picture, my temperature steadily rising.

I’ve revisited this experience several times over the last week or so. I’ve tried to honestly probe my reaction to it. Why did it make me angry? Was my anger justified? What, if anything, should I have said in response? What cultural factors are influencing (determining?) my reactions? My morning tour through a handful of major newspapers offered up a bit of food for thought for our cultural moment and provided something of a grid to run this experience and my reaction to it through.

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The first piece, was a NYT article by philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah called “Go Ahead, Speak for Yourself.” It’s a reflection upon the ways in which we have come to preface all of our speech with the various identities we associate with. As a white, Christian man, I would say… Or, As a black, queer woman, I would say… Or, As an indigenous survivor of residential schools, I would say… This manner of speaking has become expected, even demanded in some contexts. While most of us would readily acknowledge that how we understand the world is informed and affected by our social location, race, sexuality, etc, we seem to have reached a point where we collectively assume that identity constrains, even determines speech. The right identity markers are granted authority; the wrong ones are deemed illegitimate. Appiah rightly wonders just how far this can go. Do all people who associate with this or that identity think the same way about every issue? Is every experience identical? Can the particularity of human experience be subsumed under the categories of identity that we seem so beholden to? Does this not obliterate individuality and, if taken far enough, even freedom itself?

Good questions. And to return to my experience in the museum, I found myself wondering if I was responding as an individual or as a identity warrior. My instinct, in hindsight, was to imagine myself saying, “You know, as the father of two indigenous teenagers who have to push against a mountain of stereotypes and societal obstacles and baggage, I am offended by your statement! How dare you imply that indigenous people are closer to apes than… well, than what? Than you, a middle aged white woman?! I suppose you represent the pinnacle of evolution?!”

But what would this have really accomplished? Would I have been responding as a token of identity (even if vicariously) or as a human being? Would it not have been better for my hypothetical conversation to start along the lines of, “Well, I see a human being there, just like you and me. I wonder how that man’s mother or father would feel to hear something like that?” Or, better yet, maybe I could have just asked some questions. “Why do you say that? What about his appearance stands out to you? If you think the man in the photo looks strange, do you think that there might be a reason that he looks kind of shell-shocked?”

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The second article from the NYT dealt with policing hate speech. “If We Silence Hate Speech, Will We Silence Resistance?” by Erik Nielson talks about the fine line that we might be walking if we insist upon combating ideas we find distasteful by labeling them as “hate speech.” Citing the examples of Louis Farakkhan, Malcolm X, and the BDS movement that seeks to put economic pressure on the state of Israel in light of their treatment of Palestinians, Nielson points out that speech that seeks to resist forms of institutional oppression and injustice has often historically been labeled as “hate speech.” If “hate” is the tool that we wish to bludgeon our ideological opponents with (as opposed to categories like truth/falsity or appeal to some kind of higher moral imperative), we might profitably ask ourselves if we are prepared for it to be turned back on positions that we view more favourably.

I could, I suppose, have chased down the woman in the museum and accused her of “hate speech.” I don’t actually know if she hates indigenous people, but based on her comment, I’m reasonably certain that she doesn’t think too highly of them. And whether true or not, publicly accusing her of hateful speech would have been very effective. She would have been appropriately shamed and I would have been appropriately (gloriously, heroically!) celebrated. If I could have worked in my own (vicarious) belonging into the aforementioned identity marker, it would have been an unparalleled triumph. She would have been tarred and feathered and sent scurrying out into the friendless wasteland. But, again, would this have accomplished anything meaningful? Would it have led to anything like understanding (on her part or mine)? And leaving pragmatism aside, speaking as a Christian, would anything remotely good or redemptive have even been possible in such an encounter?

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Which brings me to the last article, a Globe and Mail piece ostensibly on forgiveness. Elamin Abdelmahmoud’s “As social media skeletons are dragged into the light, we have to learn when to forgive” talks about a spate of recent high-profile firings and public shamings that have come about when past social media transgressions have seen the light of day. Who among us can bear this kind of scrutiny, the author wonders? Who among us can stand when every word we have publicly uttered over the course of years and decades is digitally stored and is instantly retrievable for anyone with nefarious or even mischievous intentions? Do we honestly imagine that our views (not to mention our discretion) at eighteen are the same as they would be at thirty-eight or fifty-eight or eighty-eight? Are we not allowed to change over time? Can we not forgive one another?

Interestingly enough, even though the piece has the word “forgive” in the title, it has very little to do with actual forgiveness. Real forgiveness involves naming wrong-doing as such and refusing to hold it against the one who has done wrong. It involves honesty, the laying aside of rights (of retribution, vengeance, public recognition), and, ideally, a willingness to walk forward in a better way. It’s a robust and difficult thing, far more than just a recognition that we “evolve” over time (which is true, technically speaking, but it is by no means self-evident that this evolution always takes place in the right direction).

Perhaps, to return one more time to my experience in the museum, forgiveness is even the kind of thing that can, on some occasions, be preemptively offered. That last sentence comes along with no small amount of trepidation. I know how it could be misunderstood, and I do not offer it as anything resembling a blanket statement for all situations. But still, I wonder what would happen if instead of marinating in anger over this woman’s racism (real or imagined) or cultural insensitivity or ignorance or even just plain old bad manners, I’d decided to simply forgive her. Or acknowledge that she might have had a dumb or awkward moment (I have some of those too, occasionally… you can ask my wife, if you require verification). Or remember that she might not say things the same way in a month or a year or five. Or, to remind myself that even if she really was all of the things that I was pleased to imagine in my anger, she’s still a sinner loved by God. Just like me.

This doesn’t make what she said right or permissible or anything like that. But it at very least keeps first things first. Human beings say and do stupid and immoral and embarrassing things all the time. But they do so as human beings—not generic tokens of identity, not as foils for our own virtue, not as categories to be summarily written off—but as people who can and hopefully do change over time, with grace, patience, love, humility and, yes, perhaps most vitally of all, with forgiveness.

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For those wondering what my kids made of my experience in the museum, they didn’t seem overly concerned when I told them about it later. This is probably because, a) they’ve grown bored of their dad becoming righteously offended on their behalf; or, b) they’re much better at forgiving than their father. Or, more likely, both.

“Nature is My Sanctuary…” But Jesus Keeps Dragging Me Back to Church

There’s this mildly irritating phrase that I have encountered with some frequency over the course of the decade or so that I have been a pastor. I’m sure you’ve encountered something like it in your own circles, particularly in these post-Christian, post-church, post-everything times. Oh, I don’t mind church, but, you know, I encounter God best in creation. That’s where I worship. Nature is my sanctuary. Indeed. When I am on the receiving end of this phrase, I usually smile and nod in as gracious a fashion as I can muster. Inwardly, I am often thinking very un-Christian thoughts. Of course nature is your sanctuary. A rather convenient justification for avoiding this one, I would say. Read more

On Reconnecting

In my (long) last post, I said that I was part way through Johann Hari’s Lost Connections and I thought that it was among the more powerful analyses of our cultural moment that I had come across in some time. This morning, I turned over the last page. I remain convinced that as an analysis of the root causes of the epidemic levels of depression and anxiety in (primarily) Western culture, Hari’s book is rock solid. But the book is far lighter on the cure than it is on the diagnosis. Much of what Hari prescribes to address the seven “lost connections” he diagnoses seem to be scratching around on the surface of a problem that is at its very core profoundly existential and—dare I say it?—religious in nature. Hari is an atheist, so of course a religious diagnosis will not do for him. But as I closed his book this morning I couldn’t help but think that each of Hari’s recommended reconnections could easily be anchored in a robust Christian anthropology. Read more

Being Human (Or, What I Learned on My Sabbatical)

It’s hard to believe, and bordering on painful to set out in declarative form, but my sabbatical comes to an end tomorrow. I’m not back at work tomorrow, I should hasten to add—like many, I have appended my holidays to the end of my sabbatical to stretch it out a bit further—but my three month sabbatical officially ends July 31. So in the interests of trying to begin the process of transitioning back into thinking and writing mode, I thought I would throw up some reflections upon what I have observed and learned over these past few months where I have been (mostly) silent in this space. I’m not sure how much blogging I’ll be doing throughout August, but I suppose you could say this post marks my re-entry into more normal writing routines. Read more

How the Bible Sounds in Occupied Territory

One more reflection based on my time spent in Palestine and Israel over the past few weeks. After this, I shall endeavour to give this “blogging sabbatical” thing another, better try.

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It’s an interesting thing how geography and social location affects the way you read and hear Scripture. Most Sundays, I am reading and hearing Scripture as a relatively comfortable, white, middle-class Christian in a more or less peaceful country where religion often occupies a peripheral (at best) role in most people’s thinking and living. This affects how I read and hear the words of the Bible. My default, whether I want this or not, tends to be to listen in ways that will more or less endorse and validate myself and those who are like me. This is, as I said, most Sundays. Last Sunday, however, I worshiped in Palestine.

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Older Brothers

I made a rather remarkable discovery yesterday. Well, remarkable to me, at any rate. I have only preached one sermon on the parable of the lost (or prodigal) son in ten years (and that was seven years ago). This surprised me because it’s one of my favourite stories that Jesus tells. I’ve written about it a fair bit on this blog. I’ve described it in pretty breathless terms. But I haven’t preached on it much. This seems a rather glaring omission. Read more

Same Jesus

Last night our little church had the opportunity to hear from what is a bit of a rarity in southern Alberta: a Syrian Orthodox priest. We have a connection with Father Lukas Awad that goes back three years. I first met him when he was touring the province with a group connected to MCC Alberta. Through a series of events, this initial meeting led to our group of churches sponsoring families from his parish in Homs that were refugees in Lebanon at the time. Father Lukas has thirteen families from his parish scattered throughout the province of Alberta, including six here in Lethbridge.  Read more

Hard to Hallow

Richard Beck is a blogger that I have been reading for quite a while now. He’s a psychology professor and “progressive Christian,” although he seems to have a level of distaste for the term that approaches my own. He has, in my experience, an ability that is rare among progressives—the ability to be unflinchingly self-critical and to acknowledge the challenges and inconsistencies that are bound up with many forms of “progressive Christianity.” His recent nine part series “On Tribes and Community” should be required reading for anyone interested in how faith communities are formed and maintained, and how our cultural and ideological context works against this. Read more

For Those Who Want to Grieve in a Religious Way

I’m in Saskatchewan this week for a speaking engagement. Of course, no matter where I go, all anyone is talking about is last Friday’s horrific bus accident, which claimed the lives of fifteen members of the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team. It is a story for which there are barely words. It’s made headlines around the globe. Not surprisingly, here in the Saskatoon area (about two hours from the crash site) it’s ground zero. The grief is raw and palpable. Hockey culture runs deep in each of Canada’s prairie provinces. Many people (myself included) have personal experiences of blasting down wintry roads in terrible conditions to play a hockey game. But in Saskatchewan, a sparsely populated province where vast distances often must be traversed to get from town to town, hockey culture is a different level altogether. Hockey binds these far flung communities together in a way that few things can.  Read more

In Search of a Holy Week

Holy Week is upon us, and with it the usual wearisome parade of articles and blog posts and podcasts offering more palatable understandings of Christian faith and crosses and empty tombs than the dreary orthodox fare. Rational people can obviously no longer be expected to believe the outdated and unbelievable story of miracles and dying for sins and actual coming-back-from-the-dead. But the narrative of Holy Week is still deemed to have a few residual nuggets of potential worth mining for us in our spiritual journeys. You’ll be relieved to know. Read more

I’m Not Doing So Good…

Victor* is the last of a handful of inmates to trudge into the Monday morning support group that I’m a part of at the local jail. He’s a small Latino guy, middle aged, a wispy beard and a short ponytail. He looks apprehensive about being there, but then that’s not uncommon. He sits down on a chair and stares at his feet waiting for the group to begin.  Read more

A Miserable Human Being

I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.

— Linus Van Pelt

I suspect that most of us can, at various points of our lives and to varying degrees, identify with this statement that Peanuts creator Charles Schulz puts in the mouth of good old Linus. “Humanity” as an abstract category seems entirely worthy of love and good will. Individual human beings? Well, that’s another matter entirely. Read more

There Goes My Hero

I got a phone call from my daughter this morning. It hadn’t been the greatest of mornings to that point. A few phone calls and emails had had brought unwelcome news. Our church is in the middle of dealing with a flooded basement mere days before we’re supposed to host a provincial conference. A few tasks that I had little energy for were stubbornly beckoning. I was generally feeling uninspired and uninspiring, bored and boring, tired and tiring. I probably resembled Jonah, pouting under his pathetic little plant. And then the phone rang and a beautiful voice dispelled the clouds for a moment. Read more

On Divided Hearts

As I’ve mentioned before, I often join a few Anglican colleagues for morning prayers on Wednesdays. When I do so, I invariably come away with something to ponder from the Scriptures we read together and the traditional prayers that we join our voices with. This morning’s Psalm was a portion from the longest of them all, Psalm 119. Our reading began with these words: I hate those with divided hearts…

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The Old Wanderer

There’s a marvelous scene in Will Ferguson’s novel The Shoe on the Roof where Thomas Rosanoff, a medical student is having a discussion with his Catholic friend Frances about faith and reason and science and God, about what human beings can know and how they can know it. They are discussing a time when a patient’s shoe inexplicably (miraculously?) appeared on the roof of the hospital. Frances demands a rational explanation:

“How do you explain the shoe on the roof, then?”

“I don’t have to. It’s what we call an ‘anomalous experience.’”

“Tommy, everything we do is an anomalous experience. Being alive is an anomalous experience. That’s the problem with science; it always falls silent right when the questions start to get interesting.”

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What a Silly Reason to Lose Your Faith

I listened to a podcast the other day where a comedian was talking about losing his faith. I was intrigued when I heard the preamble—I nearly always am, when the topic has anything to do with faith, whether losing it, finding it, or hanging on to it for dear life. As it happens, intrigue quickly gave way to a yawn. He had grown up in what sounded like a pretty conservative religious environment. He had imagined that faith was something like a formula where believing and doing the right things when it comes to God would yield desirable outcomes in life. And then his wife had left him. And his career had floundered. So clearly, his faith was misplaced. God didn’t exist. And I remember thinking something like—I’m not particularly proud of this, I confess—“Oh, is that all? What a silly reason to lose your faith.” Read more

Joy is One Kind of Courage

Christian Wiman is one of a very small number of writers who I will read pretty much anything they write, regardless of the subject matter or form. His book My Bright Abyss is probably one of my favourite books of the last decade. Consequently, I happily seized upon a recent piece he wrote for the New York Times called “The Poet of Light.” It is ostensibly a reflection upon the life and poetry of Richard Wilbur. But on a broader level, it’s about the relationship between nature of art and writing and joy. Or, more frequently, joy’s absence. We live in times where it often seems like the darker the themes of a given work—writing, film, television, whatever—the more “authentic” it must be. Happy endings are passé. Joy is obsolescent. No serious artist would want to be outed as a cheerful optimist. Dark, brooding, tortured—this is where the action is. Read more

I Wanna Open My Heart

His eyes rarely leave the floor, even as he’s baring his soul. He’s young, tough-looking, brown skin marked with tattoos, black hair slicked back over the middle of a mostly shaved skull, rosary around his neck. It’s the first time he’s showed up at a group I participate it in at the local jail. He’s looked wary about the whole thing since he walked through the door. But he mustered up the courage to begin a sentence like, “I think I wanna say something…” And the story comes pouring out.  Read more