Spirits United and the other MCC

While surfing around the web trying to find out if anything interesting was happening in Harrisburg while I was at Mennonite World Conference I found out that last weekend was Pride weekend. On the website promoting this weekend I noticed that there was an interfaith worship service at the Metropolitan Community Church of the Spirit (MCC; for Mennonites this acronym is indelibly linked to the Mennonite Central Committee). I had heard of MCC before though I didn’t really know anything other than its connection to the LGTBQ community. There are only three MCCs in Canada and they are all in Ontario. I thought this would be a good opportunity to take in a service I would not otherwise be able to.

To be honest I was not prepared for my initial impression of this service. I can only describe this impression as being soft. Not just soft, but really soft, pillowy soft. I mean, literally. The lighting was soft. In the front of the worship space hung paintings in soft pastels. The chairs were soft. The skin of the 40 or so white upper middle aged worshippers was soft. And I kid you not but the majority of men walked softly and literally had a gentle soft arch in their back (even the younger ones). The women tended to overweight with soft curves moving across their bodies. I wanted to criticize. I so dearly wanted to criticize this, particularly when the white guy from the Blue Mountain Lotus Society offered the call to worship with his 3000 year old Buddhist sutra. I mean, I was beginning to think this just another cocoon of soft white privilege.

But things started to change. A representative from a marriage equality advocacy group came up a spoke. This person was of course happy to celebrate the recent rulings in the United States but he also noted the sadness and the hurt that was gathered there. When he said this there was a slight tremor in his voice. And suddenly I was taken back to the hard world in which many of these ‘soft’ people have to live.

The service otherwise was quite simple and straightforward. We even sang a hymn that we regularly sing at my church, Here in this place. They had a small choir that performed beautifully. There was nice message of trying to see our underlying issues of fear that turn to hate. We sang the community’s ‘theme’ song about being woven together during which we were asked to ‘look lovingly around at one another’ and during the song people did just that. There was a liturgical prayer, a poem was read and benediction given and then we went into the fellowship area for some snacks.

I started feeling awkward at this point. People seemed friendly but no one was initiating conversation with me. Quickly I began to feel that I should just go back to my hotel and leave it at that. I actually left the building and began walking away when I stopped and thought that I needed to give this time a chance. So I headed back into the building. I milled around for a minute when an old man (I found out later he was 76) made eye contact and said, “Hi there young fella.” I stopped and began chatting with him. He was easy to talk to and told me how long he had been attending the MCC. I asked him what his background was before coming to the MCC (assuming he would know I meant religious or cultural background). He said he was ‘whore’. As I thought hard and quickly to make sure I heard him correctly he went to say that he had sown his wild seed back in the day and that he could not really come out as gay when he was younger because of his religious background and the way things were back then. He shared about how important it was for him to find a place like this. He said that he is now 30 years sober.

The conversation continued to flow and he shared about the church more generally, his role on church council, a little bit of gossip about some of the members, his concerns about their future now that other churches are becoming more welcoming (everyone has church growth anxieties right?). To make me feel more welcome (or something) he pointed out the few straight people there. At one point he leaned in closer with a whisper You know at first I couldn’t stand how huggy they are around here. Though a few minutes earlier he had greeted another member with a friendly kiss on the lips. I said to him that I guess hugs aren’t so bad when you get used to them. He smiled. He pointed out the straight people.

This man certainly moved me. This notion of softness also lingered with me. Maybe this man’s softness was reborn. Though I also wondered if for others you don’t survive softness by becoming hard. You either die from it or you find a place and a community that will protect your softness. I could not help but be struck by this softness. It was so distinct, so pervasive. It seems that softness is not the same comfort. That in fact it is telling that the population most marginalized from the church reflects an expression that is also often lacking in the church (well at least in the Russian Mennonite tradition). It is in fact not easy to be soft. There must be a lot of strength to maintain your softness and fight for your rights.

At the very least I could go away saying that I met a sinner whom the Lord had saved, a drunkard the Lord had redeemed. Praise be the Lord.

Having second thoughts (and 3rd, 4th, 5th…) about Mennonite World Conference

[For the ‘first thoughts‘ see the below post]

I was hoping to write a few coherent posts regarding my experience at MWC but thoughts and experiences kept piling, swirling, and jostling and so I gave up (for now) trying to apply some sort of interpretation to them. So while something more reflective might come, for now I will post a few experiences. Have look, skim a few, let me know what you think.

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First thoughts from a first time Mennonite World Conference participant

Many people have gathered here in Harrisburg, PA. Many more, I think, than I have been a part of in worship. Being a part of many people gathering, of many people singing can be a moving experience. We place many bodies in rhythm and so can gain a momentum impossible as individuals. As a description this momentum of course is neither positive nor negative. This is true of rock concerts, football games and political rallies. The theology articulated so far has been unexceptional. This is also not a criticism, it is only to say that the impact of the speakers is not in some exegetical insight or theological innovation. I would say that there has been no theological revelation so far. Rather the movement and momentum reflected in the worship, in the gathering of our bodies and our attention has been to stories that reflect two elements of our faith (and not only two of course).

The stories and worship reflect a faith and a fellowship that can resist destructive powers. This gathering, this rhythm of worship vibrates in the frequency of peace and justice. Our time began with the indigenous of the area of Pennsylvania calling us to worship by calling attention to the Mennonite church’s complicity of dispossessing the people of this land and the need to work for reparation. Cesar Garcia of Colombia (General Secretary of MWC) told a story of his faith calling him, despite physical abuse, to refuse allegiance to his country and military commander because he could not fight for them. He encouraged the church to stay together because if you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go together.

The next morning I listened to a young third generation Christian woman from Ethiopia share her struggle with doubt. She had faced and wrestled with the question of whether her faith was simply the imposition of the colonizer. In the global south she was not immune to the changing worldviews and effects of postmodernism and the question of where Jesus’s lordship fits. She came committed to the church, but commited also to face her doubts. In a workshop I listened to a group celebrating their accomplishments as the Latin American Anabaptist Women Theologians who themselves were inspired by a similar earlier movement of African Anabaptist Women Theologians. This group began as a dream because at the time there was no place for them in the church at the time. The group works to directly address issues of violence and patriarchy as well nurture solidarity and support for each other.

The stories, songs and prayers reflected a history and a gathering with the resources to resist powers of violence in the name of the God of peace. This element of MWC deeply affirmed my connection and involvement with the Mennonite church.

But after just a day I can also see the conflicts and I experienced discouragement. I was part of informal conversations that made me cringe and shudder over the ongoing concerns I have about church practice and theology. I heard stories of the practice of converting Muslims in Indonesia that were shared with pride. Another from North America seemed to think we needed to be more evangelical, that this would bring the needed ‘persecuted’ if we bravely said the name of Jesus. In these and other conversations I am seeing that ‘mission’ is an expression born of and birthing conflict. This is my generous definition of mission because there is conflict when destructive powers are confronted for peace and justice and so if that is one’s ‘mission’ then yes conflict will follow and I want to support that. But much of the conflict I see seems born out of an abstracted notion of God’s calling and so much more is born out of ego and turf wars inside the church. Mission strikes me as an expression that will require much more attention in the future.

Then there was the conversation about the hundreds of congregations that have left Mennonite Church USA and the many more poised to do so. These churches would rather break fellowship than allow some congregations to affirm the testimony of faith of non-straight folk. Tangled into this conversation is the question of money and how institutions are necessarily at the whim of financial support even if it goes against the beliefs of those in leadership.

And so it goes, and I guess it could hardly have been otherwise (and there is probably someone somewhere writing a post criticizing all the things I find hopeful). I remain committed to the Mennonite Church because it is committed to the call of peace and justice. It understands these expressions as forms of worship. It is only in worship that a gathering of individuals can sense the rhythm, the Spirit, to sustain a movement. So let’s gather again tomorrow.

Autonomy and/or Caliphate?

I enjoyed reading S. Sayyid’s Recalling the Caliphate and am following the current book event on it at AUFS. That said, I don’t really know how to enter into or better engage the thinking or implications of the book. While some of the critiques certainly register, I have only impressions of its possible impact. This could simply be for lack of understanding but I also wonder if I am simply not in a position to get what is going on here. In this way I was struck by what seemed to be a contrast in the conclusion of Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s recent book Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide. In many ways this is a more intelligible account, a more Western account in which Beradi mounts a somewhat erratic but still convincing picture of the suicidal machine that is global semio-capitalism.

Both Berardi and Sayyid are working on global scales.

Sayyid writes,

The caliphate is a polity which represents a global Muslim subjectivity. The caliphate is not merely an historical institution but rather an overdetermined ensemble around which questions of the governance of the ummah and the relationship between Muslim biographies and Islamicate histories are played out. The caliphate is a concentration of meanings about how the venture of Islam fits into the world. The ability of Muslims as a ‘collective will’ to make their own history, to project themselves into the future, to elaborate and enrich their sense of who they are and who they wish to be rests upon the possibility of the caliphate. (179)

This posture strikes me as very different from Berardi who wrote the book because he is looking for “for an ethical method of withdrawal from the present barbarism.” Is this a necessary move for westerners? Is this what is needed to then be able to properly see and support real forms of decolonization? Berardi does not think there is anything to do. His last chapter is ”What Should We Do When Nothing Can Be Done?” Berardi does not qualify this as a western posture and therefore negates Sayyid who appears to have something to do.

Berardi concludes,

So what can be done when nothing can be done?

I think that ironic autonomy is the answer. I mean the contrary of participation, I mean the contrary of responsibility, I mean the contrary of faith. Politicians call on us to take part in their political concerns, economists call on us to be responsible, to work more, to go shopping, to stimulate the market. Priests call on us to have faith. If you follow these inveiglements to participate, to be responsible – you are trapped. Do not take part in the game, do not expect any solution from politics, do not be attached to things, do not hope.

Do not belong. Distinguish your destiny from the destiny of those who want to belong and to participate
and to pay their debt. If they want war, be a deserter. If they are enslaved but want you to suffer like them, do not give in to their blackmail.

You will die anyway; it is not particularly important when. What is important is how you live your life.

Finally, don’t take me too seriously. Don’t take too seriously my catastrophic premonitions. And in case it is difficult to follow these prescriptions, don’t take too seriously my prescriptions.

Irony is about the independence of mind from knowledge; it is about the excessive nature of the imagination.

There is a certain rhetorical flourish here that I take is supposed to jar or liberate(?) but it appears to work in contrast to Sayyid. What is at stake in the difference? Is Berardi simply unable to see and account for the possibilities of the caliphate as Sayyid expresses it? Is Berardi’s process necessary for such understanding?

I just wanted to register that contrast and my experience with Sayyid’s book to see if anyone else following the event had similar struggles.

Fabricating Middle Ground

The following is an excerpt of my review of Edward E Andrews’s Native Apostles: Black and Indian Missionaries in the British Atlantic World (Harvard UP, 2013). The full review will be in an upcoming issue of Intotemak.

Though it remains largely implicit, it’s evident that Andrews’s history is also a work of redemption. It is not so much the individual missionaries that he wishes to redeem (though this is certainly the case in several accounts). Rather, Andrews wishes to redeem a certain understanding of missions itself. This project is most clearly stated early on in chapter one:

Indeed, if we understand missions less as sites of western imperial oppression and more as a middle ground, a physically and metaphorically contested space where indigenous peoples and colonists had to negotiate with one another instead of destroying each other, then the role of native preachers to these missions becomes all the more vital. (23)

What follows is an archive of accounts in which the author attempts to curate such a ‘middle ground’. Edwards highlights narratives in which Indigenous preachers integrate in Protestant cultures and examples in which Indigenous preachers challenge Protestant culture. There are accounts in which black missionaries challenge the slave trade and other instances in which black preachers are critical of their own people. Andrews effectively demonstrates a certain variety and diversity of expressions from this time period. For this reason the book is worth reading. Yet he cannot make good on his suggestion of reimagining missions.

To be sure the site of early North American missions was a contested space. Andrews does well to illuminate the various cultural, political, theological, and biological conflicts that surfaced in this time period. However, by his own account it is difficult to concede that this was a “space where indigenous peoples and colonists had to negotiate with one another instead of destroying each other” (23). European missionaries indeed found black and indigenous converts useful and even necessary.

But it seems unimaginable to frame this as a sort of ‘middle-ground’ when the forces in this relationship seemed so entirely disproportionate. This disproportion was true whether it was the persistent fear and racism of European settlers that could leverage military responses, the devastation of disease when nearly an entire class of indigenous seminary students died, or the final pronouncements of theological validity that remained in the seats of power in Europe. So while there appear to moments and places of mutuality, Andrews gives too much autonomy to missions; yes, missions were messier than the old narrative, but they cannot be preserved from the larger colonial project. Missions were profoundly embedded in the larger forces that worked havoc and destruction in black and indigenous communities.

We cannot confuse the diversity of individual action with the reality of social and structural pressures. The individual and the social are related but greater care and awareness needs to be made in how we handle these accounts. I can imagine a similar narrative being written about the history of Indian Residential Schools in Canada. I am sure there are stories of good teachers, students having good experiences, and perhaps even collaborative and interesting expressions that emerged. There can be a place for the writing of such histories but I do not think this can happen apart from the awareness and acknowledgement of a theology and logic that was ultimately unable to negotiate, unable to exist on middle-ground that allowed for mutual influence.

 

Pay attention . . . it is more than you imagine

[Sermon preached on The Sermon on the Mount this past Sunday]

Spending time in the Sermon on the Mount last week there were plenty of times when I was convinced that Jesus did not give a great sermon. It feels a little choppy, Jesus jumps around in his statements and often doesn’t explain what he means. There are massive swings in his thinking. For nearly an entire chapter Jesus basically calls his listeners a bunch of murderers and adulterers who should gouge out their eyes and chop off their hands so that at least the rest of your body can avoid going to hell after which he concludes by commanding that they be perfect just like God is perfect. But then he’s like hey, don’t judge each other, quit being so critical, just do to others what you want done to yourself. And then he swings back coming at his listeners, don’t be fooled by the wide road that will lead to destruction; seek the narrow gate, even though few of you will find it. So start producing something worthwhile or you will cut off the vine and thrown in the fire.

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Review: Islands of Decolonial Love & The Winter We Danced

The following is available in the print version of Canadian Mennonite [Volume 18, Number 21; October 27, 2014]

The Winter We Danced: Voices From the Past, the Future, and the Idle No More Movement. Edited by The Kino-nda-niimi Collective. Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2014, 440 pages.

Islands of Decolonial Love: Stories & Songs. Leanne Simpson. Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2014, 112 pages.

After getting a coffee I sat down to read The Winter We Danced. On the table next to me I noticed a book someone left behind. On the cover was a bold notice stating 2.5 million copies sold. The title was something like Great Battle in Savage Country; a contemporary work of fiction re-telling the conquest narrative of America expanding into the West doing battle in ‘Indian country’. I turned my attention back to The Winter We Danced and thought also of Islands of Decolonial Love that I recently finished. These books will not sell 2.5 million copies. This fact is a tragedy and a reminder. It is a tragedy these unique and forceful works will not receive the audience they deserve and conversely it is a reminder of the sorts of stories we prefer to tell ourselves.

The Winter and Islands are two stand out contributions from Winnipeg based Arbeiter Ring Publishers. The Winter We Danced will make it more difficult to write some future bestselling novel of Canada’s brave resistance to the potential terrorist actions of the indigenous people in the years 2012-13. The Winter is an archive; a vast collection of stories, poems, songs, editorials, blog posts, tweets, images, and histories that explore the people and events that came to be identified with Idle No More. This is a primary resource of accounts as they unfolded and the reflections that emerged in the wake of these events. This collection is not only important for a future generation but a present reminder of how quickly these events can vanish from main stream media. As I read through these accounts I was struck again by the importance of Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike and how quickly I had forgotten it. There are many stories competing to occupy our memory and imagination.

Islands is a collection of poems and short stories by Indigenous theorist and storyteller Leanne Simpson. The title is acutely accurate as this collection moves among the registers of love, isolation, experimentation, abuse, and hope. This book is work. It is the necessary and at times painful work of emerging from another story (one that has also sold millions); a story of love that was never meant for indigenous bodies and souls. Simpson’s stories swirl with dirt and blood, water and whiskey, red and white and if there are connections among these islands (and even bones are broken into islands) it is by threads of love. “i want to pick you up, and i’m going to stitch every one of your broken bones back together with kisses.” (83)

These books challenge our imagination; they put in bold contrast many of the stories we are more comfortable with, especially for those of us immersed in the history and story of the West. I can only remind the reader of the two images cast by the titles, love and dance. These forms are often closely related. We would do well to learn some new steps.