Imagining the Ethics of Diaspora – Preface

[In support of Melanie Kampen’s recent publication Imagining the Ethics of Diaspora.  I wanted to post the preface that she kindly asked me to provide.]

One of the highest forms of praise that I can offer for Melanie Kampen’s new work is to share what it evoked in me. To be clear Imagining the Ethics of Diaspora is a careful work of theory, but what came to mind were two very earthy stories from my past. I want to offer these stories as a way of introducing her text.

In the first story I had just finished my second year of college; papers were submitted and exams were completed. In honour of this occasion my roommates and I thought it would be good to hit the town, to let loose a little, and so three of us headed out ready for a little mischief. Now granted we were renting a house in the small Mennonite community of Steinbach, so hitting the town may have limited our options some. In any event as the night wore on we began to wander aimlessly throughout the neighbourhood when eventually we heard some shouting. We went to take a closer look. There was a man and woman fighting (verbally) on a driveway. We were quite close to them at this point, though hidden from view. Eventually the fight ended, they parted ways, and the man got into his car to drive away. We quickly hid behind a bush on the next yard. Now as the man turned the headlights on and backed out of the driveway the car paused for a moment, and in that moment the car lined up directly with the bush we were hiding behind. The lights lit up the bush clearly revealing three figures cowering behind it. The engine was shut off and the door opened, and we heard him get out with a yell. And in that same moment we turned and ran, with him coming after us. Running down a back alley we seemed to instinctively split up and I found myself running alone, well, that is with an angry man running behind me. I am not a runner and I knew I could not keep my pace up. And in those brief moments I needed to make a choice. Bear in mind I had no idea how big or small, young or old, this guy was. Finally I decided to stop. As I stopped I turned around, folded my hands behind my back to face and encounter my pursuer…

The second story came a year later after I moved into a house in a rough neighbourhood of downtown Winnipeg. One night my roommates and I were watching television when we began to hear shouting outside of our house. This was not an entirely uncommon experience but it did get our attention as the noises got louder and closer until finally we heard banging on our door. The front door of our house was solid except for a small window almost five feet up on it. From behind the door we heard the voices of what seemed to be two men and one woman. Through the window we saw the occasional arm being raised and then disappearing from sight. The door, however, kept us from seeing and knowing more fully what was going on. Was this woman being attacked? Was this a set-up to get inside our house? Regardless of the scenario the door kept us separated from this conflict.

~

Melanie Kampen’s book is an exploration on the possibilities of peace and conflict. Using the images of exile and diaspora Kampen is clear that this sort of exploration cannot happen abstractly, with a view ‘from nowhere’. Both conflict and theory are situated in particular places and discourses. To already articulate this much is to create a sort of interference in contemporary models of conflict resolution, which often rely precisely on the ability to abstract information from a context and process it through a stabilized model of understanding and action. In response to models of abstract and analytic conflict resolution, Kampen explores diasporic conflict transformation. This shift in posture assumes neither that conflict is necessarily bad, nor what model should therefore be used to resolve it. Instead of focusing on resolution, a model of transformation enters a situation with sensitivity towards the practices, the forms of knowledge, and the values of a given context so that the given conflict can transform along the lines of immanent emergence as opposed to a transcendent imposition of authority. To impose an external authority of resolution is at best to work in bad faith with a community, and at worst it perpetuates colonial practices of control.

To demonstrate this posture Kampen practices such a posture. Her three main conversation partners are writers who have caused no little interference within their own disciplines – but more than that, these writers also represent separate disciplines which are still often patrolled so as to keep from interfering with each other. And despite or, perhaps better, through their interferences these thinkers approach the question of peace and conflict. In the area of theology John Howard Yoder has attempted to interfere with the dominant paradigm of what he calls constantinian Christianity. In the area of sociology John Paul Lederach has interfered with dominant paradigm of analytic conflict resolution. And finally in the area of philosophy Jacques Derrida has interfered with the logocentric bias of traditional Western thinkers. Imagining wagers on the possibility that giving attention and even multiplying these interferences may be the way to yield new ways of imagining peace.

Imagining is an excellent example of the reflexive relationship between content and method. As such I found this book to be a satisfying example of how theory can be done. But Kampen’s method and her focus on diaspora remind the reader that satisfaction (much like resolution) may not be a helpful orientation. It is for this reason that a dense work of theory reminded me of such visceral memories. Kampen asks her readers to open up to an imagination that will remain attentive to the conflict and interferences that occur around us. She does so without romanticizing conflict. There is real pain and suffering involved in conflict. These realities are weaved into her text through examples given by Lederach, the contemporary context of the Arab Spring that established a sort of milieu for this book, as well as her own work in ecumenical and indigenous relations. Kampen is most certainly invested in addressing violent conflict but is careful not to add subtle but real forms of violence to how we enter a situation of conflict. As such we must remain open, diasporic, to be best equipped to help peace emerge and take shape. To use her overarching image from the prophet Jeremiah, we must become invested in the welfare of the place we are, a place that we did not secure, a place where we are not finally settled.

~

And so this careful work of theory opened naturally to pointed scenes of personal conflict in my own life. In both cases I was not prepared in advance to address conflict. I was forced to rely on whatever resources were at hand. In the first instances my own resource was flight. I tried to escape the conflict. But when that resource was exhausted (literally) I needed to decide what posture I would take next. Being a young Mennonite I had been exploring my pacifist tradition and in that moment decided that I would turn without overt aggression and see what might be possible. And through this posture the man ended in tears sharing the pain he felt in the conflict with his partner.

The context was different in the second story. I moved from small town to downtown. I no longer needed to rely on my stamina but held the privilege of a strong door to mediate my response. And in thinking of these two stories it was the simple presence of a door (as part of my own home) that formed a decisive difference in these two stories. I could now decide in security and distance whether I wanted to open myself to this conflict. In this case we let the woman in but only after the men left. We were not willing to risk our position any earlier. Thinking of how I held to my privilege and control in that situation I was reminded that imagination will only extend so far as we allow our attention to be engaged. And we must constantly discern and re-evaluate our ability to invest in conflict well. If we do not at least consider opening ourselves to conflict we will sediment and begin to project an already established imagination, which is like trying to project a map of India onto Turtle Island. But to give sustained attention to, and engagement with, our environment allows imagination to shift from projection to possibility. How and when we do that, and in what capacity, cannot always be determined in advance.

Even as I was reflecting on these memories, and on this text, two people were shot and one killed on the sidewalk outside my house. I was home at the time. Behind a maintained fence, a strong door, a thick wall, and a closed window where I played with my three year old son and heard nothing when it happened. And in the aftermath of this event I will be one with the most resources to move, to shift my centre of stability. From outside my neighbourhood I am thought to be irrational in choosing this unnecessary vulnerability. From the inside I remain one of the most privileged and secure. And so we live at a stalemate.

Neighbourhoods characterized most clearly by gated communities police their residence by property values, physical barriers, and the residue of racial prejudice, and contribute to the pooling of the vulnerable and the predatory in urban centers. Some of these boundaries must be dissolved. But conversely there are those stripped of the resources of wealth, family, culture, health, employment (the list goes on). For these people a new solidity and strength needs to be imagined and substantiated in stable housing, basic economic supports, and healthy family and social network.

There is a complexity, and as Kampen suggests, an impossibility in all this. How is change possible? How does peace emerge? To leverage my privilege is to contribute to disparity. To expose a child to undo threat is to compromise responsibility. This is just one example of impasses and interferences we are set within. We are invested. We are implicated. Where will we give our attention? These questions will shape how we form our imagination. This book reminds us that we cannot allow the complexity and even the impossibility of peace resign us to a peace which is no peace; a peace based on exclusion and control; a dominating peace. We need the resources and imagination to perform the urgent and patient work of discerning which boundaries inflict forms of death, and which boundaries open spaces for healing; to tear down and to build up. Peace is not simply the cleansing of difference (the creation of the ‘good’ neighborhood and family) but a particular way of engaging difference (the responsible times, places, and forms of being a neighbour).

Lingering, though largely unnamed, in this book is the presence of a messianism or even apocalypticism. There is a holding open in hope. There is an intentional posture which is also a prayer which we know is also an im/possibility. Work and worship become blurred and the distinction loses its value. The best minds and theories have given us no answers and if they have we cannot hear or abide by them. So we do not restrain our resources. We give way to the divine. The divine presses on us, processes us. We love with all our heart, mind, and strength and still someone know that in this fullness we are at best articulating: God have mercy.

David Driedger
First Mennonite Church, Winnipeg
Spring 2013

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