Belonging and Exclusion – A Conversation

The latest issue of the Christian Courier takes the question of belonging as its theme, with a particular focus on issues of race and culture. Here is my “column” for this issue.

__________________

The theme of belonging is rich with challenge and possibility and it seemed to me that I would do better not to try and explore this theme merely on my own. As a result, I share with you the content of an interview/exchange I had with the Rev. Oliver Kondeh Ndula, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon and a graduate student at McGill University/The Presbyterian College, here in Montreal.

RDV:  The idea of “belonging” is understood in variety of ways. How do you understand “belonging”?

OKN:  I understand “belonging” to mean the ease with which people get integrated into communities, especially communities other than those of their origin. From this perspective the concept is dualistic. On the one hand the other needs to take the initiative to get integrated into his/her new community. On the other hand, the new community can either facilitate or impair the process.

RDV:  Do you think it is possible to fully belong in some place or community?

OKN:  I would say not exactly! For one thing, people’s world views are different and that constitutes an impediment to total integration. There is always this tendency in humans to judge the ways of others and to disapprove of them because they are different from theirs. In some cases, the disapproval is articulated, but in most cases, it can be through non verbal communication.

RDV:  Have you perceived differences in how “belonging” is understood between your home context and the Canadian context?

OKN:  Of course. For one thing, Cameroonians value community over individualism and that has an effect in the way they perceive “belonging”. As such my reading of the Cameroonian perception is that they try as much as possible to make the other feel a sense of belonging, even when they have a negative impression of the one.  They may talk ill of the “stranger” behind his or her back, but they can go to great lengths to make the one comfortable even by sacrificing their own comforts. Many Canadians on the other hand, are too honest to the point that they just won’t do what inconveniences them, an attitude many Cameroonians may judge as impairing community.

RDV:  Thinking about the Canadian context, what is the most significant thing others have done to give you a sense of belonging?

OKN:  I would greatly commend the Canadian context for the commitment with which service providers render their services. For about one and a half years that I have been here, I can’t remember any office to which I went and was treated shabbily. Even when I found it hard to understand something either because of accent, or even because it was a concept with which I am not familiar, I always found a patient ear willing to serve me. At such times, I felt a strong sense of belonging in my new community.

RDV:  What are the most significant things others have said or done to make you feel like you don’t belong?

OKN:  I remember an incident, when I was serving as Interim Dean of Residence in Summer 2018. A homeless middle-aged man decided to spend the night in the courtyard of the College and a resident called my attention to it. When I politely but firmly insisted that the one should leave, he eventually succumbed but before he did, he made very racist statements. He wondered aloud how a “n- – -” like me would come to his country and tell him what to do! He blamed the situation on a government that has opened their country to all kinds of “n- – -s”.

RDV:  This difficult encounter makes me think both of the harsh way this man tried to diminish your belonging to a community and also the way in which he has perhaps lost his belonging to a wider community, based on his homelessness and other possible life experiences.

OKN:  In addition to your comment, it makes me think of how he might have felt as he left the courtyard. Could it be that since this space belonged to a Christian institution, he felt refused by the same people who are supposed to take in the homeless? I actually felt bad as he left, as I wondered what might have become of him, if he got turned away from everywhere he went.

RDV:  Are there ways that people resist belonging in your Cameroonian context?

OKN:  Sure! Heightened by the multiplicity of ethnic groups in Cameroon, there is much, even if often covert hostility between indigenes and settlers. The former would often give the impression that the others are welcome, but there is always some resentment. Sometimes this can even take the use of some derogatory slangs to describe the settlers such as “come-no-go” (a pidgin expression meaning one who came visiting and has refused to leave; “Les anglofous” (a derogatory term used on anglophone by Francophones); and “francofools” and “frogs” (two terms used by anglophones to ridicule Francophones).

RDV:  As you have already seen, this kind of hostility isn’t unknown or uncommon in the Canadian context. What is your sense of how our belonging is transformed by our faith in Christ?

OKN:  Belonging is transformed by our faith in Christ in that any Christian community worth the name can never fail to be conscious that we are only Christians by being grafted into a community to which we originally did not belong (Romans 11:17, 24). Thus, faith in Christ facilitates belonging, for it reminds all that no one owns any particular community, just like none is a “stranger” in any part of God’s earth.

RDV:  In our personal lives we face opportunities and challenges in belonging. How does faith in Jesus shape your approach to the question of belonging?

OKN:  Personally, I try to make empathy my watchword, and I would recommend the same to all who have found faith in Jesus, the one who incarnates inclusivity. Just like we all resent it when our sense of belonging is hampered, so do others feel.

 

img_2723

Advertisements

Telling the truth about our lives #Bach #Zagajewski

My latest column in the Christian Courier.

______________________

Some years ago, I was introduced to a remarkable piece of music composed by JS Bach—the fifth movement of his Partita in D minor for solo violin (called the Chaconne). As with so many of Bach’s works, the Chaconne easily captures your heart; it has a way of lodging itself in mind and imagination. The piece is by turns pained and playful; dissonant and melodic. It sometimes rushes on almost to the point of stumbling and at other times strides smoothly towards its resolution.

At the heart of the Chaconne is a mystery that may go some way to explaining its compelling nature. The German musicologist Helga Thoene has suggested that it contains a hidden numerical code that references Bach’s wife (Maria Barbara) and the year of her unexpected death. Also, that the piece is built on an intricate musical scaffolding of eleven hymns that all reference the death and resurrection of Christ and invite us to put our trust in God. The Chaconne seems to be bookended by musical echoes of a chorale by Martin Luther and the phrases “Christ lay in death’s bonds” and “Hallelujah”.

bachAs we think about the Chaconne it is important to acknowledge that we are all Romantics—we see artistic expression as tied up with our personal lives and our internal emotional landscapes. We have placed ourselves at the centre of our imaginations and it is difficult for us to conceive a world that is not self-focused in this way. Since Bach predates the Romantic period, however, it is more likely that his music points to something outside of or beyond himself; something universal, rather than something merely personal. The glory of God, the compassion of God, and the hope that is found in Christ. Continue reading

A Christmas Prayer

My latest column in the Christian Courier is a prayer for Christmas.
__________________

Praise to you, O living Word, for you give the gift of our world. You are the creating one through whom ancient Laurentian mountains have their craggy existence. By your imaginative power, forests of black spruce, larch, and balsam grow along ridges of granite and gneiss. By your gracious creativity, lynx and porcupine make their fleet-footed or lumbering way through habitats long called home. “All, at a Word, has become this almost overwhelming loveliness” (Margaret Avison).

Praise to you, O living Word, who has been born, like us, in a rush of blood and water—vulnerable, with your mother, in your passage into this world. The love displayed in your birth is an accompanying love that risks pain and loss and cold and homelessness, even as you are warmly received into the arms of Mary. This young woman who has borne God, leads you into a beautiful and fearful world, teaching you the prayers of your people along the way. You have learned from her; you are yourself with her and the people to whom she belongs. You find yourself, and are yourself, in relation to the God who makes covenant with this people.

Praise to you, O living Word, for you are the showing forth of God’s glory. In your speaking, the magnificence of God is heard. In your face, the beauty of God is seen. In your living, the grandeur of God is made apparent. We had always expected God’s glory to be otherworldly, almost unimaginable, yet here you are in time and space. God’s grandeur in a bawling baby. Glory to God in the highest; Glory to God in an unremarkable Lord alongside us. Continue reading

My garden won’t save the world…

My latest column in the Christian Courier.
______________

My front-yard garden measures 12 feet by 11 feet and so represents a modest effort in terms of urban agriculture. It certainly doesn’t compete with the larger plots tended by some Portuguese seniors in west end Montreal, or with the wide-open community gardens that flourish here. But its postage-stamp size doesn’t tell the whole story of my veggie patch either. Year over year my acreage (dreaming big, here) teaches me much more than many other areas of life—it is the source of innumerable successes, failures, and opportunities to learn.

This year I decided to plant kohlrabi for the first time, which one website describes as “a unique, easy-to-grow veggie.” Easy for them to say! I don’t know whether to blame the less-than-consistent rainfall of this past summer or my less than strategic enriching of the soil, but the resulting, stumpy little kohlrabi stems were rather disappointing. In my defense I should say that I didn’t have a lot of time to invest in the garden this year. And the decision to leave town for four weeks of holidays wasn’t exactly conducive to its flourishing.

IMG_1472Most of the carrot seeds I planted in early June simply didn’t germinate, though the few seeds that did spring up produced twenty lovely carrots. Twenty! (You can interpret that exclamation mark as either frustration or delight!) They were typically odd-sized and wonderfully misshapen. Also, at some point during the season I simply forgot I had planted onion seedlings in the back corner, and only discovered them when pulling out overgrown crabgrass and other weeds a few weeks ago. And there they were, 10 of them pulled up and held in one hand, as remarkable and beautiful as anything on God’s green earth. Continue reading

What is (a) man?

My latest in the Christian Courier.

_________________

Having explored the question “What is woman?” in my last column, it seemed only reasonable to follow up with the question of man. In asking about man, however, we quickly discover an interpretive problem that didn’t arise in asking about woman. In the case of “man” we have to clarify whether we are referring to the human in general (“what is man that you are mindful of him”) or man as a specific sexed/gendered being different from woman.

My interest is in the latter question—man as a specific sexed/gendered being. But this interpretive problem already points to an important issue in any conversation about the identity of man/men. Specifically, that for most of history man has been defined as representative of human being. To speak of men was to speak of the human, and vice versa. At one level, of course, this has been no burden since it has meant a privileging of men’s lives and experiences Yet it is a kind of burden since man must now learn to be himself without also the measure of the human.

Man is what my son is becoming as he learns to play the flute, forgets to shower after a soccer game, studies for an English exam, or talks and argues with his sisters. In these things and many others he is sorting out what he cares about, what he enjoys, what he finds difficult, and what matters to him (or doesn’t). And in all of this we, his parents, encourage him to seek the way and service of the risen Jesus, since we believe that his identity and ours are found in Jesus. Continue reading

Rocks, boulders, pebbles, alive?

Stones of all kinds were a feature of my family’s vacation this past month – a vacation that included two weeks on the West Coast. We spent time in and around Vancouver, and then up the coast into Alaska. Everywhere there were stones.

With the tide out, wandering on rocky beaches – more stones than could be counted.

On a Sea-to-Sky hike and climb near Squamish – scrambling across rock falls and around boulders.

Along the coast and inland, too, mountains and massive outcroppings of rock – Mount Baker, The Chief, Grouse Mountain.

IMG_3930 (1)

Near Juneau, Alaska.

Rocks define our world, the earth, so why would they not define a summer holiday, also?

Sometimes those rocks and stones even appeared to be, somehow, alive. Continue reading

Summer Holidays — Making Memories??

Having just returned from a family, West Coast holiday, this blog post from 4 years ago came to mind. It all still makes sense to me!
______________

It took me a few years to get it, but I have now accepted the obvious – namely, that summer holidays aren’t about me. Vacations aren’t about me lounging in a hammock as I read a series of novels or about me leisurely exploring the natural world with camera in hand. Of course that doesn’t mean there’s nothing for me in the summer months, but I have realized that summer holidays, for the foreseeable future, are centred on the kids.

But having accepted the obvious (resistance was futile!) there’s another question that has dogged me this summer. The question whether summer holidays are essentially or primarily about “making memories.”

IMG_0379Over the past five weeks I have come across that phrase everywhere: in a PEI tourism brochure, at a Canadian interpretation centre on the St. Lawrence River, in the Facebook posts of friends, and in everyday conversations along the way. Summer vacation, it seems, is about making memories – for the kids, of course: Continue reading

The Limits of Zero Tolerance

This is an excerpt from my longer piece on #metoo and reconciliation.

_____________

The limits of zero-tolerance

Those who champion or implement a zero-tolerance response to Norman Hardie, or those who are similarly guilty of sexual misconduct, have offered little or nothing in terms of what his repentance might mean for the judgment against him. Few have asked what a change in Hardie’s person, behaviour, or business operations should mean for his role as a winemaker and for his public presence. If his open letter is genuine and if his commitment to change is real, what difference might this make? The failure to address this question, or to event countenance this possibility, represents a significant problem from the point of view of reconciliation, which orients us toward both judgment and of grace.

We might also ask: If zero tolerance doesn’t work as a response to bullying, and if zero tolerance hasn’t work in relation to marijuana or drug policy, then why do we think that a policy of zero tolerance (admittedly loosely defined, here) will work for those who have engaged in sexual misconduct or harassment? Why do we think that the disappearance of a winemaker and winery from public will finally make a difference for the renewal of a culture, and of sub-cultures, that have contributed to disempowerment and abuse of women? It seems unlikely that it will. Continue reading

#MeToo and the way of Reconciliation

The #MeToo movement is having an unsettling effect in Canada—we might even go so far as to say that it has been a source of some turmoil across the country.

To use the word “turmoil” is not to criticize the unfolding of this movement, or to undermine its importance. Very often, social disruption is necessary for cultural transformation; such disruption can sometimes get us moving in the direction of renewal in our lives and institutions. In this sense we can only be grateful to those women who have wrestled with the question whether to publicly disclose the sexual abuse or harassment they have experienced—and who have walked through the turmoil that may have resulted from their decision to do so. Their willingness to take this step has been in the service of cultural changes that we hope will make a difference in many lives.

The goal of the #MeToo movement is to overturn those features of western culture that have allowed men freely to objectify, sexually harass, and abuse women. Its purpose is to help us realize that abusive men have used their relative power to both exploit and silence women. The goal of the movement, further, is to establish levels of transparency, openness, and respect that will prevent further instances of sexual abuse, harassment, and pain.

In all of this, the #MeToo movement is an inherently public movement. The acts of disclosure, judgment, and punishment that constitute the movement take place before the public eye. On a nearly daily basis, from various media outlets, we read stories of inappropriate or abusive behavior, along with commentary on related institutions and issues. The movement is also public in the sense that our social media feeds overflow with comment and debate around each new revelation. Continue reading

What is woman?

My latest column in the Christian Courier.

__________________

What is woman?

This is a question we are not supposed to ask. And is certainly one I am not supposed to answer. But in these few paragraphs I will sin boldly, as old Luther apparently suggested Melanchthon should do on one occasion. As I answer, I will write from my own admittedly particular point of view, hoping that the reasons for my writing become apparent.

Woman is what each of my daughters is becoming – what they are and become through swimming competitively, playing the piano, throwing a football, completing math tests, or reading novels. They seem to do these things more confidently and competently by the day. Each is unique in temperament, in self-awareness, and in their approach to friendship, among other things. But they are both discovering  grace and growing in grace.

These two are also each becoming woman in the particularity of their bodies – gaining coordination and strength to test against the world, whether in playful jest or with compelled determination. As embodied, each is also becoming aware of the remarkable capacity to carry life and deliver life into the world, through and for relationship. How will they respond to this gift and gift-giving capacity is at least a question that is posed to them. And they must discern their answer against the backdrop of a culture that says, astonishingly, the body is irrelevant to (their) being/becoming women. Continue reading