A community and its killer

Every few years a story pops up about the murder and attempted murder that occurred in Altona 30 years ago. In the last decade stories have often related to the stages leading up to Earl Giesbrecht’s release from prison. The latest article marked Earl’s full release.[1] Anyone living in Altona at the time of the event likely has a connection, a story, an opinion, and a feeling in relation to what happened. I am second cousin with the murderer Earl (though this doesn’t mean too much in my small Mennonite town). My sister was in Earl’s grade. I was in the same grade as the brother of Curtis, the boy who was killed. I played hockey with Tyler who escaped. I was a goalie and just younger than both Tyler and Curtis who were also goalies (which does give me pause some days). I knew Tyler fairly well in the years that followed these events and appreciated the direction it headed.[2]

I don’t think there is anything I can or should say in regards to Tyler and his family, Curtis’s family or Earl and his family. I hope they had and continue to have what they need for what they experienced. What I do find myself reflecting on again and again is the role and legacy this has for the community or to put it more specifically, something about how the community has been understood or understands itself. In a 2013 article a Winnipeg columnist names Altona as the ‘third victim’.[3] What does this mean? In a very real sense this is true. When tragedy occurs all those in relation to that tragedy are impacted. This can happen in small towns, cities and countries. Tragedies shake or fracture our sense of place, meaning, and safety. There is no doubt the community was deeply impacted by what happened.

There are, however, many ways that a community or society can collectively understand and respond to tragedy. My concern is that Altona continues to both promote and allow itself to be viewed exclusively as a victim while denying Earl as being a part of our community. Such a response makes a lot of sense in our attempts to distance or protect ourselves from such realities. But such a stance is simply and factually wrong and more importantly I am increasingly convinced it is unhealthy in the long run for a community to accept this posture.

All groups with a sense of membership, shared values and identity struggle with naming, acknowledging and addressing those elements that either do not fit or seem to contradict dominant values or identities. Probably the most pervasive example of this is valuing the ‘sanctity’ of marriage which tends to keep society from acknowledging addressing the fact that the home remains the most likely place for someone to be harmed. In the same way churches have had a hard time accepting accusations of clergy abuse because of the symbolic value they place in their leaders. It is not a matter of whether we value family or religion the question is whether we value it enough to face its complex nature and dark corners.

Earl is not an aberration, he is not a monster that was never one of us. There appears to be no resolution on his claims to have been molested as a child and my sense and memory was that he was probably both bully and bullied (not uncommon; I was both as well at times). These realities should not give Earl the ability to claim innocence through victimhood in the crimes he committed and perhaps what drove him is relatively rare among most people but I also don’t think it gives Altona, as a whole, the ability to claim being simply or only a victim. This is not how communities or societies work. After all Earl was part of the community, born and raised.

I continually hear accounts of how individuals in Altona are still scared of Earl. I don’t deny the reality of these feelings. Fears are real, we all have things (rational or otherwise) that plague our thoughts and chase away sleep. Here again I am not thinking of those directly impacted but wonder more so at the fears of a community and this might relate to the community’s own inability to face that fact that Earl was one of us, a part of us. Altona, like every other community, did and still does house the full range of humanity’s potential. Instead of acknowledging this we tend to displace and isolate the bad parts of society to certain neighbourhoods, beliefs or people groups. Earl was a part of the community in as much as all the homophobic and racist expressions, the domestic abuses and instances of incest in Altona that have scarred and driven out so many others over the years. We have made no public accounting of these forms of harm and the potential deaths (by suicide) that are related to our community.

Make no mistake I am not claiming ‘justification’ for Earl’s actions (or somehow blaming the community for it) and I am not trying to demonize Altona in its faults. Rather, I want to follow through on claiming our need to take responsibility in at least acknowledging that communities are always filled with messy, diverse and dark realities. The community is no innocent victim because the community is not an individual it is a group of people that include those with unimaginable capacity for grace, service and forgiveness as well as those who ponder murder in their hearts and walk a fine (and mysterious) line of not acting on it and of course all the rest of it in between.

I have now lived in the West of End of Winnipeg for as long as I grew up in the Altona area. I have had the unfortunate experience of knowing murders and assaults that have occurred all too near my home and my family. Now none of them have been as personal as the experience years ago in Altona but most of the time I have no fear of my neighbourhood and I certainly have no fear of Earl’s release. Saying all this I do know that bad things happen, some of which I can avoid and some I can’t. In small ways then I try to learn about and work for the way communities can build supports for safety, healing, understanding and accountability (as well as how I can do that work in my own heart and mind). When I hear accounts of Altona’s response to these events I have no sense of acknowledging that as humans we are always living around the fine and sometimes mysterious lines of what can potentially be the best or worst expressions of humanity. Earl’s actions needed to be accounted for. But Earl was a part of our community. Responsible communities don’t have the right to claim innocence they can only be called back time and again in attentiveness to those who are suffering while shedding light on and addressing its causes when we can. It is in this way that we can best hope to create collective spaces for prevention and healing as well as for joy, creativity and celebration. I hope that each individual finds the healing and forgiveness that is needed in this hard life. Communities are key in a good life but we must account for all of life and then figure out a way together.

[1] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/earl-giesbrecht-altona-parole-1.5551732

[2] https://www.tylerpelke.com/

[3] https://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/bible-belts-bogeyman-still-haunts-town-211939421.html

On not calling the police: Rethinking peace and policing

The Winnipeg Police Service has shot and killed three people in less than two weeks. More than ever we need to take care about when we as citizens call the police. More than ever we need to think about the relationship between peace and policing. I have performed many of the ‘criminal’ acts associated with those who were recently killed by the police. I have shot out windows with a gun. I have taken alcohol and a vehicle without permission. The difference was a context that could absorb some of my immature or misguided behavior. I shot out windows on an old barn on the farm I grew up on. We drank booze underage at friends’ places. We took our parents’ vehicles when we shouldn’t have. We did these things because, why, I don’t know. I was bored. I needed to explore boundaries. I was reacting to something. And I was a pretty ‘good’ kid! I never had to worry about getting shot. I never had to deal with my unpredictable behavior responding to a dump of adrenaline when armed men began chasing me.

When I moved to the West End in Winnipeg in 1999 there were certainly times I called the police. I didn’t really think about it. When there is something suspicious or dangerous that is who you call. I called the police in response to a loud party in my apartment. I called the police in response to aggressive behavior I saw on the sidewalk. I don’t know what happened to any of these calls. Over time I began learning more about the uneasy relationship between the police and those struggling with how to respond to poverty, addiction, unsupported poor health or settler induced trauma. I began to understand the complex web of family-youth-gang entanglements and how introducing the police into already difficult circumstances may not be the best choice.

Spring always seems to be a time when kids are out in the back lanes breaking shit. About eight years ago there was a group of four or so youth walking up and down our back lane. They were breaking some property including throwing something through our back window which was part of our kitchen where we usually sit to eat. Our son was about two at the time. That felt scary. I saw the kids one day and called the police. I started to describe the situation and when they asked me to describe their ‘ethnicity’ I froze. I decided to hang up. I thought about what to do. The kids were still out in the back lane. I opened my garage door and asked them if they had seen anyone throwing rocks in windows. They said no. I said that my son often eats in that room and was worried about him. They sort of just kept moving.

Most kids know something of being scared. I hoped that maybe they could feel a connection in how they were doing something to make another kids feel scared, not in shame but how they were being asked to help and not being accused. But being scared is tough. It is hard to act well in fear. I know I was scared to approach those boys and I certainly wouldn’t expect everyone to do something like that. And fear is a huge factor in all of this. Calling the police is a way of addressing our fear. But the police are afraid as well. We need to deescalate fear and the police are trained to defend themselves with force against fear not deescalate. Fear and anger can take on wildly different forms. We need an intervention into these current forms of violence fueled by fear and anger. While under our current model there will likely remain times to call the police but there is good reason in many situations not to call the police. Knowing more stories of police/public altercations there is no reason one of those kids in my back lane wouldn’t have got shot. Put me in a different scenario growing up doing almost exactly the same things I did do and I could have been shot.

There are things that are scary and we all want to be safe but there are better ways to approach this than our current model of policing. There are growing resources pointing to alternatives but we as a culture and society need to see the value in investing in these alternatives. But there remains in our society widespread approval for police shootings sometimes as tragically necessary but for many others as something that should be applauded and expanded to rid ourselves of people like me who just had a different context and experience in which to grow up and navigate life which is often hard enough at the best of times.

If you are interested in how to think differently about the relationship between peace and policing Dr Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land at First Mennonite Church last month. Her talk gives an excellent introduction to this topic particularly for the context of Winnipeg. The audio link is below.

https://soundcloud.com/david-driedger-568689722/keeping-the-peace-peace-and-policing-in-winnipeg

Also consider following Winnipeg Police Cause Harm on social media.
https://twitter.com/WpgPoliceHarm
https://www.facebook.com/wpgpoliceharm

Changing the game: The economy in a post-COVID-19 world

Our economy was only ever as good as its ability to get bigger and faster. To what can we compare it? There is nothing so precarious as an elite athlete. Capitalism is the structure of elite competition. In such a structure there is a necessary majority of losers. There is the inevitable wreckage of bodies permanently sidelined and discarded by injury. Within the structure those who ‘benefit’ are those are in service of the victors or at least the competitive. This includes the direct losers (one still needs competition to be able to win), the trainers, statisticians, coaches, owners, infrastructure, merchandise, etc. They only have worth to the extent that the athlete is at the very least competitive. The lives of athletes are fully in the service of improvement, of growth. Every moment is accounted for including rest which some athletes schedule in as ‘meetings’. Coaches know this precarity and caught between their ego and the pressure of investors tend to abusive behavior as a means of controlling the athlete and their performance. The elite athlete is not conditioned to be healthy but to be improving at an appropriate rate or be discarded.

Continue reading “Changing the game: The economy in a post-COVID-19 world”

Name your idol, know your enemy: Religion, capitalism and the secular age

Speaking on the topic of Christian faith formation Andrew Root, with Charles Taylor as his guide, charted the trajectories of secularism from the medieval period to the present. Prior to the formations of the secular Root said that the church really did not need to think of formation because all of life and culture was shaped by a Christian imaginary. As Christendom shifted through the Enlightenment to secular modernity Christian beliefs became contested and in time all beliefs (including unbelief) became contested leaving personal (un)belief precarious and fragile in our present age.

Continue reading “Name your idol, know your enemy: Religion, capitalism and the secular age”

Remember, this is a love song

Peace Sunday
November 10, 2019
Isaiah 5:1-7

Remember, this is a love song.

God had taken some time with Israel first delivering them from slavery in Egypt then leading them to Mt Sinai and teaching them new laws. God spent an entire generation in the wilderness guiding them in daily trust in God’s presence and provision. God brought them into the land of Canaan, here again teaching them that conflict is resolved through obedience. Once settled, God gives them judges to help discern their new life together and respond to hardships. The people mature and while it is not God’s first choice God lets them choose a king and God supports this king. The people are secure and a Temple is built. Nothing has been better. Milk and honey are flowing.

Continue reading “Remember, this is a love song”

Humanity, Animality, Divinity: Notes on a theological formation

Recently a friend and I discussed how our theology developed over the years. We both shared a basic commitment to what could be called a ‘social justice’ approach to theology. It was interesting to see the differences in how we came to our theology but what surprised me was the unplanned manner in which I described my own formation. I had not reflected on my early formation for some time. It seemed that I had been holding my earlier theological commitments with a sort of unquestioned self-evidence, as I suspect most of our beliefs are formed. I did not draw on memories of how I was impacted by the Bible or some influential pastor or teacher (though these were part of the story). I was also not a kid with some early or innate sense of justice sticking up for the underdog on the playground (I passed most of my childhood years with indifference and even spent some time bullying). Rather, I was drawn to a single memory of my time volunteering with Mennonite Disaster Service after high school. We were stationed in Yuba City California, a couple of hours drive inland from San Francisco. Early in my time another guy my age started volunteering and we would plan various weekend trips. One weekend we decided to go to San Francisco. Through various twists and turns our naïveté of big cities (in an age before smart phones and wifi) led us into the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood (often referred to as the birthplace of hippies). This was easily the largest urban setting I had ever been in (downtown Winnipeg being the previous record holder). As we slowly navigated the busy and oftentimes bizarre streets I looked over and saw, just for a moment, the distinct image of a man squatting on the sidewalk in the midst of a bowel movement. I can’t remember thinking anything much at the time but the image imprinted itself. In Cruel Optimism cultural critic Lauren Berlant speaks about how changes happens in our life in a way that resonates with many of my experiences. She writes that change is “an impact lived on the body before anything is understood, and as such is simultaneously meaningful and ineloquent, engendering an atmosphere that [we] spend the rest of . . . [our] lives catching up to.” I suspect that for some of us much of our life can be summed up in the living out, the ‘catching up to’, a handful of experiences and images that have impacted us.

As I reflected on my commitment and theological orientation to justice it was, strangely enough, this image that made its impact, an experience I was still trying to catch up to. Somehow, deep in this urban centre that felt foreign and exotic I found entangled in the strange, something familiar. Though I can’t imagine I would have articulated it at the time this image brought me back to the farm I grew up on. We raised cattle among other animals. For much of the year these animals roamed our large property confined by a simple strand of lightly electrified wire. The fence kept these animals from the house and front yard where I could play safely but often I was in the back yard with these animals. I learned to relate to them acknowledging connections and limitations, similarities and differences. And among other differences they relieved themselves whenever and wherever they felt. They were at once exempt from culture but also confined and controlled by it.

And so there was something in this image of a man, a fellow human, performing an act that was foreign and yet familiar, something seemingly animalistic that resonated with me. I was, at least unconsciously, intrigued. What led to this man performing this act in this way? I remember latter that day needing to go the bathroom and realizing that while you may not have to pay directly to use a toilet you needed a base level appearance if not ability to be a consumer to be allowed entry into this civilized norm. That image impressed on me the reality of different zones and environments, the reality of different borders and boundaries in which humans lived which in turn affected how they behaved and were treated.

Since moving away from the farm I have spent almost all my adult life living in a downtown urban setting. I haven’t met too many other farm kids who have made this transition but the move has always felt natural to me. Earlier in life I would have articulated this as a straightforward commitment to the social gospel in which we are called to live among the poor and marginalized. I am beginning to wonder though if I simply found in urban centres the sort of boundaries, hierarchies, and differences that were familiar to me on the farm.

Most of us maintain some sort of qualitative distinction between humans and animals. Yet it does not take much scrutiny or close observation to notice that the relationship (or line) between humanity and animality is less clear than we might think (or perhaps like). It does not take long to uncover atrocious histories of racism that were explicit in establishing a hierarchy of humanity that transitioned directly into the animal. Somehow or other white male scientists considered themselves the highest species among all that roamed the earth. But you don’t need to look at these grand arcs of history to simply take note of zones, boundaries and hierarchies that lead to situations in which someone might defecate on the sidewalk. There are groups disproportionately fenced in (incarcerated) at higher rates. There are economic boundaries that keep groups from home owning in general or moving to ‘safer’ neighbourhoods. The front yard of the farm being the well-manicured and controlled suburb while the backyard left more unpredictable and untended, needed for profit but excluded from mutual recognition. We characterize these ‘backyards’ as more dangerous but are usually more accurately described as the grouping and confining of the vulnerable which inevitably becomes marked by the ‘uncivilized’ characteristics of unmanageable addictions or grinding poverty and the attending responses of despair. Such confined vulnerability draws predators in the forms of oppressive prostitution and general violence. Where I live in Winnipeg it is short walk across Portage Avenue from Wolseley to the West End. I once noticed the change in posters from lost cats or dogs in Wolseley to missing friends and family in the West End.

This single image in San Francisco rippled through me and my experience on the farm. What did it mean when the relations between human and animal, the setting of boundaries and of differing values and behaviours bleeds into human forms? Or more accurately the starkness of this image shook my senses into an emerging awareness of the hierarchies and divisions that already exist in life, among humans and between species. It was this image and the environment it engendered that more than anything provided a framework, an intelligibility for the message of justice in the Bible to be felt and heard. Increasingly, my sense is that if our notion of faith and justice come simply from ‘following the Bible’ then we will remain (as we mostly already are) too easily mired in the endless debates of interpretation, for truly there are some unjust and unhelpful expressions to follow in the Bible. The Bible alone has never been enough for discipleship (for those who might still be offended by this I might add that the Bible itself acknowledges this).

What if, rather, we spent time attending to the otherness, the differences and relations of humanity and of animality and then allowed what we saw and experienced to become entangled in the otherness, the differences and relations of God (in the songs, prayers, words, and silences of worship). This paying attention to the images and impacts that changed us can help develop another way of doing theology, doing discipleship in which accountability does not rest simply in the interpretation of a text nor some notion of natural theology (for what is natural theology but what we humans want to see in nature). This form of attention allows us to consider the fullness of life in the environments and hierarchies that are produced in the relations of humanity, animality and divinity. I am not looking to shift or erase the lines between the human, animal and divine only to ask that we might pay more attention to the type of differences, hierarchies, and often violences that can be produced in the way these lines are drawn or followed. I am not convinced that such sustained attention will produce a clear or consistent systematic theology but it may be a fruitful source of discipleship. What are some of the images and impacts in your life that you need to return to, images that return (perhaps surprisingly) when you reflect on key areas of your faith and life? For me, at any rate, this image keeps open the question of what it means to follow Jesus who we call human and divine and to whom we sing worthy is the lamb? This image keeps my eyes searching for the boundaries and the hierarchies we experience. While I have expressed some of the real challenges and restrictions placed on people in my neighbourhood part of my love for my neighbourhood is precisely the possibility of freedom from insidious demands of maintaining a proper ‘front yard’. It is from the backyard that we might witness and experience the prophecy of Malachi in finding freedom and go leaping like calves from the stall.

For further reading
Stephen D. Moore, ed. Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology, 2014.
Anthony Paul Smith, A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought, 2013.

Sick is a miracle: Reflections on sickness and healing through Porochista Khakpour’s Sick

33026961._uy400_ss400_

Good etiquette generally requires we refrain from talking too much about feeling sick. Family and friends are a little more sympathetic, a bit more patient in their ability to listen but even here there tends to be a limit for all of us in how much we can listen to the experience of another’s sickness. We can handle it in doses. We eventually become desensitized, frustrated or even angry if the person cannot seem to engage any other aspect of life. So what then when one someone’s life becomes marked not only by chronic illness but an illness that is elusive, shifting, mysterious . . . and relentless? How does one speak and relate when the time and energy often spent on work, hobbies or interests are intimately consumed by something that will not allow for any consistent or predictable times of peace or strength never mind joy? What happens when one’s life is thoroughly shaped by one’s sickness? Porochista Khakpour’s Sick is a meditation on such realities and questions. From the outset it should be clear that as an accomplished author who finished a book like this Khakpour is already a testament to the possibilities of a life in the midst of chronic sickness. But that she finished this book was no given. In Sick Khakpour chronicles her PTSD arising from her childhood in Iran during the Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, drug abuse as a young adult, car accidents and ultimately the diagnosis of Lyme disease which appeared to have marked and plagued her life in unimaginable ways. The insight into the symptoms of Lyme (which are profoundly physiological and neurological) and the American medical system’s continued resistance and seeming inability to acknowledge the condition is worth the read alone. However it was the book’s larger arc reflecting on chronic illness and pain that brings home its full impact.

I had just finished Khakpour’s novel Sons and other Flammable Objects and was eager to read more from her. However, I was not initially taken in by the writing style in Sick. The writing felt a little stiff and underdeveloped in her personal reflections of journeying with mysterious health conditions. However, as the book unfolded I was moved by the demands that chronic (and especially undiagnosed!) pain places on a person. This pain and its various symptoms disrupted her career and family, established a pattern of relationships in which she found herself drawn to men who believed they could help her or at least care for her (none of whom lasted), kept her constantly on the move in search of possible treatments and continuously drained her of her financial resources. Most of us who are paying attention will know someone struggling with a chronic health condition, too often it seems it is a condition that is ruthless in its demands keeping the person guessing, off balance, not knowing when the next feeling wellbeing will come. Knowing such people myself and hearing how difficult her journey had been I found myself growing anxious reading along. I was anxious because I was not listening to a friend but rather reading a book, that like all books, comes to an end. How would this book end? Would she find clarity in her condition and a clear course of treatment? I struggled with my feelings. Clearly it would be wonderful if she found healing and yet if I was honest I didn’t want healing for her, at least not in the book. I didn’t want another narrative of hope that brings healing. I’m not convinced that is what we need.

As it turns out, and as the later sections of the book become shorter and a little more erratic, Khakpour had experienced some relief and some success in treatment and in that time pitched this book to her publisher as a “story of triumph” in which she did indeed get well. However, she acknowledges that such a book never made it past a bare bones proposal and during the writing of the book she experienced one of her deepest depressions. She was unable to write the story she initially wanted, the story publishers agreed to sell and the story we like to read. But as she put it her illness “wrote its own ending.” And finishing the book was itself the miracle.

There were few people who stayed with Khakpour throughout her illness. For those of us who cannot understand such a demanding experience it is difficult to walk with someone without becoming frustrated or feel defeated. We are frustrated because most of us need to feel the hope of real healing and overcoming illness. We want to fight for a cure. This is what sustains many. This is what initially seemed to inspire many of her boyfriends. And it was what kept drawing her back to such people. As she put it, “when the body feels out of place it will cling to anything that looks like life.” But what if we lose the fight or that our energy and hope are simply gone before the healing has come? What if our image of healing or health is simply not possible, or at least there is no real trace or evidence of it on the horizon? What if the time, energy, ability, and interests of someone you love will always be marked by something clawing back what we think could be possible, what we think that person deserves? If we invest in this future images, in particular hopes that our love and care will do more than it can, then we will likely fade from these people’s lives because we are then ultimately committed to something that does not and may not exist rather than a commitment to the person themselves. It is difficult to be nourished never mind thrive from a place that does not exist and so has nothing to offer.

In the end Khakpour’s story is not what I wanted for her personally but it is what I think we need in the midst of our realities of chronic illness. It is necessary to struggle for what may yet be possible. Hope is not a bad thing but we need to be aware of what shape it takes and what it is invested in. If we are insistent on thinking we know the end of the story or that our wellbeing is bound to that ending we will likely pass by and out of the lives of those who struggle because we will not have the resources, stamina, or understanding of a story that must be lived in the present. Theologian Catherine Keller wrote, “To love is to bear with the chaos. Not to like it or to foster it but to recognize there the unformed future.” Khakpour’s Sick is a miracle. And a miracle, I am coming to believe, is only for a moment; a moment to see and experience the formed future in the midst of chaos. This may even be one way of reading miracles in the Bible. Perhaps the miracle stories pause, linger and slow down a moment in the midst of chaos. We know Jesus did not ‘solve’ anything and yet we might experience him, experience good news moment by moment. We need more stories with such miracles for they draw our minds away from the hopes that we have and keep us attentive and present to those around us for when we are more fully invested in what is then we may yet see and experience what we didn’t think was possible.

Narrating church success

Amid the chronic expressions of church (and Christian) decline there remain a few narratives of church success in urban North American settings. There are new Canadian congregations in which an established faith from another country/context is transplanted here transferring an existing vitality. Then there remains the suburban evangelical mega church model which skews either towards a charismatic spirituality and/or conservative family values (these sometimes have ‘satellites’ in the downtown area). These narratives of success tend to remain in keeping with the larger socio-economic forces whether it is the value of social cohesion and coherence of new immigrants, the capitalist aspirations of infinite accumulation in health and wealth charismatic spirituality, or the reassuring stability of the nuclear family in evangelical mega churches.

I would like to explore a third narrative of urban church success, namely those churches emphasizing the use of ‘higher-church’ liturgy and a more straightforward commitment to theological orthodoxy. While I don’t find this article particularly well researched, a recent response to Serene Jones’ denial of a ‘literal’ resurrection attempts to demonstrate how Jones’s liberalism is now passing and another generation is rising up who embrace an orthodox theology without retreating from present issues. This article is characteristic the common claims of orthodox forms of liturgy and theology that are revitalizing the church. I would like to explore this narrative of success through my experience at and reflection on St. Margaret’s Anglican Church here in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Before continuing I should add that by ‘success’ I simply refer to congregational/parish settings that reflects vitality in terms of broad demographic engagement, ministries offered, and profile in the larger community.

Continue reading “Narrating church success”

Making a theological statement

I have never really liked theology. It would be easy and boring to associate this sentiment with some self-aggrandizing notion of how my beliefs are so original and idiosyncratic that they cannot be contained in existing theological discourses. But this was the case even when I was primed for theology, when I was seeking theology, when I just loved Jesus and wanted to be smart too.

Perhaps it was simply the case that I was exposed to bad theology early and never recovered. Going to a small evangelical bible college I still have images of the brick that is Millard Erickson’s systematic theology. From what little I remember it was basically an exhaustive attempt at creating a logical system of proof texting the Bible in relation to God. It seemed that unconsciously I sensed that theology tried to make of the Bible something other than what it already was. I always enjoyed the Bible, or at least from my early formative periods of faith. The Bible was just something that my faith led me to be immersed in. In the Bible there was more than I could possibly understand.

Evangelical apologetics were equally inscrutable. Why would ‘God’ be subsumed to reason or logic, wouldn’t that make logic or reason God? I mean, I understood what people were trying to do in apologetics but it never made sense, that is, I couldn’t actually do it. I remember taking an apologetics class and for my class presentation the only thing I could come up with as ‘proof’ was how interesting it was that over millennia a community gave what seemed like unbroken testimony to something.

My aversion to theology only continued and it was not really for lack of exposure. I toured through various ancient and modern theologians with some holding more and some less interest. My only really sustained engagement was with Rowan Williams. Williams was the first theologian for whom theology seemed non-reductive, that is, he seemed to let his theology roam as wide as his faith. This may not be advisable as an academic discipline but it was invigorating at the time. This period also aligned with my time worshipping in an Anglican church. It felt as though perhaps I found an intellectual and spiritual home. But at that time I also began reading works by Philip Goodchild and Daniel C Barber. Significant to their work was a critique of the function of transcendence within Christianity (and so also modernity) and its attendant schools of thought. The critique that I drew from them was how evoking transcendence (that is the existence of another plane of reality inaccessible by direct contact from this plane) was almost always a power play, always a matter of who was mediator, priest, of the pathway between realms. To be on the side of transcendence was to be an unassailable authority (perhaps benevolent perhaps not). Goodchild unpacked this in terms of the difference between imagination and attention. Put most simply imagination projects beliefs onto the world while attention allows for the possibility of mutual transformation engaging the world. Confessional statements of faith could not be protected when one is committed to paying attention. This was the undoing of my Anglican tour of faith. Anglican theology (and its attendant liturgy) was on trend at that time for intellectuals and artists of faith, Anglican theology (and its attendant liturgy) offering a drama of life in which creation is taken up into its vision of life. Everywhere I turned from then on all I could see were acts of imaginative projection (which ultimately is just another term for supremacy). I am not saying I have rid myself of Christian supremacism but Anglican theology was ruined for me.

In the last ten years I have come across theology that has moved and shaped me; James Cone, Delores Williams, and Marcella Althaus-Reid are a few that come to mind. What these theologians modelled for me was the type of attention that facilitated a sense of relay with life, or living. This attention privileges suffering as a reality which is excluded or rejected from dominant discourses and imaginations. Suffering is the site which can have no meaning. This resistance to discourse, which is perhaps also resistance to the world comes close to my definition of holiness drawn from the Israelite tradition of anti-idolatry, leaving nothing at the center worship. Here attention is drawn to that which is not figured, not of this world but also not transcendent; not a meaning maker from another realm.

God and God’s holiness is that which moves otherwise than the figuring of the world. This is of course not a consistent theme in the Bible. To impose consistency would already be to adopt an intelligible discourse of the world and ascribe holiness to it. The Bible does, however, offer a surprising multitude of clashing discourses, meditations on sheol and darkness, rigorous demands of holiness, and calls to value what is not. This swarm hardly makes for theology in any standard use of the term.

In the place of theology I consider my intellectual practice one of study. Study is necessary unfinished, necessarily attentive and formative. There are of course many forms and types of study but the holding of faith and intellect draws me time and again to absurdities, dreams, traumas, and the unbearable for these places necessarily clear so much of the world from it that the possibility of holiness seems somehow inevitable if one is able to learn how to sustain attention, for these things so easily cast us off or cast us down or elicit rationalizations and denials. It is from here that my understanding or worship and even church appear. It is in the gathering of those at such sites of attention that the practices of faith sustain our attention and await something that we might call resurrection.

Closed communion: On maybe not being God’s gift to the world

As the trend in Mennonite Church Canada continues to drift towards ‘open communion’ (which typically refers to an invitation to receive communion regardless of one’s ‘merits’ [baptism, membership, etc.] or even designation as a Christian) I found myself becoming more resistant than I anticipated. There are several reasons for this.

First, by way of orientation. In my experience ‘closed’ communion is typically supported by the notion that communion already reflects a faith commitment. This could be appealed to by way of the biblical precedent of only disciples being present at the founding event and then also of the very early church tradition in which communion was given special weight in relation to a believers commitment. It is assumed that people find value in communion and as a significant site of spiritual formation and worship it is not something to be undertaken lightly.

As many traditions in the last 50 years or so began to question and address the manner in which the church has functioned to exclude people and hold an unhelpful and hypocritical measuring tape up against others there have been attempts to ‘open’ communion, focusing rather on the radical hospitality of Jesus and the rejection of meritocracy, on who is ‘worthy’ to judge and to receive communion. Communion becomes a symbol that anyone should be able to recognize and receive as a sign of grace.

What I find myself wondering about is the arrogance of the church in both of these models. Closed communion can certainly be reflective of a larger ‘closed’ culture in a congregation which is unable to recognize faithfulness and goodness in people who do not fit the moral codes of a congregational theology. This is still most easily identifiable in matters of marriage of equality or sexual orientation but this extends in basic postures of piety that often reflect middle-class values on what being ‘blessed’ looks like and in turn what we expect others to look like. And so ‘closed’ communion can easily function to reinforce who is really a part of God’s chosen people. There can be an equating holiness with perfection and the church as stewards of this protection. This aligns with the deeper theology of Christian supremacy which believes the church to sufficient and superior prior to contact with what is unrecognized.

In this way it makes sense for those addressing these harmful practices to ‘open’ communion and indeed focus on radical hospitality, extending the table as it were. However, I find this posture to be more a reaction in overcoming the narrowness of its more conservative brothers and sisters. What I mean is that I am concerned this approach is more about soothing our own guilt and distancing ourselves from what we find distasteful in other church forms than actually thinking about how communion can and should function in the church. So, a few thoughts.

If communion is meant to be an intimate space in the relation to God and fellow believers church leadership should never consider it a completely open space. One can only wonder how many times victims have been forced to take communion alongside abusers. The time has fully arrived for the church to re-visit the question of church discipline particularly in relation to issues of abuse and harassment. It seems reasonable if not necessary to reflect on how to make communion a safe space (which includes an interrogation of the theology behind communion practices).

And so while communion should hopefully support and protect those within a congregation I also feel like we need to be more attentive to how communion protects those outside the congregation. Unless we wish to make communion literally a meal basically like every other meal (which could well be fine) then we need to acknowledge that communion reflects a practice that bonds one to God and to one another. There is great pious theology that can articulate the abounding love of God which is for everyone. And most of us in the church do hope that if there is something good we can offer, we want to offer it. But deploying this theology at the site of communion may not be the most helpful.

This call to open communion can again communicate that we are literally God’s gift to everyone, that we have what is good for what ails you. And so what I am wondering if we are willing to acknowledge that we may NOT actually be good for some people to be bonded to. I hear this from some black people who are uncomfortable (to put it mildly) with our white churches trying to be more ‘diverse’ (making them a project of their aspirations). I hear this from queer individuals hesitant to receive welcome when it is only practiced in a let’s-all-agree-to-disagree-and-focus-on-unity context (ultimately subsuming them under a repressive theology). And it is quite simply arrogant to assume we have what you need (I can’t help but think there is a sneaking supremacy in all this).

Rather, take your time. Get to know the church. Learn about its history, theology and practices. You know, catechism. If the church can only offer communion as a means of support to those outside its congregation it is probably doing something wrong. There are all kinds of tables, all kinds of relationships and opportunities. We don’t have our house in order and should not be quick to begin bonding someone to our family dynamics until that person has a better sense of what they are getting themselves into. Particularly as Mennonites we cannot allow our theology to become increasingly divorced from our ecclesial realities.