Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Gospel according to Harper Lee - II

A Meek and Lowly Father

Scout says of her father,

“Atticus was feeble: he was nearly fifty...Our father didn't do anything.... Atticus did not drive a dump-truck for the county, he was not the sheriff, he did not farm, work in a garage or do anything that could possibly arouse the admiration of anyone.”

But when the Sheriff hands his rifle to Atticus to take out a rabid dog in the street with a difficult long shot, Scout is excited to finally have something to brag about.

“When we went home I told Jem we'd really have something to talk about at school on Monday. Jem turned on me.
“Don't say anything about it Scout,” he said.
“What? I certainly will. Ain't everybody's daddy the deadest shot in Maycomb County.”
Jem said, “I reckon if he wanted us to know it, he'da told us.”
“Maybe it just slipped his mind,” I said.
“Naw, Scout, it's something you wouldn't understand. Atticus is real old, but I wouldn't care if he couldn't do anything - I wouldn't care if he couldn't do a blessed thing.”
Jem picked up a rock and threw it jubilantly at the carhouse. Running after it, he called back: “Atticus is a gentleman, just like me!” (Chapter 10)

In this story, Scout discovers in her “feeble” father a heroic sharpshooter. Jem's discovery is deeper. He begins to understand the depth of his father's character, a discovery that fills him with love, and, instead of a desire to revel in his father's skill with a gun, a desire to imitate his gentlemanly humility. One might say that Scout is still seeing the father with the eyes of the Old Testament, while Jem has begun to see the father with the eyes of the New.

Truly admirable, loving, but also unattainable, Atticus provides a perfect model for what Girard calls “external mediation.” Atticus inspires imitation without ever engendering rivalry (unlike the internally mediated dynamic between the siblings Jem and Scout, where rivalrous fights frequently break out). We live in a world where such fathers are increasingly deposed, exposed as just as imperfect as the rest of us - no longer “arousing the admiration of anyone.”  Now we have only one father left who we can worship the way Jem worships Atticus: the Heavenly Father.

With the Christian deconstruction of the scapegoat mechanism, we can no longer come together by being altogether against the single other. Nor do we have earthly fathers left who can keep our mimetic rivalries from getting out of had with the big scary "Because I said so," of patriarchy's sacred wrath. Now our options are reduced to the rivalrous anarchy of each against each, or coming together altogether for the Other One.

The Christian God can seem old and feeble. Out of fashion, and revealed in weakness. What kind of God is that? It is indeed a strange claim that Christians make: that of all the powers competing for our worship, the single one that is worthy is the Lamb that was slain. God the Victim, the Vulnerable One, the Suffering Servant. Strange, and yet, the more I think about this, the more I feel like Jem. I want to throw something, my joy in this humility is so fierce.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Gospel according to Harper Lee - Part I

The girls and I just finished To Kill a Mockingbird. It's the third time round for me. Some books just keep getting better. This time, I read Lee's masterpiece through the lens of Rene Girard's thought on the role of mimetic desires and the scapegoating in forming human communities, and the role of the Gospel in exposing and overturning these. Lee is dead on.

The next few posts are dedicated to To Kill a Mockingbird, with my attempt at some girardian commentary.

“When he gave us our air-rifles Atticus wouldn't teach us how to shoot. Uncle Jack instructed us on the rudiments thereof; he said Atticus wasn't interested in guns. Atticus said to Jem one day, “I'd rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you'll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something...”

In Atticus' pronuciation, Harper Lee condenses all the petty sins of conservative southern society into one: the hypocritical lynching of an innocent victim. Various other voices in the town are scandalized by sins against fashion, against class, against American sensibilities, against polite decorum, against Jim Crow racial rules, and each one of these scandalized reactions is exposed, through the innocent observations of Jem and Scout, and the patient integrity of Atticus and Calpurnia, as hollow and hypocritical.

Jesus boiled down the multitude of the old commandments into a two-in-one: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and the second one like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. The second is like the first because in Jesus God becomes the Neighbour, and this Neighbour God becomes our Victim. “Whatever you do to the least of these, you have done unto me.” The mockingbirds who it is a sin for us to kill are each and every one the Christ.

One look around the postmodern world reveals that the harming of innocent victims really is the only sin we believe in anymore. What scandal on the news is not a story of the cross: either the story of a victim, told from the victim's point of view, or an expose of corrupt authorities, often judged from the perspective of their victims?

The only ones we still feel justified to righteously condemn anymore are the mockingbird-killers. It's the only scandal we have left. But like the titilated missionary society ladies of Maycomb, we are finding our little gatherings breaking down, because a voice is breaking in that gives the lie to our shared gasps of dismay. The gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as the gospel according to Harper Lee, reveal the mockingbird-killers to be none other than ourselves.

Sunday, March 3, 2013


(A sermon preached this morning at St. James Anglican, Beausejour)

Texts: Exodus 3:1-14, Luke 13:1-9

The first tree in this homily, the one Moses encountered in the wilderness, made me remember an encounter of my own.

I was just crossing the river, coming back from the neighbours, when a bald eagle flew close over my head, heading downstream. I could hear the air pushing through his great, dark, outspread pinions. For a moment, his nearness made him so solid that the fact of his gliding through air seemed pure sorcery. It is easier to believe that eagles are real when they are far off than when they come close. And then, in one sharp intake of my breath, he was gone again, around the bend of the river, and I was suffused with joy.

And I was struck, struck that this place of reverence is exactly where I try so hard to take people as a worship leader or preacher. I can spend hours poring over songs and scriptures, crafting prayers and poetic turns of phrase to construct the road that will lead the faithful exactly here: Awe. Self-transcendance. Holiness. Joy.

And here I had been waylaid by it, entirely without human contrivance or effort.

We are reminded today that Moses' most profound encounter with the Divine was in the wilderness, with a voice speaking out of a strange and burning bush. Moses did not meet YHWH in the sacred shrine where his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, attended. He met YHWH in the wilderness.

Mark McDonald, our Anglican indigenous bishop, talked about this story at the sacred circle last summer. The Anglican indigenous elders he grew up with taught him to understand that the miracle in this story is not something that God does to the bush, but something that God does to Moses' eyes. What Moses sees in the bush is the holy indwelling of God's power and spirit in every living thing in the creation. The bright and living divinity in which we all live and move and have our being.

I am glad to have an indigenous bishop. It gives me hope that this church that came over from jolly old England so many years ago is finally landing, here. Hope that our faith is finally being indigenized, finally making a home, here, in this place, finally recognizing that right here in Canada, we are walking on holy ground.

The Poet Kathleen Raine has noted that, "the holy places of the the Jews are real places on earth" whereas to the Christians the Holy Land is remote...The holy land should be the place we live on."

I've been thinking about the difference between thinking of holy land as the place I live on and someplace faraway. I think this is a basic difference between an indigenous theology and what I would call an imperial theology.

Indigenous theology sees holiness in the land and in the living things to which we all have access. It encourages a kind of spiritual democracy.
Imperial theology assigns holiness to objects and places and rites that are owned by religious authorities. It concentrates power in the center.

Moses was very familiar with imperial theology. Raised and educated in the house of Pharoah, he has grown up in a religious system that celebrated a god-king who sat atop a pyramid-shaped society, a society that thrived at the top and deprived at the bottom.

Moses' great revelation at the burning bush is that YHWH is with the slaves, and not with the Pharoah. God is not the guarantor of human pyramid schemes, but the spoiler of those schemes. YHWH is the one who hears the cries of the slaves, and the one who will lead them out of the house of slavery.

And I think we can see a pretty direct connection between Moses' revelation that the Holy One is in solidarity with the commoners rather than the kings and his revelation that the very ground under his feet is holy.

A theology that hallows the human being – that says that not only the Pharoah is made in the image of God – but that every single human being is so dignified, so holy; such a theology will also reveal the holiness of the land on which we humans walk, the land out of which, as the Bible tells us, God makes us.

The biblical word for the human being is Adam. The biblical word for the fertile soil, the earth, is Adamah. The Adam is that strange and sacred combination of God's breath and good earth.

A theology that enslaves, exploits and oppresses the Adam will be a theology that enslaves, exploits and oppresses the Adamah, the humus out of which God forms the human being. (Interestingly the wordplay is the same in Hebrew and in English. The words Human, humus and humble interplay as closely in our language as Adam and Adamah do in Hebrew.) Hallow the one and you will tend to hallow the other. Enslave the one and you will tend to enslave the other.

Canadians don't enslave people anymore. Or at least, if we do, we don't call it slavery. Canada is flirting with something close to it in its guest worker program, where last year we brought over a record-setting 30,000 low wage workers from foreign countries to do the jobs that we don't want to do, cutting chickens apart or picking apples or building pipelines, workers who are easily shipped off when they get injured or try to organize for a better deal or simply when they try to switch to a preferable employer. That's the pseudo-slavery we allow inside our borders. I'm not even talking yet about degraded workers doing miserable jobs for us outside our borders.

The writer Wendell Berry has a comment about this in his essay “Racism and the Economy” Berry, a Christian farmer-poet is someone else who has helped me a lot in indigenizing my faith to this land. I will quote him throughout the rest of this homily)

About slavery, and whether or not it is still going on, Berry says,

as long as there are some people who wish to believe and are economically empowered to believe that they are too good to do their own work and clean up after themselves, then somebody else is going to have to do the work and the cleaning up. In an exploitive economy, there is what we might call a “nigger factor” that will remain more or less constant. If some people grow rich by making things to throw away, then many other people will have to empty the garbage cans and make the trip to the dump.”

In another essay Berry carries this idea to an inevitable conclusion: “If we began by making niggers of people we have ended by making a nigger of the world.” Just as we have done with human beings, now “We have made of the rivers and the oceans and the winds niggers to carry away our refuse, which we think we are too good to dispose of decently ourselves.”

We have made, as Berry says, with a word that is shocking and ugly, a nigger of the world. We could be be offended by his language were it not so apt. What we have done to the earth is shocking and ugly. Scientists tell us that “nearly two-thirds of the natural machinery that supports life on earth is being degraded by human pressure.” To pause to parse the meaning of these rather technical words is to contemplate horror, atrocity. We have treated the earth like our slave, something alive yes, but not something to be dignified, to be hallowed. As something to be used, and worse than that, as something to be used up.

Which brings me to another parable in Moses encounter with YHWH: the living fire that burns in the bush but does not consume. If the indigenous elders are right and the miracle is indeed something that YHWH does to Moses' eyes rather than the bush, then the bush is a sign of how everything that lives is kept alive by the grace of God with an eternal dance of an energy that burns without burning up.

Here again, I want to quote Wendell Berry, this time contrasting the consumptive economy of the machine to the“energy community” of biological creatures:

They die into each other's life, live into each other's death. They do not consume in the sense of using up. They do not produce waste. What they take in they change, but they change it always into a form necessary for its use by a living body of another kind. And this exchange goes on and on round and round, the Wheel of Life rising out of the soil, descending into it, through the bodies of creatures.

Our creaturely bodies live by a fire that burns in every living thing, but does not consume in the sense of using up.

Of course, we Canadians live most of our lives by a fire that does use up. The gasoline that got me to church today will not grow back. Oil is not something we produce, regardless of what the corporations tell us. It is only something we can extract. It is billions of years worth of God's sunshine that we have been burning through in one bright flash of a century. And it can't go on. We who have been taught to ask in prayer only that God “Give us this day the bread we need for today” are urgently needing to learn prayers and lives that ask only that God “Give us this year the sunlight that we need to live on for this year.”

All the other living things - the sparrows, the lilies of the field, the bushes in the wilderness - these remind us that it is possible to live on God's good earth without using up that which sustains us, without soiling our nest, without burning the world up, without making our Mother Earth or our fellow human into a degraded slave.

YHWH still hears the cry of the oppressed, and still moves to lead us out of slavery.

Which brings us to the other tree in the scriptures today: Jesus and the fig tree.

Jesus is speaking to Jews who are desperate to be led once again out of the house of slavery, and want to see if Jesus is the new Moses, God's man to take on the new Egypt: Rome. They tell Jesus about a group of Galilean rebels who have been cruelly executed by Rome's local enforcer, Pilate, who let their blood mingle with the blood of their own sacrifices at the Temple. This is blood that cries out for vindication.

Jesus' contemporaries want precisely a holy fire from Jesus – a holy fire that will consume. A fire that will consume the Romans. But the holy fire that Jesus offers is precisely a fire that does not consume, that only transforms and changes, but that does not destroy. He is warning that the consuming fire which they want is a fire in which “all will perish.”

The fruitless fig tree is a symbol of the kind of enemy-loving community God has been trying to grow Israel into, so far with poor results. The manure laid down by the gardener is the gift of Jesus' life laid down, the ultimate lesson in enemy-love. By this time next year, after the sacrifice on the cross, perhaps Israel will bear the fruit the gardener has been waiting for.

To gather all these themes together, I would say that whether we are talking about oil addiction, land abuse, Roman tyranny or any oppressive system, the temptation is always towards solutions that point the accusing finger at others rather than looking to our own transformation.

Here again Wendell Berry says it better than I can, this time in an essay encouraging the environmental movement to “Think Little”:
Nearly every one of us, nearly every day of his life, is contributing directly to the ruin of this planet. A protest meeting on the issue of environmental abuse is not a convocation of accusers, it is a convocation of the guilty....The environmental crisis has its roots in our lives.
As I read it, this admission of guilt is exactly in the spirit of “Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me.” Or maybe more to the point,“shed by me.” Any gathering around the cross is always a convocation of the guilty. To face the cross is to face my own violence, the blood on my hands, the log in my eye, though I'd rather distract myself with the speck in yours. This, painfully, is the way forward in our altar call: It is by facing my violence that I can become non-violent. It is by facing the inauthenticity of my love that I can become authentically loving. It is by facing the wasting, consuming fire I live by that I can catch the fire that does not consume. By the grace of God, such miracles can surprise us, everywhere we walk in this holy land.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Herod works for me

(Republished, with permission, from my Epiphany column in Purpose magazine.)

It's easy to make a monster of Herod. In fact, there are those who accuse Matthew of character assassination. None of his contemporary historians mention anything about the Slaughter of the Innocents.

Historians do tell us that Herod was a highly effective politician. He was a builder of cities, a striker of deals, a cutter of ribbons. He was, as we say, a man who could get things done. If that meant switching sides in a fight, so be it. If that meant beheading rivals, so be it. They do not mention the killing of babies, but historians make it clear that Herod was bloodily efficient in nipping takeovers "in the bud."

Sometimes I wonder if all that has changed in politics since Herod is that we have managed to add a few more degrees of separation between the halls of the powerful and the howls of their victims. Or should I say, our victims.

I learned a new word this week: "tertiary economics." As distinct from primary economics, where I grow a garden, or kill an animal, to put food on my family's table. Or secondary, where I do so for your family, or you for mine. This could be through an agreeable relationship, or it could be through slavery. Either way, we know one another, at least somewhat, and we can reflect on whether this relationship is just.

But what happens when I pay somebody to buy something from somebody else who shipped it in from someplace else where some corporation (legally a person, but morally and spiritually definitely not one) employed (real) persons and used land to make whatever it is that I need way down the line? This is tertiary economics. It is anonymous, it is prolific, it is inescapable today. It makes "right relationship" nearly impossible to think about, never mind live in.

Behind almost anything I pick up off the shelf, there is a line of little Herods and big Herods doing whatever they have to do to protect their part of the supply chain, whether it's gasoline, or grapefruit, or guitar necks. If innocents must suffer, so be it. They are just the eggs they have to break to make my omelette.

Lord, I want to go home by another way.

I quit my job and started growing food for family and neighbours. It's a foolish little renunciation, but I had to start somewhere.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Rainbow Neighbourhood

One of the strange ironies of my new life in the country is that my circle of friends out here is much more diverse than it was back in the big city. All our city friends fit in more or less with the granola belt of Winnipeg where we lived. Out here, I count as friends a family preparing for the end of oil, a young fella who burns up the gravel in his monster truck, an organic farmer, a cropduster pilot, a homophobic church granny and two country mamas who have promised to be wife and wife until the end. Each one dear to me in their own way.

Somehow, "tolerance" is not nearly enough to describe either my feelings for these folks or to describe an ethic by which this checkered neighbourhood can move toward what Martin Luther King Jr. called "the beloved community." Tolerance is a rather thin value that comes out of a progressive liberal idea of freedom: Freedom as the right to be left alone. Hardly a community-building vision.

No, we need something else to stir us to neighbourliness. Against the by now well-worn warning that peace is best kept by leaving religion out of things, I am turning to Jesus: "Love thy neighbour as thyself" seems a good starting point. And maybe that's all that needs to be said. That teaching alone takes a lifetime to live into.

But there's more. As a Christian, I recall that the when the Living Truth showed up in person among us, the knives were soon out, in the name of religious purity and state security. That should give me great pause to condemn anyone whose truth looks a little different from mine, particularly if they are in a minority position.

I am discovering that the more my identity is in Christ, the less I need my identity to be propped up and reflected back to me by others who affirm my particular notions and commitments. The more I am in Christ, the more I am free to love others as they are, because I have discovered myself as loved as I am.

Jesus risked his own obliteration in his gift of himself to the world, so I don't see why I should insist my friends recognize Jesus. (By which I could mean that I might wish I could make my homophobic friends recognize the Christ in their persecuted gay neighbour, just as I might wish I could make my antireligious friends recognize the good news of Jesus' gospel.) Before any of that, I hope that in our interactions my friends are able to recognize love.

It really is a rainbow neighbourhood out here, with beauty in every colour. I can't say how all the pieces fit. I don't know how to articulate the deep unity I sense that goes way beyond unanimity.

I do know that all any of us really want is to be loved. Compare that to tolerance. Who of us really wants to be "tolerated"?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Discovered, Uncovered.

Luke 22:54-62

I have often wished to be discovered. I see now that this is not at all what I want. What I want is for a certain projection of myself to be bought and sold in the marketplace, while the truth about my betrayals, my weaknesses, my ugly selfishness remains safely undisturbed.

What power, what love, what forgiveness did Peter encounter that he could lay bare the story of his cowardice?

What successor of Peter has told such a story about himself since?

While Pope Benedict is still busily trying to shore up orthodoxy, the fires of scandal, of sexual abuse, of high level corruption continue to drive the faithful away in rage and disgust.

What we need now more than a rock-solid confession of the faith is a whole-hearted confession of our faithlessness.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

GMO's, Science, and the Burden of Proof

Environmentalist Mark Lynas has created big waves among foodies recently by making an about-face on genetically modified foods (

He got to a point where he noted a discrepancy between his activism on climate change, where he was arguing that the broad scientific consensus ought not be ignored, and his activism on GMO food, where he was part of a group that held the broad scientific consensus on the safety of GMO's in deep suspicion. He begin to see the same insularity and circularity in the anti-GMO arguments that he saw among climate change sceptics.

I have not followed the GMO debates closely, but would generally be suspicious of these “Frankenfoods,” a phrase Lynas himself once helped to coin. But I found Lynas' readiness to change his mind based on the evidence admirable. The intellectual rigour that does not allow scientists to pick and choose the results that suit their biases is something we should all aspire to.

Being doctrinaire about GMO food may be precluding some valuable advances. For example, I know that Wes Jackson of the Land Institute has speculated whether GM methods could help in the quest for perennial strains of grain crops. The heavy reliance on annual crops which have to be tilled under every single year has long been a detriment to agricultural soils. Nature keeps the ground covered. Could GM help us do that, and still let us eat grains?

But as little as I know about the GMO science, I feel able to draw some distinctions between climate science and GMO science. I think one can argue that they ask different kinds of questions.

What is the question that climate science has been trying to answer? The questions, as I have understood them, are:
  1. Is the world's climate changing?
  2. Is there a link between human-caused emissions of so-called greenhouse gases and this change?
The evidence, as it has come in from many independent studies across the globe, has been overwhelmingly weighted to answer these two questions in the affirmative.

What is the question the GMO science has been trying to answer? The question has been, are GMO's safe? It strikes me right off the bat that this is a much broader question than the two questions above. Do we mean by this, “Will humans get noticably sick if they eat GMO food?” If so, I can imagine that this question could be answered in the negative, and still leave out many other questions of safety.

The pattern of agricultural research and development has generally been to propose narrow solutions to narrow problems (e.g. profitability, productivity, pest control) and to review the results in a context that excludes broader factors of health: e.g. Soil erosion, nutrient run-off, watershed pollution, biodiversity depletion, rural depopulation, etc.) If the research on GMO's was broad enough in scope to take all such vital factors into consideration, it would be a first in “agri-tech.”

As arduous and massive as the research efforts on climate science have been, it seems to me that the burden of proof for establishing that a human activity is causing harm in the natural world is orders of magnitude smaller than the burden of proof for establishing that a human activity is not causing harm in the natural world. We live in a world that is deeply complex and interconnected. The fact that we lack the scientific methodology to trace how the wingbeat of a butterfly can be the beginning of a hurricane does not make this inherited wisdom saying untrue.

A case in point: Colony collapse disorder - the problem of honey bees disappearing by the millions and never returning to their hives - remains a complex and so far unsolved problem. If unmitigated, it threatens around 40% of the world's food crops, which rely on bee pollination. This dire problem is almost certainly multi-factorial. The broad application of insecticides and the disruptive annual transportation of 3/4 of the US honeybee population in and out of the monocultured almond groves of California are among the suspected stressors, but GMO's have not been ruled out. Studies point to sublethal effects on honeybees from exposure to GMO pollen, affecting feeding and learning behaviours. Not enough to kill a bee perhaps, but quite possibly enough to affect colony viability. It begs the question, what is meant by “safe?”

In this multi-pronged attack from a variety of known, suspected and unknown stressors, how large or small of a factor is GMO in colony collapse disorder? This would be difficult enough to say. To say with any confidence that GMO's are not at all a factor in this problem seems very premature. Science admits we do not fully understand the causes. How then can we already rule out GMO as a suspect?

Then there are other questions, which science does not ask. Questions like: Does GMO food overly concentrate the control of the world's food system in the hands of a few multi-nationals? How is it eroding local self-determination, locally adapted foodways, local culture? Are these losses worth the gains? Are we helping or hurting poor farmers by flooding markets with another cheap food that requires high technology and very few farmers? These are not scientific, but moral questions. No doubt there are sciences that can furnish us with data that could make our moral wrestling well-informed, but the wrestling remains to be done, in the arenas of culture and conscience. The laboratories cannot tell us everything we need to know.

To conclude with Mark Lynas that the debate on GMO foods is “over” seems to me to reduce that debate to the narrowest of questions. While there may be some sense in which GMO's have been scientifically demonstrated to be “safe,” they may yet prove to be harmful to much that is rightly held dear.