Sunday, February 26, 2017

"...gems of brilliance left and right."

This is the foreword Brian McLaren wrote for my forthcoming book, "Life at the End of Us Versus Them: cross/culture/stories." It is more recognition than I ever expected. To support my publishing adventure and pre-order copies, you can check out my Kickstarter campaign, or simply send me an email at rempel.marcus@gmail.com.


I read recently that the world’s largest “Christian” university is spending over a million dollars on a gun range. This same university is led by a man who proudly and loudly endorsed Donald Trump, the arrogant and unscrupulous billionaire for whom a sizable majority of (white) church-going American Christians voted, in spite of his cavalier attitude toward violence, Islamophobia, sexual assault, and torture, not to mention intelligibility, coherence, science, or the truth.

Against this backdrop, Mennonite sage Marcus Peter Rempel claims that the time has come for us to “figure out what in the world Christianity is, and isn’t.”

Can there be any doubt Marcus is correct?

I am drawn to Marcus not only because I agree with his audacious claim, and not only because he is a penetrating thinker and a graceful, vigorous, engaging writer, but also because he has been shaped by two of the same “madmen” who have shaped me: René Girard and Ivan Illich. (Other shared influences show up in these pages as well, including Wendell Berry, Walter Wink, Simone Weil, James Alison, and Cornel West.)

In each of the chapters you are about to read, you’ll witness Marcus generously dropping gems of brilliance left and right, on a range of subjects as wide as the Manitoba sky under which he lives.

For example, he defines faith as a kind of “hopeful craziness.” He compares the medieval Church’s attempt to “motivate” heretics to accept orthodox belief by means of torture to the U.S. government’s attempt to motivate non-Westerners to accept Western-style democracy by bombs and bullets. He notes the fascinating relationship between “ethnic” and “ethics.” He observes how easily freedom of expression can descend into freedom of exploitation. He sees the Zombie Apocalypse as a code for the xenophobia and the environmental crisis that we are too scared to talk about, and the Zombie survival tactics of stashing bottled water and practicing head shots as veiled instructions for a future where social hope has been abandoned. He talks about sex with a candor and decency that is nearly unprecedented. He even dares to reflect upon pooping in a bucket in a Joni-Mitchellian way, “from both sides now.”

I’ve read a lot of books, but very, very few have been as rich in generative insight as this one.

The only “bad” thing I can say about “Life at the End of Us Versus Them” is that it is impossible to read quickly. Which is, of course, a good thing in the presence of writing that is so beautiful, meaning that is so important, and a subject that matters supremely.

Earlier, I said that Marcus has been shaped by two madmen, Girard and Illich. I really should have said three, because 20 centuries behind Rempel’s mentors lies another mentor whose message and example seem like madness to so many people today, including, we have to say, millions who identify themselves with the religion named after him.

We have come to a moment, I believe, when we must rediscover the wisdom and ways of that original madman - if we are to “figure out what in the world Christianity is, and isn’t,” and if we are to find life at the end of us versus them.

Because if we don’t, “us versus them” will surely be the death of both.

It is not often that a book about such life-and-death matters is so beautifully written or so enjoyable to read. But that is the case here, because the vision Marcus presents is one of conviviality, of aliveness, of beloved community, of harmony, of joy.

This is a book about “the end” and a book about “us versus them,” but most importantly, this is a book of life.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Joint Fast

This is an excerpt from my soon-to-be-published book, Life at the End of Us Versus Them. To reserve a copy, please send an email to rempel.marcus@gmail.com


To anyone who would say that Islam diminishes women, Shahina Siddiqi, the director of Islamic Social Services (ISS), is a living counterargument. One of her many responsibilities is to keep abreast of what is being said about Islam and Muslims in media across the continent. Whenever Islam is in the news, she is called upon by media as a spokeswoman, which is pretty much all the time now.

I first got to know Shahina in 2001, during the aftermath of 9/11 and the indiscriminate bombing of Afghan villages. Christians and Muslims in Winnipeg were grieving and angry about having our faiths invoked by perpetrators of terror, and so a delegation of Christians and Muslims (headed by Shahina) hatched a plan for a joint Muslim/Christian fast, beginning with Ramadan and continuing through into Advent.i

We celebrated the end of our joint fast together at Eid, the feast marking the end of the Ramadan fast, on the campus of a Christian college. We prayed together for peace and released a joint statement “on war and violence that are not holy.”. . .

Recently, I bumped into Shahina at an open house luncheon at ISS, and she was curious about my work, whereabouts, and faith. “Are you still involved in the church?” she asked. I was caught off guard for a half second. Was Shahina fishing for an opening to proselytize? When I told her that we were quite involved in a small church in our new area, a big smile spread across her face. “Oh, I am so glad!”

Shahina’s profound “yes” to her religion was not a “no” to mine, for her religion has led her to open outwards, beyond either/or dualisms into the expansiveness of a both/and universe.

Monotheism, says James Alison, is a wonderful discovery, but a terrible idea. The idea of the One True God, revealed in the one true message, guaranteed by the one true messenger, easily begets an understanding of faithfulness to this message that seeks to “recreate the uniqueness of God by developing a strong sense of what is other than us—gentiles in the case of Jews, the unbaptised ‘world’ in the case of Christians, and infidels who aren’t members of the Ummah in the case of Muslims.”i Alison goes on to show that in this approach, “we don’t believe in God, but only in conflict.” For Alison, the real gem of monotheism is the exact opposite. Interpreting Isaiah’s account of divine encounter, he says, “the fundamental experience of God is one of being at peace and unafraid since God is so much stronger than everything else.”ii. . .

iIslam’s holy calendar follows a lunar cycle, so there are slightly fewer than 365 days in each liturgical year. I was lucky to participate in the sun-up to sun-down fast of Ramadan during winter in Winnipeg, where the days were about as short as they can be anywhere in the Muslim world.  
iJames Alison, Undergoing God, 19–20.
iiIbid., 26.


Monday, January 30, 2017

Dance-off with Dionysus


The Dionysiac sacrifice is the voice of the mob, and the Christian solution – the victim is innocent – is the truth of a very small minority. The aristocrats are there. They happen to be, socially, a fisherman here, a good-for-nothing there – what does it matter – they turn into aristocrats at the moment when they oppose the mob around them, according to Nietzsche. But Dionysus is obviously the mob. There is not one episode of his myth that is not decided by the mob. Christianity is the exception, saying no to the mob, and Dionysus is the acceptance of the mob. - René Girardi
When I attended my first Pride Parade in June 2013, I saw Winnipeg’s streets full of same-sex couples walking hand in hand, relaxed, smiling, laughing at the antics of some of their more flamboyant peers. Many of them sported T-shirts with slogans supporting the right to same-sex marriage.

I was there with my friends and neighbours, Heidi and Irina. When I first met Heidi and Irina, they introduced themselves as one another’s wives, and I loved them for claiming a covenantal definition for their relationship. I dislike the generic term “partner” because of the costly, unique relationship I have with my wife. Partners are for tennis, business, or crime. I appreciate how the gay rights movement has spent much of their political capital (which was slender enough in the beginning) pursuing marriage, while so many heterosexuals seem to be giving up on it.

But I wrestled with the mix of signals in the Pride Parade. While there were strong signals rallying support for covenantal sex, there were equally strong signals suggesting casual sex. The atmosphere was charged with bacchanalia, those riotous, intoxicating behaviours named for Bacchus, Dionysus’ Roman counterpart, the “man-womanish” god of wine, fertility, ritual madness, theatre and religious ecstasy.

When we passed an athletic young man wearing a Speedo, running shoes and body glitter, he danced and gyrated provocatively, his slender body shining and glistening in the bright sunlight. Heidi and Irina laughed: “He can’t help himself. He’s just gotta dance.”

My reaction to his open eroticism was more mixed. Of course, part of that came from my remaining homophobia and my Mennonite discomfort with any kind of open sexual display. I realized that the young man was challenging me to get over my puritanical fears of sex, for as Sebastian Moore observes, “Homophobia is at root erophobia.”ii And yet, while I had to accept that an essential element of the Pride movement was to celebrate unapologetically a form of sexuality that for so long has been shunned and shamed in this society, I also had to wonder how the sight of this young man was affecting the gay male couples walking arm in arm down Broadway Avenue. For if the sight of a scantily clad young man moving his body suggestively would have the same effect on a gay man as a similar young woman would have on me, such a presence would be very distracting at a public celebration of my marriage—if not outright offensive.

In the myths and orgiastic rites of Dionysus, the wine, dance and revelry ultimately climaxes with the devotees tearing a young person limb from limb with their bare hands, sometimes quite literally consuming him. The lines between bacchanalian ecstasy and madness are fluidly ambiguous, as in, “You Say Party! We Say Die!”iii At the Pride Parade, I saw many of the participants playing with this ancient, real and ultimately murderous fire as they mixed the message of grace and acceptance with the pressure release valve of a Dionysian carnival.

Of course, I was not worried that the young man would actually be torn limb from limb by the end of the night, though I’m pretty sure he aroused in a number of potential assailants an animal hunger to get their hands on him. But what I saw on parade under the rainbow flag was not only a banquet of justice where all are welcome, but also a dramatic rehearsal of a particular story about sex—a hedonistic tale where, by the end, somebody is going to get hurt. This story is not unique to the gay rights movement by any means. Take any romantic comedy: you don’t want to be the main character’s fiancée or spouse at the beginning of the show, for the same reason you don’t want to be the cowboy with the black hat at the beginning of an old-fashioned western. Your elimination is essential to the climax of the plot.iv

At the Pride Parade, I witnessed a “two-spiritedness,” by which I do not mean the mix of masculine and feminine spirits, which Aboriginal communities have discerned and affirmed in queer folk. I am talking about two spiritual powers, two competing meta-narratives, each with a truth claim that is ultimately unreconcilable with the other. One spirit was telling a story about human culture from the perspective of those it has marginalized and hurt while also seeking healing. This spirit was pursuing what Martin Luther King Jr. called “The Beloved Community,” a togetherness compassionate and conscious of “all God’s children,” as MLK proclaimed in soaring voice at similar marches for similar rights. The other spirit was holding out a narrative about a kind of freedom that is the opposite of community, the opposite of coming home to one another: the freedom for me to pursue what I want and for you to pursue what you want and in our pursuits to be left alone. That somewhere in this striving is the inevitable category of the unwanted is something we don’t talk about. Both meta-narratives turn on sacrifice: the first on its unveiling, the second on its veiling. . .

This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Life at the End of Us Versus Them: Cross, Culture, Stories. To reserve a copy, email me at rempel.marcus@gmail.com

i“The Scapegoat: The Ideas of René Girard, Part 5” on CBC Ideas. Podcast available at davidcayley.com

iiCommendation for James Alison's Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay, iv.

iiiThis is the former name of a Canadian dance punk act—ironically employed, as far as I can tell. Their lyrics are impenetrable to me, but they seem like nice people. They recently dropped the “We Say Die!” part of their name after their drummer died of a brain hemorrhage on stage.

ivThat’s a funny word, by the way: plot, which is a simple and ancient word that can mean either the place for a garden or a cemetery, the act of marking out a line on a map, the central narrative of a story, or a secret plan for murder. For a fascinating exegesis of how these meanings all cohere in the sacrificial Roman rite of marking the boundaries of a family field, see Gil Bailie, http://cornerstone-forum.org/ss_01mp3.aspx.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Beatitude for Bucket-poopers

A contrary view . . . prevails when a community chooses a subsistence-oriented way of life. There, the inversion of development, the replacement of consumer goods by personal action, of industrial tools by convivial tools is the goal. . . . There, the guitar is valued over the record, the library over the schoolroom, the back yard garden over the supermarket selection. . . . They try to “unplug themselves from consumption,” . . . women seek alternatives to gynecology; parents alternatives to schools; home-builders alternatives to the flush toilet. –Ivan Illichi



I poop in a bucket. Does this mean that I am poor?

I also co-own 144 acres of farmland. Does this mean I’m rich? I spend my summers bending my back, working outside, with dirt under my fingernails. Does that mean I’m poor? I find restaurant food sub-par compared to my regular diet of made-from-scratch meals, loaded with meat and organic produce. Does that mean I am rich? Our family’s after tax income last year was about $25,000. The poverty line for a Canadian family our size is calculated at $34,829. Does that mean we are poor? We own two vehicles, one of which is a 2003 Mercedes Benz SUV, sold to us for a silly low price because the seller likes us, and I think because she thinks we are poor. Does that mean we are rich?

. . .back to the bucket-pooping, exhibit A in this goofy, but serious, argument about the meaning of poverty. It’s not that gross. We cover our business with sawdust, so it’s really no more smelly or unsightly than a kitty litter box. When the bucket is full, I add the contents to a pile covered with straw, where all that carbon and nitrogen are digested by a community of microorganisms that turn filth into fertility. This eventually goes on our hay-land, making it bloom a verdant green wherever the humanure has fallen. These are things that make me happy.

But here’s where things get complicated. For while I am happily closing the loop of my poop, Aboriginal communities in Manitoba are trying to get my larger and privileged Mennonite faith community to lend their voice to those of local chiefs, who are challenging the government to address the scandal that in the twenty-first century, Aboriginal reserves still lack basic plumbing. That is to say, they have to poop in buckets.

Here I have to reckon with the strange but indisputable fact that my white male privilege allows me to enjoy and celebrate the practice of twenty-first-century bucket-pooping, which remains to my Aboriginal neighbour a disgusting misery. When I carry out the poop bucket, I am thinking back to the Gandhi movie, which I watched with adolescent fervour with a pile of other liberal Mennonite teens, as we stuffed our faces with taco chips and packaged macaroons while Gandhi defeated the British Empire with fasting and nonviolent truth-force. . .

Ivan Illich names the odd way in which I am rich and privileged by growing my own food, living in a cabin built of reclaimed hog barn lumber, cutting my own firewood and composting my own crap. I am freer to refuse the “progress and development” package than my Aboriginal neighbours, who are penned in and bureaucratically administered on the reserve. I can pick and choose my renunciations. By way of these renunciations, I can find “a way back to a self which stands above the constraints of the world,” as Illich puts it. I can choose my story. I am not “underdeveloped.” I am breaking free. . .

Illich draws angry rebukes for his criticism of development. He is decried as unsympathetic to the poor and as an enemy of their advancement. . . I believe that time will tell that Illich has a more compassionate, honest and hopeful vision than the champions of progress and development. As a closer reader of history, he can see further ahead. He . . . can imagine a good life for the poor beyond the collapse of unsustainable, globalizing missions. He can make out “rivers north of the future”. . .

This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Life at the End of Us Versus Them: Cross, Culture, Stories. To reserve a copy, email me at rempel.marcus@gmail.com

iIvan Illich, Vernacular Values, 1980. http://www.preservenet.com/theory/Illich/Vernacular.html

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Trinitarian Yes

Do I believe in God?

I don't know how to answer that question anymore.

To say yes, I would allow for the adequacy of a sentence structure where one minor swap could ask: Do I believe in Santa Claus?

Is there an ineffable mystery before which my soul opens outward and says yes? I cannot say no. Every thing that is in me wants to say yes. Longs to say yes. Does my soul pant for God as the deer pants for streams of running water? Yes.

Do I accept Jesus as my Lord and Saviour?

Again, I stammer and hesitate. In a bumperstickered world, where language is highjacked, trampled, photocopied, run off and repeated without end and without meaning, where we are wedged between the self-certain impositions of propaganda and the chaotic rantings of the online wall of noise, I recoil from casting a public ballot that aligns me with a Christian “us” against a non-Christian “them.”

Does the cross of Christ move me to tears? Yes. Am I stirred by a gospel that names a God who suffers, disciples who sleep and betray, and a Risen One who forgives all? Yes. Is this vision of the Divine - taking our punishment, instead of meting it out – the one vision I trust, that I cling to for assurance, for sanity, for truth, for hope, for light against the falling dark? Yes and yes.

Have I received the Holy Spirit?

Now we are in territory where even my kinspeople have no words. Mennonites are no holy rollers. But am I falling in love with the Holy Spirit anyway? Yes. Am I stunned by the implications made by St. John, pitting the Paraclete, “The Attorney for the Defense,” against Satan, “The Accuser”? Yes. Do I want to join in declaring the whole world innocent? In busting the ugliest criminal out of his prison of shame – the prison within me and the prison without? Yes! Am I drawn to the beautiful bridge between transcendance and immanence, between the Father and the Son who goes - for our sake - as far from the Father as it is possible to go? Am I enchanted by the Trinity's dance of love, between the Light Unspeakable and the Word made flesh? Do I strain for the music that conducts their dance? Does its pulse tug at my own sinews? Yes, yes, and yes.

Friday, April 22, 2016

A Bigger Death Machine

Hello.

It's been a while.

I am just wrapping up edits on my book, which has absorbed all my writing energies these past few years. That's where I've been all this time.

But today I wrote something that I couldn't shove into one of the chapters. And I'm not about to start a new one. Spring is here. Time to put in full workdays outside, not at the keyboard.

This reflection comes from a question I have often asked myself. How did European civilization colonize this place so efficiently? To what degree is Christianity complicit as handmaiden of Empire?
How can we talk honestly about what is wonderful and what is terrible in our religious heritage? What follows comes out of my reading of Ivan Illich and Rene Girard, who have given me terms that help me name the goodness of my tradition, and the mystery of its evil:

We arrived here with a bigger death machine, a machine capable of pacifying a larger space with a monopoly of legitimate violence. Which is to say, we arrived here bearing both the Christ, and the Anti-Christ.

The European death machine was larger in part because Christian restraint of the passions had made it possible for larger numbers of Europeans to get along with one another without their frustrations boiling over into violent rifts. It was larger because Christianity had deconstructed smaller death machines. Witch hunts and other sacrificial cults that had successfully channelled internal tensions onto a single scapegoat had begun to look too much like the crucifixion, and had had to be abandoned. Any machine that would henceforth channel collective aggression had to look more official, make more sophisticated claims, purport to higher values. In 1492 Europeans could no longer happily burn to death an odd-looking old woman because of a local crop failure. But to invade a continent, project all their fantasies and fears onto its "savage" inhabitants, lay waste to their lands and cultures in a grand project of advancing Christianity and civilization - that they could do. It was of course a demonic inversion of the Gospel, but a perversion that would have been impossible without the Gospel's revelation in the first place.

For the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, whose aggressions and collectivities were still smaller and tribal, what we brought was catastrophic. The fact that the profound evil we visited upon them had been nested inside a profound goodness made it no less horrific. It made it more so. We stole lands and children from them, and tutored them to name our atrocities "salvation."
That so many First Nations people embraced Christ and continue to do so is miraculous to me. I believe that this is a testament, not ultimately to efficient colonization, but to the depth of spiritual sensitivity among indigenous peoples, who could to discern a holy presence, crowded about by so many evil spirits.

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.