Saturday, December 30, 2017

Blasphemy (All I have to praise him with)

"Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven..." (Matthew 12:32a)

When I say Jesus is LORD, which I do say, as a Christian, what I am saying is this: The humble, self-effacing God is the one true God.

Anyone who turns the triumph of the cross into a triumphalism has already forgotten its content: the humiliation of the Son of God.

So how can I possibly hope to communicate this mystery to a world full of rivalry, a world bent on dividing everyone into winners and losers? When I say that Jesus has won, how can this not be irreparably distorted, falling into an arena where the victory of one blood-soaked gladiator always means the condemnation of another?

The answer seems to be swaddled in the humiliating descent of the incarnation. The word, to be received, must become flesh. “Jesus is Lord” as a disembodied truth claim is terrible. It is an idolatry - not because I am mistaken in whom I am ascribing divinity to, but because I am mistaken in what I am ascribing to the truly Divine. The whole point of the incarnation is to reveal God as Immanuel, God-with-us, not as some royal totem apart-from-us. God as woundable, God as a beggar for our love, not as the one to whom we beg for love, God taking on the form of a slave, not the form of a king.

Really, the only ones who can witness truthfully to this God are the poor. Only those who are themselves defaced and humiliated can say, boldly and with full confidence, that the humble, self-effacing God is the one true God. To the extent that I have been privileged by the world with status and respect, a chauvinism inevitably creeps in to my declaration of these same words. The meaning goes off. I cannot be confident of my witness. It is a revelation that the world can only hear aright when it is looking down at Jesus, not when it is looking up at him. This is why he had to descend from heaven. This is why he had to empty himself of divinity to communicate the message of God’s love. God is not only in the sunlight shining down from heaven. God is also in the grass trampled underfoot. In the greening, and in the trampling of the earth is a holy mystery. God is not only source of all that is, but the receiver. Not only refuge, but refugee.

Words break apart on the word made flesh. Those with the words do not know, and those who know do not have the words. For the Christian, it is impossible to speak of this revelation, it is impossible not to.

So yes, Jesus is Lord, and I am his fool, and this is my gibberish. By raising him up with these wooden, roughhewn terms, I have crucified him yet again. Only by his mercy am I allowed this blasphemy. I trust that he knows that this blasphemy is all I have to praise him with, and that he suffers me to do so.

By his cross is he made known.

And thus do I know the joy of the Christian: the joy of being wrong, and thus do I dare hope to share it.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

What would happen in Lake Wobegon?

Let me first say: I love Garrison Keillor. Or rather, I love his work. I don’t know him, so cannot love him.

The News from Lake Wobegon made my family laugh till we cried when we were mission workers in Europe. We saw our own people in his gentle lampooning of the foibles of the Minnesotan Sanctified Brethren. He opened a portal for us homesick Manitobans to escape for a while into a world where we didn’t feel like foreigners. He was our prairie home companion. His stories were our stories.

Again: we loved him, but we didn’t know him. It is an odd wonder, so ubiquitous now as to disappear from conscious awareness, this splicing of a human person knowable in the flesh, and that person’s voice, spirit - the Romans would say genius - out into the world via what we call information technology, first through the airwaves as radio, then as television, today as digital traffic on the internet, bringing first the word, then the image of another across the threshold of our homes: disembodied guests, bottled genies we summon with buttons and dials.

And so I read today in my newsfeed a story, copied and pasted hundreds of times over, of a Garrison Keillor scandal. Hodge-podged onto a handful of verifiable facts are a truckload of opinions and feelings. We are all arguing and venting and speculating about what has happened and what should happen with this quirky old geezer caught in a dodgy situation.

I wonder what would happen in Lake Wobegon. The deep nostalgia that Keillor tapped into with the powers of a cypher was our hunger for neighbourhood. For a world where people knew each other. Where there were understandings. And where there was a good narrator. An affectionate, all-knowing voice that saw into the hearts of everyday women and men and loved them. And helped them find their way to a satisfying resolution of their silly troubles. Lord, we miss that.

I don’t know how far Garrison’s hand slid on the back of his female co-worker. I don’t know if, as he says, he just meant to comfort her in a moment of sadness, that he apologized when she recoiled, and they were able to work together as friends until her lawyer called. I know that I want to believe this storyteller. I know I want his more innocent world to be real. He’s always had that effect on me.

What I am pretty sure of is that this is none of my business. It’s not nobody’s business, but it’s not my business. The question for me is, when we discuss a problem like this, what is the shape of the we that is talking? What is its scale? It seems self-evident that a nation-wide scandal is as useless as it is disproportionate to the dilemma between Keillor and his accuser.

That said, I come from a people who have closets littered with skeletons we kept there for centuries by telling ourselves and the world that we could sort this out amongst ourselves. Our victims, most often women and children, by and large did not get a hearing, and our perpetrators, by and large men of authority, were not held to account until our cozy, down-home communities were breached by outsiders, whether with their legal systems, or simply by their ideas, smuggled into our homes via books, via the radio, the TV, the internet.

I would like to imagine a gathering back stage at the Prairie Home Companion, a gathering with food and good coffee and a good outside facilitator. A gathering where things get said that need to get said that haven’t been said for a long time. A gathering where Garrison doesn’t own the microphone, doesn’t direct the show, where his fertile imagination doesn’t seduce everyone with how he wants the story to end. There would be tears. And honesty. And I hope, in the end, but not too soon, there would be laughter. And it would be their tears and their honesty and their laughter. It would be their conversation, not ours.

The genius of creating a fictional neighbourhood like Lake Wobegon was that it allowed an intimacy and an honesty that kept it at a safe distance from the real people in Keillor’s life and the real people in our lives. We laughed because he told all about us without violating our privacy. This made us better able to see our mistakes. I wish Mr. Keillor and his former co-workers a quiet week in Lake Wobegon.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Conspiratio comes full circle

I wrote this song three years ago, this time of year, for my friend Coralie Schmidt who had received a terminal diagnosis of cancer. Coralie's funeral was in the week of Palm Sunday the following spring, when the church sings the Hosanna echoed by the autumnal Hosanna in this song "casting their garments, Hosanna of the trees.

I loved the song, but it always felt like it wanted a third verse. Early this morning that verse came and woke me from my sleep. I haven't been visited by my musical muse for a long time. I think I wrote one more song after Conspiratio came to me, and that was it. The arrival of this verse feels like something in me is turning over. Fall is here, the last week of vegetable deliveries is here, the final proof of the book is revised and ready to send in to the publisher, a new worship cycle is about to begin at Saint Julian's Table, I'm launching a podcast with my musician friend Alana Levandoski, the leaves are turning and I'm cutting firewood. Good things are ending and making way for new good things. Hallelujah.

O could I fall as beautifully, as graciously as these
Casting their garments on the ground, Hosanna of the trees
This timbered choir sings Hallelujah, Glory to the King
Casting down their golden crowns and crimson robes they sing:

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Exhaled airs of greener leaves, sweet substance of my breath
In requiem these golden friends tell of bodies new in death
O symmetry of life and limb, inspiration prior to voice!
Conspired breath in holy kiss, invitation to rejoice:

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

O let me sing of Trinity, of rest and holy peace
The Holy Spirit in the wings to receive and to release
And when she takes the centre stage and scales fall from our eyes
Our inward breath will turn around in relief and in surprise, singing,

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Remembering Darrell Little Black Bear Phillips, 1964-2017

My friend Darrell Little Black Bear Phillips died this summer. He left behind his beloved Charlene and ten strong and beautiful sons and daughters. He was a massive personality. He was an organizer and a facilitator, passionate for justice, eager to see people live well together in this land. He could bring a moose home from the bush as capably as he could bring home a grant and a program plan from the halls of power. He picked a mean guitar and crooned big-hearted songs, classic country & folk covers, worship songs, as well as songs of his own creation. The last two he shared with me expressed the two great griefs of his devoutly Catholic, fully Anishnaabe heart - a song for residential school survivors and a song for the aborted unborn. Darrell had a spirituality that seamlessly married the drum and the sweat lodge to the rosary and the daily prayers of the missalette. I was attracted to the integration he embodied. Hanging around with Darrell, I could imagine what a healthy, vibrant coming together of our two cultures could look like.

I first got to know Darrell in the "Chretien Come Clean Car Wash" - a shamelessly corny bit of activist street theatre that I scripted for an Aboriginal National Day of Action, held on the one year anniversary of the release of the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RRCAP). Darrell hammed the thing up with characteristic enthusiasm and conviction, caking his family's mini-van with mud and chasing a local actor in a Jean Chretien mask, demanding that Prime Minister Chretien follow through on promises to implement the RRCAP recommendations.

Darrell took out all the event planners to Red Lobster after the protest, and it was then that Jenn and I saw that Darrell and Char were interested in us not just as political allies in the fight for Indigenous rights, but as friends. Jenn and I had children whose ages landed them right in the middle of the growing Phillips "brood." We loved getting together to cook and to visit. The kids would pile downstairs into the basement, with one or the other always lingering or returning to sit on a lap, taddle on a sibling or beg a foretaste of supper, which always took us well past 6pm to prepare together. Jenn and I would bring fresh vegetables from the garden, Darrell would bring out wild meat from up north, he would tell big stories that Char would whittle down to size with one lift of her eyebrow. We would cook and then we would feast, crowding around their kitchen table with Darrell always at the noisy centre of a storm that swirled with small children, big hugs, minor squabbles, threats of "The Manigotogan Mitt!", jokes, spiritual counsel, greasy chins and diaper wipes.

Most of the time we visited at Darrell and Char's place. Their sizeable family had a kind of gravitational force field that attracted others into itself. But they came our way too. They came out to the farm once in the early days, when it was hardly a farm yet at all: just a garden and a trailer and an outdoor bucket toilet. They came to swim with us in the Brokenhead River and see what we were up to.

I felt like the land was happy to feel the footprints of an Indigenous family again. I think I probably told Darrell the story I had heard of how the Brokenhead got its name, a tragic story of a Cree tribe wiped out by the Lakota in a war over access to guns and trading opportunities with the new pale-faced people in the land. The Cree never settled along this river again.

I do know that I asked Darrell what advice he had for me about how to live in this place in a good way, because I still remember his words that day. His answer was simple and definitive: "I would listen to the land."

A man and a piece of advice not to be forgotten.

Travel well, Little Black Bear, travel well.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Turning 150

Regarding the anniversary of Canada's confederation...

What a bunch of Englische did or said in a room in Charlottetown 150 years ago is really neither here nor there for me. My history and home are found in other stories. My ancestors at the time were raising wheat, sunflowers and watermelons on the Steppes of the South Ukraine, thanks to an equally colonial decree issued from Moscow by Catherine the Great, inviting  the Mennonites to displace the nomadic sheep-herding culture of the Kosacks. In this place at that time, another nation was being born, one that captures my imagination considerably more than the Dominion declared by John A. MacDonald and his compatriots.

Manito-Ahba, "The Place where the Great Spirit Rests," is the birthplace of the Métis nation. The Métis were neither a colony of foreigners transplanting a European clone culture onto native soil, nor were they strictly an expression of the treaty principle negotiated in the Two-Row Wampum: We'll share the river, but you stay in your boat and we'll stay in ours. At the Red River Settlement was a community descended of White people and Red people who had more than jumped into each others boats. They had made babies and raised families together. They had birthed a whole new culture.

It keeps happening in Manitoba. Stan McKay, the elder who taught me the meaning of my home province's name, is a Cree man from Fisher River. Stan married a lovely farmer's daughter from Gladstone, Manitoba. Together Stan and Dot did not only raise a batch of strong, beautiful bi-cultural children, they also assisted in the birth of the Dr. Jessie Saulteaux Centre (now known as the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre), a school and retreat centre for cross-cultural education just a few twists of the river downstream from our farm.

Many of us feel ambivalent about celebrating 150 years of confederation. To just shoot off some fireworks at the Forks and wave those adorable little paper Canadian flags they hand out on such occasions feels like an endorsement of a fundamentally arrogant colonial act: to stand on the far eastern edge of a continent and declare sovereign nationhood over vast lands and diverse peoples that the founding fathers had little knowledge of, nor rights to. I have stood and taken a piss at the edge of a number of woods and farmers' fields. It did not make them mine.

Still, I am too grateful for my life here and too aware of beautiful births arising from settler-Indigenous contact to stand grumbling outside the big party.

I grow suspicious of the hand-wringing of some of my white liberal peers, flagellating themselves, their country and their faith tradition over colonial this and colonial that. At a certain point, this becomes a connivance to assert one's moral superiority over one's elders, the very opposite of deep listening to the nations on whose hospitality we are here. And it becomes an escape from the messiness of real relationships.

To be fair, the well-meaning progressives probably just don't know what else to do. They feel bad, as they should, about their ease of access to Canada's bounty, when Indigenous people continue to be poorer, more disrespected and more criminalized than any other social group in this country. Something is very wrong with this picture, and we should resist the temptation to paper over this unjust reality just in time for Canada to have a nice birthday party.

Maybe what we need is a different kind of party. I am getting excited about one - a festival and a feast that some settler and Indigenous people are planning together. We'd like to re-tell the history of Europeans and First Nations coming together. And for this occasion at least, rather than grieve what was the worst in that encounter, we'd like to lift up what was best, in the hopes of our descendants being able to celebrate another anniversary together 150 years from now. (Or, to choose a marker of time more native to this place, seven generations from now.) We would like to assert, with John Raulston Saul, that Canada is truest to herself when she recognizes that she is a Métis civilization, and not a colonial satellite.

Provisionally, we called our event a "vernacular feast," drawing on a term Ivan Illich uses in inspiring resistance to what he calls the "war on subsistence." Illich sees the West's mania for "development" as the latest and most pernicious mutation of the colonial impulse Westerners have to "rescue" the other. Today, the same drive that gang-pressed Aboriginal children into compulsory Western schooling takes aim at "underdeveloped" people in need of full recruitment into consumer society. Witness the latest ads by Facebook, pulling beautiful children out of the doldrums of their dusty village life. The internet arrives, the party starts, the heavens open.

For Illich, a revival of the vernacular means partying locally, convivially - not by escaping our rootedness in place, but by re-discovering it. It means pushing back on colonization and reclaiming a wide range of activities, from speaking one's mother tongue to connecting with mother earth. Illich reminds us that the Latin vernaculum meant “whatever was homebred, homespun, homegrown, [or] homemade.” It is around the home-made and non-commercial that people can gather as friends. For Illich, friendship can only be practiced in activities that escape commodification, “activities of people . . . not motivated by thoughts of exchange, . . . actions through which people satisfy everyday needs—the actions which by their nature escape bureaucratic control.”

In that spirit, Indigenous community leaders and settler allies are going to gather for a week of subsistence activities on the land at the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre in October of this year. We called it Mamawe Ota Askihk, "Sharing Together on the Earth." We will winnow wild rice together, tan an animal hide from a local farm, smoke fish, can berry preserves, share skills and tell stories. We will remember how English industrialists used to complain that access to England's great forests and common pasturelands made English peasants "too much like the Indians" - self-sufficient and unwilling to leave the land for shitty factory jobs in smoggy cities. Perhaps we will laugh at that together while we feast. Perhaps we will even birth a new culture.

If you think you would like to get in on the party, click on this link to learn more about Mamawe Ota Askihk.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

How to go the distance

I heard the whooshing of wings overhead while I was picking broccoli yesterday. I looked up to see a perfect V of twenty cranes heading west. They are not migrating yet, but they are practicing - grouping up to rehearse the efficiency of movement, the just right spacing of bodies, the timing of wingbeats, the trust of the others, and most importantly, the deep listening to the mystery within that will coordinate and orient them for the long, long flight to their winter home. When they are ready, these twenty will join with other tens and twenties, riding the thermals in a great communal spiral that will climb to heights I can barely see, then glide southward on a descent more drawn-out than I can fathom.

If you want to go fast, go alone, goes the African proverb. If you want to go far, go together. The human race has gone incredibly far, both by going together, and by going against each other. In a sense, that has been the nature of any togetherness we have known so far. I learned what it means to be on a team by putting on a uniform and squaring off against others who wore a different uniform.  I knew who I was together with by knowing who we were together against.

In recent centuries, new social possibilities have emerged. One is the possibility of going it alone. The possibility of an "I" that is prior to the social "we." There is a positive aspect of this that the African proverb does not convey. The possibility of individual conscience, of innovation, of telling truths that the collective would rather hide, entertaining ideas the collective has forbidden, making friends with people the collective has declared enemies.

Which is the other new social possibility. A togetherness much bigger than my tribe of origin. A togetherness not against anyone else. A universal togetherness.

But the cranes remind me that before I am ready to join the great community in its epic journey, I have to practice the skills of community in a smaller group, making smaller excursions. It is with a few, specific friends that I learn how to come close and how to give space in a way that is safe for everyone. How to be a helper and how to accept help. When to follow and when to take my turn in the lead.

On the news, I hear continuously of big collective problems requiring big collective efforts to turn things around if the human race is going to go much further together: climate change, fossil fuel addiction, mass incarceration, habitat loss, refugee crisis, soil degradation, groundwater depletion, etc.

One response is to despair. To withdraw into myself. To go it alone. (Or rather, to pretend to go it alone, while I float along in a sea of other disorganized individuals all making remarkably similar consumer choices, carried along by a wave so large we neither perceive that we are in it, nor that we could possibly move against it.) Another is to join consciously into large counter-movements. This is a more hopeful response: to sign the petition, to attend the march, to send some money to support the cause.

But I moved to the farm because I was dissatisfied with that kind of activism. I found it necessary, but not sufficient for the task at hand. What I learned from Wendell Berry's In Distrust of Movements or from Ivan Illich's idea that at a certain size, human institutions inevitably produce results opposite to their stated goals, is that bigger is not always better. To quote one more luminary in this tribe of contrarians, the solution to many of our big problems may be to rediscover that "small is beautiful." (E.F. Schumacher)

It is at the level of local community that deep integration is possible. This is where practices of stewardship, habits of eating, ways of thinking, methods of praying can knit together and be given form. The local is the womb of the universal. We are birthed out of small spaces into the larger world. That is the way of things.

It seems to me that our peculiar challenge in this networked, global age is to respond to global issues without succumbing to the fantasy of a global civilization. That has been the dream of tyrants throughout the ages, and we should let it die with them. We know by now that no one world religion will save us. We are more tempted by "universal human values" or universal declarations of human rights, or global accords on climate change. But do we really want the one world court, and the one world police force that enforcing such a universality would require? For a healing, universal global movement not to turn tyrannical, it must be voluntary, and for it to be voluntary, it must be local. Its grand coordination will have to remain a mystery. I will have to get together with friends in one place and pursue there our particular vision of the Good, and you will have to get together with friends in another place, and pursue your vision of the Good according to your own lights.

And if we practice well, we may just find that when the time comes, a mystery bigger than us all will draw us together to go the long distance on the journey we all need to take together.

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

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

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

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

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,

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

iIvan Illich, Vernacular Values, 1980.

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.