Imagine this. The setting is a community hall in the Naperville neighbourhood of Chicago. Inside a long, rectangular room, forty people, half Muslim, half Christian, half women, half men, are sitting in a circle. There are four facilitators, two Muslim, one a man, one a woman; two Christians, one a woman, one a man. The event is called, ‘So that we might understand one another’. By the mid-morning coffee break, one woman, a Christian convert to Islam tells us, ‘I’ve learned more in the first two hours than I have learned in nine months of Muslim-Christian-Jewish dialogue.’
The training is edgy, to say the least. As everyone seats themselves around the circle for the first time, I call over to Rabia, founder of the Muslim Peace Fellowship:
‘Rabia! I can’t wait to baptise you; take you down to the river…’
By which time Rabia has interrupted me with her own: ‘Oh, LeeAnn! Someday you and I will go on the hajj together, walking the Kaaba seven times…’
And I continue with unrestrained enthusiasm: ‘…and you will emerge from the water brand new!’
‘…we’ll throw stones at Jamrah al-Aqaba! It will be wonderful!
After a few more stirrings of rapturous visions of each of us successfully converted to the other team, the dialogue comes to an abrupt halt. The silence suggests that the participants are not sure what to make of this; wondering perhaps what they have signed up for… But our smiles, our giggles tell them enough—and the room dissolves into laughter. It is in the unpacking that the meaning of this provocative little skit becomes clear: in this space, we will find both safety and risk, with no-holds-barred permission to bring all of your self, including your religious passions. They are not left outside the door in our search for some thin gruel of overlapping aphorisms.
Later, we will do an exercise called the ABCs of Christianity/the alif baa taa of Islam, in which we will show-&-tell and then challenge the other’s insistence that theirs is a religion of peace. We interrogate our respective religious and related cultural norms through the twin lenses of what drives violence? what makes for peace? Both sharp critique and effusive praise rain down in a carefully facilitated session of what we call ‘So what have you heard…?’
At the end of the training, participants express astonishment at what they have been through together and what has emerged in common: the gap between proclamation and praxis; everyone’s belief in their respective faith as one of peace—and the disturbingly contradictory ways in which each plays out in the world—and the common work of closing that gap. It is a humbling, bonding conclusion.
Though I am ordained I am not much given to god-talk. When meeting someone new, I feel no need to add that piece of information to the introduction—unless it is relevant to what is going on in the shared space. I prefer that people get to know me as I am, without the collar, first. In these days, perhaps it is not without cause that I would prefer not to be labelled first of all as a Christian. Many of those who stormed the US Capitol on 6 January carried crosses and banners, wore t-shirts, declaring their devotion to Jesus. After listening to Ted Cruz; watching insurrectionist mobs whose violence left five people dead, damaging spaces deemed sacred by US Americans, offices upended and defiled with urine and excrement, a noose prepared for the hanging, people kneeling in prayer… I want to object…
It’s not that I am ashamed; I would just prefer not to have to do the work of making my way out of the box of assumptions into which I will likely have been placed once introduced as Christian, never mind ordained—for the following five minutes, five months or five years. In this proudly secular country where leaders do not offer ‘thoughts and prayers’, nor ask God to ‘protect the troops’, the humiliation of Christendom has been a good thing. It leaves room for others, adherents of other religions or of none.
As in the training in Chicago, there is no intent to convert; but in a world in which the vast majority of humankind claims some allegiance to or association with a faith tradition – in this world in which we work at peacemaking, it is critical that we pay attention to religion. To do otherwise is to remove from our toolbox a tool that has the potential to add immeasurably to the strength and resilience of peacemaking communities of practice. To enter into trainings with people of profound, ancient and diverse faith traditions without a consciousness, knowledge and respect of that aspect of their being and its expression in cultic, linguistic, social, cultural and even political and economic norms and practices would debilitate the training, strain our credibility and compromise the results.
I think of a meeting in a health centre devoted to the care of the LGBTQ+ community in Toronto. A staff person, assuming support at the table, let us know that she had told a young Muslim man torn between his faith, family and gender identity to doff the faith part. My role in this meeting was as silent, listening ally. No one challenged the consenting silence.
Rather than regarding religion as a system of meaning that we need to dispense with if peace is to be found, anguish released, we bring it into the middle of training, exposing it as beloved and inviting its probing through those dual lenses. There is no attempt to purge religion of its errors, excesses and abuses, asking ourselves what of our religious traditions, texts and practices facilitate the work of the peacemakers we want to be? What gets in the way? How do we read our texts and our traditions in ways that are not simply sacred-text cherry-picking?
My own particular tribe is Baptist (the US version of which seems to have more than its fair share of Christian fascists in its pews); I feel rescued by the presence of Rev’d Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Tommy Douglas amongst those ranks. The long-sanitised marking of King’s birthday, now that sufficient streets have been named after him and monuments erected, followed mere days after the storming of the US Capitol building. It has been tempting by many these days to contrast King’s 1963 March on Washington/’I Have a Dream’ speech with the devastation wrought on that same patch of land in 2021.
John Lewis would have disagreed. A few years ago, he qualified that speech as ‘the speech for America’; it was the 4 April 1967 speech delivered from the lectern of Riverside Church that he insisted was ‘the speech for the world’, carrying still today the ‘weight of prophecy’. ‘Vietnam’, Dr King roared from that august pulpit overlooking the Hudson, was ‘the symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit; and, if left untreated, if the malady continues to fester, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.’
Will the audacity of Dr King survive to prophesy in another day? this day in which the monstrous reach of the military-industrial-carbon-complex threatens annihilation of us all? audacity audacious enough—and fluent in all colours, creeds and tongues—to call out and call in a movement that binds together White supremacy and fascism with Christianity, and calls for the violence of theocratic rule? Smugly, we Canadians tend to see ourselves as, at worst, kinder, gentler oppressors with our history free of much of what has marred the Puritan visions of beacons and hilltops and manifest destiny to the south of us. Covid-19 has pulled back the veil on our own perfidy, our neglect of our elders, our racism, sexism and xenophobia, a colonisation that continues unabated; systems of support so full of holes, marking for infection and death disproportionate numbers of those living in low-income housing, prisons, homeless shelters and care homes; those who are racialised, living with disabilities and mental illness. Proud Boys were born here; Christian fascists live here, as well.
Audacity enough to disturb us and shake us from our yearning for a normal that served few of us well; audacity enough to engage the good of the institutions we have built to build back better with the bricks and mortar of social trust, a mutuality of accountability, of security measured in meals and homes and streets and schools and jobs and safety nets—rolling back the reach of surveillance capitalism and taming the toxins of social media, reclaiming the internet for civil society.