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Rolling Stones

Apr 20, 2020

It’s Good Friday and I’m repeating a ritual of some years’ duration.  I am listening to Henryk Górecki’s Symphony #3, Opus 36, more popularly known as ‘Three Sorrowful Songs’.  It begins with a barely audible groan, a building of, first, four, then eight double basses, which are then joined by cellos, violas and, eventually, second and then first violins—until the crescendo that accompanies soprano, Dawn Upshaw’s, expression of Mary’s mournful cry of desolation. The three Sorrowful Songs, are all about separation, parent from child, the first, a 15th century setting of Mary’s lament for her dead son; the second, the words of an 18 year-old girl scrawled on the wall of a Gestapo prison imploring her mother not to weep; the third a World War Two folk lament, a mother mourning the death of her soldier son.

It is plaintive, austere in its sorrow of strings and a lone soprano. With that crescendo, the grief pours over me, as it always does, bending my body in two.  I feel bereft.  Yet it’s not as if I’ve not seen the movie, read the book, many times.  As Advent is a time for waiting—the Christmas carols must wait—these days on which Holy Week ends are days of vigil, keeping watch over a world that still stumbles from crucifixion to crucifixion.

Though one could scan the writings on the Partera website and find some outcroppings of evidence for a Christian tinge to this organisation, including a board of directors that, at this point, is all Christian, my faith does not appear as a topic for reflection.  Religion appears in a policy document called Partera & Religion that defines who we are in terms of religion: We take religion seriously but we do not proselytise; we’re not in the business of arm-twisting people into abandoning the faith of their mothers. We work most frequently across lines of religion and do so with respect.

Canada does not have, perhaps never had, the kind of Christian consensus that has shaped the United States. Here, Christendom has been shrinking in the rear-view mirror for awhile. Those who share my flavour of Christianity do not see what some have called the ‘humiliation of the church’ that that shrinking signifies as necessarily a bad thing. In secularised Canada, I don’t tend to offer up my ‘reverend’ creds when I first meet people who invariably want to know what you do. To start with that is to run the risk of having to spend the next hour or years trying to extricate myself from the box into which I have just been placed.

Not that that  box is without reason. I’ve noticed that ‘devout Christian’ as a descriptor of someone in the news is often accompanied with words that betray political positions with respect to a woman’s right to choose, social policy, the environment, capital punishment, warmaking and guns that, for me, do not align with Christianity. A Texas woman who railed against social distancing as a socialist plot, saying that ‘You don’t need hand sanitiser; you just need faith and, of course, guns’—is now dead of coronavirus.  Millions of evangelicals, President Trump’s base, plan to crowd into churches on Easter Sunday morning; others are showing up on the steps of state capital buildings packing AR-15s, AK 47s—and Bibles.  Cuban American ethicist, Miguel de la Torre, in a railing lament, writes, ‘Christianity has died in the hands of Evangelicals. Evangelicalism ceased being a religious faith tradition following Jesus’ teachings concerning justice for the betterment of humanity when it made a Faustian bargain for the sake of political influence.’

For Partera, it is not helpful to be tossed into the same box. We have lost grants for projects with organisations in conflict zones whose names betray their Christian faith; we have lost potential board members and donors unhappy to be associated with a group that is suspect.  It hardly amounts to persecution but it does make a difference.

Nevertheless, I hold tight onto a story of a first century Palestinian shit-disturber, whose words and deeds—regarded by the powerful as threats to the order of all things social, economic, political and religious—led him inexorably to execution by Empire. But someone rolled away the stone and this Jesus—somehow both human and divine—returned to animate a movement that still drives a whole lot of us to tend to those caught in violence, poverty, homelessness, imprisonment and marginalisation, to resist the imperial impulse still manifest in daily crucifixions.