I see through privileges. They are like cataracts

Rev. Alan Richards was asked by the Intercultural Standing Committee to give a theological reflection halfway through the education event on September 27. The following comes from his carefully scribbled notes. You’ll find more reflections from participants here.

Alwin Maben and Alan Richards

I begin with a confession: The eyes through which I see are white and masculine. Conversations such as those we’re having, and experiences such as a Blanket Exercise and this morning’s Colour Line Exercise, prod me to recognize my racial and gender privileges. To borrow from Paul’s words to the ancient Corinthian faith community, “for now I see dimly” —for now, I see through these privileges. They are like cataracts.

We’re here because we’re all struggling, in our personal lives and in our diverse communities of faith, with the realities of racism in our lives and mission, in our language, our worship, and—as we explored this morning—in how we read the Scriptures. For some, this is a daily and painful reality. For others, like me, it’s something we see dimly. Something in a kind of fog that becomes clearer, more defined, the closer we get. “The Church’s struggle” —is it perhaps struggles of the whole church that is the Body of Christ? And whether we find ourselves as the heart or feet of Christ, as Jim Strathdee’s hymn puts it (“In Loving Partnership We Come”), the wounds of racism touch us all. If so, then our struggle to see Jesus through intercultural eyes is also our desire for healing in every part of this Body. And maybe for more than healing. Perhaps, last night and this morning, we’re looking for ways to see how the realities of diversity are reshaping our world, our neighbourhoods, and our communities of faith. In the challenges of listening to one another’s stories, to ask about the Church’s struggles to see Jesus through intercultural eyes are we also actively looking for a new resurrection of the Body of Christ?

Two moments in particular of our time together stand out for me: the image of harmony offered by Elder Charles Wood, and Dr. Joy Philip’s image, “it’s in your hands.”

Elder Wood spoke last night of an urgent need to teach succeeding generations to live in harmony. If we can’t live in harmony with nature, he asked, what good is development? If, however, we learn to live in harmony with nature, then we’ll also learn to live in harmony with each other. So, as we work together to see Jesus through intercultural eyes, what might harmony look like?

For a couple of years, I sang in Camrose United Church’s choir. Now, for a second year, I’m singing in a musical production by Bashaw Community Theatre—which, as a thriving partnership between Bashaw United Church and the community is, I think, one model of active harmony. I, a baritone, get to sing a duet with an alto. Our voices are different, and so are the characters we play. Hers is hesitant, mine is grumpy. She begins the song, and I interrupt her brusquely. As she continues to sing, I get in sync with her. She sings a bit; I sing in response and let go of my grumpiness. Then we’re able to sing in unison. Before long we’re singing the same words and with different notes from our own lines. And our characters are transformed.

So I’m thinking harmony isn’t about always being on the same page or note, or singing at the same. Might it be, instead, about a dialogue? About singing sometimes in unison and sometimes with our own distinct notes, our own stories? I’ve learned several things singing in a theatre group. I’ve learned that if I’m to sing in key and in rhythm with the others, I need to attend to where the others are. Our Community Theatre Musician, who is also the minister at Bashaw and Ponoka United Churches, constantly tells us at rehearsals, to “sing loudly and sing boldly!” When we do, others can hear us and we’re moving the song forward and strongly together. And when we make mistakes, we learn where we need to change how we’re singing.

So, might learning to see Jesus harmoniously through intercultural eyes be about singing with our distinctive voices while also taking our bearings as we listen to others? About singing out by those, as Dr. Kathy Yamashita said last night, are marginalized? About those of us who are privileged choosing not to jump in with our parts until we’ve heard those stories? Or, as our Moderator, the Rt. Rev. Richard Bott suggested, “to listen, to learn and, when the time is right, to be changed.” And not let guilt trap us when we get it wrong, but use those moments to get us back on track? Perhaps this is our harmony: to move our common song forward—our shared drama of following Jesus—as we sing in all our diversity?

“It’s in your hands.” I was moved as, in her comments last night, our keynote speaker, Dr. Mary (Joy) Philip, drew on a story by the great, and black, American writer, Toni Morrison—”Bird in the Hand.” And by her choice to retell this story in an Indigenous context in which the central character is an Elder. I won’t retell that story, except to say the punch line comes in the words of the Indigenous woman, speaking to those who are threatening her. “Is the bird in my hand alive or dead?” she asks. “I don’t know,” she continues. “What I know is that it is in your hands.” Someone who seems to be an “unpowerful woman,” Joy commented, “shifts the responsibility to those who have the power” to determine what happens to that bird. And to that Elder.

What I heard in those words—and perhaps you also heard something like this as we took part in the Bible reading exercise through which Joy led us—is that there’s more than one story here. Those with privileging power often reframe themselves as the victims and hold those who are vulnerable and marginalized responsible for their own marginalization. But it is precisely they who have the power to shift that responsibility to those with the power to define what constitute acceptable behaviour and cultural values. The responsibilities for decolonization, victimization, and marginalization are in their hands.

This critical point has emerged for me in our time together. I come to my last point in these theological reflections. I’d like to offer you my reading of a story that has engaged me for some time now.

Perhaps you remember the story of a Syrian-Phoenician woman and Jesus. They meet in territory that is strange for Jesus, that is not his world of Galilee. For the woman, accompanied by her daughter who is ill, it is also out of her homeland and a risky place to be as women in a culture where men hold the power of privilege in their hands. She is of a different race, gender, and religion than those of Jesus. They are of separate cultures. Can this be a creative intercultural moment?

I confess that, as I began to spend more time with this story, I grew increasingly uncomfortable, even shocked. Shocked by Jesus’ behaviour. The woman—so marginalized, so other, that we don’t know her name—asks Jesus to heal her daughter. And he rejects her, totally. His enterprise, he tells her, is to feed those of his own culture, not to toss even crumbs to people such as her. This is not the Jesus of the Beatitudes, or of Matthew 25 and the parable of the sheep and goats. Not the Jesus who, in Luke, announces that filled with God’s Spirit, his mission is to bring good news to the poor and the oppressed. Jesus, in this story, treats the ill daughter as if she was invisible and calls the woman a dog. The Greek word is the word for “puppy.” He treats her like a misbehaving child.

But this woman doesn’t walk away ashamed or feeling powerless. She breaks the socially acceptable standards and speaks assertively to this privileged male teacher and healer. She turns his own words against him: “even the dogs under the table get at least the crumbs that have been dropped.” I imagine Jesus as having started to walk away from her. We’re told his disciples beg him to shut her up. I imagine he turns around, and “sucks wind!”

So how does he respond? He tells her that her daughter is healed, that she has everything she has demanded. Unlike other healing stories, in this one, Jesus doesn’t commend this person for her faith or ask her to follow him. He doesn’t or touch her, or stretch out her arm, ask her to do something, or tell her daughter to stand on her own feet and walk. The woman has shifted the responsibility for her marginalization to his hands, and it’s up to him to decide what to make of this. Jesus (and I’ve come to think this is the real miracle in the story) has recognized the power this woman holds in her hand to speak up and refuse that responsibility.
Reading this story in the context of our conversations about seeing Jesus through intercultural eyes, I take hope for two reasons. In it, we can hear something like, “blessed are you who share together with your stories as marginalized people, and blessed are you who speak for justice and right relationships.” And I see that if Jesus can hear the woman’s story and change not only his understanding of her but also his response to her, then as a follower of Jesus so can I. So can we.