Protecting ourselves, mistreating others and smudging

Nov 18, 2014 by

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We do a lot of driving in our family. Driving to volleyball, guitar, swim club, band rehearsal, grandma and grandpa’s, and on and on it goes. Many days it is in the car that some of the best, most important, and sometimes only conversations with our kids happen.

images-11Today my daughter and I were off to the doctor’s office for a routine visit and the talk turned to the trials and tribulations of teenage life. We talked about cyberbullying, peer pressure, romantic dramas, sports, classroom dynamics, terrible teachers and a whole host of other things.

We also talked about racism.

My kids are getting to the stage where they are paying more attention to the social realities around them. They notice that aboriginal people are looked at differently in our culture. They notice that aboriginal kids are treated differently at school. My daughter spoke of one particular girl who gets mistreated on a fairly regular basis, of how there are a number of indigenous kids who find themselves mostly on the periphery of the middle school world. It’s hard to hear this kind of thing. It’s hard to be reminded that my kids are in the middle of these toxic realities.

I gulp and swallow hard. “Do people treat you badly because you are aboriginal?” I ask, afraid of what the answer might be.

“Sometimes people try,” she says. “But they know that they can’t get away with it with me. They know that I will tell them that it is un-ac-ceptable! I say that whenever anyone treats someone bad because they have brown skin!” She folds her arms and gives me her most piercing stare of authoritative rebuke. Then she bursts out laughing.

I smile and tell her that I am proud of her. And I am. So proud. Of this girl who sticks up for those who so often serve as the easy targets for the kids who have never known anything but being at the centre of their (very small) worlds.

She asks about her specific culture. Where were the Ojibway from? What about the Metis? It’s really sad that all those First Nations’ languages are dying out. It’s really sad that so many bad things happened, that white people did so many bad things to my ancestors.

“Yes, it is” I say, biting my lip.

We sit in silence for a kilometer or so.

“Would you ever want to learn Anishinaabe,” I ask. “Yeah,” she says. “That would be cool! Or German!”

I smile as she bounds out the door back to school.

One of the stories making the rounds over the last few days is that a church in Manitoba that pulled the plug on a Mennonite Central Committee event due to the fact that there would be a smudging ceremony by the Buffalo Gals drumming group. The Internet has behaved exactly as we have come to expect whenever a story like this breaks — there are the (mostly laudable) howls of protest, there are the (mostly regrettable) attempts to defend the decisions made, and round and round we go, where it stops, nobody knows. . . .

But I was thinking about this story after the conversation with my daughter on the way home from the doctor. A thought occurred to me. Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that those attempting to protect this church from incompatible aboriginal practices are right. I don’t believe they are right — not for a minute. But let’s just imagine they were. Let’s imagine that opening the doors of a church that bears the name of Jesus of Nazareth to a smudging ceremony was to invite all kinds of unwelcome and potentially dangerous spiritual influences. Let’s just suppose that’s all true.

But maybe we can also think of other historical examples where a “foreign” set of beliefs and practices was allowed to insert itself into a context in which they were not “compatible.” A context where they were unwelcome, where they inspired fear and confusion?

Perhaps the church should be begging for things like smudging ceremonies to come into our buildings and “violate” our official policies and beliefs, to “contaminate” our carefully maintained theological edifices, to contradict our “values,” to mess up our clean and shiny sanctuaries full of gentle Jesus, meek and mild. Maybe then we would be one step closer to having even the slightest clue about what our aboriginal neighbors historically endured, and what many still endure today.

Maybe then we might come to the uncomfortable realization that a steely resolve to protect ourselves from the incompatible “other” very often leads to mistreating the other. And it leads to reducing the big broad world that God made and loves to roughly the size of our small selves and our small ideas. And it leads to radically misrepresenting the love and the way of Jesus.

Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. He writes at Rumblings.

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