Not who we are

Feb 1, 2017 by

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The shooting at a Quebec City mosque that killed six people has been on many of our minds over the past few days. There has been the predictable outpouring of support and outrage on social media. There have been vigils and prayers and marches organized in response. There have been expressions of love and care for our Muslim neighbors taking place far away from the bleating headlines. All in all, it’s a narrative that our world is growing regrettably familiar with in light of all the religious and ethnically fueled violence that has unfolded over the past few years.

I spent some time at a local vigil last night. It was very good to be together as a community and to hear expressions of support for our local Muslim community who are understandably feeling anxious and afraid these days. But as I reflected on the event itself, and as I scrolled through my social media feed last night, I found myself wondering about the language we use and the ideas we espouse at times like these. Specifically, I wondered if we are losing the kind of robust moral grammar that is necessary to respond to and combat these kinds of acts.

Whenever Canadians do bad things, phrases like, “this is not who we are as Canadians” begin to make their obligatory appearances at vigils and in editorials and on social media. Except that, strictly speaking, they are not true. This, apparently, is who we are as Canadians. At least some of us. Alexandre Bissonnette — the man charged with these crimes in Quebec City — is no less Canadian than I am. He lives within the same geographic borders as I do. He was, so far as I can tell, born, raised and schooled in this nation. His passport bears the same insignia as mine does. He has very different views than I do, of course, and a frightful willingness to act violently in light of them, but this doesn’t make him less Canadian than I am. It makes him less something else. Less… tolerant? open? appreciative of diversity? loving? We grope around for the words to use to condemn his behavior and to distance ourselves from people who think and act like him, but our moral cupboards very often seem bare. So we default to a vague reference to nationality that cannot possibly bear the moral weight that we want it to.

I understand well what we want to say, what we are trying to say when we say things like “this is not who we are.” It is another way of saying, This is not who we ought to be as Canadians.” But that one important word — ought — is a tricky one to use in these post-modern, post-everything days. “Ought,” according to who? Some Canadians apparently feel that we ought to be monoracial, monoreligious, mono-whatever. And that violence is an acceptable way to go about achieving this. Some Canadians feel we ought to be diverse, inclusive, tolerant, etc.; however, quickly these concepts collapse in on themselves when we start to ask questions like, “Does inclusivity have room for people who don’t want to be inclusive? Does our mosaic of diversity have room for those who hate the very concept of it?” Clearly these values that we reflexively cling to must have limits, but we struggle to articulate them coherently.

Similarly, we often resort to “we are all” language around high-profile public tragedies like these. We are all Paris… Brussels… Je suis Charlie Hebdo… Orlando… Charleston… Muslim. Again, I understand the sentiment behind these statements. We want to say to, in this case, our Muslim neighbors, “We are with you, we care about you, we reject the views of those who would commit violence against you because of your religious beliefs. We are all part of the human family.” I echo each of these sentiments from the bottom of my heart.

But on a technical level, “we are” or “I am” or “je suis” language isn’t true. At the risk of being unforgivably pedantic, I am not Charlie Hebdo or Paris or Orlando. Or Muslim. I do not testify “there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet,” just as my Muslim friends do not accept that Jesus was “for our sake crucified under Pontius Pilate; suffered death and was buried,” that “on the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father,” just as my atheist and agnostic friends would dismiss both claims. When an act of violence is committed against Muslims, I do not say, “I am Muslim” with you but “I love, support, and stand with you, my Muslim neighbors.” This is what I was saying by standing with them last night. But our differences are not thereby obliterated. They are real and they matter, even if I am convinced we must always be seeking to bridge them in pursuit of political stability and human friendship.

At any rate, whether it is appeals to a kind of vague nationalism, or not-altogether-coherent expressions of identity-as-solidarity, it seems to me that we struggle to morally ground both our outrage and our empathy in these ideologically charged and emotionally fraught days. This is where we live. And this will be our challenge going forward in the context of ethnic and religious pluralism, in the context of divisive voices who seek to foment tribalistic impulses, and in the context of the genuine social challenges that arise when people who have different visions of the world and value different things in different ways, attempt to live together in peace.

Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church in Lethbridge, Alta., Canada. He writes at Rumblings, where this post first appeared.

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