In the past month we have had “more than we can ask or imagine” of commemoration of the attacks on New York and Washington.How helpful this will be in the long term is, in my mind, very much an open question, but in this hyper-informed age we are not likely to escape such occasions.
My questions about this kind of commemoration are, “What are we learning?” and more seriously, “What are we being taught?” Because I grew up on the Pacific coast and was a student in elementary school in 1941, I remember well the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, and our sense that the war was on our doorstep. Air raid drill at school, shuttered windows, pails of sand throughout the house, the bathtub filled every night so that we would have water in an emergency.
All of those were powerful messages for a young person. But other more subtle messages were also out there. All of this, we were told, had been brought to us not just by Japan, but by the Japanese. So we understood why we never again saw the Japanese students in our school. I had never heard the proposal of our government that after the war all Japanese, even Canadian citizens, would be deported, but if I had understood it, I would have said, “Great.” Why? Because I had been raised in a household which taught (subliminally, not explicitly) that people of my heritage ?belonged? in Canada more than others.
My grandfather arrived from England 100 years ago in Saint John in the dead of winter and boarded a train, vowing that he would not get off until he found a place that was warm. He got off in Vancouver; so he never met, for example, Canadians who spoke French. He was deeply influenced by the racial riots of 1908 in Vancouver and communicated his distaste for “Asiatics” to his children. And that was the setting of our upbringing.
Well, we are told that we are once again in a war. So all of those dynamics are alive and well. If one’s name or face or way of dressing proclaims ethnicity or religion, one’s life can be very complicated. I spend a lot of time in airports, and I see it all the time. People who can?t tell a Sikh from a Muslim are making mental judgments that one can read on their faces. And the more so if people are wearing distinctive dress: headscarf, turban, yarmulke, sari.
Do we come by these attitudes naturally? Did God make us with these opinions programmed in? Rodgers and Hammerstein gave us a clue in “South Pacific.” “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid/ of people whose eyes are oddly made, / of people whose skin is a different shade, / you’ve got to be carefully taught.” A few Sundays ago I heard St. Paul say to the Christians in Rome (and Canada!), “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
When we are taught to hate and fear, and if we follow that teaching, we wreck lives. Not just the lives of others, but our own lives and the life of our country. When we acted on these racial teachings towards the Japanese, we were decades overcoming the legacy. Can we not learn a better lesson, taught to us by history, scripture and the best of our tradition? Archbishop Michael Peers is primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.