Poking the wound

Photo: Radachynskyi Serhii/Shutterstock
Published November 22, 2017

It has taken me a long time to write this column. Too long.

Enraged by the recent passing of Quebec’s Bill 62, the so-called “Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality,” I almost immediately picked up my pen (well, word processor) and began to write about its problematic measures.

It’s not hard. As a law that functionally singles out and discriminates against a particularly vulnerable religious group and gender in this province, a law that appeared to discontinue the provision of everyday public services such as city buses to Muslim women who refused to take off their face coverings so as to don the religious garb of a Christian-inflected secularism, it almost critiques itself.

The same religious group singled out by this law was, only a few months ago and in the very city this law was passed, the victim of a murderous rampage that left six people dead and 19 more wounded. The mosque in which that shooting took place was subsequently vandalized and threatened. And the car of the president of that same mosque was subsequently set on fire near his own home. It’s therefore a no-brainer that, as the bishop of Quebec put it, “This is not the time for our government to be creating new opportunities for Quebec’s Muslims to become targets.

I want to say I am surprised that there are Christians—and particularly clergy—who support the measures of Bill 62. (It is interesting to note that one of the most common arguments that such Christians seem to marshal in their support of this law is that facial coverings are not an authentic expression of Islam, an argument that assumes the arguer has the interpretative acumen and moral authority to pass such judgments about a religious tradition not their own).

However, I am not surprised.

As I have argued before, in the aftermath of an atrocity it’s easy to repeat the words: “never again.” However, as a society and as a church we have yet to fully unearth—let alone attempt to remove—the foundations of ancient prejudices and assumptions that lead to violence.

One of these foundation stones that we have yet to fully unearth is racism. And this is where, each time I have attempted to write this column, I put my proverbial pen back down: I have quit. I simply do not know where to go from here, and that is a problem.

Racism runs deep in our society, in our church and in our own hearts—including in my own heart. So how has it been possible for me to write about Christian ethics and to preach from the pulpit without directly addressing this issue? Why do I unconsciously hesitate to type the word “racism” in a column for a church publication? Assumedly, for a church whose fourth Mark of Mission is to “transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation,” one would think this would be a word we would be used to hearing in our theological texts, pulpits and everyday lives.

For those of us who have the luxury to ignore it (in other words, those of us who live in the world of white privilege), I think the word “racism” works a bit like a deep wound that seems to have healed on the surface: not faced by the daily reminder of its damage, we can largely live out our lives without thinking about it—until someone pokes at the scar tissue and makes us flinch.

I doubt it was a coincidence that around the same time Bill 62 became law, the Quebec government renamed its “consultations on systematic racism” the “commission on valuing diversity and fighting against discrimination.” We are able to accept that our society (and church) occasions isolated acts of discrimination, but admitting both the existence of and the need to address systemic racism by having a consultation on it? That’s a poke.

To address systemic racism in our society will require us to excavate the deep structures of white supremacy that are embedded within our culture, the role our church and theology have played in propagating them and how we as persons (consciously or not) continue to reproduce them. To do so will certainly result in more than a few pokes, but unless we move past our tendency to flinch, we will never find healing.

I do not know where to go from here and admitting that is probably for the best. The last thing a conversation about racism needs is a person oozing white privilege arriving late to the scene with a ready set of answers. Thankfully there is a cloud of prophetic witnesses who are already engaged in this excavation both within the theological academy and the church. (The Primate’s Commission on the Doctrine of Discovery, Reconciliation and Justice may be one small step toward what we might call an ecclesiastical commission on systemic racism.) What remains to be seen is how this work will be taken up by the rest of us.


  • Jeffrey Metcalfe

    Jeffrey Metcalfe is the diocese of Quebec's canon theologian.

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