Letter to Editorial

Dear UTA,

Me: “Sharmeen, I just read your editorial about religion and leftist movements and I felt . . . defensive. I’m surprised by my reaction; I don’t like being defensive. I feel embarrassed by my feelings and disappointed in myself; I’m not really someone who gets defensive about Christianity.”

Sharmeen: “Interesting. You should probably write a response for UTA. Can you have it to me in two weeks?”

Me: “I’m not sure that’s a great idea. I’m not that knowledgeable about Christianity or about leftist movements.”

Sharmeen: “So, maybe three weeks?”

Well, here I am, trying to respond to something that many weeks later, realizing that the feeling seems to have passed almost entirely. I’m not entirely sure why I felt that way in the first place.

I’ve been told so many times that I’m not a good Christian, enough that I’m inclined to believe it. Whether it be my queerness, my being an uppity woman, my anti-capitalist views, or my general lack of belief in some of the basic tenets of my religion, I’ve been left with no illusions that I fit into dominant forms of Christianity. I’ve been told by well-meaning Christians that I’m going to hell for my “sin” of being queer. And I’ve been told by an equally well-meaning former housemate who identified as a communist that should I even accidentally end up on the wrong side of the barricade during the revolution, he would be forced to shoot me. Obviously, Christianity is, generally speaking, a dumpster fire of epic proportions both historically and presently. There are too many horrors that are indelibly linked to Christians being “good Christians” that, as a white Mennonite (Christian) from North America, it gives me great pause before identifying with Christianity.

In my twenties, I was part of a group of six people who either identified as anarchist or communist and who collectively owned a workers’ co-op that sold organic groceries and vegan sandwiches in Winnipeg. I was nervous when I applied to the position and stripped my resumé bare of any hint of religion. I removed reference to my Bachelor of Theology from a Mennonite institution, as well as my experience interning as pastor and chaplain, and I said nothing about summer camp or trips to Christian Peacemaker Team conferences. I wanted to be a part of a worker-owned collective that made decisions by consensus. I wanted to be around food every day, talking to farmers, experimenting with new recipes in the kitchen, and feeling the freedom of not having a boss in my workplace. Well, it worked. I tricked them, and they hired me. When I finally “came out” to them, day by day, they started to learn my hidden past: this kid’s Christian(ish)? There were many questions, especially about the pacifist part of being a Mennonite.

When one of my co-owners came to work one morning sporting a new tattoo, one of our regular customers admired it commenting, “I love the ghost coming out of the house!” After they left, my co-owner was disgusted, “This is a tattoo of a burning church, can’t you tell?” I met that question with a capitalist shrug, “They just bought a hundred bucks worth of groceries, who cares?” What followed shortly after was a dissertation from my co-owner explaining to me that my religion discriminates and oppresses me. This was not actually new information for me. It hadn’t occurred to him that I had made a conscious choice, that I had been actively working for as long as I can remember to challenge oppressive behaviour and beliefs in my religious community, and that I was attempting to live with that tension. It serves as a reminder to me that I can’t assume that I know what someone makes of their own life experience.

I wasn’t there during the scene described at the beginning of the editorial, but it has given me a good opportunity to think about what my response would have been. I’m never quite sure how to describe myself to other people: a bad Mennonite? Or maybe a bad anarchist? I’d like to believe that I’m a good friend. I’d like to believe that I would have asked Sharmeen how she felt about what was going on and followed her lead. How do we avoid “practices that infantilize particular communities?” I’m pretty sure that Sharmeen has already given a pretty good and simple solution: we talk to each other. We start having meaningful conversations, but that can only happen when we make commitments to each other and to ourselves that we won’t let our defensive responses get in the way of meaningful conversations.

That brings me to my own defensiveness, but also to a bit of fear that religious communities will be relegated to a sort of utilitarian way of thinking in terms of their perceived usefulness to the revolution. My defensiveness, I think, is about the notion that we are either one or the other. We are either religious or part of the revolutionary Left, but there’s no possibility to be both. Freud talked about defensiveness as a way of our unconscious hiding painful feelings from our conscious minds. And maybe in reading this editorial, I simply haven’t wanted to face a painful feeling: the possibility that, while religious communities may have their part to play in revolutions, they are not the revolution. And, well, maybe they’re not. With my identity so wrapped up in my religious community, it feels painful to consider that I might have to choose sides. I’m not suggesting that the editorial is urging folks to choose sides. In fact, quite the opposite. But what if there’s no interpretive rendezvous point? In other words, what if our hermeneutics never find common ground? Do we just say it’s a “diversity of tactics” and call it a day? Surely this doesn’t prevent us from showing up for each other in meaningful ways. And surely answers are arrived at in contextually appropriate ways.

What I do know is that I applaud Upping the Anti for their careful, well-researched, and considered essay, and also, I’m thankful for Sharmeen’s friendship.

In Solidarity,

Jan Braun