Being with the First People

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“The death of one person is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” (Josef Stalin)

“Love the stranger: for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)

Perhaps it was my father’s stories of his wartime experiences in India and Burma, (now Myanmar). Or perhaps it was growing up in a small market town in Hampshire. Wherever it comes from I have often sought to experience other ways of looking at things.

While training for ordained ministry I was fortunate enough to experience the hospitality of the Afro-Caribbean and Sikh residents of Handsworth in Birmingham. The form of community I encountered through the different Sikh Gurdwaras led me to rethink the type of community that can be expressed in a local Christian church.

Years later while on study leave in Canada and the USA I was privileged enough to receive the hospitality of the people of the First Nations, or the First People, from Vancouver to Toronto and from Washington DC to Virginia. Their collective experiences and their relationship with the Earth, (something recently conveyed to some degree in ‘A World Unseen’, a documentary on the making of the Holywood movie ‘The Revenant’), led me to reconsider what it means to be truly connected to creation as a Christian.

A vivid example of this relationship became a personal experience for me when I walked the streets of Toronto with a Cree elder and Christian minister named Andrew. As he picked the plants growing through the concrete pavements and described to me their value as medicine I could not help but be moved by this deeply spiritual man who was helping me to ‘read the land’ in an urban landscape. Before we parted company we exchanged gifts. I gave him a signed copy of an ordination Bible I received from my bishop. He gave me an even more personal gift of a beaded cross made by his mother when he was ordained and began his Christian ministry.

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Sadly, Andrew was also a man with scars. Like many others, he was taken from his family at a young age and went through the ‘Indian’ residential school system which existed in Canada from the mid nineteenth century to 1996. The ‘assimilation’ programme of these schools was a systematic attempt by the government and the Christian Church to remove the traditional cultural identity of the pupils that quickly degenerated into abuse and even death. I visited the ruins of one school and saw for myself the distressing messages of the children scratched on the outside walls.

As you may imagine, Andrew was a man who struggled being a Christian in the face of these experiences – but he did and not only merged them but conveyed his experiences, his heritage, and his beliefs in a powerful way to me and to his kindred in Toronto.

History warns us that when we dehumanise people or treat them as subhuman for whatever reason, prejudice, or ideology, it almost inevitably leads to genocide. In our present era we are in no less danger of this terrible trend. It is true that the Bible has been interpreted with  a mixture of messages, justifying everything from slavery to genocide, and yet we should remember its prevailing message is ultimately one of inclusivity and unconditional love.

In our technological world in which we possess infinite varieties of communication, it is tragically ironic that we can still fear and despise all that is ‘other’ than ourselves and more than this, use social media to amplify these fears to a global degree. I understand I am but one voice in this global village. But with that voice I choose to do the one thing I can do as a man of faith, and that is say a prayer which comes from a fusing of cultures and expresses the hope that all can be seen to be one in the eyes of God, our Creator:

Creator, we give you thanks for all you are and all you bring to us for our visit within your creation. In Jesus, you place the Gospel in the centre of this sacred circle through which all of creation is related. You show us the way to live a generous and compassionate life. Give us your strength to live together with respect and commitment as we grow in your spirit, for you are God, now and forever. Amen. 

(‘A Disciple’s Prayer Book’ – A publication of Congregational Ministries Cluster, Native Ministries and Gospel Based Discipleship, The Rev John Robertson, New York)

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What does it mean to be human.com? Bladerunner Replicated

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‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ was a huge summer blockbuster in 1982.  I remember seeing it at a packed cinema and yet the world portrayed in it seems to now be of the last century. More disturbing is another film released that year which I remember watching at a virtually empty cinema, that was deemed a box office failure at the time, but whose haunting themes and message only seem to resonate more closely with this new millennium. It is now described as prophetic and a cult classic.

‘Bladerunner’ presents a dystopian nightmare of a not too distant future whose complex themes question our human identity. Paul Sammon in ‘Future Noir: The Making of Bladerunner’ (1996), sums this up well when he says:

“Lurking under the film’s pop visuals and trendy special effects is a subtle, dizzying tangle of deeply felt moral, philosophical, and sociological concerns. Take the film’s title a “Blade Runner” could also be interpreted as someone who scampers along the thin edge of life. Or witness the multiple examples of narrative mirroring (or doubling) throughout. Deckard kills two replicants, two replicants save his life. Deckard finds a reason to live; Batty wants to live. Religious parallels are also rampant: Tyrell is literally the replicant’s God, and Batty, Tyrell’s prodigal son, symbolically pierces his hand with a nail, suggesting crucifixion. Even the film’s horizontal/vertical design scheme makes a statement; Blade Runner’s privileged few live in luxurious towers, literally high above the disenfranchised masses below. All the musings are swept aside, however, by the three, key, simple yet profound questions which constitute the core of the film: Who am I? Why am I here? What does it mean to be human?”

These questions resonate even more clearly in our age of the global community.  We can invent the persona of whoever we want to be, dispose of that identity, and invent another one in a matter of minutes online. We are constantly bombarded with information and an endless horizon of possibilities and yet there are suggestions that we are ‘communicating’ less in relation to social interactions, the irony being that we may feel less connected to other human beings within this digital communications oasis. And a Kierkergaardian existential despair may develop leaving us residing at ‘What does it mean to be human.com?’

Human beings are social animals. However badly we may do it sometimes, we are designed to relate, it is within our DNA. The received Christian view is that we are not complete as human beings within ourselves. The wholeness we seek cannot be filled by technology, drugs, sex, or the ever increasing acquisition of material goods, “Stuffocation”, as James Wallman aptly puts it in his book of the same name. Instead we may have to begin by letting go of that which we seek to grasp. Or to quote the spiritual realisation that the replicant character, Roy Batty, comes to at the end of ‘Bladerunner’, “All these moments will be lost in time…like tears in rain.”

The Bible makes it clear that immortality is not the goal of human existence, instead ‘eternal life’ is, which we can experience in this life. At the heart of eternal life is a relationship and most relationships require what is commonly termed ‘give and take’, perhaps even sacrifice. (John 17:3) The digital age presents us with endless promises of acquisition and yet the human soul seems to become enlarged when we face that which we are prepared to lose. (Matthew 16:25). This spiritual practice is not only common to Christianity but to Buddhism and there are numerous instances where a dialogue has developed on this subject. I think it is no coincidence that there has been a continuing rise of interest within medical, secular, as well as religious circles, in the practice of mindfulness in recent years. Although there may be different conclusions on why this has happened, its popular ascendancy within only a matter of a decade cannot be ignored.

Whatever our religious beliefs or philosophical viewpoints, it seems to be true that the human spirit often grows through a healthy form of materialistic detachment, challenge, even adversity, and not consumerist acquisition. The former gives birth to self-realisation and fulfilment while the latter may feed upon our status anxiety and fear. And what we can discern is that the predictions of ‘Bladerunner’ will always be replicated if we persist in ignoring a very ancient yet modern truth, whatever value system we may profess:

The future is only dark if we have no faith in the dawn…