no unity without justice, or, a hymn for the church of the fireweed

Yesterday, Sunday, January 24, was the Sunday of Church Unity in the liturgical calendar. As one might expect from someone who has a complicated and oft contradictory relationship with church, I have many feelings about this. The call to extend prayer, thought, and blessing to siblings of faith in the Global South, in Palestine, on the margins of empire or under the boot of Western imperialism—that resonates deeply as an invitation to solidarity and to the expansive wisdom of faith-full family. Subaltern Christianity has always been truer to the life and work of Christ than Constantinian Christianity, because Jesus himself lived in resistance to, and under, empire. So it could be a really beautiful and subversive act to centre the voices of our Christian kin from all the places outside the centre of Christian power and Christian supremacy. And yet, speaking of supremacy… it’s only been a few weeks since Trump supporters, white supremacists, fascists, anti-maskers, and Christian nationalists waving “Jesus Saves” signs (none of which are mutually exclusive categories) stormed the Capitol in a violent and unsurprising insurrection. Upsetting, yes, but also what came afterwards: from fellow Christians, instead of righteous outrage and deep grief, calls for “unity” and “peace”, calls that, at their heart, are about smoothing over rather than digging deep to the root of pain, the festering wound of systemic racism. These calls exemplify Martin Luther King Jr’s words to the “white liberal who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers tranquility to equality.

The problem with using “unity” and “peace” in this way, or, for another progressive church example, “holding tension” between different viewpoints, is that it positions difference as equally valid. The framing of “unity” and “peace” as a table where two parties can come together assumes equal ground and agency. But power and oppression don’t work that way; that’s why Black Lives Matter protests and Indigenous land defenders on their own territory were met with militarized state crackdowns, and Trump supporters took selfies with police and waltzed through the Capitol with Confederate flags aloft. Words that are weaponized to placate are in fact a continuation of, and corroboration with, violence and injustice. Christians are called to love as the highest commandment, and as Dr. Cornel West says, love in public is justice. There can be no unity without justice: without grieving, acknowledging, and reckoning with the violence of white supremacy, of heterocispatriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, ableism, transphobia, all the principalities and powers that hinder the full flourishing of all people. Prophet James Baldwin said it like this: “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” Maybe this is what Jesus was getting at when he talked about God trimming the branches of the vine that do not bear fruit—when churches do not bear the fruit of love and of justice, when Christians perpetuate violence and harm in the name of Christ, they are no longer one with the vine: the vine that brings life, renewal, fermentation, wine, celebration, transformation.

So, unity. It’s a fraught word, with all its connotations. I’m currently poet in residence at the Abbey Church, Lekwungen territories (Victoria), and for each Sunday service, I pick or write a poem that aligns with that week’s themes and readings. For this last week, I grappled with this fraughtness and all the feelings that arose in me, and made this poem, “a hymn for the church of the fireweed.” I’m including the text as well, below.

a hymn for the church of the fireweed

today, a poem of vulnerability,
part prophetic prayer, part offering of entreaty,
a hymn from the church of the fireweed.

this flower grows thick after forest fires,
its vibrant pink blossoms spring into life after death,
after railways and bomb craters. fireweed sets the table for bees
and bushes and trees and eventually, again, forests

when i think about unity, i think of the fireweed
its mercenary practice of resurrection
on the underside of empire.

i think of the complicated relationships of family.
what can the fireweed say to the fire, the bombed to the bomber,
the burning to those that tilt the ecosystem,
set the unfettered blaze?

at home we’ve been listening to cockburn,
and bruce sang, for every scar that’s on a wall, there’s a hole in someone’s heart.
i sing of the scars: of broad daylight pavement gouges,
convenience store, public park,
all the places where gentle dark-skinned men and boys
were denied breath and being

i sing, blessed are the hearts with holes,
sieves enough for a sea,
blessed are you, all the least of these
no justice, no peace, no unity without grief
no prisons, no police, can you see christ among us
his hands outstretched to the weak,
marching in the streets,
preaching: the kingdom is near.

and woe to the whitewashing tombs,
death-dealers of dominating supremacy,
enforcers of dystopia, keepers of apartheid,
woe to you who execute christ in the streets and on sundays,
worship his pale imitation with gun and flag in hand,

may you look into the face of those you call enemies
and see truly, this is the face of God.

may the unstoppable sea wrap you in its reckoning,
surround you in liquid lament until you can’t breathe
for the mercy, for the love, until you hear the whisper of revolution,
of follow me, the undeniable song of the many-holed heart,
fished from the depths to a field of vibrant pink fireweed
may you see the face of God
calling you to reparations and community,
calling your name,
come and see.

what can the fireweed say to the fire? only:

creator, save us from false peace
from shallow-throated unity
without justice in full flood.
spirit, let us water the unfettered blaze in tears,
restore ecosystems, grow strong,
set the table for bees and bushes and trees,
and eventually, forests,

until all of us are free.

ashé, amen, may it be.

Further reading

After I wrote this post, I was looking up my brilliant Twitter friend Sarah Ngu’s sermons and stumbled upon her sermon on “Supremacy,” part of Forefront Church’s Powers & Principalities series. In it, she breaks down Christian supremacy, anti-Semitism as the antecedent of modern racism, and how wrestling with unjust structures and systems (or powers and principalities) is a spiritual struggle. It captures a lot of what I was aiming for with this poem and taught me some important lessons, so I’m including it here as a reference.

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A prayerful lament + vigil for Trans Day of Remembrance

This service, co-written with Bunny Wilder, follows a liturgical framework from the Christian tradition and was originally hosted by Streams of Justice on Trans Day of Remembrance 2019. More here about Trans Day of Remembrance, including a link to the List of Names. We share with the hope others can use parts of this service, or the liturgy as a whole, in their own stay-at-home vigils.

In pandemic conditions, holding a vigil will look different, but grieving practices are—as ever—integral to ground us, connect us, and move us towards freer futures. Let us hold rituals with thought and intention, knowing lament leads to transformation.

Lighting of the Christ Candle


We begin by lighting the Christ candle, welcoming the presence of an embodied Creator in our midst. We also shroud the communion elements, recognizing that Christ died at the hands of state-enacted violence, and his body was placed in a tomb. In trans Latinx theologian Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza’s words, to be trans is to live in Holy Saturday, to have yet to see full transformation and liberation. We recognize that trans people are crucified people, that trans grief and rage are prophetic and powerful, that trans lives are sacred.

lighting of the candle and/or incense
welcoming of Christ, Creator God, ancestors

Land Acknowledgement 


As we begin, we acknowledge that we gather on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh people. We sit with the knowledge that the same colonial powers that took this land continue to enact violence against Indigenous people, especially those who are trans and Two-Spirit. We enter this service acknowledging our complicity with this violence, and thus, in a posture of contemplation and deep repentance.

Creator God, forgive us for the ways we let colonial violence go unchallenged.

All: Creator God, forgive us.

Orientation to Lament: Opening


Tonight, we mourn the lives lost, and the disproportionate systemic and interpersonal violence against trans people—especially trans women and femmes of colour, especially sex worker women. We lament all violence done to trans people on these territories and all over the world, and the systems and structures that degrade, dehumanize, incarcerate, criminalize, and kill with impunity. 

In this particular place and at this particular time, we grieve the suicide rates of queer and trans youth, the multi-layered colonial violence against Indigenous trans women and Two-Spirit people, the destructive dogma of the West Coast Accord and harm caused by trans exclusionary and anti-SOGI ideologies. We grieve the ways your character has been distorted and your scriptures weaponized against your trans children, who are unconditionally and completely beloved.

Creator God, heal us from indifference and move us to Christ-like solidarity, extending welcome and care to the margins.

All: Creator God, heal us.

Tonight, we also bring our grief for the ways our trans siblings have been excluded and ostracized from the church, from congregations and communities, and disallowed from flourishing as their full selves and sharing their good gifts. We lament the complicity of the church in anti-trans violence and exclusion. We hold the heaviness of grief for spaces which have yet to see full affirmation for queer and trans people. We yearn to see your world restored and all people, all identities, all bodies celebrated as sacred and whole.

Creator God, transform our thinking, our language, our churches, and our communities so we may fully recognize all people as your children.

All: Creator God, transform us.

Prayer for Transgender Day of Remembrance 


by Rev. Malcolm Himschoot, United Church of Christ

How long, O God?
How long will transgender people suffer shame and loss because of who we are?
How long must we bear pain in our souls, and have sorrow in our hearts all day long?
How long shall we have enemies who persecute us, ridicule us, and gloat over us? 
(adapted from Psalm 10)

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
And my enemy will say, “I have prevailed.” 
(from Ps 13)

Why do you stand far off, hiding yourself in times of trouble?
In fear the violent attack the vulnerable –
Let them be caught in the schemes their hearts have devised.
In confusion and disturbance the oppressors say,
“There is no God who cares for the meek –
No God will find me out.”
Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression
They sit in ambush
In stealth they murder the innocent.
The helpless fall by their might.

They think:  “God has forgotten the transgender women, trans people of colour, non-binary people, trans children and youth, the gender-queer and intersex – God has hidden God’s face.”

Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand
Do not forget the oppressed. 
(from Ps 10)

All:
Why do murderers rage, and fearful people plot in vain?
Those in power, and those who long for power, conspire
Against the precious anointed of the Lord.
In heaven God laughs at their presumption.
I will tell of the decree of the Living, Mighty God
Who said to me, “You are my child. Today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the earth itself your inheritance.” 

(from Ps 2)

Reading of Names


lighting of candles and/or 
placing of flowers as names are read

Time of Silence


Communion


Adapted from “Advent 1: What We’re Waiting For,” a sermon by Mary Ann Saunders for St. Brigid‘s

We come now to the communion table, remembering that God came to us in a human body: messy, fragile, unpredictable, infinite God embodied in finite flesh. We are reminded, in Nadia Bolz-Weber’s words, that “God slipped into human skin because God saves us in our bodies, not from our bodies.”

Here, we hold all bodies as sacred: queer and trans bodies, old or young bodies; tattooed, pierced, and scarred bodies; currently abled bodies or bodies living with disability; menstruating or pregnant or chestfeeding bodies; large bodies or small bodies; growing or aging bodies. We all live in transformed and transforming bodies, bodies which may sometimes feel like they’re ours and at other times feel strange and unfamiliar. And where these bodies are, there God is. “We are the clay, and you, O God, are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (Isaiah 64:8)

On the night Jesus was betrayed, he was with his friends sharing a meal. He took bread and broke it, saying, this is my body, broken for your body. Then He took the cup and after giving thanks, he blessed it, saying, this is my blood, shed for your blood.

serving of the elements to one another

A Prayer Towards Trans Cosmology


Adapted from “And God Hovered Over the Face of the Deep: Transgressing Gender”, a sermon by Dr. Robyn Espinoza 

God, before gender and before language,
You created us, in neplanta, made of dust:
hovering over the surface of the deep, 
being and becoming.

From dust, like the deep, primordial:
You shaped earth-creatures with divine hands,
Animated us with holy breath.

Create in us a posture of deep welcome,
an imagination beyond colonial and binary logic.
Unbind us from systems and theologies that harm.

May we commit to turning inward as much as turning outward.
Let our inner lives align with just social practices,
and the spaces we inhabit be welcome to all.

Help us embrace the both/and of your creation,
and to remember who you have made us to be: 
especially those of us whose embodiment is threatened.

Energize us with the prophetic edge of your Spirit.
Our work remains unfinished until all of us are free.

Ashé, Amen, Blessed be.

Benediction


An Imprecatory Prayer to the Transestors by Sophia Zarders

To The Trans Ancestors & Elders who have guided us here:
We honor your legacy with new celebrations.

May our bodies persist, let them shine whole & well.
May our minds calibrate to the call of the universe.

Let our protest songs transfigure to peace hymns.
Let our cultural knowledge produce nourishment.

May our homes bustle warm with abundant love.
May our communities flourish despite borders.

Let our love quake open any lingering shackle.
Let our joy obliterate any festering contempt. 

As we bind each other closer,
we manifest futures more possible.

Amen.

Sacred songs for Trans Day of Remembrance


Further Reading


Transgender Day of Remembrance: Spiritual resources

Donate


  • National Black Trans Advocacy Coalition: advocates for Black trans people in the areas of housing, healthcare, employment, and education. Currently collecting donations for the Community Response Fund which provides rapid response funds for emergency food, shelter, utilities, transportation and health care, life saving PPE and referral to resources for Black trans people at their point of need during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative: building Black trans futurist frameworks for abolition and supporting Black trans lives in Atlanta, Georgia, especially in the criminal justice system, and working to eradicate criminalization and gender-based violence.
  • Coalition Against Trans Antagonism: local organization organizing against anti-trans violence and supporting trans folks. The Trans Resiliency Fund is a collective fund which supports low-income trans people of colour in what is colonially known as Vancouver and the Lower Mainland.

About the artwork


The image for this post is a collage I made of Marsha P. Johnson, one of the trans women of colour who instigated the Stonewall Uprising, an early touchpoint in the LGBTQ+ movement. Marsha was an outspoken activist for gay liberation, drag queen, sex worker, and co-founder, along with Sylvia Rivera, of STAR, a radical political collective that provided housing and support to homeless LGBTQ youth.

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martinstag: a day for peace

This post was written with the help of Benjamin Hertwig, partner, co-conspirer, veteran, and PhD student focusing on contemporary war narratives in Canada.

November 11 is Martinstag, or St. Martin’s Day, a liturgical day commemorating the death of Saint Martin. In Germany (where Benjamin’s family is from) Martinstag is celebrated with paper lantern processions, feasting, and bonfires. Today, we’re making pretzels to celebrate the occasion.

Saint Martin was a Roman soldier who left the military after converting to Christianity, founding Ligugé Abbey, one of the oldest Benedictine monasteries in France. He was jailed for cowardice after refusing to continue in Caesar’s conquest, saying “I am the soldier of Christ: it is unlawful for me to fight.” His most well known saintly act was cutting a cloak in two with his sword to give half to a beggar. As such, he is the patron saint of beggars, wool-weavers and tailors, and geese (their migration coincides with his feast), as well as—reflective of the paradoxes of sainthood when tangled in empire and nation—the US Army Quartermaster Corps and of the French Third Republic. What might this feast day, named for a military deserter turned contemplative, teach us?

In Canada, November 11 is also Remembrance Day: a public holiday observed in Commonwealth settler-colonies since WWI in memorial of members of the armed forces, those who, we are often told “fought and died for our freedom.” Many are familiar with the fraught nature of this day: the sanctified pageantry of bagpipe processions, “In Flanders Fields,” and red poppies contrasted with the homelessness rates among veterans and lack of mental health support for returning soldiers, particularly so in America but also in Canada. Dominant narratives valourize “noble” soldier deaths over countless unacknowledged civilian deaths, which is why some choose to wear white poppies instead. Contemporary Remembrance Day celebrations often devolve into drunken forms of patriotic revelry, in Benjamin’s experience—perhaps a symptom of the desire to forget rather than truly remember the horrors of war, what Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan called “a last ditch moral nightmare… hand in hand with death.”

The problem with Remembrance Day is not only how it mythologizes war, but how it reveals what the state remembers and what it forgets, and who we as citizens choose to mourn. Feminist theorist Judith Butler addresses this form of national amnesia in Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? when she asks her readers to consider “whose lives are considered valuable, whose lives are mourned, and whose lives are considered ungrievable.” State ceremonies for Remembrance Day, in all their pomp and solemnity, function more as propaganda for patriotism than memorial, especially considering the historic violent erasure and criminalization of Indigenous ceremonies for the purposes of colonial consolidation of land and eradication of Indigenous people. These days, as Mi’kmaq lawyer Dr. Pamela Palmater puts it, the strategy has shifted from the overt elimination of scalp bounties and forced sterilization to institutionalization through prisons, policing, social work, and the foster care system. “White supremacy,” she reminds us, “will kill to keep itself alive.” Cree poet Billy-Ray Belcourt writes in his poem “god’s river:”

remind them
that canada is
four hundred
afghanistans
—call it colonialism

to live in
trenches like these
is to be
civilian casualty
and soldier all at once

Lest we forget, God has strong words for the hypocrisy of people who cling to performative ritual without doing the work of justice and care for the poor and marginalized: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5: 21-24)

On Saint Martin’s Day, will we refuse state mythologies of war in the spiritual lineage of the Quakers, Catholic Workers, dissenters, and war resisters, choosing instead the way of the cross—embodied solidarity with the incarcerated, occupied, and oppressed? Will we hear Jesus’s calls in the Garden of Gethsemane to put our swords away? Will we choose to remember those killed not only in war but by the violence of the state, those victim to the ongoing violence enacted by colonial powers at home and imperial military forces abroad: the Missing and Murdered, the Black and Indigenous people terrorized by police brutality, the migrants displaced by Canadian corporations and extractive development in Central America? Let us choose to be peace workers, not for the false peace of the status-quo or empty calls for “unity” without justice, but for the peace of Christ: dismantling all forms of violence in favour of radical, border-crossing, empire-resisting inclusion and love, love in the bell hooksian sense, a political ethic and act of will.

Good Gardener God,
Awaken us to a world beyond war:
beyond its mechanisms of violence,
its systematic desecration of your children,
your poor and racialized, your living creation.
You call us into abundant life for all,
into a future free of colonial and capitalist domination.
You seat us at your banqueting table warmed by
a bonfire of burning flags and melted down weapons,
where the only banner is love.

Grant us courage as we strive for peace,
fortitude as we practice resurrection and resistance.
May we march, garden, feast, work, and play in assurance
and hope that you will, in the fullness of time,
restore all things and, in joy and co-liberation,
lead us into your peaceable kin-dom.

Amen.

Prayers & liturgies for St. Martin’s Day


Christian Peacemaker Teams: Litany of Resistance | Written by Jim Loney in 1991 during the first Gulf War, this litany serves as both prayer and collective commitment to resisting war and violence as a spiritual imperative.

For an End to Violence at the Hands of the State
by Kenji Kuramitsu, from A Booklet of Uncommon Prayer: Collects for the Black Lives Matter Movement & Beyond

Mother God,
who has longed to gather all her children
under her mighty wings,
you are our good Parent and Caregiver.

Rupture, O Giver of Truth,
the status quo of racialized violence that infects your land,
and teach us through your divine Word
to reject the false promises of state peace
in favour of the presence of the dangerous justice of Christ.

Amen.

Art for St. Martin’s Day


Songs for St. Martin’s Day


Further Reading & Resources


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