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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