Reconsidering What is Sacred

Image: Jonathan Dyck

This reflection was given by pastor and theologian David Driedger as the opening remarks for an event titled Which Violence, Whose Safety? hosted by First Mennonite Church. The event was a non-partisan discussion of the political rhetoric around “violent crime” in the lead up to the recent Manitoba Provincial Election. Speakers included Bronwyn Dobchuck-Land, professor of criminal justice, and Levi Foy, the executive director of Sunshine House.

You can watch a full recording of the event here.

By: David Driedger

I consider it important to rehearse our deep tradition of liberation recounting the civil disobedience of the Hebrew slaves; the centrality of jubilee which runs through the Law, the Prophets and the Gospels proclaiming and legislating the forgiveness of debts, the restoration of traditional lands, and the release of captives.

I love the words of the prophets who tell the people that their worship is worthless and rejected by God if they refuse to address matters of suffering and injustice.

Just a couple of weeks ago I came across these words from Micah 3:5:

Thus says the Lord to the leaders who guide my people astray, Who proclaim ‘peace’ when they have something to eat. But declare war against those who put nothing in their mouth.

According to this prophet, a system of unjust inequality is a declaration of war against the poor.

It is important to remind people that Jesus said it was basically impossible for the rich to get into heaven. He even tells a story of one rich leader who was sent to hell for neglecting care when he had the power to make a change.

These are important and central traditions and I usually take some encouragement from them. Rather than find strength in this tradition in preparation for tonight, I started to feel its weight. I began to think of the nearly 3000 years of people naming injustice and abuse within the Jewish and Christian traditions.

It is easy to opt for cynicism, despair, or defensiveness in the face of these realities. It is easy to think there is nothing we can do.

But before I turn it over to our speakers, I want to begin with a very brief theological statement for those who came here from a church background. For those who didn’t, I want to make a public statement that may differ from a lot of what usually emerges from churches in public.

In the biblical tradition, idols are objects that have been extracted from nature and what is living and turned into dead symbols of power and control. When prophets rail against idols, it is because they believe idols steal life from the living.

I think it is fair to say we live in a society based on the constant and even accelerated extraction, accumulation, and concentration of power, in the form of wealth and capital. We have created our own object or currency of power and control that takes life away from the living.

It is hard to care collectively because everything is driven towards producing profit and return on investment. The problem is that many of the things that matter most about being human are not profitable in this system. This leaves people and organizations committed to this work of care constantly fighting for whatever scraps of funding they can get.

The prophets of the Northern Kingdom of Israel had an interesting way of speaking about such a society. When a nation was based on idols, that is, when a country is founded and operates by taking life from the living, the prophets said the king caused the people to sin.

It didn’t matter if one king, one political leader, was a little better or a little worse than another. The order of that society was unjust and so the people were complicit in it, but responsibility for this injustice was laid squarely at the feet of those with power.

I believe most of us truly want to do more to help each other. Many of us feel guilty because we feel like we’re not doing enough. But we live in a society that makes so many demands pulling us away from what matters most.

I think the church should become more comfortable understanding and naming our society as idolatrous. I don’t mean this in some conservative moral depravity sort of way, but rather because our society is willing to sacrifice so many in order to accumulate, concentrate, and protect its symbolic forms of wealth and power.

Whoever wins the election will make a real material difference in people’s lives. For this reason, the election is important, but we will also need to remind ourselves that our next leader will continue working within a system that is working against the values so many of us hold.

In light of this, the church must reconsider its idea of what is sacred. So much suffering in our society is cast off and framed as moral failing, or even criminal. Markers of class and race, which drugs one uses and where, how and where one expresses their sexuality all play a part in how our society allocates dignity and support through laws and wealth.

If our system actively works against certain forms of collective care, then we need to be willing to support people who have rejected or been rejected by our society. This is not to be romantic or naive about the struggles some are forced into. It is simply to say that perhaps places dismissed or discarded by society are also places we can learn about love and care and kinship and intimacy in ways that are not determined by dominant notions of collective care based on blood or the succession of wealth.

It can feel patronizing to hear Jesus’ words saying, ‘Blessed are the poor.’ Perhaps this statement only makes sense when we understand that places deemed poor in the eyes of the world might also be places that can escape some of the corrupting influences of our society from which something new might emerge. These might be sacred spaces.

The church by and large has also neglected and even condemned such places. We are in no place to lead but can perhaps learn and repent and follow and support rightly valuing what matters most.


David Driedger is Leading Minister of First Mennonite Church of Winnipeg. David lives in the West End of Winnipeg where he spends some of his free time supporting local activists and organizations as well as working as an independent scholar and writer.

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