Discover more from Aambe: where books collide
Lost friendships and confronting wrongdoing
Confronting people is hard. If I confronted every bit of racism I encountered in my life I would be exhausted and not have any friends. Nobody wants to be friends with somebody who is always pointing out where they could do better. But sometimes you have to, and when somebody confronts you that means that they trust you, they value your friendship enough to make the effort and take the risk. I try to remember that when I am confronted, because I don’t like it anymore than anyone else does.
This book I am writing is connected to a lost friendship. A few years ago a friend who was also a pastor gave a sermon about identity. He started talking about identity politics and I’ll stop myself right there because if a white man is going to preach on identity politics he should just not. No. It’s a difficult topic to get right and if you are a white male you will probably do more harm than good and so while I braced myself I was not ready for what came next. There was a remark about Billie Jean King who, at that time, had said that trans athletes should not compete in their gender because it wasn’t fair. He noted that Billie Jean King was herself an activist for gay rights and if the mob could come for her they could come for anyone and identity politics is out of control amirite?
Then everyone laughed.
The rest of the message was about how we are all the same in Jesus and if you’re a Christian that’s your identity now and honestly by the time the sermon was over I was vibrating with rage. I’ve never actually vibrated before, thought it was a figure of speech, but there I was vibrating. My husband, who had come separately from me because volunteering, told me to go home. Go straight home. Do not talk to anyone. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200
I spent the afternoon posting on Facebook about trans athletes and how Billie Jean King had gotten it wrong. I contacted a couple of friends and gave them a link to the sermon and asked them if I was out of my mind, because it may surprise you but I can be hyper-critical and I know this so I was open to hearing that it wasn’t that bad and I misunderstood. Neither of them felt that way. One friend helped me process my feelings, and the other helped me process my understanding of the texts being used, helped me to see them differently than how they had been presented.
I took that energy and wrote an article about identity that Sojourner’s Magazine published in April 2020. An editor saw the article and sent me a message on Twitter asking if I had thought about writing a book. Well. Gosh. I’m thinking about it now. I sent her message to a couple of other friends asking if it was legitimate and they told me that I should jump on it and here we are.
After a few weeks I returned to church and after a few more I approached my friend and asked if we could meet for coffee. I explained what I had heard, and how I reacted, and how these ideas about erasing identity are harmful and not necessarily supported by the text. He responded with how we need to listen to people and see them as individuals rather than whatever identity labels society puts on them and to be honest I don’t even remember much more because it was clear that I hadn’t been heard and that the friendship was over.
That happens sometimes. Friendships come to an end.
The process of writing this book has been very helpful in articulating why that sermon upset me so much. For years I’ve said that Christians need to get at the root of why they believe what they do. Why they see themselves as persecuted when they are the ones in authority. How a text with such liberatory potential became a tool of conformity. It turns out that a lot of Christians and others who are not religious at all or anymore are writing books about this and thinking it through, and next year (September 2022) my book will become one of them.
But it isn’t just Christians. I grew up in the church and so that’s my context, but so did Canada. So did America. People who wouldn’t think of themselves as Christian still carry the ideas and exceptionalism of being if not God’s Chosen then certainly the leaders of the Free World with all the burdens that entails. Picking up these threads and following them back through dozens of books has been fascinating and instructive. When my book arrives in your hands I hope you take the time to go through the bibliography and acknowledgments to see who impacted and shaped my thinking.
What has been most instructive in terms of “what’s next” have been the writings of Alexis Shotwell and Aurora Levins Morales. The book is titled “Becoming Kin: Unforgetting our Past and Reimagining our Future.” Unforgetting the past is the easy part. There’s loads of history being written by Indigenous people and those who seek to understand better, but Reimagining the Future is harder. Becoming Kin harder still. I don’t know what comes next, and it’s hard to write about possibility when at times there seems like endless opportunities and at others it just seems so bleak. But becoming kin. Oof. Becoming kin with who and can I just say no to some.
But that’s not how kinship works is it. We’re born into families, into clans, into cities and countries and all of those things are relationships that we can like or not, we can want to be related to them or they can be unwanted but they are still kin, still relationships and so how do we become kin? That’s hard.
Shotwell and Morales come at it from different ways. Shotwell writes about unwanted kin and the relationships we inherit from a social perspective. If identity is about who claims you, then who claims her as a white woman? Who claims me as a Christian? What are they doing in her name, in mine? Just saying that I’m not like them or they are Bad Christians or Bad White People .. well I’ve argued for years that is inadequate and just shirks responsibility. And besides, now you’re the arbiter of who is a real Christian? Yeah? I thought being like God was the Original Sin or something like that.
Morales writes about biological or genealogical kin and how we gravitate towards lineages of oppression and away from those relatives who enacted or participated in oppression. We want to be descended from those who experienced harm, not those who enacted it. But in disconnecting ourselves from those relatives we miss opportunities for change and growth and we reduce them to a single story. People are complicated. States and organizations may be oppressive and colonial but the people themselves are complicated. My maternal grandparents did not actively take land from the Michi Saagig people who originally lived in what is now the Niagara Region, but they did benefit from that theft and although they fled their own homes in the Ukraine and then Germany, they had somewhere to flee *to* and a country that provided some assistance as well as safety. There is nowhere for my Indigenous relatives to flee to, no country that provides them with safety. So I hold both of these lineages in my hands, the oppressed and the oppressor. They are my kin. As Morales also says, do I line up all my grandmothers, look them in the eye and tell them that only Lula and Sophie matter?
Becoming Kin. Claiming unwanted relatives.
I think about that lost friendship a lot lately and I think about my responsibility to it. In a larger sense this book is an act of taking responsibility for those who claim me, the at times unwanted Christian kin who persist in seeing themselves as persecuted. But that other responsibility remains as well and I’m thinking about it. Have I exhausted my responsibility to that friend? Because friendships end, and that’s ok. I don’t know. Still thinking that through.