LEAVE THE SHIT BEHIND: Conversation 1
by Nathan R. Elliott
We do not even know how to blush, to quote the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah.
Xenophobia, racism, and nativism are on the rise globally. Hard borders are being resurrected, and the insouciance with which we, as a species, are allowing those borders to be reconstructed is almost as terrifying as the borders themselves. Along with the new reverence for strong political power, perhaps we should not be surprised that there is renovated respect for old-fashioned misogyny, racism, and religious bigotry; after all, dystopias from The Stepford Wives to The Handmaid’s Tale to Bitch Planet have known that fascists need to put women—and queers and transvestites and blacks and religious minorities—in their place to maintain the strict political order so dear to their obsessive desire for clean lines of social demarcation.
In any number of nations, holy men armed with holy books aid and abet the rise of strong men, lending an aura of spiritual legitimacy to polices repressive to women, the marginalized, and the dispossessed. Evangelical white women, it would seem, provided crucial votes to a racist, misogynist, xenophobe. Churches—entire faith traditions—trail scandals behind them, legacies of colonial exploitation, justified racism, and institutionalized sexism. In Canada churches provided institutional support and theological cover for the residential school system.
The New Atheists—justly it would seem—blame the world’s problems on religion, which they argue is synonymous with superstition. They recommend a far more aggressive approach toward religion: time, they suggest, for our species to grow up, and put this imaginary friend in the heavens aside, as it were, with other childish things.
Yet a tradition exists, a tradition of religiously motivated political activism. Martin Luther King and Tommy Douglass were pastors. Malcolm X found a path in Islam that allowed him to question the mental shackles of western colonialism. Even now the rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez looks to her Catholic faith and cites the spiritual resistance of the Indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock. And the New Atheists supported the invasion of Iraq, while the Presbyterian minister Chris Hedges found the moral courage to oppose it.
More than ever, the question of religion is a crucial one for our times. The journalist Sarah Smarsh suggests that the political left is finding religion again in the United States. Influenced by the work of Svetlana Alexievich, I want to hear the voices of people whose faith leads them to intervene in this world, rather than waiting for the world to come.
I claim no answers, offering only questions, carrying a desire to listen.
As the priest shows me into the conference room, the first thing that I notice is the spectacular view of the cathedral. Along with that spectacular view you can also see the extensive scaffolding that extends over much of the church. I ask the priest how long the renovations have been going on. “Oh, about a year, or so,” comes the answer, along with some details about what is being done to the century-and-a-half-year-old masonry. I find a seat looking out at the cathedral, sitting in the morning sun, and drink from the cup of coffee with two creams he has given me.
The priest wants to know who I am—before we get too much into who he is—and this is all too understandable, although a bit raw. I am any number of things, and being the kind of priest he is, many of these things will emerge as he proceeds to interview me as much as I interview him: I am a disgruntled guy out of a job; an American fed up with his own country; I am divorced; I am remarried to a beautiful Newfoundland poet; I was raised in Baptist and Fundamentalist churches in the rural American west; I am an agnostic who finds comfort in the pews of that urban Anglican cathedral behind us for reasons I cannot quite articulate. I have a beautiful son, and when he was born during a gorgeous Newfoundland October almost seven years ago—emerging into existence with a hint of that island autumn bog-red in his already full head of hair—I found myself reopening spiritual questions that I had thought long since settled: reopening them the way you might crack open a wound long since scarred.
The implicit question I want answered, “Why should a progressive give Christianity—or religion—the time of day? Why should anyone, of any political persuasion? After the sex abuse scandals of the twentieth century, after the colonial exploitation, after justifying slavery, after manipulating, exploiting, and oppressing women, for hundreds, thousands of years.”
“Why?” I feel everyone should be asking this question.
Every time I walk through the doors of a church, I cannot help but wonder what it is that I am complicit in.
“I lean to the left because the Gospel does,” the priest says gently, firmly.
Our conversation begins.
He left the Catholic Church at the age of seventeen, a young French Canadian of Montréal, despite having been a devout young man, despite no scars from his young years as a devout Catholic. He had nothing against that Catholic Church of the 60s and 70s. It simply wasn’t living up to its own rhetoric; the faithful of Montréal were leaving en masse and he left aussi.
Eventually, through the example of a distant relative who came to visit Montréal, he came back to the faith in intentional communal Mennonite communities in the Midwest, which saved him from the drugs he employed to distance himself from his own repressed orientation.
He got married: he didn’t want to be gay, he wanted to be in the closet, that was a part of his salvation. Or so he thought. He became interested in restorative justice work, bringing victims and criminal perpetrators into conversation with the goal of social reconstruction and reconciliation. He had two children, a son and a daughter, two children that would eventually give him two beautiful grandchildren.
But inexorably a divorce, as the priest finally came to terms with the orientation he could never quite outrace.
Finding himself back in Montréal—and still working as a Mennonite chaplain—a new partner invited him to attend the Anglican church, the cathedral, with him, rather than attending the Mennonite church where the now divorced father was still a chaplain. Despite being the church of the “conqueror,” a place he could never imagine entering as a young man—as he only half-seriously jokes, the cathedral that represented Quebec’s traumatic year of 1760, and all that that means to French Canadians—he went to the Anglophone cathedral in the heart of Montréal.
And so, the process began. In his sixties, he would become an ordained Anglican priest, one who feels still uncomfortable wearing the priest’s collar, one more contradiction in a life of contradictions.
“I don’t understand,” he laughs, late in the interview, “how my son can be an atheist. God is in him.” It’s not a judgmental statement, coming from this man with kind eyes. The priest just seems genuinely puzzled about life’s oddities, including his son who has inherited most of his political priorities, but can’t quite find it in himself to believe in God.
“What is the thing you would tell that young seventeen-year-old self? The one that left the Catholic Church, here in Montréal?” I ask, toward the end of our morning’s conversation.
This question would appear to be the only that really throws him during the entire 80 minutes that we are together. A long pause, and then the priest chokes up, trying to answer.
He tells me he wishes he could save that young man some of the years of pain in front of him. He knows, now, that it was going to get really rough around the age of eighteen or nineteen. Holding back tears: “I wish, I wish I could take that seventeen, eighteen-year old boy in my arms, and say, it’s okay. You’re okay. You’re loved.”
The priest goes on to tell me about last year’s Pride Mass at which he gave the homily, the purpose of the rainbow banners that decorated the church that particular year: they are there to tell those that don’t usually darken the doors of a church, “yes, you’ve been told you’re broken, but you’re not. You are loved.”
“We put ads in the Fugues magazine,” he tells me, a generous laugh that booms into the mic I’m using to record the conversation. “A church putting ads in the Fugues magazine!” he repeats, as if he can’t quite believe it himself.
He laughs, “Fortunately, not next to the ads for the saunas.”
After he preached the homily at the Pride Mass, he tells me, he wasn’t quite ready to die. No, not yet.
But he did feel that he had quite possibly accomplished what he been sent to this earth to do.
“[T]he sense of the gospel is that it is meant to change the world. Not to save souls. . . . To redeem the world by bringing it into more what God would hope for it.”
There are any number of things the priest says through the course of the morning, but this one stands in strong contrast to the emphasis of my childhood, where we focused on saving souls for the afterlife. The fate of the eternal soul—once you accept that idea of an eternal soul—becomes an inexorably pressing one. Far better to save a soul for eternity, went the logic, then save a temporary body on this earth. How many times was I told, implicitly and explicitly, that what happened on this earth was inconsequential to eternity?
It was the kind of logic that writers and activists like Malcolm X would hold Christianity accountable for: the deliberate and continuing delay of justice. For that matter, it was the kind of logic that would, in a thousand cuts, chip away at my ability to attend a church in good conscience. If the Church could not—or would not—work to make this world a better place, what good was it? If the Church was, in fact, working to preserve homophobia, endorse racism, protect sexual abusers, confine women to oppressive narrow roles, and provide cover for economic exploitation, then it should be abandoned, much as Montréal had abandoned the Catholic Church during the Quiet Revolution of the 60s and 70s. A god who can be bothered to create a world, but can’t be bothered to care for the pain that is in it, is a divine contradiction that would lead anyone to atheism.
But a God working actively in the world to save the world? To bring food to the hungry, comfort to the imprisoned, aid to the sick? A Church working to engage against racial injustice and the environmental ravages of runaway consumer capitalism?
When, the priest wants to know, did some churches get so confused about the fact that had always been the mission of the Church on this earth?
The priest tells me the story of Jesus healing the centurion’s slave. Or retells it because he knows that, as a Baptist—his booming laugh, again—I must already know it. And he’s right. I do know the story a thousand times over, having heard it before I learned to read at a precocious age, but I’ve never heard it quite this way.
The slave was probably the centurion’s lover, after all, the priest points out. That would have been known; that’s how the Roman army worked back then. And thus Jesus would have known. What centurion would go find this healer to heal his slave, unless that slave meant something more to him than just a common house servant?
But Jesus didn’t bat an eyelash, the priest tells me. He healed the centurion’s lover. His faith is one that will be a model, Christ told us.
“The gospel has so much power of liberation,” the priest tells me, citing Tommy Douglas and Martin Luther King.
I can’t help but push back.
What about colonialism? Racism? Sexism? The way that Christian missionaries smoothed the way, paved the path for colonialism? What about southern plantation owners who used the Bible to justify an especially egregious form of human exploitation? The priest himself points out the power dynamics in the centurion/slave story.
“Leave the shit behind,” he laughs the booming laugh.
It’s simple, perhaps—just leave the bad stuff out—but perhaps it suggests a twofold action: being critical of what is there before you, having the courage to leave it behind, while pushing for the transcendent, the utopian, the understanding of sublimity that might be buried in any number of religious traditions.
On the days that I am more sympathetic to faith traditions, I wonder if religion allows us to hold on to something central to human existence, our human civilization’s best attempts to capture the transcendent. I suggest as much. I explain the work of Octavia Butler, who thought that religion will be key in the troubled times to come. The priest agrees. Faith allows us to “hop[e] for something better. We have that capacity. To dream dreams, dreams of something better.”
“Maybe that’s what religion gives us.” I interject. “It points us toward the future. A spiritual underpinning to go forward in time.” Perhaps we need this sense of something better, of a future we can look forward to: the promised land that Martin Luther King claimed he saw from the mountain top—even if he never got there himself—one stormy night in Memphis, the night before he was shot.
The priest hums-sings a few lines of a hymn, “I see a new world dawning.”
“That’s the heart of the gospel, for me,” he smiles.
I ask him, Was a Martin Luther King even possible without the centuries of Anabaptist and Baptist traditions behind him?
The priest doesn’t seem to think so.
I want to agree. Instead I struggle, very much, with believing that the Church has been a force for good on the world-historical stage.
This French Canadian ex-Catholic is still a Mennonite chaplain at least as much as he is an Anglican priest. He won’t baptize infants, coming from that strong Anabaptist tradition: a child needs to make his own decisions about these things. He gives church a miss on Remembrance Day, waiting for the grenadiers to clear out after the morning French Mass, as he still holds strong to his pacifist ideals. When he reads the Gospel reading of a given Sunday he carries the book level, rather than above his head: the bibliolatry of certain strains of Christianity and the inflexible concepts of divine inspiration that inevitably accompany it are not for him.
He maintains a critical stance. He lives in the Church, his relationship to his God constantly evolving, even as he continues to try to push the Church forward.
He leaves—as much he possibly can—the shit behind.
I don’t have this man’s faith, nor do I have much confidence that I ever will.
I’m not sure I can do this the same way he does.
But when he asks me to pray with him before I leave, I agree.
This is the first in a series of articles about faith, progressive politics, and voices of faith from unusual perspectives. Please message Nathan on Twitter at @writeronabike if you think you know of a person, a church, a mosque, a synagogue, a faith community of any creed that might be of interest.
Nathan R. Elliott grew up in Idaho, was educated in Chicagoland, worked as a professor in Georgia and Newfoundland, and now writes and lives in Montréal. He has published peer-reviewed research on the intersections of nineteenth-century British Literature and nineteenth-century science; he has published fiction and creative nonfiction in a variety of venues. He is the recipient of the 2016 NL Arts Council’s Lawrence Jackson Writers’ Award.
Photo by Nathan R. Elliott