Competing visions

Text: Mark 10:46-52 (Blind Bartimaeus)

Do people know the story of Amarjeet Sohi, the newly elected Member of Parliament for the riding of Edmonton-Mill Woods? At present, Sohi represents Mill Woods on Edmonton City Council. But on Monday evening, he was also elected by a 79-vote margin in the federal election. An official recount may overturn this vote, but for now, it looks like Sohi will be leaving City Council and going to Ottawa to represent us for the next four years.

This week in reflecting on today’s Gospel reading about the healing of blind Bartimaeus, I cast my mind about for a contemporary story of miraculous healing, and I landed on Amarjeet Sohi’s story.

I was first introduced to Sohi here at the church at a BBQ we held in 2014. Then I shook his hand for a second time this past August at the Meadows Recreation Centre where I was staffing a table for the church at a health and wellness fair.

After Sohi had stopped by our table, I turned to Linda Paddon and asked about Sohi’s background. I knew him as a popular City Councillor who seemed thoughtful and kind, but I didn’t know which part of India he was from and whether he was Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, or secular. Linda didn’t know his background either, so I searched the Internet and found a profile of Sohi published this past February in the Edmonton Journal and written by Paula Simons. What it revealed astonished me.

Sohi emigrated with his family to Edmonton from the Punjab region of India as a 17-year-old in 1981. His family was Sikh but non-religious, which is probably why he does not wear a turban.

Sohi learned English, graduated from high school, and got involved in Edmonton’s Punjabi literary and theatre scene. In 1988, he returned to India to study with a renowned playwright, and while there, he got involved in a campaign for land reform and human rights.

Police arrested Sohi as a dangerous Sikh terrorist even though he had always argued against extremism. He was tortured and jailed for two years, most of it in solitary confinement. Finally, he was released without being charged.

When I read the profile, I wondered how Sohi had managed to recover from this horrifying ordeal. Sohi credits several things. One was contact with his family after the first four months. Another was making friends with his guards. A third was winning the right to have access to books and newspapers through a hunger strike. Lastly, he also credited his involvement in social activism and electoral politics after he had returned to Edmonton.

In today’s Gospel story, Jesus gives sight to a blind man who cries out for mercy. This is the last story in Mark before Jesus and his friends enter Jerusalem. Three chapters earlier, Jesus had begun his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem with the healing of another blind man. Because of this framing, many commentators describe these healings as metaphors. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him. But many of us are blind to what Jesus is doing and how we could follow him.

Not Blind Bartimaeus. As soon as his sight is restored, he follows Jesus, presumably into Jerusalem and to the cross. There are many barriers that stand between us and responding to Jesus’ call. But the story implies that when we cry out for mercy, God will restore our sight and give us the courage to move forward with Jesus to confront political and religious power.

Sohi’s story reminds me of the terrible barriers many people face in finding a calling in life. He faced barriers of national borders, language, and the willingness of state authorities to commit unspeakable violence because of their fear and hatred.

His story gives him an authority to speak about issues of immigration and terrorism in a way that few others can match. I wish him well whether he is confirmed as our MP or continues to represent us at City Hall . . .

I don’t know about you, but I am glad that the three-month-long federal election campaign is now over. I especially disliked how religion and race featured in it. In particular, the Conservative and Bloc Quebecois parties spent a lot of energy opposing the right of Muslim women to wear face veils.

Many people called the debate about the Niqab a distraction. But I disagree. When political leaders deliberately target oppressed and racialized minorities as a ploy to gain electoral advantage, I become alarmed. At such a point, for me there are no other issues.

I admit that like most people, I harbour all kinds of racial stereotypes and prejudices. How could it be otherwise given that I have been brought up in a world shaped by 500 years of colonialism with its endless wars, genocides, and resulting inequality?

I try to combat my own racism through education, relationships with people from different backgrounds, and by joining campaigns to mend the wounds of colonialism. The work of the church in responding to the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one example of the latter.

But fighting my own racism becomes more difficult when political leaders deliberately try to amplify it for their own political ends.

In recent years, we have entered a new era of respectable racism and sexism. Think of Donald Trump leading in the polls for the Republican Candidate for President of the United States in next year’s election; of the election of Rob Forb as mayor of Toronto in 2010 and again as a City Councillor in 2014; and the focus on the Niqab in this year’s federal election.

Social peace is facilitated when our leaders appeal to the better angels of our natures. If instead they appeal to the devils that lurk within each of us, I fear that we may descend to the fear of refugees evident in parts of southern and eastern Europe. Even more alarming is the destruction of countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

Yesterday at the Edmonton Presbytery meeting, a Syrian woman who had emigrated here in 2006 gave a presentation on her home country. She painted a picture of Syria before 2011 as a country of great diversity. Sunni Muslim, Shia Muslim, Druze, Christian and secular nationalist communities lived together in relative peace and prosperity. Today, religious identity often seems to be the only thing that matters, and being of the “wrong” identity can mean exile or death.

I know it is a stretch to jump from the Canadian debate around Muslim face veils to the utter horror of Syria. But all over the world, religious and racial divisions are being exacerbated by deliberate attempts to inflame hatred.

And so, I breathe a sigh of relief that the issue of religious accommodation in Canada is behind us for now. I pray that the next leaders of the Conservative and Bloc Quebecois parties will abandon attempts to achieve electoral gain by appealing to our fears of those who are different.

As you probably know, there is a strong injunction against churches getting involved in politics. It is only at our peril that ministers, rabbis, imams, or priests weigh in on public policy and electoral politics. But when an issue like the Niqab surfaces, I feel compelled to violate this injunction.

The issue hits close to home in church. The prejudices towards recent immigrants and refugees often focus on their religiosity. And even though we in the church are clearly religious, many of us share some of that animosity.

Most United Churches are aging and shrinking in numbers. The exception are congregations made up of immigrants. Yesterday at the Presbytery meeting, there were leaders from Korean, Chinese, Ghanaian, and Zimbabwean congregations present. They are eager to work with the United Church, but there are a lot of differences between congregations of recent immigrants and ones like ours.

At the risk of stereotyping, I describe the gulf between congregations made up of new Canadians and established ones as a gulf between devotion and lack of spirit; between patriarchy and feminism; and between tradition and post-modernity.

With our competing visions, established and immigrant congregations have a lot to offer one other. Older congregations can help newcomers adjust to the liberating but corrosive effects of a technological and secular Canada. Immigrant congregations can help revive our spirits and renew our devotion to God.

Competing visions vie for our attention. In the face of ongoing immigration, should we be welcoming or suspicious? Should we try to preserve our current national characteristics, or should we participate in building a new world culture? Should we focus on what divides us in terms of language, style, and culture, or should we embrace new ways of being?

Canada’s election offered us competing visions on how to respond to immigrants who have religious customs that disturb many of us. Our challenge as a church in the intercultural reality of Mill Woods offers us competing visions of how we can move forward as followers of Jesus.

Today’s reading reminds us that Jesus can open our eyes to the beauty and challenge of the Way of the Cross. Blind Bartimaeus responds to his gift of new sight with joy and follows Jesus to his death and resurrection.

How should we respond? Should we remain blind? Should we remain afraid?

When we follow Jesus into Jerusalem, nothing remains the same. At the cross, we may lose our old customs, beliefs, and traditions. We may lose our very lives. But we are promised that we will gain our sight. We will find beauty and liberation. Indeed, we will rise to a new life that we cannot imagine, but which we are sure will be one of never-ending Love and joy.

Thanks be to God.


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