Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Justice, Interfaith, and Bathrooms

by Allyson Carr

It’s funny how something as ordinary as the need to use the washroom can spark a profound moment of solidarity.

This past week, I spoke at a conference in Ottawa and attended a community forum as part of our Justice and Faith project. Both of these events featured a performance of Just Faith?, the one-act play that was developed out of the research for that project. Since the play was in many ways a product of our research, it was intended for a Christian audience (the community upon which the research was based). And yet, the way that MT Space (the theatre company we engaged to write and perform the script) works draws on their own life experience, and so there were multifaith elements present throughout the play. The actors’ lives woven into the scenes set it in an interfaith context, even as a play that focuses on Christians struggling to understand Scripture’s call to pursue social justice.

This time around, MT Space introduced a new scene, replacing one that had originally been written by an actor who could not attend the Ottawa performance. In the new scene, a woman recounts the story of her mother and her grandmother opening up their doors to an unexpected swarm of strangers who appeared one day, walking through their small home village in India. The strangers were from all over the world—different ages, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds — but it turns out that in that particular moment these hundreds of people were all united in their need for one thing: a bathroom. While there was only one toilet in the home, the women told us how her mother and grandmother welcomed these hundreds of strangers into their house, fed them what they could, and allowed them to rest for a bit from their travels. She recounted how there were people covering every possible surface in the home and yard, exhausted, but content—now that they had been able to get to that bathroom.

In the new scene, a woman recounts the story of her mother and her grandmother opening up their doors to an unexpected swarm of strangers who appeared one day, walking through their small home village in India.

As the strangers left again a few hours later, they profusely thanked the mother and grandmother, explaining that they were on a walk marking the 75th anniversary of the Salt March—the 1930 protest against British rule led by Gandhi. The actor closed her scene by asking, “I wonder what the world would be like if we all just…opened our doors to each other?” Watching that scene and thinking it over, I wondered too.

For some time now, the CPRSE has been part of a group called the Canadian Interfaith Conversation. The Conversation meets around four times a year, bringing representatives of a number of faiths together to talk about issues facing Canadian society. One of the things we do each time we get together is discuss the various projects we are all working on—many of which, it turns out, have to do with justice. And one of the things that I have enjoyed most is seeing just how much common ground there is among the various faiths present: not so much in what the different faiths believe as in what social issues are important to them, and how they want to act in the public sphere.

At the last meeting, for instance, we heard about a movement that is fasting in order to bring attention to the problem of climate change, and all the damage it is wreaking. We heard about a need to address poverty and homelessness here in Toronto and across Canada. We listened as another member spoke of ways to address the forces that are often root causes of radicalizing youth. We spoke about immigration issues, and policy issues, and working to prevent violence. We heard about groups that are working to promote love and tolerance and respect and peace. We all sat around the same table, shared some food, and, whether we agreed with all of the specifics of what any other person was saying—because of course there were areas where we did not all agree—we listened to what each other had to say.

Different groups host the meetings on a rotating schedule, but as I thought these meetings over after having watched that play, I reflected how these kinds of meetings can only happen in places where we have “opened our doors” to each other. We are all, in one sense, the “strangers” who appear at each others’ doors, having pressing basic needs—even those as simple as needing to use the washroom. How do we respond to each other? How do we treat the sudden stranger in our midst? How are we treated when we are suddenly the strangers? Would you harbour me? Would I harbour you?

*     *     *

I thought about wrapping up my post on those questions—which are good questions, that already had me thinking quite a bit. But there was one other question raised by this play that has stuck with me, and which is worth raising here. When we spoke at the conference and had the play performed there, it was for an audience that was not its originally intended one. Most of the people at the conference were either academics or community activists, and many of them came from a secular background. We had brought the play to the conference to showcase it as a way that theatre can be used to engage a community, but we were unsure how the play itself, speaking so specifically about Christian faith, would be received.

It was received very well, but it also hit a nerve—as theatre and stories often have the power to do. The first question raised in our discussion period was also the most difficult one: this play is all about justice, and mobilizing Christians for justice, which sounds great, but how can you talk about that when your community continues to exclude and harm my community? The woman who spoke had a rainbow pin stuck to her bag, and the room, I could tell, could feel the emotion, and the justice, behind her question. Suddenly, the presentation became a lot less academic and a lot more personal: strangers, face to face, trying to do what is right and to meet each other, but unsure whether it’s safe to go through the open door that could open—or shut—either way.

Suddenly, the presentation became a lot less academic and a lot more personal...

There is no pat answer to the woman’s question. We could (and did) talk about how there are groups within the Church who work to respond to her question and to right past and present wrongs. But what it all came down to was a question of people working to embody justice in their lives and their faith—and the acknowledgement that people will understand what justice means in different ways, as people understand faith in different ways. Just as when we sit around the table in the Interfaith Conversation, we don’t always agree on everything. Even when we do, it may be for different reasons. Regardless of that (sometimes even because of that) we need to work to reach more common ground, and (truly) common good, or we (where “we” can mean any number of different groups) will continue to harm each other. There is already far too much harm that has been done. We need healing. But before we can begin to heal the exclusions and the harm we have all felt and perpetrated in different ways, we have to be willing to open our doors.

A final note: all through the work of writing this post, I have been thinking as well of the Truth and Reconciliation process that is now officially wrapping up. Apologies have been spoken and doors opened. But, as has been pointed out already by many people, action needs to follow apology in order for true healing and justice to unfold. We can’t act well without first listening to each others’ stories: our joys and our pain, our ignorance and understanding, our hurt and our hope. But to craft justice together, to live well with each other, we have to be able to learn how to act well, together, bridging all the different communities—religious, ethnic, cultural, and identity—that comprise our whole society.

Allyson Carr is the Associate Director of the Centre for Philosophy Religion and Social Ethics at the Institute for Christian Studies.


  1. Thanks for the post Allyson. One of the implicit themes in your reflection, one that you do not yourself name is the theme of friendship. Opening doors might be reexpressed as acting toward others as if they were friends. If we thought about it in this way we might see both a root of the good that can result and the vulnerability that is required and seems too much for so many people. How does one treat the full on stranger as if he or she were a friend? Of course some acts involve relatively less friendliness and others more; there is a broad continuum, but I would say that opening doors is already the act of a friend, an act of friendship. And the good that can and often does transpire involves the intensification of such acts as the encounter deepens. Does that seem like a way of thinking about the phenomena you are helping us think about in this post?

  2. Thanks, Bob. Your question of whether "opening doors" could be re-expressed as acting toward others as if they were friends is a good one, and I needed a full day to reflect on it. In fact, I needed a full day and apparently more characters than blogger allows for a response, so I'll have to post my comment in two parts! (Sorry!) Here's part one:

    There was something in your question that I wanted to agree with, and something else that held me back. My immediate response was assent—yes, of course, one opens one's doors to one's friends, that's a good way to describe this! But then I realized that I, personally, do not open my door to my friends; my friends typically don't see my closed door as a barrier, and don't bother to knock, let alone wait for me to open the door. They just come in.

    I mean that literally; my friends have all been instructed to just come in, and most of them do so. My dog knows they are welcome and greets them, tail wagging, and if I happen to be busy at the moment, they are likely to just pour themselves some tea, pull up a chair, and make themselves at home. I don't open that door for them because, as my friends, they are always already welcome, and empowered, to open it for themselves.

    This led me to reflect on the intimacy of friendship, and how much knowledge of each other is key to the relationship. Though of course we all make mistakes, true friends (not just buddies that you hang out with) understand and weigh each others' needs well, know each others' history to a fair degree, feel in their gut that it is safe to be vulnerable around each other (because it *is* safe to be vulnerable around each other), and can be depended on when hard times come. A friend both knows you and loves you—not because of the friendship, but as its very basis. A true friend is also an ally in public as well as someone who privately speaks the truth to you, as they understand it, even if they think you are in the wrong. Moreover they do so (privately) precisely because they care about you and don't want you to come to harm. A friend wants the best for you, and (because they know you well) probably has a pretty decent idea of what that “best” might look like. A friend would also, however, respect your autonomy if you happened to disagree with their picture of what was “best.”

    On the one hand, then, understanding the stranger as friend demands this high level of responsibility, emotional intimacy, and ethical behaviour of me, which could be a good thing. If I understand the stranger as friend, I am bound to act for their good, to care for them, protect them, harbour them, and speak out for them. I must be their public ally, and, to the best of my ability, their private truth-speaker. But it was there that my hesitation lay. I do not know the stranger, and so—aside from any questions of my safety or vulnerability—I cannot be that truth-speaker to them. As a stranger, I don't know their history, their desires, their story. I can't really weigh their needs. I may want what is best for them, but without the deep knowledge of their lives that friendship entails, how could I really judge what that might be enough to offer my understanding of it to them? Were I to treat the stranger as friend, I would be laying a claim on them much more intimate than they may be comfortable with. Even if I don't expect them to treat me as a friend in return, (and friendship is by nature a reciprocal relationship), in order for them to receive my offer of acting as a friend, I am asking them to trust me at a very deep level. [Continued in a moment...]

  3. [Part two:] If, on the other hand, I think in terms of *hospitality* rather than friendship, the stakes I am offering the stranger are much lower, while still requiring a high level of responsibility and ethical behaviour on my part. Hospitality codes the stranger as Welcome Guest, no longer “stranger.” It invites them in, offers them food, rest, access to the necessities of life, and a sense of safety. It binds me to treat the former-stranger-now-welcome-guest in “hospitable” ways, while all that is laid on them is the injunction to not harm those who have welcomed them in. Moreover (and perhaps just as importantly) hospitality given and received has often traditionally included the activity of sharing stories and news. There are certain social understandings that Welcome Guests cannot be *asked* to make themselves vulnerable by sharing their actual history—though they may of course choose to do so on their own. But those same social understandings—which appear to stretch across many different cultures and times—do allow for host and Welcome Guest to entertain each other, whether with stories, puzzles, riddles, songs, news from afar, or simple conversation. Through engaging in such mutual entertainment, host(s) and Welcome Guest(s) can learn a lot about each other, and about the various backgrounds they come from. The connections they forge can (with the understanding that “can” is not “must”) then form the basis for deeper connections later.

    The more I thought about this, the more I leaned toward conceptualizing “opening doors” as hospitality rather than friendship. But even hospitality needs to be complicated a bit as a concept; if I insist on always playing host, I stay safely within my own doors and limit my own vulnerability, perhaps at others' expense. Furthermore, what if the very land on which my now-open door stands is in question? What if the story the former-stranger-now-welcome-guest tells is of their ancestors' life on this very spot, marking me as host of this home, perhaps, but still Stranger in this land? Can I accept this sudden potential reversal, see myself as the stranger hoping for hospitality? What do I do when I hear stories of harm from which I may have benefited (even unwittingly), or harm in which my community was complicit, as the woman at the conference raised? These are not idle questions today.

    I'm feeling my way through this conceptually, (so I apologize for the length of my response) but I think what I am calling for here could be called something like double hospitality, where everyone is both potential host and potential stranger. It would be a kind of hospitality where the door could swing open, or shut, from either side, and where both sides of the door are understood to have a wealth of resources they could make available to the stranger, as well as a need for hospitality that the other side could meet.

    I think that's closer to what I'm getting at. This kind of “double hospitality” could be a good place to start. Relationships can form from it; friendships and partnerships and even simple acquaintances that build bridges and networks. Not everyone can be friends, but what would society look like if we were all willing to act, at one and the same time, as both host and stranger in need?

  4. I get what you are saying. To treat the stanger as if he or she is not a stranger seems wrong in an obscur way. I would say the orienting dynamic I was wondering about is extreme rather than wrong. I am of course thinking of an orienting ethos rather than a concrete judgment. It is in the mode of spiritual exercise that I suggested the orientation to the other as if she were a friend. It is an exercise in the Franciscan family of exercises. As St. Francis would have it: Treat everyone and thing as if a member of your family, as a brother or a sister. And that includes the four inanimate material elements, not just the angelic stars, or the fellow humans, animals and plants of one's experience. Hospitality is more realistic, but I wonder if hospitality is sustainable without the extravagence of a Franciscan orientation? I guess in my own experience, there is something effectively pedagogic about St. Francis' Canticle and its extravagent hyperboles at the level of depth dynamic. I find his "as if" which I've already broadened to friendship in general rather than the mode of friendship between siblings a necessary extravagence in order not to just settle for less, until less becomes really nothing at all or practically so.

    1. I like your characterization of the "extravagance of a Franciscan orientation" and how it could be what sustains hospitality. There is something to that that grounds the kind of understanding of hospitality I am trying to think through, so... yes. Thank you!