Friday, December 19, 2014

Confronting oppression begins at home

Recently I spoke at an interfaith luncheon themed “Confronting Oppression” on behalf of Elizabeth May, who was at a climate conference in Lima, Peru, trying to save all of Creation from our collective sins against Nature. I have always been fascinated by the variety of religions; my own family has Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish roots, but in the Green Party I have also enjoyed working with people who are Muslim, Buddhist, Wiccan, Quaker, pagan, Humanist, atheist, agnostic, or Unitarian. We each share different ideas on how to meet our common goals and benefit from the exchange. This diversity of the Green movement, and of Canadians, is not a weakness but a strength. Nature shows us that more diverse ecosystems are more resilient, and history shows communities comfortable with diversity can better weather adversity.
Confronting oppression is an important task, yet there are different approaches. The knee-jerk reaction is to defend those who are like us from those who seem different, the “other”, us vs. them. We see Christians or Jews persecuted by Islamist extremists in the Middle East, and retaliate by persecuting Muslims in our own country; then they see that oppression of Muslims and use it to justify their own violent actions. This kind of reflexive hostility can legitimize oppression. Confronting your own oppressor may also fail because we get little credibility or respect from them, which is the root of the problem. And we won’t achieve cultural reconciliation if we begin by branding the other as “barbaric”.
(Illustration by Pedro Molina)
So what to do? Well, while religious groups are often the victims of oppression, they are also often perpetrators. Virtually every major religion is being oppressed somewhere, but is also the oppressor somewhere else. That is where we have the opportunity to more effectively confront oppression, by looking to ourselves and seeing if there are ways our own group needs to internally confront its own oppressive actions and de-legitimize them.
We saw a wonderful example of this earlier in the fall when Barrie’s Muslim community gathered at City Hall to express support for peace and disavow the violent tactics of the Islamic State. Jewish Canadians can likewise speak up when Israel’s defensive actions cross boundaries. Buddhists can ask Burma not to persecute their Muslim minority, and Hindus can make the same request of Indian nationalists. In China, we see the oppression of Tibetan Buddhists, Muslim Uighurs, and Falun Dafa practitioners. While there is no Chinese state religion we can reference, certainly when China comes to Canada with bags of money to invest in the tar sands, we can say “before we deal, let’s talk about human rights”.
And Christians in Canada can reach out to churches in nations like Russia or Uganda which implicitly or explicitly persecute, even execute homosexuals. Or we can look at our own tragic treatment of our aboriginal population, whose genocidal* residential school legacy still impacts today, and missing or murdered women cry out for attention.
We have the most credibility with those of the same belief, hence that is where we can have the greatest effect in confronting oppression. Canada can show diverse peoples living and working in harmony, then speak with a strong voice to the many nations we came from and share that example. In this way, we can all work productively to create a more harmonious society free of violence and oppression.

Adapted from my remarks to the 10th annual interfaith meeting hosted by the Islamic Humanitarian Service and Interfaith Grand River and published as my Root issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Canada can show others how to live in harmony" (Also in the Innisfil Examiner)

* for some reason, the word "genocidal" was edited out of the Examiner's version

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

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