Lost Unto This World

Lost Unto This World

December 7th, 2014           Rev. Fiona Heath

In 1989 I was at Queen’s University doing a Bachelor’s of Education. I was in the elementary division, in a class of about 30 women and 3 men. In December we were finishing up classes and working on essays.

On the 6th of December, 1989 no one walked into my class and said “I hate feminists”. No one accused us of taking away jobs from men. No one walked in and took aim at the women. This was not true at the Engineering Department of Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal.

 

On that day 25 years ago 14 women were killed, with another 14 people injured. At that time, murder by mass gunfire was still relatively uncommon – even in the United States – especially here in Canada. It is no longer. And so it is hard to remember just how horrifying it was at the time.

It was an absolute shock to think that a young disturbed man would focus his hatred on a group of people and feel that murder was the answer. Women my age, doing exactly what I was doing. And it saddens me to realize that I no longer feel that shock when people are killed for no reason other than their gender, their religion, their race.

People are adaptive, we can get used to anything. Even, and often especially, things we should never get used to. How did it happen that death by stereotype has become normal? Ottawa. Ferguson, Missouri. New York City. Pakistan.

Every day it seems someone is shot for being black, for being a woman, for being the symbol of someone else’s fear and  paranoia. We live in a society of increasing extremes of wealth. Canada was once a largely middle class society, fueled by immigrants coming here for a better life than they could imagine at home. Many succeeded and found a good life here in the Mississauga suburbs.

Today the gap between rich and poor continues to increase, and those in the middle class are more and more stretched. Gaps in power and wealth are becoming deep impassable gorges. And violence becomes normal is a society of extremes, as options for communication, for connection narrow. We can’t hear one another across the gap of privilege. The Montreal Massacre was carried out by a young man who felt powerless.

In his despair and delusion he decided feminists were to blame, and that he – somehow – had the right to kill them. This is a tragedy. Fourteen women lost their lives to a delusion. A sense of powerlessness is a dangerous thing. It can make people desperate, fearful, unpredictable. And people at the other end of the spectrum, with power based on fame, talent, wealth, can also be dangerous.

The recent scandal at the CBC can attest to that. However sleazy the actions of the individual, There was a system behind him that allowed it. Women were told that was just the way he was, and to deal with it.

As if sexual harassment in a professional office was a reasonable trade off for excellent interviewing skills. This man had power and used it to his advantage. And the system let it happen.

Power accrues to people with skills that we value. But anyone with power needs to have checks and balances placed on them. We need doctors to care for us and so we as a society offer them money, status and respect. That is okay by me. Should I require surgery, I want someone who knows what they are doing.

But I also want nurses who can hand them the correct instruments. I want a doctors association that can hold them accountable for mistakes. I want the doctors to remember they are in service to the higher good. I want checks and balances to keep them both highly skilled and humble.

Anyone with power in our society needs to have checks and balances. And those who are powerless need to be supported and empowered. Because those extremes of powerlessness and powerful are dangerous for all of us. At both ends of the spectrum people feel free to act out without regard for others.

We need to improve social and cultural systems which encourage isolation in pursuit of independence. It is too easy for the mentally ill to fall through the cracks into the vice-grip of delusion.

It is too easy for those with power to abuse it.

Treating people as objects to be played with, is not okay.

Targeting people because of gender, religion or race is not okay.

Violence is never an answer.

And in our imperfect world, when violence happens,

it is so hard to know what to do.

Hard to know how to respond in a constructive way.

As the saying goes,

“Sometimes I would like to ask God why He allows poverty, suffering, and injustice when He could do something about it.

But I’m afraid He would ask me the same question.”

The hard truth is that we need to look inside ourselves.

We need to change our hearts.

We need to change our minds.

We need to look clearly and carefully at the concept of power.

As Unitarian Universalists we are focused on this world,

on the here and now.

Part of our work is to see the world as it is, to see clearly.

We can consider the concept of power.

Traditional power is modelled as inaccessible, all-knowing, and leader driven.

The brave man who stands alone against the scourge.

The wise wizard with all the answers.

The CEO who saves companies with restructuring.

But power over disenfranchises millions, if not billions, of people.

This old model leads to concentration of wealth and influence in the hands of the few.

Power is seen as a small box of cookies and there isn’t enough to go round.

It is something to be hoarded.

Leadership developer Gloria Feldt suggests that we understand power as power to:  The power to accomplish something for others.

To be in service to others, to the larger whole.

 (“In the wake of violence”, Lex Schroeder from womentakethelead.com)

This new sense of power suggests we can all participate,

We can all help others in ways large and small.

This sense of power says we all contribute. This is a relational model, one that reminds us we are part of the interdependent web.

The “power to” serve is infinite, accessible.

Like sunlight it is renewing and regenerative.

The “power to” act lies within each us.

This does not mean we each have the answer,

or that we can single-handedly fix the problems of the world.

Although I am quite sure I could do better than an American grand jury.

What it means is that we have to listen to ourselves,

To the quiet voice within.

The voice that says death by stereotype is not normal.

It is not okay.

And then we need to speak up.

We need to find our voices.

In response to these violent acts which shatter our social trust over and over again, what if we used our power to speak to stand for a different way of being?

Can we speak our hopes for social systems that meaningfully empower more people? Can we speak for a society that is collaborative, that assumes all have value and gifts to share?

A society not based on opposition,

but on common ground.

We can use our voices in service of the beloved community we aspire to as Unitarian Universalists.

We must work together to shape healthier power systems.

Our chalice does not burn for ourselves alone.

For us to huddle around its warmth while others suffer in the cold

is a betrayal of our principles.

We must work together to increase the flame, to widen the circle of warmth and light.

Pause

In March of 1990 I went to visit a friend in Ottawa.

We decided to explore Parliament Hill.

We wandered into the Centre Block, intending to check out the House of Commons. Did I mention I was a very geeky twenty something?

Inside the cool marble halls there was quite a bit of activity.

It was around International Women’s Day and they were holding an event.

We were invited to join and decided we had nothing better to do.

As we walked into the room I was handed a red piece of paper with a name on it.

In light of what had happened on December 6th, the organizers decided to simply have a memorial for all women who died by violence in 1989.

After some introductions, there was a roll call.

The name of every woman killed in the past year was called out.

If you had the red card with the name being spoken, you stood.

Towards the end, the names of the Montreal Massacre women were called out.

I stood up when they called Maryse Leclair.

I hadn’t remembered her name.

I could name her killer,

but not those who had died.

I thought about Maryse for a long time that day.

We were the same age.

We were both white middle class women.

But I had chosen teaching,

a traditional women’s choice.

She had been bold, and chosen engineering.

She died for that choice.

For being in school that day.

For being a woman.

There was little I could do for her.

I knew even then that I was not an activist.

I identified as a feminist.

But I wasn’t an agitator, or an organizer, I’m too much of an introvert.

But I could remember her name.

I knew his name, the murderer’s name.

It was in the papers all the time,

giving him the power and influence he so desperately wanted.

But I hadn’t known hers.

I made myself a promise,

I would forget his name,

And remember Maryse Leclair.

I knew I would never remember all fourteen names, but I could remember Maryse.

I pinned the red card with her name to the corkboard above my desk.

And while I have moved many times over the years,

her name stays with me.

Currently it is posted on the filing cabinet in my study at home.

Over the years I have forgotten his name, until the anniversary rolls around.

And sometimes I forget Maryse’s name too.

But mostly I remember.

I notice the faded red paper and think, oh yes, Maryse.

She is gone and I am here.

In remembering Maryse Leclair I remember that she died for a delusion.

She died for being a woman where someone thought a woman shouldn’t be.

I sometimes think of her as my shadow sister,

that my life must be worthy of her.

We can not speak for the dead.

But we can speak for a better world.

We can use our voices to speak for power shared instead of power over.

We can be a voice for justice, equity and compassion.

We can not speak for the dead.

But we can remember their names.

For me, over the years, her name has become a kind of prayer,

Maryse Leclair

Maryse Leclair

Maryse Leclair

I don’t know exactly what I am praying or why I am praying,

but it seems a worthy prayer to repeat and repeat again.

Maryse Leclair.

For Maryse Leclair, for all the women and men who die by stereotype,

let us use our voices to speak out against the systems that enable violence.

Let us live boldly into our collective power to reshape those systems.

As people of the chalice, let our lights blaze a trail to a better world.

May it be so.

 


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