Life at the End
of Us vs. Them:
Cross Culture Stories
Paperback: Friesen Press, 2017
Buy Now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
Interview by Josina Guess
Over the course of about six years, I have gotten to know Marcus Rempel as he has made occasional pilgrimages away from his snow-covered farm in Canada to the sunny mild green of winters in Georgia. He and his family served as volunteers at Jubilee Partners, the Christian intentional community where I lived with my family, and he has remained connected- returning every few years to build and strengthen friendships. He is a gifted songwriter. My favorite of his songs, which our worship community sings every Easter is “Christus Victor,” a song that came to him in a dream.
So, it caught me a little bit off guard when I read Marcus’s book and realized that this sensitive, songwriting, farmer, dreamer, father is also a pithy intellectual. Over the course of many long Canada nights, from his small wood-heated home that he shares with his wife and daughters, Marcus produced a book that works to bring us closer to understanding our fractured culture and the ways that “us and them” thinking can push us further from one another and the truth of the gospel. Rempel latched on to the writings of Rene Girard and Ivan Illich and references them throughout the book while also weaving in his multifaceted life experiences from serving as a crisis counselor to pooping in a bucket.
On Marcus’s most recent pilgrimage to Georgia in February 2018, he was joined by two other writers and communitarians, Tim Otto, author of Oriented to Faith and Tato Sumantri who wrote a chapter in Electing Not to Vote. Sitting in my living room, Marcus, Tim and Tato talked with a group of folks earnestly grappling with questions of what it means to have a vocation of living intentionally. In naming the human tendency toward piling all that is bad upon a scapegoat, it was helpful to realize that even well-intentioned service-oriented community types, can get stuck in “us and them” thinking. As much as we would like to be non-violent we want to be able to destroy and place all blame on the “other” instead of confronting our own sins or seeing the gift in the other. I followed up with Marcus by email to ask him a few questions about how writing this book has affected him personally.
JG: What did you learn about yourself during this process of looking at Us and Them thinking. How did it change how you think of yourself and the “other?”
MR: James Alison says that when he first encountered a work of Girard’s, he felt like the book was reading him, instead of the other way around. I wrote my book because I felt much the same way about both of my guides for the project, Girard and Illich. I’ve learned from them how easily I can turn my other into a rival and a threat, but also how the other can be my opening to God. The Benedictines have a joke: when a stranger knocks at the door, they sigh, “Oh Christ, is it you again?” The mystery seems to be that to really see the other in his or her glory, I need to orient toward the glory that holds us both. Otherwise I can turn any connection into a contest, building up myself at the expense of other selves, over against condemned “baddies” or through mutual status-confirmation with my fellow “goodies” (whom I can quickly resent for being too good, or quickly judge for not being good enough.) But if I can attend to the one who delights in me, I can laugh at myself. And then I’m free to enjoy my neighbors – and if I’m really awake, meet the light that shines through them to bless me.
JG: It is a little ironic that you have decided to go back to graduate school this fall to pursue a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy after stepping out of the mainstream for several years and actually writing rather disparagingly about institutions. Do you think there’s grace enough for you to pursue a new career path and maybe even see how Us/Them thinking in yourself and among cultural resisters may have been holding you back from taking this new step in your life?
MR: Glad you picked up on the irony of my career change. I’ve had to think about that a lot. I recently attended a men’s group coordinated by an old social worker friend of mine, Mitch Bourbonierre. Mitch gives me some hope that one can engage as a healer in this world without dividing membership in the kingdom of heaven in two: God’s staff and God’s clients. Mitch does some healing work for pay. He does some healing work for no pay. He shows up as himself, honest about his own wounds, sincere in his affections for the people he works with. There were men in that circle out on day pass from prison, there were men from the neighborhood, there were students from the university. We just sat in a circle, spoke from our hearts and broke bread together. Some of us were paid to be there, some of us were court-mandated to be there, and some of us just showed up for the company. People like Mitch give me hope that one can engage humanly inside of systems of institutional care. And to be clear, that was the only option Illich himself saw. There is no getting outside the system. Ivan Illich, the author of Deschooling Society, spent his career “soberly milking the sacred cow” of university education. But after class, he invited people over for dinner: students, profs, strangers off the street. I hope I can return to the world of therapy with that kind of openness to community.
I am glad I got out when I did though. I needed the distance to be able to be honest about the perversions of love that tend to occur when care is institutionalized. Some of what I wrote would have been considered treasonous by my colleagues. If I had tried to write about the shadow side of the care professions while I was still in them, I think the writing would have been too contaminated with anger and fear. As it is, I think all I did was wake up to the subtlety and insidiousness of sin, which is everywhere in this world. The space where we get beyond us and them is not created by some new and perfect community, but held open by grace in the midst of our mess.
JG: Marcus, thanks for sharing these thoughts and for writing this book. I think you’ll be please to know that I’m keeping my copy in our outdoor compost toilet — that’s where some of the best reading happens! And many blessings to you in the next steps of your journey.