in Love Beyond Personal Bias: A Theology of Friendship
“One day he
[Francis] was riding his horse near Assisi, when he met a leper. And,
even though he usually shuddered at lepers, he made himself dismount,
and gave him a coin, kissing his hand as he did so. After he accepted
a kiss of peace from him, Francis remounted and continued on his way.
He then began to consider himself less and less, until, by God’s
grace, he came to complete victory over himself.
After a few days,
he moved to a hospice of lepers, taking with him a large sum of
money. Calling them all together, as he kissed the hand of each, he
gave them alms. When he left there, what before had been bitter, that
is, to see and touch lepers, was turned into sweetness. “
This excerpt from
the Life of St. Francis of Assisi is the inspiration for this paper.
Our community, the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, has been called
the poorest postal code in Canada and other unflattering names. One
could say, our community is considered a leprosarium by the rest of
the city and the country. Unfortunately, we may be guilty ourselves
of treating other community members as if they were lepers. That
said, this work first explores two types of violence, eurocentrism
and lateral violence, and how this violence is expressed as bias on
societal and local levels. Eurocentrism is normalized and expressed
as bias, while lateral violence is often unnamed and ignored. I aim
to construct a theology of friendship that can move us to love beyond
our personal biases. It is important to say at the outset that
although this paper is expressed from a Christian worldview, it is
based on the premise that regardless of whether we have a religious
affiliation or not, we are all the children of one Creator, or for
those with a more scientific bent, we are all created from the cosmic
dust of the Big Bang.
The North American
societal form of violence is systemic “othering”. Again, in the
North American context, this form of violence looks at the world
through a eurocentric lens. In this view of the world, people of
European descent see themselves as the “norm” and everyone else
as “ethnic” or “other”. This view fails to see European
ethnicities as simply one group of regional ethnicities among the
world’s many regional ethnicities. Rather, the eurocentric
perspective deem as “ethnic” or “other” peoples that they
have, at one time or another, colonized or oppressed. Therefore,
peoples who have been colonized are less valued. Classism intersects
with eurocentrism, so that poor and less educated people of European
descent are also less valued, although their chances of social
mobility are greater than those that are racialized. The Eurocentric
view equates abuse of power with superiority rather than with the
systemic violence that it actually is. This willful blindness leads
to entrenched social injustice.
The injustice is
expressed in an unfavourable bias against the marginalized and
racialized, which seeps into all systems including economic
opportunity, social mobility, educational opportunity and housing, to
name a few. For example, in the Downtown Eastside slum lords are
allowed to neglect their rental properties with impunity well beyond
legal inhabitability until the City condemns the property. The
former tenants have difficulty finding new accommodation because of
the lack of affordable house. In addition, landlords discriminate
against people on social assistance, Indigenous Peoples and people of
colour. The tenants become homeless. Homelessness makes it
difficult, if not impossible, to get or maintain a job. The
resulting despair can lead to self-destructive life choices. The
education system is geared to feed an economic system that demands an
underclass. It is slanted to ensure intergenerational poverty. The
latest assault on our community is gentrification, where new
businesses, residential developments and their occupants are pushing
out the older, poorer, and darker Downtown Eastside residents. The
City is helping this along by relaxing the height restrictions on
buildings in the area. In cases where the new buildings provide a
few social housing units for local people, there is the
discriminatory practice of having a separate entrance for poor folks.
Systems of social injustice converge and intersect in the Downtown
Eastside. Added to all of this, for Indigenous residents and
residents of colour, a lifetime of enduring racism is an assault on
the psyche that is spirit-killing. Systemic social injustice is the
author of lateral violence in those who are marginalized.
In most of the
literature on lateral violence it is used to describe behaviour
within racial minority communities. With regard to our
neighbourhood, Jens Korff offers a more appropriate definition. He
Lateral violence is
a term that describes the way people in positions of
powerlessness, covertly or overtly direct their dissatisfaction
inward toward each other, toward themselves, and toward those less
powerful than themselves
of lateral violence towards others include, gossiping, cliques in
churches, verbal disrespect such as verbalizing racial slurs, blaming
others, backstabbing, failure to respect privacy, and broken trust.
Self-directed lateral violence includes addictions and other forms
The powerlessness to
confront the architects of our marginalization felt by those of us
who are marginalized only partly explains lateral violence. Negative
characterizations and stereotypes of poor people, people of colour
and Indigenous people are normalized by the dominant narrative.
Another factor in lateral violence is the internalization of these
negative characterizations by those of us on the periphery. From
childhood, we hear negative views of who we are. We begin to view
ourselves in the same way. For some of us this internalization is
expressed in addiction or other self-harming behaviours. This then
expands to the way we view other members of our group, which can make
us complicit in the systemic bias perpetrated against our own by the
So far, I have given
one perspective of how bias affects the Downtown Eastside from the
macro to the micro level. Now, I want to explore a theology of
friendship, that moves from the individual to the societal.
Love Within and Without
Earlier, I said that
our neighbourhood is seen as a metaphorical leprosarium by those who
don’t live here. Many of us have internalized how others see us.
By taking another look at the Great Commandment as written in Matthew
22:37-40, perhaps we can find a way to befriend ourselves.
“You shall love
the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and
with all your mind.” 38This
is the greatest and first commandment. 39And
a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
Christians are familiar with this passage but I want bring attention
to verse 39, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” What
is often overlooked is the importance of loving oneself. That means
reaching deep and seeing ourselves with all our faults but also with
all our gifts. We are not lepers but we have internalized negative
perceptions of ourselves that are leprous. It may be difficult and
take time but it is essential for our healing and growth. We have to
learn to love and befriend ourselves. The reward for doing this work
is that we can then turn those bitter leprous thoughts about
ourselves into a healthy self-love. We will then be able to embrace
ourselves as the children of God that we are. In order to love one’s
neighbour as oneself, one has to love oneself. Secure in who we are,
we are then able to reach out in love to our neighbours.
Another outcome of
internalizing negative opinions of ourselves is that we project these
characteristics on others. This can cause the lateral violence
mentioned above. But we can choose to get off this down escalator
by choosing to step out of our comfort zone. We can choose to take
part in the many life enhancing activities in our neighbourhood.
Some of us are members of one of the local churches that provide us
with a social network. Some of us do not have that. The beauty of
our neighbourhood is there are also many opportunities to take part
in arts or cultural pursuits in one of the local groups. For
example, every year the Heart of the City Festival takes place in
venues all around the Downtown Eastside. The work of the groups who
take part in the festival work all year long. Every year there is a
callout for people to participate. To participate one doesn’t have
to be an artist, actor, musician or skilled. One gets to know people
and learn something new in the process of participating.
The 2003 inaugural
event, the Downtown
Eastside Community Play: In the Heart of a City,
is an example of a project that brought neighbourhood people from all
walks of life together. As people worked together day after day for
months, they began to learn each others stories. They got to know
each other. Race, economic status, and other social indicators no
longer mattered. Participants began to expand their wells of
compassion. People who would never have socialized with each other
before, became friends. Most of those friendships have endured from
2003 until today. The play and the subsequent festivals are just one
avenue of how we can participate in activities that help us go beyond
the familiar, grow in compassion, all the while expanding our circles
All of us are wired
to be concerned about situations that affect our friends. It is in
our nature to want to rejoice with them when they are happy and to
commiserate with them when they are hurting. Through individual
friendships broadened out to form group and coalitions, we can begin
the work of addressing systemic injustices. What follows is a
perspective on friendship rooted in the Gospel and is based on the
belief that social justice is a Gospel imperative.
Love is a
verb: The call to action
The parable of the
Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke
is the perfect example of loving beyond personal biases by expanding
and clarifying the command to “love your neighbour as yourself.”
The Samaritans were despised and thought to be ritually unclean by
the people of Judea because they did not worship in a way that was
considered ritually proper by the Jewish religious leaders. To
paraphrase the story, two Jewish religious leaders see a man on the
road who has been robbed, stripped and beaten and they pass him by.
A Samaritan sees the man, tends to his wounds and brings him to an
inn. He gives the innkeeper a deposit and promises to return to pay
the rest of the bill when he returns, which he does. The story ends
with Jesus telling his listeners to “go and do likewise.”
The two heroes of
this story are the Samaritan who was moved to compassion beyond his
bias and the innkeeper, who trusted the Samaritan even though he was
a Samaritan. I suggest that this story is about individual acts of
compassion but it also points to collective compassion, solidarity
and action. The Vancouver Catholic Workers (VCW) and its Samaritan
House are a concrete example of what is being suggested.
Sarah, myself and a
few others wanted to do something that would be a response to the
call to follow the Gospel. We found the perspective of the Catholic
Worker Movement a good fit and opened Samaritan House in June 1998.
Since then, Samaritan House has been providing a place to stay for
ideally, up to three people but have housed five in a pinch. People
have stayed with us from one night to five years.
We don’t take in
people in active addiction or newly in recovery because we live too
close to temptation to be helpful. We can’t take in persons with
severe mental illness because we are not qualified in this area.
Otherwise, anyone is welcome as long as we have room. We live in a
single-family home and try to model family for our guests. We don’t
charge rent because we want people to save what money they have for
when they move out on their own. We invite them to pray and worship
with us but it is not a requirement.
Sarah and I support
the house from our own funds but do accept and receive outside
contributions. Likewise, Sarah and I are the permanent residents of
the house but there is a small group of Vancouver Catholic Workers
who live elsewhere but worship with us. After my ordination to the
priesthood, the Our Lady of Guadalupe Tonantzin (OLGT) worship
community began with members of this group.
The VCW is part of
an international movement that does more than provide hospitality.
OLGT does more than pray. We also works for peace and justice. For
example, the VCW and OLGT together work to put reconciliation into
action in three ways. First by educating ourselves on the issues.
Secondly, by standing side by side with our local Indigenous leaders
as they seek justice with regard to their lands and waters and lastly
by attending monthly prayer vigils held outside the Watch House on
affordable and social housing is a major issue in our neighbourhood.
We stood with the people demonstrating for decent housing and have
worked to elect City councillors who are serious about addressing
Some issues call for
individual action. However, to get local, provincial and federal
politicians to address issues within their jurisdiction, it takes
collective action. Systemic injustice such as racism, economic
inequality, and inadequate housing, all call for collective action.
I have tried to
show, using the VCW/ OLGT as an example that “love of neighbour”
calls us to go beyond personal friendships. It calls us to let that
love spiral outwards toward the common good. “To love” is a verb
that calls us to add action to our thoughts and prayers.
Although time and
space constraints do not allow for delving into all the issues in the
Downtown Eastside. I have tried to provide enough substance to show
that a theology of friendship includes a call to work for the
resolution of local as well as national and global issues that
adversely affect our community and beyond. A theology of friendship
extends to the human and also includes the non-human world. It
promotes a loving concern that begins with us and grows to include
all parts of God’s creation.
The theology of
friendship that I suggest in this paper can be summed up in this way:
to learn to love oneself is the first step in loving others in an
ever-expanding spiral of inclusion. In so doing, it moves us to love
beyond our personal biases. A theology of friendship entails
learning about, praying for, and actively working for the well-being
of all others.
About the Author:
Victoria Marie is an
activist and co-founder of the Vancouver
Pastor of Our
Lady of Guadalupe Tonantzin
Inclusive Catholic Community, she is an ordained priest with the
Catholic Woman Priests Canada.
She has been a spiritual director since 1997 and worked in parish
ministry as the coordinator of adult religious education for six
years in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver until 2002. Her
social justice interests have taken her to Kenya and Mexico; to
Colombia with Witness for Peace; and to Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum
Anishnabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation) in north-western Ontario
(CPT). In addition to spiritual direction and her pastoral ministry,
she author of Transforming
Addiction: The role of spirituality in learning recovery from
(Scholars Press, 2014).