OTTAWA—Since the late 1980s, the emergence of the religious right in the United States, as a cultural crutch for the Republican Party, has been a cause for dismay among religious people who once saw the churches unite around Martin Luther King Jr. during the birth of the civil rights movement.
In Canada, it was equally disappointing to see many churches obsessed with abortion, assisted dying, and LGBTQ rights while the core values of the Sermon on the Mount that call for love and compassion for the oppressed were reduced to lip service. It’s no wonder the churches have lost their numbers and their influence. Many of them lost something far more important than influence. They lost the leaven that makes the bread rise.
But that’s not the only story.
King and many others, including Tommy Douglas, the Baptist minister who brought universal health care to Canada, understood how faith and politics work for the common good. But before that could happen something else had to take place.
“Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics,” wrote French poet Charles Péguy.
Péguy’s provocative quote led an essay by Wes Granberg-Michaelson in the Politics and Religion issue of the quarterly published by the New Mexico-based Centre for Action and Contemplation. Granberg-Michaelson is a former U.S. Senator’s aide and director of the World Council of Churches.
Péguy identified “the foundational starting point for how faith and politics should relate,” wrote Granberg-Michaelson.
“Usually, however, we get it backward. Our temptation is to begin with politics and then try to figure out how religion can fit in. We start with the accepted parameters of political debate and, whether we find ourselves on the left or the right, we use religion to justify and bolster our existing commitments. Those holding power are adept at exploiting this temptation. They see religious groups as another demographic.”
The U.S. is in a critical state of polarized dysfunction these days which is making it harder than ever to bring together compassion and political pragmatism and it’s more necessary than ever.
Granberg-Michaelson offers a few tips from his experience working for former Senator Mark Hatfield, as an editor at Sojourners magazine, and as a church leader.
He counsels not to forget that the means always rule the end; don’t see the other as the enemy; keep the end in sight even if you know you won’t personally get there; don’t be afraid of political compromise; and always speak the truth about your motives, especially your spiritual motives.
Granberg-Michaelson also says, don’t forget the example of the prophets. He names Jesus, Francis of Assisi (1181–1226), Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917–1980), Dorothy Day (1897–1980), and Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968).
What does this kind of transforming change that Granberg-Michaelson is hinting at look like in Canadian politics and religion?
Luckily, there’s a new book, Journeys to Justice: Reflections on Canadian Christian Activism, by Joe Gunn, that offers a wealth of personal stories on a host of faith-based political issues.
Gunn looks at the creation of Canada’s refugee policies; Indigenous rights and the Mackenzie Valley pipeline proposal; Catholic bishops and economic justice; the churches and South African apartheid; violence against northern women; a challenge against the market economy; a defence of medicare; the women’s march for rights; and global debt cancellation.
Behind each of these issues there is a personal story collected by Gunn, who happens to be a friend of mine. Some of them are inspirational; many of them provide a role model for young people. That’s no accident. Gunn begins the book with a preface directed to his own twin children, Benjamin and Daniela.
He longs to pass on the struggle, the wisdom, and even the mistakes to the next generation: “because injustice still threatens humanity and all creation because the exemplary role of others was once inspirational to me and my generation; because the antidote to poor theology is good theology (not the rejection of theology); because the portrayal of religions as conservative societal forces is not the only story.”
All the stories come from people who are Canadian Christians of one denomination or another, however, the book makes it clear that any future for faith in political action will come not just from Christian ecumenical collaboration, but from multi-faith efforts.
But make no mistake; today’s Canadian churches are not centres of power and influence. Far from it.
“The church today,” writes United Church minister Christine Boyle, “has little illusion of power. Not because we are inherently humble and Christ-like, but because our numbers have shrunk rapidly enough to force humility upon us.”
Boyle writes that her final interview for ordination took place on Jan. 20, 2017, the day that Donald Trump was sworn in as president of the United States.
“These are far from the best of times,” she said.
But Boyle, who is closer in age to Joe Gunn’s children, says she too is inspired by the words of activists like John Foster, who helped open Canada’s doors to Chilean refugees, and Marie Zarowey, who brought family violence against women to the forefront. “They have surrounded my despair and forced it to surrender.”
“Christians come from ancient stories,” she writes. “Stories that are older than this electoral system, older than the economic system. We come from stories that remind us that all sorts of miraculous transformations are possible. When we forget this, when we don’t learn our history, change feels impossible, because it feels like things have always been just as they are now.”
David Pfrimmer, from the Lutheran Seminary at Wilfrid Laurier University, says Canada has received a great spiritual gift from its Indigenous people.
In his article in Journeys To Justice he writes: “Often unacknowledged Indigenous spirituality and values were embedded within Canada’s culture and institutions.”
Despite racism and intolerance, Canada can become what Pfrimmer describes as a meeting place where there is “greater freedom to be more provocative and prophetic in its justice seeking, peace building and ecological initiatives.”
Jim Creskey is publisher of The Hill Times.
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