Both/And/Or/In spite of

Canada would be a different nation if churches had stayed out of public policy discussions in its historical development. That becomes clear in a new book of reflections on that history by 10 leaders, edited by Joe Gunn. It is titled Journeys to Justice: Reflections on Canadian Christian Activism. The writers want to inspire young people who are turned off by current perceptions that Christian churches are obsessed with sexual issues and don’t care about societal choices that are shaping their world. Another look at history is also helpful to inform current debates about the role of churches and individual Christians, in the wake of the close association of white evangelical churches with Trumpism.  

Public witness rooted in deep faith made a difference at critical junctures in Canadian history on controversial matters. It shaped some of the highly valued features of Canadian society, such as an inclusive health care system; welcoming refugees and celebrating diversity; peace-building and staying out of the Iraq war; sharing wealth through a mix of private and public economic actors; and delaying the MacKenzie Valley pipeline to give the Dene nation time to establish itself in Canada’s North. Today feels like another one of those moments, but the witness of Canada’s churches is muted and fragmented.

Spirit-led
Real-life stories also illustrate that ecumenical activity which engaged both official church leaders and church members had the most impact. It took different shapes and shifted shapes to suit the context, crossing rigid lines between the role of institutional churches and church members. It’s become clear that some actions are better done by citizen groups while church leaders can effectively add gravitas. Strategies were hand-crafted, growing out of careful analysis, new study of Scripture, Spirit-filled times of discernment, and respect for the role of prophets. At the same time, the history of indigenous peoples and the history of the Roman Catholic church in Quebec remind us of the negative impacts when churches become complicit in injustice rather than voices for justice.

For women there is another layer to unpack. As well as being absent in many struggles for greater justice for women, the institutional church is seen by many women as more oppressor than ally. Women often work around the official structures of their churches in order to exercise their spirit-led call to work for justice. Dr. Christine Gervais explores this complexity and shatters stereotypes in a meticulously researched study of the role that women religious orders (nuns) play across Ontario. The first-hand stories in Beyond the Altar reveal how these women work for greater justice for women through creative means, often in spite of their church and sometimes penalized by the very church they serve.

Martin Luther King reminded us that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, because Jesus is our ultimate Leader. King also observed that the silence or lukewarm support of white churches was more harmful at some points than clear opposition to racial justice. Canadian experience shows that the arc bends best when churches and church members witness together, but it also bends in separate actions, and in some spaces it bends in spite of the church. Because God is in control and loves his creation. 

Related: 
What did Kuyper really say?

We are all Gospel translations

The Body of Christ and the Body Politic
 

  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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