How should churches deal with political issues? That question has long sparked incandescent discussions among Christians. Many hold that God calls Christians to promote public justice. Yet we differ strongly on what those policies should be and which political parties, if any, Christians should support. With many white evangelicals backing Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, the issue soared into public consciousness, triggering months of embarrassing negative media coverage.
For its part, since Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, the Roman Catholic Church has developed official social teaching and encouraged much justice work. Depending on time and place, though, it has responded differently to the question. For example, the Catholic Church in Poland played a decisive role in overthrowing its communist government. Pope John Paul II was a particularly strong and long-time opponent of that regime. However, in 1980 the same pope prohibited priests from serving in public office. Many thought that decision originally was discipline aimed at three priests in Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. Yet in 1983 that prohibition was codified in Canon Law.
The Christian Reformed Church is no stranger to these complex controversies. Within the CRC an articulate group holds that the denomination should advocate, but not lobby for issues of social justice; the distinction is not always clear. The denomination’s Office of Social Justice does urge members to support or criticize a wide variety of social issues that lawmakers are discussing. Somewhat inconsistently, though, many members, both for and against denominational political activity, have long worked publicly for stronger anti-abortion laws – and this with frequent pulpit encouragement. Where do we draw the lines?
Canadian churches’ stories
Joe Gunn’s new book, Journeys to Justice: Reflections on Canadian Christian Activism (Novalis), doesn’t provide a definitive response to this question. It does, though, offer a grand survey of churches’ and Christians’ work and influence in Canadian struggles for justice. Gunn himself has long worked in ecumenical justice work in Latin America and at home. A Roman Catholic, he serves as Executive Director of Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ), one of several social movements born from Abraham Kuyper’s worldview that nourished the spiritual and social lives of many post-war Dutch immigrants in Canadian CRCs.
In this small but wide-ranging book, Gunn writes a thoughtful, impassioned introduction as a letter to his adult twins Benjamin and Daniela. He explains, “For your dad, engaging in public justice has been the best way to live – and to try to ‘live out’ – the important values that in my generation were passed on by the Christian faith. I hope your generation can benefit from hearing these stories of struggles that might seem far in the past.”
Gunn sees great urgency to publish these inspiring and often historic stories, because many churches have recently cut social justice staff. In particular, he is angry at the Catholic bishops’ exit from KAIROS, one Canadian ecumenical group to which the CRC belongs. That move has caused a “deplorable crisis in Canadian ecumenical justice work.”
Gunn continues to first-person interviews of main players in ecumenical social justice victories. CRC members in both the U.S. and Canada will find several of the stories are part of their own history. Bill Janzen, first Director of Mennonite Central Committee’s Ottawa office, describes the long process leading up to 1978’s Immigration Act. MCC negotiated and signed the first private sponsorship agreement with Ottawa, thus opening up Canada to thousands of Indochinese people fleeing their war-torn homelands.
For its part the CRC in Canada signed a Master Agreement as a government-recognized private sponsor on April 5, 1979. Since then dozens of congregations have welcomed and resettled some 9,000 refugees from many nations. During the Syrian refugee crisis World Renew’s Refugee Coordinating Office arranged for nearly 50 Christian Reformed congregations to sponsor Syrian families. CRCs in the U.S. have also worked diligently in this area, though figures from there won’t be publicly available unless the church compiles a history of that campaign of mercy. Sadly, such blessings will be hard to replicate following large recent cuts to numbers of refugees the U.S. will accept.
Justice for Indigenous peoples
Christian Reformed participation in social justice does not end with refugee programs. In the 1970s John Olthuis was research director of the Committee for Justice and Liberty (CJL), CPJ’s precursor. Raised in the CRC, he led Project North, an ecumenical campaign that gained a long-standing moratorium on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. In a case crucial to that event, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of CJL’s suit, resulting in the dismissal of the biased chair of the National Energy Board.
In the long process leading to the moratorium, many CRCs and other churches held discussions whose primary aim was to defend the rights of the Dene people to make decisions on development in their traditional lands. The moratorium accomplished that, though threats to First Nations’ resources and lands still abound. The same spirit that birthed Project North still breathes in the Canadian CRC. Community centres in Edmonton, Regina and Winnipeg continue more than 50 years of ministry among Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
Churches and Canada’s health care
Although the CRC did not participate in developing national health care in Canada, Gunn interviews Peter Noteboom for that story. Noteboom is a former member of the CRC’s Board of Trustees and General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC), to which the CRC also belongs. As Associate Secretary of the CCC’s Justice and Peace arm, he helped create the Ecumenical Health Care Network that in the early 2000s influenced the Royal Commission on Health Care in Canada’s report and recommendations.
Other chapters do not have a direct Christian Reformed connection, but many members have deeply invested in time, resources and work in the issues told in other interviewees’ stories. Gunn gives voice to Protestant and Catholic church leaders active in projects to promote women’s rights and safety, cancellation of debts to nations in the Global South and more.
Dreams for the future
Yet this book does more than offer history. Its last three chapters look hopefully to the future of social justice work by faith-based groups. In a thrilling essay Lutheran pastor and teacher David Pfrimmer describes two forms of ecumenism in Canada. He defines “pastoral ecumenism” as conversations among churches for mutual understanding, thus distinguishing it from “public ecumenism” that urges wider Canadian society to action.
Churches, however, have lost credibility and influence because of sex scandals and participation in residential schools that tried to “kill the Indian in the child.” Pfrimmer doesn’t see this loss of establishment power as a bad thing. Rather he considers it an opportunity for a next necessary step to find strength in weakness – perhaps like the early Church. Thus he daringly calls for “public multi-faithism” to unite different faith and worldview groups for social justice. Calling Jesus the “master adventure guide” in crossing borders, Pfrimmer envisions cooperation among faith groups so that Jews, Muslims, Christians and Indigenous people can be themselves, yet work together for common goals.
Who knows? Might God somehow, mysteriously, surprisingly use this wild dream project as part of our eschatological hope for Christ to reconcile all things to himself? Well, Jesus’ resurrection reminds us that far stranger things have happened.
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