Some say the time of the churches is over in Canada. Others may say that it did not come soon enough. But what many Canadians may not be aware of is there is a long history of churches working together for social justice and peace, efforts that contributed significantly to the progressive social programs and international stature our country enjoys today.
It is painfully obvious that church institutions have been far from perfect – sexual abuse, gender inequality and patriarchy are all part of their histories. In May this year, 269 Members of Parliament from five different political parties voted in favour of a motion that would ask Pope Francis to come to Canada to apologize for Indian residential schools. Church leaders have indeed sinned.
Yet people of faith and the institutional bodies of many churches have played and continue to play a crucial role in the development of progressive social policy in this country. There is a long history of positive church action to defend human rights, broaden Canada’s refugee policies, expand and defend Medicare, and offer alternatives to the economic domination of “free” markets over the lives of the poor.
Nevertheless, Canadians are likely more familiar with the traditional church role of direct service to the poor. Some assume that churches never address the causes of poverty or injustice. Because of the loud presence of moral and social traditionalists in the churches, the public perhaps perceives these voices as the exclusive church spokesmen in the public domain.
There are also many who lament the waning influence of faith communities in society.
Former Leader of the Official Opposition Preston Manning, writing recently about faith and public life, said he is concerned that our materialistic, humanistic and secular society prefers to purge the expression of religious faith from the public square. Andrew Bennett, Canada’s former Ambassador for Religious Freedom, goes further. He says that “religious Canadians should prepare for white martyrdom,” which he defines as religious persecution that is actually shaming and disavowal of their traditional beliefs.
Rod Dreher, in his New York Times best-selling book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, lamented that “the light of Christianity is flickering out. . .we in the modern West are living under barbarism.”
But there is another story. Over half the respondents in a recent Angus Reid Institute poll say faith is important in shaping their views on current issues.
It might not immediately be obvious to some, but communities of faith intervene regularly in Canadian society to promote the public good. Canadians from a range of Christian denominations have worked together for decades, successfully promoting progressive social causes. Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders developed coalitions to end apartheid in South Africa, to bring over refugees imprisoned in dictatorial Chile and Communist Indochina, to defend Indigenous peoples’ rights, and to promote economic justice for the poor. Most importantly, they continue to do so today.
In 1979, it was the Mennonite Central Committee that first negotiated a private sponsorship master agreement with Ottawa to allow groups of citizens to sponsor refugees coming into Canada at the time from Indochina. Following this success, dozens of churches quickly signed similar arrangements. This allowed thousands of Vietnamese Boat People to come to Canada. Today, Canada is one of the only countries in the world that allows private sponsorship of refugees. As a result of what the churches started more refugees come in through private sponsorships than through government support.
Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu specifically thanked the Canadian churches for their years of pressuring Canadian banks and corporations to refrain from investing in South Africa under apartheid. Church institutions used their pension funds and investment strength to pressure business leaders and companies to adopt moral behaviours. And when Canadian federal governments hesitated to act, churches used their international connections and moral authority to publicize the complicity of Canadian policies with the atrocities of the apartheid system.
In the 1990s, Canadian churches were at the forefront of efforts to cancel the onerous debts of countries of the global South. Finance Minister Paul Martin said he could not go to a church service without hearing about the issue.
Churches have been staunch defenders of health care and have long called for a national pharmacare plan. In 2002, Roy Romanow’s Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada used, as its first recommendation, language that was exactly what the churches had presented to him. He aptly titled his report Building on Values.
Finding allies in faith communities
Canadians might well be inspired by these stories – if they ever hear them. Some young people attending certain denominational schools rarely learn of the Christian social justice advocacy. The history is rarely shared in the press. So today, other narratives make up the more common public perception of churches as antiquated, small-minded, and conservative.
That is a shame, because groups advocating for social and environmental change could find new allies among these communities of faith, thus strengthening their causes. Rather than viewing all faith communities as museums of past traditions, social advocates could seek common cause with religious traditions that pull people together, enable them to clarify their values, question unsustainable practices, as well as develop a broader understanding of value of caring for all our neighbours.
All faith traditions espouse the belief that working for peace and justice is not optional. The most cherished principles of the world’s religions can still inspire and encourage new agents of change to work for positive transformation. Canadian faith communities have advocated for important social and environmental changes in the past. Continuing this work will challenge the values and practices of governments, private companies – and surely even church institutions themselves.
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