Conversations around contentious social, economic, and environmental themes are not always easy. Only inviting people who all think the same as you do is comforting – but rarely leads to stretching our knowledge base. Yet a recent conference in Edmonton set a hospitable table for dialogue on a range of political and socio-economic views, and it seemed to work.
CPJ helped facilitate Are We There Yet? Economic Justice and the Common Good along with The Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics at Toronto’s Institute for Christian Studies and The King’s University College. The group of 150 participants included academics, social justice practitioners, business leaders, trade unionists, Aboriginal peoples, environmentalists, and politicians.
The keynote speaker, Dr. Bob Goudzwaard, framed the event brilliantly by laying out a Christian conception of economic justice and asking us to question if our own vision “goes deep enough for real change?” He called on participants to move beyond static concepts, like “poverty” and “wealth,” that define discourse about the current economic order. He wanted us to use more active terms like “enrichment” and “impoverishment” so that we would be moved to address the causality of these forces. For Goudzwaard, it is impossible to speak of economic justice without understanding ecological and intergenerational justice – words that are music to a CPJ member’s ears!
Contrast this with the later remarks from the Honourable Diane Ablonczy, MP for Calgary-Nose Hill. Ms Ablonczy also drew on her Christian roots as part of her defense of the Conservative government’s foreign aid policies. She advocated an end to making the poor “dependent” and repeated several references to aid skeptics, including mention of Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity: How the Church Hurts Those They Help and How to Reverse It and Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way For Africa.
Indeed, such negative perceptions of aid may lie behind the Federal Government’s decisions to cut international assistance to under 0.27 per cent of our GDP (far short of our 0.7 per cent target), to hold hundreds of millions of dollars in unspent aid back over these last years, and to refuse in 2013 to send the $400 million in climate adaptation and mitigation financing for the UN’s Green Fund that Canada has sent in each of the previous three years. What a stark contrast of discourse with Goudzwaard’s conception of a Christian “economy of giving” as perhaps the highest example of a just economic system!
One questioner attempted to challenge the frame of our thinking, suggesting that how you perceive economic justice determines your response. If you think the poor just lack stuff, well then, you give them stuff. If you see the poor as lacking power, then power relationships have to be changed. Economic justice may be all about transformation – how to right broken relationships between neighbours.
Many of the workshops allowed further debate and further conversation. A panel of business leaders explained how they try to structure faithful enterprises in the private sector. A panel of lawyers, including CPJ’s Board Chair, Mark Huyser-Wierenga, wrestled with restorative justice issues, noting how the poor are over-represented among incarcerated Canadians. Aboriginal speakers, unionists, and academics all wrestled with development issues in the Athabasca oil sands.
CPJ organized a panel on Faith, Community and Climate Change with Professor Randy Haluza-Delay of The King’s University College and Sara Farid of Development and Peace. The panel attracted over 50 participants, including a visiting class of students. CPJ also spoke on the conference’s concluding panel.
In Christian theology, we recognize that we will never “be there yet” in terms of achieving just earthly structures. Yet, our goal of creating communities of moral deliberation and action is why such conferences need to become on-going and formative events.
Gerda Kits, Bob Goudzwaard, Joe Gunn, and Ron Kuipers speak at the conference’s concluding panel. Photo credit: Daryl C. Kinsman