AGM 2015: Time for Churches to Speak as One

From The Catalyst, Summer 2015

Adapted from Glen Pearson’s keynote address to CPJ’s 2015 Annual General Meeting in London, ON.

We are living in the final days of what we might call the “long consensus” – that time stretching from the end of the Second World War until two decades ago, when leaders and citizens alike began pulling back from the public space. It was a gradual devolution, predicated on the belief that globalization, a lower tax demand, and the power of the individual would inspire a new generation of wealth and peace. Now, over 20 years later, despite the fact that Canada saw more wealth generated than at any other time in its history, we find less and less of it going to those on the margins: aboriginal communities, people of low income, and even a fragile natural environment.  Glen Pearson's speaks at the AGM

Governments at all levels failed to inspire communities to stick together through these times of global change and to jointly invest to insure that all Canadians had a chance for a better life. This dealt a crippling blow to our sense of social solidarity. The result has been that our federalism – the arrangement whereby various political jurisdictions share resources with one another to engender a rough sense of equity across the land – has been fragmented or torn. The wealthy class also bears much of the blame as the majority of its members sought to invest their growing wealth elsewhere while leaving a deteriorating social infrastructure at home. And then there is the failure of Canadian citizens to take democracy, poverty, environmental degradation, and their social responsibilities to one another seriously.  We are all to blame for our present plight. 

For faith communities this presents a rare opportunity to upgrade our vision. Now, more than ever, our solidarity with communities is required. Yet during my time in Ottawa as a Member of Parliament, it became clear to me that the notion of speaking truth to power was frequently undermined by fear. Religious organizations’ feared having their funding or tax-exempt status cut if they spoke out too strongly against government’s unwillingness to redress two decades of abandoning the public space and its respective responsibilities to it. In other words our vision was, in more ways than we care to admit, held captive by the very political elites we were meant to challenge – we granted to Caesar the things that were God’s. 

Admittedly, for faith communities, it is a difficult thing to challenge power these days because of our very own vulnerability. Churches numbers are in decline, societal leaders look less and less to faith communities for advice or partnership, and a more individualistic world worries less and less about collective accountability. We still have an important message but find it increasingly difficult to sell. Members of faith communities continue to gather around activities of social justice, human rights, and environmental accountability, yet often fail to work together in sufficient numbers to alter the present equation or to influence society to take note of our re-energized communities. Faith groups incrementally gave over their compassionate influence to vast government programs following the Second World War. It is a tragedy of significant proportions that they now have trouble coming together just as society requires their influence in significant measure once more. 

All of this speaks to our crowning need of the hour – a prophetic and collective voice. Seen from a distance, the sounds coming from faith communities are those of voices, not a voice. Our inability to combine our efforts, not only at senior leadership levels, but among congregations themselves, has left us unable to rise above the clinical message of the free market and the endless soundbites of the political parties. Unless we find a way to collect our disparate voices into one national call, then our best days will be in our past. 

The days of the “long consensus” are now fading into history, and the present corporate influence is laying waste to vulnerable members of society and a fragile environmental order. Therefore, the time couldn’t be more propitious for an ethical and prophetic voice to lead us to a new and more equitable place. The most powerful office in the land is neither the Governor General nor the Prime Minister, but the citizen, who through the authority of law, has the power to remake society and throw out politicians who refuse to comply with the leadership of citizens. But unless individual Canadians come together to fight for the society they want, equity will remain nothing but an ideal. It is now time for our faith communities to assume their collective leadership role in that battle and recover their own relevance in the process.

Glen Pearson  Glen Pearson is a former Liberal MP for London North Centre and a co-director of the London Food Bank. 

Comments

Submitted by S. Theresa Nagl... on
Hi Glen I read your article 'Time for Churches to Speak as Out' It is very timing and well put. I particularly like and agree with the statement " The most powerful office in the land is neither the G.G or the PM. but the citizen. Theresa

Submitted by John Zylstra on
Glen, from my perspective you are missing the main problem today. We continue to have much of the heritage of the decades of communal responsibility, including things like medicare, workmen's compensation, employment insurance, food banks, habitat for humanity, government matching funds for foreign aid projects, minimum wage. We can debate about the exact percentage contribution, or the total dollars invested, but the fact is that the programs have not disappeared in the most part. The real issue for faith communities is their inability or unwillingness to speak to their faith in daily life. The real issue is that faith communities have been relegated to second class citizens, often unable to live out their faith in public life. The real issue is that issues like abortion still have not been dealt with after thirty years of absconding and avoidance by public officials. 100,000 abortions per year for how many years? Planned Parenthood not being taken to court for aiding and abetting in violence and death against the most vulnerable humans in our world? Compared to this, how does every other economic injustice rate? The denial of faith in the public arena, whether it is prayer before public meetings, or bibles in public schools, or the right to live by principles when it comes to perspective on homosex marriage, or the sanctity of human life, is where the faith community (and government) has fallen short. When it denies those things, how in the world should the faith community be united on whether to preserve another 100 acres of old age forest, or to bump up the minimum wage by one dollar, or to provide a guaranteed annual income? If the faith community succeeds in the community efforts while denying its own faith committments in the public arena, it will really have not succeeded at all. Rather it will be the success of the non-faith community in attracting and drawing along the faith community in its non-faith activities and ideals. In addition, I think your perspective is skewed. The corporate world is not laying waste to the environmental order nearly as much as it did 100 years ago, or even fifty years ago. While we must remain vigilant, the reality is that every corporation interacting with the environment understands the public pressure, as well as the concerns of the aboriginal community. This is obvious in the long delay of several pipelines in Canada and the USA. In addition, many of their employees are as concerned about the environment, such as water and air quality and wildlife habitat, as any other person walking down the street. Compared to the third world, or even the developing world, Canada's treatment of the environment is not at some critical threshold. Compare both the establishment of national and provincial parks, conservation areas, and the access to crown land, and you will realize that. Conserving 40% of the boreal forest in Canada? Wow. This is not operating in the public arena? Charging people for hunting licenses on crown land, or even on their own land? Charging people for access to national parks? This is equity? This is abandonment of public arena? The reason faith communities don't speak with one voice on these things, is that they are not identifiably faith issues. They are complex issues, influenced to some degree by faith and trust in God and his claim on life and world, but they are not automatically clear and cleanly delineated. Nor do they need to be. No more than faith communities would need to be in one voice on mandatory retirement age, or maximum number of weeks of vacation, or maximum house size, or maximum number of vehicles per household.

Submitted by John Zylstra on
sorry I could not separate previous post into paragraphs. I tried, but the format ignored my efforts.

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