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.
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.