By Dennis Gruending
Contributors to CPJ’s new book speak to the successes, and limits, of Christian political engagement
In the introduction to his book Journeys to Justice, CPJ’s executive director Joe Gunn writes a letter to the next generation, including his own young adult children. He expresses frustration that largely they don’t know about the struggles by members of Christian churches for justice in the not-so-distant past, and that the public portrayal of religions is largely that of conservative societal forces. So Gunn interviewed ten Canadian Christians who he considers “role models in the pursuit of public justice.” Those interviews are edited in such a way that they appear in the book as first-person accounts from the front lines.
Most, but not all, of the 80 people attending a launch for the book at CPJ’s AGM in Toronto on May 31 would have a deep recall of those struggles and it was obvious that for them it was a deep, rich, and encouraging evening. Three of the people interviewed for the book had appeared at an earlier event in Ottawa, and another five spoke at the Toronto event.
The first was lawyer John Olthuis. He was deeply involved in a campaign during the 1970s for a moratorium on the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline, which would have delivered natural gas to southern Canada and the United States. Land claims in that territory had not been settled with the Dene Nation, and Christian churches organized through the ecumenical coalition Project North worked with the Dene in opposition to the proposal. In 1974, the federal government convened an inquiry led by Justice Thomas Berger and after a thorough investigation he recommended in 1977 that there should be a ten-year moratorium to allow for land claims negotiations to occur.
Moira Hutchinson described how Christian churches organized through the Task Force on Corporate Responsibility (TCCR) to have Canadian companies and banks stop investing and lending to the South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1970s and 80s. Staff from TCCR researched Canadian corporate involvement in South Africa, which allowed member churches and religious congregations to raise questions at corporate shareholder meetings. Hutchinson said the pressure, in Canada and elsewhere, to have companies stop investing in South Africa was a success. By the time that the Canadian government agreed that sanctions should be imposed the banks had already stopped making loans to the apartheid regime.
Peter Noteboom, recently named as the general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC), described the work of the CCC’s Ecumenical Health Care Network (EHCN). He talked specifically about efforts related to the royal commission on health care led by former Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow in the early 2000s. In advocating for medicare, Noteboom said, the EHCN focused upon the “faith components of health care concerns.” In its brief to the Romanow Commission, the group called for a health care covenant which would enshrine these values. Romanow was obviously listening closely. His final report was called “Building on Values” and he called for a Health Care Charter.
Jennifer Henry, now the executive director of the ecumenical justice organization KAIROS, talked about the work of the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative (CEJI) in advocating in and around the year 2000 for debt cancellation for countries in the global south. CEJI also opposed the painful structural adjustment and austerity programs which international monetary institutions were forcing upon poor countries. The ecumenical group also campaigned for an end to child poverty; in favour of Indigenous land rights; and in support of the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change.
As impressive as these efforts have been, they also had their limitations. In his remarks, David Pfrimmer, professor of public ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, said there have been two basic approaches to ecumenical work in Canada. He described one as “pastoral ecumenism,” in which faith leaders have engaged in dialogue and built relationships with one another at the formal and institutional level. A second approach, which he called “public ecumenism,” saw churches pay attention to the wider public arena and the challenges facing society. It is this wider engagement which characterized the work of the ecumenical justice coalitions described in the book edited by Joe Gunn.
Pfrimmer said that approach, laudable as it has been, is no longer adequate. Canada has become much more diverse in its cultural and religious composition. The country and many of its residents have also become more secular, and there is a growing polarization between those who follow a religious faith and those who do not. Pfrimmer said that in a “post-globalized and post-unitary world,” the public ecumenism practiced by Christian churches and activists may also have reached its best-before date. Although the way forward is not entirely clear, Pfrimmer said, the path may well lie in a form of “post-ecumenism” which he described as “public multi-faithism.” It would involve Christian churches playing more of an accompanying than a leadership role; engaging in “interfaith encounters” with other world religions; and “finding new theological narratives for global citizenship.”
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author and a former Member of Parliament.