Citizenship as ministry

By Dennis Gruending

William Janzen & Kathy VandergriftThe exercise of citizenship as ministry is rooted in the Biblical calling to do justice, says Kathy Vandergrift, an Ottawa-based Christian activist who has worked both within government and outside of it on behalf of religiously based and non-governmental organizations. She and William Janzen, long time director of the Mennonite Central Committee Canada’s Ottawa office, spoke to our Ottawa Lay School of Theology Faith and Public Life class on February 2. Vandergrift organized her thoughts under the rubric of what she called the Four P’s.

Principled engagement

Christians are called to principled engagement in public life. That engagement demands more, Vandergrift says, than just “working from the bleachers and voting every four years.” Principled engagement is more than mere action – it contains a qualitative dimension as well. “Elected politicians expect you to be self-interested and we are often conditioned in that way too. Look at coverage of the recent budget. Everybody responds on the basis of what is in it for them,” Vandergrift says. She adds that Christians can have a “profound advantage” if they choose to engage in a different way – on the basis of justice and not self-interest. But she warned against approaching politicians with pat solutions based on Biblical verses. “The Bible is not a political science manual. We have to be principled but not preachy.”

Practical

“I am a strong believer in incrementalism,” says Vandergrift. “It is important just to put an issue on the public agenda and keep it there. For example, it is hard to get children onto the agenda now, hard to promote solidarity with Aboriginal peoples and with refugees.” Vandergift says that it is important for Christian advocates to pick just a few issues and to campaign for policy changes on them. “I also like to present positive policy alternatives,” she says.

Prophetic voice

“If we want to provide a faith witness we should choose issues that lead to catalytic change,” says Vandergrift. “Such a moment exists now [during a time of economic crisis]. Our witness will make people uncomfortable – but in this way Christians can actually redeem the field of politics.”

Persistent and strategic

“Working for justice is like playing chess,” Vandergrift says. “We have to be strategic. Sometimes pawns can topple kings.” It is not enough, she says, to expound on what is right or wrong, or even to write fine position papers on issues. “We need a strategy on how we are going to promote our issues.” She talked about four current issues that demand our attention:

Creation care: “It needs a lot of work.”

Christian approaches to human rights: “We have to lift up the social and economic rights of people who are disadvantaged.”

Justice rather than charity for the vulnerable: Vandergrift says, for example, that food banks were created decades ago as a temporary response to hunger but now they have become a mainstay. Food banks are an example of charity but the existence of hunger in our communities is a question of justice.

Dealing with a diversity of faiths and cultures: These issues will grow as Canada becomes even more multi-religious and multi-cultural, Vandergrift says. “We have seen some of this over the so-called accommodation debate in Quebec.” The question became how much, if any, accommodation should be made, to take but one example, for female Muslim students who wear headscarves in schools or in sports events.

Vandergrift also commented on the situation in Bountiful, B.C. where polygamous men take young girls as wives.  “When the issue is framed as a debate between religious freedom and polygamy,” she says “the abuse of children’s rights is ignored. That should be of concern to people of faith, but because it is a question of religious freedom, we are afraid to engage in the issue and its implications. Perhaps the time has come when people of faith need to pay closer attention to the relationship between religious freedom and other issues in Canada.”

William Janzen, in his remarks, said that Mennonites in Canada have held a theology that makes them different from many other faiths in their dealing with government. He says that opening of an MCC office in Ottawa in the 1970s was a pivotal point for Mennonites. “Prior to that we mostly lived within our own communities. What we wanted from government was to have our own land and schools, and to be allowed to be conscientious objectors in times of war. We were hesitant to participate in the task of governing the larger society.”

Janzen says that when Mennonites did decide to begin advocating to government they thought it best to speak out of their own experience. “We would speak about what we had learned, but we would stop short of telling government what to do.” One of those areas of experience was work on behalf of refugees. Many Mennonites had been refugees, particularly after the Russian revolution and the World Wars, and the Mennonite Central Committee was actually founded to support refugee work. Janzen says this experience was valuable when MCC helped to negotiate a master agreement with the Canadian government to sponsor so-called Boat People from Southeast Asia in the late 1970s.

Janzen also points to the Canadian Food Grains Bank, which he said arose from a desire by Mennonite farmers in Canada to send food abroad to people who were hungry. The CFGB now receives support from numerous Canadian churches and religiously based organizations.

Janzen says that the traditional Anabaptist belief in pacifism has also helped to inform MCC’s witness. “We came to believe that we had something to say to the government about war and peace.” He believes, for example, that work done by his office (and by other churches) played some role in convincing then Prime Minister Jean Chretien to refuse American entreaties for Canada to become involved in Iraq.

Janzen adds, “In general, I have not approached the government with a view that it should not use force at all, even as a last resort. But I do have a high respect for the argument that once you do rule out military force, it is then that you become creative in looking at the options.”

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Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament