Christians, Jews, Muslims plan Ottawa colloquium

David Lee: Christian, Jewish, Muslim colloquium
David Lee: Christian, Jewish, Muslim colloquium

Theologian Hans Kung once said that there will be no peace among nations until there is peace among the world’s religions and there will be no peace without dialogue. The three Abrahamic faith groups in Ottawa – Christian, Jewish and Muslim – have taken that advice to heart.

On November 10, 2013 the three groups will co-host a one-day colloquium at Carleton University in Ottawa. The theme to be addressed is: How can one be a person of faith in the 21st century in Canada?  (By way of transparency: I am involved in the organization of this event).

“We want to fill the hall,” says David Lee, who broached the idea of such an event. Mr. Lee is chair of the 50th anniversary committee of the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality (OSTS). “We want to draw upon the experience and wisdom of the three faith traditions to address key issues going forward, regarding future possibilities and challenges for persons of faith in Canada.”

Mr. Lee says that OSTS approached the Jewish and Muslim communities about the idea and the response was encouraging. “People there were enthusiastic about holding an inter-religious event of this kind.  There is a great deal of mutual respect among us.” Continue reading Christians, Jews, Muslims plan Ottawa colloquium

Pope Benedict XVI as communicator

Pope Benedict XVI as communicator
Pope Benedict XVI as communicator

Pope Benedict XVI has left the scene and I want briefly to look at his performance as a communicator. A past anecdote may be instructive here. I worked in communications with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) for four years in the early 1990s. Those were not easy days for the church. Issues regarding the sexual abuse of children by clerics and the church’s role in residential schools were becoming hot topics and causing great angst.  I recall asking one of the bishops if we should do some public opinion polling. He was amused and replied, “Bishops don’t ask for advice, they provide it.”

When Benedict succeeded Pope John Paul II in 2005, much was made of their different personalities.  John Paul had been widely hailed as a great communicator while Benedict was considered to be more cerebral and introverted. John Paul was indeed a charismatic man but his communication was mostly all one way. He believed, as popes and bishops have over the centuries, that they are the repository of God’s wisdom and it is their duty to share it with the rest of us.

In that fundamental way, there was virtually no difference between the two popes. Now, on the  threshold of a new papacy, we are being told that we should not expect the message to change, no matter who is elevated.  Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto likes to say that Moses did not descend from the mountain with Ten Suggestions in hand. The church’s message apparently is fixed.  What is at stake in communicating that message is not a change in substance but rather in the style of delivery. Continue reading Pope Benedict XVI as communicator

Make climate change an election issue

By Dennis Gruending

'Politicians are not serious about about a carbon tax'I was in an Ottawa church basement along with about 80 other people a few days after the election call listening to three church leaders on a panel called Environment & Climate in Peril. The frustration was palpable. “Climate change is the key moral and ethical dilemma of our time and we have to engage it,” said Rev. Lillian Roberts from the United Church’s Ottawa presbytery. “We are facing a developing crisis and there is a need for an urgent response, but you won’t hear about it on the leaders’ debates,” said David Selzer, Executive Archdeacon, Anglican Diocese of Ottawa.

Sadly that is probably true. American economist William Nordhaus says that any politician who will not support placing a price on carbon is not really serious about slowing climate change. This pricing can come in the form of a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, which allows companies exceeding set carbon emission limits to buy credits from companies that create less carbon pollution.

In Canada, the whole issue was sidelined after the 2008 election when the Conservatives launched a devastating attack against Stephane Dion’s Green Shift plan to tax carbon polluters and use the money collected to reduce personal income and other taxes. The Conservative mantra was that no tax is a good tax and that Dion’s proposals would ruin the economy. The Harper government promised to introduce intensity-based pollution targets for industry but they are a joke. They might slow the rate of increase in greenhouse gas emissions somewhat but would still allow them to rise for many years to come. Continue reading Make climate change an election issue

Bev Oda ignored CIDA, betrayed KAIROS

By Dennis Gruending

Bev Oda, minister in charge of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)A year ago I wrote stories about the Conservative government’s ham-handed bullying of the Canadian ecumenical social justice group KAIROS. The story is now in the news again in a way that would be comic if it were not so nasty. It provides yet another glimpse into the ideologically driven spitefulness of the government, not to mention the lack of competence and truthfulness on the part of Bev Oda, the minister in charge of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Let’s begin with some background. KAIROS is an ecumenical human rights and justice organization that acts on behalf of 11 of Canada’s churches and church-based organizations. It includes under its umbrella the Anglican, Catholic, Christian Reformed, Lutheran, Presbyterian and United Churches, as well as the Mennonite Central Committee, the Quakers and others. Continue reading Bev Oda ignored CIDA, betrayed KAIROS

Truth to Power — The Journalism of a Benedictine Monk

By Dennis Gruending

truth_to_power_cover_275.jpgI return to Saskatchewan every summer to visit friends and relatives and usually I drop in at St. Peter’s Abbey near Humboldt. I attended boarding school there in the 1960s and I retain a respect and fondness for the Benedictine monks. I spent several hours on my 2008 visit with Father Andrew Britz, the former editor of the Prairie Messenger, a newspaper published by the monks since 1904. Andrew, ill with Parkinson’s disease, asked if I would work with him to compile an anthology of his best writing during a long tenure as editor between 1983 and 2004. Our collaboration has resulted in a book called Truth to Power: The Journalism of a Benedictine Monk, which has been released by Kingsley Publishing of Calgary.

The book delves into debates and issues that have raged in Canadian church and society for the past twenty-five years: birth control, abortion, euthanasia, priestly celibacy, ordination of women, the church’s treatment of homosexuals, fundamentalism, ecumenism, sexual abuse, economic injustice, environmental abuse, and militarism. Andrew was, and remains, deeply committed to his church but he was fearless in speaking truth to popes and prime ministers, capitalists and clerics. His efforts were often not appreciated by those in power, not to mention some of his more traditional readers. There were discreet and at times public complaints about him to his abbot but Andrew’s monastic community protected him and allowed him to speak courageously. He called the church to a new age in the service of humanity.
Continue reading Truth to Power — The Journalism of a Benedictine Monk

Christians fleeing Middle East, says William Dalrymple

By Dennis Gruending

William DalrympleI travelled with my family in India in 2008 and my most useful guide was the writing of a Scot named William Dalrymple. This past spring we travelled in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan and found that Dalrymple has done it again in his book From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium, which was first published in 1997. Dalrymple searched out and described Christian communities in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel (including the occupied West Bank), and Egypt. While the book is a bit dated, it remains a compelling and useful resource describing the disturbing reality that Christians are either being forced out or are leaving the countries that he profiles. The most accommodating nation in the region is Syria and even there Christians fear for their future.

Dalrymple says that the great flowering of Christianity in the Middle East began after the Roman emperor Constantine declared in the 4th century that Christianity would be the official religion of the empire. The golden age, embodied in the Byzantine Christianity, lasted for about 300 years, until the rise of Islam in the 7th century. During that time, Dalrymple writes, “the Levant was the heartland of Christianity and the centre of Christian civilization.” But he writes that Christianity is suffering “a devastating decline in the land of its birth.”

Dalrymple certainly is not anti-Muslim. He says that for centuries the predominantly Muslim countries of the Ottoman Empire practiced a far greater tolerance for Christians and Jews in their midst than Christian countries of Europe did for either Jews or Muslims. “Only in the 20th century has that tolerance been replaced by new hardening in Islamic attitudes,” Dalrymple says, adding that this is in great part due to a series of humiliations visited upon Muslim countries by the West. “Almost everywhere . . . the Christians are leaving,” he says. Continue reading Christians fleeing Middle East, says William Dalrymple

Joe Gunn, public justice, Canadian churches

oe Gunn, executive director of Citizens for Public JusticeNote: Joe Gunn is executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, an Ottawa-based ecumenical group advocating for social justice. He has worked for churches and church organizations, mainly Catholics, in Canada and Latin America, and he was director for the Social Affairs office of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB). In March 2010, he delivered the Sommerville lecture in Christianity and Communications at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario. I am, with Gunn’s permission, providing here an excerpt from that speech.

On October 17th, 1996, Canadians turned on their evening newscast to hear CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge begin with these words: “Good evening. A blistering attack on governments across the country today, from Canada’s Roman Catholic bishops. The issue is poverty. The bishops accuse governments of using the most vulnerable people in society as human fodder in the battle against deficits. And the bishops weren’t the only ones speaking out…”

The bishops were holding their annual plenary gathering in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Before they began the meeting, however, the bishops of the Social Affairs Commission gathered with a roomful of local activists, including the president of the National Anti-Poverty Organization. To the assembled media, the bishops released their pastoral letter at Hope Cottage, a church-run soup kitchen in the downtown core. People living in poverty spoke, so it wasn’t only the bishops who got the microphone. And after the press conference, the media accompanied the men in black to serve lunch and eat together at the soup kitchen.

Today there seems to be a big change in terms of the public voice of the churches. The Catholic Church has not been totally silent, but if you go to the “Documents” section of the website of the Social Affairs Commission of the bishops, only one text has appeared since March 2008. Today, the capacity and determination of the churches to work for social and ecological justice seems weak. Service to the world now seems less of a concern than doctrine and maintenance of a shrinking membership base among the largest, historical denominations. Economically, the mainline churches are suffering, with unfortunate cuts to church staff and budgets becoming widespread. Is this change happening in all the Christian churches? Is there still a role for conscientious Christian leadership in public justice in Canadian society today? And if so, how might it best be done?

Should Christians be engaged?

Citizens for Public Justice [the organization that Gunn leads] believes that “if religion is understood to be one’s ultimate commitment or life orientation, then it cannot be confined to private life, particular rituals or institutions.” After all, why argue for keeping Christianity or Islam out of public life, when other “religious” value systems like capitalism, liberalism or humanism are not restricted? To ask a person of faith to leave their beliefs behind as soon as a political discussion begins is like asking a lung to refuse to breathe in air. The real issue is how people of faith can and should contribute to a hopeful citizenship.

Not only do Christians have to get involved in public justice, then, but the proper way to advance on this path to holiness is by addressing the causes of suffering of the poor, the disadvantaged, and the Earth community.

Status of faith-based work for justice

A month ago I contacted the social ministry offices of Canada’s nine largest Christian churches and asked if they’d answer a few questions about their social ministries. Eight of the nine were more than pleased to do so: only the CCCB refused to respond. I received helpful replies from the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada, the United Church in Canada, the Christian Reformed Church, Mennonite Central Committee, the Canadian Religious Conference, and the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC).

Among the nine church groupings in the survey, more than two-thirds have fewer staff resources today as compared to five years ago. Several organizations now use short-term internships filled especially by students. Increasingly, volunteers are mandated to serve on committees where staff once served. One respondent expressed disappointment that there were “few, if any” justice educational resources for church use in congregations, and expressed disappointment that there is “no capacity to draft briefs or make presentations to government committees.” When asked what had happened to budgets for this work of social ministry over the past five years, five of the groups reported that they had suffered decreases (some of even up to half), and two had no increase.

When asked about future expectations, six of eight churches that responded to this question expect decreased budgets in the short term future, with the larger groups at reductions of 9-10%, which are levels that could mean losing staff. One church office gave staff a week off without pay as a cost saving measure.

Finally, I asked the most difficult question: “Do you feel that your church office has increased, decreased or enhanced effectiveness in social justice ministries over the past five years?” Seven respondents answered. Three mentioned greatly decreased effectiveness, while two said things remained about the same. One respondent felt his church had “in practice, essentially abandoned its work on social justice” spending most of its time on internal issues and sexuality. This person added, “I suspect those who are passionate are working outside the formal church structures.”

Another revealing commentary was that, “With the sequential decimations of church office staff in all the important member churches of the CCC, there is nothing like the capacity there used to be to undertake substantial joint work compared to five years ago. We continue to rely on sister organizations for substantial policy work: Project Ploughshares, Citizens for Public Justice, KAIROS. . . but unfortunately, those partners are also vulnerable.”

The case of KAIROS

The situation of KAIROS having its funding cut by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has been in the news recently. What has not been well-covered is that official Catholic support for ecumenical social justice work through KAIROS has been curiously muted. Although both Development and Peace (D&P) and the Catholic bishops serve on KAIROS’ board, their financial commitment to the organization has diminished over the years. The Catholic bishops now give KAIROS $100,000, and all of that comes from D&P. Six years ago, they gave over $250,000. It is the faithful and generous contributions from religious sisters that maintain the Catholic contribution to this ecumenical social justice ministry today.

Not only financial support, but also political support has been waning. In early December, a memo sent to all the bishops reported, “the CCCB executive committee unanimously agreed that the Conference of Bishops will not embark on a campaign to pressure the government of Canada to reconsider its funding decision” concerning the cuts to KAIROS. The executive gave two reasons for inaction: “The international program of KAIROS has always been secondary for the CCCB,” and “The CCCB is not convinced that such a campaign will result in success.”

Contrast this response with that of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who stated on December 9 that, “The world needs more of KAIROS Canada. It would be an unparalleled setback for the poor, vulnerable and disenfranchised if the voice and work of KAIROS in the global South is muted.” The board of Citizens for Public Justice echoed this concern in their letter to the prime minister, stating “CPJ is concerned that this decision may be another in the trend to discontinue funding of groups who raise questions about current policies, thereby silencing some of the diverse voices that are essential for a healthy public debate about international issues of justice and stewardship.”

New tone needed

While the recent voices of the Christian churches in Canada have been muted and maligned when they have engaged in the public sphere, public dialogue and political advocacy are still constitutive elements of what it means to be a person of faith. But it seems clear that this must now be done differently than in the past.

First, there is still a role to play in defending ecumenical social justice ministry in the churches – I see no reason to cede hard won ground now occupied by the organizations like KAIROS that represent almost 40 years of struggling to live the Gospel faithfully in action. We cannot spend all our strength in attempting to maintain church structures for social ministry if these efforts make such demands upon our energy that we are not free to address the real social and ecological challenges that history places before us.

Secondly, lay people will have to lead the way in defending ecumenical social justice ministry in the Canadian churches, and even start new movements. We should get over any assumption that the churches’ social witness has to be further clericalized in order to be valid. Laypeople of all sexes should be able to reclaim their social mission as well as their contribution to the emerging non-white church’s more inclusive voice.

Thirdly, the way we’ve designed the process of preparing and delivering church statements must change. Have you ever been asked your opinion on an issue, or invited to help develop an opinion in dialogue, study and debate with your church leadership? If we don’t involve more people in these processes, we can’t expect them to fully accept any eventual stances as their own.

Fourthly, we need to walk the talk before we squawk. The example of the 1996 pastoral letter on poverty suggests how a process was developed to draft a message with others, and deliver this text with the only people who could be the architects of their own liberation: people with a lived experience of poverty. Otherwise, the message would have lacked authenticity and credibility.

Fifth, it is important to ensure that the spoken word of the churches is delivered to defend the poor and vulnerable. It is crucial and not always easy to ensure that these words do not arise in order to promote the churches’ own interests and reputations, instead.

Sixth, any pronouncement has to be delivered with appropriate humility. Polls tell us that Christianity is the affiliation of 77% of Canadians, but only 17% attended a place of worship in the previous week. As some say, “Canada is a nation of believers, but not belongers.” A Christendom view of the world is no longer prevalent. A whole new role, perhaps a smaller role, for organized Christian religions is emerging.

Perhaps the situation offers possibilities for groups like Citizens for Public Justice and other lay associations to be more collaborative and helpful to churches that are desirous of recovering their voice on public justice issues. And perhaps we need to remind ourselves that large, unwieldy institutions don’t always have the genetic make-up to be prophetic. The cutting edge seems to flourish more easily on the margins, in smaller groupings that are more nimble, responsive, and enjoy fewer organizational constraints. Perhaps the Christian voice in public affairs today should best be presented in new tones – but we should not accept that voice being either muted or maligned.

Jason Kenney as St. Francis of Assisi (not)

By Dennis Gruending

St. Francis of Assisi and St. Francis NotFormer Reform Party leader Preston Manning gathered members of the Canadian political and religious right for talk fest in Ottawa recently to strategize about how to win the nation for conservatism. Macleans magazine columnist Paul Wells wrote a piece about it called Hard Right Turn, which is where the Conservatives appear to be headed.  Another piece on the event that caught my eye was one by Lloyd Mackey, a journalist who writes mainly for evangelical Christian publications from his perch in the Parliamentary Press Gallery. I find Mackey’s columns interesting because he has good connections in the Conservative Party and with a segment of Canada’s Christian churches. Mackey was close to Preston Manning and once edited the Reform Party’s publication. He has also written books about Manning and his father Ernest, the late Social Credit premier of Alberta.

Mackey’s report from the Manning Centre hobnob began by invoking St. Francis of Assisi, who early in the 13th century is said to have written one of history’s most famous prayers. “O Divine Master,” he wrote, “grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.” Mackey picked up on St. Francis’ line about placing the understanding of others above being understood yourself. He then applied this wisdom to a recent controversy enveloping most of Canada’s mainline churches and the Conservative government.

Mackey describes how the topic arose in a conversation at Manning’s networking conference. “The subject, at that particular point,” Mackey wrote, “ was a recent conflict between a faith-based advocacy group and a government agency which had turned down funding for that particular group.” Mackey doesn’t name the group but it is KAIROS, the ecumenical justice and human rights organization, and the unnamed government agency is CIDA, which on November 30 suspended funding for KAIROS projects between 2009 and 2013. Mackey continues, “The speaker quoting St. Francis was trying to make the point that the advocacy group in question was more interested in getting its own viewpoint understood than it was in understanding the viewpoints of the people on the other side of the table.”

Mackey does not identify the speaker in this encounter either, but concludes: “He was putting forward the seemingly preposterous notion that an advocate should seek divine guidance in the quest of understanding an opposing viewpoint. And, if an advocate can get his or her mind around that humility-based concept, it could go a long way toward the accomplishing of goals that come out of reasonable compromise.”

Ah yes, but this does gloss over some other rather important details. CIDA’s removing of KAIROS funding is one thing. But Jason Kenney, the Immigration Minister, was not content to leave things rest there. Speaking at an international conference in Jerusalem on December 16, Kenney accused KAIROS of being anti-Semitic. This, one assumes, makes it rather difficult to turn the other cheek or to forgive someone seventy times seven. Kenney later insisted that he had not actually accused KAIROS of being anti-Semitic. His remarks, however, were recorded in audio and video. Listen to them here and judge for yourself.

KAIROS and its member churches have chosen not to go quietly into the night regarding the blowing up of their partnership with CIDA after 35 years of co-operation in the case of some of member organizations. The KAIROS response, however, has been quite conventional. The organization has asked people in member churches and organizations  — Catholic, United, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches, as well as the Mennonite Central committee and the Quakers – to write or send emails to their local MPs, the Prime Minister, and CIDA minister Bev Oda. Leaders from the KAIROS coalition also held a news conference on Parliament Hill, and member organizations have lobbied dozens of MPs, focusing mainly on the Conservatives. The delegation that met with Transport Minister John Baird included his former Sunday school teacher.

The Mackey article continues: “But my speaker friend who was interpreting St. Francis was exercising a different kind of thinking. Admittedly, advocates — and their sometimes symbiotically-linked cousins, absolutists — would find that difficult, particularly if their work and stances come out of a narcissistic mindset.” This is a rather odd non sequitur, but being called narcissistic is likely far less painful for KAIROS staff and member churches than being called anti-Semitic.

Unfortunately, no one has applied an analysis of Franciscan precepts to Jason Kenney. One fine Franciscan line that comes to mind is: “Lord make me an instrument of your peace.” Mr. Kenney is allegedly a devout Catholic so he should know all about the peace and love advocated by St. Francis. Kenney attended Notre Dame, a Catholic college at Wilcox, Saskatchewan, so he cannot plead ignorance on these matters. 

Kenney has been an MP since 1997. He used his contacts in the Christian right in 2000 to organize on behalf of Stockwell Day for his campaign against Preston Manning for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance party. Day won but suffered a self-inflicted meltdown and Stephen Harper defeated him in  yet another leadership convention in 2002. When the Harper-led Conservatives became the government, Kenney became a trusted attack dog, a kind of Churchill without the wit. Kenney was also given a key responsibility in winning over new Canadians and certain religiously identified groups to support the Conservatives.

Under Stephen Harper, with Kenney running interference, the Conservatives have clearly chosen sides in the Middle East conflict – supporting Israeli no matter what actions it undertakes. There is no subtlety here. Question the policies of the Canadian government and you will be punished. Question the policies of the Israeli government and you are called anti-Semitic.

Canada’s respected Rights and Democracy organization found that out early in 2010. The Conservatives appointed new board members who forced the resignation of the organization’s president Rémy Beauregard at a tense board meeting. Mr. Beauregard died of a heart attack later the same day. Conservative appointees to the board of Rights and Democracy accused the organization of being anti-Israel, a charge similar to that launched by Kenney against KAIROS. The research, if it can be described as such, for both of these charges may have arisen from one source – a right wing Israel-based group called NGO Monitor. In an investigative piece, Macleans’ Paul Wells reports that Gerald Steinberg, an Israeli political scientist, also runs NGO Monitor. Steinberg published an Opinion Editorial in the Jerusalem Post congratulating the Canadian government for its actions against both KAIROS and Rights and Democracy. Wells writes: “Steinberg’s list of organizations he regards as anti-Israel is long. In one publication he decries CIDA aid to what he calls ‘extremist political groups’ opposed to Israel, among which he counts Médecins du Monde, Oxfam, and the Mennonite Central Committee of Canada.”

Whoops! The Mennonite Central Committee? Extremist? I beg your pardon. These attacks are over the top. I am not a Mennonite but my wife is and I have often attended church with her. If there is any organization that exemplifies the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, it is the Mennonite Central Committee. Kenney may well find that he has over-reached by deliberately putting a stick in the eye of Mennonites, Quakers, Catholics and mainline Protestants. I am told the KAIROS protests will continue, with homilies, public meetings, lobbying, musical events, even a photo contest – all done quietly, gently, and firmly, in a Franciscan manner.