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Faith and Citizenship

Speech given to the Empire Club, January 21, 2004

Archbishop Michael Peers

Over the course of my lifetime, the public role of religion in Canada has steadily diminished. There are reasons for this. For example, the emergence of a multicultural society and the corresponding recognition of the consequences of religious conflict in the past have led us to a kind of hesitant caution. We have treated religion as a dangerous commodity, likely to lead either to conflict or to religiously motivated repression if allowed too much scope in public life. This dynamic is not a new one, and I will return to it later to offer some key instances from the past.

Over the course of the same lifetime, public discourse concerning citizenship has been degraded almost to the point of extinction, replaced by the language of "taxpayers." I believe that these two trends are connected, and that we will need the resources and imagination of Canada's religious traditions, and a renewed public role for those traditions, if we are to recover the practices of citizenship upon which we depend for the common good.

At the same time, I recognize--in fact, I celebrate--that such a renewal cannot be constructive if it is essentially nostalgic. The future we seek will not be served by a return to the old days, in which a distilled and nominal Christianity influenced and constrained public life. Nevertheless, the religious traditions that shape the spiritual lives of Canadians have a vital contribution to make to our public life and the common good.

In about 10 days, I will be the former Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, a church with 700,000 members (by census) and over 200,000 active members. Those members share, week-by-week, in ancient and deep-rooted traditions and rituals that address the human condition and the human vocation. They listen, week by week, to the voices of ancestors, people of other times and cultures, as they speak in scripture of their encounter with God. Though they hear the same scriptures, they are often at odds over the meaning of those scriptures. Sometimes they explore those differences in patient and respectful conversation, and sometimes in a less respectful, more aggressive and aggrieved way. I know similar dynamics are present in the lives of other Christian traditions, as well as in other religious traditions.

Whatever the public contribution of faith may be, then, it will not be a matter of delivering a moral or spiritual consensus. But what if the point is not conceptual agreement, but a shared probing of divine and human truth? And if that is the case within a single religious tradition, how much more must it be so in the relationship between and among the living religions of the world? Religious communities and leaders are called to stand down from the certainties that bring us into conflict with one another, and to embrace the conversation by which together we might serve the common good. Such a conversion, among people of faith, is a necessary condition for renewing our public contribution to the life of our society. If we cannot, as communities and people of faith, assure our fellow citizens that our discourse is not toxic with the hostility that has too often characterized it in the past, we will not be granted a hearing for the deep and holy wisdom entrusted to our care.

That wisdom is particularly crucial as the field of vision in our society narrows to matters of self-interest for individuals and the groups to which they belong. The devolution by which we have replaced "citizen" with "tax-payer" in the lexicon of civic discourse is only one example of that narrowing. Participation in public life, shrinking rates of volunteerism, the decreasing proportion of eligible voters who trouble themselves to vote, the emergence of "gated" communities, NIMBYism, and a willingness to strip benefits from the vulnerable in order to enrich the strong are all signs that a growing number of our fellow-citizens have lost confidence in the common good.

A key element of constructive self-awareness, both for faith communities, and for society as a whole, is "stewardship." A steward is a person entrusted with the care and use of something that does not belong to him or her. Democratic societies entrust a great deal to our government. Free-market economies entrust a great deal to business and industry. Accountability for the decisions of political leaders is managed through Parliament and the electoral process. Accountability for the decisions of economic leaders is managed through market processes, and boundaries for economic activity are often established by government. Additionally, both economic and political stewardship is affected by the murkier business of "public opinion" or "public mood."

It has probably always been true that societies hold governments accountable in terms of the material well-being and safety of persons and communities. The current emphasis on the economy and security, then, is not an innovation. What is new, however, is the extent to which other concerns have disappeared from the political agenda of our society. A recent premier of this province, for example, could dismiss advocates for the poor as simply "interest groups" and treat them with suspicion and even derision. When those who are vulnerable (by whatever combination of choices and circumstances) are dismissed as an interest group, I would argue that our collective sense of stewardship has become alarmingly narrow and quite possibly destructive of the common good. Since, in the long run, all but the most affluent and privileged members of society are served by the common good, the reduction of public discourse to matters of lower taxes and increased consumption at the expense of, for example, education, health care, and housing will undermine the quality of life for almost all persons in the society.

What we are seeing in our society, where the concept of "citizen" has been narrowed to that part of citizenship that pays taxes, is a narrowing of discourse to such a degree that truth's wideness is lost. Similarly, when "security" is understood in terms other than a common security grounded in the common good, not only does the world become generally a more dangerous place, but it becomes more dangerous for each individual as well.

In response to this narrowing of the terms of reference, religious communities can serve the common good in three ways. The first is that we can explore and then model new forms of relationship in which mutual hostility yields to shared responsibility. The second is that we can bring to public discourse the incredible and expansive wealth of images, possibilities, hopes and warnings that are entrusted to us in our traditions, our rituals, our sacred writings and our histories. Finally, we can offer the spiritual resources of our traditions to persons, communities and societies, rather than asserting the essential and unquestionable truth of those traditions or insisting that we should be entitled to impose them.

We do not need to account for our faith in universal terms, but in the more modest terms--grounded in the particulars of our lives, our time, our heritage--of authenticity, legitimacy, and spiritual value for some or for many. Asking others to tell us how their religious tradition strengthens their human living and contributes to the common good is a sensible and constructive place to begin this conversation. It offers reciprocal respect and the possibility of relationship where, all too often, hostility and separation seem to dominate.

Having entered the discipline of commitment to our own religious traditions without diminishing the traditions of others, religious communities are legitimately positioned to offer critical reflection out of those traditions, reflection that will strengthen the human practices of our common life in society. In the past, religious institutions, and churches in particular, have focused on the kind of influence that comes through advocating particular public policy on issues such as poverty, peace, and economic justice. The impact of such advocacy has diminished significantly over the past few decades. Just as the prophetic tradition in Israel depended on the prophets' privileged access to the kings, so the advocacy model of public witness depended on the access of religious leaders to the policy world of political leaders. That access no longer exists as it once did in Canada, and there is some question as to whether it was ever particularly effective even when it had that access. Included in the cost of such access was co-operation with the government in, for example, the Indian Residential Schools, co-operation that has cost the churches deeply--in credibility as well as in dollars.

The public witness of religious faith needs to shift its main emphasis from the prescriptive practice of advocacy to practices of describing the world, in the public square, in ways that call into question the narrow vision of human life and human economy that dominates contemporary political imagination. Religions, narrative, poetic and legal traditions shaped over thousands of years, create opportunities for human imagination--of the peaceable kingdom (Isaiah), of economic justice (Amos), of compassionate concern for the poor (Ruth, Leviticus), of the end of death's ultimate power (the resurrection narratives). They open up new ground for what we mean when we say "human," and because they offer witness that has stood the test of time, they belong in the public life of our country as we consider shared and public commitments and actions that will contribute to the common good.

That new ground is the ground of imagination, and the crisis of our common life at this time is a crisis of imagination. In a study of the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Pinochet regime in Chile, William Cavanaugh defines imagination as "the drama in which bodies are invested." In contemporary Canada, that drama is all too often a consumer drama in which persons are reduced to our less noble qualities and our desires are narrowed into the acquisition of stuff, status and, if we are truly ambitious, power.

To this crisis of imagination, religious traditions invite us into the possibility of that there is more to our humanity than meets the eye. It is hard work moving towards the fullness of our human endowment, but there is joy and grace in the work, and in the celebration of that work. We are more than consumers, more than players seeking a market advantage, more than taxpayers seeking to minimize our financial commitment to the common good, more than the fragmented version of our humanity that dominates public discourse and imagination today. It is the work of religious traditions to bring that "more" into focus, to illuminate it by the wisdom of ancestors, to dramatize it in ritual, to exercise it in service, to celebrate it in worship.

In an article in Maclean's magazine in October, 2001, historians Jack Granatstein and Norman Hillmer described the core values of western civilization as "pluralism, secularism, and democracy." In my New Year's Day sermon in 2002, I questioned both the truth and the wisdom of that description, lamenting the ascendancy of one belief system, "secularism" without adequate critical reflection on its meaning or impact. I argued that pluralism and secularism are profoundly at odds in a society such as Canada's, whose members come from a wide range of diverse cultures. Those cultures, I argued then, and continue to believe, cannot be treated as mere "folk-lore." New Canadians have always come with significant commitments to the spiritual or religious dimension of the cultures that shaped and formed them. Secularism, far from embracing multiculturalism, seeks to reduce those ancient cultures to language, food, and music; it does not welcome cultures--it seeks to cut them off from their spiritual roots.

In response to that sermon, Robert Fulford took me to task in the pages of the National Post. Arguing that religious belief continues to flourish and that any religion seeks political power as it expands, he misunderstood my argument. My concern is not for the wellbeing of religions. Fulford is right; religions flourish, sometimes in ways that are not good either for their adherents or for the world. My concern is not about the lack of political influence of religions in Canada, but about their absence from public discourse and events. That absence removes from religions the sobering reality of public accountability while denying our public life access to the depth and scope of spiritual traditions shaped over thousands of years. This public realm stands between the political and the private. It is a place primarily of conversation, a place in which social values are forged, shared and submitted to critical reflection. Its events do not belong to the government, but to the people. When people gather in memorial services such as the one on Parliament Hill following the events of September 11, 2001, what is in play is the common grief of a community. When the state decides that there is no room in such public occasions for the spiritual traditions by which citizens come to terms with grief, it exceeds its authority. Taken to extremes, such intrusions of political power into the public life in which we encounter one another in moments crucial or pedestrian are the basis of authoritarian or even totalitarian government. Where governments manage public life, human freedom in community is compromised.

I can understand the attraction of a sanitized public life for those who want to preserve social order and public calm. No doubt the absence of religious references in the September 11 memorial service on Parliament Hill took into account the inflamed sensibilities of many Canadians in response to Islam and to Muslims. How much more effective might it have been, though, for the government to function not as "host" of that event, but as an agency that could bring together Christians, Muslims and Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Hindus in a vital conversation about how to share in a public celebration without compromising the traditions and insights of the participating religions? Instead, the government acted to rinse out any reference to religious tradition, wisdom, and history, leaving the impression that the deep beliefs and values of millions of citizens are unwelcome, unnecessary, and probably destructive in public life. No longer able to keep religions apart, we have decided to keep them invisible. That is not good enough, and it will not work. As a British Columbian by birth I can remember when it was against the law for a priest to wear a cassock on the street--a law reflecting 19th-century anti-Roman Catholicism. As a UBC graduate I recall that the early 20th-century charter of that university expressly forbids the teaching of theology (embarrassing when the university wanted to cash in on the booming field of religious studies in the 1960s and '70s). A more serious contemporary and thorough example of the same diehard secularism is the dangerous decision of the government of France to deny to young Muslim women the headscarf, to young Jewish men the skullcap and to young Christians a cross of any significant size (such as this one). Contrast this with the Canadian solution which allows Sikhs in the RCMP the traditional turban. A conversation among religious communities and leaders, held in the open air of public life, can be held accountable to the common good, a good which each religion claims to serve. And that conversation can, at the same time, raise up images of the fully human life that transcend the injustices and banalities that reduce the complexities of citizenship to the more manageable calculus of "citizen" and "consumer."

Both of these outcomes are vital--not to the well-being of religions, but to the well-being of society. Religious communities and leaders can remind one another and society at large of the dangers at hand when spiritual vision is abandoned in favour of the endless struggle for stuff, status, and power which can easily dominate the public imagination.

One way of understanding the role of religious faith among citizens has to do with human motivation and behaviour. A citizen may obey the law because it is prudent to do so. The state, after all, has the power to enforce the law and to punish those who do not obey it. But there can be no effective civil law that compels such things as generosity, service, and compassion. Even the 40 hours of community service required for secondary school graduation in Ontario can be fulfilled grudgingly and without accomplishing any substantial good in society, or any meaningful commitment to service in the lives of students. Society is protected from our worst behaviour and its consequences by legislation, enforcement, and consequences. But legislation cannot call out the best of our humanity. And while I would not want to claim that only religions can fulfill that role, religions have--at their best--contributed to human willingness to sacrifice personal desires for the good of another, and personal comfort for the safety or well-being of another.

This conversation belongs in the public life of our country. The religious traditions that express the spiritual lives of millions of Canadians can help us understand and reach for the best of our humanity.

Faith and citizenship can nourish one another, if faith will be modest in its certainties and committed to a common interest in the common good, and if citizenship will expand its vision beyond the narrow boundaries within which it is constrained.

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