Thursday, June 26, 2008

Mainstream Canadian Christians Naming and Opposing Empire?

Working on the current chapter of my book is prompting me to go all sorts of places that I normally wouldn't. I admit there are times this feels like a bit of a burden, but then I find some truly fascinating things. Like check out the report "Living Faithfully in the Midst of Empire" from the United Church of Canada -- a page linking to the report itself and various appendices is here, and the PDF of the core of the report can be downloaded directly here.

Now, I could go through that document and find ways that I don't think it goes far enough or that I think differently or places where it uses questionable language or whatever -- that's what we wordy types on the left do to each other, right? I could also probably present a case for skepticism based on an analysis of the institution that produced it. In doing so, I would not necessarily be saying much of anything that is terribly specific to the United Church of Canada, just moving forward from a recognition that mainstream churches of any size cannot help but be tightly integrated into relations of ruling.

But even with those caveats, I still find this to be a pretty remarkable document. This report was produced at the request of the highest decision-making body of the largest Protestant denomination in Canada. It has been accepted by that body and is currently the focus of a process of reflection within the church, with another report to follow some time next year. It explicitly names neoliberalism as a central problem of our times and explicitly frames the discussion in the language of empire. It calls for examining our complicity as individuals and the complicity of the church as a whole in empire, and for working to end that complicity and to transform the world. It makes heavy use of the insights and stories both of oppressed people within Canada and partners of the United Church in countries of the so-called Third World to support its call for Canadian Christians to reflect on and work against empire.

Obviously the ultimate meaning of this sort of document comes not from the words it contains but from the ability of people within the United Church to use it as a focus for popular education. And that, I'm sure, is an uphill battle, just because that sort of thing is an uphill battle in any mainstream setting in a privileged country like Canada. Will there be chatter in the pews of United Churches in Sudbury about Canada's complicity in empire at home and abroad? I'm not so sure. But I do wish luck to those who are taking on the task of using this document to engage in practices of transformative pedagogy.

2 comments:

hysperia said...

I sent a link to your post to a friend of mine who is a longtime member of the United Church in a B.C. town near Vancouver. She just wrote back, thanking me for directing you to your post and telling me that in her church, there has been discussion, both formal and informal,of the document you're referring to.
I'm not a church person of any kind myself, but was raised a Roman Catholic. I must say, I find the contemporary United Church to be the most clearly focussed on social justice and social action of any Xian group I'm aware of. I share your scepticism, but I think the UC might not be such a bad place to be.

Scott said...

Hi hysperia!

That's great to hear that they've been talking about this document in your friend's church. I agree that the United Church appears to have the greatest institutional commitment to social justice of Canadian Xian groups, or at least those of any size -- certainly the Quakers and the Catholic Workers and others do important work as well, but they are much, much smaller. The United Church is definitely a place where people who are committed both to social justice and to Christianity can exist and live those commitments and have an environment where they can engage with their peers around political issues with some degree of legitimacy.

I think that is good and important, but like I say in the post I think the reality of the church being integrated into relations of ruling also cannot be forgotten. Partly that means that the visibility of social justice issues in United Churches varies a lot from congregation to congregation. Partly that means at the level of the institution as a whole having to deal with issues in very contradictory ways. For instance, in dealing with ordination of lesbians and gay men in the '80s, the church never left a liberal framework...it was great that they dealt with it in a relatively queer positive way before any other major denomination, but they also did so in ways that left queer ministers and congregants open to really, really hurtful stuff. And there are also older examples as well of the United Church or the entities which existed prior to church union making powerful statements in words but consistently stumbling when it came to figuring out how to turn that prophetic vision into religious and political practice that matched it.

Of course, everything and everywhere is shot through with contradictions, and it wouldn't do to forget that either by having unreasonable expectations of a particular institution...it's definitely great to have found this document and to hear that it is being actively discussed!