Sunday, August 12, 2012

Justice, kindness and humility in the United Church of Canada

Text: Michah 6:6-8 (What does the Lord require of you?)

When I was growing up in Cornwall Ontario, issues of justice and equality seemed to dominate worship at the United Church in which my father was minister. We often focused on poverty in the Global South and on our responsibility as people who live in a rich and privileged country to give generously to foreign missions. As well, we were urged to imagine a different world where wealth would be shared more equally.

It was also around this time that concerns about the environment first began to appear in the media. Having become aware of some of these environmental issues, I argued with my father that our church should stop focusing so much attention on poverty in the South and instead wake up to the fact that Canada was also at risk. I argued that the environment should be our top concern.

I remembered that argument with my father as I prepared for this service with its focus on social justice. None of us are opposed to justice, peace and equality. But how do we decide which are the most important issues; and how should the church try to tackle them? In other words, what does the Lord require of us?

Micah's answer to that question -- to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God -- provides the theme for this week's meeting of the United Church of Canada's General Council. 350 commissioners from across Canada are gathered in Ottawa under the banner "Seeking, Loving, and Walking." General Council is the highest governing body of our church and meets once every three years.

The phrase from Micah, "to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God,"  is one of the most well-loved passages in the Old Testament. This is especially the case in liberal denominations like the United Church. The passage says that acting justly and with kindness and humility is more important in God's eyes than how we worship or what we believe.

So this weekend as commissioners from across Canada begin their week-long meeting of prayer, discernment, and decision-making, I look at the place of social justice, loving-kindness, and humility in the life of the United Church.

Humility did not come easily to the United Church. Our church was founded in 1925 in a huge burst of enthusiasm. By combining the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist churches in Canada, we became the largest Protestant denomination in Canada. At our height 55 years ago, more than 30% of English Canadians saw the United Church as their spiritual home. We were an inspired and inspiring church, and we used our prominence to take a lead on many social issues in Canada. 

There wasn't much controversy about the liberal nature of the United Church and its political positions until the 1960s. Then the cultural upheavals in the United States around civil rights for African Americans and women, opposition to the war in Vietnam, and the rise of a youth culture of sex, drugs and rock and roll upset the confidence and unity of North American churches.

In the decades since then, churches have chosen one of two political paths. Some like the United Church have remained liberal. We support the rights of poor nations in the South and oppressed minorities in our own country. Other churches emphasize conservative themes such as support for the dominance of Western countries and traditional notions of marriage and morality.

It is not true that some churches are political and others are not. All denominations take a keen interest in social and political concerns, which makes sense when we remember Jesus' ministry. Jesus worked among the poor and he stood in opposition to the Roman Empire of his day. What is most striking to me is how the church has so often supported Empire -- archbishops crowning kings, popes crowning emperors, and clergy everywhere urging young men to march off to war in defence of the empire -- all of which seems completely foreign to the work of Jesus' with the victims of empire.

But while all churches have political concerns, all of us have also had to adjust to the church's reduced power in Canadian society in recent decades. When the United Church's General Council last met in Ottawa in 1958, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker addressed it. Today it is unthinkable that Prime Minister Stephen Harper would address the meeting.

Despite this decline in our prestige, it is church statements on political topics that give us the most media coverage. On the left, people complain when conservative churches pressure the government to enforce traditional morality around issues like abortion or marriage. 

On the right, people complain when a church takes a stand against imperialism. This year, the hot button topic for the United Church is again Israel and Palestine. Nine members of the Canadian Senate, all of whom are members of the United Church,  recently wrote an Open Letter to the General Council criticizing a report on Israel/Palestine whose recommendations will be discussed at the meeting this week.

Personally, I am pleased with this report, which was written by three church leaders including a former Moderator. I am in sympathy with its recommendations that we oppose continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank of the Jordan and Gaza Strip. On the other hand, I can understand why some people might be upset.

Until the last few generations, churches always supported the empires in which they had been nurtured. In World War I, it would have been unthinkable for German churches to oppose the Kaiser in his attempt to break free of British dominance of the world, just as it would have been unthinkable for the churches in Britain or Canada not to support the King in his attempt to keep Germany from succeeding. 

I am unsure if many of us in the United Church understand how big the change in our stance towards empire has been in the last 100 or even 50 years. I am pleased that our church tries to raise awareness of problems associated with Western imperialism. I think such work is well-grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, this orientation marks a 180 degree change from where the church stood for more than 1500 years. 

One of the reasons churches are now free to speak out against the evils of racism, war, and pollution is because we no longer play a key role in propping up the status quo. That role is now taken by the media, the school system, and other cultural forces. Churches have freedom to speak the Gospel truth as we see it because we are no longer considered all that important.

Church today has been shunted to the margins. This fact might make some of us feel nostalgic or sad. But the margins are also humble places, and as such, they are places from which we have a better chance to seek justice and practice loving-kindness to ourselves and our neighbours, I believe.

Humility seems like a good place to start when it comes to some of the big social problems of our time, problems such as nuclear weapons, climate change, environmental destruction, or peace in the Middle East. We try to respond to God's call to seek justice on such issues. But what one person, church, or even nation can do about such problems does not often seem clear.

I think that the United Church more or less gets it right. We take big issues seriously and we oppose economic or political policies that we believe might make things worse. On the other hand, we do so as a diminished force in our country and with the awareness that we don't have easy solutions for any of them.

So even as we seek justice, we are graciously forced to walk humbly with our God. This humble path is shown to us most clearly in the Way of the Cross of Christ. It is on this marginal path that we can also best show loving kindness to ourselves and our neighbours. We may not know how to slow climate change or keep the world safe from nuclear war. But we can be there for our neighbours when they mourn the loss of a loved one or celebrate a joyous occasion. We can try to be the hands and feet of Christ to one another in small ways even as we try to make our voices heard on bigger issues.

In this life, we encounter many problems, big and small. Life's ups and downs also force us to confront our limitations. We are broken sinners and holy fools; and the church is made up of other people as broken and as foolish as we are. 

Despite or because of our lack of power, we are free to speak truth to power and to stand with other oppressed and marginal people. In church as in the rest of life, we don't have easy answers. Instead, we have the suffering Christ who walks with us in our pain, our joy and our struggles for a world of more peace and justice.

So as General Council unfolds over the next week, let us pray that the delegates will feel the presence of the Crucified and Risen Christ. As they seek justice, may they know that they are broken and holy fools. And may all of us receive the grace to respond in love and kindness to everyone we meet and walk humbly with God in Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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