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On the Road Together towards Justice

Review of Journeys to Justice (Novalis, 2018) by Joe Gunn

How should churches deal with political issues? That question has long sparked incandescent discussions among Christians. Many hold that God calls Christians to promote public justice. Yet we differ strongly on what those policies and which political parties, if any, Christians should support. With many white evangelicals backing Donald Trump in 2016’s presidential campaign, the issue soared into public consciousness, triggering months of embarrassing negative media coverage.

The Christian Reformed Church is no stranger to this controversy.

The Christian Reformed Church is no stranger to this controversy. Within the CRC an articulate group holds that the denomination should “advocate,” but not “lobby,” for issues of social justice. With synodical direction, the denomination’s Office of Social Justice and Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue do urge members to support or criticize a wide variety of social issues that lawmakers are discussing. Where do we draw the lines?

Canadian churches’ stories

Joe Gunn’s new book, Journeys to Justice: Reflections on Canadian Christian Activism (Novalis) doesn’t give a final response to this question, but offers a survey of churches’ and Christians’ contributions to Canadian struggles for justice. Gunn serves as Executive Director of Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ), one of several social movements born from Abraham Kuyper’s theology that nourished the spirits and lives of many post-war Dutch immigrants in Canadian CRCs.

Gunn feels great urgency in sharing these inspiring and often historic stories, because many churches have recently cut social justice staff. In particular, he is angry at the Catholic bishops’ exit from KAIROS, one Canadian ecumenical group to which the CRC belongs. That move has caused a “deplorable crisis in Canadian ecumenical justice work” (p. 13).

Churches and refugees

Gunn continues to ten first-person interviews with main players in Canadian ecumenical justice victories. Several stories will ring true with CRC members in both the U.S. and Canada. Mennonite Bill Janzen describes the long process leading to Canada’s 1978 Immigration Act. This law established the criteria for refugees, thus opening up Canada to thousands of Indochinese people fleeing war-torn homelands, especially the Vietnamese people who were the largest group of refugees to arrive in CRC churches through World Renew in the early years of sponsorship.

Since then dozens of congregations have resettled some 9000 refugees from many nations.

The CRC signed a Master Agreement as a government-recognized sponsorship organization (Sponsorship Agreement Holder) on April 5, 1979. Since then dozens of congregations have resettled some 9000 refugees from many nations. During the Syrian refugee crisis World Renew’s Refugee Office arranged for nearly 50 CRCs to sponsor Syrian families. CRCs in the U.S. have also welcomed many refugees in this long campaign of mercy. Sadly, such blessings will be hard to replicate in the U.S. since recent cuts severely limit numbers of refugees the U.S. will accept.

Justice for Indigenous peoples

In the 1970s lawyer John Olthuis, was research director of the Committee for Justice and Liberty (CJL), CPJ’s precursor. Raised in the CRC, he led Project North that gained a long-standing moratorium on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. In a case crucial to that event, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of CJL’s suit, resulting in the dismissal of the National Energy Board’s biased chair.

Leading to the moratorium, many CRCs and other churches held meetings whose primary aim was to defend the rights of the Dene people to make decisions on development on traditional lands. The same spirit that birthed Project North still breathes in the Canadian CRC. Urban Aboriginal Ministry centres in Edmonton, Regina, and Winnipeg continue more than 50 years of ministry among Indigenous people.

Churches and Canada’s health care

Although the CRC did not participate directly in developing Canada’s national health care program, Gunn interviews Peter Noteboom for that story. Noteboom is a former member of the CRC’s Board of Trustees and General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC), to which the CRC also belongs. As Associate Secretary of the CCC’s Justice and Peace arm, he helped create the Ecumenical Health Care Network that in the early 2000s influenced the Royal Commission on Health Care in Canada’s report and recommendations.

Other chapters do not have a direct CRC connection, but many members have deeply invested in the other stories told. Gunn gives voice to Protestant and Catholic church leaders active in projects to promote women’s rights and safety, cancellation of the debts of Global South nations, and more.

Dreams for the future

Journeys final chapters look hopefully to the future of justice work by faith-based groups. In a thrilling essay Lutheran pastor and teacher David Pfrimmer describes two forms of ecumenism in Canada. He defines “pastoral ecumenism” as conversations among churches for mutual understanding, thus distinguishing it from “public ecumenism” that urges wider Canadian society to action.

Jesus’ resurrection reminds us that far stranger things have happened.

Churches, however, have lost influence because of sex scandals and participation in residential schools that tried to “kill the Indian in the child.” Pfrimmer considers this an opportunity for a next necessary step to find strength in weakness—perhaps like the early Church. Thus he daringly calls for “public multi-faithism” to unite different faith and worldview groups for justice. Calling Jesus the “master adventure guide” in crossing borders, Pfrimmer envisions cooperation among faith groups so that Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Indigenous peoples can be themselves, yet work together for common goals.

Who knows? Might God somehow, mysteriously, surprisingly use this wild dream project as part of our eschatological Hope for Christ to reconcile all things to himself? Well, Jesus’ resurrection reminds us that far stranger things have happened.

Would you like to purchase a copy of Journeys to Justice? Visit CPJ's website

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