Prophetic ministry, resurgent

Anglicans kick their political theology up a notch

Immigration lawyer Mitchell Goldberg speaks out against Bill C-31 on the steps of Quebec City’s Anglican cathedral. Photo courtesy of Bruce Myers.

In March I wrote an article for The Tyee called “Occupy the Pews,” exploring the idea of prophetic ministry. That’s when members of a church apply Christian teachings to the world around them, which often means confronting uncomfortable contradictions, speaking truth, and challenging power.

Effective prophets, like Jesus of Nazareth, tend to have short careers.

I argued that with its clear values and existing infrastructure, the Anglican Church of Canada should be a powerful organ of progressive social change. Yet this impulse is often stymied by the practicalities of institutional survival. The Church struggles constantly to reconcile its spiritual calling with real-world politics and economics.

Those challenges continue, but as spring arrives across Canada there are signs of stirring.

Bill C-31: Protecting Canada’s Immigration System

On April 26th a few dozen parishioners gathered by candlelight in Quebec City. It was a quiet launch to a new era, one of clear and open opposition to the current federal government.

Bill C-31, as proposed, will put refugees arriving in Canada at the mercy of the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. Jason Kenney will have the power to designate any country he wishes as “safe,” meaning Canada’s trade relationships could trump the danger faced by claimants because of their politics, sexuality, race, gender or religion.

This is grim news for Chinese citizens who annoy the Politburo, or Mexicans fleeing murderous drug gangs.

Bill C-31 will render the notion of “permanent” residency a dark joke. At a wave of the Minister’s hand, refugee status may be stripped and permanent residents deported — regardless of the life they’ve built here. If Kenney’s courting of “the ethnic vote” is the carrot, this is the stick: keep your head down or you’ll go back where you came from.

Kenney’s recent vow to stem the tide of “bogus Roma refugees” is an uncomfortable reminder of what the Roma used to be called — Gypsies — and their treatment by right-wing regimes in Europe.

Mitchell Goldberg (pictured above) invokes other historical echoes. At the Quebec City vigil, the Vice-president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers spoke about the S.S. St. Louis, a boat laden with German Jews that was turned back from Halifax in 1939.

Under Bill C-31, Goldberg anticipates the government’s line would be: “The S.S. St. Louis was piloted by human smugglers intent on abusing Canadian immigration system.” Passengers would be automatically detained for one year.

“Even if they are accepted as refugees,” says Goldberg, “they are ineligible to sponsor family members for five years. By that time, it would be 1944, and too late.”

Goldberg’s Holocaust reference steps directly on the toes of a government known for its pro-Israel stance and enthusiasm for war.

Noëlla Iriho knows war, real war. At age 11, she was caught on a bridge in Congo with other refugees from Burundi. The gunmen chasing them began firing into the crowd. Noëlla escaped into the forest, believing her mother and sister to be dead.

Five years later, another sister was living as a refugee in Quebec City. Hearing that 16-year-old Noëlla was alive, the sister was able to bring her over. With the help of a small group of parishioners at the city’s Anglican cathedral, the girls found their mother and sister, alive, in a refugee camp in Tanzania. The family was reunited in Quebec.

“It was like a miracle” said Noëlla, speaking at the Cathedral vigil.

“So why am I here? Because I said to myself, it’s true that my home country can be at peace. But what I went through over there has left scars that can’t be erased. And when I arrived in Quebec, I got to go to school. I made friends. I became integrated. I slept, and when I woke up — I planned my future.”

Noëlla Iriho is now a primary school teacher at École Saint-Malo in Quebec City.

(You can watch her full address in French on YouTube. The article continues below.)


Bishop Dennis Drainville, seen to Noëlla’s left in the video, is leading the charge against a law he describes as “totalitarian”.

“We’re all of us, in Canada, immigrants and refugees of various kinds. To see us put up barriers or to say that only people who have money and resources can come to this country is totally inacceptable.” A former Ontario MPP, Drainville has no illusions about Bill C-31 being blocked by candles or heartfelt speeches. It will, he anticipates, be signed into law before summer.

Asked whether his diocese would consider offering sanctuary to refugees threatened with deportation, Bishop Drainville said “we have in the past, and we will continue to look very seriously at that. If this is passed, I would assume the whole issue of sanctuary is going to have a new life in this country.”

The National Energy Board

On the other side of the country, prophetic ministry has entered the debate over the Northern Gateway pipeline. Enbridge’s $5.5 billion project would carry chemically diluted oil sands bitumen across British Columbia, to a terminal on the rugged North Coast. From there, tankers twice the size of the ill-fated Exxon Valdez would navigate reefs and stormy channels on their way to refineries in Asia and the Gulf Coast.

The project is subject to the approval of the National Energy Board, a body whose independence from the federal government has repeatedly been called into question.

Citing “concerns that NEB hearings may become subject to improper time constrictions and industry influence,” the six Anglican bishops of BC and the Yukon released a politically-charged joint statement on April 6th, Good Friday.

“In a project of this magnitude, it is imperative that the final NEB Report on Northern Gateway be thorough and credible and command wide public support,” say the bishops. “To this end, it will be critical to hear the views of all people who live along the intended route of the pipeline. In particular, we call upon the Board to pay close attention to the concerns expressed by First Nations communities whose traditional territories and waters the proposed pipeline and the marine supertanker traffic would cross.”

The open letter (full text here) grabbed headlines across Canada.

Ten days later, the federal budget made clear the government’s plans to limit environmental review of energy projects to 24 months. Under the new rules, the NEB’s review of Northern Gateway could wrap up this month — a full year and a half early.

First Nations are aghast. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, head of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, told the CBC: “This incredibly stupid move on the part of the Harper government will only serve to expedite the battle in the courtrooms and on the land itself”.

What will the bishops say if their stated fears come to pass?

Archbishop Tutu and the A-word

Finally, an example from outside Canada. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a figure of immense moral authority in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, on May 1st applied the controversial term to Israel.

In an op-ed titled “Justice requires action to stop subjugation of Palestinians,” Tutu wrote “Many black South Africans have traveled to the occupied West Bank and have been appalled by Israeli roads built for Jewish settlers that West Bank Palestinians are denied access to, and by Jewish-only colonies built on Palestinian land in violation of international law.”

“This, in my book, is apartheid.”

Tutu goes further, renewing a call for the international community to deploy the same tactic of divestment that helped pressure multinationals with operations in South Africa twenty years ago. He singles out Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett Packard, which he accuses of “profiting from the occupation and subjugation of Palestinians.”

The 80-year old Anglican says “These are among the hardest words I have ever written. But they are vitally important. Not only is Israel harming Palestinians, but it is harming itself.”

Toward a more active political theology?

Refugees in Quebec. A pipeline in BC. Bulldozers in the West Bank. These issues are linked, in that each pits the dignity of individual people against the tide of international trade. They are also bound by the fact that apparently, the Bible has something to say about each of them.

What’s new is the clarity and audacity with which senior figures in the Anglican Church are speaking out. Is this a sign of things to come? I, for one, hope so.

If you wish to support more volunteer journalism on this blog, please consider making a small donation.


Leave a Reply to mothermellus Cancel reply