Faith and public life – world as vineyard

By Dennis Gruending

dennis_gruending_12ja09.jpgI mentioned in my last posting to Pulpit and Politics that I am leading an evening class this winter for the Ottawa Lay School of Theology.  It’s called Faith and Public Life: Making the Connection. We met for our first class on Monday January 12 and it was perhaps not surprising, given the city involved, that a good number of the 30 participants are civil servants or are retired from government. Many said they want to know what links their religious faith to the work they do or have done.

I believe that such a connection exists and if it didn’t, as the saying goes, we would have to invent it. The Christian gospel calls on people to “love the Lord your God with all your heart”, but it also says, “love your neighbour as yourself.” That love is expressed through right relationships. We are, indeed, our sister’s and our brother’s keeper, as Barrack Obama had the courage to say in his speech in August 2008 accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency of the United States. Our health, social and international development programs are an institutional way of putting these religious concepts into practice.

I think, for example, of Medicare in Canada. When I was growing up in a poor farm family in Saskatchewan, my mother developed multiple sclerosis and we were almost ruined financially by the doctors’ bills that we had to pay. It was a provincial government led by Tommy Douglas, a former Baptist minister, that conceived of a publicly financed health care system. Medicare was all-important to our family and many others, but it is more than just a program. Janet Sommerville, a former head of the Canadian Council of Churches, says: “The principles guiding our health care system have an unmistakable affinity with the love of neighbour urged on us by God’s word in Scripture.”

I am in good company in believing that there is a connection between faith and public life. Pope John Paul II wrote in a 1988 encyclical that, “The world then is the vineyard; this is the field in which the faithful are called to fulfill their mission.”

The Anabaptist writer Donald Kraybill has a popular book called The Upside Down Kingdom. He begins it with the Gospel writer Luke telling us what John the Baptist said, and John was, in turn, paraphrasing the prophet Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.”

Kraybill then moves to the Magnificat, the song of Mary when she learned that she was to be the mother of the Messiah: “The Mighty one has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thought of their hearts. He has put down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away.”

Kraybill calls his book The Upside Down Kingdom because he believes the gospel message is just this: the valleys will be filled, the mountains will be leveled, and the crooked will be made straight. The powerful shall be put down and the lowly lifted up.

The Bible cannot (and should not) be expected to tell people how to vote but it certainly tells us that there is a connection between faith and the social, economic and political decisions that we make. This will be especially interesting to consider as Canada struggles to deal with an economic recession, and as unemployment, insecurity and suffering are bound to become more widespread. It was the Great Depression of the 1930s that spawned both the CCF and the Social Credit political movements and religious ministers were prominent in the leadership of both parties.

Ernest Manning, the longtime premier of Alberta and a lay minister, said this: “In my opinion, it is completely contrary to the Scriptures that Christians, who are intended to be the salt of the earth, should avoid the field of public life where the influence of their Christian experience is so desperately needed.”

There are many questions that we can ask: What examples can we think of where faith informed public life — for the better, or perhaps for the worse?

How do we deal with questions of faith and partisanship – for example, was the social faith of Tommy Douglas better than that of Mr. Manning; better than that of John Diefenbaker, or better than that of Pierre Trudeau?

Should religious faith and organized religion have a prominent role to play in politics — or are these decisions best left to what in Canada is a mature and secular democracy?

Are religions a force for public good as many of us have assumed, or are they to quote American writer Sam Harris, “leading us, inexorably, to kill one another?”

One reader of this blog is Alvin Hergott, a former Catholic priest who now lives in Brazil. He sent this question for us to consider: “I wonder whether your class will explore the reason(s) that individuals who appear to share the same religious faith differ so markedly in their social and political living of it.” We will consider this question and I also invite you as a reader of Pulpit and Politics to send in questions as well.

Next week our guest will be Peter Harder, a former deputy minister of Foreign Affairs and other Canadian government departments. He will talk about the connections between faith and public life, especially for those who work in the bureaucracy. If you have any questions for Mr. Harder, please post them in the Comments section below.

3 thoughts on “Faith and public life – world as vineyard

  1. I would love to be able to attend ‘Faith and Public Life’ classes but will have to watch from Calgary where Alberta’s ‘Pulpit & Politics’ impacts the country through the rise Manning Reform-Alliance-Conservative movements.
    Church-state-media politics have been strong in Alberta since the 1935 election of the Social Credit party of Aberhart and Manning. The movement and corporate politics certainly have not weakened with the expansion of media-evangelism and free-market ideology at our University of Calgary’s ‘Calgary School’ that influenced a young public policy wonk, Stephen Harper, on his rise to federal power after being recruited by Preston Manning and Diane Ablonczy during the founding of the Reform Party movement in 1988.
    It is also not without irony that the 1935 Social Credit electoral surprise in Alberta was held against the backdrop of a sensational media frenzy about a sex scandal and lawsuit suddenly brought against then Premier Brownlee in 1934 by a young Baptist woman and her father who charged Premier Brownlee under an Alberta law against seduction. The 1998 Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and media frenzy reminded us of that 1934 story at a critical time in history.
    On a more positive and hopeful note from Alberta, Dr. Judy Johnson, Professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal College, has just published a book, “What’s So Wrong About Being Absolutely Right – the Dangerous Nature of Dogmatic Belief.” The focus of the book is on the history of ‘dogmatism’ and its impacts on society.
    Also worthy of discussion about “Faith and Public Life” is James Carroll’s historical research and autobiography also captured in his book, Constantine’s Sword, and a film nominated for an Oscar – “Constantine’s Sword – No War is Holy.”
    I am sure the discussion generated by your classes will be of great value to us all. Thank you.


  2. I met Peter Harder when we were both in other lives, and he is an impressive person. I would be interested in his views on the connection between faith and the rights of workers from the perspective of a senior civil servant. How does this subject rank in comparison with other priorities of government, expanding free trade, balancing budgets, the rapid implementation of government decisions, etc.


  3. Dear Dennis,

    Until the mid eighties the United Church of Canada had a “Committee on the Church and International Affairs” (CCIA) that reported to General Council. There were those within and without the church who disapproved of such a committee if they disagreed with their stand but applauded us, (I was chair of the committee for some years) when we spoke their mind.

    Among our members was the late Al Forrest, editor of the United Church Observer who very early on was very critical of Israel and raised the hackles of many in the churches as well as the Canadian Jewish Congress. Our committee also took a very strong stand against Apartheid in South Africa and found that the business community called us naive and “pinkos.” Many of our critics were in our pews and I recall at least one walking out of my service when I supported a stand taken by this committee and said so from the pulpit. There definitely was and perhaps still is an attitude among Christians that the church should comfort the afflicted but not afflict the comfortable.

    Most mainline denominations were members of the Canadian Council of Churches which also had an international affairs committee as does the World Council of Churches. These bodies took a very prophetic stance and were applauded or booed both from within and without the churches.

    In the United Church much of the work of the CCIA was later taken over by other committees. I have missed the counsel of those wise men and women, academics, business and labour leaders, journalists as well as clergy who formed our membership. I believe that the church has lost something of its prophetic cutting edge.

    Hanns Skoutajan, Ottawa


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