Joe Gunn, public justice, Canadian churches

oe Gunn, executive director of Citizens for Public JusticeNote: Joe Gunn is executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, an Ottawa-based ecumenical group advocating for social justice. He has worked for churches and church organizations, mainly Catholics, in Canada and Latin America, and he was director for the Social Affairs office of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB). In March 2010, he delivered the Sommerville lecture in Christianity and Communications at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario. I am, with Gunn’s permission, providing here an excerpt from that speech.

On October 17th, 1996, Canadians turned on their evening newscast to hear CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge begin with these words: “Good evening. A blistering attack on governments across the country today, from Canada’s Roman Catholic bishops. The issue is poverty. The bishops accuse governments of using the most vulnerable people in society as human fodder in the battle against deficits. And the bishops weren’t the only ones speaking out…”

The bishops were holding their annual plenary gathering in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Before they began the meeting, however, the bishops of the Social Affairs Commission gathered with a roomful of local activists, including the president of the National Anti-Poverty Organization. To the assembled media, the bishops released their pastoral letter at Hope Cottage, a church-run soup kitchen in the downtown core. People living in poverty spoke, so it wasn’t only the bishops who got the microphone. And after the press conference, the media accompanied the men in black to serve lunch and eat together at the soup kitchen.

Today there seems to be a big change in terms of the public voice of the churches. The Catholic Church has not been totally silent, but if you go to the “Documents” section of the website of the Social Affairs Commission of the bishops, only one text has appeared since March 2008. Today, the capacity and determination of the churches to work for social and ecological justice seems weak. Service to the world now seems less of a concern than doctrine and maintenance of a shrinking membership base among the largest, historical denominations. Economically, the mainline churches are suffering, with unfortunate cuts to church staff and budgets becoming widespread. Is this change happening in all the Christian churches? Is there still a role for conscientious Christian leadership in public justice in Canadian society today? And if so, how might it best be done?

Should Christians be engaged?

Citizens for Public Justice [the organization that Gunn leads] believes that “if religion is understood to be one’s ultimate commitment or life orientation, then it cannot be confined to private life, particular rituals or institutions.” After all, why argue for keeping Christianity or Islam out of public life, when other “religious” value systems like capitalism, liberalism or humanism are not restricted? To ask a person of faith to leave their beliefs behind as soon as a political discussion begins is like asking a lung to refuse to breathe in air. The real issue is how people of faith can and should contribute to a hopeful citizenship.

Not only do Christians have to get involved in public justice, then, but the proper way to advance on this path to holiness is by addressing the causes of suffering of the poor, the disadvantaged, and the Earth community.

Status of faith-based work for justice

A month ago I contacted the social ministry offices of Canada’s nine largest Christian churches and asked if they’d answer a few questions about their social ministries. Eight of the nine were more than pleased to do so: only the CCCB refused to respond. I received helpful replies from the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada, the United Church in Canada, the Christian Reformed Church, Mennonite Central Committee, the Canadian Religious Conference, and the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC).

Among the nine church groupings in the survey, more than two-thirds have fewer staff resources today as compared to five years ago. Several organizations now use short-term internships filled especially by students. Increasingly, volunteers are mandated to serve on committees where staff once served. One respondent expressed disappointment that there were “few, if any” justice educational resources for church use in congregations, and expressed disappointment that there is “no capacity to draft briefs or make presentations to government committees.” When asked what had happened to budgets for this work of social ministry over the past five years, five of the groups reported that they had suffered decreases (some of even up to half), and two had no increase.

When asked about future expectations, six of eight churches that responded to this question expect decreased budgets in the short term future, with the larger groups at reductions of 9-10%, which are levels that could mean losing staff. One church office gave staff a week off without pay as a cost saving measure.

Finally, I asked the most difficult question: “Do you feel that your church office has increased, decreased or enhanced effectiveness in social justice ministries over the past five years?” Seven respondents answered. Three mentioned greatly decreased effectiveness, while two said things remained about the same. One respondent felt his church had “in practice, essentially abandoned its work on social justice” spending most of its time on internal issues and sexuality. This person added, “I suspect those who are passionate are working outside the formal church structures.”

Another revealing commentary was that, “With the sequential decimations of church office staff in all the important member churches of the CCC, there is nothing like the capacity there used to be to undertake substantial joint work compared to five years ago. We continue to rely on sister organizations for substantial policy work: Project Ploughshares, Citizens for Public Justice, KAIROS. . . but unfortunately, those partners are also vulnerable.”

The case of KAIROS

The situation of KAIROS having its funding cut by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has been in the news recently. What has not been well-covered is that official Catholic support for ecumenical social justice work through KAIROS has been curiously muted. Although both Development and Peace (D&P) and the Catholic bishops serve on KAIROS’ board, their financial commitment to the organization has diminished over the years. The Catholic bishops now give KAIROS $100,000, and all of that comes from D&P. Six years ago, they gave over $250,000. It is the faithful and generous contributions from religious sisters that maintain the Catholic contribution to this ecumenical social justice ministry today.

Not only financial support, but also political support has been waning. In early December, a memo sent to all the bishops reported, “the CCCB executive committee unanimously agreed that the Conference of Bishops will not embark on a campaign to pressure the government of Canada to reconsider its funding decision” concerning the cuts to KAIROS. The executive gave two reasons for inaction: “The international program of KAIROS has always been secondary for the CCCB,” and “The CCCB is not convinced that such a campaign will result in success.”

Contrast this response with that of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who stated on December 9 that, “The world needs more of KAIROS Canada. It would be an unparalleled setback for the poor, vulnerable and disenfranchised if the voice and work of KAIROS in the global South is muted.” The board of Citizens for Public Justice echoed this concern in their letter to the prime minister, stating “CPJ is concerned that this decision may be another in the trend to discontinue funding of groups who raise questions about current policies, thereby silencing some of the diverse voices that are essential for a healthy public debate about international issues of justice and stewardship.”

New tone needed

While the recent voices of the Christian churches in Canada have been muted and maligned when they have engaged in the public sphere, public dialogue and political advocacy are still constitutive elements of what it means to be a person of faith. But it seems clear that this must now be done differently than in the past.

First, there is still a role to play in defending ecumenical social justice ministry in the churches – I see no reason to cede hard won ground now occupied by the organizations like KAIROS that represent almost 40 years of struggling to live the Gospel faithfully in action. We cannot spend all our strength in attempting to maintain church structures for social ministry if these efforts make such demands upon our energy that we are not free to address the real social and ecological challenges that history places before us.

Secondly, lay people will have to lead the way in defending ecumenical social justice ministry in the Canadian churches, and even start new movements. We should get over any assumption that the churches’ social witness has to be further clericalized in order to be valid. Laypeople of all sexes should be able to reclaim their social mission as well as their contribution to the emerging non-white church’s more inclusive voice.

Thirdly, the way we’ve designed the process of preparing and delivering church statements must change. Have you ever been asked your opinion on an issue, or invited to help develop an opinion in dialogue, study and debate with your church leadership? If we don’t involve more people in these processes, we can’t expect them to fully accept any eventual stances as their own.

Fourthly, we need to walk the talk before we squawk. The example of the 1996 pastoral letter on poverty suggests how a process was developed to draft a message with others, and deliver this text with the only people who could be the architects of their own liberation: people with a lived experience of poverty. Otherwise, the message would have lacked authenticity and credibility.

Fifth, it is important to ensure that the spoken word of the churches is delivered to defend the poor and vulnerable. It is crucial and not always easy to ensure that these words do not arise in order to promote the churches’ own interests and reputations, instead.

Sixth, any pronouncement has to be delivered with appropriate humility. Polls tell us that Christianity is the affiliation of 77% of Canadians, but only 17% attended a place of worship in the previous week. As some say, “Canada is a nation of believers, but not belongers.” A Christendom view of the world is no longer prevalent. A whole new role, perhaps a smaller role, for organized Christian religions is emerging.

Perhaps the situation offers possibilities for groups like Citizens for Public Justice and other lay associations to be more collaborative and helpful to churches that are desirous of recovering their voice on public justice issues. And perhaps we need to remind ourselves that large, unwieldy institutions don’t always have the genetic make-up to be prophetic. The cutting edge seems to flourish more easily on the margins, in smaller groupings that are more nimble, responsive, and enjoy fewer organizational constraints. Perhaps the Christian voice in public affairs today should best be presented in new tones – but we should not accept that voice being either muted or maligned.

6 thoughts on “Joe Gunn, public justice, Canadian churches

  1. Dennis:
    This is a very important message. Congratulations to Joe for speaking the truth and congratulations to you for lifting it up and making it available. Keep up the good work!



  2. The struggle to deal with social issues can get separated from the struggle to develop humanly under the guidance of a specifically incarnational Christianity. Personal relational holiness and commitment to social issues must be lived together. A focus uniquely on results and progress in social justice must not lose sight of the deep commitment to non-violence and unconditional love, central to the identity of Christ, as witnessed in the Gospels into which we are all invited. The talk of “gospel values” in the context of our frenzied lives can leave us at a level where our faith is mere ideology without reference to a living Christ. Non-violence is not passivity. A “holy anger” integrated into an incarnational Christianity could move us beyond the present impasse. I think that Christians have to commit themselves to both.


  3. Sincere thanks to Joe Gunn for his insightful and prophetic comments. Though the message may sound discouraging, I appreciated his suggestion in the final paragraph that Citizens for Public Justice, in the face of diminished church institutional capacity and flagging enthusiasm, might play a useful leadership role in organizing and giving voice to the demands of justice and Christians who want to have their voices heard. This idea needs to be pursued.


  4. What a privilege we have, as Christians, to work together to bring the Kingdom here on earth! It’s so encouraging AND challenging to know the historical involvement of the Church in bringing Kingdom values to the attention of policy makers. I’m excited to see God work through His people (within the Church structure or in lay associations), and to be a part of that work!

    Thanks Joe and Dennis.


  5. Excellent blog, Dennis. One thing that really stood out for me was the fact that “the CCCB executive committee unanimously agreed that the Conference of Bishops will not embark on a campaign to pressure the government of Canada to reconsider its funding decision” concerning the cuts to KAIROS. The executive gave two reasons for inaction: “The international program of KAIROS has always been secondary for the CCCB,” and “The CCCB is not convinced that such a campaign will result in success.” I found this statement to be very disappointing, to say the least, and rather shocking. How very very sad that the CCCB has sunk to this depth, particularly with all the other serious troubles of that church that they insist is still the “one true church”. If this indicates the degree of social support commitment of that institution, their role is of no further use. As is their disinclination to even bother with your questionnaire. No wonder Christians are turning away in droves from the Catholic church. The other churches need to be active lobbyists – loud & outspoken, imo – to the Harper Gov’t’s funding cuts & closures – since they have the advantage of the fact that Harper & his party love to proclaim their Christianity. Thanks for the great column.


  6. I am not quite sure how i landed on this site although very glad i did, i am finding to be quite ‘stuck’ roaming from one article to another. It takes quite a bit to impress me in the least but i must admit you have surely recieved mine. I would give anything to be able to move back to Canada where my family is. There way of life is of the greatest standards. I attended school in Chatham at The Pines and was raised in Leamington, Ontario. When i read these words i feel the
    Canadian ways of life flowing through my blood. What am i saying and why? I just know i am.


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