Congregational Responses to Inequality in a Time of Unrest
Derek Cook is Director, Canadian Poverty Institute at Ambrose University
Over the past few months, the reality of inequality has been exposed like perhaps no other time in living memory. As a pandemic shut down our places of work we were forced to reconsider who actually is essential to society, and it turns out that the last became first, and the first last. Not surprisingly, both the economic and health impacts of the pandemic fell along predictable racial and socio-economic lines. Then, in the midst of this pandemic, we have been confronted with the ugly truths of racial inequality as protests under the banner of Black Lives Matter swept the globe. Sparked by the death of a black man over a trivial matter at the hands of police, the protests tore the mask off a long dark history of racial injustice directed towards all people of colour including, in Canada, our indigenous brothers and sisters. In the face of such glaring inequalities, as people of faith, we wrestle with how to respond.
Perhaps the clearest direction we have for discerning God’s call for us in these dark days comes from Micah 6:8 that provides the foundation for principle-centred action in a complex and conflict-ridden world. The principles are clear: work for justice, extend mercy, and practice deep humility.
Mercy – Mercy is the grace we extend to each other, particularly in times of conflict. To show mercy is to enter into the life and experience of the other person, affirming our common humanity. Extending mercy sees the image of God in each one of us, allowing us to move beyond polarizing and destructive narratives of “us” and “them”. To be merciful means to truly listen to the experience of the other person. One of the critical lessons from the MeToo movement was the importance of simply listening to, believing and affirming the reality and pain of the other. So too with matters of racial injustice it is necessary to simply listen, believe and affirm the experiences of pain and violation that our brothers and sisters of colour are telling us. Our first and most important task is simply to listen, and then seek to know what is needed to heal such pain.
Justice – Justice is all about power. Power on its own is not a bad thing; it is essential for the ordering of society. Yet, the abuse of power, where it is used exploitatively, is common throughout history and this is the root of injustice. Throughout scripture, we are called repeatedly to watch out for injustice, particularly as it affects the most vulnerable and marginalized; those excluded from social, economic and political power. This requires a practice of discernment to see and understand how and where injustice flourishes; where those on the margins are excluded from decisions that profoundly disadvantage them. Then, having seen and understood such injustice, we are called to work to correct it - in our workplaces, our congregations and our public life.
Humility – In times of conflict it is easy to become entrenched in our positions about who or what is “right”. Scripture provides enough fodder for us to hold up strict positions and judge those who fail to meet the righteousness test we impose. Unfortunately, this has been all too common throughout the history of the church. The history of the church also shows us how, in hindsight, we have also far too often gotten it so horribly, tragically wrong. In our zeal for correct doctrine, we have too often forgotten the overriding principle Christ gave of love that fulfills all the other “laws”. Recognizing that truth belongs to God alone, we must approach matters of conflict with deep humility, in a continual process of questioning and discernment which is the foundation of mercy and grace.
These principles of mercy, justice, and humility are ones that the church has always embraced. Yet, we sometimes forget that they come as a package; we don’t get to choose. It is not enough to show mercy and compassion without working against the structures of injustice. Nor is it enough to work for justice if there are no foundational relationships of mercy and grace. And neither of those matter if we do not also do them from a stance of deep humility and love.
So what does all this mean for our congregations when it feels like the world is coming apart at the seams? Practically, here are some things we can do together:
Listen and learn: reach out to those within and beyond our congregations who may experience racism and injustice and listen to their stories, affirming the realities they live with and the stories they share.
Reflect: examine our own personal and congregational lives to understand how we might inadvertently contribute to or benefit from the injustice our brothers and sisters have shared with us. Have the difficult conversations in our congregations and embark on a process of discernment. Engage in prayerful discernment, seeking the will of God.
Act: be intentional about how our congregations can be more inclusive of people who are often left on the outside. Think about our decisions and who makes them and how those left out of decisions can be brought into them.
Speak: Stand publicly with those on the margins and thereby share your power. Affirm them and speak up against acts and systems of injustice. Be a faithful voice in the public square.
Practice Humility: And do all of the above from a place of deep humility and love, ever learning, attuned to the fact that we see now as through a looking glass darkly.
My hope is that, if we do these well, we can forge a different path that leads us out of the dark woods of fear and division that seems to have gripped our world. Remember that moths don’t flee the darkness, they fly towards the light. The world is desperately seeking such light. Let’s not miss our calling to be it.
United Church of Canada - Although we believe that God is found in our common diversity, the sin of racism is present in our society and in our church.
Canadian Council of Churches - The Canadian Ecumenical Anti-Racism Network has taken up the challenge of resourcing and accompanying communities of faith in their journey toward truth and reconciliation.
Christian Reformed Church - ORR Canada offers contextualized resources to resource and support churches and ministries in the work of racial reconciliation in Canada.
Seeing Race Again: Countering Colorblindness across the Disciplines
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Luke Charles Harris, Daniel Martinez HoSang, and George Lipsitz (2019).
Beyond Hospitality: Migration, Multiculturalism and the Church
Charles A. Cook, Lauren Goldbeck & Lorajoy Tira-Dimangondayao,
An important element to flourishing congregations is clergy resilience. A national survey by Margaret Clarke is seeking to collect information from clergy across Canada to understand the current nature of their resilience and wellness. If you are clergy, you can find out more information about the national survey and take the survey by clicking here. Please share this widely within your clergy networks.
You can find the national survey results of Impact of COVID-19 on Canadian Christian Charities from Waybase by clicking here.