A Garland Instead of Ashes – by Stephen Allen
Stephen Allen is the Associate Secretary for Justice Ministries of The Presbyterian Church in Canada. In this role he represents The Presbyterian Church on the KAIROS Board of Directors and also serves on the Dignity and Rights Circle. The Presbyterian Church hosted the KAIROS Board last month and this reflection was first shared at the joint worship of the Board and Presbyterian staff on February 26.
The Good News of Deliverance
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
A Garland Instead of Ashes
This is a passage filled with hope. In the year of the Lord’s favour, good news is brought to the oppressed; the broken hearted are cared for; prisoners are released; those who mourn are comforted – a garland instead of ashes. What a year that will be. We live with the tension between the values of the year of the Lord’s favour and the values of this world.
Our liturgy this morning is adapted from Be Not Afraid, the liturgical resource KAIROS developed to celebrate and honour 40+ years of ecumenical witness for social justice. I will highlight one example of faithful witness in my homily.
Over the past 40 or so years, there have been many moments (far too many) when hope for change, hope for an end to vicious oppression, hope for an end to disappearances, hope in a community or in a nation to be able to chart an authentic destiny – all seemed distant. But we along with our partners in Canada and in the Global South, are a people of hope as we seek to live the values described in this passage.
There have been and will continue to be, many challenges and many obstacles to justice. These challenges aside, I believe that our common ecumenical witness enriches public life in this country and has an impact on the lives of thousands of Canadians. I am one of them.
Members of KAIROS’s board, of the circles and staff who attended the meetings last May, will recall the reflection that John Dillon, the longest serving ecumenical staff, shared about pipelines and Indigenous people. (Funny how this issue keeps coming up).
He was referring to the great debate in the mid-1970’s about the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. The federal government of the day established the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry to investigate the potential human and environmental impact of the proposed pipeline. The inquiry was chaired by the Hon. Thomas Berger.
Justice Berger broke new ground in how public inquiries are carried out. He visited many Indigenous communities in the Mackenzie Valley. He listened to the questions and the fears that many Indigenous people expressed. In the end, he recommended that no pipeline be built in the Yukon section and that there should be a moratorium on the rest of the proposed pipeline until land claims had been settled.
The then federal minister for Indian and Northern Affairs was Warren Allmand. He accepted Justice Berger’s recommendations and convinced his cabinet colleagues to accept the recommendations.
At the time, I had just returned from working and living in West Africa. Shortly after my return to Canada, I attended a community meeting in Ottawa hosted by Project North (which became the Aboriginal Rights Coalition). At this meeting, 4 or 5 Indigenous people from the Mackenzie Valley spoke about their concerns and fears about this proposed pipeline. They spoke softly, clearly and with great dignity.
Project North had organized the visit to Southern Canada so that the Indigenous people who would be most directly affected by the proposed pipeline, could speak directly to Canadians.
That afternoon, I learned about the Mackenzie Valley and about a proposed pipeline that has still not been built. I learned about the determination and courage of Indigenous people to say no. I also learned, and this was most surprising to me, that the church – writ large – would risk taking an unpopular position to support vulnerable communities living in a very fragile environment. That afternoon was one of those important turning points in my faith journey.
We live with the tension between the values of the year of the Lord’s favour and the values of the world. Sometimes it feels like we are living in exile. If it is exile, then let us be in exile together! Let us work together for a world in which the least among us receive garlands and not ashes.
God calls us to prepare for the future by seeking justice today. Our hope is in the One to come. Amen.