Spirited Reflection: Citizens in God’s commonwealth
When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 19:33-34 NRSV Anglicized
When I returned from the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel in 2005, I preached on that passage from the Torah until I just couldn’t listen to that sermon any more. In the conversations in social media and in our house in the aftermath of the US elections, I have to admit, this passage has been reading me again. I find myself thinking about my ancestors, aliens who resided in the homeland of the Beothuck. I find myself thinking about the Syrian refugees residing in Gander and those children in my sons’ school. I find myself weepy thinking about the stories I’ve heard of racism coming unchecked in our nation and the one to the south as a result of the US election and the campaign. We are teary about our dear friends who live in the US, a bi-racial family and those boys whom we regard as nephews with their beautiful brown skin. We are openly talking about what we can do to convince them to move here. They speak of their present lot as post-apocalyptic. Liturgically correct as we enter Advent, we are in a time of fear.
In my day to day time, I work as a lawyer with clients who receive legal aid. A sizeable portion of my work is criminal defence. In the 25 years since I began a journey with the legal profession, I have come to observe that many people have limited tolerance from the rights afforded those accused of crime until they find themselves in need of those rights, or when someone they love comes to need those rights. In my own head (and I’m well aware most of us have to figure out how to justify ourselves on a daily basis for our complicity with Empire or sin), I tell myself that while my noble colleagues with the Crown Attorney’s offices defend the laws of the land and seek to protect victims, my work is the protect the Constitution. Shall be as a citizen among you. As one who owns. As one who belongs. As one with all the rights and responsibilities each citizen should be able to take for granted.
Being a citizen – a word of relatively recent usage in Canada – as opposed to a subject implies many rights. There is an expectation of being treated as an insider. There is the notion of equal access to judicial decisions. There is the expectation of services. And there is the right to participation in democratic institutions including the right to vote.
My time as Chair of the Board of KAIROS is coming to a close at the end of the year. It’s been “interesting times” to be sure. As virtually anyone reading these reflections is aware, an audit of KAIROS within the United Church of Canada by the Canada Revenue Agency was completed with some emphasis on our “political activity”. Even by the most stringent tests, we believe our “political activity” always fell well below that prescribed by Canadian legislation and throughout this period, no credible claim has ever been made to indicate that KAIROS has acted in any way that is partisan. We are not now, and will not be partisan in any way, shape or form. From a theological perspective, to do so would lower the One we follow to being a muddied participant in a game where ego and sin hold greater sway that kindness and justice. God is present in all, but participates only in that which brings life.
As Christians advocating for the rights of holy citizenship for those wrongly named alien among us, it is our right (and the right of those who we stand in solidarity with) to profess our faith without having our charitable status challenged. KAIROS amongst others, is calling for a review of our charities legislation, and remind parliamentarians to remember of what they speak – charity, or as it is more commonly called – love. This word charity, or the agape love into which Jesus calls us is after all our expertise and our calling. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the CITIZEN among you; you shall LOVE the alien as yourself. Love calls us to this work. Love defines this work. Love will not let us go.
Like many of you, as an individual, I have a partisan opinion about what has happened in the US election and I have them in Canada as well. Some in KAIROS have the same opinion, some different. It doesn’t matter. Our common work is the work of Love – let us profess it boldly, with conviction, employing our rights as citizens and demanding the same for all. And although the times may be times of fear, let us remember proclamation of the angels in both testaments: Do not be afraid.
The Reverend Desmond Jagger-Parsons is a practicing lawyer in Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador, Beothuk and Mi’kmaq territory. Desmond is the elected representative of The United Church of Canada on the KAIROS Board of Directors until June, 2018, and has served as Chair from 2013-2016. Desmond served in the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in 2005 and worked as the Middle East Partnerships Program Coordinator for KAIROS in 2007.