Unbearable Pain, Startling Hope: 40 years of Bold Witness to Ecumenical Social Justice – by Jennifer Henry

Jennifer Henry, executive director of KAIROS, gives a Reflection on water at Keepers of the Water: A Vigil of Lament and Celebration at Church of the Holy Trinity, Trinity Square on Wednesday, January 14, 2015. Photo/Michael Hudson

be not afraid

Spirited Reflection – Sermon delivered on January 19, 2014 at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, Etobicoke

I was six years old when the first of the ecumenical social justice coalition was formed.  Ten Days for World Development emerged of a church leaders’ tour in March of 1973.  Under the banner “development demands justice”, five national church leaders—all male—toured the country, advocating for a new perspective on what was then called “Canada`s relations with the Third World.”

 I was six, but for my ten-year old daughter, that time in 1973, the time which begat Ten Days, and then GATT-fly, and PLURA and on and on to eleven ecumenical coalitions, is the  “olden days” or what she kindly refers to as “the typewriter time.”

 The world is so different now—the role of the church in society, the position of women, the influence of information technology, the integrated global economy, the climate crisis–it can seem of little benefit to reflect on this history

 But for me, there is much that can be gained by celebrating 40 years of bold witness to ecumenical social justice.

 In times that have better and worse, the ecumenical social justice coalitions, now in KAIROS, have been a movement of prophetic witness, both yearning for and in creative tension with the dominant church community, pushing, cajoling, critiquing government and the general public towards a just and inclusive vision of Canada and our aching world.

 Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann speaks of communities that offer a kind of “’natural habitat’ of prophetic voices” (Brueggemann, xvi).  In my lifetime, the ecumenical social justice movement has genuinely aspired to this kind of description, revealing some of what he names as key characteristics:

  • “Long and available memory;
  • Expressed sense of pain;
  • Active practice of hope;
  • And effective mode of discourse” (or a distinctive language) (Brueggemann, xvi).

 I want to reflect on the last 40 years, and look forward to the next 40, with Brueggemann’s categories as doorways into the story.

 The first is this sense of memory.

The availability of memory is a powerful tool in the present.  If we can access a sense of what has gone before—both challenges and triumphs—we can infuse meaning into our day to day efforts, connecting them to a history of struggles that reaches out behind us (and anticipating a future of justice struggles before us).  Ecumenical social justice strives to be a movement, but it is a movement within movements, a movement to support other movements.  Movements can be incarnations of the Spirit, people living out God’s dreams of justice.

 Last May we gathered some of the elders of the ecumenical social justice movement to tell stories.  We were a group of “middling folks” as well as younger people.  There was a powerful dialogue about pipelines, as elders recalled the struggle against the McKenzie Valley Pipeline in the 70’s and brought forward insights to inform the pipeline struggles of today.

 But for me, the most poignant moment was a story about the struggle against apartheid.  An elder from the Presbyterian Church, who had been staff to the Taskforce on the Churches and Corporate Responsibility, talked about a time when there was a sense of absolute defeat in the struggle against apartheid.  She came into work and, hearing of another setback, she sat down at her desk and burst into tears.  It was a few short months, maybe even weeks, after that when the dam of injustice broke or, in the words of the Hebrew scripture, “good news came to the oppressed” (Isaiah 61: 1) and apartheid began to be dismantled.  I will always remember the way in which she spoke right into the hearts of each of us struggling today with similar injustices.  The implication of her  message was crystal clear: even when we think it can never change, we must keep working, keep struggling, because it can, it does, it must.  This is the power of memory.

 As an ecumenical social justice movement, we are to be a people of a “long and available memory,” (Brueggemann, xvi) recalling not just the last forty years but the faith based movements that preceded our own–anti-slavery, social gospel, civil rights, the first wave of feminism—each inspiring and foundational.  We must reach back even further to movements of the early church, the Jesus movement, and the Exodus movement of the Israelite people.  Our scriptures are a rich repository of memory, movement narratives, stories of graceful trouble makers, divine radicals, who sought to witness to their faith in words and acts of justice.

 For inspiration, humility, challenge and renewal, we need to place ourselves in the continuum of others who have acted, in the midst of chaos and fear, imperfectly but always with passion, for the hopes and dreams of others.  People in movements stirred up by love and anger to act for justice, from biblical times to our own.

 We must nourish a “long and available memory that sinks the present generation deep into an identifiable past” (Brueggemann, xvi).

 Brueggemann’s second characteristic is pain.  He describes it this way: “an available and, expressed sense of pain that is owned and recited as a real social fact, that is visibly acknowledged in a public way, and that is understood to be unbearable for the long term” (Brueggemann, xvi).

 My sense is that each coalition that emerged over those first 10 years, and each priority that has emerged in the life of those coalitions and now in the life of KAIROS, is visible witness to a sense of pain.  When the coup happened in Chile on September 11, 1973, and fierce repression was unleashed against those who sought peace and human rights, Canadian Christians could not abide the risk these people would now be under; they could not bear it.  And so, church folks worked together, quickly, urging Canada not to give legitimacy to the military junta and pressing for a generous, swift acceptance of refugees in order to save lives.  What came to be was the Inter-Church Committee on Chile and later the Inter–Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America, whose work expanded through the 80’s in palpable solidarity to those experiencing the pain of Central American repression.

 These were reactions of solidarity to people whose pain was acknowledged and felt palpably; it was more unbearable the more we knew them.  The quick response to the Chile coup was directly related to friendships that had developed out of Canada-Chile church exchanges in an earlier time.  When pain was acknowledged as social fact, it required response.  Our failure was that some pain, closer to home, caused by ourselves, by our churches, took a very long time to be acknowledged.

 We continue to this day to name and respond to the expressed pain of others, to act because it is unbearable that our friends are harmed, whether they are in Fort Chipewyan or in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Our humble witness strives to be rooted in the very clear call to “bind up the broken hearted” and “to comfort those who mourn” (Isaiah 61: 1, 2).

 But I also think that something has changed.  We strive now to also respond to the pain that is not theirs but ours.  It seems there are two reasons for this.  First, as the movement becomes more diverse and moves beyond a white, middle class identity, the “we” changes and those who continue to experience injustice, the pain of oppression, can be found in our midst.  Indigenous peoples have challenged us to work with, and not for them in their struggles, recognizing that the “we” of our movement must be inclusive of Indigenous and settler alike, newcomer, old, and young.  We have much further to go in this work, but it is changing, for the better.

Perhaps also we have come to understand that even among those of us who experience privilege, there is a pain that is shared.  This consumptive global economic regime hurts all of us.  When it deeply wounds God’s creation, none can be untouched.  The pain of our alienation from the Earth and from God is “a real social fact” to be acknowledged in lament, and transformed through our deepest witness and action (Brueggemann, xvi). Together from our common woundedness, “we will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated” (Isaiah 61: 4).

 Communities capable of prophetic witness have long available memory and expressed sense of pain and “an active practice of hope” (Brueggemann, xvi).

 This is not about an optimism that bears false witness.  But a hope, rooted in reality of the injustice and in the true promises of God that “the ruins will be built up, and the former devastations will be raised” (Isaiah 61:4).

 My experience of ecumenical social justice is that we don’t talk about resurrection very much, but we bet on it, we live it.  We believe in God’s promise of abundant life, enough to conspire with God to make it so.  Our partners in Latin America call abundant life, buen vivir, living well.  Residential school survivors say thurvival.  We are privileged to witness how, out of the depth of struggle, one can articulate a robust hope, not simply to survive, but to thrive, to live well.  It’s a hope that manifests itself in doing, to make so, what you believe to be so.

 It’s my view that this hope has always been one of the richest gifts we have given other social movements with whom we work: the conviction that transformation must be possible.  Isaiah does not sugar-coat his reality—oppression, captivity, imprisonment, death but neither does he obscure the promise of God—good news, liberty, release, comfort.  The ecumenical social justice coalitions were tangible signs of hope, imperfect and partial, but nonetheless witness by church and community that transformation was possible. At KAIROS we find our hope through engagement in struggle, it is our testimony to what can be: buen vivir.

 Memory, pain and hope…the final characteristic is a distinctive language.  Brueggemann talks about this as “rich coding,” that has resonance even “across generations” (Brueggemann, xvi).

 Across the last 40 years, across denominational divisions, we have discovered common words, and began to say them together, in expressions of biblical and theological reflection and in ecumenical liturgy.  We have found some of the power in connecting to what makes us distinct from other justice movements, however similar we might be in commitment to action.

 The Jubilee Initiative was a high point in speaking a distinctive language.  It was more like singing, when someone starts an old tune, barely remembering the words, and others begin to sing along, reminding one another, remembering more words than they thought they knew, together.

 If you looked across the many educational and worship resources of the coalitions and KAIROS you would see a strong strand of common texts.  This beautiful passage from Isaiah 61, and its reaffirmation in Luke 4: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me”; the Jubilee words invoking release from bondage, redistribution of wealth, and renewal of the earth; Amos’ “let justice roll down like waters”; Mary’s song of great reversals; and Micah, always Micah, whose words form the mandate for KAIROS: “a faithful ecumenical response to biblical call to do justice.”  We have the same dog-eared pages in our common book, we remember the same verses, and they unite us and inspire us still.

 And our vocabulary of common words continues to grow.  We now speak of “all my relations,” of “seven generations,” and of “Great Spirit,” rich ways to name truths we attempted to suppress.  In my mind, our future in a plural and inter-faith world is not to give up our common language of faith and justice but to have it enhanced, to be fluent also in those concepts that resonate but come to us from Cree and Tagalog, from Swahili and Nisga’a.  To know our own language of faith so well that we can find differences but also deep connections in the languages of other faiths.

 Our task for the next 40 years is to continue to form ourselves from memory and out of pain, in hope and through words of common conviction, a formation that will draw us into acts of resistance in our own time (Brueggemann, xvii).  The current era is characterized by amnesia and by addiction to what dulls pain, by a false optimism in progress, and by a common language in consumerism.  We must support each other in offering an alternative vision even as we know we are susceptible to the demands of the dominant culture.  Biblical communities struggled with the same tension and had the prophets to call them back.  Prophets in our time—Indigenous communities living faithfully with the land, migrant workers resisting the commodification of their lives, Palestinian and Israeli peace activists who refuse to be enemies—these and so many others can help call us back to faithful witness if we have ears to hear.

 My inspiration so often comes from those who refuse to let death be the last word.  Those who see their friends die in defense of human rights and still take the next step forward in justice.  That kind of courage is prophetic to me.  These words of Christ in the gospel of John, “do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27), represent only one of 365 times in the scriptures where our texts call us to “fear not, be not afraid.” Many of those who we work with around the world are living testimony to this scriptural witness.  If they have courage in the face of tremendous hardship and risk, those of us with much greater privilege and security must also find our own.

 That means we must continue to stand up even when it is wildly unpopular.  We must remember that so many of the coalitions were startlingly ahead of the curve.  I met a long retired corporate executive recently, who told me about the Taskforce on the Churches and Corporate Responsibility.  I would paraphrase his comments as something like this: “you guys were so annoying, always showing up at our annual general meetings, going on about ecology or human rights. You drove me crazy, I thought you were crazy, but you changed things.  You should know.”

 And those were the “good” times.  Now, speaking out, robust contributions to policy debate, can mean funding cuts.  It can mean being shut out of government consultations and meetings.  It often means being isolated as the ones who say the words that “can no longer be said”: advocacy, human rights, self-determination, Palestine, KAIROS.

 Brueggemann says that “prophetic must be imaginative, because it is urgently out beyond the ordinary and the reasonable” (Brueggemann, xv).  Let’s continue to aspire to that, extraordinary and unreasonable. To that I would add, bold.   Any aspirations we might have to prophetic witness require a collective boldness–be not afraid.  This is not about arrogance.  The ecumenical movement has much to reflect on in its failures.  Gender and racial justice have not been so easily integrated into the common call, and some justice issues still remain outside.  Humble and strong is a difficult balance.  But those who seek our allyship in this time do not benefit from our timidity.    We need both confession and proclamation, bold prophetic witness of church leaders and the hard, slow work of bringing diverse communities together in shared action.

 As I celebrate with you 40 years of bold ecumenical witness and look towards the next 40, my last word today is gratitude.  Gratitude to those who long before my time dreamed crazy impossible dreams of justice and peace and believed that, with God, all things were possible.  I am grateful for their acknowledgements of tears as much as for their successes. Gratitude to the churches for the faithful work together.  Gratitude to those of the future, the young ones and those yet unborn, whose lives and actions will be a fresh revelation of hope in our time.  My deepest yearning is that they will embrace even more passionately the promises of God, learning from our failings and conspiring with the Spirit to even greater justice than we imagined. And gratitude always, to our living and loving God, who is our boldest hope.

 With God’s help, I still believe that we can change the world, I hope you do too.

Works Cited:

Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

Filed in: Spirited Reflections


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