The Dissenting Churches of Canada


Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Copyright, © Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1987-074-16 / CC-BY-SA. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Wikimedia Commons

by Donna Sinclair

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been on my mind these days. I think of him with every newscast. Bonhoeffer is the icon of Germany’s Confessing Church, that small band of dissenting German Christians who stood against Hitler. They were imprisoned and often died for their courage.

I deeply admire the courage of some Canadian Christians, as individual leaders and congregations, as coalitions like KAIROS, and even as national institutions. I pray we will continue our dissent, even in the face of government displeasure. Because this is not a time to worry about being called “political” or “partisan” or “biased” or – my favourite – “left-leaning.” Our job is not to fret about labels. Our job is to preach the gospel. Like the part where Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

At the moment, Caesar shouldn’t inspire much loyalty. Witness the millions of dollars given to the Canada Revenue Agency to scrutinize and undercut those charities, including churches, that (horrors) actually try to deal with the root causes of poverty as well as feed the impoverished. Trying to prevent poverty by advocating for the poor is now outside the official definition of charity. Institutions that do so risk losing their charitable status; their donors would not receive a tax deduction.

Fine. Our job is to offer the wisdom of scripture: “Seek justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.” Nothing there about tax deductions.

Admittedly, it is a very wide mandate. So much justice-seeking to be done – justice for the land, suffering from runaway oil and gas exploitation and factory farms that are anything but kind. Justice in the face of agri-business that seeks a quick profit, not the long, slow, humble walking with the seasons and the soil that sustains it for our grandchildren. Justice for workers, suffering from anti-union legislation and secret trade deals that disempower them. Justice-seeking as new security legislation threatens to turn CSIS into a secret force, policing those whose legitimate protests – against a pipeline, say – might be construed as “interference with critical infrastructure.”

But the churches have done this before. We have always stood for global justice. Remember the exchanges and boycotts that tore down apartheid South Africa, the church basement discussions that illuminated the civil wars in Central America? Our churches pleaded with Parliamentarians to break alliances with dictators, and – over and over – offered sanctuary for refugees who were fleeing oppression anywhere in the world. We have a proud history, from supplying teachers to interned Japanese Canadians during World War II to holding vigils outside Litton Industries when they manufactured Cruise missile components.

We need to keep on seeking justice and kindness. Bravely. Now more than ever. Especially the four mainline churches, the ones that were complicit in the Indian Residential Schools. We figured out from that unspeakable tragedy that it is not wise to go blindly into co-operative ventures with a government that ignores human rights. We all apologized, in our various ways, to the First Nations who suffered. Now it is time to put wheels under those apologies.

So I am humbly offering a few specific examples where the churches might render their institutional voices unto God, even at the risk of government disapproval:

  • Let’s speak out, as national communities of faith, against the proposed Energy East pipeline. Like other hotly-protested pipelines, it is an environmental disaster waiting to happen, both by enabling expansion of the Alberta tar sands and by running toxic diluted bitumen under or near vulnerable streams, rivers and lakes. This is no way to treat God’s marvelous Creation.
  • Let’s all continue to demand, as denominations, an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. What’s happening and why and how to stop it is important; we can’t deal with invisible racism. And while we’re at it, let’s never again allow the use of First Nations education as an opportunity for assimilation.
  • Let’s encourage, firmly (as we have) a much more nuanced and thoughtful foreign policy in the Middle East. We called it the Holy Land for centuries. Even though we know now that all the land is holy, all the planet is God’s beloved, justice and kindness for the peoples and geography that shaped our scriptural narrative is still demanded. Yes, we must be innocent as doves and as wise as serpents to do so. Let us cultivate those attributes.
  • Above all, let us keep on shining the light of faith into the nation’s shadows, brighter than ever. That’s what Bonhoeffer did. That’s what General Synods and Assemblies and Councils are for. Churches are internationally connected. We have perspective. We know how to debate weighty global issues as well as anyone. Church members need to know when our government is breaking Canada’s own laws by allowing the sales of heavy weapons to rulers who will turn them against their own people. We need to know when our government is actively preventing investigation into leaking toxic tailings ponds in the tar sands region, destroying science libraries, and refusing medical care to refugees at the same time as it warmly offers Canadian citizenship to millionaires. We need to know when massive international trade deals will prevent us from restoring our tattered environmental and worker protections, and force even our grandchildren to witness the ongoing plunder of our country.

And then we need to speak – no, we need to shout – the truth. No whining about how nobody listens to us any more. Bearing faithful witness has nothing to do with a rapt audience. It has to do with clearly, fully preaching the gospel and actively resisting evil. As Bonhoeffer declared, the church must not simply “bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam the spoke in the wheel itself.”

Never mind those charitable tax numbers. Our work, as Christians in Canada today, is dissent.

A journalist for more than 30 years, Donna Sinclair is an award-winning writer who has traveled widely in Canada, Africa, Central America, Britain, and Eastern Europe. She is the author of The Long View, The Spirituality of Bread, The Spirituality of Gardening, A Woman’s Book of Days, A Woman’s Book of Days 2, and numerous other titles. Donna lives with her husband Jim in North Bay, Ontario. Her most recent book is Tommy’s Angel (2013).

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Categories: Christian Life, Donna Sinclair, Ethics, Featured, Leadership, Peace, Justice, and Equality, Religion, World

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5 Comments on “The Dissenting Churches of Canada”

  1. Cecile Fausak
    February 5, 2015 at 1:51 am #

    Powerfully said Donna. I am with you.

    • Donna
      February 13, 2015 at 3:23 pm #

      Thank you Cecile. I was just looking at some testimony from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I am with you too! Thank you for all your work.

  2. David Crawford
    February 11, 2015 at 5:32 am #

    Your comparison of the contemporary Canadian political climate fascist Germany in the 30’s is egregiously inappropriate, and a disservice to the witness and sacrifice of Bonhoffer and the some 6000 (did you know that!) German clergy who were brutalized, imprisoned and/or executed by the Nazis.

  3. Donna
    February 13, 2015 at 3:26 pm #

    Hello David

    Thanks for responding. I cherish your obvious respect for the memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other members of Germany’s dissenting church. In fact, when I was in East Germany in 1987 I had the privilege of meeting some of the dissenting pastors who survived. Their courage was on my mind when I wrote this piece.

    These pastors knew and welcomed the fact that I was a journalist. I understood that they wished me to share whatever wisdom could be gleaned from their experience. Similarly, when I interviewed, in front of an attentive audience, the wonderful German theologian Dorothee Soelle on her last visit to Canada, she freely offered her wisdom. She had been an alert child during World War II, when so many adults refused to acknowledge where the prisoner-filled trains moving across their country were headed. At the time when we spoke, Non-Native Canadians were just becoming painfully aware of the nation-wide blindness that had produced the Indian Residential Schools. “How can we prevent something like this ever again?” I asked her. “Keep your eyes on those trains,” she said. Soelle was speaking metaphorically, of course, of the critical need to see danger approaching.

    Bonhoeffer was one of those adults who saw and bravely protested – like Karl Barth and so many others — the dimming of German democracy.

    I believe our own democracy is being tarnished by such measures as Bill C-51, which allows for unprecedented powers of surveillance over citizens who protest; Bills C-45 and C-38, which are catastrophic for our environment; and Bill C-23, which does nothing to fend off voter suppression.

    These and other anti-democratic measures need to be named and opposed. Doing so does not in any way compare Canada to Nazi Germany. The fear of doing so should not prevent us from naming, and emulating, the courage to bear witness that was displayed by Bonhoeffer and his colleagues.

  4. February 4, 2017 at 5:26 am #

    Reblogged this on papajaxndotcom and commented:
    Seems to me to remember Caligula who took over from Augustus Ceasar in 41 AD. Ruthless – debauchery – enslavement on building projects – built two aqueducts into Rome. Caligula resurrected in Washington has signed the papers for two major pipelines to carry the clear golden fresh water from northern Canada south to the baking hills of the southern USA. Emperors have no clothes. just a few words from over-the-hill prophet keeping still in the lands of the Whispering Reeds -Leaves and Hills of Athabasca.

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