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(Photo: Jim McIntyre)

Joe Gunn: 'You aren’t supposed to remain the same after listening to the Word'

The executive director of Citizens for Public Justice says that being part of a faith community means being challenged to walk the talk.

By Trisha Elliott

Joe Gunn is the executive director of Citizens for Public Justice in Ottawa and recently published a book of interviews with Canadian Christian activists. He spoke to Trisha Elliott about secularism and social justice.

Q: Your new book, Journeys to Justice: Reflections on Canadian Christian Activism, reads like a historical record or a testimony of the church’s ecumenical social justice efforts. Does knowing the history give us confidence today?

A: I think so. I really hope it helps us celebrate it. Maybe by holding up a particular struggle that folks were involved in at a certain time, we can see more possibilities today. I think of the Project North story in the book, where the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories got their funding cut, and they couldn’t bring their people together to discuss the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline proposal. The churches worked together and gave them $100,000, which allowed them to have that meeting. Of course, the organization paid the money back. But the churches were willing to do that. I hope stories like this give us a bit of licence to think outside the box and not be too careful.

Q: You end the book on a hopeful note with a couple of chapters written by young activists. Yet I sensed an undercurrent of lament throughout as well. Do you feel a sense of loss?

A: I’m a Roman Catholic. I would have to say that the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada right now should be challenged. It’s lamentable. I think of the historic moment last May when 269 members of Parliament voted to call upon the Pope to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system. This is after the Pope had said he wouldn’t apologize. The bishops wouldn’t have it — they are afraid of what reconciliation might mean for liability issues. That’s a real cause for lament. Another cause for lament is seeing the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops pull out of the justice coalition KAIROS. It’s an attack against ecumenical work in Canada. At the same time, I know of great movements in all of the churches where people are saying that this is not life-giving gospel. We’ve done reconciliation events in Ottawa where we were expecting 30 people and we got 94. We have the lament and the hopeful march toward the future.

Q: I’ve often heard that justice is in the eye of the beholder. Is it simply a matter of perspective?

A: Freedom of conscience is something that, in good theology, is the ultimate bottom line. You decide for yourself. But one of the wonderful things about belonging to a faith community is that you get challenged by other people to walk the talk. You are challenged by some of the biblical stories. You aren’t supposed to remain the same after listening to the Word. When I hear that particular statement about justice, I think of liberation theology, where your moral bottom line is “How is this going to improve the lives of the most vulnerable?” If you start from there, justice is about asking who benefits and whether the poor or the vulnerable will be more affected than others. When you challenge yourself on these kinds of things, you walk away from conversations with a lot to think about. 

Q: What are the top three most pressing social justice issues for Canadians?

A: One is the ability to understand ecological and social change together. It’s sometimes said that the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor are one and the same. I think that’s huge. We are faced with climate responsibilities right now that touch everybody internationally and affect how we reconcile with Indigenous people. Reconciliation itself is another massive challenge. It has to be reconcili-action. We have to be able to do it in ways that don’t bring Indigenous people into an unjust economic situation, where a few can do well but we destroy the Earth or create ongoing inequality in society. Another is co-operation. There are movements toward public multi-faithism. We’ve tried to do some of our poverty work at Citizens for Public Justice with Muslim people and Jewish people and other constituencies. But I think the bigger challenge is working together with secular organizations that want to make change.

Q: How has secularism changed the kind of social justice engagement that Christians have today?

A: The secular world view presents challenges to us, but it also presents opportunities. When you look at the fact that on any given weekend, close to four million Canadians are participating in worship services, that’s a huge opportunity for people interested in social change. We know that faith communities are where people learn to speak in public, learn to serve on boards, learn to give to charity. I think as we do social change work in the secular world, secularists actually see the importance of faith communities. And faith-based organizations can bring leaven to those secular struggles that are important for all of us. The secular world challenges us, but we challenge it too. I think that’s quite healthy.

"In the secular world today, people see church activism that centres around very conservative issues: abortion politics, curriculum in schools, euthanasia. People are afraid of that."

Q: One day, I overheard my son’s friends referring to activists as “social justice warriors” in a derogatory way. How do you respond to comments like that?

A: In some of our church communities, “activism” is a challenging word because we don’t know or celebrate the history as we might. This is part of the reason for the book. Take Medicare, for example. Canadians are very much in favour of our system, especially compared to the alternative. The churches advocated for Medicare in Canada, including the United Church. I think that example changes the frame of the conversation. But in the secular world today, people see church activism that centres around very conservative issues: abortion politics, curriculum in schools, euthanasia. People are afraid of that. These things colour younger people’s assessment of religious communities.

Q: Was there a particular chapter in the book that inspired you?

A: My twin sister married a Chilean refugee, so the first story in the book about how the churches worked together to allow Chilean refugees to come to Canada is personal and inspiring. It touched me. My eldest nephew is named after his dad’s best friend, who was tortured and killed during the dictatorship in the 1970s. How did our little working-class family from Scarborough, Ont., ever get interested in Latin America? Well, it was through this faith-based work in Latin America to defend human rights. Our family history is now tied directly to that.

Q: What’s social justice going to look like for the next generation?

A: I think part of our role is to open up doors for others who will interpret the work that needs to be done in different ways. So it will look like newcomer Canadians. It will look like people who have come to faith through different avenues. It will be open not only to Christians but to people of other traditions. And it’s not going to be stuck seeing the world as the big enemy out there that we have to defend ourselves from. Let’s not batten down the hatches. If we really believe that Christians have found a way to live that is life-giving, we should be able to witness to that in the world rather than squirrel it away.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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