Monday, November 28, 2005

Here we go again
I've just heard the news that Canada's Liberal Government has fallen and we'll be going to the polls in January. This was not unexpected, of course, especially after Bono denounced Paul Martin's lack of action on increasing foreign aid before U2's Ottawa concert this weekend (the kiss of death from the world's biggest Rock star).

Seriously though... Last Friday I woke up with the feeling deep in my gut that the Liberals' days are done. As a calvinist I don't often get "gut feelings" so I tend to pay attention to them. However, I do have mixed feelings about that, well, particular feeling. The two-and-fro history of Canadian elections invariably means that when Canadians get tired of Liberal governments, they vote in a Conservative one. However, the ineptitude of the present Conservative party will probably mean that the tories will get in on a minority ticket. As a political pluralist, I hope that this could mean a renaissance for smaller parties (such as the Greens); as a social democrat, I hope that this could mean a bigger slice of the political pie for the NDP. As a Canadian, I hope this whole exercise could mark a change in the negative politics of the past elections, though so far the signs are not hopeful. Already the knives are out as Martin has accused the Conservatives of kowtowing to the Americans and the Quebec separatists. "Be afraid. Be very afraid."

Anyway, the point of this post is to point Canadians to the excellent work of Citizens for Public Justice around election time. CPJ is a Christian policy and education organization that consistently works to place the interests of the weak of society on the public agenda. Their election guides are comprehensive tools for thinking and acting Christianly in making that "X", but also in raising issues during the public debates that go along with election campaigns. I encourage y'all to visit them often.


Anonymous said...

I gather that you are not overly fond of the Conservatives. Do you think that conservative policies are incompatible with Christian teachings? This is an interesting subject. Does God prefer a certain kind of government over another kind, say a democracy over a monarchy? A monarchy could be a vehicle for social justice, but does God approve of dictatorships?
I think that Canadians focus too much on what the government should be doing to help the poor, instead of helping the poor themselves. Regardless of whether the government in Ottawa is socialist or conservative, its our own responsibility to enact social justice in our own communities.
That brings me to another point. The highest goal of Christian community should probably be about living in a communal atmosphere where everyone gives freely to those in need. Such a community could be considered morally good. People who join it could be considered morally upright.
However, if a socialist community is legislated, is it still morally good? If people are required to pay high taxes, would Jesus consider those people as fulfilling his command to help the poor?

Stephen Martin said...

Certainly Christians should be involved promoting social justice in their communities. The issue you may be missing concerns what government is supposed to be doing. Helping the poor is not a merely a matter of charity or morality, as laudable as those things are; it's a matter of justice. Otherwise the poor remain dependent on the charity of the rich (and the rich, on top of this, get credit on their moral bank account -- as long as they do it freely and without compulsion). Should we not rather be striving for a government committed to creating a society where there are no poor people? Should not the advocacy of the church for social justice include radical social transformation? Should we not have Mary's song of salvation continually ringing in our ears:

"God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."

Mary, of course, is talking about the Kingdom of God. Ought not this vision also guide us when we think about and act for a society governed with justice? So I ask myself, Who wants to fill the pockets of the rich? Who wants to send the poor away hungry? Who wants to maintain a status quo where one in six Canadian children go to bed hungry each night in one of the richest countries in the world? Who wants to open more food banks, instead of making them obsolete?

More positively... I find it helpful to think of government's role as creating the kind of society characterized by something called "Public Justice." The biblical tradition talks about helping the poor, but also structuring society in such a way as to circumvent the bondage of perpetual, intergenerational poverty (see the Jubilee provision in Lev 25, Mary's song above, and Luke 4:14-21). CPJ has a helpful way of putting this idea:

"Public justice requires that governments must pay special attention to the poor. The poor include the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the weak, the prisoner, the sick, the aged, the distressed and all who have low incomes. The poor are those persons, communities, associations and countries which, in relation to others are deprived of their freedom or of the resources needed for a responsible life in relation to God and to others. Governments should ensure that societal institutions allow needy people to be free of poverty so that they may be capable of responsible living. They are to encourage businesses, unions and other organizations to act in such a way that these people have access to necessary goods and services

"When people are bound in economic poverty, governments must see to it that they have opportunities of meaningful work (or of alternative resources) to be able to support themselves and fulfil their life's responsibilities."
(Guidelines for Christian Political Service IV A -- available at

Anonymous said...

I agree that we should work towards a world where poverty does not exist.
However, I think that both the Conservatives and the NDP have the same goal; justice and material happiness for all people. They don't disagree on the goal, they disagree on how to achieve the goal.
There is no politician of any stripe who doesn't wish to eradicate child poverty (1 in 6 kids hungry seems a bit high, but even one in hundred is not ideal). Politicians only argue about how they're going to eradicate poverty, they all agree that poverty is bad (despite their name, the Conservatives are not interested in maintaining the status quo).
So, the question isn't primarily about what kind of society we wish to create. Most of us agree that a just society is a good idea. The question is, what's the best way to establish a just society?
This is where my first post comes in. Would God approve of either the Conservative method or the NDP method, as long as they get the same result? Or, is one form of government intrinsically more moral than the other?
Say that the NDP plan cannot eradicate poverty as completely as the Conservative plan can (this is a purely theoretical argument, I'm not suggesting that it's true). Which plan would God favor?

And then I have a related question. What is poverty anyway? How do we determine when people are no longer poor? When we talk about justice, do we mean that everyone should have the same amount of goods? Or do we mean that everyone should have enough to live on without fear of starvation?