Today is the first Sunday in Advent. Advent is the Western Christian Church’s celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth; recognized in the Church as Saviour, Lord, and Son of God. As we hear the Christmas carols, we are reminded of the diversity of music that heralds the celebration of the birth of the Christ child.
This assortment of celebratory music is a reflection of another diversity within the Church, the diversity of its population. In fact, Eastern rite Christian churches even have a different practice for celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Although largely perceived today as a Western religion, Christianity is a Middle Eastern religion with its foundation in the Judaism of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – a faith community that was awaiting the Messiah, in Greek “Christos”; Who Christians believe has come, was crucified and died, rose from the dead, ascended to heaven and will return. It is His birth we celebrate.
The message Jesus and the early Church shared was of a religion open to a diversity of people and cultural expressions, through which the message of the Saviour – the Good News or Gospel as it is called – spread by inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit beyond the Jewish population of Israel to find acceptance among Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Ethiopians. In short order the Church also expanded into India and the Orient.
One of the historically more recent developments resulting from the inclusiveness promoted by Jesus, and over the course of centuries by His disciples, is the concept of human rights. The Judaeo-Christian belief in the inherent dignity and worth of all humanity, believing we are all made in the image of God, is the foundation for human rights. It is the basis for the expression of their guarantee in documents such as Magna Carta, the United States’ Bill of Rights, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
One of the inherent rights these documents recognize is the right of the Church (and religion more generally) to be free from interference by the state, including the right to freedom in both religious beliefs and the practices connected with those beliefs by individuals and religious groups; congregations, denominations, organizations and associations. Another of the things these documents have in common is the recognition that such freedom as they outline is the basis for living with freedom in a diverse and peaceful society – whether democratic or otherwise.
Diversity, however, has come to mean different things over time.
At one point in Canada’s history it meant coexistence of the French and English – at the time, two international powers who had a long history of war against one another – and coexistence of the primary religions of those nations, Roman Catholicism and the Anglican expression of Protestant Christianity. The reality of increased Canadian immigration meant accommodation for Scottish, Irish, German, Dutch and other Europeans – along with their variations on religion, primarily Christian – and Africans, Orientals, South Asians, Jews and Arabs. Late in the process of nationhood has come an increasing acceptance for Canada’s aboriginal peoples and their religious freedom in place of efforts to conquer and convert.
The last half century or so has seen an increase in formal declaration of human rights by Canada’s federal and provincial legislatures, focusing on who is not to be discriminated against. This is a legal methodology to promote tolerance, if not acceptance, of diversity. The list in most human rights codes and acts across the country include non-discrimination on the following characteristics: age, ancestry, citizenship, colour, disability, ethnic origin, family status, marital status, place of origin, race, religion, sex or sexual orientation. There is also provision for organizations that serve primarily an identifiable group to be selective in hiring and membership so that it is not considered discriminatory to hire individuals of like description, e.g. the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, the Southern Ontario Gay and Lesbian Association of Doctors or The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. This is a continuing recognition that Canadian diversity is found in both diversity of individuals and diversity of institutions. These concepts are affirmed by our legislatures and our courts.
A developing concern of 21st century Canada is calls for a new notion of diversity that departs from the traditional and accepted broad spectrum noted above. The traditional spectrum presents an expansive concept that promotes both acceptance and the related concept of equality, i.e. the recognition that in our differences we remain equal and deserving of acceptance; both individually and institutionally.
The recent decisions of several law societies to exclude from the practice of law equally qualified graduates of a properly accredited Christian post-secondary institution and the decision of the University of Western Ontario to collapse a shared multi-faith chapel into a single-faith prayer facility for only one religious community convey a different message to Christians from that of inclusiveness, acceptance, diversity and equality. The law societies in question have demanded conformity, rather than respecting diversity. UWO has promoted preference for, or deference to, one religious community over equality. Both situations communicate non-acceptance and intolerance toward those who are judged as being different from a favoured community.
As we in Canada begin Advent, on a timeline shared both by those who accept the beliefs of the Western Church and those who engage in a strictly commercial celebration of Christmas, may “the season of goodwill toward others” also be a time to reflect on and re-embrace the foundations of a broad spectrum of diversity in the populations of both Church and state. That breadth of diversity is essential to our shared life together in Canada’s free, democratic and peaceful society.