It was a pleasure to join Greg Musselman on Closer to the Fire, the Voice of the Martyrs Canada podcast, to discuss the public health orders and the Church in Canada in light of Pastor James Coates’ detention in Alberta.
Originally published at Convivium on March 4, 2021.
Don Hutchinson considers the complementary roles of Church and State vis-à-vis the pandemic and public health.
Wash your hands, wear a mask, and social distancing are good advice. Most of us have heard ‘wash your hands’ since childhood. A friend who taught in Japan commented many there wear a mask in public at the first sign of illness, to protect others from getting what they’ve got. Most of us have kept our distance from someone who had noticeable signs of illness.
Wash your hands, wear a mask, and social distancing are advice, until they’re compulsory.
Resistance arose swiftly to standardized medically-informed action taken by governments on the political left and political right from coast to coast to coast.
The summer of 2020 featured public demonstrations that laid waste COVID rules. Subsequent COVID fatigue, a.k.a. the pandemic wall, primed more Canadians for civil disobedience when governments again moved from official advice to enforced constraint.
Protesters gathered outside city halls and in front of legislatures to oppose COVID constrictions.
Divisive tensions experienced in culture have also shown up in church.
Several organizers of public protests expressed that their Christian faith compelled their action. Most, in turn, attend churches that are disputing government limitations on religious gatherings.
A year ago, the vast majority of pastors shifted to accommodate government orders, employing internet conduits and reduced attendance church assembly with social distancing, masks, and hand sanitizer. A small number insisted on gathering without observing stipulated parameters, and consider love for neighbour extends to demonstrably championing neighbours’ economic and business interests. Community-minded elements in both groups continued ministries such as food banks, small group AA gatherings, cold weather emergency shelters, etc.
How can there be such incongruity within the Body of Christ, people who read a common Book and embrace a shared desire to follow Jesus and love our neighbours?
Two key ingredients distinguish conformers from dissenters: differing interpretations of constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom; and, differing interpretations of Scripture. Constitution first.
A long history of religious freedom is summarily stated in section 2 of the Canadian Charter or Rights and Freedoms (the Charter).
2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
(a) freedom of conscience and religion
Section 1, however, clarifies that freedom of religion is not absolute.
1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.
Dissenters dispute that the medically recommended and politically sanctioned COVID-pandemic policies are demonstrably justified. Legal counsel for this group note the Charter also guarantees freedom of assembly and freedom of expression; exercised in places of worship as well as in public spaces outside city halls and legislatures.
Decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada outline principles that merit consideration.
First, it’s irrelevant to the law that dissenters may be in the minority in their understanding of Scripture. The Court’s decision in Amselem (2004) concluded that religious freedom includes practices connected with sincerely held religious beliefs, regardless of whether those beliefs align with expert theological opinions or the majority in the religious community.
Second, government is required to be neutral, neither favouring nor hindering a particular religious belief, or non-belief as it were, through government policy (see Loyola High School (2015)). Dissenters contest whether current health regulations are neutral in regard to places of worship.
Third, in 2009 the Court decided the Government of Alberta was justified in requiring photographs on all drivers’ licenses because of national security concerns, even though the requirement violated the religious freedom of the Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, Christians who believe being photographed violates the second commandment against making images or likenesses of anything in Heaven or on earth (Exodus 20:4). We’re in a declared emergency.
Now, the Bible. Accepted in both camps as the Word of God, there is disagreement about analysis and application.
A starting-point verse for divergence is Hebrews 10:25. Hebrews 10:23-25 in the Amplified Version reads:
23 Let us seize and hold tightly the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is reliable and trustworthy and faithful [to His word]; 24 and let us consider [thoughtfully] how we may encourage one another to love and to do good deeds, 25 not forsaking our meeting together [as believers for worship and instruction], as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more [faithfully] as you see the day [of Christ’s return] approaching.
A minority interpret verse 25 to command consistent face-to-face meeting of Christians, extending that application to Sunday church services unencumbered by COVID constraints. The majority consider the passage a plea to encourage those trying to live as stand-alone Christians to accept the accountability that comes with fellowship and discipleship.
Other key Scripture passages are found in the writings of Paul (Romans 13:1-7 and Titus 3:1-2) and Peter (1 Peter 2:13-17). Written in the setting of the first-century Roman Empire, within decades of Jesus’ crucifixion, most accept the instruction in Paul’s and Peter’s words in these passages to require submission by Christians to government authority. Paul wrote in Philippians that Jesus submitted, looking to the interests of others even unto his own death (Philippians 2:4-8).
The minority soften the submit-to-government directive, emphasizing verses in Romans 13 that describe the role of government as to do good. A contingent insist that government must submit to God. In Romans 13, Paul also writes that government is not a source of fear for people of good behaviour. The dissenters consider current government orders an example of government not doing good, not submitting to God, and punishing what they consider to be their good behaviour.
The minority also appeal to Biblically chronicled situations of civil disobedience. Consider two from the Old Testament, and a New Testament incident involving the same Peter who wrote “submit yourselves to [the authority of] every human institution for the sake of the Lord [to honor His name], whether it is to a king as one in a position of power, or to governors” (1 Peter 2:13-14 Amplified).
Two Old Testament examples are found in the Book of Daniel.
King Nebuchadnezzar commanded all to worship a statue of his image. The penalty for disobedience was to be thrown into a cremation-hot fiery furnace. Three Jewish men refused to comply. On sentencing they declared, “Our God whom we serve is able to rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire… But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up!” (Daniel 3:17-18). They were prepared to accept the consequences of their religious obedience and their civil disobedience.
Health orders do not command worship of any god or person.
We read in Daniel 6 that Nebuchadnezzar’s successor, King Darius, issued a loyalty decree that no petition was to be made to any god or man except himself for 30 days. Daniel prayed to God three times each day before the edict, and continued to do so during the 30 days. Daniel knew this could mean being imprisoned overnight in a den of lions. He was.
There has been no prohibition on prayer, private or public.
A frequently cited New Testament example is the arrest of Peter, jailed for preaching the Gospel in the name of Jesus. Miraculously set free in the night, then arrested again the next day, in his defence Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The authorities had him beaten and released. Peter knew the risk of preaching in the forbidden name.
Governments have not decreed that Christians stop sharing the Gospel, or the name of Jesus.
A small number of religious gatherings have contributed to COVID spread in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Newfoundland. Let us not mistake regulation or prosecution for persecution. Let petitions continue to governments, and to God.
Fines issued for public health order violations and the imprisonment of a dissident Alberta pastor are before the courts, of law and public opinion. It is conceivable these cases will influence future understanding of religious freedom in Canada. For all our sakes, those Christians need the best legal representation available.
Christians who have submitted to government requirements, and petitioned for change rather than disobey, will have a different influence, likely less visible to the culture at large.
Christians petitioning God may open prison doors, and possibly change government policies without uttering a word in public.
The question of whether pandemic policies have gone too far will be settled in the courts, and at the ballot box.
The question of how our neighbours perceive the church’s response will be determined in a different way. “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making His appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Originally published at Convivium on February 16, 2021.
On this day before Lent, Don Hutchinson counsels Convivium readers to prepare for the 40 days before Easter as a mix of self-denial and doing unto others as we would have them do for us.
Apart from hot pancakes for lunch, the day held no particular meaning for me.
It was a next-day Wednesday some year, perhaps even the same year, when I noticed my next-door neighbour had a smudge of something on his forehead after school. “Hey Mike, you’ve got some dirt on your forehead. You’ll want to wash it off before your mom sees it,” or words to that effect, opened for me a whole different understanding of why once each year we had pancakes for Tuesday lunch instead of Saturday breakfast.
Shrove Tuesday, as Mike called it, was the last day before Lent. Ash Wednesday was the first day of Lent. The pancake lunch was a moveable feast, determined by the date on which Easter fell. Fill up on the good stuff on Fat Tuesday (yet another name for this special day), followed by Lent; 40 days of fasting from fatty foods and engaging in personal introspection, remembering Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Jesus started his ministry following those 40 days, and Lent, I was told, was also a time to consider how one might do good for those in need.
The “dirt” on Mike’s forehead? His priest would save the palm leaves that littered the church following Palm Sunday services the year before, then burn them on Pancake Tuesday, mix them with a little oil to make them sticky, and place the sign of the cross on the foreheads of Catholics at Mass on Ash Wednesday. Wednesday Mass at Mike’s school included an ashen cross on his forehead for the rest of the day. His mother would be looking for it when he got home.
As a young adult, my formative Christian experience took place in The Salvation Army. We observed our own form of Lent. Instead of Lent, Salvationists call it Self-Denial. We identified something we really enjoyed, then fasted from it or paid a self-determined fine for it. For 40 days I gave up sweets and put the equivalent I would have spent on cookies, candies, and desserts in an envelope to support Home Missions – helping fund Salvation Army churches and ministries in Canadian communities that were not able to support them. In addition, my Self-Denial envelope acquired 25 cents for each half-hour of television I watched.
We too contemplated Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, with extra Scripture reading and prayer time. Self-Denial was a time for self-reflection, thinking about our excesses and the needs of others.
There are two different stories told about William Booth, co-founder of The Salvation Army along with his wife Catherine, sending a telegram containing the single word, Others.
One story suggests that General Booth, an aging invalid in 1910, was unable to attend The Salvation Army’s annual Christmas Day convention. On Christmas Eve it was suggested that in lieu of his traditional opening remarks a telegram be sent to be read to the gathered crowd. Telegrams were paid for by the word, not including the name of the sender. Mindful of the expense, the telegram read to gathered Salvationists that Christmas day said simply, “Others. Signed, General Booth.”
The second story suggests that in 1911 Booth sent a Christmas telegram to Salvation Army leaders around the world. Funds were short so he edited to one paragraph, then one sentence, and finally one word. Again, the telegram is said to have read, “Others. Signed, General Booth.” That would have been his last Christmas message. The General was, as Salvationists say, promoted to glory in August 1912.
Either story might be well met with an acknowledging nod of the head. The ministry of The Salvation Army was and remains synonymous with others.
Whether Catholic, Salvationist, Reformed, Pentecostal, or none-of-the-aforementioned, perhaps our pandemic Pancake Tuesday feasts of 2021 might be followed by 40 days of self-reflection, thinking of others, and doing something about it. In a world where self seems often the center of our thoughts, our service, and our purchases, thinking of and doing for others from now until Easter Sunday might be soul-replenishing.
It might even become an enduring habit.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31)
Originally published at Convivium on February 2, 2021.
We can agree or disagree over policies, but the Prime Minister and other party leaders deserve the respect conveyed by the honorific preceding their names, Don Hutchison writes.
Some will have read the question as if it was written, “Why, Mr. Trudeau?
Why the multiple ethics violations, Mr. Trudeau? Why the departure of Jody Wilson-Raybould, Jane Philpott, and others? Why make announcements about restricted borders without requiring adherence to the announced restrictions? Why is Canada the country Pfizer felt comfortable cutting off from its COVID-19 vaccine? Etc.
But, there is no comma in the question precisely because it is not written as a question to Mr. Trudeau. It is a question about him.
Why Mr. Trudeau?
Some may think it a question about why we have Justin Trudeau as our Prime Minister, i.e. why not someone else?
In that context, the question might evoke a guttural partisanship. Fiberals, Libtards and dictator are terms I’ve seen. They align with Cons, Conswervatives and hidden agenda to describe the Liberal Party’s primary contender for government, the Conservative Party.
But, I’m not here challenging Mr. Trudeau’s elected role as Prime Minister. And, I will get around to a few comments on the peril of polarized partisanship. So…
Why Mr. Trudeau?
The question is about him, but it’s directed to you and me. Why refer to our Prime Minister as Mr. Trudeau?
First, he’s earned it.
Mr. Trudeau secured the nomination, then campaigned and won the Papineau riding in 2008. He has held it since that time. That’s four elections. Members of Parliament are due respect.
Mr. Trudeau pursued and won the leadership of the Liberal Party in 2013. He campaigned as Liberal Party leader in 2015 and 2019. Both times, through free and democratic election, his party secured enough seats in the House of Commons for him to be appointed Prime Minister by Canada’s head of State, Queen Elizabeth II. Prime Ministers are due respect.
Second, even if Mr. Trudeau had not earned the “Mr.” through political office, it would be his as a sign of respect for his person and age: He’ll be 50 this year.
It’s disappointing to see ad hominem tropes based on Mr. Trudeau’s surname: Trudope, Trou d’eau (hole of water), and others. In terms of disrespect, they align with O’Tool and O’Fool. Not that clever really. Sort of like a recent social media mock debate about hockey player nicknames, in which the question was asked whether Browner and Brownster were too similar sounding once Brownie was taken for the Ottawa Senators’ Connor Brown, Josh Brown, and Logan Brown.
I admit my own failure to consistently hold to this simple 1, 2, 3 standard.
During the 2019 election, I was unsettled by what I perceived as insincerity in the disconnection between the Liberal Party’s environmental posturing and its practices. Arguing taxpayers get more back in carbon price rebates than they pay in carbon taxes highlighted what a vehicle owner pays at the pump. It did not address additional costs for farms, food production, transportation for all goods, and the GST/HST charged on top of the carbon tax.
Flying two campaign planes and buying carbon offsets does not reduce emissions. It pays a financial penalty for them. The day Mr. Trudeau made a campaign announcement on environmental policy at a lakefront from behind a podium that had Green Party green signage instead of Liberal Party red was the day I started writing furiously about this apparent hypocrisy. I wrote a scathing article. Thankfully, my submission to Convivium was declined, with the explanation that it did not meet the benchmark for being balanced, factual, and respectful.
There’s a figure of speech used in politics that, lamentably, is drawn from a tragedy of religious extremism. Jim Jones was an American cult leader who led his followers to establish a commune in Guyana. There, in 1978, at Jones’ unquestionable decree 918 people – over 300 of them children – committed mass suicide by drinking a cyanide-laced powdered drink mix. Beware swallowing the Kool-Aid of personal or partisan passion that views political competitors as enemy combatants, evil and without potential for good in themselves or their policy proposals simply because they are in another camp. That’s poison to the mind and soul.
The candidate who applied for the nomination in Papineau did fail to disclose a history of wearing blackface and a publicly reported incident of groping a female journalist. He said he learned his lesson.
The first-term Prime Minister left unfulfilled four years later his promises of electoral reform, small deficits, a balanced budget, ending boil-water advisories on First Nations’ reserves, and transparency in government. Broken promises are part of the basis on which almost all elected politicians are evaluated in subsequent elections.
Shifting statements on SNC-Lavalin and his use of blackface, or using another party’s signature hue for an announcement vis-à-vis that other party’s raison d’être, don’t make Mr. Trudeau an evil person. They are questionable behaviour.
As a Christian, I am exhorted not to allow such behaviour to transform my mind, my attitude, or the character of my writing about Mr. Trudeau or others. I was reminded of that when beckoned back to balance, facts and respect. I’m grateful.
I hope this article pays it forward.
Yes, editorial policies at most publications permit or require respectful use of last name only after initial use of full name, positional identification, or an opening Mr. The key is respectful.
Over the last year, Prime Minister Trudeau has led a government dealing with life-threatening health situations for Canadians that has required an extraordinary degree of cooperation with provincial and territorial leaders. Mr. Trudeau has been at the federal helm, navigating the uncertainties of governing in a minority Parliament while being disconnected from the usual face-to-face gatherings with caucus members and constituents.
You or I might disagree with how he has handled policy commitments, Parliament, and pandemic measures over the last year, but Justin Trudeau is the person Canadians elected to high position. He bears the responsibility. Not you. Not me. Mr. Trudeau is due both my earned and unearned respect, whether commenting in support or criticism of his behaviour.
That’s why Mr. Trudeau. And Mr. O’Toole, Monsieur Blanchet and Mr. Singh as well.