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The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian

By Rev. Bob Thompson

 

Psalm 85

 

If you have heard me speak over the past few months, I hope it has become evident that I have been focusing on Jesus’ teaching about the “kin-dom community”. Of course, there are many other important things that he taught, but I am focused on this one, because I feel that for our time, this idea and this message is what we most need to hear and practice.

 

I believe that the ‘kin-dom community’ as Jesus taught it and lived it, is a community that treats all as kin – as family – not only humans, but in the way our First Nations brothers and sisters talk about all of creation as ‘all my relations’.

 

Up until now, what I have talked about has been focused on how my life experiences have illuminated some of the scripture stories for me. But I felt the time had come to relate Jesus’ teaching on kin-dom community to some of today’s issues. But where begin? Then Rhonda asked if I might take this Sunday worship service, and it seemed to me, that this Canada Day weekend might be a good time to talk about the kin-dom community in relationship to our country.

 

I have titled this Canada Day reflection “The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian”. The title comes from a book by that name, written by Richard Gwynn, and published in 1995. Its other title is “Nationalism Without Walls”.

 

As a boy, Gwynn had immigrated from England with his family, and became a Canadian citizen. He later became a newspaper columnist and spent about 20 years working back in England for the Toronto Star. When he returned to live in Canada in the early 1990's, he was struck with the changes he perceived in Canadians – how they thought and felt. And that was the fodder for his book.

 

Gwynn said that when he left to work in England, his perception for most people in this country, was that being Canadian meant not being American – that was how we defined ourselves. Twenty years later when he returned, he said that that was no longer so – that Canadians seemed to feel comfortable in their own skins – connected with each other, and with a sense of nationhood that was quite different than when he left.

 

When asked to define what it meant to be Canadian, people had a difficult time saying exactly what that was. We didn’t define ourselves by waving the flag or pledging an oath of allegiance. Mostly, we couldn’t really define ourselves. But we knew we belonged. By that time, we had owned our identity as a cultural mosaic, made up of all the cultures that had immigrated here, in contrast to the “melting pot” identity in the United States. But, we saw the differences as gifts to each other – not things that divided us.

 

Some had felt that, identifying ourselves as a cultural mosaic, rather than as a melting pot, would eventually erode any sense of Canadian unity. But that proved not to be the case. About that same time, I read a book by one of the Canadian polling companies, that over twenty-five years had polled Canadians and American on social issues to see whether we were coming closer to each other or growing apart in social attitudes. In that book, the researchers used one question, which they suggested, showed the difference between Canadians and Americans, and the differences in attitudes across each country. The question used was: do you agree with the statement that the man is the head of the household, and makes all of the important household decisions. In Canada, the most conservative province around that question was Alberta, where 14% of the respondents agreed with the statement. The most liberal province was Quebec, where 3% of the respondents agreed. The difference between the most conservative and most liberal provinces, was 11%. The United States were grouped around regions rather than states. There, the most conservative region was the deep south, where 75% of the respondents agreed with the question. The most liberal region was the New England States, where 25% agreed with the statement. A difference of 50%!

 


In the 1990s, there were the same political parties and rivalries, primarily Conservative, Liberal and New Democrat. But the conventional wisdom was that the further the parties strayed from the centre in their policies the more difficult to get elected, so that even when the party in power changed, there were not going to be wildly conflicting differences in policies.

 

I would gather all of that under the latter part of the book title: The Lightness of Being Canadian. I’m sure we were naive in dismissing differences, but I remember agreeing with Gwynn’s analysis, feeling that we had a different way of looking at nationhood – with no walls externally, or internally, between each other. And I had an optimism that if we worked hard and together, we could break down the walls that remained.

 

But not everyone felt that way, and as time has passed, the percentage of Canadians who disagree with that attitude has only grown. They embraced the unbearable part of being Canadian. I think it stems from the fact that we haven’t yet learned as humans to cope with community that doesn’t build up the walls and fences that define who is in and who is out. Is there really a possibility of a nation without walls – internal or external? It seems to me that we have become obsessed with building those divisive walls around political, social and economic issues, and then lobbing insults and accusations at each other across those walls.

 

I remember a few months ago, when Jim Taylor said he was no longer going to write about political topics in his weekly columns; I asked him why he made that decision. He said something to the effect that whenever he wrote about a political issue he ended up getting angry about it, and he didn’t think that was a good place from which to share his ideas. I identified with that. I think that all of us, right now, whenever we think about political issues end up getting angry. And it doesn’t matter what political stripe we are. Whether we are on the conservative or the liberal end of the political spectrum, what social or ethnic place we come from – we, all of us, seem to be angry with each other. It is a long way from where we were in the 1990s. And a long way from the kin-dom community.


If the values of the kin-dom community are love, compassion, justice, peace, inclusion, we even struggle to honour those values in the church. Every week here at Winfield, we open our service saying something like: “no matter who you are, no matter where you are in your own faith journey, you are welcome here”. And I think we try hard to honour those words and be inclusive in our welcome. One of the newly ordained ministers that the Search Committee approached, said his theology didn’t connect with ours on issues such as that. And when we asked him to elaborate on that, he answered: “While I agree, church is always open to all, I do believe there has to be a unifying creed (the Apostles of Nicene Creed in this instance) or belief system that unites a faith-community.”

 

While I agree with him, that communities need to be unified around a centre, I think that rallying cries like ‘freedom’, or creedal or allegiance statements, are meant to define who is in and who is outside – you are in, if you think like this. Last Sunday, Jim Taylor mentioned that he and I had spent some time with a group of friends who call ourselves, “The Fine Fellowship of Old Farts”. We were talking about this issue at that gathering, and one of the fellows said, that whenever the disciples were trying to build up walls of division in their community, Jesus always brought them back to the centre around the values that they held in common – and he was clear that they were the only things that mattered – focus on the things that bring us together, not those that drive us apart.

 

I wonder if there is some wisdom in Jesus’ teaching about kin-dom community, that could help us approach the issues and divisions that plague our Canadian national situation. Not that the whole Canadian nation can become a kin-dom community right now. But perhaps, when we find ourselves in disagreement with another Canadian, around a particular political or social issue, instead of being angry, perhaps we need to seek out the values out of which they believe they are acting. Perhaps we might find that, even though our approaches are different, we are trying to live out of the same values. Then, our discussion might be around how we could work around the same values, even when our approaches are different. If we find that we don’t hold to the same values, that opens a discussion around what our conflicting values are, and what kind of country and world we are envisioning. Who knows there that discussion might take us?

 

It may be that our values are too disparate – the visions we have of the future of Canada are too different from each other to be reconciled. But that needs to be discovered at the end of our discussion. It shouldn’t be the place from which we start. No, the place from which we start, in expressing our vision of Canada, is understanding that our values are based on love, compassion, peace, justice, dignity and respect for all. And, that we are willing to work with any person, of any political stripe, from any ethnic background or social milieu or religious persuasion, who espouses the same values. If you want some way in which to keep that in mind, in sometimes heated discussions, just remember Jesus’ teaching and practice around the kin-dom community.

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