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Public witness demands a better way

Tribalism and anger can do serious damage to Christian input into public debate.

As the Senate scandal continues to bubble away, the debates in Quebec over the limits of faith in public and euthanasia spill into the rest of the country, and Rob Ford continues, well, being Rob Ford, Christians (and others) enter into 2014 with what only can be called a deep sadness over how debased our public life has become.

The situations above are, of course, very different. What does secularization have to do with Mike Duffy? Euthanasia with Rob Ford? On the surface, at least, not very much. Below the surface, each of these stories does reveal two depressing features of our public debate, features where Christians do have something to say.

The first is that public debate in Canada has become increasingly tribal. People do not seek a common good as much as they seek to mobilize voters who are already sympathetic to their case.

I think here of Margaret Somerville, who has written much about ethics and public policy from her position at McGill University. She finds herself in the euthanasia debate marginalized not because of any of her positions—which she insists are not especially religious, or advanced with appeals to sacred texts—but because she is a Roman Catholic. Because she is a person of Christian conviction, her thoughts and ideas are dismissed by some of her opponents. She is part of the wrong tribe and is therefore not to be taken seriously.

The second depressing feature is that such tribal debate is perpetually angry. So many arguments about moral matters seem to reduce to something like this: “All people of good will agree with me. You do not agree with me. Therefore you are a bad person. You are not worth listening to. I must silence you.”

It is a mode of argument that is trotted out by all sides, on every issue. Charles McVety, the perpetually enraged president of Canada Christian College, appears to me to have subscribed to this new way of engaging in public debate. His goal is not to persuade people who do not share his views that he is correct; his goal is to mobilize people who already agree with him to take an angry, aggressive stand on whatever issue he is writing about.

Let me be clear: However sympathetic I may be to McVety’s conclusions, I worry that his tactics in fact alienate many people who do not already share them.

When we succumb to temptations to tribalism and anger, serious damage to Christian witness results. With them, we surrender any notion of “the common good.” That is, the idea that Christian ways of life, and modes of thought, are in fact contributions to the good of all Canadians.

What might change were that to be our basic assumption? When the exiles were called to pray for the peace of the whole city, rather than just their corner of it, it was done on the assumption that the peace of the whole would include peace for their community. Such a perspective, in our own matters of pressing importance, would give us both the sense of identity that people like Charles McVety rightly want to preserve and turn us outward toward others, to engage and persuade, as Margaret Somerville has done consistently.

So whether we are talking about the apparent loss of virtue in our civic officials, secularization and the limits of religious expression in public life, or what constitutes a good death (or a good life), Christians throughout are called to affirm that we are for the common good of all Canadians and not simply angrily protecting “our” corner.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Tim Perry is rector at Church of the Epiphany in Sudbury, Ontario. He blogs about theology, religion, politics and sometimes the blues at