Dignity for All: The role of faith communities in public justice
As Christians, we all have the responsibility to do something about the injustice of poverty.
Every month in Canada, more than 800,000 people line up at food banks across Canada in order to feed their families. Statistics cannot convey the individual experiences of these people, both adults and children: the impact on health, the stress and feelings of shame, and the barriers to being active in community life.
As Christians, we all have the responsibility to do something about the injustice of poverty. This includes delivering charity, as people who are hungry or homeless must be given food and shelter now. But our response must also include justice—a transformation of the structures, policies and behaviours that make and keep people poor.
This is at the heart of public justice that we can define as the political dimension of loving our neighbour. Isaiah 10:1-2 says, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people.”
Faith communities are typically quite familiar with the call to care for the poor. There is no need for debate on why we should care; the 2,000-plus verses on poverty in the Bible do that pretty well already. The question is “how” we are going to care.
Are we going to preach sermons about the topic? Are we going to open more food banks or serve healthier and more abundant food? Are we going to deepen our resolve to end poverty? Are we going to join a network committed to social justice? Are we going to donate our money to anti-poverty work?
Perhaps we will consider all of these things.
But churches and people of faith must think beyond these considerations. Faith communities must see themselves as leaders in Canadian society. This means calling for upstream action, particularly from the government of our country. We must not be afraid to see ourselves as influential actors in a democracy with a critical voice that should be heard.
Taking leadership does not mean that we ignore other voices. We are not the only leaders. Rather, it means that we have heard what is necessary to speak out on behalf of the voiceless and for the rights of all who are vulnerable. It means we speak out to “defend the rights of the needy and the poor” as Proverbs 31:8-9 calls us to do.
We must call for our government to increase investment in affordable housing and the number of good-quality jobs. We must call for improvements to our insufficient income security programs for those who can’t find a job or are simply unable to work. The inequities in Indigenous communities, amongst newcomers and other marginalized groups must be recognized, acknowledged and rectified.
In 2011, the Canadian Council of Churches, the Canadian Interfaith Delegation of the World Religions Summit, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and the Dignity for All campaign developed a joint declaration on faith and poverty, calling for a national anti-poverty plan. As faith communities, we need to use this declaration, to push it further, to make it clear that people of faith in Canada want more from our government.
People who use food banks must be given the opportunity to live in dignity, with policies and programs in place to ensure that they are able to do so. A society is not judged by how they treat those who are most well-off—but those who are the most vulnerable. As people of faith, we must be willing and active in holding our government to that same standard.
This piece was adapted from a reflection given to the Justice Tour and Canadian Council of Churches delegates on May 13, 2015 in Ottawa. The Justice Tour was a series of faithful gatherings of concerned Christians in cities across Canada, coordinated by the Canadian Council of Churches and Citizens for Public Justice.
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