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The following is based on an open letter by Jim Wallis, the author of The Great Awakening , editor-in-chief of Sojourners and blogger at www.godspolitics.com in which he responded to Shane Claiborne’s blog about why he does not vote in elections. It was written for the American election in 2008 so I have removed the paragraphs most directly related to US issues and have changed the wording in a few places to make it more applicable to the Canadian situation. I believe it speaks to Canadian Christians facing voting decisions on October 21.

I am so thankful for you and everybody who is asking the question of how to be faithful to Jesus during an election campaign.

We have a lot of common ground: our first commitment and ultimate loyalty is to the kingdom of God and the church as an alternative community of faith in the world. Elections always confront us with imperfect choices; how we live [before and after elections] is very important; and we agree that our responsibility to speak prophetically to the new administration, whoever wins, is key.

I especially like your advice to consult with poor people and First Nations people about what they think about this election, and ask them how they would counsel us to vote. Very few people, including Christians, would ever do that; but it makes real biblical sense if we are always supposed to listen more to people at the bottom than those at the top.

We both believe passionately in the church’s life as a “political” act, in and of itself, as a radical alternative to the values of the society and the behavior of the principalities and powers. But we also vote and have conversations about how the two kinds of engagement are vitally connected. In our sincere attempts to offer an alternative style of life, there are some mistakes we can make and, to be honest, self-conscious “radical Christians” like us often have.

One, is to say that there is no real difference between electoral choices. While the choices are often imperfect ones, deciding not to vote is still making a choice. Our non-participation is a form of participation that makes us complicit with the outcome. Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of difference between the candidates, but, even then, it is usually worth the short time it takes to vote for the sake of the differences that are there, especially as the choices impact vulnerable people.

Second, you’re right to say that the role of a national leader stands in sharp contrast with our Jesus vocation of peacemakers. But again, history has shown that there are real differences between governmental leaders we have had. Some are more likely to use diplomacy to try and resolve the inevitable conflicts in the world, and others are more likely to go to war. I would prefer a prime minister and a local candidate who operates on a basis of compassion and hope rather than insecurity and fear. Voter choices have enormous impact on the lives of so many people besides ourselves.

Finally, there are biblical roles for both the church and the state, and both are necessary according to scripture and good Christian theology, even in the Anabaptist tradition which I am part of. Previous generations of Mennonites often did not vote based on their desire to be separate from the world. But the body of Christ must demonstrate what the kingdom of God looks like and offer a prophetic witness to the state. Churches and charitable organizations, by themselves, cannot provide for “the common good” as the government can, in conjunction with many other institutions in society–including churches.

I believe it is good to vote, no matter who you vote for, and then get busy in showing the nation how Christians are supposed to live and hold whoever wins accountable to the priorities of Jesus in advocating for the most vulnerable of our society.

Not only should Christians vote; it is also good to do some careful discerning about who to vote for in this coming election. More to come on that!

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I’ve been interested in Canadian geography and history for as long as I can remember. This appreciation has been enhanced by living in five Canadian provinces from Ontario to British Columbia and visiting all ten. I also was very excited to vote in my very first Canadian election when I turned 18. Since then I have voted for all four of the major political parties, and in one election as a cynical young adult I also voted for the Rhinoceros Party. Watching results come in on election night is almost as exciting for me as watching a sporting event!

To begin my series of blogs in preparation for the federal election on October 21 or earlier I want to begin with a wonderfully written description of the political jurisdiction known as Canada, written by Mark Starowicz as an afterword to the two volume, Canada: A People’s History based on the CBC television documentary of the same name. This series was unique in that it told human stories in addition to narrating the significant events of the country’s development. Here are some excerpts that introduce a few themes I want to pick up in subsequent blogs:

Modern Canada was founded by two unwanted peoples. The first: the French of two separate colonies—Acadia and Quebec—both occupied by the British and abandoned by the French, who didn’t even want Quebec back after the Seven Year’s War and traded it for the tiny sugar island of Guadeloupe. The second: their ancestral English enemies from the American colonies, driven from their homes in the years after 1776.

Thus, the experience of refuge is at the core of the Canadian identity. We are refugees, or descendants of refugees, who have come to our shores like the recurring tides: the Scots left landless by the Highland Clearances… the starving Irish families ousted by landlords and famine… Black people who were refugees from the American Revolution and the Civil War… the landless from eastern and northern Europe: Galicians, Mennonites, Poles, Jews, Russians, Scandinavians, Dutch—all fleeing war, persecution, economic devastation, or famine… Chinese [and Japanese] crossing the Pacific to escape poverty… British orphans were sent here in a systematic relocation of the abandoned… after WW2 came the people the war had displaced, and survivors of the Holocaust… Sikhs, Italians, Portuguese [came] in search of a better life… the boat people from Vietnam… [more recently] refugees from war still arrive—from the Sudan, Somalia, the Balkans… [and today, from Syria].

They were all the debris of history: the expelled, the persecuted, the landless, the marginalized, the victims of imperial wars, of economic and ideological upheavals. In a sense we are all boat people. We just got here at different times.

The major diverging current is the story of the [indigenous] people, the only ones who became refugees on Canadian soil. Even the most cursory reading of our history leads one to conclude that the peoples of the First Nations were systematically robbed and degraded in their own homelands. An equally cursory reading of Canadian history will show that there would be no Canada today without Donnacona, who saved Jacques Cartier’s expedition, without the Huron allies of the French, without Kondiaronk of the Great Peace, without Tecumseh’s warriors, who defended Canada’s territorial integrity, without Brant, without the Six Nations Confederacy, without Mi’kmaq, without the Plains Indians who saved the Selkirk Settlers, [without Louis Riel], and the nations of the Northwest who formed great trading empires. The Canadian idea of redemption and equality will never be realized, and the nation made whole, until this great wrong is righted.

This is my twentieth year as a college professor. It has not become “old” for me yet and this year with my youngest son and a nephew packing to move into the residence I see the newness and nervousness through their eyes. In Joyce Rupp’s book, Dear Heart Come Home, she describes a number of images of midlife generativity that can be applied uniquely to my role as a college professor who teaches primarily in the area of spiritual formation.

I want to be an apple with seeds in it reminding me of the potential of growth in all students.

I want my classroom to be a holy shrine where students can come and feel a sense of peace, wonder, and oneness.

I want my life to be a womb where I can provide a safe place for inquiry and help generate life for those who are searching for it.

I am convinced that if I can be honest and vulnerable with my own process of formation, others will draw courage and comfort from it because they will see some of their own life reflected in mine. This sharing is not easy for me to do. As an introvert I sometimes feel as if I am standing spiritually naked in front of gawking students. But I also believe I am called to do this and I want to honor this call and I feel privileged to walk with students on their journey of spiritual formation.

The name of the island gives away the perspective. Europeans who landed here believed they had found a new land. Much is made of Viking settlements on the northern peninsula perhaps as long as 1000 years ago. Then 500+ years later Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English fishermen fished the Grand Banks off shore and came on land to settle. English and Irish became the first Europeans to settle permanently on the island and their culture came to dominate as it remained a British colony until 1949. Today, Newfoundland has the most homogenous population of any province in Canada.

We noted the lack of acknowledgement of indigenous peoples at national parks and monuments and inquired about it. It seemed so strange coming from the west where there is increasing awareness and acknowledgement of our indigenous forbears. No one could give us an answer other than reference to Mi ‘kmaq people in the Corner Brook area who came from Nova Scotia. Labrador has Inuit peoples but the island of Newfoundland seemed bereft of indigenous peoples. Was it actually TERRA NULIUS (an empty land)? Or was the genocide of indigenous people tragically effective here? Either seemed hard to believe. Surely there must be a story here.

And there is a fragment of one. It is a sad story. Finally, at the end of our journey in the St. John’s apartment we were staying I noted a book on the shelf entitled, The Last Beothuk. It was a novel telling the story of the last surviving indigenous person on the island almost 200 years ago. I did not have time to read the entire book but the epilogue pieced together the few details that remained about the Beothuk people who had lived on the rock for thousands of years. Some internet research gave me a bit more information about the culture and the last surviving members. Why do the hardy, humble, and hospitable English and Irish settlers of the last 300 years not know this story? Numerous national park guides we spoke to did not know it. The details are scarce and the stories few.

Human beings need memories in order to keep faith alive. It is spiritual tragedy when a story vanishes from memory without a written record or an oral tradition. The story of the Beothuk people seems forgotten and that is sad.

God is my solid rock, my refuge, my protector, the rock where I am safe, my shield, my rescuer, and my place of shelter. (Psalm 18:2)

Newfoundland lives up to its nickname: “the rock.” From the heights of Grose Morne (big rock) in the west to the rocky points of Cape Spear and Signal Hill on the east coast, the island is one big old rock. Without getting into the entire geological history, the exposure of old layers of the earth’s crust worn down over years of wind, waves, and weather have given Newfoundland its unique landscape. The interior is mostly bog with smaller trees (especially compared to the rainforest giants on west coast) but the harshness and barrenness of the coastline holds some appeal for me.  It’s a similar appeal as the rolling grasslands of southwestern Saskatchewan or the desolate crags of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. They all have been buffeted by high winds, extreme weather, and brushed clean of all but the hardiest vegetation.

What is it about these desolate places that give them their spiritual appeal? They can be described as “thin places” where the mythical distance between heaven and earth might be just a little bit less than other places. When most people think of the most beautiful places on earth they often think of the tropics with abundant vegetation, exotic animals and fruits, warm temperatures, and vast sandy beaches. Newfoundland does not have much of any of the above. The trees are scrubby, (Although moose overrun the island, they were imported!), I observed virtually no agriculture, the winters are harsh and extreme (apparently a normal 12 feet of snow in Bishop’s Falls), storms abound, and the temperature while we were there in July topped out at 22 degrees. And the locals said that we were lucky to have such nice weather!

Perhaps because of the above, Newfoundland has the lowest population density of any province in Canada! Yet the appeal for me remains. I felt humbled and cleansed (and clung to the railing!) by the powerful wind as we traveled by ferry. The rock formations in Grose Morne National Park spoke to me of divine groundedness, reliability, and ancient creativity. All the many coves with tiny fishing villages clinging to the rocks and sheltered from ocean gales were a powerful metaphor for divine rest from the storms of life. The fragile dependency on the produce of the sea reminded me of the prairie farmer’s dependency on weather and soil. From the eastern points the sea stretches on endlessly into the horizon where eventually they are indistinguishable. In many ways I encountered God on the rock.

 

Top Eleven Experiences in Cape Breton and Newfoundland (in no particular order)

  1. The Lookout Trail up Partridgeberry Hill. It was a warm sunny day and the climb was steep but the 360 degree views were spectacular. Gros Morne National Park is known for Gros Morne but the trail to the summit is a 16 km all day hike with 800 m vertical so for those like us who have limited time and energy, the Lookout Trail offers similar views with less than half the distance and vertical.
  2. Western Brook Pond boat tour. The advertising photos for Newfoundland come from this ancient inland fjord and the advertising holds true. Continuous gasps of awe! We got a little bonus when one of the guides entertained us with east coast folk music on the return trip.
  3. Unique geological formations. A few of the best places to see layered rocks and unique formations are Green Point and Lobster Cove Head in Gros Morne National Park and Black Brook Cove in Cape Breton Island National Park. You don’t have to be an amateur rock hound like me to appreciate these. And if you see any “inukshuks” when you visit they might be my creations.
  4. Eating fresh lightly battered cod and drinking Iceberg beer at Quidi Vidi micro-brewery in Quidi Vidi Cove. The cod was actually good (I generally don’t like fish) and the beer was crisp and refreshing but what made it an experience was the location in a sheltered cove down and just north of Signal Hill. A feast for the eyes as well as the mouth.
  5. Cape Spear. Just because it is the easternmost point in Canada. Desolate and wide open, perhaps not unlike much of the country that lies to the west.
  6. Standing on top of a rocky knoll called Mill Cove Lookoff in the driving rain. Most of the weather was clear for us during our visit but for this short hike/scramble in Terra Nova National Park we got the full dose of iconic east coast weather.
  7. Seeing the sunset from the summit of Skyline Trail on the west coast of Cape Breton Island. Hiking 9 km in the evening and then returning after dark was one thing but the sunset from the multiple viewpoints was something else. Wow!
  8. Finding mini orchids along a few paths through bogs in Cape Breton, Gros Morne, and Terra Nova. Pitcher Plants, the unique provincial flower of Newfoundland, were abundant but spying a few of these miniature beauties was special.
  9. Walking the streets of old downtown St. John’s. It seems almost every residential street is a unique “jellybean row” with the iconic brightly and variously coloured row houses.
  10. Signal Hill. The Cabot Tower is the recognizable symbol but the short hikes around the North Head were where you not only saw the ocean but felt it in the breeze and got great views of St. John’s Harbour. The Newfoundland Chocolate Company Café is appropriately situated part way up the walk to the top of Signal Hill. They make a lovely iced dark café mocha latte.
  11. Supper on the deck with a view of the Exploits River in Bishop’s Falls. We cooked it ourselves at a lovely little Airbnb house and after dinner went for a walk to the old trestle bridge and ended the evening with s’mores around the fire. (I had to add an eleventh because all the others were from the east or west coast of the island and we did drive the entire Trans-Canada Highway from Port-aux-Basques to mile zero in St. John’s.)

All of the above were experienced with my sister and brother-in-law who were enjoyable traveling companions. And we only fought about directions once!

Two more posts coming about the “spirituality of the rock” and a sad story about New-found-land.

To “vacate” means to “leave a place once occupied.” In North America, summer is the time many people choose to leave home and travel somewhere else in order to rest and relax from ordinary work and home responsibilities. This summer we did our usual trip to Manitoba to visit extended family but we added 12 days on the east coast [see previous post] to explore Cape Breton Island and Newfoundland [wait for the next post about Newfoundland].

Just because we take a vacation from ordinary daily life does not mean that the events of ordinary daily life vacate us. We still have to eat, sleep, and relieve ourselves of bodily wastes. Birth and death continue to happen—and not on a holiday schedule! The second day into our road trip as we traveled across Alberta we received news that an uncle had died. The family visit was at a funeral rather than a dinner party. Then on the day we were beginning our trek back home we got news from the other side of the family: an aunt died suddenly and later that same day another uncle died. In the midst of those funerals my cousin, whose mom had died, welcomed a baby into the world. We can’t take a vacation from birth and death; they happen no matter where we are or what we are doing.

The above events caused me to do some reflection. It is good to make plans to travel, retreat, and recreate but it is good to hold our plans lightly and be open to the unplanned and unexpected. We booked accommodations on the east coast months ahead of time and thankfully the major details of our trip went smoothly as planned but accident or death could have visited us or our more immediate family. A planned vacation does not stop this. I say this not that we should live with a sense of dread, as if we could prepare ourselves for an unexpected tragedy. Rather, CARPE DEIM! Seize the day! I believe we did that on our vacation as we enjoyed the company of family and friends, exerted our bodies on hikes, enjoyed local food and drink [cod and screech], and saw amazing land-forms we had not experienced before.