On being prophetic

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

It has now been almost two weeks since our Minister of Foreign Affairs announced that Canada was cutting off diplomatic ties with Iran. While this was a dramatic and surprising action, Minister Baird’s statement pointed out that his government’s “position on the regime in Iran is well known.” I agree.

One of the higher profile members of the government’s cabinet, Minister Baird has been rather outspoken in his criticism of leaders around the world who do things that his government disagrees with.

Hon. John Baird (official photo)

Several times every week the minister indicates that he is “disappointed,” “deeply disappointed,” “concerned,” “deeply concerned,” “troubled,” “deeply troubled,” “disturbed,”  “outraged,” or even “horrified” by the actions of another government.

He often “regrets,” “mourns,” “decries,” “stands against,” “rejects,” “deplores,” or even “proudly boycotts” these actions. The most common verb, however, is to “condemn” or “strongly condemn” a given action, and to “urge” or “call for” a change of direction.

To be clear, issuing critical statements is part and parcel of standard diplomatic practice. They did not start with the current minister, but are a routine way Canada and other nations seek to exert pressure on their peers. The frequency of critical statements also tends to ebb and flow depending upon the nature of global events.

Nonetheless, Minister Baird has been relatively outspoken in his role—by my count, he has issued more than 150 critical statements in his 16 months on the job.

In a recent speech at the annual Religious Liberty Dinner in Washington, DC, the minister emphasized that he and his government “will stand for what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is popular, convenient or expedient.”

In that same speech Minister Baird used what appears to have become his signature line: “I’m proud to say Canada no longer simply ‘goes along to get along’ in the conduct of its foreign policy.” The point of this expression is that the current government isn’t afraid to take a clear position on issues, and to communicate that position in the clearest possible terms.

There are times when MCC also takes clear positions on issues, and seeks to communicate those positions in the clearest possible terms.

After all, MCC also stands for what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is popular, convenient, or expedient.

Beyond our response to the decision on Iran, recent examples include:

MCC Photo

Quite often, however, MCC is asked to be more outspoken about situations of injustice in Canada and around the world. Our supporters are keen to see MCC “say something” or “take a position” in response to a particular situation of injustice.

There is a desire, at least in some quarters, for MCC to be “more prophetic” in our approach.

I have struggled at times to know how to best to respond to these calls.

Does being more prophetic mean we should act more like Minister Baird?

Perhaps it means Ottawa Office staff should seek to follow the pattern of Hebrew prophets, sharing words of warning and woe for our people and our political leaders. Perhaps it means we should claim to be speaking on behalf of God.

This seems rather bold to me, even though MCC does ground our program work in biblical imperatives, and we ground our political and public engagement in the voices of partners—through whom God no doubt speaks.

After all, one thing I find troubling about Minister Baird’s statements is his certainty that Canada’s position is virtuous and beyond reproach.

If I am certain about anything, it is often that the cause of a given problem—and its ultimate solution—is more complicated than the minister seems to think it is.

In any case, the larger question that lingers for me is: What impact do more prophetic statements have? Is stronger language really what we need if the point is to change the behaviour of the people being addressed, rather than to simply predict the future by further entrenching that behaviour?

To be sure, there are instances where a principled, uncompromising, and clear statement is actually intended to speak to a different audience than the person being addressed. For example, it may be intended to let an affected community know that they have been heard, and that their experience of injustice has impacted us as well.

Perhaps this desire to express solidarity is at the root of many calls for MCC to be more prophetic. Perhaps it is even what lies behind many of Minister Baird’s statements.

But I am still left to wonder: where is the line…

  • between righteous indignation and letting off steam?
  • between moral clarity and moralistic posturing?
  • between speaking truth to power and a display of cynicism?

What do you think?

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

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