It has been hard to settle on a topic for my final contribution to the Ottawa Office Notebook. There are far too many important issues I have grappled with over the past five years than I could ever hope to summarize in a single post. And I’m sure I would leave out something crucial if I tried to provide an overview of the highlights of my time with MCC.
As I scanned the headlines in the stack of periodicals that awaited me after a lengthy summer vacation, I was reminded that there is a certain repetitiveness to world events and to the world of politics. While the twenty-four hour news cycle often feels frenetic and relentless, the dramas that are the most consequential tend to stick around for a while, or repeat themselves over and over.
One case in point is the latest conflict in Gaza, the topic of the final letter to the Prime Minister from MCC that I have had a hand in shaping. MCC shared virtually the same message a few months before I started serving as the Ottawa Office Director, calling for an end to an earlier round of violence in Gaza and for international support to address the underlying causes of the conflict.
Obviously, what MCC and our Palestinian and Israeli partners had been hoping for failed to happen.
Change that addresses the root causes of the problems in our world often takes a long time. And thus, unfortunately, progress in the pursuit of advocacy is usually measured over decades, not days, months, or years. Injustices are persistent, and peace seems elusive.
In part, this is because what needs to change is not simply the thinking and behaviour of the individuals who instigate and perpetuate problems, but the systems or the patterns of relating, and the structures or the institutions that embody and enable this thinking and behaviour.
On several occasions, Prime Minister Harper has made it clear that he doesn’t agree with me on this point. He isn’t terribly fond of talk about systems and structures, or of the examination of root causes that go beyond the individual will.
Last Spring he sharply criticized the newly crowned Liberal leader’s response to the terrorist attack at the Boston marathon.
Last week he rebuffed calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women, another issue that MCC wrote to the Government of Canada about a few months before I started working in the Ottawa Office. The Prime Minister was quoted as saying:
“It’s very clear that there has been very fulsome study… of these particular things. They’re not all one phenomenon… We should not view this as a sociological phenomenon. We should view it as crime.”
My point in raising this disagreement is to highlight what I see as another fundamental and ongoing challenge for those who pursue advocacy: How do we convince those who think that justice and peace depends solely on changing the hearts and minds of individuals that our societal and political context matters?
Put another way, how do we change the very hearts and minds of individuals, including the Prime Minister, whose vision for public policy doesn’t seem to include the sensibility that there are larger forces at play in our world, forces for both good and evil that transcend the individuals who make up communities, cultures, and, of course, governments.
I don’t think there is just one answer to this perpetual and perplexing question. But clearly there are systems and structures—or principalities and powers, to use a biblical concept—that are at play here too, blinding us all to the blind spots in our thinking.
As a person of faith, I remain convinced that God’s Spirit is at work redeeming the systems and structures that govern our existence. Change is possible.
I am also more convinced than ever that our modest efforts to contribute to this work through advocacy requires both courage and savviness. One helpful reminder of this obligation that has stuck with me comes from a single verse in, of all places, the book of Leviticus: “You shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself” (19:17).
Advocacy is not an optional or secondary calling.
At the same time, however, this verse serves as a reminder that advocacy is not an end in and of itself.
As Reuven Firestone has pointed out, Rabbinic teaching focuses on this verse as a source of support for reconciliation efforts, rather than an invitation to cast judgment or keep our hands clean. The purpose of reproof, rebuke, or admonition should always be to bring closure to a festering conflict. It should seek to establish or re-establish relationships rather than exacerbate points of disconnection.
Thus this command is properly understood to say “Do not reprove in a way that cannot be heard.”
There has been no shortage of disconnects between MCC and the policies—and policy-makers—of the Government of Canada over the almost forty years that MCC has had a presence in Ottawa. And I think there has been an earnest effort to reprove in ways that can be heard. Clearly though, much work remains!
By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director