Last week, one of my friends and former colleagues was arrested in Burnaby, B.C.. After protesting Kinder Morgan and the Trans Mountain Pipeline, Steve Heinrichs, along with other faith leaders, was arrested for standing up for Indigenous rights and creation. There are many mixed opinions about whether or not Steve, as a church leader, should have been involved. But whatever the case, I think accepting arrest for civil disobedience takes courage.
Steve is the Indigenous-Settler Relations Coordinator for our nationwide church, Mennonite Church Canada. He’s integral to our work of reconciliation, a work that has been commissioned on behalf of all of us. What we have already learned through decades of failed promises from churches and governments, and through the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), is that reconciliation is not an easy road.
Saying sorry and moving on is the answer we would love to hear, but it’s not realistic or true to life. You can’t expect to walk away after committing cultural genocide, destroying family structures, and continually breaking promises and treaties. It’s delusional to think we can simply move on without putting in the hard work.
It’s this hard work that Steve has been doing on our behalf for many years. Not only is he committed to true relationship, but I've learned from him that the call of Jesus is one of peace, mutual learning, respect, love and action. It’s the call for the whole church in Canada. How can we be authentically Christian if we ignore the biggest issue in the place where we live?
The Kinder Morgan blockade began on the invitation of Indigenous leaders to the church as a way of practically living into reconciliation. This pipeline project is in direct contradiction to the work of the TRC and violates the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But by accepting the invitation, Steve and others violated a B.C. Supreme Court injunction, forcing them to give up their protest or face criminal charges.
I often wish I had more courage. I mean that in all things, but especially when it comes to faith. Why? Because my faith calls me to a certain person, namely Jesus Christ. And Jesus calls us all to Himself that we might be reconciled to God. When that happens, we are adopted into the “family of God” and as such are called to live as God’s sons and daughters.
The call of the Christian is therefore not simply to believe in a set of ideas or dogma, but to live in such a way that reflects the transformation God longs to do within us. We are called to be salt in a tasteless world and light in the darkness. And that takes courage. But we're never called to do it alone. In fact, we can’t. Only through the indwelling life of Christ can we even aspire to live in such a way that would show the world God’s love.
As we look back into church history, there are many people who stick out to us as having exceptional courage and fortitude in the midst of suffering and persecution. In the book of Acts, we read about Stephen, who before being stoned, preached a sermon of faith to those who would eventually kill him. We read of Peter and Paul who find themselves in prison and in shipwrecks, undeterred by suffering or fear of death.
As we entered into Christendom, the risk of persecution drastically decreased as emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman world. And yet, we can think of many who, within the church, moved for reform even under punishment of death. Joan of Arc and Martin Luther are just two that come to mind…and, oh yeah, all of Anabaptism!
The Anabaptists were radical reformers who opposed the dualism of church and state. They were convicted to follow their interpretation of scripture when it came to the role of the church in the world, pacifism, baptism and much more. When it came down to it, it was a question of allegiance. They wanted to give their allegiance fully to God and refused to serve the state through violent means. That practice has followed Mennonites throughout our 500 year history.
But speaking out against government doesn’t come easy. Not at all. Especially when the state has vested interests they believe need protecting. Whether for economic, political, or philosophical reasons, they will use the full extent of the law to get it done. When you stand opposite the law because of faith, you sometimes need to choose civil disobedience, emigration, or silence.
The list of people who chose disobedience is huge. Corrie Ten Boom and her family hid Jews in their home when it was law to report them to the Nazi government. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Alabama for protesting segregation. Nelson Mandela received a life-sentence after planning to overthrow the apartheid government in South Africa.
All these people broke the law. And as we remember them, we call them heroes. But I’m sure there were people, perhaps their family members or neighbours who advised them to not make a fuss and just follow the law. That’s what government is there for, right? How many of us really believe that our governments would be involved in such evil?
Christians are often at such crossroads when it comes to faith. Whom should we follow? Whom should we believe? If injustice is so clear to us, would we risk freedom and safety in order to do the right thing? But faith is not a licence to do whatever we want. We must always remember that Christian civil disobedience is not violent, but peaceful resistance in the face of oppression and injustice. It’s stepping up to the powers that be to say we will not stand idly by as the poor and the vulnerable are being exploited. It’s the lived out expression of calling Jesus "Lord" and refusing to bow the knee to worldly power.
The lesson here is not to go get arrested. That time may come for some of us, but likely not. At least not in Canada. But I believe we all need people like Steve in our lives, either from history or people we actually know. People who encourage us to come out of our comfort zones and risk, even a little bit, when it comes to faith. People whose examples, even in the extreme, give us courage in everyday life.
That risk might not be protesting Kinder Morgan or joining a blockade. But maybe such examples will finally give you the courage to have a conversation with the homeless man who goes through your garbage bins every week. Or to bring a meal over to someone who is going through a hard time. Perhaps you feel a nudge to volunteer at your local food bank or thrift store or to give up a week of your time to work at camp. When we listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit, we will almost always be called out of our comfort zone. But that's faith, and faith is risky.