On the suffering of American neighbours

“This is the year in which hundreds of thousands of Americans have suffocated—most in ICUs, but some in forest fires and under boots.” Image: Winslow Homer/Art Institute of Chicago
By on October 7, 2020

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” —Isaiah 40:3-5

When we moved from the United States to Canada in 2018, my spouse and I faced two questions from inquisitive Canadians: “Why on earth would a Floridian move to Canada?” and “Is it because of Trump?”

Canadians have heard me hesitate before answering such questions, but not from a lack of answers. We relocated to Canada for a variety of reasons: an excellent educational opportunity for Kate, more equitable access to health care and a preference for the Canadian way of doing things. We aren’t refugees; we came by choice, deciding we wanted to become Canadians. We’re like many immigrants who call Canada their new home. We want to be here.

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I know that many Canadians—including Canadian Anglicans—will be glued to the news on Nov. 3, as the American election draws to a close. I know this in part because they’ve told me, but also because of the revelations of 2020. This is the year in which hundreds of thousands of Americans have suffocated—most in ICUs, but some in forest fires and under boots. I think most Canadians now see leadership in the United States as crueler than they had imagined. To many people in Canada and the world, this election matters deeply. Hence, their questions of me have shifted: “Aren’t you glad you’re here now?” and “Have you registered to vote?”

“Ballots offer a glimpse of where we might go based upon where we’ve been, with a choice of incremental changes that might move a society backward or forward. Torment can be abated by these processes, but it can also be enhanced.”

If there is again a hesitation in my response, a fumbling of words and ideas, it’s because I’ve yet to translate observations of my home country into a tongue understandable by Canadians. This is a broad generalization, but I think Canadians who ask these questions of me tend to assume that Canada is just a slightly better version of the United States—kinder, smarter, more apologetic—and that life for most Americans, outside of political turmoil, isn’t terribly wretched. Such views place Canadians into a paradox of sorts: they measure themselves against a place that doesn’t measure itself, a place that can’t find a way to protect the dignity of the weak and inhibit the appetites of the powerful. There are people of great depth, beauty and kindness in the United States of America, but tens of millions of Americans struggle against an ingrained cruelty, now laid bare for the world to see. People who fall through the cracks of electoral, judicial, medical and ecclesial systems are left to lives of toil, ruin and pain.

Americans are asked to work for better. Kate and I both devoted our youthful energies to trying to make a difference there. We participated in domestic missions; we opened our home to asylum seekers and migrants; we moved to a diverse neighbourhood; we organized and lobbied; we spent time in rural places and talked with people there; we went to Black Lives Matter protests and farmworker rallies and labour marches; and, of course, we voted, allowing our faith to guide our participation within the civic world. I am certain we could have done more, but we were involved. Upon entering our middle years, we concluded that these efforts, which were exhausting, just weren’t enough. Many people in America dream of change and work hard for it, but many others seem convinced that certain problems are unsolvable and innate, even in the presence of unparalleled wealth and incredible thirst for change.

Rolling a stone uphill as others kick it down is an invitation to despondency and martyrdom. We didn’t feel called to that, so we’re in Canada now. God willing, we’ll vote by mail. But, my friends, I must state that I firmly believe it is the responsibility of the Christian to remember that voting is, at best, a necessary but insufficient means of bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth. I make this point because I fear that faithful Canadian and American Christians have fallen into the habit of viewing political elections as our best means of addressing problems in our sin-sick world. As we are cajoled into voting by promises of collective transformation, we continue to hear the sirens sing of individual power, money and status—driving us to seek, as Bishop of Cuba Maria Griselda Delgado del Carpio put it in January 2020’s Anglican Journal, “value derived from crushing others.”

Voting is one way that Christians can resist the pressure to crush others, but its power is constrained by what we believe politics to be in the first place. Ballots offer a glimpse of where we might go based upon where we’ve been, with a choice of incremental changes that might move a society backward or forward. Torment can be abated by these processes, but it can also be enhanced. In the meantime, we continue to discover incrementalism’s limits in the face of systemic crises. For example, Americans might thank Barack Obama for legislation that put an end to the “pre-existing conditions” clauses that denied millions health care, but health-related bankruptcies continue. Climate change hasn’t stopped. Deindustrialization continues. Shifts in political winds have done little to bring many Americans closer to hope, change and greatness. If they aren’t to be found at a ballot box this month, this might be why: Voting can roll pebbles up that hill, but boulders tend to sit still—or roll back. I suggest that American cynicism is a learned response—something to afford more pity than contempt.

Yet I would also argue that as neighbours, Americans deserve more than Canadian pity. Here on this side of the border, what can Canadian Anglicans do to address the suffering they see?

First, we could lead Canada in considering actionable ways to help American neighbours. Canada has a long history of providing shelter to Americans placed in impossible positions by their government: the enslaved and the conscripted, for example. Perhaps Canadians—Indigenous and non-Indigenous people sharing this task—could discuss whether they’d permit, after the pandemic, a greater flow of struggling American immigrants to start a new life here. A recent Canadian legal decision around the Safe Third Country Agreement might open just such a door, starting with asylum seekers who have been imprisoned in the States for the crime of seeking refuge.

Canadians could also look closely at the country’s business dealings (including church investments) with America and decide what might help rather than harm. Allegations made in August that Toronto-Dominion Bank increased its stock in private U.S. prison corporations—about which TD offered a jargon-filled explanation of the increase’s temporary nature and the company’s commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—show just how easy it is to imperil poor Americans on this side of the border. To move beyond such missteps, Canadians could begin to think of the United States as a neighbour with real problems—problems that trap people in unacceptable circumstances. Decisions made here affect those circumstances.

“If we are to build a world that conforms more closely to a heavenly kingdom—in which we become repairers of the breach, restorers of the streets—then we must accept that our call to glorify God in the world is one that demands all we can muster.”

Second, we could also begin to think of Canada differently. As we observe our neighbour’s fraught election, perhaps we might reflect upon the cruelty present here, in Canadian systems. Just as Canada has a history of offering safe haven, it has also placed people in unacceptable circumstances. I have never had to explain America’s adherence to a survival-of-the-fittest doctrine—or its theories on “good genes,” to use President Donald Trump’s phrasing from a September rally—to Indigenous Canadians. And though Canada has offered escape for people facing systematic oppression, it hasn’t always offered hospitality and care. Ask a Black Nova Scotian how well Canada has accommodated Black Americans who escaped slavery (or Black Canadians who live here, now), and you may get an upsetting answer.

During a 2013 Episcopal Church-supported summer camp in Lyons, N.Y., children of farmworkers head to a civics lesson led by a local judge. Several asked how deportation proceedings might affect their parents and loved ones. Photo: Matthew Townsend

Amidst such soul searching, Canadian Christians might have a “come to Jesus” moment. Some of this work is underway; Anglicans can continue the deep examination that our church has undertaken about the racism and colonialism to be found in its DNA. We can explore how our church can increase diversity among its leadership and membership. We can continue the process of surrender, confession, repentance, reconciliation and evangelism, all of which are related.

And then there’s restitution. We in the church can, as the Book of Common Prayer suggests, “show forth thy praise, Not only with our lips, but in our lives.” What are some ways that we—especially those of privileged class and colour—might show forth God’s praise in ways that extend beyond promises of inclusion? Lately, I’ve turned to guidance from Isaiah 58:6-12:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

If we are to build a world that conforms more closely to a heavenly kingdom—in which we become repairers of the breach, restorers of the streets—then we must accept that our call to glorify God in the world is one that demands all we can muster. Our hearts, our souls, our strength and our minds belong to God’s purpose, to Christ’s comprehensive plan for us

After the American election has passed, how will Canadians live that plan out? How will we make the crooked ways straight, the rough roads smooth? How will our light shine in the darkness? How will we love our neighbour as ourselves?

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Author

  • Matthew Townsend

    Matthew Townsend was editorial supervisor of the Anglican Journal from 2019 to 2020, and served as editor from 2020 to 2021.

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