Practice the peace we proclaim

November 21, 2012 | Editorial | Number 23
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

While I appreciate the widespread support for Canadian Mennonite when we broke the story in our last edition regarding Canada Revenue Agency reminding us about “political partisanship” cited in two editorials and four articles, I want to clarify and correct some misinformation reported by the public media.

I also want to appeal to our readers to refrain from vitriol and name-calling in their responses, despite their strong feelings and deep suspicions regarding the government’s action.

First, there has been overstatement in the public media about what the CRA did when sending us a registered letter. While our CM story, written by Carl DeGurse, indicated a warning with the implication that certain consequences could follow, it was labelled a “reminder,” or a drawing attention to the letter of the Income Tax law that spells out what is and isn’t permitted regarding political advocacy, particularly what is considered “partisan” speech or activity.

In two follow-up telephone conversations with the audit officer of the CRA, he made it clear that Canadian Mennonite is not under review, its charitable status not threatened; this was just a notice of reference to the portion of the law that has been on the books for years. So to see headlines and hear reporting that we are under attack, or threatened, or bullied, is just not factually correct. The conversation with the CRA audit officer was very professional and reasoned. No one raised his voice or engaged in heated debate.

I did object to the agency seeing this as “partisan,” stating that I was calling our own faith community to consider our deeply and long-held beliefs in non-violence regarding war, injustices regarding the poor, the indigenous and the immigrant and called for closer attention to care of creation, so that my intent was speak to power, regardless of party or candidate. Calling on particular persons within government to pay attention to these issues did not seem to me to be “partisan.”

As a life-time journalist I thought this was within my right, especially as a spokesperson for a particular faith community holding distinctive beliefs. Hence, my comment to him about viewing this as a “chill” on freedom of speech, and by extension of religion. These were my opinions, however, and not meant for pejorative purposes. I felt some obligation to register them, not to use them as one would in a court setting as defence arguments.

It is also misleading to say that Canadian Mennonite is the official voice of Mennonite Church Canada. While we have heavy representation on our governing 12-member board from MC Canada, neither they nor we consider ourselves their mouthpiece. Our board is independent from the denominational structure.

Secondly, I want to make it clear that Canadian Mennonite did not seek the public attention to this issue. This story, which went big in the national and local media, was entirely at their initiative, not ours. We felt obligated to share the story with you, our readers, but had no intention of making it a “public square” issue, did not champion its cause or make it our agenda beyond our own readership. I willingly cooperated in interviews with the media for the same reasons stated above—to speak to the facts of the “reminder,” and to give an opinion on the “speech” issue, when asked, but not to market the story or push the cause.

And let us guard our speech when expressing our displeasure with this action. These governing officials are not our enemies. Let us practice the “peace” we proclaim. These persons should be considered our friends, our fellow citizens on a journey in that centuries-old experiment of democracy where all voices need to be heard, but let’s not demonize each other.

These persons to whom we would hold account are often sincere in their beliefs. They have families, likely attend church and worship the same God. In their worldview, they think they are doing the right thing. We can disagree with them without disliking them, keeping the discourse on the idea level.

In this Advent season, we again celebrate the arrival of a small child on the human scene of an equally troubled society in ancient Palestine, where the angels broke into the song of “peace on earth, goodwill to men (all).” Can we rise to the same tune in our own Canadian society this season amidst the political turmoil that marks our age?

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Thanks Dick for your reasoned comments. I do think we need to shine a light on the darkness though. Assigning government minders to review church papers is extremely troubling. It happens in China and other totalitarian states. Canadians of all political and religious beliefs should find this abhorrent and speak out in the strongest possible and respectful terms.

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