59 cents: a symbolic gesture

August 16, 2012
Susie Guenther Loewen |

I’ve been impressed with the campaign begun earlier this summer by several Canadian Mennonite University and Canadian School of Peacebuilding students in response to the government’s plans to cut funding to refugee health care. As you may know, they worked out how much it costs each Canadian per year to provide this health coverage. The answer? 59 cents. So, in a clever video, they explained these costs and asked people to find 59 cents in change and mail it to the office of the Prime Minister. (If you haven’t seen their video, it can be found here.) I watched as this campaign spread from social media to local Winnipeg media coverage, then to Toronto and then national media coverage. It was great to see such a simple but important message spreading, and to know that the voices of these wise and imaginative students were being heard!

Of course, not everyone who heard about the campaign got on board with it. I read a few comments which were critical and cynical, questioning their calculations, since some people don’t pay taxes, or otherwise disagreeing with providing complete health coverage for refugees who come to Canada. It got me thinking about campaigns like this one, and what their purpose and significance really is. Are they meant to literally replace the proposed cuts, and thereby “fix” the problem? Or are they a different sort of action, one which is more of a symbolic gesture? My hunch is that it’s the latter, but I should explain what I mean by that.

In his enormously influential book, The Politics of Jesus, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder argues that the people of God are not primarily called to “effectiveness,” but to “obedience” to the peaceful but risk-laden way of Jesus. Part of his argument was against the kind of logic that excuses violence as the “only choice” to get the job done, a choice that entails placing one’s own (or one’s country’s/people’s own) interests above the sanctity of others’ lives and declares that the ends justify the means (also known as “utilitarianism”). Some of Yoder’s critics have interpreted his statements to mean that he’s against activism, but I think that’s a misunderstanding, since he worked for a number of years with Mennonite Central Committee, among other things. What he’s saying is that activism for its own sake, activism guided by effectiveness alone, is not what we are called to. We’re called to the work of discipleship in the Kingdom of God, which is guided by our faith. But it’s still profoundly active, and activist.

So how does this fit with the 59 cents campaign? I think the campaign is a great example of activism that’s not guided by bare effectiveness (and thus not as susceptible to self-interested logic). Like I said, I don’t think the point is to send money to the Prime Minister; the spare change is somewhat beside the point, since it isn’t meant to fund the de-funded healthcare services. Instead, it symbolizes solidarity with the refugees who are affected; it’s a creative and attention-grabbing way of voicing disagreement with the actions of the government. It’s an act of borderline civil disobedience, too, in an effort to say: we refuse to go along with taking relatively low-cost services away from those who already have so little, and who have lost so much. And we especially refuse to support the government as it cuts critical services while splurging on military vehicles, for instance.

As I see it, this is one act of creative protest in a long line, including the withholding of a portion of taxes which would go toward military spending, something I mentioned a few blog posts ago. In this book, German poet/theologian Dorothee Soelle includes her poem about a similar practice in the early 1980s, when Dutch pacifists withheld five guldens and seventy-two cents (a bit over $3 Canadian) from their taxes. This particular amount was chosen to represent the five hundred and seventy-two atomic missiles that European governments were planning to station around that continent at the time, during the latter years of the Cold War. Though it’s more than 59 cents, it’s still not a huge amount, and Soelle herself remembers thinking, at first, that withholding such a pitiful amount was ineffective, almost pointless. After all, did or will such actions bring the military to a standstill? Probably not, since that’s not the sort of effectiveness (or naïveté!) these small acts of protest are about. But does that make them any less meaningful as public, symbolic gestures of conscience, or, arguably, of faith in and witness to Christ’s way of peace? I don’t think so, and neither did Soelle. In her poem, she wrote, “This symbolic amount of tax resistance / seems to me ridiculously insignificant / but in my country / where the imagination is underdeveloped […] / among my people / where goliath is honored and david unheard of // This amount makes me cry rather than laugh.”

So I hope that these kinds of symbolic gestures continue to be imagined, organized, and practiced. Though it’s usually the case that some will laugh, it’s also the case that some will change their minds, or perhaps even be brought to tears, like Soelle was, by the poignancy of seemingly ineffective acts like these.

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