Charitable status - take it or leave it?

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February 21, 2013
Susie Guenther Loewen |

Well, I’m back after some time away from this blog, and I must admit, I’ve missed writing and posting here! For my first post back, I thought I’d weigh in on the controversy surrounding the Canada Revenue Agency’s “reminder” to the Canadian Mennonite about the supposedly politically “partisan” nature of some of its articles. The magazine had allegedly exceeded the CRA’s limit of 10% when it came to “politically partisan” content. If you haven’t been following this story, Dick Benner wrote a thoughtful editorial about it in this issue of the Canadian Mennonite, and a scan of the letter itself can be found here.

From reading the steady stream of letters to the editor that have appeared in the magazine since this incident, I know I’m not the only one whose first instinct was that we should simply drop our charitable status (for one thing, shouldn’t our donations be motivated by more than just tax receipts?). I find it absolutely unacceptable for the CRA or any other branch of the government to be defining what we can and cannot do (or discuss, or write) as part of our faith. Why can’t we express our perspectives on current political events and policies in our own church magazine? After all, we’re a denomination whose theology has been profoundly influenced by John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus (notice the p-word in there), the same theologian who wrote, “The difference between church and state or between a faithful and an unfaithful church is not that one is political and the other not, but that they are political in different ways” (see this book, p. ix). Though our ancestors in faith tended to withdraw from overt political involvement in the past (the era of being “The Quiet in the Land”), even that withdrawal had political and religious motivations; namely, a refusal to participate in war, with its assumption that loyalty to the nation trumps the example of Jesus and the sanctity of human life. These days, many of us recognize the alternative politics that our tradition entails, the political and social awareness that we’re called to as we try to love our neighbours and our enemies. Christianity is arguably not about pretending to separate faith and politics, given that its infamous founder was executed as a political criminal.

With all of this in mind, I came across the current definition of religion in Canadian law in an article by Canadian theologian Pamela Dickey Young. She argues that in Canada, “the courts treat religion as essentially individual, as a matter of autonomous choice, and as private” (see the journal, Studies in Religion, 39/3). While voluntarism isn’t an issue for us adult-baptising Mennonites, individualism and privacy are at best inaccurate descriptions of our faith tradition. The Mennonite tradition isn’t primarily about abstract beliefs, but about a lived faith, specifically, a faith lived out in the community of the church. So this really gets at the heart of the matter; this definition of faith as a private opinion held by an isolated individual clearly coloured the logic behind the CRA’s letter to our magazine. The problem is that we’re working with completely different understandings of what religion even means. No wonder this letter has caused confusion and outrage in the Mennonite church! It’s based on a complete misunderstanding of our tradition! Plus, I’m sure ours isn’t the only faith tradition which has communal, ethical, and public/political emphases.

So I’ve changed my mind on what the next step should be. Instead of simply dropping our charitable status, why don’t we get to work on changing the legal definition of religion in our country, in dialogue with other denominations and faith traditions? I know, for instance, that the United Church of Canada has spoken and continues to act against the assumption that faith and politics are separate spheres, and the arbitrary limitation from the CRA that “politics” should only make up 10% of a faith group’s activities (see this article). Let’s get together with them and others and craft some kind of statement, because I think that if the law is changed to reflect the actual self-understanding of various faith traditions, including ours, we’ll be able to prevent the CRA from sending out such inappropriate and frustrating “reminders” in the future.

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