Does religion make people intolerant?

October 21, 2015 | Viewpoints | Volume 19 Issue 21
Will Braun | Senior Writer

Predictably, CBC jumped on the story of presumed Bible Belt intolerance. The members of our smallish Southern Manitoba credit union voted down a merger with a larger Winnipeg-based credit union and the rumblings here were that the city credit union’s “sharia” mortgages did not align with “local values.” 

In a column entitled “Sickened by ‘Christian’ opposition,” Winkler Times editor Greg Vandermeulen dared to express disgust at the way credit union members here applauded anti-Muslim statements at a meeting prior to the vote. While acknowledging that many people will have voted against the merger for entirely sensible reasons, he said the applause at the meeting “came at all the wrong times and showed a side to people one would rather think wasn’t there.” As his title points out, this area is heavily influenced by the church, and as the phone book points out, ethnic Mennonites dominate.

CBC Radio and other media outlets learned of Vandermeulen’s column and ran with it, making us look less than compassionate—again. Five months earlier, the same merger had been voted down and CBC caught word of a former Winkler pastor who made some noise on social media about the city credit union’s support for lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer (LGBTQ) organizations. The journalism was thin, but the “backward Bible Belter” narrative plays well to the CBC crowd.

I happen to be a member of both credit unions and I’m a rural CBC listener, so I fall on all sides of this one. I didn’t really care if the merger was approved, but I do care about the less-than-noble gut response that Vandermeulen wrote about. I also care about the CBC impulse to sneer at the intolerant impulse. It all leads to polarization and it all ignores the fact that we are all on this earth together and every person is a mix of light and dark.

While I didn’t like CBC's coverage, I know that among the good Christians of this area there is plenty of ignorance, suspicion and animosity towards those who are different, whether indigenous, Muslim, generic city pagans, LGBTQ or whatever. We used to lump them all together as the “English,” a Low-German equivalent of “gentiles.” We all have this tendency to hunker down, to nurture feelings of superiority, to fight off the other, which is usually a stand-in for our own insecurities.

Of course, the recent election campaign focussed further attention on issues of tolerance, as the niqab and our response to Syrian refugees became points of partisan leverage.

I interviewed Peter Cantelon, a former Alliance Church pastor who has lived in Southern Manitoba for 10 years. He is another local columnist who gently encourages people to be compassionate to outsiders. He grew up in a poor, single-parent home in Guelph, Ont. He was judged on how he dressed and where he lived. Those who judged him didn’t bother to understand him, he says.

Cantelon wants to be different. In addition to writing, he has planned a public meeting at which Idris Elbakri, president of the Manitoba Islamic Association, will speak about Islam and respond to questions. Interest in the event, to be held on Nov. 21, 2015, in Morden, is high. Local ministerial members and civic leaders are invited. Cantelon recognizes it is easier not to understand others. Black and white is more convenient. “We don’t like shades of grey,” he says, but people and issues are complex.

Cantelon says too many people feel they have to fight to defend Christianity against cultural incursions. He says God is stronger than that. “Christianity will not vanish from the face of the earth,” just because we reach out to others, he says.

While critical of some elements of local culture, he is highly engaged in the community and lacks the chip-on-the-shoulder bitterness that sometimes inflicts “outsiders.”

A few provinces away, Dave Loewen also grapples with tolerance. He’s a city councillor in Abbotsford, B.C., a Mennonite-influenced community that has faced contentious issues. Most recently, residents vandalized and protested outside the home of a released pedophile who is also in the Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) program. Loewen credited Mayor Henry Braun with taking a calm, listening, face-to-face, transparent and patient approach.

Loewen says council is taking a similar approach to homelessness, which is a particular passion of his, as well as a touchy issue in the city. In 2013, city workers dumped chicken manure in an area frequented by homeless people, in an attempt to drive them away.

Under the current council, a group of protesters has occupied city land—across the street from the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) office—and is suing the city in the hope of gaining the right to squat on public land. The city, along with MCC and some churches, have provided a range of services to the sometimes aggressive protesters, while also taking concrete steps to address homelessness more generally and to educate citizens about the value of such programs. (See “A good place to be homeless” and “Sunday dinners with the homeless.”

I’m only telling one side of a complex story, but the point is that while the situation is not resolved, it has not escalated to the point of counter-protests or significant public pressure to cut funding for homeless programs.

As issues of tolerance and fear swirl, what signal will the church send? Undoubtedly a mixed one. While heavily Mennonite areas vote for a party that fuels fear of people who break the law and pits self-interest against compassion for refugees, churches line up to sponsor refugees and many Mennonites befriend offenders. There will always be pockets of anger—and often the anger is understandable—but hopefully our compassion will be so bold and compelling that CBC will tell of it, even if it comes from the Bible Belt.

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