Pastor calls for governmental change amid COVID-19

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April 8, 2020 | News | Volume 24 Issue 8
Nicolien Klassen-Wiebe | Manitoba Correspondent
David Driedger, the petition author, is associate minister at First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg. (Photo courtesy of David Driedger)

While people and governments alike are sprinting to mitigate the current crisis of COVID-19, David Driedger is starting to run the marathon of addressing its long-term implications.

Driedger, associate minister at First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, wrote an open letter calling on all levels of Canadian government to create significant systemic changes now and in the critical time following the pandemic, to care for the most vulnerable in society. The petition, which he worked on with numerous other ecumenical church leaders and theologians in Winnipeg, is entitled “Canadian churches for care and change in the time of COVID-19” and was published online (bit.ly/2w8Vtpc) on March 27.

People react differently in times of uncertainty and chaos. Driedger’s response is to try to understand what’s happening. “As soon as I saw how significant some of the economic implications of this [pandemic] were going to be, it really . . . just felt like a further exposure of a system that already exposes the vulnerable. It was sort of a stark realization that this is a system that can’t stop,” he says.

The global economic system is not set up to care for vulnerable people, and certain groups suffer under this system even in normal times, Driedger says. But as COVID-19 explodes across Europe and North America, the alarming impact on people’s economic stability is becoming much more widespread and the reality of the world’s economic structure is being laid bare.

“It just continues to baffle me that . . . there’s still consistently no conversation around, say, an immediate one-time taxation of certain amounts of wealth for the purposes of redistribution, to help those most directly affected by it.” 

The petition asks the federal government to allocate funds for emergency shelters, revoke its ban on asylum seekers, protect prisoners, absolve debts, redistribute wealth and stop subsidizing oil companies. It also advocates for providing more resources and improving conditions for Indigenous communities that are at a higher risk than other Canadians due to inadequate housing, water and medical services. “COVID-19 has already changed the global landscape. We are asking that we do not return to a system that was increasingly unjust and never sustainable,” the petition states.

Jane Barter, an Anglican priest and professor at the University of Winnipeg, was also closely involved with the project. Both she and Driedger involved other people from their networks, and the project took on a more collective form.

“The hope is that in the midst of us all trying to take care of our own personal situations, we don’t lose sight of some of the larger questions as well, and figure out how to hold the right people accountable at the right time,” he says.

But why is this an issue of faith? The petition reads: “As Christians and churches committed to the gospel, we are required to prioritize the vulnerable over the demands of profit.” 

Driedger sees this responsibility rooted deeply in biblical theology. Although he has been shaped by liberation theology and the writings of several black theologians, it’s ultimately biblical books like Isaiah and the gospels that clearly proclaim this message.

The document begins with a Matthew text: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these among you, you did it to me.” It draws on the “Jubilee” traditions of rest and redistribution found in Leviticus.

Driedger says the theme even showed up in the text he was given to preach on recently, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke, in which a wealthy man is severely judged for his continued disregard of someone who suffered before his eyes.

However, many theological traditions haven’t been shaped this way because most churches “have been sort of a passive participant in our systems because we’ve benefited well enough from them, and we’ve gotten quite comfortable with them over time,” he says.

So, while the petition publishers hope it gains attention and a multitude of signatures, and that it elicits some short-term action, they also want churches to work through the document—of which a longer version with linked resources and readings is available through a link on the online petition—as a long-term project. “It’s the longer document that I want to see congregations engage with as a study document, as something that can shape some formative and long-term thinking as well,” he says.

Driedger has also been involved with Budget for All, a Winnipeg coalition responding to City of Winnipeg budget cuts affecting social services, and he organized a presentation on peace and policing in Winnipeg through his church. “It just feels like the best way to stay as close to the gospel as possible . . . is to remain as attentive as possible to those who are most vulnerable among us,” he says. 

This article appears in the April 13, 2020 print issue, with the headline “Care and change amid COVID-19.” Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in Manitoba? Send it to Nicolien Klassen-Wiebe at mb@canadianmennonite.org.

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David Driedger, the petition author, is associate minister at First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg. (Photo courtesy of David Driedger)

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Mr. Driediger's petition to the Canadian government under the mantle of jubilee is disingenuous. I wonder if it is little more than a misleading call for a socialist revolution: a proletarian leveling? Let's look at some historical examples before we tackle the theological substance of his petition.

shall we take the Russian Revolution of 1917 as an historical example with its famines, gulags, KGB? No, is that a bad example? How about the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia? That was a great leveling? How did that turn out? How about Venezuela where Mr. Maduro famously remarked that "Socialism is the kingdom of God on earth"?

Calling on governments to use force to impose a "kingdom of God jubilee" is perverse.

If, if Christ of the gospels is to be believed, then the leveling comes not through an imposed, enforced governmental action, but by the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

It is not Herod, that agent of Rome, who brings change, but Jesus and the bewildered followers who rose up, and disdaining 'imperium' began to live life on earth "in the body of Christ."

Let Mr. Driediger's congregation, or my congregation be that which Mr. Driediger calls for. For it is the justice of God that shall bring forth jubilee, not a gussied up Marxism with an imperial-Xian veneer.

Mr Baergen,

I am always amazed that in the face of challenges to the mutual aid through the mechanisms in place in our society many people quickly respond with the specter of totalitarian dictatorship. You are in good company, I've heard this many times before! We could volley back and forth the harm capitalist and communist regimes have leveled against the globe to little end (though as they say communist harm is known through its failures while capitalist harm is known through its successes).

My fear is that your response is precisely in keeping with the 'imperium' of the age which is to blame to each individual for what is wrong because surely we could have 'chosen' better rather that appropriately naming and holding certain powers to account (a strong biblical principle no!?).

I hope to work at all levels to follow the principles and Spirit of the Gospel which has always included addressing government. The government already enforces taxes and laws, as a citizen and a Christian I am asking they be more just. I am compelled to this through the simple Gospel commitment of giving primary attention to the most vulnerable and attempting faithfulness from there.

There are five power actors in the Crucifixion-Easter accounts found in the gospels: Herod, Caiaphas, Judas Iscariot, Peter, and Jesus. Each exercised power, or sought to, in a unique way. The Scriptural witness is that four of five were ultimately, profoundly evil, in consequence. Of the four, one in remorse, repented. Is what you are advocating for, as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, aligned with Judas, Peter or Jesus?

I admire your following of Jesus. Your theological work is undergirded by a secular work of wealth inequality investigation by Piketty (2020): 'Capital and Ideology '. A must read for any mature serious Christian.

another perspective on wealth, accumulation and inequality which mr. piketty has made a contribution too, is julius krein 'the real class struggle' where he observes that capital wealth accumulation is outstripping managerial wage gains, exacerbating the wealth disparity between the .1% and the next 10% below them (in wealth). Historically, this has led to political instability, krein observes.

I believe this observation holds true in western economies, as well as China. Krein only makes the observation of the US.

The problem with neo-Marxist economics was summed up well by Robert Heilbronner (a Marxist-Socialist economist and opponent of John Kenneth Galbraith) in 1989, when he observed that not only had socialism failed to order human affairs, it had also not seen a single instance where socialist economics had been a precursor to enhanced human and civil rights.

To make comparison of mr pinketty's economics and the Kingdom of God articulated in the Gospels and Acts, is a stretch.

Abdicating Christianity for the Crown

In response to the Covid19 pandemic David Driedger, pastor of First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba, along with various other pastors from other denominations, is spear-heading a petition/initiative to encourage all levels of Canadian government to create “significant systemic changes … to care for the most vulnerable in society,” indicating that the global economic system generally creates tremendous inequities and disparities of well-being.
I am struck by the irony that our spiritual leaders/pastors, are pleading with government leaders to save us from our impotent selves, from our inability to repent and turn towards following Jesus.
Mr. Driedger wants to hold “the right people accountable at the right time.” I guess that I have misunderstood and overestimated the role and power of the pulpit. When we really want things to change for the better, we are led by our spiritual leaders to call on Justin Trudeau. Mind you, he has performed numerous miracles recently, so perhaps more can be expected of him if more cannot be expected of the individual Anabaptist Mennonite Christian. I suppose we have exhausted the potential of Christianity to be a “player” during a pandemic crisis.
I believe primarily that the onus of failing Christianity, lies with the Anabaptist Mennonite Christian leadership, and then to the rest of us who are content to follow along like sheep, content in the understanding that our souls are assured of life in the hereafter through some comfortable sense of atonement, a strategy of belief that requires little from us in the here and now, as long as our spiritual leaders don’t mess it all up by calling us to account.
Mr. Driedger’s strategy reveals the depth to which Christianity and Western civilization are synonymous entities, “In this world and of this world.” Christianity is entrenched in society to the extent that it has become society itself, with very little to distinguish between the two. Depending upon a petitioning of governments to act charitably to right injustices, reveals the extent to which we have discarded our faith in a righteous and just God, in exchange for our own material comfort.
In a colossal understatement, Mr. Driedger indicates that Anabaptist Mennonite Christians have been “a sort of passive participant in our systems because we have benefitted well enough from them.” Anabaptist Mennonites have a sordid history (since the Protestant Reformation 1500 a.d.) of wealth accumulation and empire building. Through the Netherlands, to Prussia, Russia, and North America, Anabaptist Mennonites have counted their material wealth accumulation as a blessing from God.
There is very little that is passive about the energy and pursuit of material wealth by Anabaptist Mennonites, no matter the economic political system we found ourselves in throughout our history. We have mis-represented ourselves as “a people of God,” as “pacifists,” content to let state and nation do our killing for us in exchange for land and opportunity. When political/economic situations became untenable in any particular historical environment, we willingly packed up our ideals, discarded our faith in exchange for opportunity elsewhere, be it Russia or Canada, where we once again believed that God was on our side in our fickle attempt to rationalize faith with the pursuit of wealth and empire.
The spiritual leaders of Anabaptist Mennonites have indeed been the “quiet of the land.” They have encouraged the simultaneous practice of “saving souls” and “saving money,” as if the two were not diverging and contradictory ideologies and practices, revealing too, the extent to which these spiritual leaders are owned by the hegemonies of wealth and empire.
“Quiet of the land,” passive indeed. Our spiritual leaders seem to have no appetite to call their congregants to justice, to “sell all you have and give it to the poor.” They are content to encourage a deceptive faith narrative requiring considerable mental gymnastics, equating following Christ with, “if my soul is saved, I can pursue wealth.” Atonement in the hereafter, trumps following Christ in the here and now.
The reliance on petitioning governments for just policies and actions, obviates the need for Christianity. When we relinquish our responsibility to follow Christ, in exchange for government action and personal salvation, then we are abdicating any relevance for Christianity in our society. Government and Christianity become synonymous, let government do the work. We can be legislated to act in a Christian manner if we are forced to do so, however our faith, or lack thereof, is not enough to motivate us without being strong-armed by government policy.
There is an evident demise of spiritual leadership in Anabaptist Mennonite Christianity. This should not be surprising in an environment of nominal Christianity, led by professional Christians, in an organized religion. The “passive” response of Christianity to injustice in our society should not be surprising, however it is disappointing when our spiritual leaders refuse to model the man from Nazareth, preferring to petition Cesar.

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