A Fresh Look at Faith, Pipelines, and Power

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

An Op-Piece & Open Letter to Canada's Prime Minister and Cabinet Members

Activists and citizens at the Global Climate Strike

“Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law...” — Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Constitution Act, 1982

Sounds old-fashioned. Quoting the opening lines of the Constitution Act is a recipe to get red-tapped as a wild-eyed fundamentalist. Or it could be seen as doing away with the safe distance between church and state once set in place after the many evils committed in the name of God. Or as downplaying the abuses perpetrated by the institutional church in Québec and in the residential schools in Canada.

Both as a Canadian resident and as a Christian, I’m unnerved by shortcomings like these. They are troublesome and sad.

And yet, against mainstream opinion, I’m convinced that such failures nevertheless call us to take a closer look at the conflicted relationship between faith and power — in this case, concerning the Canadian government's decision to proceed with building a trans-mountain oil pipeline.

In this brief article I'd like to:

  1. sketch a few shortcomings of tolerance

  2. take a fresh look at religion and politics

  3. end with a brief word addressed to Mr. Trudeau

I. Beyond (Climate) Totalitolerence

For one, hundreds of scientists, scholars, and activists agree that Canada’s current climate policy points backwards. In short, further untapping the Alberta Tar Sands will unleash nothing short of a “carbon bomb” for the global climate. It will also continue to step over the rights of many of the first inhabitants of this land, for which the United Nations has repeatedly denouced the Canadian state.

So joining countless citizens, I also write concerned (and tired) about the double discourse. Mister Trudeau and his cabinet are far from standing up to their climate promises.

Equally worryingly, while in Canada we’re (religiously) taught to keep our religion to ourselves by elevating politeness and respect as the ultimate virtues, the price of totalitolerance is distressing. Opening the newspapers makes one quickly realize the tradeoff: The seemingly benevolent religious neutrality of so-called “secular” politics has, in fact, left a door open for heartless gods to take over the public show. Shoving and locking God into one’s heart has become a recipie of choice for today's leaders to keep doing as best they please.

So one asks: Is there a third-way that avoids both religious fundamentalism and the hyped-up power grab of corporations and their puppet states?

Things *have* gone wild in the church...

To be clear. A glimpse at history reveals 1,001 reasons to be suspicious about Christianity going public. Recall the Spanish conquistadores baptizing their swords and rifles as divine instruments to colonize the Americas in the name of God. Remember the 30 years of blood and genocide between Protestants and Catholics in the 1600’s. To mind comes, too, the former Church of England claiming that the African slave trade was (supposedly) grounded in God’s curse on the Canaanites, as per the ninth chapter of the Book of Genesis. And more recently, the so-called German Christians stand out for selectively quoting the New Testament to comply with the persecution of Jews, gypsies, and non-conforming minorities.

Scratch the surface and face the well-known facts: The mix of faith and power has rarely gone well. And it suggests that it makes good sense to want to keep “God” away from Caesar’s lot. (Although much of it, of course, depends on what we mean by keeping away — and on who precicely do we mean by "God".)

...but that doesn’t mean secularism is harmless

While faith is a flame that has been kindled for good at times, history proves that it that has been turned into a wildfire more often. Thus we welcome a healthy separation between “church” and “state.” But it's then worth asking what are we left with following the gradual exit of Christianity matched by the last 200 years of putting our trust in other gods — be it in the State, be it in the Corporation?

Granted: international trade has caused living conditions to improve significantly for the majority of the world, including the world’s poorest. Food and clothes have never been as accessible and as cheap as they are today. Cheers to corporations in that sense.

People, signs, and cars in Time Square, NY
TImes Square in NYC, a prime symbol of corporate power in Western society

And yet the disposable t-shirts and the glittering burgers have come with a small-print attached. Ask away to find a general consensus on how today’s global economy has come at the expense of murdering our living home. And ask American farmer Wendell Berry, too, who had no reservations in admitting that

“Caesar is no longer a mere destroyer of armies, cities, and nations [but] a contradictor of the fundamental miracle of life, [for] a part of the normal practice of his power is his willingness to destroy the world.”

The question resurfaces: Can we ask God to warm our hearts, to then unroll a red carpet before the world’s Caesars, old and new?

Enter Jesus’s famously (misinterpreted) “God/Caesar” statement.

II. 1st Century Politics, Reconsidered

When Jesus was asked by the people of his day whether they should pay taxes to the high powers of the Roman Empire, he funneled their attention to a coin (a denarius). Then, the first three gospels have him replying: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:7).

Ancient roman coins, with emperor imprint
Ancient roman coins, in part used as megaphones to champion the emperor's power

For us living in the modern world, the saying has come to mean something like this: “Religion and politics are incompatible things. Religion is an ‘inward’ experience of personal choice, between you and God; Caesar (the emperor) is about ‘politics’ and ‘economics.’” Others would go on to add: “Caesar is in power because God placed him there; therefore, out of obedience to God, obey him always.”

Rather tragically, this split between the personal and the political has left many people (Christian or otherwise) believing that today’s Caesars can use their coins as they please — even if that means wrecking the planet.

But can the belief stand on its own feet?

Inviting Caesar to Church

On a few occasions, a few of the writers of the New Testament affirmed the need to honor the ruling authorities (as in 1 Pet 2:13–17). What goes unnoticed, however, is that “honoring” in the sense of 'respecting' is one thing, but collusion is entirely another.

That’s why believing that Caesar’s power could go unchecked is not fair to Jesus’s saying, because collusion is precisely what the elites and leaders of Jesus’s day actually did: they sided with Rome, even as they disregarded the divine call for peace and justice for all.

Back to the coin and to its self-proclaimed owner: Tiberius Caesar, who represented Rome and all the might Rome stood for. Hence the rub around the coins: with Caesar’s face imprinted on them, they served as megaphones of sorts to amplify the emperor’s power to subjugate entire nations under his feet. The coins were a key instrument of Rome’s imperial propaganda, which enabled Tiberius to control and tax millions, including Jesus’s own people.

Now put yourself in the sandals of first-century Jews, who continued to be crucified by the Romans, who learned from Moses that no images of anyone should be engraved anywhere, and who believed no foreign master should ever be served except their God, Yahweh... being forced to use Caesar’s coins and pay him tribute was close to a slap in their face.

Different movements of rebellion arose in first-century Palestine in response to the compromise. And they often called for armed revolution against the authorities: “Give Rome what Rome deserves! Rome has to be paid in full, eye for eye!”

For common folk in ancient-day Jerusalem, the compromise was an offense. In fact, it was blasphemy. As good monotheists, they knew that by siding with Caesar’s empire the entire nation was failing to worship God as they should. The political/religious elite of Jerusalem was, in fact, colluding with Caesar, indirectly giving him the loyalty that only God deserved.

Toward a Society of Love?

This turbulent backdrop leads historian N. T. Wright to dismiss Jesus’s famous God/Caesar saying as a blank check allowing Caesar to do as he pleases and people to obey as he commands.

Instead, Wright hears a three-sided critique in Jesus’s words: a critique of the profane claims of Rome, a critique of the call to violent revolution to defeat Rome, and a critique of the collusion of Jerusalem's elders and religious leaders with Rome.

Jesus cheered for none. Collusion with Rome was wrong; but so was violence. The call of the Nazarene was for a far deeper revolution: one of peacemaking and of imitating God’s self-giving love.

Paraphrasing him, Jesus’s words were subtle but subversive:

“Give that dirty coin back to Caesar, and the dedication and the loyalty you’ve been giving Caesar... give it to God.”

Jesus challenged his contemporaries to be the light of the world, not a reflection of Rome’s empire. But in doing so, he did not put out a crippled call for individuals searching for a existentialist religious experience. Jesus’s three-sided critique was a public statement; it was a call to be part of the divine Dream of building a society of love.


III. An Open Letter

Today this dream remains as alive and as urgent as ever. And so as someone who has experienced its joy and its liveliness, I allow myself to conclude with a few words addressed to Canada's Prime Minister and his ruling cabinet:

Prime Minister Trudeau and Ministers of Government,

Please receive a respectful greeting.

Eager about addressing climate change in Canada, here one cannot but endorse the valuable proposals of existing citizen movements like The Leap, and the work of organizations like the Dogwood Initiative, Courage, Indigenous Climate Action, and the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition. As you well know, these initiatives need the support of us citizens; but yours also.

Along with thousands of Canadians and First Inhabitants of this precious land, I thus summon you to listen to the people and the land that you have been appointed to serve.

In doing so, I also humbly but firmly encourage you to acknowledge that there is another Way. Despite the lure of their coins, Big Oil and Big Money don't have the last word. Their clout has been broken and overcome by an overflowing Source that endlessly pours out the living water the cosmos is thirsting for.

The Source is the Author of the dream that Jesus inaugurated a dream that is at hand for you, and for me, and for all of us to embrace, today. It's the dream that nurtured Tommy Douglas here in Canada, that sustained Churchill in England, and that inspired Dr. King in the U.S.A. It's the dream of the abolitionists. It's the dream of Jean Vanier and the l'Arche communities. It's the dream of millions of unsung heroines and heroes whose lives have testified that there is an eternal Fountainhead of sisterhood and brotherhood far greater than any of us can ever come fathom or imagine.

And it's a dream that reminds us that it's never late to turn around; for turn around we must, as you all know.

In giving God what God deserves, may Canada go down in history as a pioneer of climate justice and of reconciliation with its aboriginal inhabitants. May we go down in history as people who said yes to this vision, joining the trees clapping their hands and the mountains singing for joy. And may we tred lightly on a world that's not of our making, always mindful of the One whose hands and feet were pierced to save it.

In the hope of keeping the land of Canada glorious and free,

Eduardo Sasso