On the morning of October 22 I was in meetings, so I did not hear about the shooting on Parliament Hill until almost an hour after it happened. My immediate concern was for various friends and professional acquaintances in Ottawa, but I soon confirmed that, although under lock-down, they were probably in the safest place that existed in Canada. Next came the reflections about what this meant for our country and our future.
At the end of a long, sad day, three thoughts came to my mind:
1. Gratitude. Democracy has a price; we owe a debt to those who make it possible. Whenever I lead a worship service, I make a special point of praying for both our political leaders and for the protection of “those who wear the uniforms that represent our country.” In that one October week, at least two soldiers paid with their lives simply because they wore a uniform that included a Maple Leaf. I also note with appreciation the apparent courage and exemplary service of public servants like House of Commons Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers who, with a calm professionalism, risked his own life to protect others. While, in this case, his name is (rightfully) singled out for honour, there are literally tens of thousands of people who wear uniforms and put their lives at risk every day so that you and I can enjoy our freedoms.
2. Symbols matter. There is something fundamental about our democracy and the symbolism of Parliament as a place where we sort through our differences with words instead of bullets. It is wholly unsettling to watch the video of bullets flying through the Hall of Honour. I’ve walked those corridors hundreds of times and my heart still beats faster every time I am there. Two soldiers were killed in the course of a few days because they were wearing uniforms that are also symbols. And it was no accident that the attacks occurred at the War Memorial and inside the Parliament of Canada. This is why the reconvening of Parliament the very next day was also so very powerful. We are symbolic creatures and such symbols carry meaning in special ways.
3. People seek meaning. While those who advocate a public secularism insist that religion is simply a personal matter and of no public consequence, we are witnessing instances of “radicalized Islamic fundamentalists” who find the answers of extreme Islamism more compelling than the emptiness of a secularism that says there is no meaning beyond the here and now. Matters are not simple here, nor do I intend to suggest any sympathy or justification for Islamic fundamentalists. But it would be dishonest to ignore a haunting possibility: the nihilism of contemporary secularism is, at least in part, an explanation for the appeal of extreme Islamic fundamentalism. Something always trumps nothing when it comes to providing a sense of meaning and purpose for individuals and our shared lives together.
It was devastating day in Canada that raises significant questions that we would do well to ponder.