In his presentations in the Work Research Foundation’s Leadership Is an Art program, Dr. Walter Wright regularly makes use of mountaineering stories. One, drawn from his own experiences on a Himalayan trek a few years back, is quite poignant in that some of the obstacles encountered make the objective of reaching the summit an open question. Throughout the challenges, the voice of the Sherpas, the local guides assigned to the group, is heard repeatedly: “Do not focus on the summit; it’s the journey that counts.”
I don’t intend to bore Comment readers with reflections on my personal journey, but I presume that many readers are inspired by the same summit: a public life ordered in a manner that glorifies God. During my climb to date, I would answer the question of how to make a Christian difference in contemporary public life very differently depending on when you asked me. I am also emboldened by the Comment editor’s frequent reminders that everything we do until we are 40 is learning, and it is only after we have crossed the two-score threshold that we need to think about making a difference. By sharing some lessons learned to date, I welcome feedback that allows me to replace my tentative conclusions with more sage advice.
My active public life will, on December 13 to be exact, celebrate its 25th birthday. The occasion was the fall of the minority Progressive Conservative government led by Joe Clark over a proposed deficit-reducing gasoline tax. I remember the debate in our grade eight classroom well. “I want to drive a car when I get older” was the critique of my Liberal-sympathetic classmate.
“But I want a country to drive a car in,” was my response. “Besides, it’s unfair and even immoral for us to have to pay off debts that should be paid today.”
It wasn’t very nuanced, but a grade-eight world is pretty black and white. Both my classmate and I launched apprenticeships of active involvement in campaigns, attendance at party conventions, and ongoing friendly quarrels. (If political influence was the objective, he wins hands-down. Today, he serves as a ranking Liberal insider with a senior position on the Prime Minister’s campaign team.)
My lessons were less career-advancing. I learned enough about the system that living in it would challenge my Christian walk. I remained convinced that the system suffered because too many Christians were taking the easy way out and leaving a vacuum for others to fill. And there was a sense of helpless urgency, since there were a bunch of bad guys engaged in politics who had an evil agenda of militant secularization, but too few seemed to pay attention to even notice, much less effectively resist them.
These teenaged conclusions made me a ripe candidate for involving myself in the formation of a Christian political party in the late 1980s. It made so much sense. Undoubtedly, there was a silent majority out there who, if they only knew what was going on, would en masse march to the ballot boxes and use their Xs as a weapon of mass protection.
The next five years provided many lessons. For many Christians, the politics of earthly cities really didn’t matter, since their heavenly citizenship took up all of their available political time. Others were willing to be engaged but only using spiritual weapons. Those who advocated using the sophisticated weaponry that is part of contemporary political warfare were by definition less spiritual, less faithful, and therefore not really to be trusted. Persevering on, inspired by Gideon’s story that perhaps God would use our comparative few to defeat the enemy, the reality of Christian political diversity became a landmine that ultimately blew up in our own camp.
A crucial lesson learned during this period was the difference between power and influence. My early apprenticeship in mainstream political parties focused on winning elections and attaining power. Policies were a tool in the battle. They were proprietary and were to be protected lest the enemy steal your good ideas and implement them as if they were their own.
I don’t remember how the insight came, but while reviewing old clippings, part way through the process I noticed that my focus had turned from winning elections (probably because I realized that this was unlikely ever to happen under the banner of a Christian political party) to influencing policies. A 1988 newspaper clipping covering a speech I gave in Guelph captured the argument. The headline read: “NDP Most Successful Political Party.” I had suggested that if one reviews the policies advocated by the NDP at their formation in 1961, and looked at public life today, one could only conclude they had been successful since most of what they had advocated had been put into place in spite of their never having won a national election. With wisdom and sound strategy, I argued, Christians could do the same.
All of these efforts were premised on the belief that if confronted with the question, there was a “silent majority”—whether motivated by explicitly Christian or other beliefs—that might be educated and mobilized. While I never bought into the populism that was current in the 1990s—some things are true and need to be stood up for whether the majority agrees or not—my actions were premised on a grassroots view of changing society.
The next major phase of my journey was in the labour relations arena, working as public affairs director for the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC). It was in this phase that I came to the seemingly contradictory conclusion that politics was at the same time both more important and less important than I had previously assumed. Change—significant change that touched people’s lives and made a difference in how they lived and thought—could be accomplished through other institutions, such as a labour union, and in a manner that was quite oblivious to the goings on that captivate political junkies like me.
Still, there were limits. When a government, such as that which held power in British Columbia in 1997, decided to solve certain industry problems through policies that would reward their friends and put independent unions such as CLAC virtually out of existence, the only options that could make a difference were political options. Good labour relations may improve the working environment in a given nursing home, but the health policies and funding provisions provided by governments were real limits to what might be done. Legislation that determines the circumstances in which one might join, or leave, a union makes a world of difference to people working in that industry, even those who never contemplate joining a union.
In the process of learning about the interconnectedness of the political and labour spheres, I came to appreciate that sorting through the knots required unravelling strings that had their source in other spheres. The organizational culture of the business, the maturity (or in some cases the immaturity) of the relevant industry association, and the specific characteristics of the client group served often needed to be understood and accounted for if the challenge of the day was to be solved. I should have known all of this from reading about the enkaptic characteristic of the spheres from authorities such as Kuyper and Dooyeweerd, but for me the validity of the theory came through experience.
On more than one occasion, I wondered whether the overall objective of influencing the ordering of public life to glorify God was a hopelessly naive and futile prospect. Maybe those who isolated themselves from the world, devoting themselves to Bible study and evangelism, were being better stewards of their resources.
A troika of temptations seem to water down the effectiveness of Christian public witness. The pragmatic temptation rationalizes compromise and silences conscience tugs with tactical explanations. The belonging temptation causes one to downplay external piety in order to better fit in, all of course in the cause of using this resulting relationship influence for good. The mental laziness temptation adopts the solutions conceived in secular policy houses, dresses them up with a few proof texts and pious principles, and baptizes them as the Christian solution to the problem.
Still, retreating into the safe sanctuary of church life never seemed a satisfactory answer. Pragmatism, inconsistency, and a lack of intellectual rigour are on display inside, as well as outside, the church. Besides, to abandon any attempts to influence public life only because the challenge is difficult seemed like the behaviour of the man in the parable who buried his talent. God expects a return on what He has given us, and certainly the institutions of public life are part of the creation that must be replenished and stewarded.
Throughout my CLAC decade, I continued to dabble (in my personal time) in politics, taking up the cause for candidates and issues that seemed worthy. I honed my skills in the political combative arts such that my son, who is now the age I was when I began my apprenticeship, marvels at my ability to pick causes that seem like long-shots, and finishing in second place (which he reminds me, is still losing).
Now, after over two decades in the practitioner trenches, my current assignment involves working with the WRF. Our mission statement says it clearly: to influence others to a Christian view of work and public life. In the midst of our strategizing on how to leverage our influence and impact our culture, a 2002 speech by Dr. James Davison Hunter comes across our paths. His argument, in a nutshell, is twofold. Ideas that have cultural impact are advanced through the core institutions of society to the periphery. They also are advanced through an intersecting network of leaders in various spheres and not by any one institution on its own.
Hunter’s thesis has challenged my core assumptions. If changing the world matters—and I am theologically convinced that it does—and if change is driven from the top down, not through grass-roots movements of activism, then the network is equally, if not more, important than the institution. Then the number one challenge of our time is to develop clear Christian thinking in all of the spheres, not just the one we happen to be involved in presently. The need for intellectual rigour and a testing of accepted theories by drilling to their core assumptions and weighing them in a scriptural balance becomes an urgent priority. These are tactical questions, to be sure, and as a chess player, I know that more than one strategy can be used to accomplish one’s ends. One should not be absolute about matters of strategy.
The Comment editor’s advice can be a comfort in the midst of changing strategies. I’m still under 40, and thus I’m still in learning mode. I don’t have to have it all figured out quite yet. There’s even room for a tactic change or two yet before I reach the plateau. And to add the Sherpa’s advice, maybe I am too focused on plateaus and summits.
Christian public life is not about winning or changing the world. It is about obedience, walking humbly with God, proclaiming the good news of the gospel both in what I say and how I live. I am to do it wisely, using the faculties God has given me. Good strategy is more God-glorifying than bad strategy. However, it’s not the end-all or be-all.
This world, complete with all of its institutions, isn’t an accident of evolutionary nature. Neither is it a playhouse for hedonistic selfishness. It belongs to God, the fruits of His creative genius, and was created with the purpose of showing His glory. Admittedly, that seems a mountain too high for my mind to climb. Thankfully, the life of faith is about taking next steps on life’s path, trusting God will use it all in His infinite wisdom in a manner we can’t always figure out. But that lesson is perhaps the hardest to learn of all.