Book’s journey takes some tedious turns

By  KRISTINA GLICKSMAN, Catholic Register Special
  • September 12, 2018

Journeys to Justice: Reflections on Canadian Christian Activism by Joe Gunn (Novalis, 176 pages, softcover, $14.95 on amazon.ca) 


journeys to justice

Joe Gunn’s new book makes an important contribution to telling the story of social justice work by Christian groups in Canada. Unfortunately, it makes for tedious reading. 

a self-righteous attitude that appears from time to time. 

The format is interesting — 10 interviews about key historical issues with people at the forefront of advocating for change and three reflections on future directions. One opens Journeys to Justice expecting to find a treasure trove of anecdotes and insights, sitting at the feet of our elders and hearing passionate stories of past glories, our heritage and the torch we will carry into the future. 

Instead, the interviews bear a greater resemblance to the aged relative given to bouts of crankiness, whose mind wanders somewhat and whose stories are filled with names from a bygone era. 

We listen to them with goodwill and perhaps to understand, but not to be inspired.

As a whole, Journeys to Justice is pervaded by a sense of exclusivity. Gunn’s well-meaning but mawkish introduction, shaped as a letter to his children, sets the tone and reveals his intended audience. He’s not writing for the general public but only those already involved in social justice in Canada. 

Many of the interviews drop names and acronyms like references to old friends, which they no doubt are to Gunn and his interviewees. But to a reader coming from outside this circle, it creates a sense of exclusivity. This book was written for a certain type of person, and you are not it.

This feeling is exacerbated by a self-righteous attitude that appears from time to time. 

It seems to come mostly from a justified sense of frustration that the actions of Christian churches and groups have not produced greater results and that they even find opponents within Christian circles. 

There is also a judgmental attitude toward those Christians who have not become involved in social justice movements. 

Though it is not a dominant sentiment, it is potentially alienating for readers not already involved in social justice work, and it is an unfortunate aspect of otherwise positive perspectives on the commitment and dedication of thousands of Canadian Christians to changing our world for the better.

Part of the problem with the book is the nature of the work it profiles. Creating petitions, joining in marches and mobilizing to cause change in investment and government policy are not compelling stories in and of themselves, and when they are told in a very casual, broad-brushstroke way, they can be downright boring. As Moira Hutchinson says, regarding a victory for shareholders in the manner of voting, “I know that sounds like not very sexy stuff in terms of social responsibility, but it is.” 

What this book fails to do is find the human element and turn a lot of practical, technical knowledge into compelling reading.

But the nature of the material only makes the task difficult, not impossible. The interviews with Tony Clarke (on the Canadian bishops’ 1983 statement on economic justice) and Sr. Marie Zarowny, SSA, (on violence against women) were by far the best.

 They deal with fairly narrow experiences and so tell a clear story, but they are also told by individuals with a gift for personal expression. Wherever the other interviews delve into human stories and personal anecdotes and observations, they instantly become more interesting, though they are also hampered by a lack of structure, possibly due to the interview process.

Despite its shortcomings, Journeys to Justice is an important work, highlighting significant issues, many of which are still with us today. 

It explores the role of Christian churches in effecting change in our society and in our country’s policies.  And it’s a good place to start for anyone interested in exploring the world of social activism and looking for some understanding of the methods involved and what can ultimately be accomplished. 

Probably the most salient point the reader will come away with is the vital importance of ecumenical and multi-faith endeavours. When people of faith find common ground they have a much greater chance of making a positive impact.

Gunn has produced a flawed but necessary book to document the flawed but necessary work of Christians who have yearned for a better Canada and a better world.

(Glicksman is a writer and editor living in Toronto.)

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