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Compassion or Justice: Second Sunday of Advent 2020

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. We hear these words from the prophet Isaiah on the Second Sunday of Advent. These verses offer a good summary of the Judeo-Christian call to be with those who are in need, to comfort and show compassion.

This is probably best summed up by the well-known words from Matthew 25. When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?

The Advent reading from Isaiah speaks of God as someone who will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. All very gentle, loving and kind.

Yet, we are also called to offer justice to those who are among the most vulnerable. Luke quotes Isaiah. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This often means that we are not dealing simply with victims of injustice, but with the structures and powers that create the injustice.

There is a danger in being charitable and generous: We can give our money or help in a food bank and end up feeling smug that we have done our part. It’s more challenging to help people to overcome their blindness, deafness and imprisonment. It’s challenging to change structures so that there is justice and integrity for all.

Rather than being a one-shot deal that means I part with some precious money or time, I’m in it up to my eyeballs.  To change structures so that there is justice for all peoples means that I enter into a long-term relationship with those denied justice.

Let’s use an illustration close to home to make the point: the situation of indigenous peoples in this country. We know that their situation rivals some of the terrible situations in the world. Look at conditions on many reserves – inadequate housing, education and social services.

Bob Rae pointed out several years ago in a piece in the Globe and Mail, the courts have spoken over and over about native justice, and now is the time for governments to start acting. He says that, governments and companies ignore realities of the indigenous population at their own risk.

Yet, here we are in a country that regularly ranks among the safest, wealthiest and healthiest places on the face of the earth. We are the envy of many nations. There are men and women and whole families who would give anything to live here. Part of our national shame is the situation of indigenous peoples.

We naturally feel sympathy and compassion. That seems like the right thing to do. The Comeback, by John Ralston Saul, challenges that way of thinking. It’s his response to the Idle No More movement (remember that?) and he is inviting all Canadians to be idle no more. Saul is basically suggesting that history is upon us as Canadians. It’s time to stop feeling sympathy for our aboriginal brothers and sisters and help them move toward rights and justice. So long as we call them victims and feel sorry for them, we are still maintaining a kind of power over them.

Saul says about our national consciousness in light of the need for aboriginal justice in Canada: This is the great issue of our time, the great unresolved Canadian question upon which history will judge us all. He suggests that non-aboriginals can continue in our usual paths or we can be supportive and part of a new narrative. In a related way, a letter on reconciliation from a former General Superior of the Jesuits has relevance.

He names four elements as constitutive of reconciliation: forgiveness, healing, empowerment, and mission. The word that stays with me is empowerment. I associate that with the need he addresses, to restore communion among groups and persons who exclude others or are themselves violently excluded.

Mr. Saul is illustrating the distinction between compassion at a personal level and justice at the very heart of our government structures. This Advent, let us pray for the grace to be idle no more, whether with respect to justice for indigenous peoples in this country or for any who need to be released from imprisonment. Being idle no more is not that radically different from staying awake and alert – the ultimate Advent challenge!