Until recently, “sesquicentennial” – referring to a 150th anniversary – is a word I haven’t had much experience with, and I don’t envy those who have. Lately this word has been getting more circulation than usual leading up to July 1st, 2017, the sesquicentennial of Canada’s Confederation. 150 years is surely a significant milestone, and it is natural at this time to celebrate, to reflect, and to take a glance backward and forward – what have we done with the last 150 years? Where have we come from, and what are we going to do next?
Many Canadians, and particularly Canadian Christians, will be experiencing conflicting sentiments on this historic occasion. On the one hand, our leaders in government, industry and education in recent years have, with an uncanny consistency, pursued and implemented policies and laws that are overtly hostile to the Christian faith and the broadly Christian principles that motivated our nation’s founders. These policies, oriented away from and in defiance of God, are destructive of real truth, justice and freedom.
As just one ready example, consider the case of Jordan Peterson, the (non-Christian) professor who has refused to comply with Bill C-16 and its mandated use of “gender-neutral pronouns,” on the grounds that it destroys the notion of truth, the immediate result of which is chaos. As a result, Peterson has been the subject of a good deal of official censure, and been passed over for research grants of which he seemed to be well-deserving.[i] When our civil government begins to hijack language itself to advance an agenda antithetical to God and his eternal Word, a Christian could be forgiven for finding his patriotic sentiments on the wane. Increasingly it seems that behaving as a faithful Christian and as a good Canadian citizen are becoming mutually exclusive activities.
But patriotism is not allegiance to a particular leader or civil government; if that were the case then patriotism would be nothing more than a measure of party loyalty. Rather, a godly, rightly-ordered sense of patriotism is one mark of rightly-ordered affections – true patriot love, as our anthem prescribes. The Canadian philosopher George Grant offers a helpful understanding of patriotism – a love that begins at home, and which we must cultivate in order to rightly love other things farther from home.[ii]
Andrew Sandlin has made a valuable point about North American patriotism, as distinct from much of Europe and Asia, where patriotism is bound up in a sense of “blood and soil,” that is, a particular geography and genealogy. For the American, and perhaps more so for the Canadian, “we are patriots because the principles on which the nation [was] founded allow Christianity to flourish.”[iii] In other words, a godly patriotism honours and defends godly ideas of self and of nationhood.
In light of this, it is encouraging to bear in mind the idea that Canada is a pre-Christian, rather than a post-Christian nation, still waiting for the full light of the gospel to dawn.[iv] It is true that Canada was birthed into a context of broad Christian consensus, a consensus which has largely eroded in latter days. But it is a naïve nostalgia that would long for some bygone golden age of Canadian Christian culture. Some readers, like my mother, will remember attending Expo ’67 in Montreal in their youth. The theme of this once-in-a-lifetime event celebrating Canada’s Centennial was Man and his World. Hear what Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson had to say on the occasion:
The scope of international support for the Expo theme, as shown by the record-breaking participation, is a wonderfully encouraging display of Man's faith in himself and his world; in his capacity to improve and progress; in his power to cope with the challenges of his world and himself. In all the wonders of Man which we now have on display at Expo, we can see in inspiring actuality how much every nation has to gain from co-operation and how much to lose in conflict.[v]
In keeping with the theme of Expo, Man (notice the capital M), his capacity, his achievement, and his camaraderie with his fellow man, are front and centre in Pearson’s address. Any reference to God is conspicuously absent.
When we remember that Pearson’s address was delivered to a self-consciously international audience in the midst of the Cold War, there is a sense in which it was both fitting and prudent to acknowledge the spirit of co-operation in such circumstances. Nevertheless, for a nation whose motto reads A Mari usque ad Mare (“from sea to sea”), in direct reference to the universal kingship of God described in Psalm 72:8, these words from Canada’s Prime Minister would fit more comfortably alongside the Humanist Manifesto than the pages of Scripture.
The prophet Samuel erected a stone of remembrance following the Lord’s defeat of the Philistines and deliverance of his people, marking the place with the words “Till now the Lord has helped us” (1 Sam 7:12). Pearson’s Ebenezer, by contrast, is a startling display of humanistic hubris: “…the lasting impact of Expo will be in the dramatic object lesson we see before our own eyes today: that the genius of Man knows no national boundaries but is universal.”[vi] It is hard not to see in Pearson’s words allusions to an earlier, biblical instance where the “universal genius of Man” was on display: “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth’” (Gen. 11:4). Such godless patriotism can do no better than to worship the genius of man, for indeed it acknowledges nothing higher than this.
Christians know that we have a higher allegiance than the one marked on our passport; our ultimate citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20), and in all we do, we yearn for “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16). At the same time, Scripture is clear that God’s people are on mission in this world. In a land that is hostile to the Kingdom of God, we are nevertheless to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jer. 29:7). Furthermore, as ambassadors of King Jesus, to whom has been given all authority in heaven and on earth, we have been given the task of making disciples of the nations, teaching them to obey God’s commands. In a very real way, this yearning for a heavenly country is worked out in our love for our country here and now, the glory and the name of our King moving us to declare his everlasting reign. (Matt. 28:18-20).
We may rightly mourn, lament, and protest the ungodly actions of our leaders, but we must not neglect to also pray for those leaders. Listen to the words of the apostle Paul, who urged Timothy to pray for the pagan Roman emperors who demanded nothing less than to be worshiped as gods:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior... (1 Tim. 2:1-3)
So, let us celebrate our sesquicentennial in a spirit of full and everlasting joy, knowing that Canada, like all nations and kingdoms, is under the righteous rule of King Jesus; and let us labour to instruct our neighbours and countrymen in everything he has commanded.
[i] See David Fuller, “Insisting on the truth in times of chaos — Jordan Peterson,” Medium, last modified May 19, 2017, https://medium.com/perspectiva-institute/the-man-for-the-times-of-chaos-jordan-peterson-2df43c24672f; Christie Blatchford, “‘An opportunity to make their displeasure known’: Pronoun professor denied government grant,” National Post, last modified April 3, 2017, http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/an-opportunity-to-make-their-displeasure-known-government-pulls-funding-of-pronoun-professor.
[ii] Peter C. Emberley (ed.), By Loving our Own: George Grant and the Legacy of “Lament for a Nation” (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1990), xxiv.
[iii] P. Andrew Sandlin, “A Christian and a Patriot?” Doc Sandlin, last modified July 3, 2012, https://docsandlin.com/2012/07/03/a-christian-and-a-patriot/
[iv] See Joe Boot, “William Wilberforce and the Issues of Life,” Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity, last modified September 19, 2016, http://www.ezrainstitute.ca/resource-library/blog-entries/william-wilberforce-and-the-issues-of-life.
[v] Lester Bowles Pearson, “Remarks at the opening of Expo ’67, Montreal, April 27, 1967,” Collections Canada, accessed May 16, 2017, https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/primeministers/h4-4029-e.html.
[vi] Pearson, “Remarks.”