What thoughtful civic engagement can look like and how to begin

Written by Ilana Reimer

Navigating the values of our Canadian society and the convictions of Christianity can feel like a confusing dance. To the mainstream culture, Christians are often seen as the out-of-sync loner in the corner who can’t quite get the rhythm right.

It isn’t fun sticking out or bumping into other dancers because you’re following a different beat. So, we can be tempted to create our own Christian subculture to avoid society’s blurry mix of good and bad. Or, we may try to besiege the secular culture with everything we have, hoping to knock it down and build Christian values over the rubble.

Of course, both of these approaches have their flaws. And no matter what we try, we’ll bump up against evil because we live in a world where Christ’s Kingdom hasn’t yet come. Everywhere we turn, we see the grimy fingerprints of sin. And with Canada facing a federal election this September, we have a fresh invitation to ask ourselves what we value and how we can best love our neighbours.

Scripture presents a third, more uncomfortable way of being citizens of both Earth and heaven. It’s perhaps best illustrated in the book of Daniel. Daniel was a decision maker and a political leader within a pagan regime. And not any regime, but the very empire used throughout Scripture as an avatar for systemic human evil: Babylon.

Despite this, Daniel didn’t try to bring down the government. Nor did he retreat and refuse to have anything to do with its systems. Instead, he walked into the murkiness. He worked toward Babylon’s flourishing with respect for its people and ruling officials. His actions were still subversive, but only by proclaiming allegiance to the Lord, not by upending Babylonian rule.

Like Daniel, Christians are the little guy with almost no political or cultural influence in Canada. Christian thinking is no longer the dominant viewpoint, nor do we get social credit for following Jesus. We don’t have the option to enforce our views on mainstream culture. And if we siphon off into our own Christian culture bubble, few will notice our absence, let alone invite us back to the table.

This landscape is a challenging one, but it doesn’t make being an active citizen any less important or valuable. After all, Daniel and his friends were four captured foreigners amid the vast Babylonian regime. Yet through them, Nebuchadnezzar began to acknowledge God. Theirs was a job of patience, faithful witness, and sometimes quiet resistance.

What does this mean for us today? Like ancient Babylon, Canada has its own systemic injustice and evil to reckon with. And all of us who live on this land are part of this country’s unfolding story.

Each small step—like voting wisely and signing petitions defending the marginalized and oppressed—are contributions to God’s restorative work. This is part of our calling as people of peace, and it’s a crucial way to seek the flourishing of our neighbours.

Becoming an engaged citizen

Getting involved in politics is often incremental and usually cause-driven. For Alida Thomas, the director of research and programs for an international development NGO, those causes include refugee crises, Indigenous activism, climate change, and the rights and roles of women. She became a member of a political party in her early twenties and works with organizations that do public policy research or advocacy on these topics.

“Something shifted where I stopped believing that politics is a thing that was happening out there,” she says. “It became really clear to me that politics affects the lived experience of my neighbour, the lived experience of my friends, and my own lived experience.”

Recently, Thomas partnered with Hannah Marazzi and Ben Roy to co-edit a beginner’s handbook to Canadian politics, written by authors spanning the political spectrum. “One of our main pitches to people is that you don’t need to be an expert on everything to be involved politically. You just need to care about certain things,” she says. Politics “belongs to all of us and it requires all of us.”

The book, to be published by fall 2022, provides an overview of levels of government, political parties, and evergreen public policy issues. It also discusses how to engage in healthy discussions about politics and how to avoid being taken in by misinformation. Their goal is to encourage active citizenship. “It’s more than just voting and just elections. It includes non-profit involvement, signing petitions, and holding politicians accountable to the things we elected them for,” says Thomas.

Change is slow—keep persevering

Dale Aalbers, an administrative assistant to a Member of Parliament, has seen many issues he cares about not go the way he hoped. He still believes it’s important to have his convictions voiced. A recent example is Bill C-7, which expands eligibility for euthanasia to people who are not dying. Despite opposition, the new bill was passed in March 2021, opening doors for people with disabilities and mental illnesses to become eligible for medical assisted dying.

Aalbers believes the alternative viewpoints of those opposing Bill C-7 added another layer of humanity to the discussion, causing politicians to wrestle with whether the bill was going too far. “If we don’t get involved, there is a serious risk of the things that are important to us kind of getting lost,” he says. Change “doesn’t always happen at the speed or the pace we’d like, but we’re still able to bring things to a national discussion.”

Thomas thinks of political activism as playing a long game—which means celebrating incremental changes. “If you’re doing it just to win and that is what you’re going to dictate your success by, that’s a pretty shallow interpretation,” she says. “Politics is ultimately about relationships. It’s fundamentally a belief that who we are collectively is more important than who we are individually.”

Choosing our leaders

When it comes to voting wisely, it’s essential to pray, ask good questions, and access trustworthy research. Find Canadian think-tanks that focus on topics that interest you and follow their reports. These organizations are already doing the research and creating space for debate and conversation on public policy. They are excellent resources to help inform your vote.

It’s also critical to identify reliable media sources and read from a variety of outlets. Each source will have its own set of biases. Avoid using social media as your primary source. Each platform’s algorithms will make suggestions based on what they think you already think, funnelling people into viewpoint silos. Remember the basic rule of thumb you learned in high school English class: find the original source for any piece of information. “Don’t trust a meme,” Thomas laughs.

When considering voting for a candidate, look at his or her individual character and the goals of the party. Aalbers suggests asking questions like: What deeper societal changes is this party proposing to bring about? What could be the outcomes of those changes? What is this party progressing toward, and does that new vision leave room for the values you care about?

We may be Daniels outnumbered by society, but Christians should still be consistent voices advocating for our oppressed and vulnerable neighbours.

Voting, volunteering, and working in politics are some of the ways we can express God’s love and heart for justice to our communities and government.

“Incremental involvement is so important,” says Thomas. “If that starts with finding an issue that matters to you that you read a little bit more about and sign the petition, that’s amazing. That is using your voice for our collective belonging.”

To continue learning about civic engagement, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada has a broad list of resources and guides available at www.TheEFC.ca/CivicEngagement.