A Review of Journeys to Justice

By the Rev. Jeff Lackie, St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Medicine Hat, Alberta.
Journeys to Justice: Reflections on Canadian Christian Activism, Written by Joe Gunn. Novalis Publishing, 2018

Joe Gunn’s engaging and very personal introduction sets an instructive tone for the selection of interviews and reminiscences that make up “Journeys to Justice.” This collection offers an inside look at the development of Christian social justice activities within Canada, in what some might consider a season of uncertainty for faithful intervention in public policy and for social action. Is this work really at a low ebb? Or is it simply evolving beyond its congregational (and denominational) origins?

These are among the questions raised by this thoughtful and hopeful collection. To a Christian community in danger of losing sight of its social justice heritage, Gunn’s book serves as a bracing reminder of what is possible. To a generation of socially engaged folks who have no time for “religious nonsense,” these stories are a gentle and honest reminder of the lengths to which faith can carry social endeavour.

Each chapter is presented as an interview, and while some of the narratives are more focused than others, the style draws the reader into each story. The ten Canadians interviewed by Gunn tell their stories with the benefit of clear hindsight. Mistakes and gaps are acknowledged—victories are tempered by current realities.

For example, in her interview, Marie Zarowny, Province Co-Leader of the Sisters of Saint Ann (Victoria, B.C.), describes a decade of work in the North trying to stem the tide of violence against women. While rejoicing that her work with the Northern Bishops has made room for important conversations about family violence, her final statement expresses the difficult truth: “The attitudes that remain towards women, especially towards Indigenous women, are still dismissive” (p. 89).

The world has changed and the names of those who are directly involved have changed, but everyone represented recognizes that justice still needs to be done. All of the initiatives covered in this book will be familiar to the reader—the work done by this representative group of faithful people and the organizations they represent changed things—but those who lived these stories question the lasting effect of their work.

Some of the efforts around refugee sponsorship are reflected in our current public policies—other initiatives have been smothered by economic and social changes—and in nearly every instance there is the tacit acknowledgment that the Christian church (specifically) has lost the respect of society at large, and therefore much of its power to affect social change in matters of national importance.

How might this book be useful to the church? For those who need to remember that the Christian Church once had a profound influence in social action circles—and to those who long for a return to the “good old days,” when leaders in the faith communities occupied headlines for all the right reasons—this book may serve as a reminder of what is possible. For those who wonder where to start, who imagine that there is no room at the table for people of faith, this book will remind you that even the grandest triumphs must start from nothing.

For those who are engaged in justice work, this book may offer a hint of discouragement. The stories are so triumphant, and yet, there is so much still to do. Gunn’s introduction lays the groundwork for those people—planting seeds of hope, and perhaps subtle reminders that most of the work must be done out of sight. The high-mindedness of the social-media based social-justice warrior will be brought back to earth. Campaigns and petitions are well and good, but Gunn’s subjects are masters of the persistent conversation, the grinding, tedious work of asking and asking again, for some hint of justice in some small fraction of their corner of the world.

The penultimate reflection in the collection, offered by the Rev. Christine Boyle, sums up the book nicely: “[Christians] come from stories that remind us that all sorts of miraculous transformations are possible. When we forget this…change feels impossible, because it feels like things have always been just as they are now” (p. 155).

Joe Gunn’s collection of remembrances reminds us of our history. It is a history told carefully, for those telling the tale are trying to remember the best and the worst of their experiences. The honesty of Gunn’s introduction and the patterns of faith revealed in this collection of memories offer practical encouragement to those of us who hunger for justice as we try to follow Jesus in our tumultuous present.