Text: Matthew 15:21-28 (Jesus and a Canaanite woman)
During the past month of world-wide uprisings against racist police violence, personal realities have presented a challenge for me to understand the feelings being expressed, perhaps because of the positions of privilege I embody.
I am a white, male, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied, well-educated, employed, pensioned, housed, espoused, and debt-free Canadian born during the Baby Boom. Other than not being a member of the 1% of the world’s wealthiest, I check off most of the boxes of personal advantage. Because of my privilege, I have never experienced discrimination based upon who I am; and I have never had anything but positive interactions with the police.
Given this, how can I relate to Indigenous and Black people as they detail stories of discrimination, harassment, and violence, including murder by the police? How can I imagine what it is like to leave one’s house with fear that doing so in and of itself might invite danger? For many Indigenous and Black people, just the fact of being out in public – driving while Black, shopping while Indigenous, jogging while Brown – raises fears of violence and even death.
But the current pandemic may have given people of privilege like me a glimpse of this reality. Since March, most of us have lived with fear of leaving home. We have stopped gathering in churches, sports arenas, and concert halls. We have worn masks in grocery stores and kept a wide berth from other pedestrians on neighbourhood walks. We have been reluctant to leave our homes for fear of illness or even death.
Fear of the coronavirus is quite different from fear of racial discrimination or violence. Pandemic restrictions flow from a natural phenomenon – the new coronavirus – and not from a social socially-generated ideology like racism with its roots in the last 500 years of colonial history. Government health measures and community compliance with physical distancing have allowed countries like Canada to avoid the worst effects of a terrible pandemic; and both our fears and government restrictions are lifting as the worst of a first wave of disease has passed.
But I see some parallels between the response to the pandemic and to racism.
Every government in the world has moved to slow or stop the spread of the virus, but they have not done so in the same way or with the same results. The five countries with the largest number of infections — the USA, Brazil, Russia, India, and the UK — are all led by populist racists. I am sure that none of these rulers want COVID-19 to spread widely through their countries not least because this is a disaster for the economy. But neither have they shown the ability to deal with the pandemic. Perhaps harboring ideologies of racism and sexism — not to speak of pathologies like narcissism — makes it difficult to think clearly about infectious disease control.
But many countries committed to eradicating racism and sexism have also struggled with COVID-19, with Canada being one example. By Labour Day, it looks likely that Canada’s rates of infections and deaths will be less than half the same rates in the United States, for which I am grateful. But of the world’s 215 countries, 195 of them have a lower mortality rate from COVID-19 than Canada.
The big majority of the 9,000 deaths so far in Canada are connected to injustice. For decades, advocates for seniors have protested terrible conditions in Canada’s long-term care facilities. But it has taken thousands of deaths this spring to finally bring this reality to the forefront of public policy. The same is true with the conditions endured by temporary migrant farm labourers, meatpacking employees, prisoners, homeless people, and those living on First Nations reserves. If Canadian governments had ensured that all long-term care facilities had no more than one person in a room; if they had improved the lives of migrant farm labourers; if they had ended the racist “War on Drugs” and its resulting mass incarceration; and if they had eradicated the scourge of homelessness, Canada’s success against COVID-19 would have been much greater.
I wish our governments had moved with greater speed and boldness against the social ills that help to spread disease, and had set up better systems for COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and isolation for the sick. A lot of this is now happening or is pledged to happen, and I pray this will allow COVID-19 to be progressively eliminated from the country.
One area where Canada’s governments did move with speed and boldness was in providing monetary support to businesses, families and individuals. During the pandemic, fear of deficits and debts have been replaced by a consensus that unprecedented levels of both are required to get through the pandemic.
Something similar happened during the Great Recession of 2007-2009. The latter was precipitated by reckless financial institutions; and in response, the world’s central banks pumped trillions of new dollars into the economy. But almost all of this money was used to bail out negligent financial institutions; and very little went to families. So, it was the latter who suffered with massive job losses and foreclosures. Nevertheless, I was impressed by the ability of central banks to magically create trillions of dollars of money out of thin air.
This year, much of a new wave of newly-created trillions are going directly to households; and this raises in my mind the ability of governments to expand social welfare programs if they so decide. Programs like universal basic income, pharmacare, dentacare, universal childcare, and housing for everyone seem much more possible to me now than they did before the pandemic.
What is lacking, I believe, is the will and spirit to implement them. Countries like Denmark and Norway enjoy many of the programs I listed above, and as a result they are wealthier and healthier than Canada. They have also had a far better record in containing COVID-19 than Canada.
Better social conditions also help fight racism. Racist ideas and practices can be tackled through education and consciousness-raising, which is why I chose today’s Gospel passage in which Jesus compares a Canaanite woman to a dog. Happily, her persistence transforms Jesus’ heart; and he expands his compassion beyond his own tribe. This is an example of how encounters between people of different backgrounds can expand our horizons and stretch our hearts and spirits.
But beyond meeting people from different backgrounds, much of the work of eradicating racism can be accomplished through improved social welfare. If Canada finally ensured clean water for every First Nations reserve, if it housed all its homeless people, and if all Canadians had access to the health and educational resources they need, some of the wounds of colonialism would heal more quickly, I believe.
Such changes would not do away with the tendency of many police officers to target and assault Indigenous and Black people. But they would help to alleviate racial inequalities. Unfortunately, our governments still lack the will and spirit to make these changes. Why this will and spirit are lacking is a subject to which I will return next Sunday.
The first priority of a government is to keep its people safe. Canada’s First Nations and other racialized minorities have not experienced the same level of safety as people of privilege like myself; and now, during the pandemic, I have caught a glimpse of what it is like to live in a country that struggles to keep its citizens safe. I hope that over time Canada’s governments will improve their ability to eliminate the virus. This will require tackling some long-standing social wounds and involve vast resources. But not tackling these wounds will make restoring safety for all of us more difficult.
Today it has become clearer to me that it is not possible for any of us to cope and thrive unless all of us — Indigenous and non-Indigenous, Black and White, men and women, gay and straight – are safe.
The pandemic has underlined the old saying that an injury to one is an injury to all. So, on this Indigenous Day of Prayer, may we reach out in love to our all our relations with a renewed commitment to social solidarity.
May it be so. Amen.