If you are a Protestant Christian in Canada, 2017 is a pretty big year. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, which took effect on July 1, 1867. This year also marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation—or, at least, 500 years since the Reformation’s symbolic beginning, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, October 31, 1517.
Celebrations of all sorts are already underway for both anniversaries, and they’ll be ramped up even more once the magic dates hit. Tomorrow is going to be quite the party, all across the country.
But if you read the news, both the mainstream news and the news in Christian circles, you’ll know that not everyone is celebrating Canada’s 150th or the Reformation’s 500th. These celebrations—well, it’s complicated.
I remember when both Canada and the Reformation were easy things to celebrate for me.
I’ve always been among those millions of Canadians cheering Canada on in all the big hockey games. Canada Day has been a big date on our family calendar, whether it has meant parades or fireworks or a private celebration during our brief sojourn in the U.S. “I am Canadian”—born and bred and blood bright red.
As far as the Reformation, well, I identified for most of my life as an evangelical Christian. This meant, among other things, believing we evangelicals were the true heirs of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther’s story was told for us in evangelical terms: his conversion out of a heretical works-righteousness tradition-bound Roman Catholicism to a Scripture-alone grace-alone faith-alone Christ-alone salvation is a staple of evangelical lore.
Now, however, I think I’d characterize my thoughts and feelings about both Canada and the Reformation as a kind of “uneasy gratitude.”
The gratitude is strong. Very strong.
I am grateful that I live in a country that has a high quality of life: a liberal democracy with an excellent education system, publicly funded health care, and opportunities for meaningful work, all governed by the rule of law and so safe and secure and peaceful for most people, most of the time. I am grateful, even proud, to be a citizen of a country that more often than not has welcomed refugees, promoted multiculturalism, celebrated diversity, and played the role of peacemaker abroad.
I am also grateful for the Reformation. The medieval western church needed reform, even a resurrection, not just theologically but also culturally, socially, ethically, and more. I am grateful, then, for the Reformation’s focus on not just ecclesiastical reform but also individual repentance and societal transformation. I am grateful also for its application of Renaissance humanism to Christian faith and life: ad fontes (to the sources!), a critique of traditional authority structures, and more.
Yet this gratitude is mixed with a strong dose of unease.
Over the past few years I have become ever conscious of Canada’s colonialist and racist past and present. What I had understood earlier in my life as merely “bumps along the road” of an otherwise glorious Canadian journey were—and still are—massive barriers of systemic bigotry and injustice toward our host indigenous peoples and others of non-European descent. I’ve also become increasingly aware of nationalist and protectionist undercurrents in Canadian society, much of which ain’t pretty. Sometimes these things scare me, quite frankly.
As for the Reformation, I’ve come to recognize its ugly aftermath of schismatic ecclesiology (“Disagree? Split the church!”) and individualistic soteriology (“I’m saved—phew!”) and quasi-gnostic every-ology (“Give me heaven, earth be damned!”) that have little to do with the theologies reflected in the Bible. I no longer view Catholics as heretics, and I’m not convinced Luther got “justification by faith” right. And, of course, as an Anabaptist, I’m not all that fond of the general Protestant pining for the good old days of Christendom (just let it die already).
One of the realities of growing up is a realization that the world is not so neatly sliced into “good” and “bad.” When we’re kids it can seem as if the world is that way: people, things, ideas, are either thoroughly good or completely bad. But as we grow up we put away those childish ways (or so we should—the recent “you’re either for us or against us” polarization within our society on nearly every issue makes me wonder). We realize that good people do bad things and bad people do good things. We recognize that many good ideas, many good ideals, have bad elements to them. Politics, economics, people, church, society, history, theology, ethics—well, it’s complicated.
So it is with Canada, and so it is with the Reformation: there is much that is good, much to celebrate, but they’re peppered with elements that are bad—some things simply wrong, others unjust—and need to be changed. It’s a sign to us that, however many positive steps we may make toward a more just and peaceful and good and beautiful world, we have not yet arrived.
This is where my favourite Reformation-related phrase comes in: semper reformanda, “always reforming.” Karl Barth may have coined the phrase in reference to the church less than a century ago, but it expresses something good at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, the Radical Reformers who pushed even further, and all those who keep pressing on the status quo to make the world a better place.
We haven’t arrived. The road goes ever on. The arc of history must continually be pressed toward justice. We may have reformed—somewhat, in some ways—but we are still always reforming, still repenting, always resurrecting, until God’s kingdom comes, God’s will is fully done, on earth as it is in heaven.
So we continue to pray, and for this we continue to strive.