The controversial international judicial wrangling over the case of Omar Khadr has polarized many Canadians. CC.com offers the following thought-provoking opinion piece by Jesse Schellenberg, a graduate student at ACTS Seminaries in Langley, B.C. An equally strong editorial expressing an opposing view can be found at the Calgary Herald.One of the more unfortunate aspects of being a Christian is that occasionally you’re obliged to act like one. I think it was Mark Twain who said that, or at very least some variation of that statement. Regardless of whether it was Mark Twain or the Apostle Mark who quipped that clever remark, the point still stands: being a Christian entails an outward expression of one’s faith.
This idea applies not only to individuals, but to the entirety of the church — and how it expresses itself locally, nationally, and even internationally. Throughout history, the church’s necessity for social engagement has been shown time and time again. In fact, it’s not too much to say that the early church’s social expression was one of the major reasons for its rise to power.
During the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, in an age when social security, welfare, pension plans, and free public medicine simply did not exist, it was the church’s social action that filled these voids.
It was the church that fed the impoverished, took care of widows, orphans, and the elderly. It was the church that cared for and comforted the sick and dying. And Christians didn’t stop there.
When invading barbarian hordes took Roman captives, it was often the church that bartered for their release, collected ransoms and negotiated peace settlements. When corrupt Roman public officials failed to properly execute their duties, it was often the church that was sought out to mediate between two parties.
The entire range of social actions undertaken by the church was not done primarily in obedience to a dogmatic mandate, or to create opportunities to evangelize pagans. The church undertook these actions because it saw itself as a divine instrument of God in the establishment of an equitable and just society, in a corrupt and decaying world.
The maintenance and dispensing of justice, in a time that for many felt like the end of civilization, gave the church one of the most powerful social voices it has ever known. Perhaps even more importantly, a basic precept for all social ministry was firmly established: the church is most powerful when it serves.
Thankfully, the church by and large remembered that lesson; and throughout the history of Western civilization, for better or worse, the church has sought to serve and lead, guide and correct the development of society.
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This brings us to the present, and the case of Omar Khadr.
Khadr is a 23 year old Canadian who, until recently, had been detained in Guantanamo Bay for the better part of nine years. During Khadr’s prison stint, much of the evidence that was later to be used against him was elicited through various methods of physical and psychological torture — including sleep deprivation, stress positions, and being threatened with rape and death by his interrogators.
The use of such interrogation methods has been condemned by the U.N., and declared by the Canadian Federal Court to be in violation of section 6 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Not that any of this matters much, given that Khadr has since pleaded guilty — and so the how’s and why’s surrounding his confessed guilt can now be conveniently forgotten.
Forget the fact that Khadr was 11 years old when his father forced him into an al-Qaeda training camp. Forget the fact that Khadr was 15 when he allegedly threw a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier. Forget the fact that the U.N. has declared that, as a 15 year old, Khadr should have rightly been declared a child soldier — and seen as a victim of war, rather than as a terrorist.
Forget the fact that, as the sole survivor of a U.S. military attack, Khadr is believed to be the only one who could have thrown that grenade — even though eyewitness testimony from a U.S. soldier confirmed that there were actually several survivors who subsequently died, and who could possibly be responsible for the act. Forget the fact that Khadr is a Canadian citizen who was imprisoned for nine years, and has finally been tried and judged by a U.S. military tribunal.
Forget all of that. The real question is: Where was the voice of the church, while a Canadian citizen was being imprisoned and tortured for nine years?
Maybe the reason is that there were louder monsters roaring that needed to be shouted down, like same-sex marriage and abortion, getting prayer back into schools, teaching abstinence to teenagers, and combating the rising rate of divorce. Or maybe the reason is that the church has simply lost sight of the fact that everything is connected, that the church is embedded within society — and how we act, or fail to act, does affect our culture.
If the church wants the social clout to speak into every aspect of society, then it needs to address and act in every aspect of society. If the church has lost its social status of years gone by, it is not because of some imaginary and inevitable push towards secularization; it is because the church has willfully withdrawn, failed to speak, and acquiesced to secular powers — just as it did in the case of Omar Khadr.
Despite what the church may think about itself, and in spite of how the church may act, we are not afforded the luxury of picking and choosing our battles. The church is called to engage in the totality of the world, at all levels of society and culture — ranging from Omar Khadr to the environment. By remaining silent on the issue of Omar Khadr, the church has squandered a valuable opportunity to begin reclaiming its voice in the cultural sphere of Canadian society.
Pick up your Bible sometime, flip to the concordance in the back, and take a cursory look at the emphasis on the words ‘just’ and ‘justice.’ Then ask yourself how on earth, in good conscience, we as the church could allow such an injustice to happen.