When Gary Gordon, the Roman Catholic bishop of Whitehorse, suggested I give up the Internet for the 40 days of Lent, I thought: "Now that's exactly what's wrong with the earnest men who wear dark suits and white collars and hang large crosses on their chests." Church leadership just doesn't get how complicated our lives are, and their challenge to our lifestyle is outrageous.
This is the same bishop who suggested Prime Minister Stephen Harper give up his resolve to increase jail time, establish mandatory minimum sentences and build bigger prisons. Bishop Gordon, a former prison chaplain, is a spokesman for the Church Council on Justice and Corrections, the coalition calling for the Tories to repent of crime-fear ideology.
Lent is the perfect time for the complicated debate to play out. It's the season for soul-searching, for remembering that sin has caused things to break down in our world, to lament that beauty has been lost and to acknowledge that we are in great need of repair. Lent begins today, on Ash Wednesday, when the devout mark their foreheads with ashes to symbolize the reality that life is going to end and that, because of Jesus's suffering, we can be redeemed for Heaven.
Church tradition calls for a little suffering of our own, to help us experience the emotions of Jesus. Hence the 40-day ritual of giving up something we hold dear, because suffering, it's argued, is a good teacher to cultivate the humility needed for a spiritual rescue plan. Lent concludes on Easter Sunday with the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, and because he was raised from the dead, we, too, can be lifted to new beginnings on Earth and in Heaven.
Giving lawbreakers hope of such redemption is at the core of why the Church Council on Justice and Corrections is doing its best to upset the Harper government's "tough on crime" agenda. It's an outrageous intrusion of the church into the state at a time when the government's spending estimates show that combatting crime is getting the biggest cash injection of any government initiative.
The CCJC has blitzed millions of members in its pews with a "prison facts" insert for weekly church bulletins, in which it lobbies for offenders to be "maintained in our communities at a savings of 75 per cent!" This is the same group that, in 2009, received $7.4-million from the federal government to prevent crime in communities by creating "circles of support and accountability" to reduce the risk of released sex offenders reoffending. When asked at a parliamentary committee hearing whether all who rape children should go to jail, the CCJC answered: "Not necessarily."
Tory MP Chris Warkentin complains that the CCJC has never asked its constituency in the 11 major Canadian churches it represents whether they agree with its redemption agenda. "That may be true, but we don't need to [check with them] we've checked with the gospel," said Bishop Gordon. He's standing firm in the example of Jesus that we're invited to walk closer to the marginalized, poor and mentally ill who fill our prisons.
There's no hope in hell of CCJC lobbying ever making a dent on the Conservatives' justice plans. But if Heaven is real, then the church is equipped to change how people discover hope, that hearts can mend and move with healing into what is broken. That happens only when we enter the journey of redemption. Sinners of all shapes and sizes, including those who never run afoul of Canadian legal rules, are still in need of it.
Lorna Dueck is executive producer of Listen Up TV.