Weeding out the Root: Getting to the heart of why the “freedom” convoy is not Christian love in action

If you want a gorgeous yard, don’t fluff the blades of grass, get down to work on the roots and soil. The grassroots is the most fundamental, basic level of well, grass, but also ideas or political movements. Freedom is a grassroots value of America. Love is a grassroots part of marriage. Reading and writing are grassroots elements of education. Grassroots is where things begin and shoot out from.

– Grassroots as defined on vocabulary.com.

Pain is a signal to the body to pay attention. So I’m paying careful attention to the pain on display in Ottawa. And it’s so much more than something that’s going on in a place far removed from me.

The protests that began in Canada with the Freedom Convoy on January 22, 2022 have showcased the division that is being seen and felt across the country. As the outcome of a society in pain, it won’t be denied. And we’ve never been good with sitting with our pain, have we? 

The Convoy as a Response to Pain

I don’t begrudge people moving how they will to display and discharge their pain. But it’s uncomfortable to watch. It’s been a hard pandemic (for all I know first- and secondhand of pandemics). We all have some of the same pain and anger. But we’re not all in Ottawa. And these protests, on scales ranging from blocking international trade routes to a few parents outside schools giving children panic attacks, are not helping.

Let’s be fair, there are reports of the protests causing people to feel hope for the first time in a long time, but while some political protests across history and present day have served to change public policy for the better, I am struggling to see how these particular ones are going to help things.

The public goals of the “freedom” protests have shifted a few times, and while the initial pushback against government public health restrictions may have been healthily cathartic for some, many of us now feel like it’s only making things worse. The goal of getting the government’s attention and increasing the public awareness of this group’s position has been achieved. Dismissively, the protests have been called a temper tantrum and it cannot be dismissed that what remains is the display of pain. 

The problem of pain is never that it is a bad thing in and of itself, and therefore the display of it should not be condemned. Like a body with internal pain will act out with external symptoms, so a society in pain will act.

Why are we in pain? Oh yeah, like I’m going to solve that in one article. I’m not, but let’s explore a bit.

Most glaringly, the pandemic has been hard on everyone.

Many say the news media is corrupt and they’ve lost their trust in it. They point to mainstream media and its failings, which is largely an indication of what people have absorbed from the American media conglomerates and their tangled, economically corrupt news/advertising business orgy. Canada’s news media is not perfect, but it is different than American news. (Here’s where I plug Canadian media, reputable international news media, and the smallest, most local newspaper to you as where it is possible and important for you to get most of your news.) 

Because of the growing lack of trust in the media throughout the pandemic, many say the experts are divided and we are not hearing from them because they are not being given a platform. Who is denying them a platform? It must be the media driven by advertising dollars from insert-conspiracy-theory-here (Big Pharma and Big Government). 

And about that Big Government, many say the problem is that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is dividing us. It’s the nation! Our nation is divided! As if the large scale division didn’t already exist in our home communities, our own homes, and hearts.

That’s why this “freedom” movement is doomed to fail, if ever there was a way to measure what its success would be. As the public goals have shifted, you can’t escape that at its core it is a public discharge of personal pain, and it will fail because you can’t escape what is attached to you. 

So what is attached to you? What is going on in your own backyard? 

Evangelicalism and a Society in Pain

The “freedom” protest going on in Ottawa has been called grassroots because it is the actions of those who share personal motivations made political. Grassroots can be defined as, “…at the most basic level of something, down there in the dirt with the roots of an idea or activity. If you’re looking to make a change from the ground up, start at the grassroots.” 

In my backyard/corner of the world, we’ve got one of the lowest vaccine rates in our entire country. We’ve got some of the deepest pockets. We’ve got what seems like the most amount of churches per capita. We’ve got some of the most close knit familial structures; communes are in our DNA.

I’m surrounded by the Evangelical church on all sides (especially Evangelical Mennonite Conference which I used to belong to, as well as the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Church and a whole lot of other missionally-minded churches and evangelical not for profits). And these denominations are so good at giving, as long as it’s comfortably impersonal, as long as it’s to ease their discomfort at the thought of somebody else’s discomfort. Many of these denominations train and support people to leave their local church and serve in other places around the world. This is called the Great Commission.

While the meeting of others’ needs is genuinely not to be discounted, it has come at an expense. There’s something going awry here and it’s complicated and I’m not aiming to set it all right with one article.

I’ll try naming it as ignorance, but now that I’ve done that I’ve likely lost some of you or pressed your “now I’m upset by something I read on the internet” button. I despise that button, but I’m not sorry I pressed it and I’m cool with leaning into discomfort so hold my hand ‘cuz I’ve got you and let’s go. It’s exploration, not condemnation, full stop.

Evangelicals have become professionals at targeting other people’s pain while ignoring their own and that’s simply what ignorance is, the not knowing of something. I get that it’s a tough word when your white, lower middle class, semi-uneducated but well-meaning personal existence seems to be threatened.

It’s not lost on me that many people joining the moral outrage in society at this point in time/place/culture are the ones not with their lives or livelihood actually in danger of being definitively lost/ended/over, but of being knocked down a peg. Many who were doing enough to get by on riding on the coattails of generational wealth have reached the limits of what their parents’ (parents’ parents, parents’ parents’ parents) money was able to do for them. The farm can only split so many ways, as it were. Those without the farming income regime so common in this region may have come from farming income at one point, which has become a coattail they’ve not seen or benefitted from in awhile, and now anyone in the middle to lower-middle class is feeling a squeeze financially they’ve not felt before, perhaps in generations. The very real possibility of becoming lower-middle class or falling below the poverty line looms and that is not how our ancestors came here to Canada for us to live, is it.

Financial strain aside, many of our family systems are also feeling the squeeze of the loss of homogeneity for the first time in their memory as Canada welcomes newcomers and our own corner of Manitoba grows less and less white. The presence of the new and different feels threatening to what is familiar, not because we are bad or racist (and also precisely why), but because we are human. We draw strength on finding stability in like groups, sure, but we also need to increase the gene pool to survive. Diversity, while welcome, is a challenge, yes, but it is never the enemy. That’s a hard one for some, especially if they’ve come from a history of being persecuted for their faith and wanting to live a certain way. Keep in mind the exploration and not condemnation factor here and let’s face it, humans would prefer not to change, but preference speaks of privilege and why should we be immune to the pressures and catalysts of change when so many others do not have the choice – ours is really only the facade of choice, as if we can control when and how change comes.

In many ways, our being in a relatively free, safe and stable country like Canada gives us the privilege of being able to gaze on others, moved by their pain as long as it doesn’t require us to actually love. We bomb in our love from a distance. This is charitable love in action and while it is not ineffective, it has a long game of perpetuating insulation.

It is the ultimate in impersonal giving. GiveSendGo recently took over as the donating platform of choice for the “freedom” protestors’ fundraising efforts after GoFundMe ejected the group’s fundraising campaign because the protest violates its rules on violence and harassment. GiveSendGo calls itself the number one Christian free crowdfunding site. Online fundraising, while not without merit, is a superb example of impersonal giving and it is this impersonal giving which values charity, not solidarity, that has become one of the biggest examples of failed and misguided love for your neighbour. 

Evangelicals have literally become professionals at air-dropping aid packages and that’s why organizations like Samaritan’s Purse and Mennonite Central Committee and a variety of other missions organizations have thrived. They’ve got it down to a science how to get people to give from the comfort of their own living rooms, the deep pockets of their own rich and safe families while watching the families around them implode. While my point is not to draw support away from these organizations, one can see how impersonal online giving can be. But we can’t all be missionaries, can we?

Because of many factors including online giving, which is by nature virtual (at best, genuine but distant – at worst, insular and harmful), Evangelicals are blind to how what they think they want actually exists right in their own backyard.

In the West, we send missionaries away from here. The Great Commission tells Christians to go and make disciples in God/dess’s name. Many believe this means to go to the far corners of the world, but others say the corner of the world where God/dess wants you to go is your own – which is somebody’s “far corner of the world” depending on where you’re located, so it meets the criteria. Furthermore, “make disciples” doesn’t mean some assembly-line-type manufacturing procedures, churning out cookie cutter versions of whatever you think is the ideal Christian soldier. The goal is not to “win souls” and get somebody to label themselves a Christian and add “Jesus follower” to their Facebook profile. But… Bible literalism is a problem growing in these grassroots, just sayin’. 😉

It’s true I’ve never felt a calling to overseas missions. How could I when the mission field was calling to me from my own home community? I thank the church I grew up in for not making me feel bad about that – but likely, that’s because, whether it was said plainly or not, I was a woman and staying home was viewed as the “greatest mission field” I could aspire to anyway…

That’s feminist talk, so I digress. Or do I? The situation Evangelicals find themselves is becoming more and more uncomfortable. The calamitous societal consequences of capitalism, patriarchy, and organized religion will not be ignored and so are pitted against socialism, feminism, and spiritualism in an effort to contain them, debase them, and destroy them all. It feels like a matter of life and death. It’s no wonder everyone feels misunderstood, deeply upset, and inescapably divided. The rising moral conviction and urgency to act demand increasing militant attitudes to match.

Indeed, how can this be escaped? How can this be solved?

Weeding Out the Roots

I learned a new word today: astroturfing. You do your own online research, don’t you? Go look it up. In the meantime, I’ll help you out a bit with what I’ve managed to find on Wikipedia which seems as good a source as any for this purpose:

Astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization (e.g., political, advertising, religious or public relations) to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants. It is a practice intended to give the statements or organizations credibility by withholding information about the source’s financial connection. The term astroturfing is derived from AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to resemble natural grass, as a play on the word “grassroots”. The implication behind the use of the term is that instead of a “true” or “natural” grassroots effort behind the activity in question, there is a “fake” or “artificial” appearance of support.

In political science, it is defined as the process of seeking electoral victory or legislative relief for grievances by helping political actors find and mobilize a sympathetic public, and is designed to create the image of public consensus where there is none. Astroturfing is the use of fake grassroots efforts that primarily focus on influencing public opinion and typically are funded by corporations and governmental entities to form opinions.

On the internet, astroturfers use software to mask their identity…

– Wikipedia

Now that’s a scary mask.

I once followed a religious leader in my community who preached from the pulpit that the rise in social tensions were part of a 70-year global cycle and that it could not be escaped. It’s not so much that I disagreed with naming the rising tensions clearly evident in our society; what I disagreed with was the subsequent assertions that a third world war was coming, the devil caused COVID, and that wearing masks was the equivalent of pagan protective dance rituals. 

This was from the same church that chastised me for making a general ask to the congregation for meals and childcare for a mom whose husband was in the final months of his cancer battle because there was a process I was supposed to go through by accessing their care committee. And where the church-going moms only rarely attended a moms support group held in their own building because it was widely attended by non-churched moms and didn’t have a Bible-based, evangelistic talk at every meeting. And criticized an ask to gather food and water for an inner city women’s support group because the organization wasn’t expressly “Christian” and would be receiving other assistance from the government.

I’ve long chosen to give the benefit of the doubt that the conspiracy theories are loosely based on fact and don’t matter because society’s trajectory is beyond my control. Saying “the devil causes ____” goes through my spiritual warfare rejection filter and comes out in my brain as “the universe has set in motion events that seem random, can increasingly be explained by science, but are still ultimately beyond my control”. Help is augmented by the organized efforts of the masses and plugging in appropriately through available channels accomplishes some amazing things.

But to me, the Freedom Convoy is astroturfing. And so are many aspects of the Evangelical church and greater organized religion come to think of it. I may be using that word wrong, but it’s new to me and I’m willing to make a mistake while I’m learning it. 

It seems I cannot denounce much of the “freedom” protests without appealing to us all to share a few observations (not facts, because I know that is a triggering word, oops, I said it):

  • organizers have changed their express political goal multiple times, while “grassroots” support maintains the goals range from lifting all public health restrictions and vaccination mandates to merely showing support for people who have been hurt by the pandemic and demonstrating that people are tired of restrictions (it’s genuinely complicated, which makes it… complicated)
  • organizers are publicly known for their separatist ties (which makes them literal agents of division)
  • funding for the Freedom Convoy or whatever their organizers want to use it for (see aforementioned complicated goals and literal separatist motivations) has come from an established (and astounding, to me) amount of anonymous sources (it is reported over half of the Give Send Go funds are coming from the U.S. and since when was it legal to allow foreign funds to influence Canadian politics, oh, it’s not)

Aside from the Freedom Convoy (and subsequent “freedom” protests) just being a bad idea that I cannot support, I must denounce it from Christian values as I understand them. I do not need to defend my position based on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or educate you on your right to protest, or give you context based on my skills as a writer, communicator and local journalist for a small town newspaper. I cannot throw down quips and memes and one-liners that can be weapons just as easily brandished by both sides of an issue.

If you do not hold tension with curiosity regarding life, love, God/dess, science, patriarchy, politics, systemic the discussion is over. I don’t debate. I don’t believe in a mindset of scarcity or that there is not enough love or resources to go around in this world. I don’t believe in a conflict between life and death. But I certainly know fear, anger, and their fruit when it is borne.

One Christian lesson I continue to contemplate is how I remember a mentor answering a student when they asked, “How will we know if it is from God?” They asked this regarding how to discern God/dess’s will and hearing God/dess’s voice in their life. The mentor responded, “You will know by the fruit. And the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

This, of course, is found in the Bible in Galatians 5. I despise proof-testing, so don’t skim to just read the two verses on the Fruits of the Spirit, but read the whole chapter. There’s lots in there about freedom. Heck, read all of Galatians, it’s one of my favourite books. Don’t stop there, read all of the Go Eat Pop Corn books. They’re swell. In fact (there’s that word again, #sorrynotsorry), the whole Bible is pretty good and then DON’T stop there. Actually allow the Holy Spirit to guide you in your non-literal interpretations and life application ‘cuz that’s kind of an important part of this whole Christianity thing and THAT’S a really hard thing to do well because then it gets… complicated… and harder to control people. (Exploration, not condemnation. Say it with me. Maybe I do need the reminder. I’m human.)

OK, so it’s complicated. I cannot see the future and maybe there is some benefit God/dess will yet provide in her infinite wisdom. 

So far, I see the Freedom Convoy bringing as much unity as fear and anger usually do. And upon, examination, the roots are bad. (I despise that word, but I’m using it consciously. The movement is morally, measurably bad.) If the roots are bad, the plant will rot. 

For me, I’d like to see a grassroots movement where asking for food and water for the homeless is upheld by Christians and the Freedom Convoy is not. Where our leaders rally to stand against systemic racism not against public health efforts that protect the immunocompromised. Where the efforts that give a hand up to the poor are indiscernible from the efforts that protect the more economically privileged.

Maybe that’s what we are seeing happening in society and as Evangelicals in this point in time/place/history. Things are changing. And some things do need to be mindfully chosen and cultivated above others.

Evangelicals, let’s talk about these roots of ours and how they’ve gotten us to where we are today. Mennonites, I would like to see us explore how to move forward and talk about how to not have emigration or protests be the only options for one to feel like they have a political voice. 

Let’s welcome change. It’s happening anyway. Let’s welcome a conversation about change and set the table where all voices are equally welcome to it. The ways our world is changing are way bigger than the protests, the convoy, or the pandemic, and on that we likely agree. In the meantime, let’s put some Christian voices behind the calling of getting the trucks out of where they are disrupting life. The point has been made and public awareness has been achieved and that’s really all that can be legally done for this group at this point. The rest is tyranny of minority.

We could all use a better understanding of how to express our pain before it gets to the point of trucking ourselves to Ottawa. I wonder, if we could name it more accurately, exploring life with love and curiosity, if we would find our pain is less. And find the energy to focus on lessening the suffering of others. Which is another thing I’d like to believe Christians can agree on.

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