This is not just; this is not right.

The Moderator of the United Church of Canada has characterized a decision of the federal government to eliminate part-time chaplaincy positions in Canada’s prisons as, “ This is not just; this is not right.

The commentary by Jim Taylor (below) provides some very helpful contextual information.


By Jim Taylor

About a century ago, Henry Ford told customers wanting to buy his Model T, “You can have any colour you want so long as it is black.”
This month, federal public safety minister Vic Toews told the inmates of Canada’s prisons, “You can have any religion you want so long as it’s Christianity.”
In both cases, I paraphrase slightly. But in both cases, the intent is clear – my way, or no way.
Toews put an impartial spin on his announcement. The federal government, he said, “is not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status….”
Except that he did give one religion preferential status. His own.
Earlier this month, Toews terminated 49 part-time prison chaplains, of whom 18 are non-Christian. The prison system still has 71 full-time chaplains to provide religious services – rites, rituals, sacraments, counselling, and pastoral care – for the nation’s 35,000 prisoners.
This firing reduces the current $6.4 million chaplaincy budget by $1.3 million.
Some news reports claimed that all 71 remaining chaplains are Christian; others that they include one imam; still others that two are non-Christian, of unspecified faiths.

But only 57 per cent of Canada’s inmates identify themselves as Christian.
Granted, not all of the remaining 43 per cent will want to see a chaplain. But what happens to the Jew, Muslim, Baha’i, Sikh, Shinto, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Parsee, or First Nations prisoner who undergoes a crisis of conscience while incarcerated?
They, apparently, deserve only the services offered by 2,000 volunteer chaplains.
Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman wrote in the Calgary Herald about an acquaintance, the only Jew in an Alberta penitentiary: “In Toews’ world, this young man has been sentenced…to solitude and isolation in his own faith. He won’t be visited by a Jewish chaplain, nor will any other religious minority be visited by a chaplain of their own faith.”
Yes, this young Jew will be visited by the Christian chaplain. Yes, that Christian chaplain will offer every kind of support within his or her power. But, as Voss-Altman noted, “Christian theology — especially its teachings about sin and forgiveness — are vastly different from Jewish beliefs, and would ring false to a Jewish inmate.”
Chaplaincy training teaches chaplains not to impose their own beliefs on those they serve. But they cannot entirely eliminate their own beliefs. As moral philosopher George Santayana mused, long ago, “An attempt to speak without speaking any particular language is not more hopeless than the attempt to have a religion that shall be no religion in particular.”
Nor can inmates casually set aside their own expectations. Will a Roman Catholic willingly accept Mass, say, from a Protestant woman, whose very presence repudiates centuries of Catholic teaching?

John Stackhouse, editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail (not to be confused with John G. Stackhouse Jr., the evangelical academic and writer), asked Toews if “the chaplains’ own religious commitments are such that it poses no crisis of conscience for them to offer spiritual advice and religious teaching to anyone of any metaphysical and ethical convictions whatsoever, even those whose core values are contradictory in one or more respects to the core values of the chaplain?”
Can an evangelical Christian chaplain committed to Christ as Saviour truly enter the pantheistic space of a Wiccan, the polytheistic space of a Hindu?
All religions carry baggage with them. They have a narrative, a story, a theme.
So I can appreciate Buddhism’s teaching on ridding oneself of desires. I can support Baha’I’s egalitarianism. I can admire Jainism’s respect for every living creature. But I cannot simply abandon the Christian narrative I have lived a lifetime with, to sink myself into a radically different narrative.
I doubt if an inmate, raised in one of those “other religions,” would find it much easier to accept guidance from a chaplain whose understanding of the inmate’s roots is merely pasted on.

Toews’ policy contravenes the Canadian Bill Of Rights, enshrined in the Canadian Constitution. The Bill states, “It is hereby recognized and declared that in Canada there have existed and shall continue to exist without discrimination …freedom of religion….”
As long as you’re not in prison, that is.
Stackhouse cites the biblical Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would have them to do to you.”
He suggests, “Until the Mennonite Mr. Toews and the…evangelical Mr. Harper are ready themselves to receive spiritual counsel and religious teaching from, say, an imam or rabbi or shaman or guru, perhaps they might reconsider this policy.”
Stackhouse doesn’t soft-pedal his scorn. He calls the new policy “stupid, offensive, retrograde, and truly bizarre.”
I don’t question the integrity or compassion of those full-time prison chaplains. They won’t use their privileged access to pressure inmates to convert to Christianity – that’s not the Canadian way of doing things.
But if one’s religious roots are pink or green, should one be forced to accept nothing but black?
Copyright © 2012 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; all other rights reserved.
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The text of the Moderator’s letter to Minister Toews can be found at:

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