If you’ve been paying attention to recent Canadian provincial politics (who doesn’t, right?), you can’t help but be aware of Bill 18, Manitoba’s anti-bullying bill. Or perhaps you’re more familiar with Ontario’s Bill 13, which is largely the same. Both of these bills have provoked a lot of opposition, specifically from Christian conservative sources. I can’t claim to speak for these Christian conservatives (particularly since I don’t see this bill as problematic), but I’m also increasingly discovering that I can’t align with Christian liberals on this issue. This is an issue that carries a lot of baggage, and both “sides” of the debate seem eager to throw all of it at each other.
You can read the bill here: http://web2.gov.mb.ca/bills/40-2/b018e.php
The gist of the bill is that schools in Manitoba are required to have anti-bullying policies in place that must allow for students to start their own anti-bullying groups at school, including gay-straight alliances. Christian conservatives aren’t too keen on that last part, and they may have a point. Whether or not they’re able to make their point is another question entirely.
I first heard about this bill when a member of my church forwarded on an email newsletter originating at a large church in our area. This email perpetuated every possible stereotype of Christian conservatives as homophobic, xenophobic, angry, intolerant, and altogether un-Christ-like, just by example. It repeated lies and assumptions about homosexuality (inconsistently, mind you), argued that this was a slippery slope that would lead to school-mandated clubs for bestiality and paedophilia, and implied that this was the NDP’s plan all along (NDP being Canada’s major left-wing party, which is currently in power in Manitoba). The email was so full of misinformation, projection, and assumption that it took me a minute to realize that it was actually lacking the information that was most important: it had no reference or link to the actual bill itself, nor did it have any reference to what a gay-straight alliance actually was.
I was disgusted at the blatant manipulation in this email, which included a link to a website that this church had set up to facilitate sending emails to elected representatives in protest of this bill. The email also included notice of a meeting to be held at Steinbach Christian High School, last Sunday.
I went to this meeting with fear and trembling, expecting the worst. I could only get one of my friends to come with me, as most of my friends on the moderate-to-liberal side refused to even come, because they also expected the worst and saw it as a waste of time at best. They were concerned that they’d only be offended and enraged for nothing. As we arrived, my anticipation increased: the parking lots were full, and the streets were lined with cars for blocks in every direction. We parked in an industrial park several blocks away. When we arrived inside, we were told that there “may be a few seats left in the balcony.” We got the last two seats in the balcony of the chapel, which itself was overflow from the event that was actually taking place in the gym. People were spilling out into the hallways, with over 1200 present: that’s ten times more people than have ever showed up for any political event in Steinbach’s history. If this meeting is anything like that email, I thought, then it’s going to end in a riot.
My apprehension wasn’t anxiety; I wasn’t afraid at any point. These people were mostly Mennonites, and being pacifists, I figured it wouldn’t come to that. My apprehension wasn’t eased by the first speaker, however; he started by saying that our religious rights and freedoms are under attack, which is never a good sign. He went on to thank God for our heritage, as people (Mennonites) who came to North America to avoid religious persecution, and worked so hard to ensure that we’d have religious freedom, which was now under attack. Then we were urged to give a round of applause to the principal of the school, who had set up the meeting in opposition to the bill, as well as the Christian MLA, Kelvin Goertzen, who had also publicly opposed the bill on the basis of religious freedom. Then we were urged to give a round of applause to Jesus, our true Lord (implying that our government is not); he received a standing ovation. It was starting to look like this might be the start of a Mennonite uprising, which would certainly be a singular event in Canadian history!
Thankfully, my fears were allayed almost immediately. The next speaker, who I think was the principal of the school, reminded us that this was not a political gathering but rather an information session and prayer meeting. He read the relevant section of the bill, and outlined their concerns about it. Their concerns are, in short, that the bill would require schools to allow meetings of groups on their premises whose values might directly conflict with the values of those schools, and further that the definition of bullying in the bill is broad enough that it might lead to people being charged with bullying in instances of what was unintentional offence. That is, they’re concerned that if they teach that homosexuality is sinful, it might be construed as bullying under the law. Given the current wording of the bill, that’s a possibility, however unlikely.
People were then gently urged to take action, by writing letters to the relevant ministers and representatives. They were urged to do so prayerfully and calmly, to wait 24 hours to send any letter they wrote to give themselves time to calmly reflect on it, and even to get a friend to read it before sending it. They urged respectful dialogue. Then we prayed for half an hour in small groups, and many of the prayer requests (on a handout) were for wisdom. It was an excellent example of Christians taking action together, and the exact opposite of what I had feared (and what that email had led me to believe).
What I experienced at the meeting was nothing like I had been led to believe by either side of the issue. It was not rabid fundamentalists arguing for the right to hate gay people, as some have assumed it to be. Nor was it assumed by those at the meeting that the government had a secret agenda of making us all into gay pedophiles who have sex with animals in elementary school. Even if some people who attended the meeting harboured some of those suspicions (either way), they managed to overcome them long enough to pray together for wisdom and insight, and the best possible bill to protect our kids. Now, if only the rest of us could get over the baggage, stop trying to read between the lines so much, and take each other seriously as human beings long enough to talk it out.
We don’t seem capable of disagreeing with other human beings. We can only disagree with heathens or monsters. Therefore, if we disagree with someone on an issue like this, they must be less than human somehow. It’s somewhat ironic that we’re having this problem in a debate about bullying, which is fundamentally a dehumanizing act. It’s even more ironic that we’re having this issue between groups of Christians, as being a Christian is supposed to be fundamentally humanizing, and demands that we humanize others. So please, friends from the left, let’s humanize the fundamentalists; even if their fears are overblown or illegitimate, they’re still human beings just like us who want the best for their kids – even the gay ones. Only when we’ve recognized them as our sisters and brothers can we be in any position to have a real discussion about homosexuality. And friends from the right, let’s not vilify the government, the NDP, Nancy Allen, or anyone else Christ died for. They’re not perfect, certainly, but they’re doing their best, and would probably welcome constructive feedback.
I suppose this post isn’t explicitly theological, but it needed to be said. I know I needed to hear it as much as I needed to say it. Fellow Manitobans (and Ontarions), blessings as you work through these issues.