by Brian Walsh
This week we have witnessed a national outpouring of emotion the likes of which is unparalleled in my lifetime. Canadians from across the country have expressed their grief and sorrow, indeed, their deep sense of national loss, in the death of the Honourable Jack Layton.
For readers of Empire Remixed from around the world, you may not know who Jack Layton is. The brief story is that until shortly before his death, Jack (and everyone called him Jack) was the Leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) and as such, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. That is parliamentary language for the leader of the party with the second most seats in the House of Commons.
Jack led the NDP over three elections from a distant fourth place in the House with 13 seats to a remarkable victory in the last federal election of 103 seats and into the position of the official Opposition. And perhaps that is why there is something very poignant about this man’s death. He was moving politics in a different direction in this county, the first social democrat to come so close to the Prime Minister’s office. He was a very likeable man, incredibly down to earth and he was winning new seats for his party.
Or perhaps it was the fact that the whole nation watched Jack fight a federal election while undergoing treatment for prostate cancer and with a recent hip surgery. There is something compelling about a man with a cane running up the steps to yet another podium for yet another speech. And now, so soon after his success, he has succumbed to yet another cancer. Dead at the age of 61.
All of this is enough to occasion some widespread sympathy and grief across the country, whether you voted for the NDP or not.
But there is something more going on here. The right wing pundits don’t get it and are clearly disturbed and cynical in the face of all of the emotion and media attention. Some are suggesting that the whole thing is little more than mass hysteria and political theatre. These folks, and there are a lot of Evangelical Christians amongst them, can’t really understand why a social democrat who would raise taxes for the rich, advocate negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, push Canada to honour its Kyoto commitments, and support gay marriage and minority rights could occasion such a vast and overwhelming response by his death.
So why did thousands upon thousands of Canadians come out to sign books of condolence, fill the public square in front of Toronto City Hall with chalk messages, and stand in line for hours to pay their respects when he laid in state in the Parliament Building and in repose at City Hall? Why such an overwhelming show of emotion?
In his wonderful eulogy at Jack’s funeral, Stephen Lewis began to get at the source of this response. He said that Jack “tapped into a yearning, sometimes ephemeral, rarely articulated, a yearning that politics be conducted in a different way, and from that difference would emerge a better Canada.” This was a politics of civility, Lewis said, and of generosity.
A yearning for civility and generosity. We might say a yearning for neighbourliness. A yearning for the common good.
I think that begins to get at what is going on here. In the face of a politics of self-centred individualism which will destroy the social and ecological fabric of our nation, Jack stood for the common good. The common good – something fundamentally unimaginable to the neo-liberal economic agenda of our day. Generosity – of spirit and of resources – in a world fixated on scarcity and self- interest.
Yes, that is something of what is going on here. In Jack, and symbolically in his death, a yearning for the common good, for generosity, for justice was reawakened. It is almost as if it had been so buried, so covered over in our economic anxiety, our fixation with security, and fear, that we had forgotten, or repressed those yearnings. But there they are. Mixed with our tears as we see that coffin draped in the Canadian flag, as we say goodbye to a man who died at what Lewis called “the pinnacle of his political career.”
But, you know, I think there is something even deeper than this yearning going on. Or perhaps it is just another way to get at this yearning.
Jack’s pastor, Rev. Brent Hawkes, told the community gathered at the funeral that Jack never wore his spirituality on his sleeve. His was a deeply ecumenical and inclusive faith. But he never talked about it. In his last days, Jack said to Rev. Hawkes, “Brent, I believe how I live my life everyday is my act of worship.”
Everyday life as an act of worship.
Everyday life acting out of the belief that we should indeed love our neighbours as ourselves.
Everyday life – on the street, in the House of Commons, in the committee meeting, at the local market – loving his neighbour.
That is Jack Layton.
And maybe that is what reawakened such a deep yearning in the country. A yearning for the radically hospitable and generous way of life found in loving our neighbours. A yearning for the delightfully restorative power of justice in our lives. A yearning for that kind of everyday worship.
During the last federal election we ran a series of blogs here at Empire Remixed under the playful title, “Jesus for Prime Minister.”
Jack Layton is not Jesus. But I’m convinced that he knew Jesus quite well.
You see, Jesus was homeless and Jack found him shelter and advocated tirelessly for a just housing policy in this country.
Jesus was a woman who had been beaten by a man, so Jack bound up her wounds and helped found the White Ribbon Campaign of men committed to end male violence against women.
Jesus was a man dieing of AIDS in Toronto and Jack spoke out for that man and his community.
Jesus was a lesbian woman who couldn’t get an apartment with her partner because of discrimination against them, so Jack advocated for gay rights and gay marriage.
Jesus was a city choking on automobile congestion and confusion, so Jack rode to work and advocated for bike lanes.
Jesus was a single mom working at a minimum wage job and trying to balance whether to pay the rent or buy food for her kids, so Jack advocated for a living wage and deeper social support for the poor.
Jesus was a kid who had got in trouble with the law and found himself in jail, so Jack advocated for better social programs for kids like Jesus so they wouldn’t get in trouble and would find their way to be supportive members of the community.
I was hungry and you gave me food.
I was thirsty and you gave me drink.
I was a stranger and you took me in.
I was naked and you clothed me.
I was sick and you visited me.
I was in prison and you came to me.
When, Lord? When were you hungry and I gave you food, thirsty and I gave you drink?
I tell you, whenever you have done this to the least of my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me.
Jack Layton wasn’t Jesus, but somehow he recognized Jesus in the lives of the most vulnerable in our society.
And that, I think, is what we are most deeply longing for. To see in the face of our neighbours not only our own reflection looking back at us, so that we will do unto them as we would have them do unto us, but that we would recognize something sacred in these our neighbours, our brothers and sisters. To see in them the face of Jesus.
Jack probably didn’t know that all of these people were Jesus. That’s okay. Jesus knew.
Rev. Hawkes said to Jack what he was convinced Jack would hear from someone else, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
And I say, Amen. And thank you, Jack.