Jack, Jesus and our Deepest Yearnings: Remembering Jack Layton

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.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

10 Responses to “Jack, Jesus and our Deepest Yearnings: Remembering Jack Layton”

  1. Jennifer Galicinski

    B. Walsh, this article has gotten me all choked up and weepy. I was waiting for you to post something about Jack, and this helped frame the man’s life in a very rich, honoring, and profound way. It inspires me to see Jesus in the least today.

    Thank you. Miss you and WBB!!

    Reply
  2. jt*

    Jesus was an unborn child in her mothers womb, so Jack…

    Reply
  3. Brian Walsh

    jt* totally fair comment.

    my hunch is that in fact the sheep and goats are a lot more complex.

    someone saw jesus when he was hungry and fed him, but never visited him in prison because … well, if you are in prison you likely did something wrong and are just getting your just punishment.

    you see the point. no one (and I mean ‘no one’) is ever totally consistent. including jack, of course.

    but here’s the way i think it worked with jack and abortion. jack support pro-choice policies but also advocated for the kind of safety net supports that might make it more possible for a single woman to bear her baby and raise that child.

    sadly, a politics of tax cuts and decreasing resources for social programs often goes hand in hand (especially amongst evangelical Christians) with a pro-life stance.

    Ron Sider once wrote a book called “Completely Pro-Life: Building a Consistent Stance” in which he linked pro-life issues across the board – from the unborn to the poor, to ecology, to military policy.

    that is a position that I would share. Sadly, Jack Layton did not share such a radically pro-life position. but as I weigh it out, I find that his position was more ‘pro-life’ in the broadest sense of the term than most so-called ‘pro-lifers.’

    thanks for raising this issue, jt*

    brian

    Reply
  4. jt*

    Yeah. Fair enough. It was a bit of a dumb comment anyways. Something about gushing over politicians and baptizing them as we see fit makes me nervous. Probably just my closet anarchist/Anabaptist tendencies.

    Look forward to seeing you back at Wycliffe.

    Reply
    • Brian Walsh

      I know, I know – don’t vote, it only encourages them. My own sentiments fall in the creative (at least I hope it is creative) synthesis of reformed and annabaptist/anarchist visions.

      Reply
  5. Andrew Chisholm

    I think this is one of the best reflections I have seen on Jack Layton. The media have been calling him a secular saint and I don’t think that is fair assesment of the man. Thank you Brian for helping me to further understand Jack and his many acts of faithfulness and worship. There are many of us who wear on faith on our sleeve who need to look at Jack and his legacy and wonder what we are doing for the common good and our neighbours.

    Reply
    • Brian Walsh

      Well, Andrew, I think that I actually heard someone refer to Jack in the last few days as a “Red Tory” – which you (and I) would consider a compliment.

      Reply
  6. Dan

    And when Jesus was a working man in Libya… Jack bombed him.

    And when Jesus was a transient woman in Afghanistan… Jack shot her at a check point (and agreed to continue to do so, at least until end of 2011… who knows, maybe longer).

    And when Jesus was a child killed during the anti-democratic coup in Haiti… Jack supported our imperialist military presence there (which, in turn, was supporting the anti-democratic local elites).

    And when Jesus was a senior citizen murdered in the middle of the night by IDF forces in occupied Palestine… Jack said it was at least half her fault for getting killed.

    That’s just on the international stage. Jack was increasingly less exciting here at home as well. The NDP became the Opposition by selling-out the Left, labour and the poor, both here and abroad, in a number of ways. Perhaps I should write an independent post about this…

    Also, the nationalistic/patriotic rhetoric at the beginning of this post is problematical for some of us seeking to not just remix but completely and creatively resist empire.

    Reply
  7. John Deacon

    Brian:
    Appreciate your article as well as the responses it generated!
    I think the contradictions Dan and jt note are contradictions those of us trying to live the way of Jesus would readily admit to.
    There is the way of the cross and the way of expediency political or otherwise which Jesus resisted throughout his whole life and we resist when provoked to…

    Reply
  8. Dan

    Here’s the catch: I don’t really think there are that many “contradictions” between Jack’s death-dealing affirmation of imperialism and the forms of charity or tolerance that he espoused. Empires have always sought to increase tolerance across traditional divides (precisely because empires extend across and engulf those divides), and they have always engaged in different forms of patronage and charity (mostly towards the “deserving” poor) both in order to strengthen the empire and in order to boost their own pious or moral status (imperial elites like to claim a monopoly not only on goods but also on goodness).

    Therefore, when one talks about Jack’s support for the white ribbon campaign or his advocacy for our legal system to move beyond hetero-normativity (at least in some ways), these things do not contradict his support for the bombing of Libya or the coup in Haiti. They fit together hand-in-glove. This is simply imperialism with a human face, to rearrange another well known expression.

    Unfortunately, unless we engage a more sustained form of analysis, we are bound to miss this sort of thing and will end up talking about the advocates of empire as though they were, somehow, akin to Jesus. If Brian were to dig a little deeper on all these issues, I’m sure he would be disappointed (let’s take one national example that is probably dear to him: the tar sands. People loved Layton because he said he wanted to end federal subsidies to oil companies working there… but the goal of this was not to end the tar sands project but to (a) invest that money in clean(er) energy initiatives and (b) ensure that work on the tar sand continued at a “more measured pace of development”).

    So, sure, Jack could say some pretty things and make people feel hopeful… but I’m pretty sure there was a presidential candidate south of the border who did that sort of thing lately — talking about “the audacity of hope” and other beautiful things — and we all know how that turned out. Maybe people are so desperate to find an ally amongst the powers that they will latch onto anyone with flowery rhetoric but, please, let’s not stop doing in-depth analysis.

    When the devil comes to you and looks like the devil, he is easy to resist. When the devil comes to you and looks like an angel, you’re in trouble. The same goes for the proponents of empire.

    Reply

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