Book review: Is protest a form of prayer? Vancouver activist/pastor weighs in

For Vancouver United Church minister Barry Morris, faith and activism are intimately entwined and mutually reinforcing

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A Faithful Public-Prophetic Witness:

Dynamics, Challenges and Ambiguities of Success in Urban & Community Ministries

By Barry K. Morris, Wipf & Stock Publishers (Eugene, Ore., 2020)

$20 | 175pp


Is religion the “opiate of the masses,” or can religious faith and commitment lead to transformative social change, addressing and healing the wounds of inequality, colonialism, sexism and racism?

Secular humanists and cynics like this reviewer tend toward skepticism on this question, pointing out how often the world’s great faiths have been harnessed to rationalize, justify and extend oppressive regimes of power. On the other hand, anyone who has been active in the great struggles for justice, peace and environmental sanity of our generation will have noticed that people of faith often play a key role in such struggles.

The relationship between religious faith and social change is far more complex than we cynics like to imagine. Just consider the religiously inspired activism of Mahatma Gandhi in the struggle against British colonialism, the Catholic Worker’s Dorothy Day and her life of work on peace and justice issues as well as the civil rights and anti-poverty leadership of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Cynics must also recognize the key role that religiously inspired figures have played in promoting justice around the world, from Canada’s J.S. Woodsworth and his role in creating the CCF, to the Buddhist monks who died to protest the war in Vietnam to the liberation theology advocates who played such a key role in justice struggles in 20th-century Latin America. Anyone who, like this reviewer, had the pleasure of knowing the radical Franciscan nun Sister Elizabeth Kelliher during the years she spent on Vancouver’s meanest streets will recognize that faith and effective activism can sometimes co-exist.

For Vancouver United Church minister Barry Morris, faith and activism are intimately entwined and mutually reinforcing. Morris spells out this view in his recently released A Faithful Public-Prophetic Witness, which takes a detailed look at three Canadian examples of the kind of faith-based fight for justice he has spent his life pursuing. (Full disclosure: Like most social justice activists in Vancouver, I have known and respected Morris for years.)

Morris examines the work of faith-based activists in Toronto, Victoria and Vancouver, viewing them through the lenses of his extensive readings in theology and his own experiences as an urban minister in Vancouver and Toronto. This study, admittedly not a masterpiece of prose style, is nonetheless an Important contribution to our public debates. It will be of particular interest to people of all faiths and to social justice activists. Recommended.

Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at tos65@telus.net

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