Like many people, I spent a lot of time this fall thinking about democracy. Saskatchewan held provincial elections this October, and the news was full of the ways in which it was unprecedented. The slow trickle of results as mail-in ballots were counted foreshadowed the much more dramatic American election that followed. In November Canadian Jesuits International (CJI), along with 5 Jesuit-affiliated Colleges and Universities, co-hosted a webinar entitled “Resisting a democracy recession.” Father Xavier Jeyaraj SJ, the Secretary for Social Justice and Ecology for the Society of Jesus, outlined the ways in which the free and fair exercise of democracy has been in decline in recent years, with special attention to the situation in India, his native country.
In responding to Father Jeyaraj’s talk, Dr Christopher Adams of St Paul’s College in Winnipeg raised a question that I have been turning over in my mind ever since: what are the stories we tell about democracy? Dr Adams highlighted the fact that we are not born ready to participate fully in democratic society: we learn these things through our formal education, our experiences, and through the stories we are told.
I can still remember one of the very first stories I heard about democracy. I was just five years old, and my mother, a stay-at-home parent and a highly engaged citizen, was tucking me into bed and explaining that the reason she had been absent earlier that evening was that she had gone out to vote. She patiently explained (at a kindergarten level) what it meant to cast a ballot for the person you wanted to lead. Her explanation struck my little mind the same way as that the moon went around the earth: an incomprehensible, but incontrovertible, fact of life. To my surprise, the following morning the radio news was talking about this same work my mother had been doing, and there was a new leader of our little corner of the world. Roy Romanow had been elected Premier, and I was pleased. I thought his name sounded a bit like “rainbow,” and at the time, that was good enough for me.
The stories I was told got more complex and nuanced, of course, as I got older. I became aware that the democratic process, like all institutions, is not a force of nature but a tradition that continues to exist only because we practice and protect it. As I came of age and started to vote myself, the story I began to hear a lot of was about my generation and its failure to adequately participate in democracy. My fellow millenials responded to this story in various ways – some became all the more engaged and involved, as if to rebel against the trend or to make up for the rest of our cohort; others seemed to become frustrated in the face of a system that seemed irreparably dysfunctional. It was striking, then, to hear Father Jeyaraj talk about the erosion of democracy as a trend that has been ongoing since the 1980’s. Perhaps I can look differently upon my generation’s reticence to engage with politics, if I view it in light of the story that the democratic vision of freedom has been in decline for our entire lifetime.
This leaves me, then, with the question of what stories I hope to tell the people I am in a position to influence. Here again, Father Jeyaraj offered some insight. To me and to other educators in a Jesuit context, he issued a call to use the tools of Ignatian education to form young people to be discerning leaders. This work, he argued, takes place not just in the context of formal education, but also in the practical work of supporting and leading popular movements. “Movements build leaders,” he said, clearly speaking from experience. If we can empower good leaders at the local level, they can eventually become the leaders we want at higher levels.
The other call that came through this webinar was one that recognized that work for justice is not only local, but global. As members of an international community, we must be able to rely on one another to be vigilant on one another’s behalf and speak up on behalf of democracy where it is challenged. This call, to be alert and sensitive to what is happening in the world, is apropos as we move into the season of Advent and hear the call of Christ from the Gospel of Matthew: Stay awake!
A recording of the webinar, A JUST FUTURE FOR ALL: Resisting a democracy recession, can be viewed here: https://www.canadianjesuitsinternational.ca/a-just-future-for-all-resisting-a-democracy-recession/