What Christians can make of this loaded term
PHOTO-ILLUSTRATION: JANICE VAN ECK
Our prime minister is "woke." That, at least, is the consensus of pundits at home and abroad. The Globe and Mail sees him in the vanguard of the Woke Generation while the Times of London pronounces him the Wizard of Woke.
Justin Trudeau does seem to be woke. He is manifestly, even assertively, alert to certain questions of injustice, especially regarding gender, sex and race. He also leads the way on particular issues of individual autonomy – from abortion to MAiD, and from legal use of marijuana to the state support of sex and gender transitions.
Trudeau’s apparently unshakeable confidence in the intuitive goodness of his values and policies can exasperate some. Others cringe at what can seem to be his heavy-handed performance of virtue – perhaps inescapable in politics, but unseemly nonetheless. Still, these traits are not essential to wokeness.
The term "woke" goes back decades to the question of whether Americans were willing to acknowledge the systemic patterns of racial discrimination evident well after the Civil War. Critical Race Theory is only the most recent attempt to wake people up to the injustices intrinsic to the interlocking legal, political, economic and cultural systems of the United States – and beyond.
Here in Canada we have Black/white problems of our own, of course. We also confront painful questions surrounding Indigenous people and settlers, citizens and newcomers, men and women, the 1 per cent and the rest of us, and more. To be aware of these problems and be willing to face them is to be legitimately woke.
Evangelical heritage is full of initiatives at the cutting edge of wokeness.
In that sense we are all woke now – or at least our mainstream media, party politicians, and even major corporations keep these issues in the forefront of Canadian public conversation.
I recall, however, Søren Kierkegaard’s call to his fellow 19th-century Danes to wake up out of their sleepwalking formal Christianity to begin a truly vital walk with God. I recall Blaise Pascal’s 17th-century musing that we middle-class types spend a lot of resources keeping ourselves in spiritual somnolence, gently insulated from disturbing questions of the meaning of life and what lies beyond the grave.
And I recall when the gospel was preached by George Whitefield in the American colonies of the 18th century, it touched off, yes, the Great Awakening. Is Canada fully woke/awakened by those measures?
We Canadians are more aware than ever of injustices to many, perhaps most, of our people not identified with the two so-called founding nations of French and English Christians – from First Nations to Chinese to Japanese to Jews to Muslims.
Canada has taken great strides to care better for the needs of disabled people, mentally ill people and poor people. We treat more fairly than we did our young people, old people and, yes, female people. All these developments, all this wokeness, warrants Christian support and celebration.
A fearsome narrowing of human aspirations to material comfort, economic security, ecological gentleness and moral license, however, is evident. Consider the change over the last generation or so in the student choice of majors at universities. Consider the party platforms and spending priorities of governments. These narrowed values bespeak an obtuse unawareness of both the deep spiritual pathology and the dazzling range of human potential as depicted in the Bible.
Evangelical Christians typically have helped wake up societies to injustice and need. Sunday schools, temperance movements, abolitionism, female suffrage, hospitals, adoption agencies – our heritage is full of initiatives at the cutting edge of wokeness. Let us be careful not to abandon that zeal for social reform just because others attempt it in ways we can’t fully endorse and, in some cases, might even have to resist.
Let us also, however, renew our zeal for telling the big story of the Bible, of the horrible stain of sin and the divine exertions necessary to remedy it, of the original potential of our world and the glorious hope of the world to come. Let us build churches that teach this bigger, better view of things, that demonstrate a bigger, better life, and that issue bigger, better invitations to our fellow Canadians to come join us – to become, indeed, fully awake.
John Stackhouse is professor of religious studies at Crandall University. Find more of these columns at FaithToday.ca/ChristAndCulture.