Canada 150: Will protect our homes and our rights
Hespeler, 23 July, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Jeremiah 42:7-17, Luke 17:28-33, Psalm 37:1-15
s all Canadians know, our much-loved Canadian national anthem was first written in 1880 in the French language. The words were written by Adolphe-Basile Routier. It was only decades later that the anthem appeared in English with lyrics by Robert Stanley Weir.
Weir’s lyrics have since been changed and edited a number of times – most significantly when the anthem was officially adopted in 1980 and there is still talk of editing them to this very day. But, since they were first written – for 137 years now – the original French lyrics have never changed.
If you only speak English, you may have always assumed that the words in French said pretty much the same thing as the words in English – after all, both languages start with the words, “O Canada.” But, if you assumed that, you would be wrong. Robert Stanley Weir didn’t translate the anthem so much as he completely rewrote it. There are significant differences between the content of the French and the English anthems. For example, the French anthem is much more religious with references to Christian faith and even to the Christian cross. Th
e English anthem, for its part, contained no references to God at all until it was revised in 1980 to include the words, “God keep our land…”
The two versions also take a different angle on the singers’ relationship to the country of Canada. In English, as you may have noticed, the anthem focusses a lot on what we can do for our country – on how we owe it, for example “true patriot love.” Most important of all though, the anthem becomes a declaration and promise that we will “stand on guard” for Canada. That must be really important because we repeat it three times and it is the stirring climax of the whole song: “O Canada we stand on guard for thee!”
There is none of that in Routier’s original French text. There the focus is not on what we do for our country but rather on what our country does for us. This is especially clear in that same climaxing phrase which, in French, is, “Et ta valeur, de foi trempée, Protégera nos foyers et nos droits.” That translates as, “And your valour steeped in faith Will protect our homes and our rights.”
So you might say that in English, the singers stand on guard for the country while in French the country stands on guard for the singers. And, honestly, I don’t really think that one of those is better than the other. We actually need both approaches. I believe (with some apologies to John F. Kennedy) that healthy nationalism is always found in the balance between asking what you can do for your country and appreciating what your country does for you.
But there is one thing that particularly strikes me about that final line in the French anthem and that is how relevant it is today, 137 years after it was first written and 150 years after Confederation. The final promise is poignant: Canada will protect our homes and will protect our rights but I’m sure that even when those words were written there was a recognition that there could be a clash between those two things – a clash that has only become a bigger issue in modern times.
How many times have we been told, in the last few years, that in order to protect our homes and our way of life, we would have to give up rights and liberties? How many times has a commitment to protecting rights and freedoms – especially the right to a fair trial, the right to have representation, the right to not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment – been criticised as being soft on terrorism and as something that puts us all in danger. This has all come to a head in the last week or so as the Omar Khadr case and settlement has erupted again in the news.
It is often portrayed as a choice: we can have one or the other. We can have security or we can have rights but, because of the terrible dangers at work in the world today, we can no longer have both. In the case of Khadr, I guess the message is that we can either defend his rights or we can be safe but it can’t be both. It seems rather timely that our National Anthem can remind us, every time we hear it, that we have actually been promised that we can and should have both.
I don’t think that it should be a choice. Both of those things – both rights and security – are extremely important and valuable. We shouldn’t have to compromise either of them but there is one very good reason why we think we do. The reason is fear. When people are afraid, of course they are going to begin to believe that that the need for security far outweighs the need to protect rights. And when they are terrified, they will not even think sensibly about what actually makes them secure.
And terror is the deliberate strategy that has been deployed against us. No wonder our thinking gets out of whack! But most ironically, it seems that our craving for security might just be the things that undoes us. At least, that’s what Jeremiah would say and probably Jesus too.
The Prophet Jeremiah lived in very troubled times – times of great fear and terror. The people most to fear in Jeremiah’s day were the Babylonians – who came, interestingly enough, from the same places that the terrorists of ISIS have their centres of power today. Babylon was an empire that was dead set on conquering the world and could be remarkably cruel while doing so. Of course when the Babylonians set their sights on conquering Jerusalem, people were terrified.
I think that Jeremiah understood their fear but what he had a problem with was what they did in response. He told them to stay where they were and ride it out, promising that it would be rough and scary in the short term but that God would see them through and re-establish the nation. But they said, “No, we will go to the land of Egypt, where we shall not see war, or hear the sound of the trumpet, or be hungry for bread, and there we will stay.”
Now, of course, Egypt was an empire too, even if it was no longer as powerful as it had once been, and the Egyptians certainly had their own history of oppressing Israelites, so you have to wonder why people would have been so willing to run there. It was a case of “the devil you know.” The Egyptians were scary but at least they were a familiar kind of scary and so they seemed a lot better than the unknown terror of Babylon.
So Jeremiah’s complaint is that these people are using neither their reason nor their faith. They are mindlessly acting on their terror by running towards something that feels safer and Jeremiah gives them a stark warning: “If you are determined to enter Egypt and go to settle there, then the sword that you fear shall overtake you there, in the land of Egypt; and the famine that you dread shall follow close after you into Egypt; and there you shall die.”
Jeremiah was right when speaking about that particular situation. The people who did flee to Egypt met with disaster there. In fact, Jeremiah himself was taken to Egypt (in his case against his will) and he died there too. While those who stayed or went to Babylon certainly had a very rough time but at least had a chance at rebuilding in future generations. But I am not just concerned for the particular prophecy that Jeremiah gave here. I am concerned for the important lesson that he gave that transcended the particular circumstances he was speaking to.
It is a lesson that no one expressed better than Jesus himself when he said, “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” Both Jesus and Jeremiah recognized the importance of security, of course, but what they were both saying was that, when you allow your fear to overcome you to the point where security becomes the only thing that matters, you defeat your own purpose. You sacrifice everything that matters just in order to feel safe, and you don’t actually end up any safer.
There is a neurological reason why we do this by the way. There is one particular part of your brain, called the amygdala, that is in charge of powerful reactions like fear and anger. When you are truly terrified of something, this powerful part of your brain takes charge of everything. You were created this way so that you would be able to react quickly and save yourself from a truly dangerous situation.
But one thing that means is that when you are afraid, your brain does not prioritize the work of another part of your brain – the prefrontal cortex – that specializes in analysis and logical thinking. Your sophisticated, logical thinking machine is literally starved of the energy it needs to operate when you are afraid. Now that may be a very helpful thing when you are faced with an immediate danger – when you are being attacked by a sabre tooth tiger and all you can do is either fight back or run away – but it does mean that people will react in quite irrational ways when they are afraid of something that is not quite so immediate or when they are afraid of a more abstract idea like terrorism or foreigners that they have never met.
That does explain why the Israelites might run to Egypt because they were afraid of Babylon even though it was actually a much more dangerous thing to do than remain where they were and deal with the Babylonians. They were not thinking straight because they were so afraid.
But think of how it might also explain the actions of Canadians and Americans in the present international environment. We have been made to feel afraid. Some of that terror has been created very intentionally by those who are called terrorists because terror is really the only tool they have. They intentionally cause events to take place that will make us feel the most afraid – making the places that once felt safe feel unsafe.
But it is not only the terrorists who make us afraid. Sometimes our own leaders will go out of the way to stoke our fears or to direct our fear against particular groups who are different. They will usually do this as a way of gaining more power or something else for themselves because, believe me, they know very well what both Jesus and Jeremiah knew, that people don’t necessarily think through what they are giving away (and especially what rights and freedoms they are giving away) when they are afraid.
So, in short, fear and terror have this way of throwing off that delicate balance between protecting our homes and our rights. They make us much more inclined to sacrifice our rights and freedoms because all we can think of is our need for security.
And the worst part of that is what Jesus points out: “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” When you give up everything for security, you not only lose your rights and freedoms, it doesn’t even actually make you safer. It can even make you less safe. This is because a society where there are no freedoms and no rights is a society in which more and more people will give up on hope for the future. This easily becomes a society where lots of hopeless people start to resort to things like crime or violence. A world where people have given up their rights is a world that easily becomes more dangerous for everybody.
Now, I know that some of you might say that when Jesus said, “those who lose their life will keep it,” he wasn’t talking about holding on to physical life in this world but rather about gaining spiritual life in the next. And that may well be true, but what he was saying was true about spiritual life he was also saying was true about all forms of life as is clear when Jeremiah applies the same truth to the situation of those who were fleeing to Egypt in his day.
“O Canada… your valour steeped in faith Will protect our homes and our rights.” I am personally glad that those original words have remained unchanged for 137 years. I would be very concerned indeed if, at some point, we began only to celebrate how Canada protects our homes. I believe that with prayer for our country and with an understanding that we cannot allow fear to distort the way that we deal with our own rights and freedoms and the rights and freedoms of the most vulnerable among us, Canada can and will continue to protect both our homes and our rights for many years to come.