Religious Pluralism in the Context of the 21st Century Global Diaspora

A Case of Canadian Pluralistic Communities and the Evangelical Response

Migration or diaspora, the movement of people from one region to another, has at least four major off-shoots. These are: urbanization, multi-culturalism, “hybridity,” and in places where cultural diversity is embraced – religious pluralism. This is true in my own country, Canada, and of our diverse nation. In this paper, I will focus on religious pluralism vis-à-vis migration and multi-culturalism, and will suggest to you that diverse diaspora communities, and the religious pluralism that they bring, has made Canada a fertile mission field, necessitating a thoughtful and pragmatic response from the Canadian Church, particularly from the Evangelical Canadians. Religious pluralism is not a new phenomenon. Like human migration, it is an age-old reality of human experience. As such it should not be feared, but embraced as an opportunity to engage in society, inviting people “from everywhere” to a relationship with Jesus Christ.
This paper is delimited to the Canadian context where I have lived for the past 40 years. Moreover, this paper is divided into four parts: (1) “Diversity is Canada’s strength”: official multiculturalism – a description of the Canadian government’s multiculturalism policies; (2) Immigration and Historico-Religious Landscape – a brief description of the historico-religious landscape among immigrant and migrant communities; and (3) The Lord Jesus Christ in the Pluralistic Diaspora Communities in Canada – the response or reaction of the Canadian Evangelical church; and (4) Conclusion. Also included is a section on “Questions for reflections and further research.”

“DIVERSITY IS CANADA’S STRENGTH”: OFFICIAL MULTICULTURALISM
“Diversity is Canada’s strength” is the mantra of current prime minister, Justin Trudeau’s media machine. From school social studies lessons to doughnut commercials on television, the motto is celebrated from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Though the current government has thrust “diversity” centre stage, this motto is a deeply Canadian value. Canadian children are taught that Canadian commitment to diversity goes back to when indigenous nations networked across the North American continent, is evident in the initial trade partnerships between the host First Nations and the migrant French and English settlers. Perhaps there is truth in all of this, but the type of cultural diversity Canada is known for in the twenty-first century is the one that started with a new immigration act legislated by the Canadian government in 1967, Canada’s centennial year.

In 1967, Canada became the first country in the world to assign “points” to people based on criteria including language fluency in English or French, levels of education, and work experience. The introduction of a new discrimination-free-points-base system for immigration into Canada ended preference for white immigrants from the British Isles, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. This new immigration policy welcomed qualified people from all over the world to become “New Canadians.” Prior to this, migrants from outside Protestant Western Europe, were discriminated against, and were seen only as solutions to labour shortages.

Shortly after, in 1971, Canada became the first country in the world to formalize multiculturalism as an official policy in the Canadian Multiculturalism Policy. In it, the government committed to “support and encourage the various cultures and ethnic groups that give structure and vitality to our society. They will be encouraged to share their cultural expression and values with other Canadians and so contribute to a richer life for us all” (House of Commons, October 8, 1971, 8545).

The implementation of official multiculturalism developed as immigrants arrived. The 1988 Canadian Multiculturalism Act, committed to “promote the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society.” The government formally recognized:

The diversity of Canadians as regards to race, national or ethnic origin, colour and religion as a fundamental characteristic of Canadian society and is committed to a policy of multiculturalism designed to preserve and enhance the multicultural heritage of Canadians while working to achieve the equality of all Canadians in the economic, social, cultural and political life of Canada.

Laurence Brosseau and Michael Dewing of the Legal and Social Affairs Division, and Parliamentary Information and Research Service of Canada’s Library of Parliament (2009, 1) defines “multiculturalism” for Canada:

As a sociological fact, multiculturalism refers to the presence of people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Ideologically, multiculturalism consists of a relatively coherent set of ideas and ideals pertaining to the celebration of Canada’s cultural diversity. At the policy level, multiculturalism refers to the management of diversity through formal initiatives in the federal, provincial, territorial and municipal domains.

By formalizing multiculturalism, Canada has paved the way for diversity of race, ethnicity, and unavoidable pluralism of ideology.

IMMIGRATION AND HISTORICO-RELIGIOUS LANDSCAPE
The most recent Canada Census figures (Statistics Canada, 2016b) came close at 21.9 per cent of Canadians reporting of being or having been an immigrant or permanent resident. The census report compared statistics from 1971 and 2016. In 1971, 5 per cent of the population originated in Asia, 50 per cent from Europe, and 30 per cent from the British Isles. In contrast, in 2016, 48 per cent of the population originated in Asia, with 21 per cent from Europe, and 7 per cent from the British Isles. It is important to note the top source countries for immigration to Canada in 2016. These are Philippines (15.6 per cent), India (12.1 per cent), and China (10.6). New predictions from Statistics Canada estimate immigrants could represent up to 30 per cent of all Canadians by 2036.

The four offshoots of migration and diaspora are evident in Canadian cities, in particular the Greater Toronto Area, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, as they grow and are greatly enhanced by the New Canadians. In my own province of Alberta demographics are rapidly shifting. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “Alberta has surpassed British Columbia as a destination for recent immigrants…. Over the past two years, Alberta lost more than 30,000 residents to interprovincial migration. During that same time, it gained more than 75,000 people from international migration…” (Grenier, 2017)

The major tenet of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act in 1988 is “equality in diversity”; it encourages Canadians to social integration and assimilation, but without force or pressure from the government. Therefore, all Canadians, old and new, who came from East or West, Global South or Global North, arriving in Canadian territory at different times, are equal before the law. Canada’s commitment to pluralism was visibly demonstrated in 2006 when the Centre for Pluralism was established in Ottawa, the nation’s capital. Consequently, Canada, is now hailed, by some as, “the most successful pluralist society” in the world (Globe and Mail, 2010).

These statistics are not mere numbers but representations of the changing face of Canadian demographics and religious alignment.

THE LORD JESUS CHRIST IN THE PLURALISTIC DIASPORA COMMUNITIES IN CANADA
In 2005, Jack Jedwab of the Association for Canadian Studies wrote in his paper “Canada’s Demo-Religious Revolution: 2017 will bring considerable change to the profile of the Mosaic”:

Once considered a predominantly Christian country, Canada is in for a dramatic shift in the religious composition of its population when it reaches its 150th birthday. Statistics Canada forecasts major changes to the religious landscape of the country by 2017.

Based on 2001-2017 projections issued by Statistics Canada, Jedwab writes that non-Christian groups will be concentrated in Canada’s largest cities.

In the greater Toronto area, approximately one out of six residents will be either Muslim or Hindu and the two groups combined will pass the one million mark. In the nation’s capital, much like in Montreal the Muslim population will be greater than all other religious groups combined as it will near the 100 000 mark. Calgary will see growth in all non-Christian groups while in Vancouver, the Sikh population will remain the largest non-Christian group.

These changes in demographics are reflected in Canada’s institutions. Notably, in 2010, Calgary, Alberta became the first larger North American city to elect a Muslim mayor, Naheed Nenshi. Born in Toronto, Ontario, and educated at University of Calgary and Harvard University, Nenshi is a second-generation Canadian – the son of immigrants from Tanzania. In 2017 he was re-elected to a third term.
The Pew Research Centre (2013) reports on “Canada’s Changing Religious Landscape” based on findings from the 2011 Census.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Canada’s foreign-born population was smaller, largely European and overwhelmingly Christian. In recent years, however, rising numbers of immigrants – nearly half of Canada’s immigrant population – have come from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In the U.S., by comparison, three-in-ten of all foreign-born residents have come from these three regions.

Adding perspective, it observes that New Canadians are generally more religiously observant.

…Immigrants do not appear to have contributed to Canada’s decline in self-reported attendance at religious services. On the contrary, religious attendance is higher among immigrants than among the general public, and it has been fairly stable: 43% of immigrants report in 2011 that they attend religious services at least once a month, the same share as in 1998. By contrast, 22% of native-born Canadians in 2011 say they attend religious services at least once a month, down from 31% in 1998.

In 2011, of the 32 million people surveyed, 22,102,745 identified as Christian (including major denominations – Catholic, Christian Orthodox, Anglican, Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and “Other Christian”), 1,053,945 as Muslim, 497,965 as Hindu, 454,965 as Sikh, 366,830 as Buddhist, 329,495 as Jewish, 64,935 as practitioners of “Traditional (Aboriginal) Spirituality, and 130,835 as practitioners of “Other religions.” (Statistics Canada, 2016a)

The question on religion was not included in the 2016 Census of Population and the National Household Survey. This question has only been asked every 10 years, since 1871.
Religious pluralism is an ancient reality. Before the Hebrews entered the promise land, God warned in Exodus 20:2-5:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

You shall have no other gods before Me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

Biblical history shows that the Hebrews were not faithful to their Redeemer-God following their deliverance from the land of slavery. They transgressed His commandment many times. Centuries later, the Psalmist declared:

I will praise You with my whole heart, before the gods I will sing praises to You… all the Kings of the earth shall praise You, O Lord, when they hear the words of Your mouth, yes they will sing the ways of the Lord for great is the glory of the Lord. (Psalm 138: 1-5)

These scriptures reveal the syncretistic worship among the Hebrews and the existence of pluralistic milieus in their geographical context. Indeed, many times, the nation Israel was chastised and severely punished by God for their unfaithfulness to him. Their punishment was banishment from their country and scattering of their nation. God used the Assyrians, Babylonians, and the Romans to force them to live as exiles. Amidst these challenges, brokenness, dislocations, harsh judgment, and pluralistic environments, the Psalmist declared his worship of the Living God. No other religious forces can change his allegiance to the Living God. But for the psalmist, it was not enough to personally worship God; he expressed his missional responsibilities to proclaim “the words of the living God” so that the kings and their kingdoms will also sing the “ways of the Lord.” This is the eschatological hope of the Psalmist; a hope that has been fulfilled in Christ!

We read in John 14: 6, The Lord Jesus Christ’s claim: “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” His claim clearly galvanized the demarcation line between Christianity and other religions.
In 2004, missiologist Ralph Winter wrote:

[Diaspora] may well be the most important undigested reality in mission thinking today. We simply have not caught up with the fact that most of the world’s people can no longer be defined geographically.

William Lacy Swing, Director General of the International Organization for Migration, had similar words on 19 September 2016:

We live in a world on the move – there have never been so many people in movement. Then, unprecedented human mobility: one billion of our seven billion world are migrants; one in every seven of us is a migrant. Were the 244 million international migrants to constitute themselves as a country, they would have a population slightly smaller than Indonesia’s and slightly larger than Brazil’s. They would have a gross domestic product roughly that of a small to medium size European country and far exceed all foreign aid.

Primary driving forces of migration are: “demography; disasters; the digital revolution; distance-shrinking technology; north-south disparities; and environmental degradation” (Swing, 2016). At a simplistic level, migration can be viewed as a result of both involuntary factors (including regional instability and conflicts, etc.) and voluntary causes (e.g. educational and career advancement, long-term tourism, job deployments, family reunification, etc.). However, in actuality, these are directly related to the primary forces and global processes previously listed.

From a biblical perspective, Acts 17:26-28 provides us with a redemptive context for migration:

And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; ‘for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.

Luis Pantoja, Jr., a Filipino diaspora theologian writes:

The fact is that God created nations (Genesis 25:23; Psalm 86:9-10) and languages/cultures (Genesis 11:1, 6, 7, 9), and determined the place (space) and the timing (time) of our habitation. The passage in Acts 17:26-29 implies that He not only “uses” the “diasporas;” but designs, conducts, and employs such “diasporas” for His own glory, the edification of His people, and the salvation of the lost. Every dispersed person and people group has a place and a role to play in God’s redemptive history (LDLT, 2010, p.12).

On December 22, 2017, The Globe and Mail, a leading national newspaper, published the article “Immigrants providing a boost to declining church attendance in Canada” written by Xiao Xu in Vancouver.

The Washington-based Pew Research Center found the percentage of Canadians who identify as Catholics dropped to 39 per cent from 47 per cent between 1971 and 2011, while the share that identified as Protestant fell even more sharply, to 27 per cent from 41 per cent.
According to statistics collected and analyzed by Reginald Bibby, a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge and a prominent researcher of spirituality, about half of the immigrants who came to Canada between 2005 to 2010 were either Catholic or Protestant. Churches with large Asian congregations in particular are growing.

The article further explores and reports of New Canadian conversions to Christianity. Rev. Rich Kao of Five Stone Church outside of Vancouver is quoted: “Canadians are inoculated; they think they know about Christianity … whereas you have people from Asia who have no exposure, and it’s so fresh and so new.” Migrant people are coming to Christ in diaspora churches. The growing influence of the new immigrants brings hope for the Canadian Church revitalization.

I am convinced that human migration serves the missional purpose of God. Christian Canadians, while enjoying freedom of diversity and the benefits that accompany official multiculturalism, must remember the challenge to declare the truth, the gospel of Jesus Christ in Canada’s “walled” pluralistic society that embraces all religious beliefs including Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, and even Voodoo.

CONCLUSION
Religious pluralism is pervasive. What is happening in Canada is also true in other countries and other regions of the globe. The Global Church of Jesus Christ must embrace this reality and take up her missional role in our borderless. In this context we take seriously the declaration of the Psalmist: “declare his glory among the nations” (Psalm 96).

Several years ago, while living in Toronto, I was a frequent diner in my neighbourhood Vietnamese restaurant. Inside the restaurant I noticed a golden Buddha statue, red dragon, a green banner with a mosque and moon crescent, and the Virgin Marry statue displayed on a prominent shelf. One day, I asked the owner if he was Buddhist. He said, “yes, but since opening this restaurant a lot of my customers are South American Roman Catholics, Pakistani Muslims, Thai and Chinese Buddhists. So I please everyone, but I remain Buddhist!” The owner of this restaurant opened my eyes to the pluralistic Canadian context.

Here are four realities from his simple statement:

  1. He remains Buddhist, but he welcomes his diverse customers.
  2. He offers his customers a space of identity in a multicultural mega city. His restaurant is a place to belong.
  3. He uses the religious motifs and symbols for his customers to engage with other worldviews, beliefs and culture.
  4. He attempts religious dialogue among his customers.

Across this restaurant were three historic church buildings: Baptist, United, and Anglican. These buildings were half-empty on Sunday mornings. My observation of these local congregations was that they were not missional in their local context. They were operated more like community monuments because they were not active in welcoming members of their changing community – the migrants. Their doors were locked throughout the week – the buildings unused, unlike the Vietnamese restaurant. The leaders, were available to their parishes, but did not engage in the community beyond the church buildings. Perhaps they were not intercultural competent and had not discipled their congregations to engage their diaspora neighbours.

The Church of Jesus Christ in Canada and around the globe must be disciples who live like their Master – trained in intercultural competence to engage people with different faiths and worldviews. Our buildings must be open for interfaith dialogue – a space where people come to learn more about Christianity. Our people must embrace God-appointed diversity.
In London, during his 2015 address at Canada House, Prime minister Justin Trudeau declared: “our diversity isn’t a challenge to overcome or a difficulty to tolerate. Rather, it’s a tremendous source of strength.” For the Church, local diversity and the plurality it brings is also a tremendous opportunity to reflect the heart of Jesus, and to be his face, hands, and feet, inviting people into relationship with him in what has always been a pluralistic world.

Questions for reflections and further research
Pluralism is not an enemy of the church, but a door to be opened for authentic dialogue. It is a pathway for Christians to engage non-Christian adherents. However, followers of Jesus Christ must also know how to share their faith (evangelism) and how to defend their faith (apologetics). It seems that many Christians have departed from Church dogma; their moorings have loosened because they were not taught the doctrines (e.g. Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed) of the Church. We can confidently engage in a pluralist society, if we know what and why we believe our faith.

  1. How can the academy help local congregations understand their pluralistic context?
  2. How can the academy best prepare students to engage the increasingly interfaith communities? Are the curricula helping develop missional leaders among the diasporas?
  3. How can church leaders effectively disciple their parishioners to become effective witnesses to the diasporas?

REFERENCES
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Canada. Library of Parliament. Legal and Social Affairs Division and Parliamentary Information and Research Service. 2009. Background Paper on Canadian Multiculturalism. Prepared by Laurence Brosseau and Michael Dewing. September 15, 2009, revised January 3, 2018. https://bdp.parl.ca/content/lop/ResearchPublications/2009-20-e.pdf
Canada. Citizenship and Immigration Canada. 2012. “Canadian Multiculturalism: An Inclusive Citizenship.” Last modified: October 19, 2012. https://web.archive.org/web/20140312210113/http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/multiculturalism/citizenship.asp .
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Canada. Statistics Canada. 2016b. “150 years of immigration in Canada.” Last modified May 17, 2018. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-630-x/11-630-x2016006-eng.htm .
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https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/the-aga-khans-world-view/article4321039/
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Lo, Elsie, Mark Chapman, and Robert Cousins. 2017. “Listening to the diaspora church.” Faith Today, May/June 2017. http://digital.faithtoday.ca/faithtoday/20170506?pg=45#pg45 .
Peritz, Ingrid. 2010. “Haitian diaspora spreading the gospel of voodoo.” The Globe and Mail (Montreal), September 27, 2010. Updated May 1, 2018. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/haitian-diaspora-spreading-the-gospel-of-voodoo/article4327066/ .
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Swing, William Lacy. 2015. “Migration Is Not a Problem to Be Solved; It’s a Reality to Be Managed.” United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe, May 12, 2015. Accessed May 20, 2018. www.unric.org/en/latest-un-buzz/29774-migration-is-not-a-problem-to-be-solved-its-a-reality-to-be-managed .
______. 2016. “IOM Director General’s Speech at the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants.” Accessed June 20, 2018. https://weblog.iom.int/iom-director-general-william-lacy-swings-speech-un-summit-refugees-and-migrants%C2%A0and-signing-iom-un .
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Winter, Ralph and Bruce Koch. 2014. “Finishing the Task: The Unreached Peoples Challenge.” In Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader. Kindle Edition, 4th ed. Eds. Ralph Winter and Steve Hawthorne. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Xu, Xiao. 2017. “Immigrants providing a boost to declining church attendance in Canada.” The Globe and Mail (Vancouver), December 22, 2017.https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/immigrants-providing-a-boost-to-declining-church-attendance-in-canada/article37423409/ .
important Christian ministry, the task of “making disciples among all nations” will be carried out more forcefully and effectively.


Sadiri Joy Tira is chair of the Global Diaspora Network and senior associate for diasporas with Lausanne.