Words and symbols matter in our society, whether they belong to ice cream products or the imposed values on a government form.
Though the connection doesn’t seem immediately clear, as Christians celebrate the joyous season of Easter, these two issues are intersecting in the public square.
Recent coverage of the federal government’s check box beside the Canada Summer Jobs attestation and the satirical names and symbols used by Sweet Jesus ice cream shops both serve as important reminders that words and symbols matter.
Across Canada, just a few days ago, hundreds of thousands of Christians attended church, commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus, while our Jewish friends observed Passover. Both traditions are filled with sacred texts, symbolism and prayer.
There has been a lengthy debate in the House of Commons and across the country regarding new government requirements for the Canada Summer Jobs program. As well as an obvious commitment to honour labour laws, charities applying for funding are now required to check a box to indicate their endorsement of additional values, described by many as a “values test.”
Meanwhile, a Toronto based ice-cream chain, Sweet Jesus, has developed a frosty rapport with many Christians who find the name and symbols of their business offensive. More than 10,000 people have signed a petition voicing their concern.
In Edmonton, Sweet Jesus is opening locations at Southgate Centre and West Edmonton Mall.
In November 2017, the Archbishop of Toronto, Cardinal Thomas Collins, wrote to the founders of Sweet Jesus. He asked for a meeting to learn more about the origin of the brand and to help explain to the corporate executives why some might take offense. Cardinal Collins never heard back.
In speaking with clarity and charity, Cardinal Collins’ regularly reminds us that the name of Jesus and sacred symbols of Christianity hold great meaning for the faithful. He would have told Sweet Jesus executives that the upside-down cross that has been used on many of their products is a reminder to Christians that St. Peter, one of the 12 apostles in Jesus’ inner circle and the first pope of the Catholic Church, was crucified upside down.
The Cardinal would have emphasized that calling their bottled water “Holy Water” has a sensitive meaning for the family members of a child who is baptized or for all those who bless themselves with holy water as they enter a church.
In his recent pastoral letter, “The Holy Name of Jesus,” Cardinal Collins wrote, “We ask our friends who do not share our faith to respect the name of Jesus, as we are equally committed not to treat disrespectfully what is sacred to others.”
Words and symbols matter greatly. When the government asks people to check a box affirming rights that aren’t enshrined in law, we should be concerned. For anyone who is deeply committed to a cause or a faith tradition, signing a bond, testament or attestation is not mere paperwork. For Christians, religious convictions still cost people their lives today in parts of the world where executions are not infrequent.
This is not just a Christian issue. Jewish and Muslim leaders have expressed deep concern that checking an additional box and committing to imposed values for summer job funding could start us down a slippery slope of governmental intimidation.
Our beliefs shape who we are as individuals and a society; they are infused in all that we do. We don’t switch on our faith inside a church and become secularized the moment we leave it – in fact, we are called to do the opposite, to walk the talk.
As we journey through the Easter season, Christians across the country remember a young man from Galilee who made the ultimate sacrifice for us all nearly 2,000 years ago; standing up for his values and dying for his words. It seems a simple way for us to follow his lead today by passing on ice cream tainted by insensitivity.
And, on Election Day, we should remember how important it is to check the box that best corresponds with our values.
Words and symbols matter. Always.
– Neil MacCarthy is the director of public relations and communications for the Archdiocese of Toronto.