He shall have dominion from sea to sea

Canada Day         July 2, 2017            

Occasionally I can still astound my children with my advanced age, and the things I can remember. Just the other day, it was the fact that I still remember Dominion Day that my daughter found surprising and somehow quaint. It has been, apparently, 35 years since Dominion Day was renamed Canada Day.

What I did learn just this year was that “Dominion” as a designation for a sovereign nation is a uniquely Canadian invention. When John A. Macdonald proposed Confederation at the Charlottetown Conference, it was his dream to form the “Kingdom of Canada”. The British foreign office, however, found the name “premature and pretentious”; and there was the fear that it might further antagonize the Americans, who were not happy that Britain and Canada had supported the Confederacy in the recent Civil War.

It was Samuel Tilley of New Brunswick who proposed the name “Dominion of Canada”. He got the idea from the Bible; to be exact, from the psalm we just prayed, Psalm 72, verse 8: in the King James Version, “he shall have dominion from sea to sea”. And of course that same verse later provided Canada with the motto for its coat of arms, adopted in 1921: “A mari usque ad mare”, “from sea to sea”. So really, if there were such a thing as a national psalm, this would be Canada’s.

Psalm 72 describes the ideal king of Israel. The psalm was presumably used at coronations, one of a handful of royal psalms in the Bible. There is no point in asking which king it is about: it speaks of the ideal that every king is supposed to live up to, of the hope that comes with every new leader.

What were the hopes that Israel invested in each new leader? First of all, the psalm is about justice; that is the main duty of a king:

Give the king your justice, O God, *
and your righteousness to the king’s son;
That he may rule your people righteously *
and the poor with justice;
That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people, *
and the little hills bring righteousness.

Justice is the foundation of good rule, out of justice follow prosperity and peace:

In his time shall the righteous flourish; *there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.

What is also clear from this psalm is how the people of Israel understood justice: as a particular concern for the poor and the weak:

He shall defend the needy among the people; *he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.

There is a vision here of good government that goes back almost 3000 years. It was a remarkable moral achievement, inspired, in the midst of nations that measured their kings in terms of brute force. The contemporary Assyrians, for example, have left all manner of braggadocious texts from their kings, exulting in their power to crush their enemies and inflict all kinds of brutal punishments on them. There is a bit of that in this psalm (we didn’t read the whole thing), but on the whole, the tone is different. The concern for justice, peace, and prosperity for the common people, and the special concern for the poor and weak and marginalized, mark a particular Biblical vision of what good government looks like. It is a vision that has been historically important, and remains so to this day. I believe that our modern notions of democracy and justice and equality and humane governance are all rooted in the fact that our civilization has cherished the Bible has a sacred text, and so transported this vision through the centuries – often ignored in practice, it’s true, but handed down nonetheless.
Of course we no longer think of good governance in terms of kings. Kings were what the ancient Israelites had, and they are what our civilization had until relatively recently; so when they expressed their longings for good government, they spoke of a just king.

Today our understanding is democratic. We no longer look to a just king to solve our problems. Well, actually, I suppose we often do, we often fall victim to the idea that if we can just find the right leader, everything will be fine. Again and again we elect a shiny new leader, and again and again, after a year or so, the shine has worn off and we are reminded that a leader alone is not likely to solve all our problems.

In a democracy, we don’t have kings; the theory is that we all rule. That is to say, we elect leaders as our representatives, but the ultimate source of power is the people as a whole, and so we all share in the responsibility.

Democracy brings another illusion with it: the idea that democracy means the people’s will is always right. A moment’s reflection will remind us that this is not true: Hitler, after all, was democratically elected. It’s not whatever we the people want that is right. It’s the other way around: there are ideals of good government, and it is our responsibility as a people to live up to them. In our system of government, we can’t just blame the leader when things go wrong: we too bear a responsibility for the leaders we elect.

This winter we enjoyed several evenings of good TV watching the series The Crown. I don’t know if any of you have seen it; I would highly recommend it. It tells the story of the early years of our present queen’s reign, and gives the fascinating background details of the challenges she faced as such a very young woman. I was left with an even deeper respect for her accomplishments. What became clear was her strong sense of responsibility to the greater good: again and again she found herself in situations where she had to sacrifice her own inclinations, and that of her family, in order to to serve and protect the democratic institutions of her nation.

It is a high calling; but if a democracy is really going to work and flourish, these are attitudes we all need to embrace and cultivate. If democracy is to function, it is not just the queen, or the king, but the entire people who need to incorporate the ideals of Psalm 72: the commitment to justice, to peace, to care for the poor and weak and disadvantaged. We need to make these ideals our own.

It means learning to take responsibility for the welfare of all. It means not just looking after our own interests, when we go to the polls; and not falling for politicians who indulging our own worst instincts to feel good about ourselves by despising others. It means looking to the needs of others, impartially, and especially to the needs of the poor and disadvantaged.
These are my thoughts this weekend, as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of our country. Looking at our country, there is so much to be thankful for: for peace, for prosperity; for this beautiful landscape we have been given to love and care for; for standards of justice and fairness and opportunity. And at the same time, as we looks to the ideals of good government we cherish, we recognize that there is also much that needs more work, and old wounds that cry out for healing and reconciliation.

So let us simply make it our prayer and our pledge, that in the years to come we may continue to strive to live up to the vision of our founders, as expressed in Psalm 72.