Remembering forward #KAIROS20

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KAIROS is turning twenty! To many of us of a certain vintage, the endless meetings, the multiple restructuring initiatives and options, the then-so-consequential ‘deal-breaker” issues that stirred such passion and angst, the phone calls and frenetic conversations to reach compromises and, yes, the ultimate success of creating KAIROS seem like they happened just yesterday.  The creation of KAIROS was an important and pivotal accomplishment for the ecumenical social justice movement in Canada. Not everyone was so sure then.

KAIROS stands within a much longer tradition with its roots in the ecumenical coalitions, the Canadian Council of Churches, social reform and social gospel movements, diaconal organizations as well as religious orders, and the Life and Work movement of the early 20th century.  Over the last twenty years, KAIROS has certainly distinguished itself and made an important contribution to the work of justice and preserving our planetary home. It is cause for celebration as well as some re-examination too.   

This reflection will focus on KAIROS ‘place within this longer Canadian history. In particular, I want to think about the successive public roles of the so-called historic mainline progressive churches that provided the genetic material KAIROS. I will also offer some possible directions for the future. 

Remembering forward 

2021 is not 2001. It is hard to witness the litany of crises in the news; pandemics and plagues; extreme heat and wildfires and earthquakes; droughts, flood, and famine; reckonings with race and residential schools; cancerous poverty and endemic inequality, conflict and violence, oppressive authoritarian leaders and illiberal populists, increasing domestic violence and family breakdown; an epidemic of religious scandals;  sexual abuse and violence, mental health and rising social anxiety all seem downright apocalyptic.  This pandemic cacophony of catastrophe is one of biblical proportions. As Dorothy might say, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”   

What might this all mean for KAIROS? Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”i  Anniversaries are an opportunity to reinterrogate our personal and institutional narratives. KAIROS might both remember its roots but also live into its’ post-pandemic future.   

The historic church institutions that have supported KAIROS are facing existential challenges; declining membership, diminished financial resources, a retreat from the public square, and a crisis of moral credibility. As it has done over these last twenty years, KAIROS will need to again reinvent itself for its organizational viability and moral credibility.   

Shifting gears with the “signs of the times” 

Reinvention and remembering forward are not new to Canadian churches or KAIROS. Churches had to be adept at “reading the signs of the times.”ii As the country changed over the years, one central question remained for many Canadians, Do I/we really belong here now? Churches had to continually ask themselves, what does a public faith contribute to addressing the Canada question of belonging?   

Canada’s question represents a “49th Paradox” to borrow from Richard Gwyn.iii On the one hand, Canadians are proud and grateful to call this beautiful, vast, bountiful, and yes, cold place, their home. It is still a destination of choice for immigrants and a dream for refugees. On the other hand, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi rightly points out we are a country of “Japanese internment camps”, “Africville”, “the Komagata Maru”, where “none-is-too-many”, of “provincial eugenics programs”, and one that “created and sustained residential schools”. iv  We are a country where you don’t need to scratch too deeply to find oppression and injustice.  

Addressing this 49th paradox requires an honest self-interrogation of who we are as a country with an eye to who we hope to become. Over the history of Canada, churches responded differently to the Canada Question during four different waves of our story. Vestiges of these responses remain embedded in our expectations for faith-based organizations in public life today.  As we enter a pandemic fifth wave, we need to ask how faith-based organizations like KAIROS, respond to the Canada Question of belonging. 

The first wave – arrival, contact and settlement (1535 to 1914) 

The first wave was an era of arrival, contact, settlement and partnership with Indigenous peoples.  It was a time of struggling with “who is who?” and developing some understanding of our collective identities. The Canada Question during this time was “Where do I/we belong here in Canada?”    

The churches’ response to the Canada Question for newcomers was “There is a place for you here in Canada”. Churches were instrumental in creating identity-forming political, economic, cultural, social, and educational institutions. Instead of one state church, a variety of churches became willing partners in the state’s colonial project of settlement and nation-building.   

Unfortunately, this response relied on the flawed presumptions of the “Doctrine of Discovery” that this was an empty place just waiting to be filled with civilized Europeans. As the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal People reminded Canadians, “The Americas were not, as Europeans told themselves when they arrived, terra nullius – empty land.”v Churches and others have since rejected this doctrine. 

How could this be our home (when it is) on native land? Resolving this dilemma hasn’t often been right or fair. Or was Canada actually what John Ralston Saul calls a “Metis Nation” being shaped by Indigenous ideas of fairness and inclusion?” vi During this time the public role of the church was to plant the seeds of multiple national identities.  

The second wave – industrialization and urbanization (1867/1914 to the 1960’s)  

The Second Wave began with the transition from a rural agricultural society to an urban industrialized society. The population grew through state-sponsored immigration. A national economy of sorts was emerging. Canada fought two world wars. Canada was ostensibly making progress by working together. 

The Canada Question became “What was needed for me/us to belong here in Canada?” Churches became a counterforce against industrialization and urbanization. A key question for churches was what was needed so Canadians could work together for a better life for everyone? This was a time of social reform to avoid leaving people behind in the rush of economic progress.   

Churches were social reformers, community organizers, social service providers, custodians of the national identities, and Imagineers with ideas to improve the quality of life. In English-speaking Canada, churches assisted the vulnerable and marginalized (e.g. immigrants, workers, people in poverty, etc.) to join the mainstream of Canadian society. In Quebec, the Catholic Church served as the guardian of the French language and culture until the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s.  

The paradox was that what you needed to belong to become “Canadian” didn’t always mean being who you originally were. Newcomers were assimilated into a largely British and later French conceptions of the Canadian identity. Established churches were complicit in this process while the role of smaller and ethnic churches was ambiguous. First Nations went from being partners based upon Treaties of friendship to having assimilation policies imposed on them with tragic and horrible effects. During this time “industrial schools” (later called residential schools) were established. 

During this second wave of industrialization and urbanization churches worked to help people displaced by the changes to get what they needed to find their place in this new Canada.  Churches tried to provide what people needed to work together with others so they would prosper and their lives improved. 

The third wave – liberation and globalization (1960’s to 2000)  

With the end of World War II, the emergence of the Cold War, and the political independence of former European colonies, Canada entered a Third Wave. There were growing optimism and euphoria with individual freedoms and national autonomy. Historian Desmond Morton described this as a “liberation generation” who believed “that history could be ignored or overturned.”vii  

However, liberation was accompanied by new forms of dependence and servitude imposed by economic globalization. The OPEC oil crisis accelerated a global debt crisis. Economic powers responded by imposing the ten policy commandments of the Washington Consensus on countries. Opposition was met with Margaret Thatcher’s mantra, “There is no alternative!” 

The Canada Question in this wave was “How do I/we belong here in Canada?” There was a widespread feeling that Canadians were different. It was about justice, not just us. This was a different kind of country that could make a difference in the world. U2’s lead singer Bono famously summed up this aspiration, “the world needs more Canada.”viii 

These were heady and expansive times for churches. Churches were concerned about the systemic causes of injustice, being a moral conscience and prophetic advocates for the powerless. The Ecumenical Coalitions convened and became an effective voice. By the millennium the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative (CEJI) mobilized 650,000 Canadians to petition for debt cancellation for the poorest countries. CEJI’s success led to the creation of KAIROS. 

During this third wave of liberation and globalization, churches were apostles of the good news of liberation and prophetic voices challenging liberalism and globalization. While churches may not have felt heard in the corridors of power, “You matter to us” was a hopeful message heard by the least, the lost, the last and the forgotten. 

The fourth wave – security and vulnerability (2001 and March 2020)   

A Fourth Wave began with terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. Rich countries were confronted with the uncomfortable dilemma of the security or vulnerability. The invulnerability of the most powerful military nation and its’ allies was dramatically called into question. Bush, the younger, predictably launched his contrived “War on Terror.” Canadian churches argued for an international criminal prosecution against the perpetrators. A church campaign with widespread support of their members kept Canada out of the undeclared war in Iraq but not out of the twenty-year Afghan disaster.   

In 2008 the second installment of insecurity and vulnerability arrived with the Great Recession in the rich economies and the Great Rebellion pretty much everywhere.ix Obama’s campaign slogan “Yes We Can” quickly became a “No we won’t”. Governments bailed out banks, large corporations and investment brokerages while banks and businesses left almost everyone else to sink or swim. The imperial globalization that had replaced earlier forms was now exposed. This “Emperor had no clothes”. 

In this fourth wave, the Canada Question was, “When do I/we belong here in Canada?” It has been said of belonging, “You belong until suddenly you don’t!” For example, in the wake of 9/11 many ordinary Canadian Muslims felt the sudden sting of fear and rising Islamophobia. This would have tragic and lethal consequences as racist extremism spread. This was the experience of many others too. 

The public role of churches in the fourth wave was changing yet again. Churches saw themselves as “allies” accompanying marginalized and vulnerable people and their communities. Accompaniment for these communities meant, “Nothing about us without us”.  

With disestablishment, churches lost their security and experienced a real vulnerability. Yet there was a freedom that came with disestablishment as theologian Douglas Hall observed,  

In Canada today a church freed from ethnic, economic, class, and other interests and identities could function as a forum for caring in the midst of a society in crisis… Such a church could be a companion in the night to a society which is afraid of the dark.x 

Shifting public roles in the pandemic wave era (2020 and beyond) 

As KAIROS turns twenty, it is no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed pretty much everything while seemingly changed nothing. Former Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin has described COVID-19 as the “great revealer,” exposing the “fault lines” in our institutions and social structures forcing us to recognize the injustices and inequities “previously … hidden by our complacency.”xi The neglect and death of the elderly, the murder of George Floyd and police violence, the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools, increased xenophobia and anti-Asian racism are just some of the fault lines exposed by this pandemic. 

The great pandemic paradox was summed up by the slogan – Stronger Together by Staying Apart. Our new virtual Zoom reality did not offer an adequate response to the pandemic Canada Question, “Why do I/We need to belong here in Canada?” We seem to be stuck longing for the stronger together while an equally virulent culture of narcissism and alienation is pushing us further and further apart. As one local politician said, “We may all be in the same storm but we’re not all in the same boat.”   

Peter Newman described a Canadian revolution in the 1980s where “the nation’s defining institutions first lost their credibility, their authourity, and finally their followers.”xii Canadians lost “common cause” with their institutions. Polarization is an acute symptom in this exodus of trust and support. The recent discovery of unmarked and unrecorded graves of children at Indigenous residential schools and the seeming avoidance of responsibility by the Canadian Catholic hierarchy has not just increased indifference but intensified public anger and outrage at churches. The scandals of abuse, misconduct and even criminal behaviour have destroyed the moral credibility of churches and religious organizations.  

Canadians see a much-diminished public role for churches or faith today. Pew Research found that “roughly two-thirds of Canadians adults (64%) believed religion has a less important role in their country than it did 20 years ago” and “there is no consensus” whether or not this is good or bad.xiii On the other hand, sociologist Reg Bibby points out that, “God is not faring all that badly in the polls.… 60 percent of Canadians continue to believe in God.” xiv Canadians are not hostile to faith. They are just not that interested in what is on offer from the historic institutional churches.xv As the late Anglican Archbishop Lewis Garnsworthy once famously quipped, “It is not that people are leaving the church, they’re just not coming.”xvi 

Shachi Kurl of the Angus Reid Institute raises another pointed question. Given the very visible public presence of the religious right these days, “where is the religious left?” Kurl’s polls reveal that those “….on the right are also almost three times as likely to say that their faith is very important (my emphasis added) to the way that society’s problems need to be dealt with…” and are “…more likely to be willing to engage their faith with their politics.” xvii In addition, she found there are two “different universes” concerning what issues are important for those on the religious right compared to those on the religious left. These conservative issues often define how faith groups are perceived by the wider public. She also found that progressive religious people are increasingly more willing to leave the actual pursuit of the common good to governments.   

This is the conundrum facing progressive faith groups today. At a time when there is increasing commitment to address issues of the common good (e.g., climate crisis, gender justice, Indigenous reconciliation, racism, economic inequality, housing, food security, militarization etc.), progressive people in sufficient numbers both in the wider public and in churches themselves, are not looking to churches and religious institutions to take the lead.   

At the same time, the pandemic has raised a crisis of meaning for many people today. Especially for faith-based organizations like KAIROS, it won’t be enough to just know what the issues are and what to do about them. What will be essential is to know why they are meaningful for our understanding of who we are, why we belong and, why we want to become better! 

Remembering forward for the next twenty years 

When the Jews returned after the Babylonian exile, they met disappointment and a desolate Jerusalem. With the monarchy gone what was needed was to unite the people, rebuild, and renew the covenant. Classical prophecy came to an end and there was a turn toward wisdom. The faithful may be finding themselves in another post-exilic moment now. We too will need the wisdom to mitigate this dis-ease of divisive polarization and to try to put all our relationships back together. Wisdom is needed for this task that Judaism describes as Tikkun Olam or the mending or repair of the world.  

I am hopeful there will be a remnant of progressive people of faith from various traditions willing to adopt this public role of repairing our world. Vestiges of the previous roles discussed earlier will always bubble up here and there. However, they may never be as prominent as they once were.   

Confronted by the loss of authourity, the loss of institutional trust, the loss of moral credibility, and the rise in populist polarization, faith groups will need to place a priority on public-making. This will involve convening, renewing and sustaining multifaith publics of moral deliberation and purpose. In short public-making. A public is a voluntary association of individuals, what Parker Palmer describes as “a company of strangers,” who convene around an idea, purpose or action that in the process changes them and leads to social change.xviii This public-making aims to build trust, social confidence, and common cause for meaning filled “change we can believe in” to borrow a line from former President Obama.  

Those of us who have been involved in KAIROS, the former coalitions, and other ecumenical or multifaith movements know how profound this life-changing experience of belonging to this kind of public can be. Faith groups know something about creating and sustaining progressive publics. For example, Ten Days for World Development and Ploughshares created a network of local groups (their publics) across the country. KAIROS’s Blanket Exercise has created hundreds of publics around the world. No doubt we all have other examples.  

Public-making doesn’t just happen nor is it intuitive. We can’t just say, “Oh Yes, we know how to do that!” It involves re-tooling and re-learning community organizing methods and skills. We will need people who have taken courses and programs to hone these important skills. I have recommended (unfortunately without much success) that clergy be required to complete community-organizing programs. Public-making is an ongoing task that will require the regular updating of our skills and interest. 

Public-making and public ethical deliberation can lead to practical wisdom. This holds a more positive possibility for what James Surowiecki describes as “The Wisdom of Crowds.”xix Such a company of strangers gathers around issues that matter to them. This is a unique company of moral deliberation and public purpose that engages other publics in articulating and shaping the common good. With more modesty and humility, faith groups will need to convene publics that can earn the trust and support and affirm a hopeful worldview for those who are fearful and suspicious of religion. 

Public-making will require faith groups to enlist a wider audience. When churches once requested a meeting with then Prime Minister John Turner, he asked his staff, “Is this the same old bunch?” Public-making means we can’t be “the same old bunch.” In reaching out to a wider audience, we need to speak invitationally in a language that ordinary people can hear and embrace. 

In 2001 KAIROS began another chapter for the faithful to address the Canada Question of belonging. Remembering Forward KAIROS and faith-based organizations can provide a public space not only for the justice quest but for people’s religious quest to discover what these issues mean for who we are and the purpose of our life together. To paraphrase Douglas Hall, KAIROS might well become a truly wise companion in the night to a public confused, anxious, afraid, and traumatized by the world’s darkness.  

David Pfrimmer represented the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) on the Canadian Council of Churches’ Commission for Justice and Peace, the ecumenical coalitions and was a member of the first KAIROS Board.  He is currently Professor Emeritus for Public Ethics at Luther College on the campus of Wilfrid Laurier University. 


i Søren Kierkegaard, Journalen JJ:167 (1843), Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter, Søren Kierkegaard Research Center, Copenhagen, 1997–, volume 18, page 306. Thanks to Karsten Kynde, Søren Kierkegaard Forskningscenteret, for the Danish text of the quotation and directions to its location in print. This is an English translation of the long quote. The Danish short form is due to Julia Watkin.  

ii In speaking of social analysis many refer to Jesus’ admonition from Matthew 16:1ff.  “The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus[a] they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ 3 And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.[b]4 An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”  

iii Richard J. Gwyn, The 49th Paradox: Canada in North America (Toronto, Ont: McClelland and Stewart, 1985). 

iv C. B. C. News ·, “Doing the Right Thing | CBC Radio,” CBC, September 29, 2015,

v People to People, Nation to Nation, Highlights from the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, (Government of Canada Minister of Supply and Services, 1996)p.p.6-7. 

vi John Ralston Saul, A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2008).

vii Desmond Morton, A Short History of Canada (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1983) p.252. 

viii C. B. C. News ·, “‘The World Needs More Canada,’ Bono Tells Conference Aimed at Fighting World’s Infectious Diseases | CBC News,” CBC, September 17, 2016,

ix Juan Siliezar Harvard Staff Writer, “Joseph Henrich Explores WEIRD Societies,” Harvard Gazette (blog), September 16, 2020,  See also “The Great Rebellion,” New Internationalist, March 1, 2011,

x Douglas John Hall, The Canada Crisis, A Christian Perspective (The Anglican Book Centre, Toronto, 1980) p.114.  

xi “COVID-19 the ‘Great Revealer’ of Injustice: Former Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice,” accessed August 31, 2021,

xii Peter C. Newman, The Canadian Revolution, 1985-1995: From Deference to Defiance (Toronto; New York: Viking, 1995) p.69. 

xiii Michael Lipka, “5 Facts about Religion in Canada,” Pew Research Center (blog), accessed August 21, 2021,

xiv Reginald Bibby, “God Is Till Doing Reasonable Well,” University of Lethbridge Release, December 22, 2020,

xv “Religion Isn’t Dying. It May Be Rising from the Grave.,” Macleans.Ca (blog), March 26, 2015,

xvi Bishop Lewis Garnsworthy was Bishop of Toronto and Archbishop of the Anglican Province of Ontario. Controversial for his twist of a phrase, he made these remarks in the 1980s when churches were beginning to experience a decline in membership.   

xvii Shachi Kurl’s presentation “Religion and Activism: Where Are We Headed? And Where Are We Now?” at a conference hosted by the Vancouver School of Theology. (Unpublished Zoom Transcript, Religion and Thoughtful Activism May 25-27,2021, Vancouver School of Theology, May 25, 2021). 

xviii Parker J Palmer, The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America’s Public Life (New York: Crossroad Publ., 2006). 

xix James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds, Reprint edition (New York, NY: Anchor, 2005). 

Filed in: #KAIROS20 Anniversary


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