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January 21, 2010

Kairos unfairly maligned by Jason Kenny

The Reverend Dr. David Pfrimmer

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British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, "It is easier to be critical than correct." One might say the same of the recent speech by the Immigration and Citizenship Minister Jason Kenny at the Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem Dec. 16.

Kenny rightly condemned the persistent scourge of anti-Semitism throughout the world and in Canada. However, he unfortunately included Kairos, a Canadian ecumenical social justice organization supported by many Canadian churches, in his list of anti-Semitic organizations. He wrongly accused Kairos of leading a boycott against Israel.

The false impression left by Kenny is that Kairos, and by implication the Canadian churches that support it, are anti-Semitic.

Kenny has said he did not accuse Kairos. However, that is regrettably how many in the churches understood it.

At best, Kenny’s wrongful accusation is misinformed, poor judgment. At its worst it is potentially very alarming.

Kairos has publicly stated its policy is one of no general sanctions and no boycotts. Sadly, Kenny’s accusation, as Bruce Gregersen from the United Church of Canada said, is “a horrible charge to make, and to do it with so little thought cheapens the reality of anti-Semitism in the world and diminishes the very careful attention that it deserves.”

Regardless of Kenny’s intention, the false accusation is deeply disrespectful of churches and church leaders both in Canada and internationally. Since the 1940s, and in the wake of the horrors of the Shoah (Holocaust), churches have been ardent advocates for human dignity — actively helping to develop human rights instruments, documenting human rights abuses and advocating polices that respect the rights of all.

Painfully aware of its own complicity, “Never Again” has been a moral imperative for churches as well as other organizations. It has formed the foundation of the work of the churches through organizations such as the Canadian and World Council of Churches and the many ecumenical coalitions that led to the creation of Kairos, the very organization the cabinet minister has criticized. Churches have consistently, if imperfectly, denounced anti-Semitism and racism and have intentionally worked to build bridges between cultures and faiths that are unique and highly respected in the world.

Kenny’s accusation sweeps all these efforts aside and unfairly labels churches and its leaders.

The Canadian International Development Agency has historically been committed to working with partner organizations to deliver aid because it makes CIDA more effective and more efficient. As recently as May this year, International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda outlined CIDA’s thematic priorities in three broad categories — increased food security, sustainable economic growth, and securing the future of children and youth. While Kairos’ complied with these priorities, changing CIDA priorities was the reason given in ending the federal government’s 35-year funding relationship with Kairos.

Canadians now need a wider public debate on these priorities. Canadians should rightly ask questions. Our government benefits from citizen investment in civil society, and it is not in the public interest to foreclose on these discussions by willfully or inadvertently discrediting some citizens, churches and civil society organizations whose views may be the most helpful.

Everyone makes mistakes. However, if it was the government’s intention to discredit and silence voices calling for greater respect for human rights, this is potentially a much larger issue.

Dissent, and the responsibility of churches and others to offer dissenting views, are crucial to the health of our democracy and the effectiveness of government. Attempts to silence dissenting views erode the very foundations of the freedoms that make democracy both possible and necessary.

Winston Churchill made this point: “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

Such an allegation against the churches needs to be redressed immediately. If this was not the government’s intention, it is incumbent on Kenny to offer a public apology to the churches, for the prime minister to meet with church leaders to explain his government’s position, and for the federal cabinet to reverse its “political” decision to unfairly cut funding to Kairos until the “priorities of CIDA” are changed through a democratic and transparent process.

However, if there is a pattern emerging with this Conservative government and it is indeed their intention to silence dissenting voices, then we should all be alarmed.

The Reverend Dr. David Pfrimmer is principal dean and professor of Christian ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary.

(The KW Record, January 8, 2010)

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