Dear Readers: Karen Hamilton has had a long career as a prominent Canadian religious leader, including 15 years as the General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches. Karen is a friend and author whose publisher told her that what was missing in Canada was a book on interfaith and social justice. Given her deep connections in the field, this was a perfect fit for Karen. Hence, in 2023, she published Faith as Protest: Answering the Call to Mend the World. The book is an edited collection of leading voices from diverse Canadian religious communities speaking on the largest issues of the day and how their community is responding. Below is an edited version of my interview with her. 



Q: Why did you want to write this book?

Because I think that these stories need to be told. I have a lot of interfaith experience and I knew almost all of these people and the work that they were doing, and it seemed crucially important to me. Of course, there are many, many more stories that could be told, and I hope will be told in the future. But I wanted to share what I call these “mending the world” stories that I felt needed to be known.


Q: How did you come to calling these accounts “mending the world” stories.

As we know, the world is a painful place with huge depths of pain and suffering, of death, starvation, war, and fear. So, for these stories, I picked ten of what I thought were the world’s most intractable problems. This was before the current Middle East crisis and before Russia invaded Ukraine. 

So it might seem that the book is discouraging to read when you say it that way, that they are ten of the world’s most intractable, painful, horrific problems. But there is also hope. When you read your way through the chapters, you find that the people working on these horrific situations – of human trafficking and refugees and racism and climate change and antisemitism and Islamophobia – these people that I interviewed are dealing on a daily basis with suffering. But there is a lot of hope that they share. 


Q: Can you say more about the role hope plays?

Yes, I asked them all two questions. First, “Do you see hope in terms of what you are working on?” And this was a big surprise. Every single one of them said yes. Every single one. I didn’t expect that. But their work carries forward the mending. And that’s not to say the problems are not hard or that they’re easily solvable. But you can see in what they’re doing and in the things they say that mending is happening. And they all felt quite hopeful. And I thought that was really important for people to hear.

The second key question I asked is, “What can an individual do?” These are huge global problems, and it’s very easy for us as individuals to feel overwhelmed. But every single one of the people that I interviewed for the book was also able to answer the question just like that (snaps fingers). And that is all included in the chapters. And so the book is one of hope in the face of suffering, one of compassion, but also one of inspiration. They offer things that we can do as individuals or as faith communities.


Q: Your book is not about October 7 and the ensuing war. But what have you seen in Canada about that event’s impact?

So many impacts. On a micro level, I teach a course for Jews, Christians, and Muslims out of East Jerusalem, which I’ve been doing for twelve years, and that didn’t happen this year because of the war. But in Canada, there’s such horrible pain. There’s such horrible fear. There is still deep, broad and wide uncertainty about what’s going to happen.

But people are starting to talk again. People are starting to listen to each other and acknowledge each other’s pain and build on relationships. Many rabbis and imams have had long relationships and those relationships are something we can hopefully build forward on.

But it will be years, I think, as we try to sort of figure that out and figure out how to go forward.

Toronto’s Muslims organized rings of peace around synagogues following the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, just as Toronto’s Jews had done around mosques after the killing of Muslims at a Quebec City mosque. These relationships have been strained by the events since October 7 but they offer a foundation that can hopefully foster a way forward. Photo Credit: National Council of Canadian Muslims


Q: For many in Canada, religion brings to mind negative events. Residential schools, the Catholic sex abuse scandals, the Christian Nationalism threatening American democracy, not to mention October 7 and that decades-long crisis. How would you respond to that?

Yeah, that’s a really good question. To start off, in all of the chapters, everybody is very real in the book about acknowledging the horrific things that have been done in the name of religion. For instance, the indigenous chapter is extremely clear about the residential schools, and the graves were being discovered as I was writing the chapter. The book is very real about those horrific realities. There’s no question about that.

As you’ve noted, religious literacy is weak in the West. It absolutely is, and one thing people in the West have to try to wrap their heads around is that, for most of the world, religion is incredibly important. Even asking about the role of religion in the public sphere is not a question that would be asked in many countries. I’m not saying whether that’s right or wrong. I’m simply saying that is the reality.

And when people come to this country as refugees or immigrants, they expect that they’re coming to a religious country, and it can be quite surprising for them that they’re not. 

And so, given that the vast majority of the world’s people are religious and that many in the West still are, I think it’s helpful for everybody to have a place at the table. 


Q: What might that look like?

For instance, if you’re talking about palliative care, having everyone at the table means including lawyers, all the medical people, and religious practitioners and representatives of all the faith traditions, many of whom play large roles in palliative care, because they’re all a part of a really important conversation. So you bring everybody together. 

Dr Geoff Cameron and I helped launch the Our Whole Society conference that now happens every second year which brings a lot of leaders together in conversation. When everybody speaks with each other and religion is part of that, politicians are part of that, academics are part of that, and medical people are part of that, that’s what makes for a rich and a full conversation and, moreover, an inclusive and well-functioning society.


If you would like to read Karen’s book, you can find it here

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