Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Canada’s Healthcare as Faithful Presence: A Nod to Tommy Douglas

Written by: on February 28, 2019

This week’s reading of James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World took some important twists before landing on it’s recommendations. He begins by easily identifying a common belief from both the American Christian left and the American Christian Right that Christians are called to change the world. He also traces multiple tactics towards shifting American culture towards reclaiming (?) Christian grounding as a primary strategy. Admittedly at this point I was bracing for a treatise on the value of American Christian imperialism. Fortunately a quick google search assured me that this was not in fact Hunter’s landing spot. However it did cause me to pause to wonder at how we safe guard sharing our faith from becoming an act of cultural imperialism. I was reminded of Erin Meyer’s admonition “When interacting with someone from another culture, try to watch more, listen more, and speak less.”[1] Learning to value another culture before sharing a Christian perspective would in fact allow us to recognise where God was already at work within it. It might also help us to recognise how to celebrate the value of those we are learning from. And so I continued to learn from Hunter as he moved through his recommendation of faithful presence as an alternative to baptised domination.

Hunter contends that “faithful presence in practice is the exercise of leadership in all spheres and all levels of life and activity. It represents a quality of commitment oriented to the faithfulness, wholeness, and well-being of all. It is, therefore, the opposite of elitism and the domination it implies.” [2] Such a vision leans into the image of the church as ‘salt and light’; going out into the culture, the world, with intentional presence. It is also a profoundly incarnational vision. Hunter is advocating for Christians to be active participants in community improvement. The benefits of this view can be traced through the history of Canada’s Universal health care.

Tommy Douglas began his career as a baptist pastor in a small town in Saskatchewan. During his preparatory study, he was highly influenced by the social gospel movement[3] . His faith motivated him to both take up concern for all people, and to preach from this perspective as he led worship. His commitment to offering leadership that would nurture the well-being of all led him to political life, where he first served in the Federal cabinet and then returned to Saskatchewan where he served as premier. It was from this influential position that he worked toward universal Medicare. While there was tension between the doctors and the provincial government at first, Douglas’s efforts were fully realised by the end of his final term in office[4] . Once the rest of the country witnessed the successful implementation of the system, the remaining provinces and territories followed suit. “The practice of faithful presence, then, generates relationships and institutions that are fundamentally covenantal in character, the ends of which are the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness—not just for Christians but for everyone.”[5] When are we more vulnerable than when we are need of medical attention? The primary sign Jesus offered of the Kingdom coming near was healing the sick, so Medicare is a logical imitation of the incarnational example of Christ. However, decades after Douglas’s greatest achievement, few would acknowledge their access to healthcare was connected to Christian influence. He also went on to serve as leader of the newly established New Democratic Party for a decade; a party that at its best, privileges communal interests, in particular the marginalised—often opposing the elite. (Whether they continue to be successful in this regard can be debated.) Douglas affirmed “We are all in this world together, and the only test of our character that matters is how we look after the least fortunate among us. How we look after each other, not how we look after ourselves. That’s all that really matters, I think.”[6] At it’s inception it was highly influenced by the social gospel, and yet now, few would connect it with Christian faith. And herein lies the risk of working towards transformation through faithful presence. Once the good is achieved, how many will recognise Christ as an influence on the provision?

If the church loses her critical role in the sustainability of shifts that result from faithful presence, making a difference will be short lived. “Formation into a vision of human flourishing requires an environment that embodies continuity, historical memory, rituals marking seasons of life, inter generational interdependence, and most important of all, common worship.”[7] Weekly worship attendance continues to decline in Canada, down to 20% in 2005[8] and presumably continuing on that trajectory. Even if we optimistically assume that those attending are all receiving that “vision of human flourishing”[9], this important site of cultivating faithful presence is necessary.

I agree with Hunter when he says “(t)he viability of Christian faith and the possibility of sharing that faith depend on a social environment in which faith—any faith—is plausible.”[10] It is a reasonable strategy to contend for religious freedom both out of a vision of including the marginalised, but also to protect Christian freedoms. It rejects baptised domination. But it comes with a risk. The risk of Hunter’s proposal is not whether faithful presence will effect change. Tommy Douglas is evidence that it will. Instead the risk is losing Christ as the author and source of visioning in the midst of focussing on communal improvement.


1. Erin Meyer, The Culture Map (New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2014), 22.
2. James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 260.
3. “Tommy Douglas,” Wikipedia, February 22, 2019 , accessed February 28, 2019, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tommy_Douglas.
4. “Tommy Douglas,” Wikipedia, February 22, 2019, , accessed February 28, 2019, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tommy_Douglas.
5. James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 263.

6.”Tommy Douglas Quote,” A-Z Quotes, , accessed February 28, 2019, https://www.azquotes.com/quote/819045.

7. Ibid., 283.
8. Colin Lindsay, “Canadians Attend Weekly Religious Services Less than 20 Years Ago,” Women and Paid Work, November 21, 2008, , accessed February 28, 2019, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-630-x/2008001/article/10650-eng.htm.
9. James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 283.
10. Ibid., 263.

About the Author

Jenn Burnett

Jenn is lead pastor at The Well church in Kelowna. She longs to see the body of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit and contending for unity across difference. She also loves rugby, the outdoors, the colour orange and the chaos that goes with raising 4 kids.

10 responses to “Canada’s Healthcare as Faithful Presence: A Nod to Tommy Douglas”

  1. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Thanks, Jenn. I appreciate your perspective and experience. I read a review that would affirm your concern and experience with healthcare. The author questioned whether Hunter’s theology was really that valuable in his “faithful presence” solution. She affirmed his summary of the need but said it could be done by any human who wants to make the world a better place.

    • Jenn Burnett says:

      It is such a tough one because I love to point out that one of our greatest national accomplishments was motivated by the faith of a Christian leader who longed to share God’s love extravagantly. I actually really affirm ‘faithful presence’ as a strategy, but given my experience of it, I’d want to add the continued necessity of verbal evangelism. As usual, any strategy in isolation is insufficient. If I’m feeling bold, I might boast that every person ever helped in our healthcare system received a miracle from God. A faithful Christian was God’s orchestrator for this.

  2. Hey Jenn, I’m in your neck of the woods right now and so it made me think of you.

    While a lot of my friends would push back on a form of evangelism that promotes “belonging before believing,” I think there is something there that we need to revisit. I’m no universalist, but our Western culture today invites discussions of this sort. But when we Christians separate ourselves from the public square we miss tremendous opportunities of sharing the Gospel message when we entertain our elitist attitudes.

    By the way, being here a couple days is making me aware and appreciate the state of the church in Canada. God have mercy on us all.

    • Jenn Burnett says:

      There is a lot to be said for ministering to your context isn’t there? If there is a high need for people to find a place to belong, then I think this is a useful strategy. If people exploit belonging because of some external benefit or selfish motivation then certainly it needs critique. Also, I’m so curious about your perspective of the church in Canada. We are a very different culture than the U.S., much more secular, but there are also some beautiful opportunities that go with it! So glad you were here! I hope we treated you well!

  3. Mary Mims says:

    Jenn, thank you for your thoughtful post. I hear what you are saying but I think about Romans 1:20, For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
    With the Scripture in mind, I do think God’s faithful presence is known in the world whether or not people connect what God has done in the world through His servants with God Himself. Maybe it is up to us to remind the world of the source of “every good and perfect gift”. We have to continue to proclaim the faithful presence of God’s love. Blessings!

    • Jenn Burnett says:

      Yes! I think you’ve caught my heart exactly Mary. As long as continue to connect the actions with Jesus name than it is a brilliant strategy!

  4. Sean Dean says:

    I understand your concern and I agree that the risk is real, but the thing that tempers it for me is the faithful in faithful presence. If faithful presence is imitating the incarnation then it relies on us keeping our eyes on the incarnate one. As humans we are destined to miss the mark on this some – or even most – of the time, but so long as we are endeavoring to imitate the incarnation by keeping our eyes on the incarnation we will in the end succeed.

    • Jenn Burnett says:

      I do love your emphasis on ‘faithful in faithful presence.’ I grew up in a denomination that had a season where I feel like they just assumed everyone knew the stories so the emphasis was on action (along the lines of faithful presence) but the result was the following generation not even being able to tell the stories of Jesus—or worse, determining they weren’t needed or relevant in order to be the church. I am so thankful for those who have picked up the faithful story-telling again, but the denomination remains quite divided on this front. All to say, I’m more flagging the risk of something I believe deeply in than rejecting it.

  5. Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Jenn –

    My favorite Jesus movie is the film “Jesus of Montreal” It is a Canadian film and is in French. I can’t recommend it enough. I feel like it also cinematically addresses your core questions in a much more culturally appropriate way than I ever could. It is a marvelous piece of art.

  6. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Jenn, Thanks so much for your provision of a unique Canadian perspective. Honestly, it is a marvel to me to think beyond faithful presence as I see so little of it in our US society. Your final statement, “Instead the risk is losing Christ as the author and source of visioning in the midst of focussing on communal improvement.” provokes me to consider how we measure the effects of faithful presence. I believe Jacob’s post spoke to this. Not to take the easy way out, I wonder if that is best left to God and his purposes? I feel pretty confident that believers and unbelievers alike within the US would marvel at the provision of healthcare for all. Perhaps God’s provision through the faithful presence of his church is best observed by the dominant culture rather than our own? I wonder. Thanks again for such a thought provoking post.

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