September 30, 2022
September 30 in Canada is National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, also known as “Orange Shirt Day.” This is now the second annual observance of the day, after being proclaimed by the Federal Government in response to the finding of over 200 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Federal services are suspended for the day, and many federally regulated businesses such as banks are closed. A variety of events are happening across the country, including CBC Music broadcasting an entire day of music by Indigenous artists. Our parish church, Holy Trinity in Old Strathcona, is marking the day in Sunday’s liturgy.
It will naturally take some time for this day to become a fixture in people’s consciousness. Some might be impatient at this pace, but social changes take time. That’s a simple human reality. It is analogous to the impatience some have expressed about reconciliation, wanting to have it NOW. What they are not recognizing is that reconciliation is not something you can just “have,” but rather something that must be worked at. It’s a process, not an event. It is linked to Truth, without which it is impossible.
I have heard a great deal of anger expressed by Indigenous people, directed at the Government and its policies, the churches which ran the Residential Schools, and the people who took over their ancestral lands, whether by treaty or not. Much of that anger is well-justified, but my people (“settlers”, to use the current term) often react badly to it.
In pastoral work we learn a lot about the grief process, which in general terms is a response to loss. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross identified five things that she first called “stages”: denial, depression, anger, bargaining, and acceptance. Today we more often call them “aspects,” because we have learned that grief is not linear. Rather, different aspects of grief may manifest at any time after the loss.
I believe that indigenous anger is part of a long-term historical process of collective grief, stemming from the loss of land, a way of living, language, and culture. I am suggesting that a Biblical analogue to Indigenous grief may be found in the story of the Exile and the post-exilic period.
There are two main formative events in the history of the Jewish people: the Exodus and the Exile. The Exodus from Egypt, with all its drama, is still remembered by Jews as the event that made them a people with a land. It is celebrated at Passover to this day. The Exile to Babylon lacks a similar celebration, likely because it is difficult to celebrate a disaster. However, responses to disaster have a profound effect on a people’s self-understanding, which is certainly the case here. I note that the 20th-century Holocaust has had a similar re-shaping effect on modern Jewish life.
While large parts of the Hebrew Bible (aka the “Old Testament”) have their origin in pre-exilic times, most of what we have today came into its present form in the post-exilic period. The dominant questions raised by the Exile were “Why did this happen?” and “What can we do to prevent its recurrence?” Their land has been lost, their temple has been destroyed, their way of life has become impossible. Responses to these questions run the spectrum from near-universalism (see Isaiah 40-55) to law-based exclusivism (see Ezra and Leviticus).
The writings from the Exile period often exhibit aspects of grief, as the people come to grips with the reality of the events that have overtaken them. Our Sunday liturgy will include Psalm 137, which begins with “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept,” and ends with a howl of vengeful anger towards Babylon. In its nine verses it displays all the aspects of grief except acceptance. I invite you to pray through this Psalm slowly, reflecting on the grief it manifests, and on how it may help us on the truth-paved path of reconciliation.