Several churches across Canada, mostly Roman Catholic, have been the target in recent days of acts of vandalism and arson. While no one has been identified as responsible for any of these acts, quite a few people, including the Premier of Alberta, have labelled them as hate crimes. That may be true, but it is also true that if it is hate behind what has happened, it is very specifically targeted.
Hate crimes have been much at the fore in Edmonton for the last year or so, with several deliberate attacks on visibly Muslim women, all wearing hijab, and several of them Black. Our Muslim community is understandably nervous these days. I have no difficulty calling these attacks hate crimes, even when our police force is reluctant to do so — no credit to them!
The attacks on Roman Catholic churches are of a different nature, because they are targeted not at individuals but at an institution. Some of these churches were close to derelict, but at least one, St. Jean Baptiste Church in Morinville, had ongoing vital ties to their communities. The Morinville church had strong ties to the local Métis and First Nations people, some of whom have decried what happened. We don’t yet know for certain that the fire was caused by arson, but many people have assumed that it was.
Was this a hate crime? I don’t know for certain. What I do know is that if it was arson, it was almost certainly an act of anger. And I get that. The Roman Catholic Church, operating under various “Catholic entities”, ran about seventy per cent of the Residential “Schools” in Canada. The recent discoveries of unmarked graves on former school properties has laid bare some of the awful history of how children were treated in these institutions. It has raised public awareness of the Roman Catholic Church’s way of dealing with our indigenous brothers and sisters. It has brought to the fore that church’s failure to meet its obligations under the Residential Schools settlement negotiated by the Federal Government.
I have felt anger after hearing these stories again over the past several weeks. But I am a settler –literally. I was born in England, and came to Canada as a child. I started to feel this anger over the past almost 30 years, as the history of the schools, previously unknown to me and to many, became more and more clear. The whole story makes me weep, and it makes me angry.
It’s one thing for a settler boy like me to feel anger. It’s totally another thing for our indigenous brothers and sisters to feel anger. The school stories are the stories of their mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles. It is THEIR STORY, and I have total empathy for their anger and sorrow, which dwarfs anything I might feel.
I understand that anger. And I understand how someone’s anger might lead them to deface a public monument, or to torch a beautiful century-old church. I might wish they did not feel that anger, but that’s not my call. What I do wish is that their anger might be expressed constructively, not destructively.
I have found myself in the past in situations where I had cause for anger. In one notable instance, some friends suggested that I repay the indignities I had suffered in kind. Others suggested that I go away for a while. The second suggestion seemed to me that it would imply that I could not deal with what had happened. The first suggestion seemed to me to be asking me to stoop to the level of the attacks against me.
I chose neither. Rather, I chose to move ahead, finding a way to continue in the face of some serious opposition, showing them that they could neither scare me nor force me to retaliate. I turned my anger to positive purposes, and the result (after some time, admittedly) was a stronger and more positive relationship among almost all who were involved.
That’s my story in a nutshell. It’s not anyone else’s story, and it’s certainly not the story of our indigenous brothers and sisters. But what I learned in that episode in my life is that anger is best dealt with not by repaying in kind or by running away, but by holding up one’s head and acting in the most positive manner possible.
When Jesus talked about turning the other cheek in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, he was not saying we should lie down and let someone kick us all over again. Offering the other cheek tells our attacker that they cannot treat us as less than human, that we are as worthy as they of respect. It is an assertion of equality.
For me, this is the best way to deal with anger: not to repay in kind, bringing ourselves down to the level of our attackers; not to run away, effectively surrendering our power to them; but to stand before them, declaring in all things, “I am human. I deserve your respect. And I will not stoop to disrespecting you,”
It’s a tall order. I understnad the visceral nature of the anger that probably led to the recent acts against churches and public monuments. Nonetheless, I remain committed to finding a way forward that is committed to non-violence. The violence of the past can not be undone, but neither does it have to be repeated.
I believe that reconciliation must include the mutual recognition of each other’s humanity, it must include the clear repentance of some parties for past wrongs, and it absolutely must include the desire to move forward together, helping each other.
My settler brothers and sisters — and I! — have much to learn. We can only learn if we allow others to teach us.