What do you do with anger?

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.

I love my country

It’s Canada Day, July 1, when we commemorate the British North America Act, which brought Canada into being as a country. Often in the past it’s been a day to wave flags, set off fireworks, and just generally celebrate. The last few years have given it a different flavour (see my Canada Day post from 2017), and this year more than ever. We have been hearing of the finding of unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential institutions (let’s not call them”schools”) set up to de-indigenize our indigenous peoples. Children died at those places, and weren’t considered important enough for the authorities to send their bodies back to their families. Many of the deaths do not seem to have been properly recorded, and the graves were never registered.

Some have been calling for Canada Day celebrations to be cancelled, and some places have done that. I have some sympathy for that move, except that it takes away the opportunity to use the day for some collective reflection on one of the most shameful aspects of Canadian history.

I love my country. I have always seen it as a land of great opportunity, a land with the space to make many people welcome, a land of huge promise. However, much of that promise has been deliberately withheld from some people. The most obvious is the case of the indigenous people, but Canada has also abused the rights and freedoms of other groups, notably Japanese Canadians during WWII. There was also systematic discrimination against people of various ethnicity seeking to immigrate here.

When I say I love my country, it is not with the “My country right or wrong” kind of sentiment I recall from some U.S. voices during the Vietnam war. That’s not real love, but a kind of wilful blindness to what the country could be. Canada is in many ways a good country, populated for the most part by good people, but that does not mean everything about it is good. To truly love a country, just like truly loving another person, means for me to be ready to work to make things better when they need to be better. To love my country means to have the courage to call for and work for the righting of wrongs wherever they may be. If I love my country, I have to accept that it can break my heart.

It’s love with the eyes fully open, the brain fully engaged, and the heartfelt conviction that we can always do better.

Canada, I love you, but it’s time to do better, acknowledging and dealing with past wrongs, and seeking to build a country where all may enjoy the blessings of freedom and peace.

Respect, part 1

respectIn the Spirit which draws us into honest engagement with one another, including those who may be very different from us in various ways, God calls us to wake up and learn how to love and respect one another, period.

 I. Carter Heyward

I spent two days listening at the Alberta National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It was hard. I heard a number stories much like those I had heard from various people I encountered in Brandon, but the cumulative effect of the hearings was overpowering. It’s taken me almost two weeks to begin to process what I heard there, along with reactions from the media and a number of people I have spoken to personally.

One word sticks in my mind from the TRC: “respect.” I heard it used many times in a variety of ways by people speaking to the Commission. It is clear to me that the Residential Schools were born out of a lack of respect for our aboriginal peoples, and also that those peoples continue to struggle in our society with a continuing lack of respect. It is also clear to me that many of the survivors have struggled throughout their lives to regain some measure of self-respect. Perhaps the most moving stories for me were accounts of how individuals won that victory.

As I listened to the speakers, the thought kept going through my head that “Children learn what they live.” (That’s the title of a 1972  poem by Dorothy Law Nolte. Read it here.) Regardless of how well-intentioned some of the people working in it may have been (as I have heard some argue), the residential school system as a whole taught its students that their way of life, their languages, their very beings, were substandard, even evil. Churches participated in it out of a belief that they were doing the Lord’s work. By the standards of the day, that position might have been defensible, but in today’s post-Christendom world, I cannot see that it can be defended with any integrity.

For many centuries, the church was aligned implicitly and explicitly with the rulers of this world (See a good blog piece about that subject here.) Our involvement with the residential schools was a direct consequence of the assumption that preaching the Gospel necessarily entailed converting people from “savage” ways to something like European civilization.

It is — or should be — a matter of shame that Christian churches participated in a system that treated human beings as people undeserving of respect. At the heart of the Gospel is the assertion that we are all created in God’s image, all children of the same Creator, all equally deserving of one another’s love. The second great commandment, as Jesus taught it is “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” which begs the question “And who is my neighbour?”

Jesus answered it by telling the story of the Good SamaritanThe story pushes the boundaries of the idea of neighbour. To be a neighbour has less to do with where we live or how we are related than it does with the recognition that all other people are worthy of our love and compassion — our respect.

Treating aboriginal people without respect has stained our country with a legacy of racism, discrimination, and social and physical ills. It took many years for us to get to this place in our history, and it will take many years to find our way to a healthy and positive relationship between our various peoples, aboriginal and settler alike, a relationship based on realistic and hopeful mutual respect, as beloved children of the living God.

For what should we hope? Surely for the peace which Jesus came to give. So let us pray for that peace:

O God, it is your will to hold both heaven and earth in a single peace. Let the design of your great love shine on the waste of our wraths and sorrows, and give peace to your Church, peace among nations, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Book of Alternative Services, p. 677)