Truth and Reconciliation and the Exile

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.

The language of reconcilation — in one word

I have recently learned that some (many?) of the indigenous peoples of our province and country are objecting to the use of the word “our” in referring to them. In the context we were discussing, it seems we are no longer to pray for “our indigenous brothers and sisters,” but for “the indigenous peoples.” The specific objection is that the possessive pronoun “our” implies ownership, and the indigenous people are no-one’s property. I really get the second part, but I was a bit taken aback by the first idea. Does saying “our brothers and sisters” imply we own them? As I understand the English language, possessives can have that meaning, but their use in this kind of context refers more to interpersonal relationships than to ownership — at least in as far as I use the language.

That’s my perspective. But I do recognize that my use of language is not absolute, and how I use a word may not resonate well with someone from a different cultural/linguistic environment. For indigenous peoples in Canada, living with a heritage of the underside of colonialism, the implication of ownership and control is clearly very powerful, overriding any nuance of meaning that I may have understood.

There is a principle of building community which Paul expands on at length in chapters 8 through 10 of his First Letter to the Corinthians. The presenting issue is whether Christians should eat meat which has been sacrificed to idols — not a huge issue in most places today, at least as far as I can see. Nonetheless, Paul’s extended discussion of the issue comes to a widely-applicable ethical position. His position can be summed up as not knowingly doing anything that will give offense to another “brother or sister,” whether or not that thing is important to us.

Do I fully comprehend the power of using “our” in the context of referring to Indigenous people? Of course not: I am of settler stock, in fact, I am an immigrant. It is impossible for me to grasp the depth of the issues in the same way as a resident of a place like Maskwacis or Opaskwayak. But I can hear the effect that my language — easily taken for granted — can give offense, causing hurt where no hurt was intended.

I am resolved to pay attention to the language I use, striving always to hear how it may hurt others. It’s a hard road, but reconciliation depends on hearing each other in spirit and in truth. May my speech be clear and loving.

Reconciliation in the Name of the Trinity

Trinity Sunday, 2015 – joint service of Trinity Lutheran Church and Holy Trinity Anglican Church

I am grateful for the opportunity to be in this pulpit today, on a Trinity Sunday which holds special meaning for me. I have had many years of close association with the ELCiC, including the privilege of preaching and participating in the laying-on-of-hands at my sister-in-law’s ordination to the Lutheran pastorate. More recently, I have developed a closer relationship with some members of Trinity Lutheran, including Pastor Ingrid. The date is significant because I was ordained a deacon on May 31, and preached my first sermon as an ordained person on Trinity Sunday, 1987.

About a year before that, I was beginning Clinical Pastoral Education at the Royal Alexandra Hospital. One of the nursing units to which I was assigned was in maternity, where I made one of my very first pastoral visits. When I introduced myself to a young woman seated on her bed, she first said she was just waiting to be discharged, and then said, “What church do you belong to?” I gave her the standard hospital answer: hospital chaplains served everyone without denominational distinction. That wasn’t good enough for her: she demanded to know what church I was associated with when I wasn’t in the hospital. When I told her “Anglican,” her response was immediate and negative, something like “That’s one of those churches who believe in the Trinity! It’s not in the Bible, so you can just leave.” I started to argue with her (major mistake!), but quickly realized that nothing would be gained by proceeding.

It was a real surprise to me that there were people who called themselves Christians who denied the Trinity, something I had understood as an essential tenet of the faith. In the decades since, then, those few minutes by a hospital bed became foundational as I strove to understand what we mean by “I believe.”

Our faith is Trinitarian in shape: the Nicene Creed which we will recite in a few minutes has a three-part structure: we believe in God the Father; we believe in his Son Jesus Christ; we believe in the Holy Spirit. But what do we mean by the word “believe,” and where is that belief grounded? Lutherans and Anglicans share a history of being rooted in Scripture as well as the traditional teachings of the Church, going back to the time of the Church Fathers, who were expounding doctrine well before the Canon of the Bible was agreed upon. Don’t get me wrong: scripture is important, but we should remember that the Church came before the Bible, not vice versa.

As members of two congregations dedicated to the Trinity, we are reminded of the doctrine’s centrality every time we enter one of our buildings—you can’t escape the name. I don’t recall hearing of either congregation spending much (if any) time debating the nuances of the doctrine, but members of both certainly devote ample time to living out the faith in church activities, and in ministries beyond our walls.

We tend to understand belief as a kind of “head exercise,” giving intellectual assent to propositions about God and God’s works. The question asked of the church is often “What do we believe?” In her ground-breaking book “Christianity After Religion,” Diana Butler Bass has suggested that we rephrase the question as “How do we believe?” Pointing to the German root of the verb, she says that belief is less about the head than the heart—what we believe is where place our trust, as we set our hearts to follow God in the divine mission.

How do we live into a Trinitarian faith? That’s a huge, life-changing, and life-long question, because it encompasses the whole of God’s being. St. Augustine wrote:

“If we speak of God, what wonder is it is you do not comprehend. For, if you comprehend, He is not God. Let there be a pious profession of ignorance rather than a rash profession of knowledge. That one’s mind only touch God a little is great happiness; to comprehend Him is utterly impossible.”
St. Augustine, Sermon 67 on the New Testament –

Seeking to know God and to follow God’s ways is the task of a lifetime, the ongoing process called progressive sanctification, the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in making us ever more holy.

There are many aspects to growth in holiness. Let me focus today on only one: the work of reconciliation. Paul expressed the importance of this ministry in these words:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,
2 Corinthians 5:18-19a NRSV

This week in Ottawa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada will deliver its final report on the Residential Schools. The Anglican Church has been deeply involved in this process for years. I note that the ELCiC has held some recent events focusing on the on-going work of reconciliation with our indigenous brothers and sisters. At the TRC’s event last year in Edmonton, Mayor Don Iveson proclaimed the next year to be a “Year of Reconciliation.” Well and good, but a year is a short time to work on a century-old issue. It’s very tempting to take shortcuts, like the person who responded to an appeal for the Residential Schools Settlement Fund by walking into my office, slapping a large cheque on my desk and saying, “There! I hope that’s the last we hear of this.” Not by a long shot! Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of the TRC, has said

Reconciliation is about forging and maintaining respectful relationships.
There are no shortcuts.

The Residential Schools created a gulf between indigenous and non-indigenous people in this country. I heard a great deal of that pain in my time in Brandon, which brought me into contact with many survivors and their families. Reconciliation—building respectful relationships—will take time in listening, in walking together, in working together. It is important work for our nation and for our churches.

Reconciliation goes against the flow of human behavior. We’re very good at building walls and creating enclaves in which to live. We’re less good at reaching out across those walls, and learning to see those on the other side as God’s children deserving of every bit as much respect as we are.

One sign of the ongoing work of reconciliation is the continuing and developing relationship between our two congregations. It is truly the work of the Holy Spirit as we seek to build and maintain a respectful relationship.

There are no shortcuts to the Kingdom: relationships must be carefully fostered and lovingly maintained, whether between Lutherans and Anglicans or between indigenous and non-indigenous people. We have been entrusted in the name of the Trinity with the ministry of reconciliation, hearing the call of the God who called Isaiah, seeking to follow the one who reconciled us to God through his death on the cross, and always and ever empowered by the Holy Spirit.

May it be so.

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)