Friday, June 01, 2012

Truth & Reconciliation - What does Reconciliation Look Like?

This is my fifth and last post in a series of blogs I'm writing on my experience attending the Truth & Reconciliation event in Victoria last weekend. The Truth & Reconciliation Commission in Canada addresses the Indian Residential School system that existed between 1840 - 1996 (see their website for more information). If you haven't read my introductory blog entry, you can read it here first. Here is the second post on being a witness. Here is the third post, with stories from survivors. Here's the fourth post, on apologies.

This last post has been a long time coming... sorry for the month-long hiatus! I've had a lot of other things on my plate, but this question has been at the back of my mind the whole time: What does reconciliation between First Nations people and the Church look like?

To help me process that question, I returned to a powerful book I read several years ago, Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf. Volf is a theologian whose reflections on God and life have been significantly influenced by his experience of war in his homeland, Croatia (former Yugoslavia).


My first thought is that reconciliation can happen on both the macro and micro levels. We will need to figure out how to seek reconciliation as large groups and communities, but some of the most challenging and meaningful work will happen on the grassroots level of individual relationships between First Nations people and Christians. Which means that we need to seek out these relationships with one another, and do the hard and rewarding work of learning to love each other. First Nations Christians may be helpful by acting as bridges between their people and the Church. However we should be careful not to place all the responsibility for initiating and maintaining relationships on First Nations Christians, knowing that they too will likely need space to process their own pain and the pain of their people.

Taking responsibility

In my last post, I wrote about apologies, and how we in the Church often seem to fail at them. So a start toward reconciliation might be figuring out how to own up to what we've done. I was recently in a conversation about residential schools with some other pastors.  Some were lamenting the fact that First Nations people continue to harp on the Church and to emphasize only the bad parts of the schools, when (according to them) many people groups at the time used corporeal punishment as an acceptable form of discipline for children. One of them lamented, "The First Nations people are crucifying us!" To which my co-pastor Jodi insightfully responded, "But as followers of Christ, we should not shy away from that experience!" (That's my paraphrase - she said it better!).

Jesus commanded us to take up our cross and follow Him. Of course, the Church's "being crucified" in the acknowledgment of her responsibility and shame around residential schools is different from Christ's crucifixion, because Christ was wrongfully accused, and his death brought supernatural redemption. Still, as a Church following a crucified Savior, we should never shun the humbling reminders of our sinfulness and our continual need for mercy and sanctification. Attempts to distract, shift blame, or point out the parallel wrongs of other groups are only taking us back to that embarrassing scene between God, Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. We must be willing to own up to what the Church has done, even though we weren't directly involved as teachers in a residential school, and even if our particular denomination wasn't directly involved in the schools (many First Nations people don't make the denominational distinctions we do - they see Christians as a unified group). In our relationships and our communities, we may find situations in which it would be helpful and healing to apologize vicariously for the sins of other Christians, and we should do this willingly and very prayerfully.


But there is more required of us than apologies and responsibility. I asked my Gitxsan friend Hector what the Church could do to seek reconciliation with First Nations people, and he said: "Stop saying sorry and start doing something."

In his book, Volf talks about Zacchaeus, whose version of "doing something" was paying back four times as much as he stole: "A genuine repentance of the oppressors will lead to the “injustice” of a superabundant restitution, which seeks to offset the injustice of the original violation" (118). No restitution will be able to "pay for" or "erase" the wrongs done, but it will contribute to reconciliation.

Some would say restitution was offered to Canada's residential school survivors in the form of $1.9 billion dollars in compensation, split between survivors after the settlement agreement in 2006. However, this was legally mandated restitution, rather than a "superabundant restitution" offered freely as in Zacchaeus' story. Also, it merely followed suit with the charity model we often employ with First Nations people and other marginalized people in our society. Many of my friends in the DTES who received this compensation money readily admitted to using a large portion of it to fund their addictions, patterns of pain-numbing they've been stuck in since they suffered at the schools.

By saying we need to "do something," my friend Hector emphasized action - costly action - but also careful action, action with attention to long-term consequences. Sadly, the compensation money given out over the last 5 years did not bring justice or healing to First Nations people, and did little to bring reconciliation. As a Church, we are called to be more creative and find just ways to act that reach deep into the core of the problem and don't contribute to the perpetuation of cycles of pain & abuse.

Some Christians have already thought of creative ways to offer restitution. I've recently read about churches in California and in Saskatchewan who are seeking reconciliation with First Nations groups around the issue of land claims. These churches are actually buying land and giving it back to First Nations people!

If we want to bring restitution for the sins of residential schools, perhaps we could focus our attention on education in First Nations communities. First Nations children are the fastest-growing demographic in Canada, but their graduation rate is only half of that of the rest of Canadian students. Recent reports found huge funding shortfalls for education in First Nations communities, despite the fact that access to education is a right named in many of the treaties governing them. At least fifty reserves need new schools but have no funding to build them. This year's federal budget only covers half of what the AFN says is required to address these shortfalls.  Perhaps, as part of its restitution, the Church could commit to providing First Nations people with the resources they need and deserve so they can educate their next generation.

Nelson Mandela, speaking about apartheid injustices in South African, said, "If someone steals my pen and then asks me to forgive him, unless he returns my pen, the sincerity of his contrition and confession will be considered nil. Confession, forgiveness, and reparation, wherever feasible, form part of a continuum." Unfortunately, we have a long way to go... Jodi (always full of wisdom!) observed that right now, not only have we "not returned the pen" to First Nations people, many of us in Canada are actually mocking them, looking down on them, and blaming them for not having a pen! We emphasize addictions, poverty, suicide, and lack of education among First Nations people without acknowledging our role in the pain that contribute to these realities. Another part of our restitution might be lobbying for changes in curriculum so that the history of residential schools and colonialism (and their lasting effects) is taught to every Canadian student, so that potential prejudices are addressed early on.

The Role of First Nations People in Healing & Reconciliation

Of course, First Nations people have a significant and challenging role in this process of reconciliation, too. Most of Exclusion and Embrace is directed toward the victims, spelling out the hard and risky work of forgiveness, of working through anger, leaving vengeance with a perfectly just God, and gradually becoming willing to embrace and welcome the very people who have made you suffer.  When I attended the Truth & Reconciliation event in Victoria, I was amazed to hear the willingness of so many survivors to forgive the Church, and to enter into relationship with the God who was so misrepresented by their teachers.  This can only be interpreted as a miraculous work of the Spirit.

One rather controversial thing that Volf says is that victims need to repent of their sins. Let me quote a long but very profound passage from his book:
"Jesus called to repentance not simply those who falsely pronounced sinful what was innocent and sinned against their victims, but the victims of oppression themselves. It will not do to divide Jesus' listeners neatly into two groups and claim that for the oppressed repentance means new hope whereas for the oppressors it means radical change. Nothing suggests such a categorizing of people in Jesus' ministry, though different people ought to repent of different kinds of sins. The truly revolutionary character of Jesus' proclamation lies precisely in the connection between the hope he gives to the oppressed and the radical change he requires of them. Though some sins have been imputed to them, other sins of theirs were real; though they suffered at the sinful hand of others, they also committed sins of their own. It is above all to them that he offered divine forgiveness. Significantly enough, it is also they, not the self-righteous members of the establishment, that responded to his offer. For as a rule, the kingdom of God enters the world through the back door of servants' shacks, not through the main gate of the masters' mansions" (114).
What are the sins of the victims?  Volf says that victims are very likely to mimic the behavior of their oppressors, to let anger and bitterness fester inside of them, and to excuse and fail to take responsibility for their reactive behavior. "Without repentance for these sins, the full human dignity of victims will not be restored and needed social change will not take place" (117).

One of the most profound expressions of reconciliation I saw at the Truth & Reconciliation event in Victoria was the reconciliation between a First Nations woman and her adult daughter. The woman was sharing her experience of residential school, and near the end of her painful account, she introduced everyone to her daughter, who was sitting behind her. She said she wanted her daughter to be there to hear her story, so that she would know what was at the root of her mom's anger. She acknowledged that she had been a horrible mother and had chosen to take her pain out on her daughter, beating her the same way she had been beaten at the residential school. She wondered aloud if this was part of the reason why her daughter was attracted to men who abused her. She apologized and embraced her daughter, saying "there is still some gentleness in me... Hopefully I will leave all this shit in this room and learn to live without guilt or anger." I was moved deeply by this interaction, and I think the Church could learn a lot from this example of humble repentance.


One reminder that I found sobering and helpful in Exclusion and Embrace is that the final reconciliation will not come until Christ returns. We must not expect that we will achieve full healing and fully restored relationships in this world. What Volf suggests is that we ask ourselves "what resources we need to live in peace in the absence of the final reconciliation... to achieve a nonfinal reconciliation in the midst of the struggle against oppression" (109). But Christ will come, and therein lies our hope!

I pledge to continue to work toward peace and "non-final reconciliation" as we wait together for Christ to come, to liberate the oppressed from the suffering of their oppression, and to liberate the oppressors from their injustice (23).

What do you think reconciliation looks like?  Leave a comment with your thoughts!