Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Prince of Peace Smokes a Peace Pipe

What follows is an abridged version of a paper I am grateful to have had the opportunity to research and write last December. I have removed the footnotes for blog-friendliness, but if anyone would like a copy or wishes to track down a quote, let me know. If you feel like sliding down to the end I've added a personal response to today's events.


The Prince of Peace Smokes a Peace Pipe:
A Theological Analysis of Canada's
Truth and Reconciliation Commission


All of Canada needs to face its residential school legacy and pursue truth and reconciliation among its peoples so that it can not only chart a new way forward for Aboriginals but also foster a better society. Euro-Canadians need to listen to Aboriginal Canadians so that the truth can be known and healing pursued. Aboriginal Canadians need to take the opportunity to free themselves from unwarranted guilt and shame, renew their cultural distinctives and identity, and contribute afresh to the societal dialogue. Grace is needed. Christians need to engage in this reconciliation process not as detached consultants, but as society’s humble frontrunners---recognizing the image of God in Aboriginals that has been so shamefully denied by colonialism; confessing and repenting of the attitudes that enabled the residential schools to operate; and committing to a re-harmonized country that sees Aboriginals as partners rather than obstacles. . . .

When early Aboriginals offered the "sacred pipe" to Europeans it was a full-bodied extension of good will and trust between peoples that was then trampled on by colonial powers. That this pipe is still being offered (e.g., to Brian Mulroney in 1987, and Chuck Strahl in 2007) is a tribute to the grace of Aboriginal Canadians and a testament to the recurring need to seek healing and peace. If there was ever a time to smoke the "peace pipe" it is in the ugly wake of the residential schools debacle. But such an opportunity should not be taken lightly. There is no peace when truth is swept under the carpet. Truth and reconciliation go hand in hand. . . .

Peace and justice are never perfect in this world. There are quite simply too many variables in the irretrievable past, the complicated present, and the unknown future to make things absolutely right again. Christian theology sees peace as something worth striving for and justice as a human responsibility, but measures peace and justice relative to that which will only be had fully at the judgment day of Christ and the onset of a new creation. Christian or not, it is clear that the day-to-day alternatives are vengeance and the perpetuation of enmity or truth and reconciliation. Though neither offers perfect justice, one works toward peace and the other succumbs to the downward spiral of discord. For optimal reconciliation both the offended and the offender must take a relational, rather than a vindictive, posture. If people find it within themselves to take this posture it is tribute to the image of God still screaming out from inside the marred souls of humanity. Everyday, however, one sees how quickly this posture can be lost. Where the human heart fails, theology finds the resources for reconciliation in Christ. For Christians the activity of reconciliation is not a replacement for Christ, but a witness to Him. He is the Prince of Peace. Jesus said the peacemakers would be called children of God. . . .

The enmity between Euro- and Aboriginal-Canadians did not begin with residential schools, but with influx of Europeans and the wrongdoings of colonialism. . . . Early Canadian politicians found it difficult to reconcile the Indian way of life with the developing European ideals of capitalism, and vice versa. In 1846, Indian Superintendent P.G. Anderson addressed the Aboriginal’s situation: "You will not give up your idle, roving habits to enable your children to receive instruction. It has therefore been determined that your children shall be sent to schools where they will forget their Indian habits and be instructed in all the necessary arts of civilized life and become one with your white brethren." These early rumblings of the coming "cultural genocide" led to the Indian Act of 1876, which was, in Sir John A. Macdonald’s words, "to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the inhabitants of the dominion, as speedily as they are fit for the change." The Department of Indian Affairs annual report of1889 clarified that the purpose of the new boarding schools was to thoroughly "civilize" the Indians so that nothing Indian was left.

Despite some good intentions and some good teachers, this paternalistic attitude prevailed, and was the breeding ground for a bad situation. Although "the thought even before the deed . . . was violent in its intention to ‘kill the Indian’ in the child for the sake of Christian civilization," the recipe for disaster was complete when combined with "the most persistent flaw in the system – chronic underfunding." . . . An already inadequate system became a pressure cooker for all kinds of misdeeds and abuses. Over the course of a century 130 residential schools housed between 100,000 and 150,000 students, and killed as many as half of them. . . .

A note of dissent appears in the records in 1908, from Superintendent General of Indian Affairs Frank Oliver, who questioned the forcible separation of children from their parents:
"I hope you will excuse me for so speaking but one of the most important commandments laid upon the human by the divine is love and respect by children for parents. It seems strange that in the name of religion a system of education should have been instituted, the foundation principle of which not only ignored but contradicted this command." . . .

In 1948 a superintendent told his superiors "If I were appointed by the Dominion Government for the express purpose of spreading tuberculosis, there is nothing finer in existence than the average Indian Residential School." Stories of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, strictness and brutality, filthy living conditions, and rampant illness abound. But even if a few alarm bells were sounding, little was being done. Agnes Grant noted that it was "the prevalent attitude about sexual abuse in Canadian society at that time. . . . [that] you didn’t talk about it."

This is clearly not the type of tolerance that makes a peaceable nation. Canada must be very careful not to build itself on a false peace, where "the role of the dominant group is to live without raising questions about the sources of and supports for the privileges it so easily takes for granted. The role of the subordinate group, on the other hand, is to learn to survive in a dependent and subservient role." A society must ask itself if it is promoting the kind of moral courage to effect change when change is needed. . . .

In society, the truth sets people free in proportion to how fully societal dialogue is able to agree upon that truth. Once that truth is agreed on, it must be owned up to and confessed. Where individuals and organizations find themselves connected in culpability to the original offense or the perpetration of the problem they must confess this and agree with the offended about what has gone wrong. . . . Noting the colonial skeleton in Canada’s closet, Michael Ignatieff noted that "the truth of what happened is not yet part of the shared historical record of our country and until it is we will continue to talk past each other." Without a "deep remembering" of past victims a society can end up with little more than a "victor’s truth" that serves to benefit only those in power. . . .

As Gary Redcliffe says we need "a change in our spiritual capacity to identify ourselves with the residential schools’ story. . . . to see ourselves as heirs and continuing participants in the colonialistic narrative of Canada, as sinners and wrong-doers in need of repentance, confession and the grace of new life." . . . Canada sits on the verge of an opportunity to write the story in a new direction together or to continue to rehash the old one. . . .

Pierre Trudeau "famously characterized apologies as efforts to fix history, and he refused to have anything to do with them," citing it as "our purpose to be just in our time." On the other hand, Robert Weyeneth said that apologies reduce "the number of permissible lies in a society." Though Trudeau underestimated the need for and power of an apology, he raised the important point that an apology alone still leaves much to be desired. In real reconciliation, confession becomes repentance. . . .

But what does societal repentance look like? If wrong can never be fully made right, when is the level of repentance satisfactory to warrant forgiveness, or to become the basis for reconciliation?
The cycle of reconciliation is rarely a neat and tidy step by step process. There will be much give-and-take and likely many stops and starts. For the cycle of reconciliation to continue past repentance into forgiveness, however, there must be an initiated repentance of considerable substance. This is where the words and symbols of an apology combine with well-planned
commitments in order to initiate and enable a society’s turning from wrongdoing. Once this takes hold it can issue forward into the repeated and sustained commitments of reparation. . . . Without a posture of relationship and societal dialogue this can all seem very wooden. Indeed it will end up having to be solidified in legislation. But the posture of embrace remains crucial.
In the TRC process it is quite possible that those Canadians who are not directly involved with Aboriginals might see it as something from which they can remain aloof. But the message must go out that the ripple effects of colonialism are far reaching for offended and offender alike. When one residential school survivor was asked in 1965 by the government to recount his story he had misgivings, explaining that "really this is not my story but yours." Indeed, Euro-Canadians and Aboriginal-Canadians alike need to see this as the story of their past and must be ready to turn from any underlying wrong attitudes and actions that surface in the process. If either party disengages en masse, the society will suffer. It is true that a widespread lack of public participation [in the TRC] would only be ‘another slap in the face to the survivors."

One could analyze the requirements of justice forever and never find a satisfying reparation for the wrongs that have been committed. At some point a society has to decide to do whatever it can instead of doing nothing because it can not do everything. Reconciliation should not be seen as a replacement for justice, but as an attempt to do what justice can not do on its own, which is to build a better society. Ironically, if a society values exact justice over reconciliation, it will watch both slip through its fingers. . . .

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of reconciliation is forgiveness. In South Africa a witness famously declared to the TRC that they "could not and should not ask her to [forgive], nor offer forgiveness for her." Can a society have corporate forgiveness without trampling on the dignity of individuals? A recent study on societal reconciliation asserted: "It is wrong to say that only the victims can forgive. . . . It is essential to take the intergenerational impact of suffering into account and to involve the coming generations in the processes of forgiveness."

A people group should certainly consult its members before offering words of corporate forgiveness. In this process the repentant party must be patient, "recognizing that the willingness to forgive is related both to the healing journey of the Aboriginal community and also to the healing journey of the church itself." Even when communal forgiveness is granted, it must not be taken as a blanket amnesty or a presumption of individual forgiveness. It is rather the posture which a people take toward one another that enables the cycle of reconciliation to continue.

Forgiveness is, of course, not something that only benefits the offender. This is well expressed in Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, as a clergyman considers whether to forgive his oppressor or not, saying: "I have one great fear in my heart – that one day when they turn to loving they will find that we are turned to hating."


As Michael Marrus explains, societal reconciliation "comes in varying degrees. In ‘thinner’ versions, the two parties could agree not to kill each other; in ‘thicker’ versions, they could show mutual respect and agree to work together; and at the ‘thickest,’ the former enemies could commit themselves to friendship and solidarity." For all that has been said about facing Canada’s colonial legacy, it can be dangerous to assume that the residential school survivors can bear the burden of bringing healing to society.

Dale Turner has gone so far as to say that if the approach to these issues does not "adequately address the legacy of colonialism" and continues "to stake a unilateral claim over Aboriginal people without entering into a meaningful and participatory dialogue with them" then the proceedings do not count as a "peace pipe". Though it will be difficult sometimes to discern where ultimatums end and meaningful dialogue begins, these kinds of statements need to be heard. At the same time, it must be the commitment of all parties to neither resist reconciliation process because it is incomplete nor cop out of it because it can never be fully satisfactory. In a phrase, all involved need to find it within themselves to take a posture of relationship and to both hear and speak the truth in love. Can a nation find this within themselves?

It is difficult for a Christian to imagine such a thing happening outside of the knowledge of Christ’s love and his promise of eschatological justice, but it does seem that the Spirit has been stirring up reconciliation in the world nonetheless. Perhaps this communal focus in society can revive such a thing in the Church and provoke Christians to engage the reconciling activity of the world with the resources that come from Christ and lead ultimately to his plan of redemption. It is entirely likely that were the Prince of Peace here in the flesh he would take up the offered peace pipe and smoke it, perhaps going so far as to multiply it, like he did the wine at the wedding at Cana, so that many more could take part.
Though the Church had its hand in the sins of colonialism and failed to love its neighbor as itself, it can have a hand in redemption by submitting to the Spirit’s reconciling work and encouraging things in the trajectory of Christ’s example. True ambassadors of reconciliation will want to see the truth set people free.

At the same time, Christians will realize and remember that for truth and reconciliation to fully be known these efforts will need to lead to Christ. By being involved in societal reconciliation they will be in the best position to witness to Christ and serve His concerns in the world until He comes, bringing perfect peace and final justice with him. How long, O Lord, how long?


As I listened to the speeches in our House of Parliament I was both optimistic for out country and saddened by the knowledge that the reconciliation efforts can not possibly right every wrong. But at times I also welled up with tears as I felt like I was getting a very small foretaste of a banquet that awaits when the nations of earth are healed; and it was a tiny glimpse of a vision I've read about and yet found hard to imagine. Today for a split second or two I could actually imagine it:


And he carried me away in the Spirit
to a mountain great and high,
and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem,
coming out of heaven from God.
It shone with the glory of God . . .


I did not see a temple in the city,
because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.
The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it,
for the glory of God gives it light,
and the Lamb is its lamp.


The nations will walk by its light,
and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.
On no day will its gates ever be shut,
for there will be no night there.
The glory and the honor of the nations will be brought into it. . . .


Down the middle of the great street of the city
On each side of the river stood the tree of life,
bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month.
And the leaves of the tree
are for the healing of the nations.

Revelation 22

3 comments:

The Hansens said...

Thanks for posting this Jon. I hadn't heard Harper's apology live, so I appreciate your encouragement to hear it and your thoughts in this essay. I'm glad I happened upon this today because it's so essential that I be a part of it.

Geoff-Cummer said...

In 1946, Indian Superintendent P.G. Anderson addressed the Aboriginal’s situation: "You will not give up your idle, roving habits to enable your children to receive instruction. It has therefore been determined that your children shall be sent to schools where they will forget their Indian habits and be instructed in all the necessary arts of civilized life and become one with your white brethren."


I believ the date you were meaning to say is in fact 1846 as opposed to 1946

Jon Coutts said...

That's right Geoff, thank you for the correction.