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Stumbling Heavenward

Two years ago, after attending the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Vancouver, I reflected in writing about “remembering rightly”, and I concluded:

…deep within the memories of First Nations peoples is this, which Bishop Mark MacDonald – the Anglican Church of Canada’s first National Indigenous Anglican Bishop – shared at a de-briefing I attended: “When many of the churches came, before the Residential Schools, they were a friend to the Indigenous peoples. When the government asked the First Nations to sign treaties, the churches said to the Elders, ‘We will walk with you until the end of time to make sure these treaties are honoured.’ There’s no question that many First Nations entered these treaties precisely because the churches agreed on this.” That remembrance is one full of our betrayal, but also full with promise, for as Bishop MacDonald emphatically concluded, “We [the First Nations] are asking you [the churches] again: walk with us.”

Two weeks ago, after attending the TRC in Ottawa, I reflected again on Bishop MacDonald’s words. Here is a First Nations Christian inviting us, non-Indigenous Christians, to walk together.

Walking together, in the way Bishop MacDonald rightly meant it, means walking on equal footing, side by side – a true relationship of mutuality in which there is space for mutual accountability, in which each party can hold the other to account for ways in which we are not living up to the relationship. It’s a beautiful vision and one for which we should strive. But we are not there yet. In fact, we are far from it.

What I often seem to hear, buried deep within the polite racism of Canadian society and usually manifested subtly, is an implicit assumption that First Nations communities need to meet some sort of standard, need to pass some kind of test, or need to prove themselves “worthy” before truly reconciled relationships with non-Indigenous Canadians can happen. I hear people saying that “we have given them enough money already and they’ve mismanaged it.” Or saying, “residential schools weren’t bad for all aboriginal kids, so I’m not sure we should fully believe the stories of abuse.” Or declaring that “they need to clean up their mess before we do anything more for them.” Not only have we taken on the binary and oppositional categories of “us” versus “them,” (and fallen into the trap of thinking that money is the only thing necessary to restore relationships) we are also assuming that we are in some sort of place that gives us a right to demand that “they hold up their end of the bargain.”

However, as non-Indigenous Canadians, this assumption is utter hubris. In our current state of broken relationship – a relationship that was broken and is continually being broken primarily by us, it is not our responsibility to set pre-conditions for reconciliation. It is not our responsibility to point out what we think troubles First Nations communities. And it is not our responsibility to tell them what we think they should do about it (not least because of Jesus’ words about the plank in our own eye). Rather, it is our responsibility to join in with our First Nations sisters and brothers in Christ’s reconciliation – Christ, who reconciled with us “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8), “for God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:20).

The other day I said to a friend, “I want people who are not yet engaged with the TRC – and everything that made it necessary – because they believe in it, not because they’re dragged reluctantly to do so. I desperately want the conversation on this to be more than just preaching to the choir.”  He responded that perhaps it would take more legal and political action – Supreme Court decisions, more government bills — to get there. That, like Civil Rights laws in the States, perhaps further laws needed to be made in order to compel people forward.

But I cannot be satisfied with this. As Christians, relationships of mutual reciprocity with First Nations communities are not something in which we participate only and if they are written into the legal systems of our nation. Since when did we look to our government to tell us how to act justly? Since when did we look to our government to tell us what reconciliation looks like? We as the Church should be leading the way, imagining the joyful possibilities for restored relationship. Anything less is an abdication of our calling.

So if you still have objections to the TRC, or uncertainties, or questions – things that are holding you back from engaging – then  first dedicate yourself to listening and reading and learning, and then speak up – seek out Indigenous voices, ask questions, listen humbly to the responses, and spend time in prayer and discernment.

There is no perfect TRC – and there are no perfect conditions in which to hold one (after all, the very necessity of a TRC implies deep brokenness). There are of course better and worse conditions, but the time for arguing that is long over – the time now is for movement.

Within that movement, may we be humbled by, and learn strength and courage from, the many First Nations people who are already on the move towards Christ’s reconciliation –towards the reconciliation of all things. People who are – as Bishop Mark MacDonald did – inviting us to join in. As Terry Le Blanc, Mi’kmaq-Acadian, and founder and chair of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAITS) writes, “Given [the Church’s broken history with Indigenous peoples] we might conclude that Indigenous people must possess a unique spiritual intransigence to the gospel. But that would not tell the whole story. The real tale is best told through a more careful examination of the many Indigenous people who, despite the tragic history of Christian mission in their lives and communities, still claim affinity to one tradition or another of the Christian church. Here we discover people from the Arctic to Mexico stumbling heavenward within the kingdom of God despite the bleakness of their current social realities—devastation clearly connected to the wrong-headedness of mission to their people.”

May we repent of this wrong-headedness. May we seek forgiveness. May we work towards equitable relationships. And may we join our many First Nations sisters and brothers in stumbling heavenward, together.  


More ideas to get you started:

-Participate in this action alert to tell your Member of Parliament to work towards implementing the TRC’s 94 recommendations.  

-Tweet at your MP with the hashtag #LivetheApology. (Find your MP’s Twitter handle here.)

“Reconciliation is not a one-time event”  #LivetheApology and implement @TRC_en recommendations.

#LivetheApology Bear witness for reconciliation in education: Say a loud YES to @TRC_en recs #7-16!

-Participate in a Blanket Exercise.

-Volunteer at an Indigenous centre. Make some friends. Practice on a small scale the kind of mutuality and respect we need on a national scale. Learn from them.

-Run the Living the 8th Fire small group series at your church.

-Consider Indigenous issues when you’re voting (watch for a guide to the election covering various justice issues to come out soon).

-Watch media and read books produced by Indigenous people. (Great places to start are the works of Broken Walls, Thomas King, Wab Kinew, Tanya Tagaq, Richard Wagamese, A Tribe Called Red…and so many more!)

-Pray for the work of the Doctrine of Discovery task force.

-Learn about Indigenous heroes.

[Image: Flickr user GPS]

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