"Theologies of Reconciliation"

Here a little over a week since I traveled to Ottawa to attend the final TRC event, I'm still reflecting on the impact of my experience. Helpful to my process of reflection was following the TRC in Ottawa, many in our group attended the NAIITS Symposium at Wheaton College entitled "Theologies of Reconciliation." The symposium is an intentional combination of indigenous and non-indigenous voices reflecting on how to understand reconciliation in the diversity of our culture. The time was rich in the experience of community and thought-provoking in considering the multiple perspectives on such a crucial topic.


But as anyone who pays attention to past and present conversations on multicultural and Christianity, unity and understanding can be hard to come by. Latent (or explicit) racism, dominant paradigms, and divergent worldviews, to name a few things, often lead more to exclusion than relationship. For example, on the topic of forgiveness and repentance, several indigenous speakers highlighted the absence of specific words/terms in indigenous languages for "forgiveness" or "apology." Contrary to a Western paradigm which utilizes nouns - statements of reality - to describe reconciliation, indigenous languages are composed primarily of verbs. For indigenous people, then, reconciliation is fundamentally understood as an action, the ongoing life of "good relations" as several presenters suggested. This places reconciliation beyond an abstract concept or something to complete as I know I’ve often viewed it. Implied, then, are concrete practices that invite reconciliation. Words alone (including public apologies) aren’t enough. As settler people, then, to speak of reconciliation outside of the context of relationship with our indigenous neighbours will always be incomplete unless accompanied by, and sometimes preceded by, an actively lived out reconciliation.

This was just one example where my experience highlighted the importance of engaged theological reflection in multicultural contexts. Unfortunately in many churches, discussions of Christianity and indigenous spirituality are often approached with fear and suspicion. Or worse, judgement and condemnation. Christians rightly denounce language of the "Indian problem" that was so common in the colonial-era of residential schools, yet risk accepting that very same attitude when considering the relationship of Christianity and indigenous spirituality. This isn't to say differences don't matter. But in theological dialogue, attitudes are critical in order to form in ourselves the right frame of mind to engage the ideas we are considering. Engaged theological reflection means taking the time to learn the beliefs and practices of our indigenous neighbours on their terms. Education at all levels, particularly within Christian institutions, needs this type of engagement as an extension of our commitment to love of neighbour in relationships and learning.

TRC Summary: The Response of Faithful Presence

As I leave Ottawa and my experience of the Truth and Reconciliation, I'm asking, "Now what?" For Canada. But also for myself.

In part, I wonder what my role is as a Christian. You see, Christians have been a major part of this historical blemish on our country, and this responsibility goes beyond official parties who ran the residential schools. My own tradition, the Mennonites (of all streams), either sat idly by or even perpetuated the system by working in various roles for these schools. We can't ignore this complicity. 

But we also can't stay in perpetual discomfort over our feelings of guilt or remorse as I reflected already (link). So far much of the Christian response to the TRC process has been necessarily reactionary: apologies and time spent listening. This needs to continue. But it's also time to imagine how Christians can become proactive in moving forward in relationship with our indigenous friends and neighbours.

I attended the TRC conclusion as part of a from of Mennonite Church Canada, Mennonite Central Committee, and Mennonite Brethren leaders, pastors, individuals, and students. We are a diverse group of men and women in various roles, who beyond the importance of our presence at the TRC, are exploring what it means for us as Jesus-followers to honour and respect the spirituality and practices of Canada's Aboriginal population. While I can't speak on behalf of others in the group, one key area for proactive response that I can have as a Christian in light of the TRC is in the area of faithful presence.

Sto:lo Nation - "The People of the River"
Far beyond just this issue, faithful presence is the call to value all people in our daily lives as worthy of our love, both in attitude and action. In my own community of Abbotsford, aboriginals are often visibly hidden. I have little memory growing up of encountering local aboriginal people in schools, parks or other local spaces. Or maybe I just didn't notice. I just remember driving through this mysterious place known only as "the reservation." But that was the extent of my interaction. Now I've learned Abbotsford sits on Sto:lo territory and in various settings I've begun to meet and develop relationships with some of these neighbours so visibly absent from my childhood. As Christians, we don't just love the neighbours that we see visibly in front of us. In fact, the NT concept of "lost" isn't limited to a spiritual loneliness for humanity. "Lost" can also describe the literal hiddenness of individuals and groups in the very social structures our communities. Faithful presence means Christians need to literally be present with all our neighbours, seen or unseen.  

TRC Day 3 - Personal to political and back again

Day 3 of the TRC brought a combination of the personal and the political, highlighting how any social change cannot exist apart of the relational fabric of a society. 

To start the day I attended a survivor's sharing circle. Individuals who endured and suffered in the residential school system were given space to share their stories and have them included as part of the official TRC archives. Person after person recounted experiences of brokenness and abuse, leading to years of struggle in family and society. The absence of love and care and respect led to deep hurt and shame as they were kids, which then persisted in their adult lives in various destructive ways, be it addiction or a general hatred of self and others. Upon receiving physical abuse, one woman recounted how "you don't cry; you do what your told." Another women shared of being paraded through the residence as a kid wearing "pissy sheets" over their heads as punishment for wetting the bed - a humiliation she'll never forget. Yet in the midst of the deep pain, these survivors demonstrate great courage in offering forgiveness to their abusers. Kitty, for example, after sharing about how she was taken from her home without her parents knowledge, stated poignantly, "Forgiving people brings healing." Today, the TRC was personal.

From the personal, however, the day quickly became political. The TRC Commissioners presented their official report from this 6-year process, which was then followed by response from the various stakeholders in the whole process (e.g. government, Aboriginal leaders, church leaders). Justice Murray Sinclair concluded that the residential schools were "nothing short of cultural genocide." It's time for social change in how Canadian society doesn't just look back, but move forward in fostering equality for all people. Beyond "national penance" Sinclair invited, Canadians need to create a "relationship of equals." Education strategies and integrating the UN Declaration for Indigenous Rights were called on the lead the way to change. Commissioner Mary Wilson reminded that "how we teach is critical...we need a less euro-central version of our country." Yet in the political opportunities before us, Commissioner Wilton Littlechild reminded of the need for hope found in relationships, the strength found in family. Politics still need the personal. 

Overall, it was a full and challenging and inspiring day. And while the political side can seem overwhelming, the personal stories remind me that society is made up of people - the personal stories of each one of us.  Reconciliation is more than an issue, it's a relationship, one that goes from institutions to the very people we interact with on a daily basis. Politics needs the personal, and the personal needs politics to ensure equality is protected and promoted. The TRC has shown me how in society as a whole, we go from the personal to the political and back again.

TRC Day 2 - Learning

Justice Murray Sinclair - Chair of the TRC
Day 2 of the TRC began with a grand entry and opening remarks from various dignitaries and leaders from aspects of the residential school history - First Nations, government, and churches. The theme was "We still have lots to learn" and centred around the ongoing need for truthfulness and listening for reconciliation to move forward into actions. Justice Murray Sinclair called on everyone to take actions of reconciliation - "This isn't an Aboriginal problem but a Canadian problem...Reconciliation values all people." 

Later in the day I attended a panel discussion on ways Canada can/should implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Here there was a strong call again to take our learning and ideas and put them into concrete laws and practices in Canada. Here's a couple of highlights and challenging ideas:

"Truth-telling is important but not sufficient for reconciliation...action is needed." (Letter from Ban Ki-moon - UN Secretary General) 

"What about the victims of democracy?" (Grand Chief Edward John)

"This can't just be about reconciliation, but restitution." (Ellen Gabriel)

"It takes everyone to hope." (David Langtry)

"Apologies risk coming with an absence of clear commitment to change." (Paul Joffe)

Overall, it was a full day with lots to process, for Canada, but personally as well. Learning about a blemished history is tiring, no doubt, but so vital. I'm ready for Day 3 - "This ending is just the beginning."

TRC Day 1 - Walk for Reconciliation

Day #1 of the TRC and featured the Walk for Reconcilation, a 5k walk from Hull, QUE, to Ottawa's City Hall. Some 7000-10000 people participated in this energy-filled march. There was lots of talk around 'moving forward' and the future. In many ways, the walk itself symbolizes a solidarity in the desire to move forward. In all the energy and excitement, however, the question is asked of all Caandians, what does this mean? These few days, as the TRC concludes and the commissioners offer strategies for the coming years, could set the tone for years to come.