While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Echoes of Ramah
Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:15-17
The discovery of the remains of at least 215 children on the grounds of the Kamloops Residential School has shocked Canadians. We feel deep sorrow, outrage, pain; but as many people have pointed out, we should not be surprised.
This has all the form and emotion of the discoveries made when war crimes are being investigated. With that in mind, a group of 15 Canadian lawyers have petitioned the International Criminal Court to investigate this discovery.
All sorts of things run through our hearts and minds: the shock of the sheer numbers, the image of the tiny bones and the grim fact that many of the other children were made to dig the graves to bury their friends while the adults lied to the rest of the world about what was happening.
We may feel compelled to go through mental gymnastics to try to distance ourselves: “I’m a good person, I didn’t do this, I didn’t even know it was going on”; “That was a Catholic school; the United Church ones weren’t as bad as that”; “children’s mortality rates were high everywhere in those days”; “That was then, and this is now, we can’t wallow in the past”.
Claims of ignorance, trying to avoid guilt, pointing the finger at others, trying to put it all behind us; these are all ways to get away from the reality, not only of the past but of the present.
This discovery shines a spotlight on some of the living trauma caused by these past behaviours and the inter-generational issues that followed. But if that’s where we focus the discussion, then we are treating our indigenous peoples as victims and making them shoulder the weight of history, while we feel sympathetic.
We also have to recognize and address the ways in which we continue to benefit from all those past and present systems that continue to keep the original people of this land controlled in a way that pushes them to the side while the rest of society benefits from the land and the natural resources that build our cars and homes, heat our buildings and provide profitable investments for our pension plans.
In my first pastoral charge there was a young historian. He took exception to something I had said by remarking: “we can’t judge the people of the past by our modern standards.”
Not a bad principle for historical studies, but I would make an exception: as Christians, we have a set of standards that are very ancient and that should have been applied in the last two centuries, particularly in the things the churches did.
In the story of Herod and the slaughter of the innocents we have a clear and obvious crime. We have been appalled for almost 2000 years at this abuse of power and particularly at the inhumanity of the king and his soldiers who tore children from their parents and then killed them.
That lesson quoted an even earlier lesson which we read in Jeremiah
in which the same expression of pain and outrage is made but which ends differently: in hope, when the children are restored to their parents and the families are allowed to go back to their land.
When Kelly Running-Wolf came to Knox the first time to speak of his Residential School experience I selected this same Jeremiah lesson
and asked him two weeks early if I could use it. Kelly gave me the green light and even so, it moved him so deeply that he had a hard time talking to our children. Those words stirred up such deep feelings for him.
Kelly’s reaction shows how this passage of scripture and many others
express the fundamental understanding of the importance of the bond between parents and children. We should have known not to do this.
We did know! We didn’t create residential schools for rural and remote settler children: we set up one room schoolhouses and sent out individual teachers to do their best.
That kind of system for indigenous children would have probably saved money too, because they wouldn’t need to build huge buildings; they might have even used tents with groups that moved around. We knew how to do that: the Methodists knew all about riding to remote communities and holding tent meetings.
We didn’t want to tear our own children away from their families but we did it to aboriginal children because we had decided they were uncivilized and we would use this new structure to teach them our ways. We arrogantly decided that we knew best; that their parents were probably unfit anyway.
Yes there were people who really tried to be good teachers; there were people who wanted to be loving but the institution itself was designed to break a child’s spirit and replace it with conformity to the majority rules. And in too many cases it opened the door to people who practised petty tyrannies; who acted out their own demons on the children in their care.
It wasn’t only bad individuals; we have clear evidence that organized medical experiments were being conducted “for the good of society”. For example: groups of children were systematically deprived of adequate nutrition so they could be studied as they suffered the effects of malnutrition.
These kinds of eugenics experiments remind me of what the Nazis did. We “gentle” Canadians had similar Eugenics policies: we conducted forced sterilization of native people as well as people with mental disabilities or social disadvantages. It was justified as being a “kindness” so these adults, and society, wouldn’t be burdened with children the parents couldn’t support. I have heard these justifications expressed by Canadian medical professionals less than 20 years ago.
We are very close to a young single mother who, about 10 years ago, was expecting her first child. Her doctor was planning to have social services seize her child at birth. This mother had a lot more family support than many other single mothers in the same city but she is obviously First Nations so the doctor assumed she couldn’t raise the child. If the socially established white members of her family
hadn’t fought for her, the baby would have been taken away and adopted out. Again: this was only 10 years ago.
What lesson should we take from that horrible Kamloops discovery? That our shock and outrage should be applied to what is going on today. The same kinds of attitudes still exist; the same kinds of decisions are being made now. It’s not all in the past. It is very present.
There is a danger here: that we will agonize and wring our hands over the lost lives of these children and that we will focus on the atrocities of the past in a way that keeps them comfortably distant, in a way that protects our own sense that we are good people.
The fuss over Kamloops will settle down; at least until the next discovery (and there will be more discoveries because there are so many burial sites to find at these schools).
If we find ourselves forgetting, well, that’s human nature, isn’t it? It’s hard to remain outraged for too long; it can burn a person out. But forgetting is a privilege, reserved for those who have not lived this experience, who don’t face today’s versions of this same arrogant treatment that brought us the Residential schools.
In order to address our compromised Canadian heritage, in order to confront and eliminate the prejudices which are built into our structures which we now call systemic racism, we Christians have to go back to first principles, just as we always should.
If we always remember to do unto others as we would have them to do unto us, then we will build relationships built on respect instead of power.
Jesus taught us this first principle 2000 years ago; isn’t it time we applied it to everyone?