Text: 1 Samuel 8 (Israel asks for a king) * Video of complete service
I am struck by the depth of the sorrow and horror felt by Canadians this spring after the discovery of the remains of 215 children in an unmarked grave at the site of a former Indian Residential School in Kamloops.
Consciousness of the harm caused by Canada’s Indian residential schools has been rising for years. Six years ago, the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) noted the mortality rate at these schools as a key marker of the genocide perpetrated on Canada’s First Nations by the federal government in the schools and by the churches who ran them — Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and United. Of the 150,000 children removed from their families to residential schools between the 1880s and the 1990s, the government estimates 3,000 died. The Commission documented a further 3,000 deaths. And Chairperson Murray Sinclair believes as many as 15,000 may have died, or one in ten, which is a stark indictment of the schools regardless of their other horrors.
Given Canada’s long reckoning with these schools — starting in the 1960s when the first of them closed, through apologies by the United Church in 1986 and 1998, an apology by the federal government in 2008, seven national events of the TRC from 2010 to 2014, and the attempts since 2015, whether half-hearted or not, by churches and governments to implement the Calls to Action of the TRC’s final report — many are not surprised that an unmarked grave was found; and others believe more will be located in the coming months and years.
I view the news out of Kamloops as a time to deepen the “truth” aspect of our work for reconciliation between Canada’s First Peoples and those of us who are descendants of European settlers or who emigrated to Canada more recently from all the continents of the world.
The devastation of Canada’s First Nations over the past 400 years illuminates some often-denied realities of this country and of its churches whose history is so deeply intertwined with the history of Canada.
Those of us who live in Canada often find it easy to love. It is a country of great variety and beauty and one with a wealth of natural resources. We value Canada’s prosperity, its commitment to human rights, and the sweetness of so many of our lives. As Canada Day approaches again, most of us can find plenty of reasons to be grateful we live here.
But is this not the case for any country? All corners of this blue planet contain great beauty and bounty. And even troubled countries where human rights seem like a distant hope are populated by people who are just as talented, wounded, and blessed as Canadians. For these reasons, almost everyone loves the place where they were born and raised.
Love of country is almost universal. On the other hand, all countries have some of the negative aspects of what the people of Israel call “normal nations” in today’s reading from First Samuel.
I love this passage and how it prefigures the sad history of the kings of Israel that follow. Even the most beloved of Israel’s kings — Saul, David, and Solomon — exhibit the behaviours outlined in Samuel’s warnings. They enslave their subjects, wage unjust wars, and generally make a hash of things. Four hundred years after Samuel, Israel’s kingdom is crushed by foreign powers, and today its monarchy is known only from a sorry set of stories in the Bible.
Canada can also be viewed as a normal nation – beloved by many of its citizens, but also one that exhibits traits we both love and abhor.
The unmarked gravesite in Kamloops reminds us that Canada, like many other nations, is based on conquest and genocide. The establishment of French colonies in what is now Quebec and Atlantic Canada in the 17th Century was a disaster for Indigenous people. When the British Empire conquered New France and Acadia in the 18th Century and expanded colonial settlements into what became Ontario and the western provinces, the disaster spread.
It is difficult for scholars to estimate how many Indigenous people lived in what is now Canada when Giovanni Caboto sailed down the Saint Lawrence River in 1534, but it was probably around 1 million. But by the time four of Britain’s North American colonies united to form Canada in 1867, there were only 150,000 Indigenous people left.
Most of this decline was the result of diseases like smallpox and tuberculosis. But much of it was the result of violence, dispossession of land, and discriminatory treatment. This near physical genocide was deepened by the cultural genocide perpetrated in residential schools in which Canada’s churches eradicated native languages, customs, and an ability to live with dignity.
Since 1867, Canada’s Indigenous population has recovered to where there are about two million Indigenous people today. But many families in these communities continue to exhibit the legacy of colonial violence and to suffer from discriminatory attitudes and systems. Although there has been a multi-faceted native renaissance in Canada over the last 60 years, too many Indigenous people still live with poverty, inadequate services, and high levels of addiction and incarceration.
Many hopeful developments are bringing Canadians closer to justice and reconciliation, but much work remains to be done.
The history of colonial violence against Canada First Nations need not paralyze Canadians with shame, I think. Instead, I believe owning this history could help us acknowledge the shadows of church and nation and so help us find a middle place of acceptance that lies between shame and pride.
Whether Israeli, American, Russian, or Canadian, national pride is a problem. And like most sins, it is one that I sometimes exhibit myself.
For an example, I think back to the 2010 Olympics. If I hadn’t shouted in joy when Sydney Crosby scored to secure a win for Canada in the Gold Medal game in Vancouver, I would have worried about myself. Feeling pride in one’s nation is unavoidable for most of us much of the time. But as inevitable as nationalism seems, my prayer is to not become stuck there.
The work of rising above nationalism is similar to the spiritual work of rising above egotism. In the face of our wounds and powerlessness, it can be easy to fall into self-hatred. In a similar way, when we falsely assume in our youth that we are masters of our destiny, it can be easy to fall into self-adoration. But both self-hatred and self-adoration ignore the deeper reality that our egos are an illusion.
Over decades of so-called failures and success, we sometimes move closer to the gracious truth that we are utterly dependent on the gifts of the cosmos, the biosphere, and our ancestors. We are not responsible for abuse or neglect that may have warped our childhoods nor for most of the capabilities we exhibit in family and career.
Sometimes we accept the Grace to wake up to the reality of our interdependence. In such moments, we can more freely and humbly live into the sacred value of love.
Both self-hatred and self-adoration block us. What makes life flow best is getting out of our own way and accepting our dependent realities.
Something similar faces us with nationalism. We need neither loathe Canada because of its history of colonialism nor adore it as a false idol. Instead, with Grace sometimes we can accept Canada just as it is with all its wounds and blessings and work with others to create a world that is beneficial not just to one nation but to all humanity.
Canada is just a normal nation, and so we can love what we love about it and criticize what we don’t like about it without idolizing it as an object of false worship.
In the grisly years of conquest and colonization, churches collaborated with the state. Despite these terrible crimes, they also created communities of compassion and generosity. So, we need neither loathe the church nor adore it as an object of false worship.
By following paths of death and resurrection, we can walk with fellow pilgrims toward a world that has risen above the traditions of church and nation toward a new life that honours the best of our ancestors while discarding what is not healing or loving.
Canada and its churches have deep shadows. When we accept these shadows, we can gain more of the humility required to seek reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
Reality is the best place in which to enjoy each awesome moment and to work for churches and nations that have died to their colonial pasts and risen to a new life closer to the heart of the God who is Love.
May it be so. Amen.