HOMILY – NATIONAL ABORIGINAL/INDIGENOUS DAY – Pentecost 5 – June 21, 2015
“ … now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” 2 Corinthians 6:2
Guest homily from Rev Donald Grayston
Today is National Aboriginal Day, something of which our Premier seemed to be unaware when she designated the use of the Burrard Bridge for a yoga celebration. I have nothing against yoga; but it cannot begin to compare in importance with what we are reflecting on today, the relation between the First Peoples of this land and the rest of us—the settlers as we were once called, and before that, the colonists.
The first time that the residential schools issue broke into my consciousness was around 1995, when I watched a TV show which I think—not sure—was called “The sins of the fathers.” In that show there was an incident in which a First Nations couple were told that their children had died, and the children were told that their parents had died. It is hard to place any kind of estimation on the vileness of this. But apparently there was more than one such incident, in which the schools acted the way they did because in a perverted way, they believed they were acting in the best interests of the children. It’s analogous to how the inquisition burned heretics at the stake in the belief that this too was in their best interests, that they would repent while being burned and so save their souls.
Two weeks ago, Justice Murray Sinclair, only the second indigenous person to be made a judge in Canada, presented in Ottawa the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The report took six years to prepare, and is based on interviews with 7000 survivors of the residential school system. From every account, the occasion was a very moving and celebratory event. I am proud as an Anglican to say that our bishop was there, representing us. It’s also important to note that the six years of work of the commission was paid for in part by the churches, including our Anglican Church of Canada, which ran the residential schools under contract from the government; some of that church contribution would have come from our diocese.
The report told the stories of the abuse suffered by the survivors: physical abuse, including being starved; sexual abuse; and cultural abuse, being prevented, for example, from speaking their first languages. The chief justice of the Supreme Court, the Right Honourable Beverly McLaughlin, echoed the conclusion of the commission that what had happened over the 120 years that these schools were in operation was nothing less than cultural genocide, and in this she was immediately seconded by the premier of Québec, although not, I note, by the Prime Minister.
The adjective—cultural—is important. It was not genocide pure and simple, a program designed to eliminate from the face of the land every indigenous child, woman and man. What the Nazis intended for the Jews was that kind of genocide, complete physical destruction. I taught a course for nine years on the Holocaust, and in that connection had to reflect on what genocide is. Genocide as such is intentional and absolute. What happened in Canada was different. It was what I would call subintended genocide. Let me give an illustration of what I mean by “subintended.” Someone who drinks himself or herself to death has committed subintended suicide. If you had asked them if they were committing suicide, they would have said no; but it would have been clear to others from their actions that they were heading in that direction.
So with cultural genocide. There was no intention that all the peoples of the First Nations should become extinct in a physical sense; but there was an intention, sometimes implicit, often explicit, that their culture should die, that it was worthless, that they would be better off to be assimilated into the mainstream culture. The dreadful phrase that was used in the schools was that their purpose was “to take the Indian out of the child.” The effect of this intention was not physical genocide—although many did die in the process—but cultural genocide. Those who ran the schools placed their own cultural values above their Christian values, assimilation above love.
Switching gears. Last Thursday the Pope issued a very important document, an encyclical on the challenge of climate change, and its effects on the earth, or as he calls it, “our common home.” The Guardian newspaper in the UK called it “the most astonishing and perhaps the most ambitious papal document of the past 100 years” (the guardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/18/guardian-view-on-laudato-si-pope-francis-cultural-revolution). This is a high estimation, because it places it above the 1963 encyclical issued by John XXIII on nuclear weapons, Pacem in Terris. Like Pope John’s encyclical, this new one was addressed not simply to Roman Catholics nor even just to Christians, but to all the people of the world. What the two encyclicals have in common is that they address the two concerns each of which has the power to destroy the planet and all its species, ourselves included. Pope Francis began his message with words that would have been, would still be, of immediate and profound meaning to the peoples of the First Nations. Here’s how it starts.
“Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.1
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.
Quoting St Francis, he calls the earth our mother and our sister. This is the kind of personalist language which the First Nations have long used to describe the relation between the earth and human beings. The first settlers, hearing this kind of language, dismissed it as childish or irrelevant, because it didn’t fit with their rationalist and industrial views. They looked down on the peoples of the First Nations because they had no buildings of the kind that Europeans were used to, nor did they have a written language. What they did have—and fortunately this was understood by a few of the settlers—was the ability to live in harmony with the earth as their mother and sister. The Pope had to issue his encyclical because he saw, as many others have also seen, that by technological means we have brought ourselves to a point of calamity, to the place where the destruction of the planet is a possibility. What an irony this is—that we are discovering that to restore our relationship with the earth we need to call upon the kind of earth-wisdom that the First Nations have had since time immemorial.
What both the TRC report and the Pope’s encylical are calling for is nothing less than conversion. And what is conversion? Conversion is turning: turning away from previous ways of acting and living, and turning towards new and better ways. We are in a historic moment which American Buddhist philosopher Joanna Macy calls “the time of the Great Turning.” We need to turn away, she says, from a dependence on industrial and technological approaches to the earth, and from the individualism and consumerism that rule the lives of so many, and turn towards a focus on the common good of our common home. The chapter headings of the encyclical lay out the landscape: What is happening to our common home? / The gospel of creation / The human roots of the ecological crisis / integral ecology / lines of approach and action / ecological education and spirituality.
Those last two chapter headings apply equally to the task of reconciliation that lies before us: they call for education and action, and a renewal of our spirituality as Christians. The TRC report contains 94 calls for action: they can’t be commandments, but they are much more than suggestions. Some of them are addressed to the governments, some to the churches, some to the population in general. The encyclical has received a lot of praise, and it has also received criticism, mostly from people with large investments in fossil fuels. I want to challenge you this morning to form a delegation which will visit your MP, James Moore, and ask him what he plans to do in response to the TRC report, and, if you are so moved, the Pope’s encyclical, and, as the election approaches, all the candidates.
On that score, two interesting news items. A couple of weeks ago the Church of England withdrew its investments in any fund that contained more than 10% stock in fossil fuels. Around the same time, the government of Norway withdrew its massive investments in coal. And forgive me for a personal statement, as if I were placing myself on the same level as the Church of England or the government of Norway; however, here it is. Concerned about this issue, I contacted the investment firm that has been handling my pension funds. I asked them if they had any funds that didn’t include fossil fuels. They told me they didn’t. I asked them if they had any plans to set up such funds. They said they didn’t. So I then called VanCity, and asked them the same questions. Receiving positive answers, I switched my pension funds to VanCity. They are now invested in two funds, one containing no fossil fuels, the other 3%. This is something anyone could do.
And why am I telling you so much about the encyclical on a day designated as National Aboriginal Day? Because the fossil fuel companies are placing enormous pressure on First Nations to accept the equivalent of thirty pieces of silver and permit them to use their traditional territory for pipelines and so on. Here I salute the Prince Rupert band which a couple of weeks ago turned down the offer of a billion dollars—a billion dollars!—from an LNG company that wants to build on their territory.
Here’s an important perspective on our relationship as church to the First Nations. When the residential schools were founded, the church was a strong and powerful social institution. By comparison, the peoples of the First Nations in social terms were virtually powerless. Over the years, however, the situation has changed. The church is no longer powerful, and the First Nations are much stronger than they were. Here’s how I visualize it: in former times the church was up here (gesture) and the First Nations down here (gesture). Now we are on approximately the same level: and when two individuals or groups are on the same level they can look each other in the eye and communicate as equals. And indeed, the First Nations are looking us in the eye and asking us what we plan to do in response to the TRC report; and, in another context, the Pope is looking us in the eye and asking us what we plan to do in the care of our common home, always sacred to the First Nations.
A look now at the scriptural basis for what I have been saying. Last week the second reading was from Second Corinthians, and this was my text: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17). Now if we look at that text, what follows is very instructive. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” 2 Cor 5:18-19). Then in this morning’s second reading, we have heard these further words about reconciliation:
“now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor 6:2). I want to repeat today what I said last week, that for many years I read that verse with the emphasis on “salvation”—it’s all about salvation. Then one day, working on a sermon, it hit me: the emphasis needs to be on “now”—it’s now, not yesterday, not tomorrow, but now, today, now! God has entrusted to us a ministry of reconciliation and has told us that the time to work on reconciliation is now. That, I am convinced, is the key to the call to conversion that we are hearing from the TRC and the Pope. Thomas Merton says this: “Our responsibility is to the future, not the past. The past does not depend on us, the future does” (Reflections On My Work, 51). Not whenever: now!
One of my most important learnings from teaching a course on the Holocaust was this: the difference between guilt and grief. Are we guilty of the Holocaust? No: we weren’t there, we didn’t do it. Then what must our response be? Grief: grief that it should have happened at all; grief that it happened at the hands of a so-called Christian country; grief that centuries of Christian anti-semitism contributed to the social attitudes which made it possible. Similarly, we are not personally guilty of the abuses perpetrated on First Nations children in the name of our church: we weren’t there, we didn’t do it. But the response of grief for the cultural genocide suffered by the First Nations through their children needs to be the same.
Let grief then serve us as a watchword. Let us grieve with our brothers and sisters of the First nations. Let us grieve for the failures of those of our fellow-Christians who ran the schools. Let us grieve for the way we as Christians and Canadians have for so many years been ready to “let sleeping dogs lie,” as the old proverb goes. Let grief move us—this is the most important point–to a commitment to act on the inseparability of justice for the First Nations and justice for the earth, our common home, or as many First Nations peoples would call it, and as St Francis also calls it, our mother.
Lord, have mercy upon us; Christ, have mercy upon us; Lord, have mercy upon us.
Reverend Donald Grayston