Forced to Go the Distance

by Kathryn Fournier - National Aboriginal Sunday - June 16, 2013 A reflection on Galatians 2:15-21 and Luke 7:36-50 Listen to the audio recording

Most of you here who share my demographic will probably remember the Grateful Dead and their iconic tune “Truckin”. That great song includes a line that many of you know. As Jerry Garcia said so well “Lately it occurs to me what a long strange trip it’s been”.

“What a long strange trip it’s been”. That description in many ways sums up my experience over the last few years as co-chair of the United Church’s National Living into Right Relations Task Group. As Co-chair I attended several national events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and I would like to share with you my reflections now on the whole long, strange, excruciating journey.

The readings today, as you heard, are about sin. The uncertainty and confusion expressed in the verses from Galatians sound familiar to me as I reflect on my experience over the last years. And they seem to me to apply to all those good people who did such terrible harm – seeing themselves, not as sinners, but as the righteous who have died to the ways of transgression and found new life in Christ. And yet, and yet, the last sentence expresses a doubt – if any of this proves not to be the case, then Christ died in vain. And on that unsettling note, the reading ends.

In many ways, the United Church, indeed all of Canada I would suggest, is teetering on that note of doubt. At the start of this process of truth, reconciliation and right relations, there was perhaps a belief that we could get it all out into the open fairly simply and then move on. That this road to right relations might be more of a sprint, through the apologies and over the reparations and then on to the finish line – with most of our core understandings intact. But then the stories began. The unbearable anguish and trauma of the children speaking through the adults voices telling about their lives in those schools. The man in Saskatoon who said he had not really thought about residential school after he left it. He made a good life for himself and his family, had a business and succeeded on many levels. Then he heard about the TRC coming to Saskatchewan and he began to remember. He told us the story of the time when the fire drill sounded when he was in the shower and the dorm supervisor made him go out in the snow in his towel with nothing on his feet. Another boy let him stand on his own boots and tried to cover them both with his own coat. The man just looked at us in the circle and said “How could someone do that?” I have endured the same horrendous tales of abuse at other TRC events.

The unremitting stories of maltreatment, of children so deprived of their most fundamental rights, have brought our understanding of what the churches were doing to a new level, I think. The reality is that sin and evil existed there, and until right relations become a reality, continue to exist. And I am not sure many of us were ready, or ARE ready, for that.

Some of you may remember Kevin Arnett, a United Church Minister who was removed from the rolls in the 1990s. There were many good reasons to remove him from active ministry, but his insistence, then and now, that the churches committed genocide in the residential schools, was also surely part of the problem. I think Kevin Arnett has significant personal issues and his fantasies are not helpful– but he was also vilified, I believe, for daring to suggest that the United Church of Canada did something so terribly wrong – so full of sin – that it would qualify in any way as an attempt to exterminate a people – which is what genocide is. And yet, at the recent TRC event in Montreal, former Prime Minister Paul Martin referred to the schools as attempted cultural genocide. He and others, I guess, see it as a reasonable interpretation of the publicly stated government policy – in which the churches were complicit – to “Kill the Indian in the child.”

Canada is now also the subject of an inquiry by a Treaty Body from the United Nations which is looking into whether Canada has committed grave and systemic human rights violations with regard to missing and murdered Aboriginal women. I can tell you, because I work on this file in my day job, that the initial reaction of most of my colleagues in departments like Foreign Affairs and Justice, is indignation that anyone could possibly accuse Canada of such a sin. While admitting that the problem is real and serious, and acknowledging that the current context is rooted in a long history of unjust policies and practices, they don’t seem able to take that final step that connects the dots into a clear picture of human rights violations of Aboriginal people.

But as Murray Sinclair, the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission says in the TRC’s recent interim report – we are being forced to go the distance on this one. The very experience of facing the monstrous truth of those stories is changing our lives, our church, our country. We are teetering on the brink of that confusion and uncertainty we heard in the Galatians reading and we are going to have to take the next step and the next, until we arrive together in that place where the unthinkable takes form in our minds, where the unspeakable is finally uttered. This is the place we get to when we complete the forced march to truth.

But it is also the place where the healing can finally truly begin, where reconciliation might be possible. We are still going the distance, the journey is not over and we have no choice but to keep uncovering what this country has so successfully hidden from the view of most Canadians – not to mention the rest of the world – even as we shudder and cry out and begin to feel what the writer of Galatians must mean about being crucified with Christ.

There is another dimension to this story of the long road to right relations that came in many ways as an even greater surprise to me. My experience with the Living into Right Relations Task Group was not the uplifting affirmation of good will that I had expected. Last summer, I and the other co-chair removed a member from the group whose behavior and attitude were so blatantly at odds with our mandate that I couldn’t understand how the person had been appointed in the first place.

This Aboriginal person was not willing or able, it was clear, to engage in the work of right relations. The only exchange with the non-Aboriginal people in our group always began with “the problem with you white people is…” We asked this person to leave and the group can now at least complete its mandate in a more respectful and constructive climate – but it was an extremely painful experience for me and a symbol of the detours on this road to right relations.

For several years, no-one dared confront this person, no-one spoke their truth, the person themselves was so clearly in a place of brokenness – how could we have imagined that our group could even talk authentically about, let alone be a model of, right relations? And that has led me to another conclusion about the work of reconciliation. As we are forced to the place where we acknowledge the tremendous harm done, the sin and evil perpetrated on a people just because they are that people, which is what human rights abuses are all about, as we go the distance to that truth, we arrive at another fundamental truth – that all of us, those who harmed and those who were harmed, need to move from the spot where we have made ourselves comfortable, no matter how much it continues to hurt us, and go the distance to the place of true reconciliation.

And in my mind we are not there yet. I question whether automatically siding with the Indians on any and all issues, if I can put it that way, really demonstrates a healed relationship or a guilt-induced falling in line. In the same way, accepting any behaviours, however intolerant and demeaning, by those who were harmed, is perhaps less an authentic cross cultural engagement than a condescending assumption that these “victims” must somehow remain below common standards of mutual respect and dignity.

I would not want anyone to think that I am not hopeful about our potential for right relations. From those whose greatest sins are forgiven, comes the greatest love – and the greatest capacity for service – as we hear in Luke. Can we go that distance?

I had the great honour to attend a workshop several years ago with Father Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest who was active in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and whose hands were blown off by a letter bomb. He established the Institute for the Healing of Memories and his work, I think, is grounded in the same belief about the potential to move past sin that we hear in Luke.

The mission statement of the Institute says: Our work is grounded in the belief that we are all in need of healing, because of what we have done, what we have failed to do, and what has been done to us.

What I love about this approach is that it is about the common ground between those who harmed and those who were harmed rather than the gulf of mistrust and conflict that still separate us so often in Canada. Acknowledging where we each are on the continuum might be a necessary first step but we must then be moved together and as one by the transformative power of our longing for reconciliation to the place where, as Michael Lapsley says, human relationships can be transformed and restored.

I hope that this time together today will be a helpful step on that journey. During the Offering, we will hear Amazing Grace, for many of us an old-fashioned tune that has lost meaning. I asked for it to be included today as it is well-known as a life-giving affirmation of struggle and strength for many Aboriginal congregations – which is the reason you will see it translated into Cree, Mohawk and Inuktitut in Voices United. I hope, as you listen, you will hear, as I hear also from Luke and from Michael Lapsley, the call to go the distance together so that that we can redeem the past by celebrating what is life giving and laying to rest all that has hurt us and then build together a reconciled, healed world.



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