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Annual Lecture - August 2015 by Bishop Mark MacDonald, National Indigenous Bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada

Annual Lecture - August 2015 by Bishop Mark MacDonald, National Indigenous Bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada

Cultural Genocide: The Journey of Indigenous Healing

Just last week, one of our elders rose to speak at a gathering of Indigenous Christians in Turtle Island - otherwise known as North America – he spoke of the pain of being denied the prayers of the "old ones" and his own journey as a survivor of the Indian Residential Schools, eventually becoming a Christian priest. It is hard to describe the communal emotion as he prayed in his Cree mother-tonguethe once-forbidden traditional prayer in the Four Directions. In simple and courageous moments likethese you see new worlds are born and old worlds die.

The report of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) describes the Indian Residential Schools (IRS) as an act of "Cultural Genocide." The more than hundred years of bureaucratically enforced misery and mayhem certainly qualify for this phrase. These two words describe the deliberate and openly acknowledged efforts of government, church, and a whole culture to destroy the fabric of life for Canada's Indigenous Peoples.

Using "cultural genocide" to describe the IRS is an extremely fair-minded attempt to acknowledge that there was no direct attempt to murder children. It does make, at the same time, an effort to reveal the horrifically cruel motivation and scope of the intended destruction. This destruction includes both the massive numbers of the dead on-site at the schools and the continuing lethal legacy of poverty, constant social upheaval, and multiple and enmeshed layers of trauma and stress.

Our theoretical and analytical perceptions of massive events of systemic evil all seem to have a preliminary and tentative character. It is generally difficult to understand widespread acts of evil and, even more so, when they have occurred recently. Despite this difficulty, it is essentially important to our common humanity that we begin to trace the trajectories of life and death seen through events like the IRS. The TRC itself begins to this tracing. In this short paper I would like to suggest some of the broad things that appear to me, in light of the TRC in Canada, regarding the path of death and the path of healing. In light of the truth revealed in the TRC – its pain and it hope - it is our sacred task to honor life with the very best of our prayerful thoughts.

The Trajectory of Death

Over the centuries, human beings have developed an uncountable number of ways to understand systemic evil. In this paper, we are speaking more directly here to those times when systemic evil swamps the capacities of peoples and cultures to operate in an economy of life. The cold analysis of modern social science is unsatisfying and meagre in this task and it appears. Coupled with the modern emphasis on individual autonomy, the social sciences influence on cultural perceptions of massive evil tend to reduce it to a network of bad individual choices. The result is a search for guilty parties, often obscuring the systemic factors that make massive evil so hard to understand and defeat.

The stories of Indigenous communities, alternatively, speak about the communal reality of systemic evil in terms of personified spiritual character. This is not unlike the way the Biblical tradition speaks of "principalities and powers" in describing the experience of both evil and good. This speaks of a personified communal spiritual character - sometimes good, sometimes bad, and sometimes neutral - that permeates human interactions with each other and creation. Though often dismissed as superstitious, the ancient stories of personified evil carry a sometimes hidden wisdom regarding the ways communities can create a culture death through persistent behaviors and attitudes. In the stories, we perceive the way that misery and trauma can be layered throughout the economy of life, as in the residential schools.

Ancient stories tell of people and communities plagued with spirits both complex and powerful; personified evil, almost impossible to overcome, contained within the shell of our humanity but infusing every action with a spirit of fearful and compulsive scarcity. On Turtle Island, for example, children were frightened by the stories of groups of people malformed by starvation into powerful cannibals. They became this way by a lethal multi-layered combination of fear, greed, and circumstance. Overcome by desire and fear, they became a kind of living dead, stalking the weary, the careless, and the fearful. They could inhabit whole communities with a desire that could never be satisfied. Insatiable and ascending wickedness was their only means to cope with the pain that drove them on this path.

The power of systemic evil is derived from its capacity to operate with intimidation and fear at a communal level. It creates a false reality and a false community, the opposite of the economy of life. The apostle Paul called these systems of evil "strongholds" - regions of bad thought bad attitude and bad behavior, habituated in and by the very systems and relations that are meant to protect, animate, and cherish life. In the economy of death, care, compassion, and a sense of familial inter-connectedness is swamped. True family competes with the idolatrous false community. Family life itself becomes an enemy, as in the IRS.

In war, soldiers often return with what is now being called a "moral wound." This describes the structural diminishment of a person's capacity for moral thought and decision by participation in horrific evil. The consequences to a person are devastating, influencing intimate relationships, the capacity for participation in communal wellness, and, perhaps most dangerous of all, the ability for moral imagination and hope.

We may revisit the development of destructive mass evil with both our ancient wisdom and this insight. Seen from the perspective of our ancient wisdom, we may say that a culture or society's participation creates a type collective moral wound, limiting the capacity for collective moral vision and action. The culture of a people becomes wounded, with deadly consequences for focus and victims of collective acts of fear and hate but, also, long term consequences to the moral shape of a people's communal behavior and relationships. Societies and cultures perpetuate morally wounded behaviors. Once dehumanizing a class of people, continual repetition of victimization remains, it becomes systemic, cultural, and habituated. Overt racism, for example, may be ended, but racially shaped evil continues in other forms, as in the inability to perceive structural injustice like the endemic poverty of a people or their further victimization in brutal and unfair policing structures or mass incarceration.

A communal moral wound can be exported and replicated again and again. The exploitation of the colonial economic system, a system that ran on the wide scale theft of the resources of others, creates an economic culture that continues to exploit till it destroys the very world humanity inhabits. In pursuit of the massive and concentrated wealth of colonial economics cultural patterns of domination and intimidation of other peoples, especially indigenous peoples, are inflicted on other areas, as is so often seen in the way extractive industries operate globally. The morally wounded society and culture magnifies misery of others while never addressing the insatiable hunger in its own painful universe of moral diminishment,

The IRS, as is mentioned in the TRC's report, are an example of a societal and cultural moral wound. Colonialism has stunted a society's moral vision, creating successive generations of oppression. Challenged at some levels, the structure of oppression gets repeated. Schools full of dehumanized victims become jails full of dehumanized victims.

The trajectory of death is manifest in the IRS. The misery that still haunts Indigenous Peoples on Turtle Island, the moral wound that still infects all of Canada, runs right through the IRS to the streets, prisons, and homes of contemporary life. Some of the highest rates of suicide in the world, the pandemic of poverty and hopelessness, and, finally, the invincible ignorance that continues to surround and protect the lie of the colonial project is seen so dramatically in the report of Canada's truth and reconciliation commission.

The Trajectory of Life

The trajectory of death is grim and frightening and there are times when death seems to be the inevitable destiny of peoples, of humanity, and of Creation. It is often quite difficult to recognize the trajectory of life in the often harsh circumstances of human existence. Some would say that to speak of a trajectory of life is not only inaccurate, it may be a false and dangerously misleading hope.

In the midst of life, we are in death, says the old hymn. But the inverse may also be true, in the midst of death, we are in life. The trajectory of life may often be obscured by the experience of the trajectory of death as would be the case for many survivors of the IRS and observers of the TRC. But, as a testimony to life and a protest against death, we must, in prophetic hope, begin to trace this trajectory in the improbable survival of Indigenous Peoples on Turtle Island.

Roman Catholic theologian, Robert Schreiter, has focused his work on reconciliation, having studied the Truth and Reconciliation process around the world for many years. He importantly observed that reconciliation never happens because an oppressor feels bad about their behavior and wants to do better. Reconciliation begins, he says, when an oppressed people choose to reclaim their humanity.

This is certainly true in the case of the IRS, as it was the survivors who refused to live any longer in a false identity or to accept their de-humanization. But there is more to this act than might meet the eye. While recognizing the vital importance of the survivors' actions to bring the IRS to light, their story, their particular place in the trajectory of life, does not begin here.

As the survivors often said, the presence of the ancestors, the elders, was always guiding them and sustaining them. Further, they often pointed to the presence of Spirit, of the divine being, in their acts of courage. They traced their hope, wisdom, and courage to the foundation of life placed in their hearts and minds by Spirit and those who had gone before. Their attitude, their sense of relationship to their relatives, and their humor was almost miraculously present; broadly speaking, these things could not be taken away, even in the worst of experience. It was something that was a part of them, a part of the structure of their being. They often spoke of Spirit's help, animated through the wisdom and faith of the elders of long ago.

In the midst of the TRC, an Indigenous agency, an ability to act, to believe, and to stand with the elders, was revealed as a key element of the trajectory of life in the experience of Indigenous Peoples. There was a recognition that the elders had adapted from the very beginning, using their ancient cultural wisdom and relationship to the Land as a means to receive the colonizers in the best manner possible. They worked for the relational life that was their pattern of living and the structure of their interactions with other peoples. This was the foundation of their treaty-making and is, to this day, the reason that Indigenous Peoples continue to trust in the treaties, despite the spotty adherence to them by the colonizers.

Christian faith was received, as well, yet adapted to Indigenous life and world-view. Though almost always suppressed by the missionaries – so much so that it was necessary for it to go underground in Indigenous translations of hymns and Scripture, the teaching of catechists, and practice of faith at the level of family and home - this embodiment of the essential elements of Christian faith in the cosmology and life-ways of Indigenous Peoples is now a resource to Indigenous Peoples and, amazingly, to the colonizers. Its contemporary emergence in the freedom of this post-TRC world is a testimony to the resilience and cultural brilliance of Indigenous Peoples. Alongside the re-emergence of traditional practices, the development of an Indigenous Christian faith is a revelation of the trajectory of life, of the vibrancy of its healing path in the midst of the human disaster of colonization.

The reclaiming of humanity seen in the TRC's 94 Recommendations is too broad and varied for comprehensive comment here. It can be said that it is an outline of restoration, self-determination, and the re-establishment of human rights as the basis of Canada's relationship with its Indigenous or First Peoples – First Nations, Inuit, and Metis. It is too early to tell how the nation of Canada will respond, though the first reaction is encouraging. What is critical to note – and this is particularly true of Indigenous Peoples within the church I serve – is that Indigenous Peoples will take to themselves their inherent rights, will live out an ascending pattern of self-determination, and will never-again return to the degradation of the past. This is not to say that this will be evenly developed or speedily achieved. What it means, as Chief Bobby Joseph said at the first TRC event is that - "We will make it." It may be slowed, it may be resisted, but it cannot be stopped.

We spoke at the beginning of the personification of systemic evil as a character permeating a peoples' existence and experience. In the past, it was said that such evil could only be challenged by vigilant hope, courage, and loving community – to be a good relative. The power of this systemic evil was derived from its capacity to intimidate with fear at a communal level. It created a false community, the opposite of the economy of life. In the economy of death, care, compassion, and a sense of familial inter-connectedness is attacked in the service of a personified collective fear, arrogance, and idolatry.

The survivors and spiritual leaders that have begun this Indigenous restoration on Turtle Island have stood against this spiritual and physical evil with force and resolute courage. They have reclaimed their humanity and their spirituality. In the course of this reclamation, they have given their oppressors the opportunity to find new life in the healing of a moral wound. This is the beginning of forgiveness – the kind and prophetic task of showing people who they really are and, at the same time, opening the way for them to have new life.

The reclamation of a life in spirit, the cosmology of Indigenous Peoples is not an adjunct to healing, it is the center of it. The elders would insist it is absolutely necessary to any real reclamation of their humanity and a vital condition of their acceptance as full human beings in the family of nations. As such, they witness to a holistic way of life for all humanity. A prophetic stance in a world threatened by massive climate injustice – an extension of the trajectory of death associated with colonization. This now appears to be a central theme of the next stage of Indigenous empowerment and life. A trajectory of life in the holistically spiritual way of life of Indigenous Peoples is now facing a new challenge.

About Us

The Institute for the Healing of Memories seeks to contribute to the healing journey of individuals, communities and nations. 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.

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