Setting our Stories Straight: Doing Theology in Canada

Today is Canada Day; although, caught as it is in the midst of a national reckoning incited by the discovery of mass graves on the sites of former Residential Schools, it doesn’t really feel like it. I know I’m not alone in sensing the weirdness of this day of national celebration occurring in the middle of a time of collective grief and introspection. We have built a wonderful country with high and difficult ideals, a country which welcomes refugees, which seeks to be truly multicultural (even if we still have work to do to get there), and which consistently ranks among the best in the world by most metrics. But, as this series has explored, so many of the narratives that have shaped the settlement and development of our country have been faulty and destructive. Our wonderful home that we rightly love has been built on a very bad foundation, and its deep cracks are now showing. It’s time to do the hard and disruptive work of laying a new, stronger, better foundation.

And so today I’d like to think on what it might mean to be Christian — to do theology in thought, word, and action — in Canada today. In light of all the bad narratives of the past, how might we move forward healthily, in a way that honours our God and the Gospel instead of narrow, self-serving agendas? What follows should be read as personal reflections, ideas, and suggestions, not as a manifesto. The way forward will not be determined by me, or by people who look and sound like me. Nor would I want it to. The way forward will be made by all of us coming together in our diversity and difference seeking a difficult path together. What I’ve written here are just some cautious first steps in how I will start what will be a long journey, informed by the theological truths that have emerged in this series and the ninety-four Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

For me the first step in all of his must be genuine repentance. As Christians, the reality of sin — all of the ways we have personally and corporately missed the mark and done harm to our relationships — is no surprise. We therefore have no reason to be uncomfortable with the idea of the need for collective repentance of our national sins. Repentance has a bad reputation these days for being cheap. But true repentance is not cheap. I see it as a long process that has three steps: First, honest acknowledgement of the wrongs of the past, without attempting to side-step, justify, or hide behind ‘good intentions.’ Second, a genuine commitment to doing whatever we can to repair the harm done. This includes apologizing as the most basic of first steps, but also changing our behaviour and, where possible, making amends by seeking to repair the damage done. And third, where repair is not possible, remembering what was done through lamentation.

The work of the previous paragraph sounds simple, but this is deceptive. We have a long way to go as a country before we come close to getting there. There are still many among us who refuse to do even the first step. We Canadians are proud of our values and accomplishments. But we are also often smug and self-satisfied. The positive narratives we have told ourselves for generations have to a great degree formed our national identity. Acknowledging the past honestly shouldn’t be hard, but it is. It means letting go of an idealized picture of who we have been and who we are, and accepting a more complicated story. So yes, many among us still need to be convinced of the first step in this process, let alone the hard work of the second. The work of repair will require big changes in attitudes but also government policies and understandings of national sovereignty, not to mention significant investment of money. It will also take time. Five hundred years of damage cannot be repaired in a single generation, let alone overnight.

While the primary context of this work is the relationship between Canadian settler culture and Indigenous nations, it goes beyond this specific set of relationships. The abuse of Chinese labourers in the building of the railroads is well-known, for example; Canada also turned away boats of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe, and until the 1970s, Canada’s immigration policies were intentionally racist, severely limiting if not outright banning immigration by non-Europeans. (William Lyon Mackenzie King, the longest-serving Canadian Prime Minister, wrote: “That Canada should desire to restrict immigration from the Orient is regarded as natural, that Canada should remain a white man’s country is believed to be not only desirable for economic and social reasons but highly necessary on political and national grounds.” This is our history.)

This is why I’ve listed lamentation as the third step. There are some things that cannot be undone or repaired. That doesn’t mean they can be forgotten. We would do well to keep the memory of those things alive, to honour what has been lost at our hands as a country.

On this foundation of repentance and lamentation we can begin to live into our mandate as Christians to be agents of renewal, re-creation, and reconciliation in the world. As the apostle Paul wrote:

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5.17f).

As Paul makes clear, the goal of this ministry is that we would become “the righteousness of God” (which could be equally translated as “God’s justice”) (5.21). God didn’t do ‘all that Jesus stuff’ as a matter of divine accounting, as though it were the record of our debt that was the problem and not the habits that got us into debt in the first place. No, it was to give us a new life, a new way of being human together. And this is the work of reconciliation to which we are called. About this, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams notes:

Reconciliation, then, cannot be identified with conciliation and — in spite of frequent distortion — is not, for a Christian, a fundamentally conservative idea. If we pray for reconciliation in politics or industry we are … praying for change and newness of life; not only changes of heart, but changes in the structure, the dramatic script, the concrete possibilities in relations (The Truce of God, 58).

In other words, reconciliation means the presence of that fullness of peace the Bible calls shalom. And, I am increasingly convinced, this is the most helpful path for Christian witness to take in Canada. There are at least three reasons for this:

First, it is simply the Gospel. Christianity is at heart a way of reconciliation and peace-making. While for much of at least modern history, Christians have focused primarily on the so-called ‘vertical’ aspect of this — reconciliation with God through the forgiveness of sins — it is clear from the New Testament that the ‘horizontal’ component — reconciliation with one another — is no less important, and in fact the two are inherently linked. Understanding this is not a “social gospel” that limits Christianity to the social and political spheres, but a recognition in word and deed that the Gospel embraces the social dimension by its very nature. If our spirituality does not influence the social, then whatever it is, it is not Christianity.

The second reason why I think understanding our faith in terms of shalom is a helpful way forward for Canadians is that, as Cherokee theologian Randy Woodley points out in his wonderful book Shalom and the Community of Creation, it is a vision that resonates strongly with aspects of Indigenous spiritualities, which he has called ‘The Harmony Way.’ Both of these ideas “have justice, restoration, and continuous right living as their goal. And, perhaps most importantly, they both originate as the right path for living, being viewed as a gift from the Creator.” He later adds:

Many Native Americans understand the wisdom of living out shalom because it is a parallel concept of the harmony way of living that was given to our own people. We see harmony reflected in creation. We notice our own hearts have power to align with God’s intended ways of living. We know, as all people know, to honor the Creator and treat others in the way we want to be treated.

This is a helpful contribution to the idea of shalom since it highlights that it not only has divine and social dimensions, but also includes care for the environment. To live in shalom includes that work of care and concern for Creation that we saw was the true meaning of the command to exercise dominion over the earth.

It is also helpful because it resonates with Indigenous cultures in a way that does not appropriate them. It can therefore be a place of meeting, whether for Indigenous Christians trying to understand their faith within the context of their own cultures, or for non-Indigenous Christians trying to engage in reconciliation, that does not carry the potential for exploitation.

And third, shalom is a particularly well-suited for the Canadian context because of our diversity. Indeed the theme of feeling like an outsider and struggling to belong is a constant in Canadian history and literature. The oppression of Indigenous peoples is part of this, but so too are the sense of marginalization of francophone Canadians both in and outside of Québec, and the immigrant struggle for belonging in every generation — whether from Ireland in the nineteenth century, Central and Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean in the first half of the last century, or from East and South Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean and Latin America since then. We could equally consider the differences we experience today between Western Canada and the East, between the territories in the North and the provinces in the South, or, increasingly, between urban and rural Canadians. Questions of belonging, of finding unity within diversity, of being good neighbours, are a major part of the Canadian experience. And so the struggle for shalom is at the heart of our national story.

It is widely believed that the name ‘Canada’ comes from a St. Laurence-Iroquoian word, kanata, meaning ‘village.’ And it seems to me that this is as good a guiding analogy as any for this work. What does it mean to make our Canadian village a true home for everyone who lives here, including the land’s original inhabitants and settlers new and old? What does it mean to be good neighbours? What does it mean to live in ways that support and sustain our local environment, rather than harm it? I believe these questions lie at the core of the work set out for us as Christians in Canada.

For me, this is exciting work. It’s a challenge to be sure. Reconciliation and peace-making are always hard work. But I am convinced that it is beyond worth it. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” What we have now is an opportunity to build a new Christianity in Canada, stripped of the old harmful narratives, and seeking to move forward in a new commitment to walking in faith together in unity — not a unity based in assimilation and the erasure of difference, but a true unity that celebrates the diversity of God’s creation, human, animal, vegetable, mineral, and beyond.

How good and pleasant it is when we dwell together in unity!

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