This year we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, not only in the midst of restrictions that don’t permit us to gather to celebrate the Eucharist, the very manifestation of the body and blood of Christ which the feast marks, but also following the discovery of 215 children’s graves on the grounds of a residential school for indigenous peoples in Kamloops, British Columbia.
How these relate, how these two seemingly disparate things speak to us is something that nagged at me through the week as I was certain there was something there. And I believe they do relate in the idea of reconciliation.
What Christ accomplishes in his sacrifice on the cross is a reconciliation with God for our sins. It’s a reconciliation, however, that each one of us must choose; and we choose reconciliation through our receiving of our Lord in communion, in receiving the body and blood through the Blessed Sacrament. We take into ourselves the fruit of the sacrifice, we prayerfully incorporate Him into us; and then we pray for the faith to be the means by which God continues to reconcile, reconcile us to Him, reconcile us to each other.
So, as this is what I’m talking about, I am not looking to treat the recent news in any great detail, open up the whole of the tangled, tragic history of what came of the encounter between cultures here in North America. I don’t want to go into detailed consideration of the discovery of the graves because there is a lack of specific information about what was found. What I think we can consider is that this has reawakened the nation to the sad legacy of the residential school system enacted by the Canadian government toward the end of the 19th century and run for about a hundred years.
The schools were compulsory for First Nations people, a condition for retaining what is known as “status” as a First Nations person. This compelled education was all done with what we can describe as a “paternalistic” attitude toward indigenous peoples. They were regarded as needing to be brought into the dominant European culture, and to have this accomplished with the greatest possible expediency. This was seen as necessary for their long-term success and survival. There was a lack of sensitivity as to whether the system actually functioned to accomplish this goal let alone consider if that was really the best objective to have; and this largely the result of little or no consultation with those affected, a failure to make indigenous peoples partners in the education of their young. The policy was imposed, and enforced by the Canadian government who enlisted the churches as to provide the personnel to run the schools. This was a rather natural choice given that most Canadian schools were constituted along religious lines in the 19th century and early 20th century.
It is a good example of what comes of authoritarian approaches in governance, a lack of dialogue with those upon whom a policy is imposed, a failure to look at results objectively, examine the ongoing experiences of those actually implementing the policy so as to ask, is this really a good thing? And here we see also the inertia of big government that consistently has difficulty changing course; to admitting to mistakes or acknowledging its incompetence, and in some instances, malfeasance. And in recent days we’ve its most odious instinct, to shift attention from its negligence by pinning the blame and offloading responsibility onto the Church.
My prayer going forward is that our government not repeat the mistakes of the past, with regard to this, or any other area of policy.
However, I must remind us all that those who came up with the policy, passed and implemented the pertinent legislation did so thinking it a good thing to do. That these men and women involved in the school system were by and large, committed to accomplishing something good. And I’ve no doubt that many who were involved, politicians, bureaucrats, administrators and teachers, most who have long since died, went to their graves feeling that on the whole they done something good, if difficult.
It brings me to reflect on the matter of Christ’s trial as an extreme example of our human lack of awareness of what we do; and in the Gospels there is a clear portrayal of the Temple authorities and the Sanhedrin, the governing council of Jerusalem, as a body concerned with the safety and preservation of the Jewish people. Yes, we are told there were those who were jealous of Jesus; and we see in the trial a marked lack of due process. What emerges, however, as the justification for putting Jesus to death of is that it would be better for one man to die than have the whole nation destroyed. A difficult but ultimately good decision in their minds.
I am certain that the great high priest Caiaphas went to his ancestors somewhat assured that in difficult times he had done not a bad job; that many of the leaders similarly died in the conviction that with respect to Jesus of Nazareth, that it was something unpleasant but necessary, and they had shown the fortitude and good character to do it.
Jesus himself, upon the cross, says for us to “forgive them, for they know not what they do…” because he well anticipates the human instinct for revenge in the name of justice.
We know from history that Jews in the time of Christendom, were often subject to violent persecution, predicated on their “blood guilt” for the death of Jesus Christ, despite our Saviour’s own command to forgive. Christians don’t believe in “blood guilt”, inherited culpability, revenge in the name of justice—not being justice at all but a continuation of injustice. We believe in reconciliation, active reconciliation.
When through the week we saw displays of children’s shoes, teddy bears, etc. I was struck by that as a sign of the religious impulse still active in the larger community. The little shoes, the toys, reminded me of votive offerings found at archaeological sites around the world – the interpretation of which occupies many an archaeologist. I’m not sure what they mean by these displays around the country. Are they simply expressions of grief or anger?
Monday afternoon, B. discovered on the front steps of the church a pair of children’s moccasins with a sheet of paper clipped to them. The paper read: “Justice.”
Again, I’m not sure what is being asked for by whomever left it. I’m sorry, the single word may seem obvious, but I have to ask what is meant by “justice” in this situation. The schools have been shut for more than a generation, most connected with their creation and administration are dead. How then is justice to be accomplished?
And that question can be asked of history in general: the wars, persecutions, invasions and displacements of human beings is our common legacy. Injustice seems the norm within our historical experience, those seen as guilty long gone in peace to their respective graves.
If justice is understood as paying a penalty, Jesus makes it clear that this has been paid by Him. We are then to affect the reconciliation that comes in the light of that payment, we seal our commitment in the celebration of the Eucharist and the act of communion.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission did invaluable work with respect to the legacy of residential schools and other aspects of government policy toward indigenous peoples, and while we can all find something in its recommendations with which to differ, it is the basis for moving toward proper reconciliation. And as I’ve said in a previous homily, the continuation of the relationship of governments with First Nations people is still largely predicated on the Indian Act which should have been scrapped fifty years ago and a new approach taken that gives to indigenous community the proper autonomy to govern themselves with all the difficulties that come with such responsibility.
The displays of children’s shoes ought not be simply another mute gesture, a mere indulgence in sentiment; an emotional release such as we see in the wake of any well-publicized death. The Eucharist is not to be simply a ritual that provides comfort to the individual and nothing more. We speak of the body and blood of Christ as given to us in the sacrament as food, nourishment, and so it is to nourish us, build us up to accomplish what Christ would have us do as His body in the world. Saint Paul tells us (2 Corinthians 5:18-19) that we have ministry of reconciliation, a mandate to bring the message of reconciliation to the world, so that all might be reconciled not only to each other, but by that be reconciled with God who is all in all.