A keynote address at General Seminary about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, currently seeking to reveal the experiences of indigenous children at church-run residential schools in Canada during the 19th and 20th centuries, was featured in the February 3, 2013 issue of The Living Church.
The Rt. Rev. Mark MacDonald gave the keynote address for the Practical Peacebuilding Winter 2013 program jointly offered by General Seminary and Candler School of Theology. MacDonald is the Anglican Church of Canada's first National Indigenous Bishop and, as a pastoral leader, has been involved in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Over 130 government-funded, church-run schools for indigenous children were located throughout Canada. Their explicit purpose, MacDonald explained, was "to destroy the family bond and the connection to culture and language so that it would be impossible for indigenous culture to continue with integrity." Children were taken against their parents' will at about age five. When they returned home as young adults, they often could not communicate with their parents. At many of the schools, children were abused, physically and sexually. "When they caned an indigenous boy," MacDonald said, "it was to destroy his identity." Due to tuberculosis and other illnesses, and poor provision of health care, the death rate of children attending the schools was 30-50%. About 150,000 indigenous children went to the schools, and about 80,000 are still living. The last school closed in 1996.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is the first of its kind, MacDonald said, to address the experiences of indigenous people and the experiences of children. The Commission's work is to hold regional gatherings both to learn the truth about what happened in the residential schools and to work toward reconciliation and renewed relationships among First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples and Canadians.
The churches in Canada, MacDonald noted, still are not fully able to comprehend the atrocities at the residential schools. One reason, he said, is that the churches simply do not have a language for describing horrific, systemic evil. "When evil swamps over our personal commitments, our personal piety, people of courage and kindness become complicit in the worst kind of evil. We need a way to speak about systemic evil." Another, he said, is that churches, for the most part, lack an ability to articulate a compelling alternative future that is more visionary than technical. Too often, he said, the churches will respond to evil with technical solutions, such as safe church policies. The churches also need to dream and proclaim a future on earth in which systemic evil, that is, the principalities and powers of today, such as racism and sexism, are overcome.
Nevertheless, MacDonald said he is very hopeful. For one thing, indigenous peoples, including Christians in an emerging self-determining indigenous Anglican community, are learning to translate their concerns to the broader public. These indigenous Christians are using the language of the land, ecology and their relationship with Mother Earth to express their concerns about the taking of land rightly belonging to indigenous communities for oil production and mining. Part of his role as the First Indigenous Bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada, he said, is to speak for Mother Earth and also to act as a symbol of the Church's recognition of indigenous peoples' right to exist. Another reason for his hope, he said, is that indigenous Christians are truly discerning the ongoing, tangible presence of God in creation and their history.
"How do we do theology in a stolen land"? MacDonald asked in his conclusion. By a commitment both to moral imagination and to spiritual discernment of the ways God is moving in the community. "We have to develop a capacity to see what God is doing."
To learn more about MacDonald's keynote address, as interpreted by another hearer, click here to read the article in The Living Church.