Weeping. Confession. Resistance. This is the only way forward for a church in need of decolonization.
In late September of 2013, I found myself in a large display hall at Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition. Thousands upon thousands were gathered for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s national event.
I had volunteered to be present as a representative of the Anglican Church of Canada, to listen and then offer an apology to survivors who wished to tell the truth about their experience of Indian Residential Schools. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. All I knew was that I needed to be there.
Other representatives were there as well – folks from the Anglican, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and United Churches, all of whom had operated residential schools in Canada. There were a variety of public opportunities for survivors to tell their stories, and others more personal.
I remember standing on the edges of one circle, as survivor after survivor told their horrific stories of abuse and loss. There were those who had attended Residential School themselves, and there were others who came to tell the stories of generational trauma. Late in the afternoon, a young woman carrying a baby got up to speak. She told the stories of her mom and of her grandmother, both survivors. And then she told her own story as a descendant of those who had been abducted by church and government forces and sent to Residential School.
In the middle of her truth-telling, she paused for a moment. She looked down, contemplating her baby for some time.
Looking up, she spoke to the crowd, “I tell my daughter every day that I love her. Because of what you people did to her, my mother never could. I need her to know that she is loved.”
People like me.
Settlers of Canada.
Colonizers of the people of this land.
We are the ones who claimed this land, claimed it empty, and claimed divine right to its possession.
People like me.
All of us.
The air evacuated the room. I began to weep. Uncontrollably. The floodgates opened, the dams broke, a stream of raw emotion overwhelmed my well-reinforced banks. In this moment I came face to face with another human whose story poked holes in my own. I came face to face with a person whose story decentered me, my history, my faith, and my clear account of the way things are.
I came face to face with a person who helped me to begin to see how each story has its shadowy side.
The story of the church in Canada has a long shadow.
A few years after the Truth & Reconciliation gathering, I was invited to another event, this time with a storyteller who, like me, was a settler. The stories they shared from their work managing the archives of an institution that had been involved in the Residential School system were devastating. There were so many stories that could break a heart into a hundred pieces. The one that continues to stick with me was this revelation, this unveiling: each child abducted by this country’s colonial government and its church henchmen would have been baptized upon entry into Residential School.
Baptism, a sign of God’s grace, tortured into a sign and symbol of unspeakable violence done in the name of Christ.
Not only were many people indigenous to this land systematically abused through the collusion of religious and political systems of power, but they were also forced into baptism. This baptism and all that followed did not, in fact, invite them into God’s family, but rather served as a violent act of erasing their personhood, and systematically murdering their cultures.
I’m haunted by the fact that the churches who operated these schools claimed baptism as an outward sign of God’s grace.
I’m haunted by the fact that in baptism, the congregation welcomes people into God’s family and commits to nurture the faith and life of the newly baptized.
I’m haunted by the fact that these very actions undermine the message of God’s grace and sabotage any commitment to love and care for one another as members of Christ’s household.
Don’t try to tell me that grace is present in such abuse. I just can’t believe it.
How many dead? How many wounded? How many suffered trauma at the hands of those who claimed Christ?
What have we done? Is it even possible to move forward? This question haunts me as I look to the news and see the many ways in which we are not living into reconciliation. I see the way people and systems (legal, political, economic, social, and religious alike) perpetuate a status quo that is in their best interests. I see the judgments in the Stanley and Cormier cases and I wonder – has anything changed?
But I don’t need to look far to see the brokenness. I don’t know that I even half understand my own complicity. I can call for the decolonization of the church with words in a blog post. I can pray that it be so. But what good are thoughts and prayers when divorced from action?
And so I return to the place this post began:
Weeping. Confession. Resistance. This is the only way forward for a church, and a people, and a country in need of decolonization.
But there’s still a missing piece. A vital, yet hidden piece. If this three-part movement is not rooted in love, it is nothing more than a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. Or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases St. Paul:
If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.
If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-7, The Message)
We can go through the motions, but if these motions are not made in love, this country’s much-needed decolonization will never take root. And so, we must be brought to tears. As individuals, as communities, as a nation.
For those who claim to follow a crucified messiah, this imperative is even more striking.
We must be confronted by painful reality and let down our defences for long enough to be overcome by tears borne of love.
Weeping can (it should be said) manifest in response to fear. And yet, what is fear, but a self-protective response to the perception of love’s absence? Fear is that deep, real, and primal sensation of isolation, disconnection, or threat. If stuck in fear, our ability to move forward is dis-abled.
Fear cuts us off from our true beloved self by obscuring God’s image imprinted on the very core and essence of our being. Fear cuts us off from those with whom we are in loving relationship, and those we are called to love. Fear separates us from the signposts that give us our bearings in this world. Fear insidiously breaks our connection to God, God’s good creation, and one another.
And yet God is perfect love.
And perfect love does what? It casts out fear.
We are afraid when we feel threatened. Fear can be a real and good and helpful response when we are under immediate threat. And yet sometimes, it’s hard to discern when the threat is real.
Which brings us back to the last post, to decolonization, and the disorientation of Holy Saturday.
For many, a church in seeming decline triggers the fear response. A call to decolonization even more so. Such a call threatens the narrative of a church that expects God’s favour and its own power to go hand in hand.
For many of us, a church in decline appears as a threat. It’s a threat to life. To stability. It’s a threat to the story we’ve inherited. From the inside, it feels like something far more sinister than a temporary-if-disorienting plot twist. It can feel as though the whole thing has come crashing down around us, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.
In such a case, fear is a natural response. It’s the very response demonstrated by the majority of the disciples in the days after Jesus’ execution.
You remember the chaos after the cross. Jesus’ disciples scatter from the scene, afraid. After his resurrection, Jesus comes to find them.
Where are they?
What are they doing?
Like Adam and Eve in the garden, cut off from God, Jesus finds them huddled together in fear and trembling.
They’re in the throes of grief. They are deeply afraid. And yet, in order to help them move forward, Jesus meets them with love. “Peace be with you,” he says. “Peace be with you all.”
Truth be told, not all of Jesus’ disciples scatter from the scene. There are three who stay behind. There are three who remain faithful.
In Matthew’s gospel, Christian faith begins after the betrayals, after the denials, after the death.
In the twenty-seventh chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, the first act of post-crucifixion faith begins with Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimithea, and the other Mary. It begins with these three who tend to Jesus’ body with patient unglamorous acts of fidelity and love. Jesus and his movement are basically dead. And yet, two women and a previously unknown stranger come onto the scene to tend to the person and the situation before them in its stark and horrifying reality.
Of course, they hoped for a different ending. Of course, this is not what they wanted. But this is what has happened. Somehow, in love for Jesus, they dig in deep and do what needs to be done.
I can imagine them in the garden, weeping as they tend reverently to Jesus’ body. I can see Joseph cautiously approaching Pilate for the body. He takes it away, wrapping it in a clean linen cloth. Wrapped in that clean linen, he lays the body in his own new tomb. His own tomb, a reminder of his own death. I can imagine the story running through his head. The sense of dread and disappointment. The sense of fear and loss and wonderment. What — if anything — will come next?
There is something about these patient unglamorous acts performed by characters who are in many ways marginalized by the gospel writers. Not one of them plays a starring role in the gospel narratives.
Maybe that’s why every time I re-read this passage I am confronted with what it means to remain faithful. What does it mean to remain faithful to, and embody love for Jesus even when all that is solid melts into air, when it feels like everything has fallen to pieces, when it has come time to look death in the eye?
This passage forces me to remember that faith isn’t what happens when an outcome is guaranteed. Faith is the salt seasoning the dish. It is the light that kindles hope in shadows. Faith is what happens quietly, with few witnesses, after the majority have given up hope or capitulated to the dominant, dominating narrative.
I can imagine the conversations Mary, Joseph, and Mary have with one another as they do this simple work together. The stories they share. The connections they make. The tears they weep. The love they embody in tending to Jesus’ broken body. I can imagine them wrestling with what’s before them, and starting to ask, together, what’s next?
Reading and re-reading this story, I wonder what it is that the Canadian church – a church in need of decolonization – needs to hear.
Throughout his life, Jesus’ ministry focused on stripping down the ship of the religious status quo. He works to liberate imaginations captivated by the dominant consciousness. He makes central the ones the powerful have pushed to the margins.
What’s remarkable to me is that this dismantling doesn’t stop until Jesus quite literally removes his very self from the centre. It’s the final move in upending the system.
When he offers himself on the cross in self-giving love, when in his death he removes himself from the equation, it’s as if he’s provoking the disciples to remember the stories of old. The stories ironed out in Babylonian captivity, the ones that re-narrated the story of how it all began. How God’s dream begins and ends in kenotic self-giving, self-emptying love. God empties God’s self, and in so-doing makes space for creation to thrive.
In the beginning, God creates the heavens and the earth. With God’s creative spark unleashed, the earth is invested with life-giving agency. The earth brings forth plants and all kinds of living creature. As the story crescendos, God creates dust creatures whose job it is, is to tend to all that was created before.
God creates dust creatures whose job it is, is to remember that their very existence is dependent upon all that was created before. And that without the health and life of each previous step of creation, the dust creatures will, themselves, return to dust. We are all dependent upon one another. Without each other, the breath leaves us, and we return to dirt.
Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
In the end, what we’re left with is the inheritance we’ve had from the beginning: an inheritance of interdependent relationship to God, creation, and one another. When we allow or force any aspect of that relationship out of balance, the whole thing falls apart. But Jesus comes to restore, to resurrect, to reconcile. Jesus comes to remind us how to live. And when he dies, our tears break down our well-constructed walls, inviting us to deal with the mess in front of us.
At the tomb, before any sign of resurrection, we see a renewed humanity being born amongst Mary, Joseph, and Mary. We see the way in which these three begin to model the very thing that Jesus came to earth to teach. Across the lines that should otherwise divide them – rich and poor, male and female, clean and unclean — this trinity tends lovingly to Jesus, the one who knit them together in the first place, and who, in his death, releases them to go and do greater things than they can ask or imagine.
In the darkness, weeping.
Waiting for light, the sweetness of tears.
They are ready to confess.
I wonder. Are we?