Is the Legacy of the Indian Residential Schools an Issue for Theology?

The following is a continuation from my previous post and part of the serialization of the first draft of my dissertation Unsettling Theology.

I was thirsty

Window from the Parish of St. Mary the Virgin, Oak Bay, Anglican Diocese of British Columbia

One might argue that while the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools is an issue for the Church in Canada, it is not really an issue for theology as an academic discipline. The IRS were efforts attempted with the best intentions and largely by good people, even though the outcome was tragic and to be regretted. But this is not due to theology, or should not be assumed to be due to it. Rather, the issue was in the tactics and methodology of the people operating the schools at the behest and support of the federal government. Core doctrine is not affected by condemning what happened in the schools, and what needs to be considered is just a better way of bringing the good news in word and deed.

In any case, no one is asking the churches or theologians to change their theologies. The TRC issued 94 Calls to Action.[1] Most of these calls are to the federal and provincial governments in Canada on issues such as child welfare, education, the preservation of indigenous languages and cultures, health, and justice. The Canadian Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, has committed himself to implementing these recommendations. Some of the Calls to Action were addressed in part and directly to the churches; they are worth reading in full and are collected in Appendix A. The Calls to Action ask the churches to support certain national and indigenous endeavours and, in particular, to respect aboriginal spirituality and customs. They do not presume to call the churches to examine themselves and their theologies, other than to review the history of the churches’ complicity in colonialism, and the necessity for full apologies. To these calls the churches have agreed.

As well, the churches that were involved in the schools have all offered apologies, and these are catalogued in the TRC Final Report. Further, as it is often pointed out, this is not just between settlers and indigenous peoples. The lines between indigenous and settler often get blurry as many people have mixed heritage and may identify primarily as one or the other or both. Within the churches are many mainly indigenous congregations and judicatories, with native clergy at various levels of responsibility. For example, in the Anglican Church of Canada there is a National Indigenous Bishop and many indigenous priests and deacons; the Diocese of the Arctic is largely Inuit and the Bishop and people of a diocese in Northern Ontario, the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh, are Cree and Ojibway. On the whole these indigenous Christians and their ordained leadership are conservative in their theology and are not looking for transformation and reflection.

But does theology not influence the way one lives as a Christians? And if one admits that things went wrong with the IRS, should one not also wonder whether the thinking of the people who set them up and enthusiastically supported them come into play? If ideas influence events, is it not incumbent upon us to consider what theological ideas were in play in the century in which the schools were operated?

Indeed, given the grave results of the IRS, it is incumbent upon the church and its theologians to consider what went wrong. This was a terrible lapse in ethical behaviour, described by the former Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, the Most Reverend Michael Peers, as a kind of idolatry: “we tried to remake you in our image”. Perhaps the time has come for theologians and the church to reorient theology to ethics and concern for the oppressed and disadvantaged, and let go of issues of metaphysics and ontology.

But, “when has Christianity ever paid attention to ethics?”

This objection was made to me by Conrad Brunk, retired Professor of Philosophy at University of Victoria, past Director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society there, and himself the son of a Mennonite bishop. And the challenge has a bite that is more than rhetorical. Throughout history, Christians and Christian theology have been complicit in or indifferent to mass murder, slavery, genocide, cultural assimilation, colonialism, imperialism, discrimination of every type, censorship, xenophobia, and the retardation of progress in science. While this is undoubtedly also balanced by good works by saints and leaders in every age (one’s thoughts run to Patrick, Augustine of Canterbury, Benedict of Nursia, Francis of Assisi, and modern saints such as Martin Luther King, George Bell, and the Berringer brothers), it is an undeniable history.

Also, despite the current appearance of certain groups of Christians arguing for certain understandings of moral behavior, morality and ethics always seems to be secondary or derivative of “core” theology.   This remains a current problem. John Macquarrie’s Principles of Christian Theology (1966)[2] which was used as a textbook for a generation, leaves an explicit discussion of ethics to his twenty-first and last chapter.   The more recent Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology (2009)[3] presents learned essays by a variety of authors on the topics of Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Providence, Scripture, and Resurrection, but “ethics” is not even an entry in the indices of either of its two volumes.

In many Divinity Schools there is a four-part division in study between theology, biblical studies, history, and pastoral studies (this last one being very much a poor cousin of the other three). Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza comments that “Biblical studies appear to have progressed in a political vacuum, and scholars seem to have understood themselves to be accountable solely – as Robert Funk put it – to the vested interests of the “fraternity of scientifically trained scholars with the soul of a church.””[4] Schüssler Fiorenza quotes a letter of 1926 from Rudolf Bultmann, who dominated much of 20th century theology and biblical study, as characteristic of this lack of concern:

Of course, the impact of the [First World War] has led many people to revise their concepts of human existence; but I must confess that this has not been so in my case . . . So I do not believe that the war has influenced my theology. My view is that if anyone is looking for the genesis of our theology he will find that internal discussion with the theology of our teachers plays an incomparably greater role than the impact of war or reading Dostoyevsky.[5]

In their discussions Christian theologians, biblical scholars, and even Christian historians seem to be impervious to what is going on around them. If they have concerns related to the institutional church or the academy they are too often more about doctrinal purity and institutional growth than problems of conduct and evil. The result is an inability to deal with the horrific legacy that Christianity has gathered over the past two millennia.

So, if Christianity up to now has always made ethics a secondary or derivative matter, then, given its history, should it not be made more central?

But this is not so much as a re-centering of modern theology as a return to Christian origins in Judaism. First century Judaism was concerned with issues of justice because Judea, Samaria, and Galilee were all areas of the Jewish peoples under Roman occupation. Jewish leadership in the institution of the Sanhedrin and the Pharisees was in the uncomfortable position of being collaborators with the occupation. The New Testament reflects the perspective of an oppressed people, and there is a growing scholarly consensus that much of the New Testament embody a non-violent subversive opposition to the Roman rule.[6] Following the legalization of Christianity and its patronage by Constantine, this political dimension was submerged, and ceased to be read out of the New Testament. Has Christian theology so removed itself from its Jewish roots that it fails to see the centrality of justice as a major theme in its doctrine. Is this why for the past 500 years, if not longer, that salvation has been individualized and spiritualized?

At the core of the Christian faith is Easter. The resurrection of Jesus, as with all resurrection, is a moment of God’s justice, a fulfillment of God’s promise. That this was a theme in Jewish narrative is evident from the horrific story in 2 Maccabees 7. The story tells of devout Jews who refused to eat pork, as it was against the Torah. The Selucid authorities torture them with scalping and fry them on a large pan. Seven sons and their mother are successively executed in this way. They encourage one another by expressing their hope in the resurrection: “ . . . the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.” They say, “”The Lord God is watching over us and in truth has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song that bore witness against the people to their faces, when he said, ‘And he will have compassion on his servants.’ “[7]

The resurrection of Jesus inaugurates the time of justice, the time when God has compassion on all who have suffered, and the responsibility of Jesus’ followers is to live in that way of justice and compassion, and to proclaim it to the world in word and deed. The incarnation and the death of Jesus can be seen, in a Jewish context, as acts of God’s justice in the world.[8]

If the New Testament and the origins of Christianity can be read as being concerned with justice and that it shows how to act now that the re-creation of the world has been inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus, then it should be possible to recover this emphasis in Christian theology. The doctrines of atonement, incarnation, providence, and revelation need to be seen in the light of the resurrection as God’s justice, and ethics is not a concern to be left to the last chapter, but where one might begin.

The problem of the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools is thus very much a theological one, and to address it one must begin with God’s justice and the ethical behaviour of the people of God.

In this respect, it is not much different from other theologies of liberation. Liberation theology, feminist theology, Black theology, Womanist theology, and post-colonial theology are start with various concrete examples of injustice. Where a Latin American Liberation theologian begins with economic inequity and an analysis of the exploitation of poor, I am suggesting that theologians reflection on the IRS begin with the genocide of indigenous peoples in Canada. Where a Black theologian begins with the fact of entrenched discrimination against African-Americans in the United States, Unsettling Theology founds itself on an acknowledgement of racism in Canada and the ongoing trans-generational trauma still at work in reserves and with urban indigenous.

[1] TRC Final Report Vol. 1, pp. 319-337.

[2]          John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, 2nd Edition (New York: Charles Scribners & Sons, 1977).

[3]          Michael Rea, Editor, Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology, Volumes 1 & 2 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009).

[4]          Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Rhetoric and Ethics: The Politics of Biblical Studies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), p. 23.

[5]          Ibid.

[6]           This view is endorsed by such diverse New Testament scholars as N. T. Wright, Richard Horsley, Helmut Koester, and Dominic Crossan.

[7]           2 Maccabees 7.9 and 7.6, quoting the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32.36.

[8]           There is a growing literature by Jewish academic historians who are appropriating the New Testament as noncanonical first-century Jewish literature. The leader in this is probably Daniel Boyarin, who reads the Prologue of John as a Jewish midrash of Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8 in “The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the Prologue to John” in Harvard Theological Review 94:3 (2001 ) 243-84 and in The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: The New Press, 2011). See also Pamela Eisenbaum Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2009).

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The Indian Residential Schools: Yes, It Was Genocide

The following is a continuation from my previous post and part of the serialization of the first draft of my dissertation Unsettling Theology.


Two issues arise immediately. First, was the operation of the Indian residential schools really genocide? After all, the term “genocide” is pretty strong, and one wants to use it correctly and only when justified. In common culture it is associated with the Holocaust, and there is a tendency to emphasise the unique nature of that horrific episode in world history. The second issue is whether this is an important issue for theology, in the sense that it calls into question the way we do theology now.

I answer both questions in the affirmative. First, the operation of the IRS is justifiably described as genocide. To understand what genocide is one needs to look at the history of the term and the UN Convention on Genocide (1947). Article 2 states:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.[1]

The statement by Duncan Campbell Scott in chapter one suggests that there was intent on the part of the Canadian federal government to destroy indigenous peoples as such, mainly by absorbing them into the dominant colonial population. The chief means was through the Indian Residential Schools, and, as noted, the Indian Act enabled the legal apprehension of children from their parents for this purpose; this would seem to be a clear fulfillment of 2.e, “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” As well, there appeared to be a callous indifference to mortality among the children apprehended, leading to their deaths; this would seem to satisfy 2.a, “Killing members of the group.” It might be argued that the government and churches did not try deliberately to kill the children, but the impression created is that the project was one of “assimilate or die trying.” It is clear that both physical and mental harm was inflicted on the children by the unchecked use of physical punishment and indifferent control of sexual predators, thus contravening 2.b. It is more debatable whether 2.c or 2.d apply, but the schools were part an overall trajectory of domination by colonists that marginalized the indigenous peoples and did result in considerable physical destruction by the loss of their lands and systemic discrimination.

LemkinThe term “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) in 1944 in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Lemkin was born a Jewish Pole in the Russian Empire and as a young man studied philosophy in Germany and law in Poland, becoming a prosecutor. Fascinated by atrocities, he sought to understand from a legal perspective the mass murders he knew took place against the Armenians in the Great War and afterwards, and the human-created famine in Ukraine in the 1930s. He escaped Poland to Sweden after the beginning of the Second World War, and made his way to the United States in 1941 where he taught and consulted with the US government. While not fully aware of the Holocaust at that time (although he lost 49 members of his family in it), he had read Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and was aware of his desire to destroy the Jews and to expand German settlements into Ukraine and Russia. He wrote:

Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group: the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain, or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization of the area by the oppressor’s own nationals.[2]

In the wake of the Holocaust it is sometimes assumed that genocide means the complete eradication of a “race”, as Hitler intended towards the Jews, but in fact as originally contemplated by Lemkin and written up in the Convention it involved destruction “in whole or in part”. Lemkin had an expansive understanding of genocide, and gave as an example of religious genocide the persecution of Polish Catholic clergy by Nazi Germany.[3] He wrote:

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killing of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of the essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.[4]

Lemkin drafted the original convention and sought to include linguistic and cultural groups as protected groups – note that the final text only covers a “national, ethnical, racial or religious group” – but this was negotiated out by the diplomats.[5]

There is now an entire academic field concerned with genocide studies (Yale University, Clark University, and the University of Minnesota, for example, all have programs). Recent literature has considered the relationship of colonialism and genocide and its applicability to the Indian Residential Schools.[6] The conclusion is that it probably does, although it is unlikely that any legal case could ever be successfully brought against any party at this time.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that the Indian Residential Schools were cultural genocide. The commissioners wrote:

The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.”

 Physical genocide is the mass killing of the members of a targeted group, and biological genocide is the destruction of the group’s reproductive capacity. Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.

In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.[7]

There has been some pushback against this kind of language. Payam Akhavan, professor of law at McGill University and a former United Nations war crimes prosecutor pointed out in 2013 that cultural genocide was not included in the UN Convention on Genocide, and so using it outside of that well-established legal usage is not helpful. On the other hand, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the Right Honourable Beverley McLaughlin, approvingly used the term in a speech just prior to the publication of the TRC Final Report.[8] Eminent columnist Lysiane Gagnon critiqued the Chief Justice’s terminology on several counts: first, she felt that in using “inflammatory language” that McLaughlin presented a possible bias that would be problematic when cases involving aboriginal issues came before the court; second, that “the colonization was actually less brutal and cruel in Canada than in the United States and Latin America, or many other parts of the world” and so the word “genocide” is inappropriate; and third, that, condemning our colonial forbears is a kind of presentism, “an intellectual bias by which past events are analyzed outside their historical context, in the light of today’s values.” [9] In her defence Ken Coates, Professor at the University of Saskatchewan defended her use of the term, writing:

the Chief Justice is only stating what is clearly in the minds of judges, lawyers and aboriginal people across the country. There is no use sugar-coating Canada’s mistreatment of indigenous peoples and communities. The country did mean, aggressive and destructive things – albeit often after convincing itself that it was moral, just and forward-looking in doing so.[10]

Regardless of whether or not McLaughlin’s comments are prejudicial, Lysiane Gagnon’s other two criticisms do not stand up. First of all pleading that “Canada was nicer to the Indians than the Americans were” suggests an ignorance of recent historiography. Yes, the history is different, and Canadians prided themselves on being a kinder, gentler nation, but this was a self-serving narrative that ignored demonstrable facts. Second, the accusation of “presentism” is only accurate if no one at the time pointed out the injustice. In fact, numerous individuals did challenge the IRS system and the apprehension of children, beginning with: a) the children who ran away, sometimes at the cost of their lives; b) many of the First Nations parents themselves who hid the children from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; c) missionaries who criticized the requirement that children live away from their parents and were also aware of the cultural loss, and physical and sexual abuse; and d) medical officers who were horrified at the high mortality rates. These voices, however, were disregarded and marginalized, as they did not fit the dominant narrative.

This dissertation takes the view that it is appropriate to call the Indian Residential Schools a form of genocide. It is qualitatively different from other recognized genocides. It was not the industrialized mass murder of the Jews in the Second World War with paramilitary death squads and death camps, grounded in Hitler’s belief that Jews were a genetic plague upon humanity. It was not the sudden, intense ethnic conflict of neighbor upon neighbor in Rwanda of 1994, the mass murder by the Hutus against the Tutsis. In some ways it is closest to the Holdomor, the famine in the Ukraine in 1931-32 created by the Soviet Union. It is similar because while one may debate the intentionality of the Soviet leadership, the reality is that it was indifferent to the death of millions as it followed its ideological goals. This was compounded with a tendency to see Ukrainians as the same as Russians – any ethnic, cultural, or linguistic differences were ignored, and those who advocated for them were persecuted and murdered. Likewise the Canadian federal government considered indigenous cultures, languages, and spiritualities to be of no moment, and worked towards complete assimilation regardless of the cost in suffering and death.

[1] accessed on May 22, 2017.

[2] Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944), p. 79, quoted in Haifa Rashed & Damien Short “Genocide and settler colonialism: can a Lemkin-inspired genocide perspective aid our understanding of the Palestinian situation?”, The International Journal of Human Rights, 16:8, (2012), pp. 1142-1169; p. 1143.

[3] David B. MacDonald & Graham Hudson, “The Genocide Question and Indian Residential Schools in Canada” in Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue canadienne de science politique 45:2 (June/juin 2012), pp. 427-449; p. 433.

[4] Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, p. 79, quoted in Haifa Rashed & Damien Short, “Genocide and settler colonialism”, p. 1143.

[5] David B. MacDonald & Graham Hudson, “The Genocide Question and Indian Residential Schools in Canada”, p. 434.

[6] See David B. MacDonald & Graham Hudson, “The Genocide Question and Indian Residential Schools in Canada” in Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue canadienne de science politique 45:2 (June/juin 2012), pp. 427-449; Leslie Thielen-Wilson, “Troubling the Path to Decolonization: Indian Residential School Case law, Genocide, and Settler Illegitimacy” in Canadian Journal of Law and Society/Revue Canadienne Droit et Société Volume 29, no. 2, pp. 181-197; and Andrew Woolford, “The Next Generation: Criminology, Genocide Studies and Settler Colonialism” in Revista Critica Penal y Poder 2013, No. 5 (September) pp. 163-185.

[7] TRC Final Report Vol. 1, p. 1.

[8] Joseph Brean, “Cultural genocide’ of Canada’s indigenous peoples is a ‘mourning label,’ former war crimes prosecutor says”, National Post, January 15, 2016, accessed May 22, 2017.

[9] Lysiane Gagnon, “McLachlin’s comments a disservice to her court, and to aboriginals”, The Globe and Mail, Jun. 10, 2015 accessed May 22, 2017.

[10] Ken Coates, “McLachlin said what many have long known”, The Globe and Mail, May 29, 2015 accessed May 22, 2017.

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Unsettling Theology: Introduction


Map of the Anglican Church of Canada, 1960

How do good people wind up doing evil things? How are Christians to deal with an evil legacy? Behind these simple, very general questions, is an actual story, and a very real theological legacy.

Between the 1870s and the 1970s some 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children in Canada attended what were then known as Indian Residential Schools (“IRS”). These institutions were organized and funded by the federal government of Canada with the explicit purpose of assimilating these children into mainstream settler society – to get rid of the “Indian problem” forever.” As Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy superintendent general of Indian affairs, reported to the Special Parliamentary Committee on the Indian Act of the House of Commons:

I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone . . . Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill. [1]

The schools were almost entirely staffed by missionary teachers, lay, ordained, and religious, from the various Christian denominations in Canada, primarily Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and United Church of Canada. These schools were prominently featured as ministries of these churches,[2] and the hierarchy and many clergy and laity were enthusiastic about them.


This is not a story that is well known outside of Canada, but the legacy of the Residential Schools has been recognized by contemporary Canada as a stain upon its history. Europeans, mainly French and British, settled in what became Canada from the 17th century through to the present day, and effort to educate and help aboriginal peoples adapt to the European societies seemed peaceful and beneficial. Indeed, many aboriginal leaders asked for help in education, and this was written into numerous treaties. However, in conception and implementation the results were horrific. The results of this policy included:

  1. the deliberate and forced loss of language and culture by a majority of attendees;
  2. legally mandated apprehension and separation of children from their parents, as if they were abusive;
  3. physical abuse by teachers and staff at the schools;
  4. sexual abuse by a number of staff;
  5. a failure to inculcate parenting skills;
  6. the exploitation of children for labour;
  7. experimentation on the children for nutritional studies; no consent was ever received from the children or their parents;
  8. the failure to provide basic necessities of food and shelter, and disregard for the prevention of disease, resulting in death rates of up to 60% in some years; and
  9. the failure to actually train the students with useful skills.

The ongoing consequences of the Residential Schools continues. To this day indigenous populations experience in comparison to the Canadian population as a whole greater unemployment, higher poverty, a higher rate of incarceration, and a higher rate of alcoholism and addiction. Although the schools closed in the late 1960s and ‘70s, the trauma of the IRS continues to affect the lives of aboriginal peoples today.

The history of the IRS and the ongoing effects only came to be well known in the 1990s when the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples met and then issued its Final Report. A key report submitted to the Commission in 1996 was John S. Milloy’s A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System 1879-1986.[3] Milloy, a professor at Trent University, Peterborough Ontario, was the first academic to comprehensively catalogue the suffering of children in the schools. Subsequently lawyers, on the principle of vicarious responsibility, began suing the federal government and church entities on behalf of thousands of former residents. When, after a couple of settlements, it became apparent a) that this threatened the continued existence of most of these religious bodies, and b) that the law courts were not the best means to achieve a quick resolution to the suits, the government, churches, and lawyers acting for the plaintiffs arranged for a comprehensive settlement which was finalized in 2006. It arranged for CAN$2 billion compensation for some 86,000 former residents. It also required the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (“TRC”) of Canada , which over six years held many events and heard testimony from former students and some staff. The TRC Final Report[4] confirmed and expanded the evidence presented in Milloy’s A National Crime. As well, a national archives for the TRC was established in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and the Prime Minister of the day, the Right Honorable Stephen Harper, gave a heartfelt apology on the floor of the House of Commons in 2008. The churches and other political bodies have at various times since the 1990s offered apologies as well.[5]

All of this is progress. However, it must be observed that the churches were proud of their involvement in the Schools at the time. Why did they see the schools as a positive good in spite of the evidence of harmful consequences? Could it be due to their theology of mission? And if it was theological, are we in danger of repeating their errors in different contexts?

One might argue that this was simply the result of colonialism and imperialism of the time – that it was not really theological. What theology was involved, it might be thought, was simply subsumed into the general approach of the colonizing peoples. This is the same approach that describes the history of settlement in Canada as generally benign, especially in contrast to the wars with “Indians” in the United States in the 19th century. However, this is largely a self-serving history that is not well documented by the facts. In truth Canada repeatedly made and broke treaties with indigenous peoples, and reacted with violence whenever First Nations and Metis attempted to revolt and assert their rights. By the time settlement began on the west coast of British North America even the need for treaties was dispensed with, and First Nations were forced by gunboat diplomacy to reserves.

By the time I was in high school in the 1970s the story of indigenous peoples seemed to stop somewhere in the mid-19th century. After having been important allies of the British against the American revolutionaries in the War of Independence and the War of 1812, First Nations such as the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) were given large reserves that were steadily encroached upon and taken away until they were shadows of themselves. The revolts of Louis Riel in Manitoba and Saskatchewan were described in terms of how they affected settlement, the building of the national railway, and the creation of provinces, but the horrific repression of First Nations and Metis that followed were left undiscussed. Canadians of colonial and settler background grew up knowing a history of relatively benign expansion, where First Nations were pushed aside as being inconvenient occupiers of the land and inefficient stewards. It was, as we now know, a very partial truth.

In her book Unsettling the Settler Within (UBC Press, 2010) Dr. Paulette Regan, director of research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada asks:

How can we, as non-Indigenous people, unsettle ourselves to name and then transform the settler – the colonizer who lurks within – not just in words but by our actions, as we confront the history of colonization, violence, racism, and injustice that remains part of the Indian Residential Schools legacy today?

Regan’s answer is that non-Indigenous Canadians need to let go of the myths of settler Canadians as peace-makers, and acknowledge the damage done. The development of a historical counter-narrative will allow for Aboriginal and settler peoples to move beyond colonial relationships.

I believe that much more must happen for Christians in Canada. Part of the challenge for non-indigenous settler peoples in Canada is also to reclaim the parts of our tradition that call into question and judge the actions of previous generations. It is all well and good to have a great epiphany in an aboriginal feast, but the challenge for settler Canadians is to transform the major institutions of the country in the light of the legacy; rewriting history is a necessary first step, but it is not enough. These public institutions encompass education at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary level, but also the legal understanding of property and treaties. As well, given the negative effects of colonialization, the issue of citizenship and the rights that adhere to individuals of aboriginal ancestry also arise. The source of this transformation will be found not in the appropriation of aboriginal practices, but in turning to the very best values and practices in western traditions.

Canadian Christians need to unsettle their theologies – decolonize themselves and their theology of mission. It is not sufficient to apologize, offer compensation, and then move on. True μετἀνοια requires a critical examination of those theologies, and the construction of an alternative. This is unsettling emotionally as well as ideologically.

Further, I am bold enough to argue that this is an issue not only for Christians in colonized lands like Canada, but also for Christian theologians in the lands from whence the colonists came, such as the UK and France. While these nations may no longer be colonial powers, the theologies that encouraged colonization came from them, and may continue to wreak havoc on people.

This is a dissertation about how we might decolonize theology. I have entitled it Unsettling Theology as a kind of riff on Regan’s book. I pray that it will not only unsettle the practice of theology, but help those of us descended from settlers to somehow move on to new relationships with the indigenous peoples, the land, and beyond.

[1] National Archives of Canada, Record Group 10, volume 6810, file 470-2-3, volume 7, pp. 55 (L-3) and 63 (N-3)

[2] See the detail of the map of the Anglican Church of Canada in 1960.

[3] John S. Milloy, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System 1879-1986 (Winnipeg MB: The University of Manitoba Press, 1999).

[4] The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Volume One: Summary. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future (Toronto ON: James Lorimer & Company, Ltd: 2015).

[5] See “Appendix 4 – Apologies” in the TRC Final Report Volume One.

Posted in Anglican Church of Canada, Canadian Issues, Unsettling Theology | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

An Academic Discipline

carr As some of you know, I’ve been working on a PhD dissertation for the past five years. The first couple of years were largely reading and reflecting, what my friend Tamsin Jones Farmer calls “passive cogitation”. The scheme of the dissertation was pretty much in place after the first year, and I started writing bits and pieces, slowly. In particular, I was distracted by such things as being a full time parish priest from June 2014, the refugee coordinator of the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia from February 2015 to May 2017, as well as two separate bouts of illness that led to me being on medical leave. However, I am now in my final year, and it is time to get it done.


Roughly speaking, the dissertation is supposed to be 100,000 words, or about 300 pages, double-spaced, not including any bibliography or appendices. I am roughly halfway there with the first draft. The title is “Unsettling Theology” and it addresses the the theological legacies of the “Indian Residential Schools” that were operated by the churches on behalf of the Canadian federal government.  The first section is an introduction to the history of the schools and asks how it was that basically good people got enthusiastically involved in what is essentially genocide. The first part also has a literature review noting key texts and also identifying any number of rabbit holes I am not going down. The second part examines the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), a French philosopher known for arguing that “Ethics is First Philosophy”. I consider his critique of what he calls  totality” or “totalizing thought” and generalize it into a method for looking at any form of rational discourse. The next section looks at the theologies that informed the people operating the Indian Residential Schools, and I subject it to Levinas’s critique. The final section then looks at what kind of theologies survive a Levinasian critique, and I suggest that kenotic theology is one way to ensure that we do not follow in the footsteps of the missionaries who operated the IRS. I end with a final conclusion reviewing what I think I’ve done and proposing further research.

This is an ambitious project, and one that only someone with over five decades or reading and rumination should undertake. Any one of the sections might be a dissertation in itself, but at my age I try to see things in an interdisciplinary way, so my work combines history, philosophy, biblical studies, and theology, and I am influences by feminist theology and postcolonial theology, which makes it all the more complex. So how do I get it all done?

I have spent some of the past few months – Advent and Lent – doing daily commentaries on daily office readings. A short one is 500 words and some have been 2000 words long. I intend to do the same, only by writing a daily chunk of my dissertation. I will probably jump all over the place, and some of which I write will be cut and not make it into the final draft. However, if I am consistent and spend an hour or two a day on this, I will have the complete first draft by Christmas and then I can revise and get the darn thing handed in by early Spring 2018. This may make for rather dull blog posts, but it will be an academic discipline that will get this thing done.

So there’s the intention. Let’s see if I stick to it, eh?

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Lenten Readings: Day 40

In the Abyss
(Holy Saturday)


From the 13th Century to the 18th century mining took place on the outskirts of medieval Paris. At the end of the 18th century and into the early part of the 19th century the city of Paris emptied out its many graveyards of centuries of bones – the remains of some six million people. In a regular series of processions they were carried out of the city walls and into the mines where they were stacked and stored. These are the bones from the Cemetery of St. Etienne Des Gres (St. Stephen of the Sandstone) on the left bank of Paris. The church was destroyed in the Revolution. Eventually Paris grew out over the mines, and one can now take a tour of the “Catacombs”, as my son and I did in 2013

The Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, the Sunday of the Resurrection, is always a little bit odd for faithful Christians. The intensity of Lent and Holy Week gives way to, well, normalcy. Maybe you sleep in. There’s no church service to go to, unless it’s a vigil later that night. You get up. People are getting on with their Saturday – people who don’t go to church. They mow the lawn, go out for breakfast, play soccer, or work on their taxes. It”s the middle of Spring, and people get on with ordinary Springy things.

For Christians this normalcy is weird. It’s the last day of Lent. From being reminded of their mortality on Ash Wednesday six and a half weeks before they are now remembering the mortality of Jesus, and how he was placed in the grave. And, just as it was the case some twenty centuries before, life goes on, ignoring that Jesus of Nazareth is dead and buried.

The Daily Office Lectionary prescribes a reading from Hebrews that we already saw in the week after the First Sunday in Lent, and a passage from Romans that we have already read. Appropriately for the day, they are messages of hope.

Heb 4.1–16
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For indeed the good news came to us just as to them; but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said,

‘As in my anger I swore, / They shall not enter my rest” ’,

though his works were finished at the foundation of the world. For in one place it speaks about the seventh day as follows: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.’ And again in this place it says, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’ Since therefore it remains open for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he sets a certain day—‘today’—saying through David much later, in the words already quoted,
‘Today, if you hear his voice, /  do not harden your hearts.’

For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day. So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labours as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Rom 8.1–11
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

What was Jesus doing on Holy Saturday? The readings above do not say. First Peter 3.18-19 suggests that he descended to the dead to preach the good news to those in Sheol.

He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison . . .

This is the Harrowing of Hell, which has been the subject of many icons:


An icon of Jesus in Hell. Jesus has broken down the gates of heaven and stands over Satan. He reaches out to Adam and Eve, and prepares to take them and the saints of the Israelites out of Sheol to be with him in heaven, until the Day of the Lord. David and Solomon are there (with the crowns), and various prophets. 

The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, on the other hand, saw the descent into hell as the ultimate end of kenosis, the outpouring of the Word into fleshly existence. It is truly death, but it is also a salvific event. Jesus is not simply suspended, or in  some proto-resurrection state. Rather, his death is in solidarity with all who have died, as his life was in solidarity with all who live. By participating in Jesus’s  body through membership in the church we die and descend with him and then rise with him; we make this our own through our own outpouring of ourselves towards our neighbours near and far, even unto death, for we trust that God will not abandon us even in death.

This day is a Sabbath, and not only because it is the Jewish day of rest. It is the day on which we remind ourselves that we are dead to sin but alive in the Spirit. It is the day when we rest in preparation of the Day of Resurrection.

This concludes Lenten Readings. If you’ve read parts of it, thank you! I’ll take a break from daily blogging for awhile. Then I will begin to publish extracts from the drafts of my dissertation on the theological legacy of the Indian Residential Schools, entitled Unsettling Theology.


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Lenten Readings: Day 39

(Good Friday)


“The Crucifixion, seen from the Cross” c. 1890 watercolor, James Tissot (1836-1902), now in the Brooklyn Museum.

Good Friday is a day during which most Christians hear the Passion according to John. In many liturgies they also hear Psalm 22 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (the fourth Servant Song), and both played a major part in the formation of the traditions around the crucifixion. The early Christians saw the Hebrew Scriptures as a testament to Jesus the Messiah, and so used verses from them, as we have seen in Hebrews and Paul’s Letters to the Romans and the Philippians.

Today’s second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary is nowhere as significant as the three heard in the Good Friday Liturgy, but it offers evidence of what the first generations of Christians were thinking when they used such verses. The First Letter of Peter was probably not written by Peter, but by someone writing a generation after him, and who desired to use his authority to offer comfort and exhortation to persecuted Christians in what is now central Turkey.

1 Pet 1.10–20
Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours made careful search and inquiry, inquiring about the person or time that the Spirit of Christ within them indicated, when it testified in advance to the sufferings destined for Christ and the subsequent glory. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things that have now been announced to you through those who brought you good news by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look!

Whatever modern historico-critical method might suggest, early Christians, following in the traditions of Jewish scribes and Pharisees, believed that the prophets themselves were inspired by the Spirit of Christ to write about the Messiah. Christians read the Servant Songs and the Psalms as referring to the Messiah as one who suffers. They were also read as prophesying the vindication and victory of God, and that God’s people would be gathered together to be with God forever.

Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’

If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.

The author describes the readers of the letter as “exiles”. A follower of Jesus is never at home in the world, because the world is never what God would have it be. We are only at home if we are with God, and we only get glimpses and foretastes of this in this life until the coming of the Son of Man. So the author encourages his hearers/readers not to be conformed to the desires they formerly had, to “futile ways”.

What are these futile ways? In 1 Peter 4.3 they are described as “living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry”. More positively, the author encourages them a bit later in that chapter:

7 The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. 8Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. 9Be hospitable to one another without complaining. 10Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. 11Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.

The author also encourages his recipients to be blameless with respect to the Emperor and his delegates, and that wives should be obedient to their husbands. Well, the author was writing some 1900 years ago, and it is probably the case that he was less egalitarian than Paul and less subversive than Paul and the gospel writers.

As a product of the upper middle class, with education at a private school and two great universities, I should feel like I am at home in this world, and in many ways I do. Canada is a good place to live, and I can exercise my faith without restraint. However, I also feel that I do not fit in. While my faith is not persecuted, it is often considered irrelevant or problematic. I am part of a minority that used to be a majority, and many of my co-religionists mourn the days of influence and power. I believe that the faith of Christ does not fit well with much of our society, and is very much a square knob in a round hole. We call into question a consumer society based upon unlimited needs. We challenge indifference to poverty, war, and oppression. We refuse to align ourselves with political partisanship, seeking to transcend such boundaries while still remaining engaged in deep questions. We are willing to pay a high cost for our discipleship, which is foolishness to many in the world. We are serious and disciplined in an era of frivolity and lassitude. We are focused on the other instead of ourselves. And so we are exiles.

This is Good Friday, for today we see the goodness of God shown in Jesus Christ, who holds nothing back from confronting evil, whether Pontius Pilate and the collaborationist chief priests, or the cosmic power of sin and death. While others see only the death of our God, we see the self-sacrifice of Jesus in humble obedience as a victory, borne out in the resurrection. We are exiles, but the Word made Flesh joined us in our exile, and so redeemed it and made it the kingdom of God.

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Lenten Readings: Day 38

Eucharistic Participation and Judgement
(Maundy Thursday)


The Last Supper, late 15th-century by Leonardo da Vinci, in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

We have arrived at the Triduum, the great three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. Today’s second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary consists of two extracts from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians dealing with the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist. These are appropriate readings for Maundy Thursday, which is the day on which Christians remember the night on which Jesus instituted the Eucharist.

1 Cor 10.14–17; 11.27–32
 Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols. 15I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? 17Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

The context of the first passage is that it is part of an extended discussion of whether the Corinthians should eat food that had been sacrificed to pagan gods (called in the text “idols”). Paul basically says that one is free to do as one wants – there is nothing wrong with the food, after all, it is not possessed – but others may have scruples about it, and so one should, out of kindness,  defer to their preferences, even if they are wrong. That does not give license to worship idols, of course.

The Lord’s Supper is another thing, because God is real and Jesus is Lord. Thus the weekly gathering around bread and wine was more than a meal, but as Paul calls it, a participation and a sharing. Without necessarily buying into a Middle Platonic metaphysics Paul is asserting that the Eucharist is a means by which followers of Christ are incorporated into the body of Christ. This is not simply an imputed membership, but a real and spiritual action, by which one strengthens that which was given in baptism, the Holy Spirit.

The second passage for today spells out the implications.

11.27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. 28Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves. 30For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. 32But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

How might one unworthily eat the bread or drink the cup? The context of the passage is that Paul is reminding the Corinthians about how to conduct the Lord’s Supper. He does not go into detail because he already showed them when he was in Corinth. However, he has heard that the supper – which in form was much more like a potluck than the formal eucharist we have today – was disorderly in that some were not sharing, some were eating before others, some were going hungry, and others getting drunk. Paul instructs them in the verses after today’s reading to wait for each other, and implicitly, to share and not get drunk on the wine.

Paul asks that the Corinthians examine themselves. The self examination is, I think, about experiencing the koinonia (usually translated as “fellowship”) of the body of Christ in the gathering. If they do not experience that – it they are greedy, gluttonous, and impatient – they are essentially repudiating the meaning of the Lord’s Supper as an inclusive meal where there is always room for others. Thus they wind up in judgement, even if present and partaking of the bread and wine, the body and the blood. Paul sees this as resulting in physical illness, which is not as much of a stretch as it sounds; greedy, gluttonous, impatient people tend to be unhealthy.

Self-examination that sees where one has fallen short, however, will lead to reform of will and attitude. This leads one to generosity, moderation, and patience, which likewise leads to physical and spiritual health.

There is something quite wonderful about the fact that Jesus made the potluck the central action of his community. We have reduced it to a bare ritual so that many do not even recognise it as a meal, but eating and drinking remain central to the action. Many churches on Maundy Thursday return it to being a potluck with a full meal; I’ve done this in a couple of the parishes where I have ministered. What I think we in the well-fed developed world miss is the connection between food and justice. Hardly anybody  starves in Canada, except in the most exceptional situations. In the First Century Roman Empire, especially in Judea and Galilee, it was different. In Paul’s day the gathering on the Lord’s Day might be the only solid meal people got all week. In Galilee the appropriation of food by the authorities triggered shortages and deepened poverty. Sarah Miles in her book Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion describes how she sees a strong connection between the food ministry in her parish in San Francisco and the Holy Eucharist; they are different aspects of the same thing.

Maundy Thursday is a complex, busy day. The Eucharist is instituted. Jesus washes the disciples feet. Jesus gives the “mandatum” or command to, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus prays in Gethsemane, and is betrayed, and he begins the Passion. All of this generally leaves our heads spinning, but underneath it is a continuity of justice achieved through humble service, or reconciliation achieved by love in the face of oppression. May this strong river of justice which flows through these three days fill our spirits that we might be the body of Christ.

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