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Symbols

A story from day three of the Québec Truth and Reconciliation Commission…

It was nearing the end of a long day of listening and I was looking for a place near the back of the hall to sit quietly for the last session of the day. Near the back of the room, I was somewhat surprised to see a flip chart stand with a drawing on it sitting in the middle of the aisle. I was even more surprised to see a young aboriginal man wildly gesticulating beside it as he was speaking in a very animated fashion to a young woman with a notepad. I edged closer to get a better look (and maybe a listen). The closer I got, the more obvious it was that this young man was very angry indeed.

I looked more closely at the drawing on the stand that they were arguing about. It was a chart with two columns. On one side, there were carefully crafted images of a wide variety of animals. There was a globe displaying North and South America, alongside drawings of aboriginal dwellings and a circle representing dialogue and mutuality. These were holistic images of life and interdependence and respect. At the top of his column, standing over all the other drawings, was a tree. Underneath the tree were the words, “Symbol of Life.”

The other column had very different drawings and a very different feel. There was a bulldozer and big drops of oil. There was a square schoolhouse and a severe, imposing-looking church. Each of the images on this side of the chart was entirely coloured black.  These were destructive images of oppression, ignorance, and disrespect. At the top of this column, standing over all the other drawings, was a cross. Underneath the cross were the words, “Symbol of Death.”

For a few seconds, I just stood and stared. It hurt me to see the cross—this symbol that means so much to me, this symbol that represents what I have devoted my life to, this symbol that speaks to me of one who lived and taught and died in order to reconcile all things to God—portrayed in such dark and hateful terms.

It hurt. And then it began to make me angry. “No, no!” I wanted to say. “You’ve misunderstood my faith entirely! You don’t understand the Jesus I follow at all! The Jesus I follow was all about life and love and compassion—about the breaking down of barriers, about self-sacrifice… The Jesus I follow was called the Prince of Peace! These things in your drawing, they don’t belong together! Please, please don’t make the mistake of painting all of us who stand under this cross with the same brush! You don’t understand why this Jesus matters to me, you don’t understand at all!”

And then, of course, the pin dropped.

It became blindingly obvious that the way I was feeling about a simple drawing on a flip chart was exactly how I imagine the First Peoples of Canada would have felt when white, European Christians summarily judged and dismissed—and have continued to judge and dismiss—their worldview. It is how our aboriginal neighbours would have felt when their cherished beliefs and practices were labeled, “evil” or “pagan” or “harmful.” It is how they would have felt when their understanding of reality, their way of being in the world, was misunderstood and rejected, deemed worthy only of eradicating, not understanding.

And instead of feeling angry, I began to feel very sad for my unwillingness and inability to, as one presenter put it, “walk in another’s moccasins.”

I said a silent prayer, asking for forgiveness from the one who laid down his rights, who was misunderstood, mistreated, and rejected. And I asked for the vision and the will to see how all of us might begin to become, as another young aboriginal speaker put it today, “artisans of peace.”

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tanya #

    Thank you Ryan. so much to think about.

    April 26, 2013
  2. mike #

    For me, This goes well beyond the scope of developing empathy or “walking a mile in their shoes”. In this instance,becoming ‘Artisans of peace’ requires of christians a painful degree of gut wrenching Honesty,and until this happens,we are just acting on a superficial level. I totally get what the Aboriginal man was saying.I totally understand the meaning of the words “symbol of death” placed under the christian Cross. Somewhere along the way to the second coming, Jesus was “Turned” by the State… and he now marches to a different drumbeat, carrying the bloody Cross and banner of Imperialist Capitalism, with offices on every corner….

    April 27, 2013
    • Empathy is obviously not the final stopping point, but it’s a beginning. Without it, I’m not sure anything of much use can or will ever be accomplished.

      I can see why this young man would have felt the way he did, too. Without question. And that’s the best place to start. Ideally, this could be followed by genuine relationships where both parties could, over time, learn to see each other and their worldviews in more nuanced and accurate ways. Jesus may have been “turned by the state” in differing degrees at different times and in different places, but there have also been many other, better stories as well—stories of fidelity to the teachings of Jesus that are traceable throughout the past two millennia.

      It is a good operating principle for all of us, I think, to do our best to understand the best versions of others’ views, not the worst. Of course, in the case of aboriginals and their understanding of Christianity, this is a privilege that will have to be earned.

      April 27, 2013

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