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Overcome Evil with Good

One last post about my experience at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Quebec National Event this past week.  As I’ve reflected on the flight home yesterday and throughout today, few questions/topics of a bit more philosophical nature keep recurring.  I don’t necessarily claim to have the answers to these questions, but I would welcome dialogue about them here.  I think they are important matters to discuss as Canadians of all kinds try to work toward a more just and equitable future.

——

Near the end of day two, a very intriguing statement was made by one of those providing survivor statements:

As long as there is guilt on the part of white people, we will always be victims.

There was, obviously, plenty of guilt on display in Montréal.  At times, it seemed like the various governmental and church organizations were almost tripping over themselves in their frantic attempts to out-apologize each other.  Each statement of contrition seemed to repeat or even ratchet up the superlatives in an attempt to express just how deeply sorry they were.  Perhaps this is as it should be at this stage in the narrative of Canada’s coming to terms with its past and charting a course forward.  Perhaps part of the role of these seven national events is to allow for space for these kinds of statements to be made again, and again, and again…

But on about day three of apologies, I began to wonder how our aboriginal neighbours were feeling about things.  Were they getting tired of all these words?  Were they growing weary of this parade of (mostly) white Christian-ish folks parading across the stage, all repeating some elaborate, often long-winded variation of the same theme: “We were wrong.  And we’re very sorry?”  Did they feel like the whole spectacle was a giant exercise in narrative spin with the white Europeans still in the starring role, only this time, instead of cultural arrogance and superiority driving the show it was humble deference and a greedy embrace of an often romanticized aboriginal cultural and spiritual past?  More importantly, did this parade of apologies serve to do little more than reinforce and accentuate their status as “victims?”  I wonder…

——

On day two, Michaëlle Jean, former Governor General of Canada, gave a stirring address to those still present at the end of a long day.  There was an impassioned plea for equality, for the historical reality of Canada’s residential schools to be taught in public schools, for the courage to envision a new future of peace and right relationships between aboriginals and non-aboriginals.  Jean is a marvelous orator, and it was, as I said, stirring stuff.

At one point, though, she made a statement something to this effect when describing the residential school reality. “Can you imagine?  The horrors of using an educational system for assimilation to the dominant culture.”  There were knowing nods and enthusiastic applause all around.  But of course if we take this statement at face value and give it even a moment’s thought, we see that it is utterly ridiculous.  All education is assimilation.  My children are being assimilated into someone’s vision of what a good Canadian citizen is every day.  Every child is being assimilated into some vision of what is good and true and valuable and worth pursuing, whether this is in a home school, a public school, a private school, or a residential school.

The atrocity of intentionally depriving aboriginal children of their language and culture, and of removing them from their families and communities is quite rightly described as deplorable.  But let’s not pile illusion and false rhetoric upon error and tragedy.  To educate is to assimilate.  It cannot be otherwise.  The question is always, “How shall we assimilate?  And why?”

——

In one of the sessions on the last day, one man asked a question about the nature and the scope of reconciliation.  “How do we reconcile for the future?  Can reconciliation ever be arrived at when our time on this earth is limited?  How will we know if/when we get there?”

Good questions.  Hard questions.  There isn’t time enough on earth to heal some wounds.  Again and again, we heard survivors say something like, “I’m not sure I can forgive.  And even if I could, nothing can give me those years back.”  These are questions that are obviously not restricted to residential school survivors.  These are questions for everyone who suffers, everyone who loses something or someone, everyone who does terrible and hurtful things that they cannot undo, everyone who… well, everyone.

True reconciliation so often eludes our grasp.  Maybe it is unattainable in this life.  Some hurts seem too big to be reconciled to.  Sometimes we don’t even want reconciliation.  Sometimes the only solution to the pain we suffer seems to be to inflict at least that much pain  (or more!) on someone else.

At the end of one of his talks, Éloge Butera, a Rwandan genocide survivor and a TRC Honorary Witness, talked about the way forward in this world where human beings are capable of inflicting such evil upon one another.  In a room characterized by a wild combination of ex-Christians, anti-Christians, confused Christians, and every other imaginable posture to the religion bearing Christ’s name, Butera read from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans.  “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).  The words hung in the air, pregnant with possibility.  Overcome evil with good

What is done cannot be undone.  We cannot excise the suffering and sin and stupidity from our stories, as individuals, as nations, as churches, as governments… whatever.  It cannot be done.  But we can take steps, however small, to overcoming evil with good.  The good that we do doesn’t undo the evil, but somehow, mysteriously, miraculously, it can overcome it.  It can do this, I think, because all the good we do, every attempt, however partial at reconciliation, is a participation in the greater project of the God who, in Christ was and is reconciling all things—all things—to himself.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. mike #

    Great post,Ryan.
    “The atrocity of intentionally depriving aboriginal children of their language and culture, and of removing them from their families and communities is quite rightly described as deplorable. But let’s not pile illusion and false rhetoric upon error and tragedy. To educate is to assimilate. It cannot be otherwise.”
    If i may please,I would like to connect some not so obvious dots here with your permission.

    “The atrocity of intentionally depriving foreign citizens of their language and culture, and of displacing them from their families and communities is quite rightly described as deplorable. But let’s not pile illusion and false patriotic rhetoric upon error and tragedy. To (re)educate is to assimilate. It cannot be otherwise.” We have always conqured the heathens under the bannner of Democractic progress, with “Gods” blessing of course. Our motto has always been “overcome evil with good. Onward christian soldiers!!

    April 29, 2013
    • Forgive me, but I’m not quite sure what dots you are connecting here, Mike. The mentality that led to the residential school system is, obviously, the same mentality that led to colonialism in general. And, yes, colonialism is inextricably linked with certain dominant understandings and practices of the Christian religion. Am I missing something else?

      April 29, 2013
      • mike #

        Im sorry Ryan,I was pointing out the similarities between Canada’s colonialism and of American Imperialism.

        April 29, 2013
      • Yes, there are certainly similarities… No matter where and when these ideas and practices have reared their heads throughout history, it is tragic and shameful that the name of Jesus could ever be attached to coercion, subjugation and domination.

        April 29, 2013
  2. nothing like trying to rope in a teacher hey – hehe!
    I understand why you say that education is assimilation but I don’t know that it is necessarily inevitable. Without being trite with semantics, I would like to suggest that there is a pedagogical paradigm that finds it center in accommodation around the pragmatic rather than assimilation to the expedient.
    Most of what we know as education today is centered on didactic imparting of knowledge and the prescribed application of that knowledge. This is indeed a very colonialist method of education. It focuses on systematizing the frames around which the society functions at the greatest benefit of authority (colonial power). This is certainly evident and tragic in the story of residential schools.
    I believe there is a method of instruction (and I tend to see this in the methodology of Jesus) that is less didactic and less focused on conformity toward any one operative advantage. It is a form of education that focuses questions leading to questions woven around narratives. This type of education is intentionally obscure – as if to seduce the learner into discovery rather than rewarding the learner for acknowledging authority.
    I think education can be redemptive and not condescending. What is ironic to me is that a system of assimilation was attributed to the way of Jesus who seemed much more interested in accommodating diversity.
    I am not taking issue with your evaluation of education – at least as it largely exists currently in western societies. I teach because I believe that there is a different way – but then I could be wrong…
    as for the plethora of apologies – I think you are right to attribute these to absolution of guilt and to a type of spin doctoring. We see true reconciliation when we choose deliberate ways of making people equal not just saying we want to or apologizing for having done so in the past…

    April 29, 2013
    • I hear what you’re saying about the differences between pedagogical models. But even promoting/embodying “a pedagogical paradigm that finds it center in accommodation around the pragmatic rather than assimilation to the expedient” is a form of assimilation. It represents decisions that have been made about what has value and what is worth promoting to those we are educating.

      Operating from the perspective that education should be about promoting diversity is an attempt to assimilate others into the view that diversity is good and worth embracing. Operating from the perspective that education should be narrative and communal rather than didactic and pragmatic is also an attempt to assimilate others into the view that the former are more important and beneficial than the latter. The word “assimilation” tends to strike us as a negative one, but we are all doing it all the time. In my view, the important questions, again, are how and and why we are assimilating, and into what vision of the world?

      Re: Jesus, I agree that he taught in ways that were at times obscure and evasive, that he relied on story, etc. I also think that he spoke very plain words about counting the cost, taking up the cross, and following. I’m not sure about the “Jesus who seemed much more interested in accommodating diversity” bit. That seems, at least to me, to be a kind of remaking Jesus in our own images of what is valuable and praiseworthy and good. Jesus was not a proto-21st century citizen of a modern, liberal, politically correct, multicultural society, much as we might wish he were. His life and teachings were (and are!) far too uncomfortable for that, in my view.

      April 30, 2013
      • If the end of education is diversity and accommodation then i completely agree with your assessment. education in that case is assimilation. however, what I failed to make clear in my previous response is that education that begins with the educator is inevitably assimilation BUT education that begins and is sustained in the quest of the learner is not directed by the intentions of the educator – it is directed by the pragmatic needs and curiosity of the student. This framework enlists the educator as a facilitator of the learning process and not a director. This ‘style’ of learning would be much more familiar to some of the ancient societies including those around which the new testament stories are built.
        from my vantage point assimilation can be beneficial in shaping a society that conforms around certain norms and values. However, assimilation is mostly bereft of virtue. This conundrum is clear in the metaphor of parenting where love and nurture begins with protection against danger and progresses toward release toward independence in adulthood.
        As for Jesus…
        there is much discomfort in accommodation which IS the essence of Jesus life and message. Suggesting that Jesus is accommodating diversity is not so much a ‘remaking…in our own image…’. And as you correctly said he is also not a prototypical citizen of our current era. He reaches beyond the ‘good’ intentions of our current culture and demonstrates that true accommodation actually welcomes people into an intimate relationship. Our culture stops at platitudes as you correctly pointed out in your piece. Jesus took in the displaced and made room for them at his table. I am not sure how that is a remaking of Jesus at all…

        April 30, 2013
      • I’m not sure even “learner centered” approaches escape the “assimilation” charge. Students still grow up with ideas about what is valuable (their curiosities) and what is not (old-fashioned pedagogical structures, etc). They are being assimilated into an educational culture that prioritizes some things and not others, some questions and not others, some curiosities and not others… It’s still a way of, as you say, “shaping a society that conforms around certain norms and values.”

        Re: Jesus, I was mostly reacting to the statement: “the way of Jesus who seemed much more interested in accommodating diversity.” Maybe the difference is in the ends. For us, diversity is an end in and of itself. It is deemed by our culture to be an unqualified good and various cultural and personal preferences are to be gathered into its warm embrace without question. For Jesus, to whatever extent the term “diversity” would have meant something to him, I think it would have been an expression of the nature and shape of the kingdom of God and a wide variety of cultures and expressions finding their place under the umbrella of this kingdom and accommodating themselves to its demands and invitations.

        May 1, 2013
  3. it is not the weak, the minority, the disenfranchised or the poor that accommodate themselves to the prescriptions of God – it is God who, through Jesus, accommodates, from a position of power, to the condition of humanity in all of its complexity. When the disenfranchised take on the values of the powerful it is because the these values have been imposed upon them. this imposition is nothing close to the grace offered as the gospel of Christ – in fact it is the exact opposite. this is audacity of the message of grace (if it exists at all) that people are invited share the goodness of the powerful God in spite of their weakness, disconnection, failure. Not because they have measured up to prerequisites of belonging but precisely because they don’t.
    From that perspective it is the great miracle of the gospel that it can and does include and welcome the diverse experiences and values of human experience and offers redemption freely.
    That is also precisely how pedagogical model of Christ is distinct at least ideally.
    i acknowledge, because it would be utter folly to state otherwise,that a pristine tabula rosa is impossible. However it is possible to approach the educational project from the vantage point of the learner and not from the teacher. education as Paulo Friere would attest to, might be honed from the objectives of the learner and can be intentionally divorced from exercise of power that comes from the teacher centered paradigm.

    May 2, 2013
    • this is audacity of the message of grace (if it exists at all) that people are invited share the goodness of the powerful God in spite of their weakness, disconnection, failure. Not because they have measured up to prerequisites of belonging but precisely because they don’t.

      Amen.

      However… I wouldn’t want to say that when those on the margins of power take on the values of the powerful it is ALWAYS and ONLY because they have been imposed on them. I think that the grace of God can (and does) operate for good in some profoundly screwed up situations. I know that there are some aboriginal people who are committed followers of Jesus as a result, at least in part, of a system/philosophy that we now look back on (mostly) with regret and disgust.

      I was listening this week to an interview with a Catholic priest from Los Angeles who runs a ministry for gang members (former and present). He said something that has stuck with me in reference to how people understand people on the margins: “We need to anchor ourselves in two refusals—the refusal to demonize and the refusal to romanticize.” I think it’s easy to slide into the temptation to think that anything associated with those in power is simply wrong because of its association with privilege. And, similarly, that everything associated with those on the margins is right simply because it comes from the margins. We saw this occasionally at the TRC in Montreal last week. White = evil; aboriginal = pure and good. No exceptions. I don’t think this is helpful for anyone involved. I also don’t think it is true. The truth is inevitably much greyer and more complex than that.

      May 3, 2013
      • Larry S #

        good quote “We need to anchor ourselves in two refusals—the refusal to demonize and the refusal to romanticize.”

        Ryan, – a good reminder for me, since I supervise people who are bound by criminal court orders, many of whom remain criminally active. A few years ago, I set up a supervision plan to allow a psychopathic gang member who was a serious violent player in the local drug trade to relocate temporally to another city to be at the bedside of his dying grandmother. When police members expressed surprise at my actions my line was “even gangsters have grandmas.” Of course, prior to allowing anything, everything the gangster presented was verified independently and he was heavily supervised by police at his temporary location. A lot of good-will was generated between he and I. It appeared he was well behaved in the city with his grandma (I told him if he screwed around there the book would be thrown at him). Of course upon his return the criminal behaviour continued and now he is off spending doing some fed time.

        —-

        another good observation of yours Ryan: “We saw this occasionally at the TRC in Montreal last week. White = evil; aboriginal = pure and good. No exceptions. I don’t think this is helpful for anyone involved. I also don’t think it is true.”

        I’ve seen this go deeper than just white/aboriginal race issues. Some years ago, I was at an MCC convention (Rosemary Alberta) where a young MCCer passionately presented her experience and views about her involvement with First Nations. Anything to do with European contact was presented as evil. Which begged the question about Jesus and his message. I felt like asking from the convention floor something like: agreeing that there has been tons of historic evil perpetrated by white contact, did Jesus/the Christian message have nothing to say to First Nations? it was all “White = evil; aboriginal = pure and good. no exceptions” No anchorage in the good priest’s paradigm (your earlier quote).

        May 4, 2013
      • Thanks for sharing your thoughts—and your story—here, Larry. I have the luxury of (mostly) theorizing about these things. You’re dealing with them in some pretty gritty real life circumstances. I admire the course of action you took with the man in the story, even if things eventually took a predictable turn.

        Re: your second paragraph, I’ve been thinking along very similar lines since I returned from Montreal. Somehow, as followers of Jesus, we have to find a way of sharing the good news of Jesus—the trans- and supra-cultural good news of Jesus—in a way that does not simply impose whatever cultural package is sharing the news upon others. Somehow we have to find a way to point to the way of Jesus in a way that opens up new ways of following Jesus that bring out the diversity and beauty of different cultures while also pointing beyond those elements of all cultures that are false and dehumanizing and contrary to the shalom of God’s coming kingdom.

        May 4, 2013
  4. “I think it’s easy to slide into the temptation to think that anything associated with those in power is simply wrong because of its association with privilege. And, similarly, that everything associated with those on the margins is right simply because it comes from the margins.”
    While this is perfectly logically true it fails to satisfy the burden of responsibility. The judgement of what is right and wrong is inextricably informed by a Eurocentric philosophic slant. A Eurocentirc perspective is not intrinsically flawed or wrong or evil but it is dominant and it has left the marginalized perspectives of our First Nations communities at a distinct disadvantage. Human history bear out that this process is common. The dominant assimilates the weaker and weaker mounts resistance and so on and so on.
    What we can say with certainty is that the worldview of the First Nations people has not been given the same opportunity to compete for what is true and right and good. Our society has determined that the European perspective has unfairly excluded the views of the First Nations and this largely because of our guilt over the horrific treatment of these people at our hands.
    yes it is demeaning to suggest that the appropriate response should be a default acceptance of their perspective – as if their worldview does not have the strength to stand on its own. however European ideology still sets the rules of game.
    it occurs to me that if indeed we feel remorse over our actions toward these people and ask for forgiveness we ought not to then also be the ones to establish the boundaries around which their response ought to be framed. If we also feel that their worldview ought to be considered we must also remove our expectations to meet our criteria around that discussion.
    this is simply not about establishing what is right and wrong – it is about recognizing the role of dominance and subjugation in the structure (often natural at least in the historical sense) of our society.
    That is why the way of Christ seems like such a radical departure from the way those who claim to follow him have acted in this situation. His claim that in order to be the greatest we ought become the least suggests something far different than justifying our actions.
    While i know you do not intend to justify the atrocities of residential schooling with the claim that some may be ardent followers of Christ in spite of these schools this does not seem like the way a conversation ought to start.

    May 8, 2013
    • Of course I agree with you that if those who claimed to be following Jesus would have lived in a manner consistent with their profession, we could have spared many, many people a great deal of misery. This seems almost to go without saying to me, and could obviously be applied on a far greater historical scale than the Canadian Residential School System.

      The question for me is, now what? All of the apologizing is very good and appropriate as is the determination to learn to see things from the perpective of a worldview that has been marginalized. I absolutely agree that we cannot now demand to dictate the terms of the ongoing relationship according to what you refer to as Eurocentric values. But I keep thinking about the quote I highlighted in the post above: “As long as there is guilt on the part of white people, we will always be victims.” It seems to me that some from the aboriginal community are more prepared to move past the binary narrative (white = evil; aboriginal = good) than many from the “white” world might be.

      May 11, 2013

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