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.