On Unearned Grace
So, the pope has been in my home province of Alberta this week. I’m not a Roman Catholic, so this obviously isn’t quite the momentous occasion for me that it might be for some of my Catholic sisters and brothers, but still, it’s a fairly big deal, not least because of one of the main reasons for his visit. He’s here to apologize, on Canadian soil, to indigenous people for the ugly history and legacy of residential schools. It is a “pilgrimage of penance,” in Francis’s own words, a time to unequivocally repent for the sins of the church and for the deep and lasting harm that they have caused.
I have little desire to wade into the controversy around how Pope Francis’s words have been received. For some indigenous people, this pilgrimage of penance is long overdue and woefully insufficient. For others, it was welcome, deeply appreciated, and healing. And of course, you would have others representing various points in between those two poles. I have my opinions about the role of public apologies (I’ve written about this here), and for what it’s worth, I was mostly fairly impressed with the posture Francis took here in Alberta. But I’m not inclined to say more than that about the apology itself.
I was more intrigued by one of the gestures that came after the pope’s words, and by the reaction to it. After the papal apology, Wilton Littlechild, honorary chief of Ermineskin First Nation, presented the pontiff with a headdress. Not everyone was thrilled by this. For example, Kevin Tacan, a knowledge keeper and spiritual advisor from Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in western Manitoba, said that it was “disappointing.” He believes that giving the headdress to The Pope diminishes the significance of the gesture and dishonours those who have received it in the past.
Again, not all indigenous people would agree with this (former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine, for example, who is mentioned in the article). This disagreement itself is instructive, I think. At times, non-indigenous people seem to think that “indigenous people” are some kind of monolithic identity group that all think precisely the same about everything. The less convenient truth (for some) is that indigenous people are like all people. They are characterized by a plurality of opinions and have a breadth and diversity of thought. We non-indigenous people could probably use this reminder. It might save us from turning an entire people group into a totem to assuage our guilt or broadcast our virtues.
But back to Mr. Tacan. I was fascinated by his description of the significance of the headdress and what it means to (and for) both the recipient and the community that confers it. Here’s how a CBC article puts it:
Tacan said headdresses are traditionally earned by members who are doing significant work in service of the community.
“[People] have to prove themselves constantly. They have to continue to prove themselves going into the future, that they still deserve to have it.”
I’m obviously not qualified to comment on Tacan’s description of the headdress and its role in indigenous communities. But I was struck by that last part. People have to prove themselves constantly… that they still deserve to have it. It sounded simultaneously sensible (at least on one level) and utterly exhausting. So many people these days speak about burning out due to the perception of demands like this in the workplace or in relationships more broadly. Earn it, prove yourself, justify yourself, show that you’re worthy of love, care, attention. If you ever slow down or slip up you’ll be punished and lose what you have!
And of course, this is a mentality that many have imported into Christianity. Many, many people feel that this is how God looks at human beings. I’ve heard from them. God is the divine taskmaster, always demanding more. Prove yourself. Prove that you deserve it. God will only love you if you measure up to a certain standard. Sadly, this is a grim theology that many indigenous people are only too familiar with. Many have spoken of the terror and confusion they experienced at encountering a severe, merciless God who demanded that they give up everything about who they were and what they believed in order to be worthy of love and salvation, of rarely encountering the deep truth that their value as human beings could not be reduced to the narrow parameters of the European colonial vision.
In light of the above, I saw in Wilton Littlechild’s gesture to The Pope a fairly profound gesture of the grace and mercy that many indigenous people did not find in Christianity. Perhaps it said something like, “We honour the spirit in which you have come. And in light of all that has happened, all that the church has done (and failed to do), we know that you don’t deserve this. But we offer it as an unearned, unmerited gift. We offer it as pure grace.” And wouldn’t it be ironic if something like this were true? Indigenous people offering back to the church the very things that they should have experienced from the church in the first place.