Reconciliation is the church’s responsibility

Published January 5, 2009

TRUTH AND reconciliation. Those words hold considerable promise as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) begins its work this year.

There is a lesson to be learned from a similarly titled commission in South Africa that was charged with dismantling apartheid. It’s one thing to pursue the truth by capturing those heart-wrenching stories of abuse and injustice; it’s quite another to bring about reconciliation between peoples.

It seems like yesterday when this scribe sat in a hotel room in Ottawa with a small group of South African church leaders, listening to a theological defense of apartheid. It was 1982 at a meeting of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches where an informal process of reconciliation was just under way to bring black and white church leaders together. Apartheid has always been a theological issue.

On a recent trip to Cape Town, South Africa  – a decade after the dismantling of apartheid – the separating barriers have come down on city buses and in shops but the townships still exist, home to thousands of black and coloured folk living in wooden shacks, their communities oozing poverty, high unemployment and rampant HIV/AIDS. White folk still live in their middle class neighbourhoods. Reconciliation, I was told, is still an elusive dream, perhaps a generation or two away.

The Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission has an impressive mandate: To “create as complete an historical record as possible of the IRS (Indian Residential Schools) system and legacy.” The commission is determined to record the truth by capturing stories from former students, their families, and the teachers.

In fact, it is this very point that led to the resignation of  TRC chair Justice Harry LaForme. He wanted to focus on reconciliation while the other two commissioners wanted to focus on truth.

What happens once the stories have been told? Who needs to be reconciled to whom? What is the process of reconciliation? Those questions continue to plague South Africa, and they also need to be addressed in the Canadian context. A quote from the residential schools commission is both noble and vague: “Reconciliation is an ongoing individual and collective process, and will require commitment from all those affected including First Nations, Inuit and Metis former Indian resident school students, their families, communities, religious entities, former school employees, government and the people of Canada. Reconciliation may occur between any of the above groups.”

Governments cannot mandate reconciliation. Reconciliation is a spiritual journey so it is therefore the Church’s task. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 that “God reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors.” Christmas is all about being reconciled to God through Christ.

A truth and reconciliation commission by its very nature can only attempt to capture “truth.” Reconciliation is a painstaking, time-consuming process that will require generations of conversation and interaction. The Anglican Church of Canada has a significant role to play in that process. The creation of a province of indigenous peoples will help that process.

One can argue that reconciliation around the residential schools issue is just a starting point when it comes to bringing about a healing relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities. We need to understand each other’s communities, values, and spirituality. We need to be reconciled around issues such as stewardship of land, employment, education, marriage, clergy stipend and interpretation of scripture.

The Anglican church’s relationship with Canada’s aboriginal community did not conclude with the appointment of an indigenous bishop, nor with the creation of the TRC.

Indeed, it has just begun.

We have an obligation to engage in something that no government commission can accomplish: reconciliation. That is both our task as individuals as well as the collective task of the Anglican church.


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