Truth and Reconciliation

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                            July 24, 2017

Corinthians 5:17-20;  Matthew 5: 23-24

We are a people who long for peace. Discord and conflict unsettles us; broken relations within our families and communities are a cause of shame and regret. We yearn for reconciliation and healing. As good Canadians, we just want everyone to get along with each other. We’re quick to say, “Sorry,” when we step on each other’s toes. We even say, “Sorry” just in case we’ve stepped on toes. Canadians are good with apologies, and we expect reconciliation to follow.

But there’s one step in the reconciliation process that’s a bit more challenging. It’s the truth part that causes us to stumble. We sometimes forget that the process of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is called “Truth and Reconciliation”—not just reconciliation.

There are at least three things about truth that are difficult for me. The first pertains to the question, “Whose truth?” As we listen to one another, we become aware of multiple truths. Each one of us sees life through our own culture and experience. Only God has the bird’s eye view and can hold together all of our little truths—truths that may at times be competing.

I’ve just returned from Iceland and learned some fascinating stories about Iceland’s history. It was an uninhabited island until Vikings and refugees from Nordic countries began to settle there in the 9th century. They worshipped the Nordic gods until Christian missionaries began to arrive. Christians don’t have a very good track record with the honouring of multiple truths and the missionaries to Iceland were no exception. They began to force the conversion to Christianity by point of sword, which didn’t go over so well. When the Norwegian king heard about the pagan resistance to Christianity, he cut off trade with Iceland and imprisoned several Icelanders living in Norway, threatening to kill them if the Icelanders did not convert. Many converted, but many more resisted, setting the country on the brink of a civil war. But then, something happened that moved the country to peace—something that didn’t happen in any other European country.

There was a leader by the name of Thorgeir Thorkelsson, who was a pagan priest, worshipping the Norse gods. He was known to be reasonable and moderate. Both the pagans and the Christians trusted him and asked him to be the mediator and decide whether Iceland should become Christian or remain pagan. He retreated into his tent, wrapped himself in fur and spent a day and a night in prayer and meditation. The following day, he climbed onto the speaker’s rock and announced his decision. Icelanders would convert to Christianity but would still be allowed to practice privately their own choice of cultural and religious customs. War was averted by the honouring of multiple truths.The first challenge of the Truth and Reconciliation process is to honour the multiple truths of one another, even when they conflict with our own.

The second challenge of truth is to be open to hearing the painful parts of one another’s stories. It is draining to hear someone speak of their own pain. It is difficult to sit in the fire and receive someone else’s anger. It is even more difficult when we’ve benefitted from the very systems that have caused this person pain. When I hear these stories, compassion fatigue draws me into retreat. I just don’t want to hear any more stories. And then I’m reminded of my own experience in the 80s and 90s when the United Church was struggling with the issue of sexual orientation. I was serving rural pastoral charges at the time and was not yet “out” as lesbian. Fear and anger loomed large within the congregations. Day after day, I would hear people saying all sorts of horrible things about lesbian and gay people. I visited one man in the hospital who told me that he wanted to round up all of the gays on a raft, send it out to sea and sink it.

This was a difficult time in the United Church for everyone—and it was dangerous for some of us. A straight colleague spoke strongly in support of lesbian and gay rights and she began to receive death threats. Finally, she told us that she needed to take a break from her advocacy. It was too taxing on her and her family. I understood and was grateful for what she did do. At the same time, I knew that I could never take a break. I could not leave my skin. And so, whenever I want to retreat from the painful stories of others, my own experience reminds me that Indigenous people can never take a break from their scars of the residential schools; from their daily experiences of racism that still happen today. We do need to be gentle with ourselves and take time out to regain our health and spiritual wellbeing. At the same time, we need to remember that some people do not have that option.

The third challenge of truth is to resist being paralyzed by white guilt. I am so afraid of saying or doing something inappropriate—of causing further harm—that I say or do nothing. But then my faith begins to gnaw at me. Christianity may rightly be accused of many things, but playing it safe has not been one of them. Our scripture boldly suggests that we are new beings in Christ empowered by the Spirit to actually be the body of Christ. Ours is a ministry of reconciliation with our brothers and sisters, as well as with God. We can be guaranteed of one thing in this risky ministry—we will make mistakes. We will cause further harm in spite of our best intentions. But I have learned that the risk of making mistakes outweighs the cost of paralysis. We will need to keep apologizing for our continuous blunders. But our gospel is a gospel of grace, filled with forgiveness and healing.

Our stumbles do keep us humble. I recently learned something about humility. It means to take our rightful place—no more and no less. When we puff ourselves up, we’re feeding an unhealthy ego. But when we don’t use the gifts God has given us and decline what God has called us to do or say or even be, we are also feeding an unhealthy ego. Our focus is still on ourselves. We forget that we are new creatures in Christ, boldly yet humbly called to be his hands and feet. Christ is offering his nail-scarred hand to us, inviting us to embrace the various truths of one another and join the reconciliation dance of steps and missteps.