Is the Legacy of the Indian Residential Schools an Issue for Theology?

The following is a continuation from my previous post and part of the serialization of the first draft of my dissertation Unsettling Theology.

I was thirsty

Window from the Parish of St. Mary the Virgin, Oak Bay, Anglican Diocese of British Columbia

One might argue that while the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools is an issue for the Church in Canada, it is not really an issue for theology as an academic discipline. The IRS were efforts attempted with the best intentions and largely by good people, even though the outcome was tragic and to be regretted. But this is not due to theology, or should not be assumed to be due to it. Rather, the issue was in the tactics and methodology of the people operating the schools at the behest and support of the federal government. Core doctrine is not affected by condemning what happened in the schools, and what needs to be considered is just a better way of bringing the good news in word and deed.

In any case, no one is asking the churches or theologians to change their theologies. The TRC issued 94 Calls to Action.[1] Most of these calls are to the federal and provincial governments in Canada on issues such as child welfare, education, the preservation of indigenous languages and cultures, health, and justice. The Canadian Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, has committed himself to implementing these recommendations. Some of the Calls to Action were addressed in part and directly to the churches; they are worth reading in full and are collected in Appendix A. The Calls to Action ask the churches to support certain national and indigenous endeavours and, in particular, to respect aboriginal spirituality and customs. They do not presume to call the churches to examine themselves and their theologies, other than to review the history of the churches’ complicity in colonialism, and the necessity for full apologies. To these calls the churches have agreed.

As well, the churches that were involved in the schools have all offered apologies, and these are catalogued in the TRC Final Report. Further, as it is often pointed out, this is not just between settlers and indigenous peoples. The lines between indigenous and settler often get blurry as many people have mixed heritage and may identify primarily as one or the other or both. Within the churches are many mainly indigenous congregations and judicatories, with native clergy at various levels of responsibility. For example, in the Anglican Church of Canada there is a National Indigenous Bishop and many indigenous priests and deacons; the Diocese of the Arctic is largely Inuit and the Bishop and people of a diocese in Northern Ontario, the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh, are Cree and Ojibway. On the whole these indigenous Christians and their ordained leadership are conservative in their theology and are not looking for transformation and reflection.

But does theology not influence the way one lives as a Christians? And if one admits that things went wrong with the IRS, should one not also wonder whether the thinking of the people who set them up and enthusiastically supported them come into play? If ideas influence events, is it not incumbent upon us to consider what theological ideas were in play in the century in which the schools were operated?

Indeed, given the grave results of the IRS, it is incumbent upon the church and its theologians to consider what went wrong. This was a terrible lapse in ethical behaviour, described by the former Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, the Most Reverend Michael Peers, as a kind of idolatry: “we tried to remake you in our image”. Perhaps the time has come for theologians and the church to reorient theology to ethics and concern for the oppressed and disadvantaged, and let go of issues of metaphysics and ontology.

But, “when has Christianity ever paid attention to ethics?”

This objection was made to me by Conrad Brunk, retired Professor of Philosophy at University of Victoria, past Director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society there, and himself the son of a Mennonite bishop. And the challenge has a bite that is more than rhetorical. Throughout history, Christians and Christian theology have been complicit in or indifferent to mass murder, slavery, genocide, cultural assimilation, colonialism, imperialism, discrimination of every type, censorship, xenophobia, and the retardation of progress in science. While this is undoubtedly also balanced by good works by saints and leaders in every age (one’s thoughts run to Patrick, Augustine of Canterbury, Benedict of Nursia, Francis of Assisi, and modern saints such as Martin Luther King, George Bell, and the Berringer brothers), it is an undeniable history.

Also, despite the current appearance of certain groups of Christians arguing for certain understandings of moral behavior, morality and ethics always seems to be secondary or derivative of “core” theology.   This remains a current problem. John Macquarrie’s Principles of Christian Theology (1966)[2] which was used as a textbook for a generation, leaves an explicit discussion of ethics to his twenty-first and last chapter.   The more recent Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology (2009)[3] presents learned essays by a variety of authors on the topics of Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Providence, Scripture, and Resurrection, but “ethics” is not even an entry in the indices of either of its two volumes.

In many Divinity Schools there is a four-part division in study between theology, biblical studies, history, and pastoral studies (this last one being very much a poor cousin of the other three). Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza comments that “Biblical studies appear to have progressed in a political vacuum, and scholars seem to have understood themselves to be accountable solely – as Robert Funk put it – to the vested interests of the “fraternity of scientifically trained scholars with the soul of a church.””[4] Schüssler Fiorenza quotes a letter of 1926 from Rudolf Bultmann, who dominated much of 20th century theology and biblical study, as characteristic of this lack of concern:

Of course, the impact of the [First World War] has led many people to revise their concepts of human existence; but I must confess that this has not been so in my case . . . So I do not believe that the war has influenced my theology. My view is that if anyone is looking for the genesis of our theology he will find that internal discussion with the theology of our teachers plays an incomparably greater role than the impact of war or reading Dostoyevsky.[5]

In their discussions Christian theologians, biblical scholars, and even Christian historians seem to be impervious to what is going on around them. If they have concerns related to the institutional church or the academy they are too often more about doctrinal purity and institutional growth than problems of conduct and evil. The result is an inability to deal with the horrific legacy that Christianity has gathered over the past two millennia.

So, if Christianity up to now has always made ethics a secondary or derivative matter, then, given its history, should it not be made more central?

But this is not so much as a re-centering of modern theology as a return to Christian origins in Judaism. First century Judaism was concerned with issues of justice because Judea, Samaria, and Galilee were all areas of the Jewish peoples under Roman occupation. Jewish leadership in the institution of the Sanhedrin and the Pharisees was in the uncomfortable position of being collaborators with the occupation. The New Testament reflects the perspective of an oppressed people, and there is a growing scholarly consensus that much of the New Testament embody a non-violent subversive opposition to the Roman rule.[6] Following the legalization of Christianity and its patronage by Constantine, this political dimension was submerged, and ceased to be read out of the New Testament. Has Christian theology so removed itself from its Jewish roots that it fails to see the centrality of justice as a major theme in its doctrine. Is this why for the past 500 years, if not longer, that salvation has been individualized and spiritualized?

At the core of the Christian faith is Easter. The resurrection of Jesus, as with all resurrection, is a moment of God’s justice, a fulfillment of God’s promise. That this was a theme in Jewish narrative is evident from the horrific story in 2 Maccabees 7. The story tells of devout Jews who refused to eat pork, as it was against the Torah. The Selucid authorities torture them with scalping and fry them on a large pan. Seven sons and their mother are successively executed in this way. They encourage one another by expressing their hope in the resurrection: “ . . . the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.” They say, “”The Lord God is watching over us and in truth has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song that bore witness against the people to their faces, when he said, ‘And he will have compassion on his servants.’ “[7]

The resurrection of Jesus inaugurates the time of justice, the time when God has compassion on all who have suffered, and the responsibility of Jesus’ followers is to live in that way of justice and compassion, and to proclaim it to the world in word and deed. The incarnation and the death of Jesus can be seen, in a Jewish context, as acts of God’s justice in the world.[8]

If the New Testament and the origins of Christianity can be read as being concerned with justice and that it shows how to act now that the re-creation of the world has been inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus, then it should be possible to recover this emphasis in Christian theology. The doctrines of atonement, incarnation, providence, and revelation need to be seen in the light of the resurrection as God’s justice, and ethics is not a concern to be left to the last chapter, but where one might begin.

The problem of the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools is thus very much a theological one, and to address it one must begin with God’s justice and the ethical behaviour of the people of God.

In this respect, it is not much different from other theologies of liberation. Liberation theology, feminist theology, Black theology, Womanist theology, and post-colonial theology are start with various concrete examples of injustice. Where a Latin American Liberation theologian begins with economic inequity and an analysis of the exploitation of poor, I am suggesting that theologians reflection on the IRS begin with the genocide of indigenous peoples in Canada. Where a Black theologian begins with the fact of entrenched discrimination against African-Americans in the United States, Unsettling Theology founds itself on an acknowledgement of racism in Canada and the ongoing trans-generational trauma still at work in reserves and with urban indigenous.

[1] TRC Final Report Vol. 1, pp. 319-337.

[2]          John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, 2nd Edition (New York: Charles Scribners & Sons, 1977).

[3]          Michael Rea, Editor, Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology, Volumes 1 & 2 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009).

[4]          Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Rhetoric and Ethics: The Politics of Biblical Studies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), p. 23.

[5]          Ibid.

[6]           This view is endorsed by such diverse New Testament scholars as N. T. Wright, Richard Horsley, Helmut Koester, and Dominic Crossan.

[7]           2 Maccabees 7.9 and 7.6, quoting the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32.36.

[8]           There is a growing literature by Jewish academic historians who are appropriating the New Testament as noncanonical first-century Jewish literature. The leader in this is probably Daniel Boyarin, who reads the Prologue of John as a Jewish midrash of Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8 in “The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the Prologue to John” in Harvard Theological Review 94:3 (2001 ) 243-84 and in The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: The New Press, 2011). See also Pamela Eisenbaum Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2009).

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at
This entry was posted in Anglican Church of Canada, Unsettling Theology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s