Saturday, June 21, 2014

Towards Right Relations

Today is the Summer Solstice.  Which means that it is also (in Canada) National Aboriginal Day.  In many places across the country ceremonies have taken place today or will take place tomorrow to honour and celebrate Aboriginal culture (for example).

And that is great.  But it is not enough.

Like in many countries, the relationship between those of aboriginal ancestry and those of other ancestry is very complicated in Canada's history and Canada's present.  And it is my belief that there is a great need for that relationship to be developed.

And to develop that relationship there are areas that need to be named and addressed and accepted.  One of these is the history of Residential Schools.   A start has been made on that front, with the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which had its last public event in March.  Many stories have been told and much history has been revealed but only a start -- both in the discovery/sharing of truth and in the process of reconciliation.

Another area is in the lived experience of far too many Aboriginal folk in 2014.  There are First Nation communities that live in what are routinely described as "Third World" conditions.  Aboriginal people are highly over-represented in the prison system and in the lower strata of the socio-economic ladder (and under-represented in other areas of life).

Another is the very real fact of hidden, sometimes barely hidden, racism in Canadian society.  We may not longer see the "No Indians Need Apply" help wanted ads that once appeared but there is a racism problem in many parts of the country.  A racism problem that leads many to be put out by the "special treatment" (aka treaty rights) First Nations get, or shows up in the still common stereotype that Indians are predisposed to substance addiction, or appears when over and over Aboriginal folk are described as lazy or disrespectful of property or overly demanding, or is evident when it appears that the legal system puts a different emphasis on missing First Nations folk than on other ethnicities or....  And yet many people will deny that this racism exists, or that it is as widespread as it is...

Then there is the whole question of land.  Whose land is it?  Now. Today.  Not whose land was it 150 years ago, but whose is it now?  And who gets to decide how it will be used?   And if we agree that land "ownership" has passed on what are the terms of that transfer?  There are so many shades to this question of land that whole books can be written about just this one issue -- and court cases have already stretched for years in trying to figure it out.

And there are complicating factors.  Complicating factors like the fact that I truly believe some of the European folk involved in negotiating the treaties, particularly the later treaties, were agreeing to terms that they never expected would be actually lived out.  I believe it was a matter of saying/doing what was needed to get the land with the expectation that the "problem" (which was the existence of the Indians) would only last for a little while longer anyway.  Or complicating factors like the fact that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, sometimes because the good intentions of some get run over by the pavers.  I find that to a degree the Residential Schools fall in this category.  There were some who became involved because they honestly believed that this was a way to help the folk adapt to a changed world.  But the pavers were trying to extinguish and assimilate, not assist in adaptation and so overran the intentions.  What are the good intentions in 2014 that will be judged as insanely misguided in another generation?  Or complicating factors like the whole "history is over, we can't change it so lets just live in the present and prepare for the future" attitude -- which is really a (sort of) polite way of saying "stop whining about the past".

So we have started.  We have only started.  Some will say we should be farther along (and we likely should be but that is because we probably should have started a generation earlier).  But we have a long way to go in sorting out this relationship.  And until we do THAT needs to be a part of the discussion around National Aboriginal Day.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Newspaper Column

Twas my turn this week.  This was the third attempt.  I still don' really like it....

Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

Short answer....NO. There may be a cause, but that is different from a reason that gives it meaning.

I had a plan for this column. I was going to talk about how communities of faith have helped build Grande Prairie over the last 100 years, and muse about how communities of faith can help Grade Prairie develop into the future. But then 5 families in our city lost their homes to fire. Then 3 RCMP officers were gunned down in Moncton. And then there was a shooting at Seattle Pacific University. And I remembered the old saying of Karl Barth that we preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. And I remembered a question I was asked to preach about last November.

There are certain phrases that probably should be stricken from our repetoire. And the irony is that many people use them in a desire/attempt to be comforting.

"God must have needed another angel"
"God never closes a door without opening a window"
"God never gives us more than we can handle"
"Time heals all wounds"
"It must be God's will"
Everything happens for a reason"

To be frank most people find these statements, when offered in the face of tragedy, generally unhelpful and sometimes downright infuriating.

One of the most perplexing questions in Christian theology is "Why do bad things happen?" [often with the add-on "to good people" and the corresponding "why do good things happen to bad people?"]

If God is in control then why do young children die of illness or accident or willful action? Why do people get cancer? Why does a person have to watch his/her life partner descend into dementia? Why do we see (over and over again) reports of "ethnic cleansing" and genocide? If God is in control, if God is all-loving and all-knowing and all-powerful why do terrible things happen? Is it all part of a grand plan? Does everything happen for a reason?

To make it a more difficult discussion, it is fairly clear that much of the Scripture witness supports the idea that God is in control, that there is a plan, that things do happen for a reason. And the only appropriate response in the minds of some people of faith is to say "it is all a mystery". [Or as I have been known to say, “if there is a plan it is poorly communicated and the implementation needs some work”.]

But what if God is not in control? What if God is not in fact all-powerful? Then what?

That is where I have come to. I don't think everything happens for some deep philosophical reason. I think life is just like that. This I think is what the writer of Ecclesiastes is referring to in chapter 3 “To everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven”. (As it happens, my Hebrew Scripture professor once suggested that this passage is a little bit depressing and fatalistic.)

So then what do we make of Romans 8:28 "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."?

That verse could easily support the idea that everything happens for a reason, that there is a plan, that "it will all turn out for the best". OR. Or it could mean that the same God who turned the tragedy of the cross into the victory of Easter is willing to transform things. Not to take away the pain, or the tragedy, or the rampant unfairness of life. Just to, as the saying goes, make the best of a bad situation. So things don't happen according to the plan, they happen and we adjust the plan in light of new information.

Does God want houses to burn? Does God let random acts of violence shatter people's lives? Does God plan that girls are abducted from a school with promises to sell them into “marriage”?

No. These things happen because life is not perfect. These things happen because life is not fair. But even in the unfairness and imperfection God is there to help us live through the tragedy. God has a hope. God has a vision. God has a promise of what the world could be. And we will get there someday. As Dame Julian of Norwich (who lived in a violent, unjust, imperfect world) said “all will be well, all will be well, all will be well someday”.

Not a reason for all the stuff that happens, but instead a promise of support and presence. And a promise that some time we will get to a time when life will be better. God is good. Thanks be to God.