Sunday, July 1, 2012

Redressing Wrongs: It's Everyone's Responsibility

I’ve been following the work of the Canadians in both their government and in their churches around the work of Truth and Reconciliation with regard to the wrongs done to the First Nations peoples over centuries [see note at end for links]. First Nations children were taken from their homes and placed in residential schools that systematically tried to eradicate their cultural identities and familial connections, and this was perpetrated and sanctioned by the Canadian government.

I have also been thinking about the work being done and still to be done in the United States over truth telling, apologies, redress, and reconciliation regarding the Trans-Atlantic slave trade that was a major component of the American economy in this country’s early colonial period and the U.S. government enacted discrimination in the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Japanese internment during WWII. Truth telling and apologies have been uneven in the U.S., resistance of the dominant Anglo culture is high, and much work remains. [One could easily argue that the Cradle to Prison Pipeline is another form of American de jure slavery, as author Michelle Alexander does in her 2011 book The New Jim Crow, but that is the subject for another post.]

I think that redressing old wrongs takes many forms, and not everyone agrees that all the forms should be honored or done. As many people as there are under the sun, there will be that many opinions of all things. A broken egg cannot be unbroken, but a broken egg must be acknowledged as having been broken, including who broke it, when and where it was broken, telling the story of the broken egg.

All of us are the products of our histories and our forebears. An Indigenous person’s history and forebears tell a different story imbued with different emotions and stories of tragedy, oppression, colonialism, suffering and pain, than does an Anglo person’s history and forebears. It is also true for African Americans and Asian Americans that their stories differ from Anglos’ stories. The stories of Hispanic Americans and Arab Americans are unfolding today, and racial profiling, scapegoating, and racism embedded into state laws are regrettably part of those stories, too.

In the conversation about redress and the First Nations peoples, the first step in redress is acknowledgement that colonialism and genocide occurred against the Indigenous people of the Western hemisphere, perpetrated by Europeans who set out across the oceans to enrich themselves and better their own lives without regard for how that impacted the Indigenous peoples’ lives. That is the first acknowledgement.

The second acknowledgement must be that there are legacies in the form of societal ills that have been left by the oppressions of genocide, residential schools that forced Native children to be separated from their families and their tribal identities, and the disempowerment of entire nations of Native people through their being driven from their homes, their hunting grounds, and their traditional way of life.

The fact that there is so much resistance among Anglos to even taking the first step towards acknowledgement is very telling. It tells of a lack of interest in and appreciation for someone else’s story, someone else’s history, someone else’s suffering. It tells of an egocentrism that believes that Anglos are at the center of the universe and everyone else is somehow lesser.

Acknowledgement is not counterproductive, far from it. Acknowledgement opens the door to conversation and relationship. Acknowledgement says, “I seek to understand your story, your history, what your forebears lived through, and how you carry that story, your forebears and that history within you, and how those things all are part of who you are.” For an Anglo, acknowledgement also says, “I see the part that my forebears, direct or indirect, played in your story and in your history, and how our stories and histories are intertwined and connected.”

When the Anglo and the Native can see how they are connected through their stories, then a relationship based on mutual awareness of who each other is can begin. Then, healing of each other’s stories based on acknowledgement of their histories and their forebears’ roles in those histories can begin, too.

This work is not about collective guilt, but rather, collective responsibility. At the end of the day, we are all responsible for acknowledging and righting wrongs and doing the work of building reconciled relationships, because we are all part of Creator’s great story of humankind and how we are meant for each other and for the care of creation.

Trying to redress old wrongs ends in the future, far beyond our lifetimes. Our human frailty, egocentrism, selfishness, and laziness will impair and delay our ability to seek conversation and build relationships as intently as is needed. Our task is to begin now so that the time far beyond our lifetimes is sooner, rather than later. The task begins with you and me.


For more information about Truth and Reconciliation in Canada, see the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Web site here and the Anglican Church of Canada’s involvement here. The Canadian Commission “has a mandate to learn the truth about what happened in the residential schools and to inform all Canadians about what happened in the schools.” The Anglican Church of Canada states that it “is committed to healing and reconciliation from the legacy of Indian residential schools." and that "This work takes place among Indigenous groups and between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. We support the mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) by working in our church, and in collaboration with other churches, Indigenous groups, residential school survivor groups, and the government.”

Thanks to my sister, Elsie Dennis, for her generosity in reading an earlier draft of this post and offering suggestions to improve it.

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