Repentance, not just apology, must precede forgiveness

True reconciliation between Canada and her First Nations cannot happen overnight

A forgiveness summit bringing First Peoples and others together in Ottawa is planned for June 11 to 13. Responding to the Prime Minister's apology of June 11, 2008, the literature and web announcements for "Forgiven" indicate the intention to "release forgiveness to the federal government."

This article is our effort to step back and think through this whole idea—to reflect on our journey on the circle of the earth. We write from our hearts, from who we are as aboriginal people as we try to think through the idea of forgiveness, the processes this might entail and the outcomes it might give birth to.

We believe in forgiveness—both the need for and the healing value of forgiving those who have wronged us. The Bible and our own consciences call out to us to be forgiving people. The alternative is bitterness and self-absorption with pain. There are, however, concepts about the way forgiveness is given and received, proceeding from both experience and biblical teaching, that need to be centred in the process.

This is not the first time efforts at reconciliation led by First Nations, Inuit and Métis people have been undertaken. In a hugely significant effort following a serious illness during which he was given a vision of the problem engulfing Canada, Elijah Harper, in 1995, convened a Sacred Assembly of political and spiritual leaders—First Nations and others. Elijah Harper believed the issues over which we fought were spiritually rooted. His deepest desire was that we might see the different people groups who share this piece of land we now call Canada, move toward better relationships—that the conflict between various groups might be set aside, that relational healing might come as we were spiritually healed. This is, after all, where our Creator has placed all of us—in a land where even its contemporary anthem pleads God "keep our land, glorious and free."

It therefore amazes us that once again it is First Nations people taking the initiative to seek a spiritual solution to the problem of broken relationship. Reflecting on the rootedness of this phenomenon in the Canadian narrative, John Ralston Saul observes, "As always in our history, the elegance and generosity when it is a matter of reconciliation comes largely from the indigenous side, from those who have been wronged."

Hope that is not hope

On one hand, it is right that we the First Peoples should take responsibility for the discord that has been brought to this place. We have a special and deeply historic relationship to this land. Troubles may have originated, may have brewed long in other places, been initiated by other people, but they are now here. It is therefore right that we try to seek some spiritual solution to move toward our shared destiny, toward harmony.

We must have a care, however, for here is the thing about spiritual experiences: sometimes they can be offered as hope that is not hope. In The Wounded Heart Dan Allender points out that the Church, especially in regard to people who have suffered abuse, frequently offers hope that is not hope when it says that all the abused person needs to do is have a deeper spiritual experience and it will be okay; to partake in this event or that event, and they will be cured; to forgive and forget. This is hope that is not hope. Working through the abuse can be a long and difficult journey. The real and full hope is that Christ is with us on the journey and even if we do not get there, even if we live half-way in our mourning, Christ the creator is with us, and He likes us.

The First People involved in the forgiveness summit are attempting to help people experience forgiveness. But forgiveness is not to be seen as a simple key. Luke's gospel makes clear that there is a relationship between repentance and forgiveness. In fact, it is called the gospel of repentance and forgiveness—not apology and forgiveness, but repentance and forgiveness. So for Canada and those who are part of her political, maternal care, the question is not about the survivors of abuse forgiving them; it is about abusers asking, "What does repentance look like for us?" Or, even more pointedly, "What does 'not assimilating' First Nations people look like for us?"

Repentance before forgiveness

In all of this, what causes us the most consternation is that the Canadian government does not appear, after all this time, to be doing more than just saying some words in the House of Parliament. They and the wider Canadian society need to actually repent and change how they treat aboriginal people. Canadians need to keep their word; they need to honour the treaty relationship; they need to be the kind of people that someone could make a full peace with.

We are concerned that in all this talk about forgiveness without repentance, there may be placed on aboriginal people the responsibility of opening the blessing of heaven. If this is so, once again, the victim will be victimized again. When we do not make time and a way for people to feel and to cry and mourn, then we make the scandal, the problem of the residential school the sole responsibility of the victims to solve. They forgive and government and society sits back cloaked in civility not even blushing as broken people try to work toward proper relatedness.

To the extent the forgiveness summit makes room for people to feel pain and gives opportunity for people to talk about what really happened, it will be successful. Our concern, though, is that it might do just the opposite and lead to a loss of dialogue—that some people and institutions might take the extending of forgiveness as an excuse to stop listening to the pain that people have incurred as a result of residential school abuse. It might also close down the emotions of the victims who will hesitate to talk about what happened because they sense again there is no room for the honest pain of the wounded.

Wait and walk with us

Finally, we are concerned that the Church would once more be complicit with the abuser: the lies of the residential school are made true by the spiritual religious zeal of a triumphalistic attitude that once again does not make room for the pain and reality of what has happened in people's lives. This is not what is coming from First Nations, but it is what is present in others who want to receive forgiveness and just forget what happened. Perhaps it would be great if that could happen, but it may take much longer.

And so there are some questions that are raised for us. Even as we desire to see a repentance and forgiveness experience which truly transforms the Canadian psyche and spirit, we cannot help but ask: Can people wait and walk it out with us? Can they take our frustrations and pain and love us through it? Do we need, once again, to be the ones who absorb hurt and betrayal in order that the rest of society can feel okay about itself? Are we settling for the words of Dr. Phil: "Get over it and get on with it"?

Were we pessimistic, we might ask, "Are we inadvertently being used to deal with a Church-perceived problem to get over the past so that church renewal/revival can occur?"

Help us. What is your understanding of forgiveness?

More ChristianWeek coverage:

First Nations Christians ready to forgive past abuses (click here)

Residential school survivors welcome federal apology (click here)

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