This past week I was profoundly impacted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission closing events here in Ottawa. To be in a room full of survivors of the residential school tragedies while the final report of the commission was being read is an experience I will never forget. However, this post is not an attempt to describe how the church should take action in response. Action is needed, yes, but we need to listen rather than suggest what this action should look like.
This post is precisely about listening. It is about listening to the stories of others, for in these stories we will find ourselves. In this case, we discover the truth about our own colonization and institutionalization.
Listen to a story with me, would you, from the 11th century when a small group of Benedictine monks built an infirmary near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. These Knights Hospitaller treated each person who came to them, whether Jewish or Muslim or Christian, as if they were serving Christ himself. They would lavish care upon them without attempting to convert them to their own religion.
In 1095, Pope Urban II declared at the Council of Clermont,
I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ’s heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race (Turks and Arabs) from the lands of our friends.
The Knights Hospitaller went from being a small group dedicated to serving the ill and wounded in the name of Christ to a band of armed guards for pilgrims, to one of the most powerful military orders in the Holy Land alongside the Knights Templar. In essence, they went from caring for the dying to carrying out the killing.
Their complicated history does not lose its caregiving and philanthropic emphasis, however, as they continue to this day to provide care through an international presence, including St. John Ambulance and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, with a strong philanthropic presence and history of military action and colonization.
I am aware that this seems like a rather long side-note, but I would encourage us to instead think of it as a very short story of Western Christianity or, in fact, a very short history of caregiving (but that for another day). The Knights Hospitaller serve as a microcosm of the impact of power on our best intentions. They show us the trajectory of institutionalized religion. They demonstrate the colonization of Christianity.
You see, what began in Christianity as a small group of people at constant risk of martyrdom, known for caring for all poor (according to Julian the Apostate) became very much a colonizing institution of power when joined with the State. Whether you tell this story from Constantine, Pope Urban II or French and English North American settlers, it matters little.
We could trace the story back even further, though, to a time before writing was the primary mode of communication and before the import of Greek thought, when oral storytelling was the only television and communal life was all that was known. A time before the selfie, before even the autobiography.
In a granted roundabout way, we have come to my thesis:
Perhaps in listening to and “sitting at the feet of” aboriginal storytelling, Canadian Christianity can regain something of its own identity that has been lost.
In 2003, Thomas King gave the Massey Lectures on “The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative.” I came across them as I was thinking about how North American Christianity might be different if we had come to listen to, rather than tell, stories. Because even if the stories we tell are of science and progress and rights and ownership, they are still stories. As King says “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” We are storied all the way down. I recommend listening to all these lectures, but in my frame of thought the first stood out to me the most. In it, King tells an aboriginal creation story about a woman named “Charm” who falls out the other side of her own planet, lands in a water-planet, and together with water-animals and birds creates Earth out of mud. He then contrasts this with the Biblical creation story of one God, an ordered creation with one rule and then the introduction of good and evil. While telling the Native story, he tries to recreate an oral storytelling voice and craft the story in terms of a performance for a general audience. In the Christian story, he tries to maintain a sense of rehtorical distance and decorum while organizing the story for a knowledgeable gathering. As he observes, “These strategies colour the stories and suggest values that might be neither inherent nor warranted.”
Whereas Native stories emphasize difference, cooperation and equality, the Eurocentric Judeo-Christian story emphasizes dichotomy, competition and hierarchy. Interestingly enough, King goes on to present these two stories as themselves a dichotomy.
It is important to problematize this characterization. While many oppositions in the story can be drawn out, I would suggest that it is precisely in the way that it is told that makes the two so contradictory. In spending time drawing out certain aspects, in the ability to laugh at ironic or ridiculous aspects and steep in the mysterious and profound, it is often in how we tell the story that we tell the real story. We must remember that the original audience was less rationalistic and more communal, a rich culture of oral storytelling in its own right.
How do we tell, for example, our own creation stories?
- Do we check-off the empirical reality of one all-powerful patriarchal God or dwell in the mystery of a birthing Spirit hovering over the waters and the mysterious plurality spoken to in the opening scenes of Genesis?
- Do we commandeer language of ‘ruling the earth’ or bow humbly to stewardship and earth-care?
- Do we see earth as purely striving and toil against God and one another to get back to an original garden, or learn from the story of Cain and Abel that it is competition that will shed blood and destroy the earth, and that God will provide even after sin and in hardship?
- Do we seek a hierarchical system of governance in order and in truth or do we remember that it was the people who demanded, not God that instituted, a king? Do we recognize our radical equality with one another before God?
These are only a few of many examples, but perhaps in listening to and soaking in the stories shared by those we have failed to listen to before, we will re-encounter our own faith in an ancient-yet-new way.
In listening, we must hear not only the empirical content of those stories but to the way that the Storyteller weaves those stories, weaves our stories, together.
Art in this post: In the header, Jesus and the Disciples by Father John Giuliani. You can learn more about Fr. Giuliani here.
Near the bottom of this post on either side you will see the stained glass window in Parliament commemorating the legacy of Indian Residential Schools called Giniigaaniimenaaning (Looking Ahead). For more on this, see the Parliament’s site or the site of artist Christi Belcourt.