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Intention and Impact

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We need to repent from unintended sins and wrongs, whether it’s racism or something else.

This past May, Canadians were rocked by the discovery of the remains of 215 children buried in unmarked graves at the site of a residential school for Indigenous children in Kamloops, British Columbia. In June, over 700 unmarked graves were found at another former residential school in Saskatchewan. The residential school system was a network of mandatory boarding schools for Indigenous children funded by the Canadian government and administered by Christian churches. From the 1880s until the mid-1990s, it sought to “civilize” Indigenous children by forcibly separating them from their parents and their cultural language, customs, and heritage. An estimated 150,000 children went through the residential school system, most of them traumatized and abused. Many died or went “missing.” Most survivors suffer from post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, mental illness, suicidal tendencies, and substance abuse. Unsurprisingly, intergenerational trauma occurs, and these social ills plague Indigenous communities even today. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada called the schools’ impact “cultural genocide.”

Many things have been and still can be said in relation to this tragedy. For now, let me say this: I doubt the churches’ original intent was to harm Indigenous children. In fact, they probably intended to spiritually “save” them. Nonetheless, the effect was harmful, and they needed to apologize and make amends. This need to repent and repair is true for all of us in other situations too. Even if we did not intend to hurt anyone, if our actions or words did cause hurt, the proper, decent reaction is not to be defensive or to deny, but to apologize and try to right the wrongs done.

I wonder how much of our disagreement around racism hinges on this distinction between intention and impact. Some Christians define racism mostly as an intentional act, while others define it more by how it affects different peoples, especially people of color. Which is more important, intent or impact? The truth depends on the context. But good intentions alone cannot simply absolve us of the harm we have caused.

In my previous editorial, I talked about our denomination’s spiritual and intellectual pride. I believe most Christians do not intend to be spiritually proud. We probably intend to honor God’s truth by emphasizing correct theology. We want to be effective for God’s kingdom by being orderly and organized, and by structuring things accordingly. I doubt if we ever seek to be unhealthily proud of our theology or our systems to the point of over-relying on these good gifts. But the impact of our habitual actions and choices over decades skews us to pride.

A popular saying claims that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Similarly, the Bible says, “There is a way that appears to be right,   but in the end it leads to death” (Prov. 14:12). We may have good intentions, seeking to do the right thing, but we could still be causing harm to others and to ourselves. The Heidelberg Catechism recognizes that “even our best works in this life are imperfect and stained with sin” (Q&A 62). All of these observations should humble us.

We need to repent from unintended sins and wrongs, whether it’s racism or something else. The prophet Daniel even repented of corporate sins he did not personally commit (Dan. 9). Repentance is not merely feeling sorry or saying sorry. Repentance requires commitment and action to turn from sin toward righteousness. If we truly seek spiritual revival, repenting from our spiritual pride, we cannot simply continue with “business as usual” in our church and spiritual lives.

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