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.

About the Author

Shiao Chong is editor-in-chief of The Banner. He attends Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ont.

Shiao Chong es el redactor jefe de The Banner. El asiste a Iglesia Comunidad Cristiana Reformada en Toronto, Ont. 

시아오 총은 더 배너 (The Banner)의 편집장이다. 온타리오 주 토론토의 펠로우쉽 CRC에 출석한다.

You can follow him @shiaochong (Twitter) and @3dchristianity (Facebook).  

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Comments

The statement by the editor that “We need to repent from unintended sins and wrongs” merits challenging. Notwithstanding the trauma surrounding the issue of residential schools there appears to be an element of “virtue signalling” with respect to who the “we” is that the article is addressing. Suggesting that members of the CRC in Canada need to repent for something that pre-dates their immigration in the 1950’s would require them to appropriate guilt that does not properly belong to them. It undermines the process of reconciliation.

 

I am left to wonder whether the editorial’s recommendation is itself not another form of “spiritual and intellectual pride.” There is a certain hubris in suggesting that we as humans have some sort of fore knowledge regarding the “impact” of our “intentions” unless there is clear intent to harm others. There is also a broad distinction to be made between “intention” and “application” as the two may be two quite different things and have different "outcomes."

 

Regardless, scripture calls us to “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6: 8 NIV

"The residential school sytem was a network of mandatory boarding schools for Indigenous children funded by the Canadian government and administered by Christian churches."

It should clearly noted that this networdk was established by the Canadian government who made the policy, made all the rules and regulations. It then handed this (underfunded) program over to several churches.

This does not absolve the government, people and institutions that ran the schools from responsibility. The timeframe and context of the time set the stage and culture for subsequently happened. 

Here is a quote from the TRC:

"Residential schools were established pursuant to federal government policies and legislation designed to control and assimilate Indigenous people. From the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Final Report:

For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; "

I'm surprised to read that you "doubt the churches’ original intent was to harm Indigenous children. In fact, they probably intended to spiritually “save” them." I very much doubt that to be true. If taking children away from their parents, cutting their hair, forcing them to wear non Indigenous clothing, assigning kids a number instead of their name, disciplining them (often with abuse) for speaking in their own language, to non nutritious meals and so much more...taking the Indian out of the child, to what? Save them??? If that is considered not harming a child, I'm appalled. 

The story of the Residential schools is a horror, and it requires addressing and perspective. First, the government and churches need to apologize and set things right with surviving victims (which has started and is ongoing). Other than that, what can we do?

We need to be careful not to paint every non-Indigenous person guilty when the vast majority had nothing to do with it, and in fact, most did not even live in Canada when this was occurring. 

Today, there are numerous government policies destroying people's lives. Yet, the church is silent, so to impose 2021 sensibilities on a century-old policy while ignoring current injustices is a disconnect.  

The disconnect between intent and outcomes is one dimension. When I ask what beliefs and analysis led me to act on my intent (or values) in the way I did, it leads to deeper insights and more beneficial change.  For the CRC community, revisiting the way we dealt with the Doctrine of Discovery report in 2016 could be a helpful step on the road to genuine reconciliation.  It is unfinished business in the CRC. 

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