Residential Schools and Systematic Racism

Residential Schools and Systematic Racism June 3, 2021

B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure: Residential School Sign / flickr

The discovery of over 200 remains of indigenous children in a mass grave at a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia has reminded everyone of the evils which Christians from many denominations, including Catholics, participated in during the 19th and 20th centuries. The residential school system was set up to separate indigenous children from their parents, indoctrinate them into a culture other than their own, and give them only nominal skills so as to make sure they remained beaten down throughout their lives. The schools were run by various churches, and, as the mass grave indicated, the children there were not treated with dignity and respect; instead, their lives were seen as disposable. Whether or not they lived or died, it didn’t matter, so long as the indigenous cultures represented by them were systematically wiped out. This is not to say everyone who worked at the schools had this goal in mind, but everyone who worked at the schools, whether or not this is what they desired, were able to be used to help promote such policies. The system prevailed and overcame any and all particular goods, showing us how systematic sin, like all evils, knows how to use some particular goods in order to promote its agenda.

The residential schools represent only one form of the evil of systematic racism. Indigenous people were not respected. They were often treat as less-than-human. Stereotypes were created to justify such dehumanization. Then, it became easy to justify what was done to them, because they were not seen as fully human. Christians did not follow their own teachings; they openly embraced the sin of racism and set up a system to justify and promote that sin. In and through the treatment of Native Americans, we can see how systematic racism works and corrupts even those who intend good: for, it should be obvious, not every missionary, not every Christian working with Native Americans, personally accepted racial ideologies, but so long as they worked within the system, the work they did helped perpetuate the system and the abuses which it produced. If anyone questions the reality of systematic racism, all they need to do is see the way Native Americans were treated. The system was a racist system, and the evils which came from it were supported by all who worked in and with the system, so that whatever good people personally intended was overcome and corrupted by the system and they became entangled with the racism themselves.

American Christians must accept the fact that they allowed themselves to be corrupted by sin in the way they treated Native Americans. But they must also accept Christian history shows this sin was not only found in the way Christians set up a system to abuse the Native Americans. Racism is inherent within the United States as a whole, so that it can be described as  America’s original sin. Systematic structures of sin have established and promoted racism throughout the history of the United States, and Christians have long been involved with and promoted those structures of sin. We can see this with the African American experience, who suffered the ill effects of racism, not just slavery, but especially in the aftermath of slavery, where Christians came together to establish brotherhoods of White Supremacy in order to keep the African Americans from becoming their equals in society.

The effects of  previous forms of systematic racism not only continue with us today, but the systems themselves continue, and indeed, continue to be defended by many Christians today. But this is not how it should be. Christians should be the first to overcome racism, because, as Paul pointed out, Christ is for all. The structures used to create racial divides work against the unity promoted by Christ. They hinder the work of grace in the world, grace which is meant to bring people together so they can work for justice and peace in the world. Instead, Christians often find themselves among those who reinforce the perpetuation of an underclass whose disadvantages perpetuate the system itself. Only when the reality of the situation is accepted by Christians, and they work to overcome the effects of the systematic structures of sin which they put in place, can things change. They must not find excuses to justify the system. They must not find excuses to defend themselves and their collaboration with various evils. This must be done, both on a systematic level, but also on a personal level. Each and every Christian needs to repent and have a change of heart:

The social fabric of the Church and the world will be reformed and renewed only when conversion is interior and personal. The needed reform of oppressive economic and political structures in the world cannot be effected without the conversion of hearts. The reconciliation of humanity at the level of individuals, communities, peoples and blocs of nations presumes the conversion of individual hearts and must be based on truth.[1]

Certainly, apologies have been made. This shows that, for some, one aspect of repentance, the acceptance that some evil had been done and the acknowledgement of one’s culpability for that evil, has been done. Sadly, such apologies do little good by themselves. Many Christians ignore them or think they are unjustified as they continue to perpetuate the sin being apologized for. Others, of course, might feel sorrow, and agree with the apology, but then think that is all that needs to be done. In reality, there needs to be more than an apology. It’s easy to say one is sorry. There needs to be true penance. Restitution needs to be made. If any remnants of the system which created such evils can be shown to continue to exist, they must be taken down, repudiated, and replaced by some system which will work to counteract such systematic evil  in the future. Christians must be at the foreground of such work because of the way Christians were at the forefront of creating and establishing the system which is being repudiated today.

Sadly, many Christians continue to accept systematic racism because of the advantages they gain from it. They fight anyone who wants to rework the system, and in doing so, perpetuate great evils in the world. They show they have not learned from the past. If one questions the premises behind Critical Race Theory, all one has to do is look to the near-genocidal treatment of Native Americans to see its reality. This is what systematic racism leads to if it is not put to a halt. There can be and should be no Christian acceptance of this evil. Those who fought against it  in the past, like Bartolomé de las Casas, often did so only after they realized the evil behind the system itself. And then, they found themselves constantly under attack, showing us how history is now repeating itself, as those Christians who now realize the evils of systematic racism (after benefiting from it themselves, or being among those who are mistreated by it) only find their so-called brethren attacking them for their efforts and doing all they can to undermine their labor for social justice. Is it any wonder that Christianity is losing its ground in the world, when it is no longer showing itself to be the salt of the earth, working for the promotion of all and instead is being used to justify and promote systematic structures of evil?

The announcement of the remains found at the residential school in Canada should not have surprised anyone. The history of the schools, and the evils done in them, have been long known. But it was shocking. Why? Because, though it has been known, it has not been properly engaged. The reality of the evil has not been properly dealt with. Christians must do better this time. They must not try to cover up the past. They must accept, with sorrows, the various evils they have done. They must be humble, not proud. They must finally show their sorrow, not just with words, but with actions. They must listen to those who want to speak to them about what they suffered. They must not respond with any attempts to justify themselves. Instead, what they need to is ask those who have suffered, what it is they want to be done, what, exactly, can be done to help them find the healing which they so desperately need. Only then will Christians begin to show themselves worthy of the name of Christ, for he came into the world, not to judge it, but to save it, healing it from all the evils done to it by sin.

[1] Pope St. John Paul II, “To the Bishops of the United States at Their ‘Ad Liminia’ Visit” (5-31-1988). ¶5.


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