Advent is the season of hope, the season of waiting for the coming of Christ. As Christians we believe that our hope is found in Christ, and that the church, the Bride of Christ, is God’s chosen instrument of revelation.
But how do you offer hope when the Church itself is the oppressor? When the Church has committed countless violations in the name of Jesus?
About 18 months ago I had the honor of visiting an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) elder and dear friend. He was a Vietnam veteran, an accomplished writer, and a boarding school survivor. Boarding schools were a forced assimilation tactic employed by the U.S. government and American churches in their ongoing efforts to “kill the Indian to save the man.”
My friend had been diagnosed with cancer and had only a few months to live. He and his wife decided that his limited days would be spent cherishing every moment and relationship. After a long journey, I arrived at his house to spend a few hours with him. In his weakened state he did not have the energy for prolonged visits, and most of our time was spent sitting on his porch, with me listening to his stories.
Over our years of friendship, I heard a trickle of his stories, but that afternoon the dam broke, and his stories came flooding out. And they were gut wrenching. Stories about how he “converted” to Christianity in the boarding school, not because he liked Jesus but because he learned that students who said “the prayer” were given bigger portions at dinner. Stories about how the school used cigarettes to manipulate the behavior of the young native students. Stories about the suicide attempts of family members, the strict punishments by the boarding school administrators, and, worst of all, the sex education he received, in the form of statutory rape, from one of his teachers at this church-run boarding school.
I had heard stories like his before from second and third-hand sources. I had read stories like his before of people I did not know. But that afternoon, the firsthand stories of my friend shook me. He was not angry, nor was he bitter. But he was honest. Brutally honest. And there were no words. There was nothing I could say. He was trying to make peace with his past and was deeply wrestling with his pending death. And there was nothing I could say.
He knew I was a Christian, but he was not looking for Christ. Nor did I know how to offer Christ, so we sat there. I listened. I hugged him. And we said our goodbyes. He died a few months later.
How do you offer hope when the Church itself is the oppressor? When the Church has committed unspeakable violations in the name of Jesus?
I don’t know, but I believe it begins with lament. And this Advent season I invite the Church to join me.