Is it possible to sin in the Name of Jesus?

Shocking news out of Kamloops. A graveyard containing the bodies of 215 first nations youngsters was discovered on the site of a residential school. What makes things worse is that the school in question was run by people who bear the name of Jesus.

I should clarify that while the news is shocking for the general Canadian population, First Nations peoples are intimately acquainted with stories like this.

For those unaware, residential schools were a part of Canada’s Aboriginal policy. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report on Canada’s Residential Schools says it this way:

“For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as ‘cultural genocide.’

“Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.

“In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.”

What makes the Residential school narrative especially troubling is the deep participation of the church — those who bear Jesus’ name — in the whole mess. It causes a guy like me, who identifies as a Jesus follower and who is into theology and mission, to ask what went wrong?

Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin, of one of the key advocates of residential schools, wrote in 1880 about the purpose of residential schools:

“To become civilized they should be taken with the consent of their parents & made to lead a life different from their parents and cause them to forget the customs, habits & language of their ancestors.”

Unfortunately the history of missions is full of stories like this.

What is odd is that the Bible is very clear when it comes to culture and faith. Revelation 5:9 and 7:9 both speak of people from every nation, tribe, people, and language being a part of God’s kingdom. What does that mean in practical terms? When we bear the name of Jesus we attempt to have people meet him on their own terms, using their own language, in their own cultural context, in their own place. And when people from every nation, tribe, people, and language get to heaven their uniqueness is celebrated!

The rest of the New Testament is a study in contextualization as people from various cultures and places found ways — through the guidance of the Holy Spirit — to embed Jesus into their own contexts.[1]

I will make a bold statement: If your theology states that someone needs to abandon their own cultural identity — and to subsequently adopt a new cultural identity — in order for them to follow Christ, then your theology has no connection to Jesus.

Having said all of that, even if we weren’t physically present during these atrocities, we are still complicit in them because people bearing Jesus’ name did these things. Don’t we also bear Jesus name?

“I pray Lord that I would see where I am wrong in the things I do today. Forgive me for those things I have done in your name that misrepresent who you are. Lord heal our land.”

Image by Leesa Epp.

1. See Dean Flemming’s Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission for more on this.

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