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By Dr. Tony Kireopoulos

The recent news reports about the mass and unmarked graves at Canadian residential schools is startling. Indeed, not to ignore the Trail of Tears and other abuses of Indigenous peoples in our own country, the fate of Indigenous children at Canadian residential schools, run by churches on behalf of the government, is one of particular sadness and horror. The discoveries, several weeks ago in Kamloops, British Columbia, and just days ago in Marieval, Saskatchewan, have focused Canadian authorities on the century-long history and ongoing legacy of residential schools, which were intended to assimilate native populations. Government and Indigenous leaders have called the practice varying forms of genocide, and a system-wide investigation into other schools and graveyards is underway. As a result, a similar investigation is to take place at sites of Native American schools in the US, where the experience of Indigenous peoples paralleled that of those in Canada. This unfolding tragedy begs the question: are we, in fact, looking at another genocide?

I raise this question from a particular vantage point. In 2004, I was honored to travel to Rwanda and participate in a World Council of Churches consultation on human dignity to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide. That same year, I hosted a presentation by Samantha Power, who had recently published her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 2002), and whose career as a human rights advocate would go on to take her to the highest levels of the US government. I went on to serve in board leadership of the Save Darfur Coalition and its successor organization, United to End Genocide (as chair), and also participated in UN-community meetings about the Responsibility to Protect, prompting a National Council of Churches resolution endorsing the principle. Further, I convened an NCC consultation on the churches’ complicity in genocide, and later contributed to an NCC Faith and Order study group’s work on “Violence in an Age of Genocide,” which was collectively published as “Racialized Violence and the Churches’ Responsibility” in a dedicated section of a special issue of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies (2020: 55, 1). It is with this experience that I turn my gaze toward the dreadful discoveries of the mass and unmarked graves at the residential schools in Canada. 

Naturally, the discoveries have transfixed many in Canada, the United States, and around the world.  Indeed, even though the news of the Kamloops discovery was already circulating, it was only through a World Council of Churches conference in June that I learned the extent of the tragedy and trauma among the Indigenous peoples in Canada. It was also in this conference that I learned of the reckoning that has begun throughout Canada, and particularly in the churches. That the quasi-theological, or worse yet heretical, notions of the doctrine of discovery and manifest destiny provided justification for this treatment of Indigenous communities in North America is one reason people of faith must regard this experience with alarm. It is the same alarm with which we regard the similarly heretical notion of Christian nationalism today.  

I suppose genocide has been with us from the beginning of time. And for sure it has not been perpetrated solely by Christians. But when it has been carried out in the name of Christ, or by those who claim Christ as their savior – as it was in Germany, Bosnia, Rwanda, and apparently North America – it’s a cause for Christians and their churches to self-reflect, confess to the sin, and make amends. 

As we contemplate this tragic history, we must wonder:  How does one look down on another to the point of exterminating others? And how do people ostensibly grounded in faith commit such evil? German Protestants did it to Jews. Serbian Orthodox did it to Bosnian Muslims. Catholic Hutus did it to Catholic Tutsis. And Christians of many creeds did it to Indigenous populations in North America. One thing they all seem to have in common:  a total disregard for others they think are less than fully human. They need not consider their victims vermin or cockroaches, as was the case in Germany and Rwanda, respectively. They merely need to see them as half or three-quarters human, as was done in the US during and in the immediate aftermath of slavery. How else to explain, among deaths of thousands from disease, abuse, and neglect, the murder of infants, born to Indigenous girls who apparently had been raped by priests and monks, at the Canadian residential schools? 

So is what happened in Canada, and possibly the US, considered genocide? A valued Faith and Order colleague of mine, Kenneth Q. James of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, drafted a paper not long before his death (in 2020) in which he compellingly argued that the treatment of African Americans in US history amounted to a “slow genocide.” From the evidence unearthed in the graveyards at Canada’s residential schools, it seems that the treatment of Indigenous peoples in North America amounted to the same. Whether committed in a relatively brief period, or over a century, it is still genocide, if the intent is to eradicate the future of an entire people. 

As we contemplate the horror that will no doubt continue to unfold as more churchyards are explored for mass and unmarked graves, let us call ourselves to account for what happened. Yes, these abuses took place in decades and centuries past, but as we continue to participate in any type of discriminatory practice or benefit from systematic persecution that may be rooted in a different time and place, we remain morally complicit in the sin today. And so it demands a moral, political, legal, and spiritual response. Therefore, as we now move forward repeating what was said after the Holocaust, “Never Again!”; finding effective ways of societal reconciliation, as in the gacaca courts in Rwanda; and, as in Bosnia, praying that the memory of the victims will be eternal: what more will we do now, as individuals and communities of faith, in response to the North American residential schools?  God help us.

Dr. Kireopoulos is Associate General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA.

About this blog: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the original author and were prepared in the author’s personal capacity. These views and opinions do not represent those of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, its member communions, or any other contributors to this site.