The history of North American land is also the history of residential boarding schools. I would not have understood that sentence apart from the books I have been reading lately by Native American writers, or the apology issued by Pope Francis to Native Americans one year ago yesterday, or the resolution passed by the General Convention of The Episcopal Church last summer that established a fact-finding commission to study the role played by Episcopalians in running those boarding schools.
The schools were established in the early nineteenth century as a program of “assimilation” for indigenous children; the schools continued (shockingly and horrifically) well past the middle of the twentieth century and contributed significantly not only to the dissolution of indigenous culture and the disintegration of Native families, but also to the acquisition of indigenous land by white people.
Learning about this painful history is a vital part of a healing process. In her book Becoming Kin, Anishinaabe writer Patty Krawec calls this process “unforgetting the past” toward “reimagining our future.” That’s also a compelling way to think about our lives of common prayer and worship as Christians, especially as we launch into Holy Week toward Easter. Every celebration of the Eucharist invites an integration of memory and hope; we remember the death of Jesus as we proclaim our hope in resurrection—especially in this week just now starting.
This approach to memory and hope was given a particular shape at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century in the hands of an American philosopher and theologian by the name of Josiah Royce.
For Royce, the broad notion of “community” became the central image for what it means to be human. He didn’t mean just any kind of gathering or club, he meant that when people hold both memory and hope together in common they can find a path that heals wounds, repairs division, and unites with love in what he eventually called Beloved Community. (And this of course made a huge impact on Martin Luther King, Jr., during his doctoral program at the University of Boston School of Theology, and which shaped so much of his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement.)
As the Christian Holy Week begins, I want to thread all of these pieces together into a beautiful quilt, but I need to pause and note my anxiety. I worry about replicating the patterns of settler colonization that Krawec so powerfully names and critiques when I borrow such her own compelling phrases. Perhaps that gesture is unavoidable.
And yet, if Christians (especially white, European Christians), inspired by that wonderful phrase, can engage with our own liturgical patterns for the sake of healing and for justice and to live in new ways for the thriving for all, then perhaps something beyond that colonizing posture can emerge. This is my hope.
And that’s why the kind of memory involved in the Christian celebration of Eucharist (especially during Holy Week) matters. Eucharistic memory is not nostalgia, which usually fabricates an image of the past we wish had happened but didn’t (such as the romanticized scenes of peaceful meal sharing between pilgrims and Native Americans we see every year in late November). Nostalgia also tends to cover over or repress the unpleasant bits of history for the sake of more comforting memories—most of us actually do this in our own person lives, but doing so with whole societies easily wreaks havoc.
There’s a Greek word often used by liturgical theologians to describe our shared work of memory at the Eucharistic Table. It’s anamnesis. Most will recognize the direct opposite of that Greek word in our English word amnesia, which means “forgetfulness.” That makes Krawec’s phrase all the more compelling for the central act of Christian worship: “unforgetting the past.”
A very full week starts tomorrow, with Palm Sunday—full and also emotionally challenging. Honoring the ancient stories and later symbols they created during this Holy Week, while also minding carefully our own more recent history, can make a truly transformative journey toward the Cross and an empty tomb. It might also help foster the courage we need to face an American history of racial violence as a path toward a future of flourishing. That is, after all, the profound promise of the holiest week on the Christian calendar: by remembering the betrayal, suffering, and death of Jesus, we find our hope restored in the God of life.
I’m astonished by how these old stories seem fresh each year. May they be for us, for all of us, a fresh source of healing and renewal.