Having confidence in the truth of one’s own religious beliefs has seemed like a crucial part of believing for most Christians. Those who disagree are in error and this error in beliefs (and resulting lifestyle) has ultimate consequences. In the perceptions of most Christians, this has not been at all unkind or unjust; in fact, it has been seen as an expression of faith and love, motivating a desire to convert those who are “lost.”
This way of looking at the world is so deeply ingrained that it is very hard to honestly reconsider whether it is true and loving. As a result, kind and intelligent believers have persisted in these exclusive understandings, oblivious to an alternative way to see.
I believe that the recent “Calls to Action” growing out of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission* provide a necessary wake up call. Seeing through the lens of the suffering and indignity inflicted on Indigenous peoples, especially through residential schools, we have a rare opportunity to become aware of a deeper reality: assuming the truth of our faith and the evil of the religions of others has caused abuse, death and cultural genocide. Listening to Indigenous voices exposes the lie that spiritual exclusivity has been loving. It has actually been spiritual violence.
This is what has taken place in Canada over the last centuries. Fear, suspicion and condemnation of Indigenous spirituality helped to justify the stripping away of the cultural fabric that supported humanity on this continent for generations while justifying a blindness in the church to the violent exploitation from coast to coast for the sake of commerce and power. Of course, some individuals and groups have been exceptions all along, but the TRC’s conclusions are now helping more and more Christians to wake up and see what has been done. And one of the roots of the violence has been this assumption of exclusive religious truth: our confidence that we are right and others are wrong.
When a weak and marginal group like the early church spoke with confidence about an emerging and counter-cultural understanding, it is understandable in that context. But what may have been a necessary enthusiasm during a movement’s beginning becomes a source of violence once that group becomes a powerful majority. Allied with the power of government and business, a religious institution’s exclusive confidence in its own beliefs kills and oppresses.
This is one of the wake up calls of the TRC: we must stop seeing the devil in the beliefs and practices of others and see instead the “log in our own eye.” Why not rather join with people of other faiths in a process of learning and mutual critique. We can ask ourselves about when our own traditions have been most life-giving and when they have failed us. If we start there, with our own beliefs and practices, we might eventually help people from other traditions ask similar questions.
I believe – I hope – that the era when religious exclusivity has dominated is ending. Believers, younger and older, are seeing that such exclusivity, whenever associated with power, becomes spiritual violence. The TRC has been an important reminder of that.
*Here is the line from the TRC’s “Calls to Action” that is most relevant:
We call upon leaders of the church parties to the
Settlement Agreement and all other faiths, in
collaboration with Indigenous spiritual leaders,
Survivors, schools of theology, seminaries, and other
religious training centres, to develop and teach
curriculum for all student clergy, and all clergy and
staff who work in Aboriginal communities, on the need
to respect Indigenous spirituality in its own right, the
history and legacy of residential schools and the roles
of the church parties in that system, the history and
legacy of religious conflict in Aboriginal families and
communities, and the responsibility that churches have
to mitigate such conflicts and prevent spiritual violence.