Text: John 9:1-41 (the blind and the sighted)
I struggled to write today’s reflection, perhaps because of our Gospel reading. As in many other places, today’s reading includes an attack by Jesus on religious leaders. Since I am a religious leader, I can see myself in the Pharisees whom Jesus says are arrogant and blind to the truth.
Or perhaps I struggled because of this week’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission Event. On Friday, I spent some time at the hearings. The pain expressed by survivors of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools was strong, which I had expected. But the cause of the pain was squarely on the shoulders of the churches that ran these schools for more than 100 years. This too I should have expected. But I felt our church’s role in the sins of colonialism more keenly than I had in the past.
Despite the struggles this caused, I now offer a reflection on light and blindness, and on God’s Grace as we stumble forward.
Church leaders are often confident that we have seen God’s truth. In contrast to this, hear again Jesus’ words to a group of Pharisees from today’s reading.
“If you were blind, there would be no sin in that. But you say, ‘We see,’ and so your sin remains.” Jesus implies that those of us who are confident we see the truth may, in fact, be spiritually blind.
Jesus says that his work for justice involves helping the blind, who are innocent, and working to blind those who say they have sight, who are the real sinners.
The reading gives an example of spiritual blindness. Some of the Pharisees are angry that Jesus has healed a blind man on the Sabbath. To their way of thinking, this breaks one of the Ten Commandments.
Because the Pharisees know Scripture, they believe they also know the will of God. Their reading of the Ten Commandments gives them spiritual certainty. Jesus, however, says that their certainty is a sin.
Spiritual certainty is a common-enough possession among religious leaders — and not just the Pharisees who condemn Jesus.
In Edmonton at this week’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission Event, Canada’s churches have stood exposed as sinners. When France and Britain conquered Canada’s First Nations, our churches thought we saw the truth. We now wish that we had been blinded by the Light of the World. But wherever this Light was during those years, we turned away from it and acted in ways that now cause us to feel shame.
Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and United churches ran Indian Residential Schools for the Canadian government. The schools worked to stamp out First Nations’ cultures. They destroyed thousands of Aboriginal families. And they were the site of innumerable crimes of physical and sexual abuse.
Representatives of our churches have been at the Shaw Conference Centre this week to acknowledge our guilt, to hear testimony from survivors of those schools, and to pledge to never again engage in such practices.
I was at a public hearing on Friday where the United Church Moderator, Gary Paterson, and a past Moderator, Bill Phipps, spoke for our church. I appreciated what they said — words of apology and sorrow and of commitment to act differently. But I didn’t exactly love their remarks.
Perhaps this was because they immediately followed the testimonies of two First Nations’ survivors. One was a woman from the Northwest Territories who had not attended residential school herself, but whose 12-year old brother Michael had been beaten to death at a school. The other was a man from Winnipeg who spoke of his lifelong torment in coming to grips with the abuse he suffered and witnessed in a residential school.
Speaking right after such testimony could not have been easy. But I wish that our moderators had spoken more quietly or tentatively. Rightly or wrongly, I detected a note of confidence in their contrition. I wondered if silence or tears might have better fit the occasion.
By the way, I liked the Moderator’s message this morning at a special service at McDougall Church much better. I found it very helpful and encouraging.
But on Friday, I also found myself thinking about the long history of spiritual arrogance and aggression of the church down through the ages.
As terrible as they were, the Indian Residential Schools are hardly an anomaly in church history. The Old Testament contains several stories of genocide that it falsely claims were God’s work. And the history of the Christian Church since it became the religion of the Roman Empire in the Fourth Century is filled with wars, conquests and campaigns of cultural genocide supported by the church.
This is not the only thing churches have done of course. In between moments of expansion through conquest, we have also baptized children, married young lovers, presided at funerals, served the community, and conducted services of praise and thanksgiving.
But the Canadian churches that ran the residential schools are also the descendants of the churches that organized the Crusades against Islam 1000 years ago and that supported the European conquest of the Americas, the cross-Atlantic slave trade, and numerous wars in Europe over the last 500 years.
So being spiritually blind is hardly unique to the Pharisees in the time of Jesus. Religious leaders often claim that we know what God wants and then commit crimes such as taking children from parents, stamping out other cultures, and turning a blind eye to violence and abuse.
Events such as the one in Edmonton this week remind us of these sins. May this reminder help us to be wary of religious self-confidence and of religious leaders who say that we have seen the light.
Our churches today are much weaker than when we ran the residential schools. Our ability to do harm is also less because of that fact.
If we regain some of our strength, I pray that we will remember Jesus’ words today. Spiritual insight is a powerful force, and one that is often used to cause harm. As the Light of the World, Jesus brings sight to the blind. May his Light also blind self-righteous leaders who, like the Pharisees in the time of Jesus and like Canada’s churches in the years of the residential school, foolishly believe that we see.
In Lent, we engage in a metaphorical journey to Jerusalem with Jesus and his friends. It is a journey that occurs in the shadow of the arrest, trials, and execution of Jesus at its end. And yet Jesus is with us.
His light helps common people like the man blind from birth follow the path. May it also blind religious leaders who foolishly believe we see the truth.
Perhaps we know that we have encountered the Light of the World when we forget all that we once thought we knew. Perhaps we know that we have embraced God’s Light when our hearts and minds are wiped clean and we are left ignorant and dependent.
Being blinded by the light might feel shameful or humiliating. But humiliation can be the beginning of wisdom. Perhaps wisdom means knowing that we don’t know anything, and that we must rely on God and nothing else.
The truths of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools are painful. This pain humiliates our churches. May this humiliation blind our certainty and help us see dimly through the tears of the victims where the road forward might lie.
The road of Lent is a humble one. When we enter this road burdened and disabled by many woes, God’s Light leads us. When we enter it full of self-righteous anger and certainty, God’s Light blinds us and brings us low. In either case, we give thanks for God’s Blinding Light, the Light of the World.