Along with the rest of Canada, we’ve recently heard anew of the horrors of the residential schools that went on for about 130 years. We’re sobered to hear that the last one closed only in 1996, and to realize that the last “graduates” of that school system are the same age as us.

How much more grieved are we that, in partnership with the Canadian government, the Christian church played an active part in the abominations perpetrated at these schools.

As we continue to process these things, it’s important to point out a few uncomfortable truths about what happened. And I think the best place to start is with our terminology.

Words are important. The choices we make in which words to use influence the way that we think, the way that we react, the way that we process events that have transpired. They influence the degree of healing that victims experience, and the degree of remorse and repentance that the perpetrators engage in.

We dare not discard blame by calling it a tragedy, as though an earthquake or hurricane has come through. We dare not call it mistreatment, for this diminishes the magnitude of the suffering the Indigenous people have experienced. Even “abuse” is a weak descriptor. [1]

We, as a nation, have tortured thousands of innocent children. We have coerced parents into giving up their children, at times by cutting off their food supply. These parents’ torment has been multiplied because they knew exactly what their children would be facing at the schools that they, too, had attended. We have done this to generations of Indigenous people for the majority of our existence as a country.

How much worse that churches participated with the government in this evil—in the name of Christ.

This is the Christ who loved children; the same Man who said, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” [2]

The same Jesus who said, “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” [3]

Who said, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” [4]

How could Christians have done this?

There is a special type of racism that, if left unchecked, can destroy not only a missionary but the culture to which she or he travels. It’s called “ethnocentrism”. At its core, it’s the belief that one’s culture is better than someone else’s. At its core, it is the sin of pride—the same sin that caused evil to enter the universe in the first place. [5]

One of our chief jobs, as missionaries, is going to another culture, learning about it, and learning from it. If we take the prideful mentality that we have nothing to learn, or that the only thing we have to learn is the language, we make ourselves into ticking time bombs, ready to explode and contaminate everything we touch.

I have seen this mentality in missionaries—not just 20 years ago, but even since we’ve come to Japan. We’ve personally witnessed how devastating and destructive it can be. We, and those we love, have come away damaged by its shrapnel. [6]

Over the past few years, I’ve been meeting monthly with a young woman we’ll call Hannah, who attended a Christian school not long ago, in Japan. When I first met her, she was working on her Master’s thesis for a Canadian university, outlining her experiences at that school. There, she was taught that her Japanese culture and language were inferior to the English language and Christian culture the school was pouring into her.

I know of another school in Japan, which holds similarly destructive ideas. In that case, a friend of mine sent her children to attend the school very recently. Her son is autistic. She was told he had a demon. When she pulled out her son from the school, his younger sister was bullied—by the teachers!

Christian brothers and sisters, we are accountable. We are called to repent. The sinful attitudes and actions that caused such harm to the Indigenous people in our history are alive and flourishing. They continue to endanger and damage the innocent even now!

Let’s return to the issue of the residential schools and Indigenous people. I was recently combing through quotes from my first book when I stumbled across this one:

In this case, our “work” is repentance. Since these atrocities were carried out by Christians, we are called to repent. If a man hits a child, can his foot say, “I’m not at fault. I did not hit the child”? We are the body of Christ. It is our job to be Jesus’ hands and feet, to act in the interests of spreading His hope and healing to the fullest extent of our capability. We are to shout our repentance from the rooftops, and invite as many Indigenous people as we can find to witness our repentance.

In 2003, Peter and I attended an Urbana missions conference together. At that conference, there was a group of Indigenous Christians in attendance. They were asked to do a special presentation. In it, they shared about some of the discrimination and suffering they’d endured.

I well remember one fellow proclaiming in booming triumph, “We were told our drums were evil. But our drums aren’t what matters. What matters is the heart of the drummer!”

He and the rest of the Indigenous presenters then went on to dance and drum with all their might in praise to the One who made their hearts and their hands. It was one of the most joyful, moving displays of worship I have ever seen.

It was worship born of deep suffering; worship clinging to the One who made them into their unique selves; and worship that stubbornly refused to allow the evil of men to cause them to lose their grip on their beloved Jesus.

The Bible tells us that the nations will bring their glory and honour into heaven. [7] Who are we to engage in ethnocentrism, or refuse to repent of our part in its application? Who are we to diminish the glory of heaven with our supposed superiority?

We Canadians like to compare ourselves with our American neighbours, and walk away with a sense of superiority. And we are better at one thing. Guantanamo Bay has nothing on us. Separating children from parents at the border? Perpetrating inter-generational trauma? Let us not excuse ourselves by comparing.

When Jesus said, “Do not judge lest you be judged” [8], He was talking about this exact sort of situation. When we judge ourselves superior, we disable our own repentance, our own humility, our own godliness.

I know from sad experience that is possible for a familial sin to plague a family, like a curse, for generations. I believe the same is possible for a national sin, like this. Without wholehearted, complete repentance, the Christian church in Canada will never be free of this national sin.

Let us not be like the fig tree, bearing no fruit, and cursed by Jesus to never bear fruit again. [9]

Our repentance is the conduit of healing, not only for Indigenous people, but for ourselves.

I’ve recently seen a few people say on Facebook, “Thank God I’m not racist.”

My first thought was, “How do you know?”

You see, there aren’t many racist people who actually recognize that they’re racist. They just don’t see it.

This is the same with sin in general. Our sinfulness is often hidden from us.

We don’t know how we are sinful, and we don’t know how sinful we are.

Repentance is the key to humility, and humility is the key to rooting out the sin in our own hearts.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

(Micah 6:8, NRSV)


[1] The UN definition for torture is:

any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

(Taken from “Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment”, Office of the High Commissioner, United Nations Human Rights, accessed 9 June 2021, .)

Note that at the end, the torture definition says, “[Torture] does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to, lawful sanctions to the extent consistent with the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.” However, since Canada’s treatment of the Indigenous Peoples breaks rules 1 and 2 of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, such treatment of Indigenous Peoples was not lawful by the UN’s standards, and I have omitted this sentence as irrelevant to today’s discussion of the definition.

I hope it doesn’t escape you that the UN’s minimum rules are for prisoners—not for little children!

[2] Mark 10:14, ESV.

[3] Matthew 18:6, ESV.

[4] Mark 10:15, ESV.

[5] See Isaiah 14:12-15.

[6] It wasn’t until we were already living in Japan that we were treated in a training session to such nuggets of wisdom as: “We need to change the culture in order to share the Gospel.”

I’m not so quick on my feet when surprised. However, Peter and a Chinese American fellow spoke out against this immediately. Thankfully, God removed us from serving with that organization a couple of months later.

[7] See Revelation 21:23-26.

[8] Matthew 7:1, NASB 1977.

[9] See Matthew 21:18-19.

(Top picture source)