Rome’s River Edges

As a chaplain who lives and works in Thunder Bay, I’ve had the privilege to provide spiritual care and grief counselling to Indigenous youth from Northern Ontario reserves suffering the intergenerational trauma of residential schools, including years of witnessing and experiencing sexual and physical abuse, extreme violence, and the resulting addictions that ensue and continue when Indigenous youth arrive in Thunder Bay for high school. These addictions often intensify due to the fact that they have been separated from their communities, culture and family, leaving them with a sense of abandonment, loneliness, alienation and fear.

Some have referred to these youth, including our scandal-plagued former mayor (a 34-year veteran with the Thunder Bay Police) as “lost souls” who arrive in Thunder Bay already plagued with the baggage of their culture’s own making. The narrative, so it goes, is that Indigenous youth (who are clearly in crisis and exhibiting signs of deep trauma) are damaged goods beyond help who are infamous for consuming copious amounts of alcohol and falling into rivers to their demise. Unfortunate accidents but not unsurprising given who they are and where they come from. Kind of their own fault, but at the very least, not ours.

A very clean and tidy explanation for the cause of numerous tragic Indigenous youth deaths in the city over the past 20 years. Case closed. Hands washed. Except not.

In CANADALAND’s recent podcast series, Thunder Bay, host Ryan McMahon explains why such a narrative is highly problematic and deeply troublesome:

To blame it all on preexisting problems is to ignore what it’s actually like for kids when they first get hereWhen other outsiders, immigrants and refugees come to Thunder Bay, faith groups and other community organizations welcome them officially with suppers, household items, bus schedules, directions to essential services; not so with native youth that come from away. For them, they’re on their own.”

Recently, Ontario’s independent police watchdog released a final report after a two-year probe into allegations of racism in how the Thunder Bay Police Service investigates Indigenous deaths and missing persons. According to a Globe and Mail article, the report found that “systemic racism exists [in the Thunder Bay Police Service] at an institutional level.” The report goes on to say that the “failure to conduct adequate investigations and the premature conclusions drawn in these cases is, at least in part, attributable to racist attitudes and racial stereotyping. Officers repeatedly relied on generalized notions about how Indigenous people likely came to their deaths and acted, or refrained from acting, based on those biases.”

This is Thunder Bay. A city unceremoniously deemed the murder and hate crime capital of Canada. A former police chief who faced trial for obstruction of justice and a former mayor who faces trial for extortion. And now a police force infamous for cultivating systemic racism against Thunder Bay’s Indigenous people.

All has been unveiled and revealed. Welcome to Thunder Bay’s apocalypse.

So, how does one who considers themselves Christian live in a city where the most vulnerable are being systemically dehumanized?

The German martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer—whose theology and ethics were forged in the crucible of Nazi Germany, World War Two, and the Holocaust—offers us a True Way forward.

Bonhoeffer’s understanding of God is rooted in the reality of the Cross. For him, God is most “God” at the Cross of suffering love. This is what is most true about God’s core nature. God’s heart beats with passionate love for the most lowly among us, especially if they are being systemically dehumanized by the brutal forces of our fallen world.

The suffering Christ is the concrete love of God; the incarnate One who came into the real world of human beings and opened His heart to our wretchedness. It is the only way to reach us. At Golgotha—where the Roman Empire crushed the weak and the rebellious on the outskirts of Jerusalem—God reveals his solidarity with suffering humanity, especially the outcasts. This is the definition of true empathy and compassion. To lower oneself into another person’s pain and affliction (especially those we consider our enemies) so we can truly understand their struggles in ways that bring forth relief and reconciliation, not racial scapegoating and rejection.

For Bonhoeffer, we purse empathy and compassion (not an evangelistic conversion or Pharisaical out-casting) because we now live in the Christ-Reality. In this reality, the Triune God of the cosmos has concretely revealed to us that He identifies most with the lowly and has chosen to reveal Himself to humanity in the figure of the rejected criminal. So, when we reject the lowly, we reject God. That’s because the Cross and the Incarnation, according to Bonhoeffer, is the true paradigm of God’s working in the world.

The incarnate One driven out of the world by the unholy matrimony of Religion and Empire and onto the Cross of the margins—Golgotha.

Just another “rebellious criminal” being crucified.

Just another “drunk Indian kid” who died in the river.

We all know that’s not what defines them. But they are united. They are one.

God allowed Himself to be dehumanized by human power at the Cross so that the weak could be exalted and dignified and the powerful be humbled and disgraced. In the Christ-Reality—God’s “now but not yet” Kingdom—every act of power that neglects, rejects and scapegoats the weak reveals, paradoxically, the powerful position of the lowly and the low position of the powerful.

Unbeknownst to many, God—whose “weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25)—not only hides Himself in the criminal on the Cross, but also hides Himself in the outcasts and rejects who are pushed to the margins of society. He has revealed an explicit desire to identify with the weak, not the strong. This is the great paradox of Christianity and what’s called Bonhoeffer’s theology from below. Bonhoeffer explains:

“God travels wonderful ways with human beings, but he does not comply with the views and opinions of people […]. Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety—that is where he wants to be, and no one can keep him from it. Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…. God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”

In the suffering Christ of vulnerable love, God validates and seeks to understand the afflictions of Thunder Bay’s Indigenous youth. God knows the truth about their reality; about the intergenerational trauma passed down from residential schools, the feeling of alienation and loneliness when they arrive in a new city with little support or familiarity, and how all these struggles combined, past and present, can affect the frail human soul and lead to debilitating addictions and chaos in their lives.

Unlike us, God is not ashamed of Indigenous people in their struggles because He knows the root of their chronic addictions is woundedness. The historical afflictions of “cultural genocide” perpetrated by the unholy matrimony of Church and State. But God, in the tradition of Bonhoeffer’s theology from below, marches right in and reaches down in the figure of the despised and rejected criminal on the Cross. Civil society is generally ashamed of human lowliness and wretchedness. But not God.

At the Cross of the margins—the “river edges” of Rome—the God-Man Jesus reveals God’s heart for the lowly and rejected. For Bonhoeffer, God does not enter into the world as a powerful king robed and enthroned in apathetic bliss. No, says Bonhoeffer.

God “goes incognito, as a beggar among beggars, as an outcast among outcasts, as despairing among the despairing, as dying among the dying.”

And,

“God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.”

Bonhoeffer’s theology from below forms us for an apocalyptic ethic; when the true Church described in the Apocalypse of John (the Book of Revelation) unites to resist the brutal forces of the fallen world on behalf of those whom the Church and State are neglecting—Thunder Bay’s Indigenous youth.

Bonhoeffer’s theology from below operates with what I call a critical apocalyptic edge. God, in the figure of the suffering Christ, is apocalyptic (which in Greek means to “reveal” and “unveil”). Jesus reveals God’s true nature and empowers the true Church to resist the brutal manifestations of Empire, who have now been unveiled—those who neglect and oppress the weak through racial stereotyping and scapegoating; two shades of anti-Christ.

Thunder Bay’s apocalypse has come. God is in the city in the figure of the despised and lowly outcasts who have perished on the margins of Rome’s river edges.

If we consider ourselves Christians, and believe ourselves to be part of the true Church, we must realize that we have become part of a true apocalyptic drama here in Thunder Bay (and elsewhere) where Indigenous people (and others) have been systemically dehumanized by the colonial and demagogical powers of the world unto death and indignity.

“Bonhoeffer’s theology thrusts us into the middle of an ongoing apocalyptic drama,” writes Bonhoeffer scholar Barry Harvey, “a place that enables us to see all that is happening in the world around us as implicated in God’s work of judgment and reconciliation in Jesus Christ. He lives and speaks to us as a witness to the fact that to participate in Christ, and thus to be performers in this drama, is to belong to those ‘on whom the ends of the ages have met.’”

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