A short statement by Coroner Gehane Kamel pierces through long debates within Quebec and in church circles of CC readers. “It’s all ‘us’ – no ‘them,’” she said on CBC radio in response to a question about what needs to change to end discrimination in Quebec’s health care system. The occasion was release of the report from an enquiry into the death of Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman, in a Joliette hospital. The first and most controversial recommendation – to recognize systemic racism in Quebec’s health care system – continues to be rejected by Premier Legault and the Quebec government. “Why is systemic racism written in black and white in my report?” Kamel asked. “Because in Ms. Echaquan’s case, it’s exactly what happened. And the day we’ll be able to name the term . . . we will have taken a big step forward.”
As I follow the discussion in Quebec I am struck by similar patterns in discussions about racism within church communities. Perhaps I should not be surprised. Both cultures give high priority to preserving a distinct identity in a context that seems threatening; both cultures have deep roots in beliefs and traditions that are passed down through generations and resist change because of fear the foundations will not hold. Understanding that pattern is essential to breaking it.
Definitions become Diversion
‘Systemic racism’ is a controversial term in Quebec and in churches. Many will recognize that there are racist incidents and members with racist attitudes, but not systemic racism. Similar debates occur in churches over other terms, such as Islamophobia, critical race theory, “Black Lives Matter” versus “All Lives Matter” and whether injustice to Indigenous peoples was “genocide.”
The next step in these linguistic disputes is war over definitions and ideas. Legault cites a particular dictionary definition and church leaders cite synodical decisions and theological concepts to defend the status quo. Then comes debates about whose definition or basic value is more valid. While definitions and abstract ideas are important, they tend to divert attention from the substance of the injustice and the people suffering injustice. Public debate shifts to focus on love of values, traditions and reputations under threat.
Words or/and Action
Another layer adds tension between words and action. “Just fix the problem,” some people say, “and forget what name it has.” But fixes are usually superficial if they do not recognize deeper causes. I have documented this pattern with reports on deaths in child welfare. Extensive research goes into a report that is lauded for addressing deeper causes, but those recommendations are ignored. Quick fixes fail over time, a tragedy happens, and the pattern is repeated. The same pattern happens in churches. New initiatives to encourage Multicultural Leadership Development or hear more diverse voices just scratch the surface, with hopes that gradual change will permeate deeper – until another incident that can’t be ignored exposes deeper cracks again.
Words and Actions Both Matter
Words matter. Indigenous and Black church leaders, such as Pastor Jemar Tisby, remind us that the way we use words to soften the edges of injustice can be as harmful as the specific acts of violence we all abhor, and they are a bigger barrier to necessary change. His latest book, How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey toward Racial Justice, urges us to face the harder questions and avoid half-measures.
Reckonings and Reform
But actions matter too. There are moments in the history of churches and identity-based cultures like Quebec that seem to cut through decades of assumptions. Both cultures are facing tough questions about deeply rooted ideas that categorize people and lead to harmful “us/them” thinking. We now know the harms of racism and sexism more clearly than ever, but change is hard because it means replacing some beams as well as the wallpaper in our houses of faith.
The trite phrase “always reforming” might apply to this moment in our history as Christian churches and inter-faith movements in Canada. The question is whether we will seize it, take some risks, and end up in a better place or whether we will double down in defensive mode and use both words and quick fixes to get through this moment and hope to survive for another day.