Unmarked Graves and the Hells We Have Made: Jeremiah’s Judgment Sermon and the Residential Schools
Sermon preached on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, at Billtown Baptist Church, NS.
On Thursday, a new national holiday will be observed: the Day of Truth and Reconciliation, a day to remember indigenous peoples and the tragic events that happened to indigenous children in the residential schools.
In June of this year, while we were all trying to get by from the pandemic, we learned of an atrocity that, for many of us, made our problems seem so small. The unmarked graves containing 215 remains of indigenous children were found in Kamloops, BC. Others have been discovered.
While this shocked many of us, indigenous communities have been fighting for awareness of what took place in these schools for decades. To date, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has identified 3 200 remains. They listed the names on a long red banner, and it was revealed in October of last year. Here is a picture of it, and as you can see, it goes around the room and out. It is so large. That’s how many. If you saw this as I did, I remember falling back in my chair, overwhelmed with the magnitude of this massacre.
These schools operated for over 150 years, the final ones being shut down in the 1990s. That means it is estimated that about 150 000 indigenous children went through these schools. The survivors face terrible mental health difficulties from these experiences. They estimate that the death toll to be somewhere around 5 000 children. In other words, there are many more graves yet to be discovered.
There were 137 of these schools throughout Canada run by churches. Most were Roman Catholic, Anglican, and United, but there were Baptist ones as well.
How do we wrap our heads around the fact that our nation, our churches, participated in something so cruel? How do we process the fact that these schools were operating in plain sight for over a century? It was not a conspiracy of a few individuals. There were reports, visits by other clergy, politicians, and townspeople. People knew. It was an act of systemic racism and genocide because it took many people, many laws and administrators, a whole culture of prejudice to do it. What words can we muster to talk about something so unspeakable?
I am going to suggest to you that we need to talk about God’s wrath. We cannot help but think about God’s anger, for if we don’t, the possibility that God is okay with these things, people doing these things to others, the alternative is worse: it makes God look uncaring and apathetic.
Many of us, however, have a toxic understanding of God’s wrath inherited from our fundamentalist upbringings. I am going to suggest to you that if we think rightly about the figures of hell and the fact God’s wrath actually flows from God’s love, we have a way of grasping this formidable failure of Christian morality. And yet, there is hope; there is hope for redemption and reconciliation.
In order to do that, I am going to read a text of bitter medicine. It comes from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah 7:1-11, 17-20, 30-34 (abridged for time):
7 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”
5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7 then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.
8 Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord…
17 Do you not see what they are doing in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? 18 The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven; and they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger. 19 Is it I whom they provoke? says the Lord. Is it not themselves, to their own hurt? 20 Therefore thus says the Lord God: My anger and my wrath shall be poured out on this place, on human beings and animals, on the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched…
30 For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. 31 And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. 32 Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. 33 The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. 34 And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste.
What I have read to you is one of the most important judgment passages in the whole Bible. It is Jeremiah’s judgment sermon on Jerusalem that he delivers in the temple.
Jeremiah is called the “weeping prophet” because he was called by God to give the people the worst news in the whole Old Testament: Because of the sins of the people, Jerusalem will fall.
What could have led them to that point?
Jeremiah, in this temple sermon, says why. The people have become so lax in their walk with God that they turned to idols: the gods Baal, Molech, and Ishtar, whose title was the queen of heaven and was celebrated with ceremonial cakes that Jeremiah mentions.
Idolatry in the ancient world was really an attempt to barter with the gods, to get power and prosperity out of them, forgetting God is the only true God.
The way of God is a sharp rebuke of this: God is already on our side; we now just need to follow his way if we want good things in our lives because the right way is the best way. Goodness begets goodness, and God’s justice is good for everyone. We can’t manipulate God out of doing the right thing. We can’t butter him up with long prayers or church services. God simply says, repent and do good.
Justice is always hard work, especially compared to idols that offer a seductive bargain: if you give this to Baal or Molech, then you will be blessed without having to be a blessing to others. It sounds so much easier.
But the allure of idolatry is fatal: if you are trying to convince false gods of our delusions to do good to you, what is enough? Do you sacrifice more crops? Do you sacrifice more animals, even the ones you need to make it through till next harvest? Do you slash your body and bleed in the act of devotion like the prophets of Baal did in the time of Elijah? Or do you go even further and sacrifice the very thing, the very person you place hope for the future in, your own child, whom you love and care for?
This is what the people did. The idolatrous religions of Canaan demanded you sacrifice your child in the flames. With the growing worry of a new superpower in the east, the Babylonians, the Jews, after they prayed in the temple, took their children secretly outside the city to the valley. It is here, in the valley of Topheth, the valley of Hinnom, that the people did something unthinkable, a crime so terrible, God calls it an abomination. And he says that if the people tolerate the sacrifice of children in the flames, Jerusalem will have an ironically similar fate. Jerusalem will burn.
The people responded mocking Jeremiah: “We are God’s people. Jerusalem is where the temple is. That will never happen. God is on our side. We’re safe.”
The king, Zedekiah, ignores Jeremiah, and in his arrogance, breaks his alliance with Babylon, siding with Egypt, thinking God would protect him. After Jeremiah warns the king not to do this, God’s judgment was simply God saying, “Alright, have it your way.” The same callous hearts that sacrificed children was the same that sealed Jerusalem’s fate. Sin is its own punishment.
The brutal armies of Babylon came and laid siege. As the defences broke, the city was burned, and the people were pulled out of their homes, tortured, and killed. The corpses were set ablaze and left smouldering in the valley.
Jeremiah’s prophecy stated that there would be so much carrion and bitumen produced by the fire that he calls it a permanent, unquenchable fire.
In fact, writers like Philo and Josephus 600 years later speak about how the effects of the flames were still visible in the valley. The scorched soil, Philo says, permanently had sulphur in it, a lasting reminder of the inescapable inferno.
1. Places Reveal
In indigenous spirituality, their culture is not a written culture but an oral culture. For them, places are revelatory, for the land holds memory; the land tells a story, stories that are told and retold down through the generations. In that regard, their culture is closer to ancient Israel than ours, and perhaps we can understand our Bible better if we are willing to learn from them that places reveal things.
When my family and I were on vacation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, we stayed at cottages owned by an indigenous family in the unceded village of Wikwemikong. Each day we would explore a different part of the island. It has beautiful beaches, breathtaking trails, waterfalls, as well as villages with little cafés and shops. One day we drove into Wikwemikong. We were looking for a hiking trail, and as we drove just outside the village, there stood these eerie ruins.
This was the site of one of the residential schools. This was the old building of the Wikwemikong Residential school that operated from 1840 to 1963.
I read an account of these schools by a woman named Ida Embry. She tells of how every fall she would be forced to go to this school, her and her sister. The children were beaten severely with a thick leather strap for things such as simple as trying to talk to another in their native language. The children were referred to by number, not name. The curriculum openly taught them to despise their parents in an attempt to rid them of indigenous thinking.
Why did these schools exist? The first Prime Minister of Canada, John A. MacDonald, was one of the first initiators of the schools and said the schools needed to cut off contact between the child and their family in order to get rid of the “savage” in them. He believed this was his Christian duty to Christianize the world. These actions are a part of a long history of Christian imperialism and colonialism, where Christians felt it was their responsibility to take indigenous land from them and impose a Christian order onto their society no matter the cost. Put another way: it did not matter the sacrifice.
The people of Jeremiah’s time sacrificed children in the flames of the valley of Topheth to idols in order to gain divine favour. I am going to suggest to you that Canadian society has engaged in its own child sacrifice. Only the children were not Canadian children, nor was the land ours to do it on.
But they were sacrificed to idols. These were sacrifices to the idols of power, empire and colonization, cultural superiority and racism, idols that led Christians to believe their faith automatically made them the good no matter what they did, and that the mission of the Gospel could be accomplished by doing very things Jesus was categorically against.
Part of me wondered, why didn’t they level this evil place to the ground? But, this place stood as a reminder. Places reveal if we listen.
I have known a few survivors of these schools. I got to know them in Toronto, where I was the coordinator of a soup kitchen, as well as in Sudbury, where I pastored for five years.
The stories these children of God have told me have kept me up at night. The crimes of these schools are so terrible we don’t even want to think about them. They are so jarring; they are an existential threat to who we think we are as Christians and Canadians, what we believe about ourselves, and our responsibility to each other.
Are Christians always the good guys of history? No, not always. Is it possible that Christians can use the Bible and their beliefs to motivate horrific acts of hate? Yes, we have.
I am going to suggest to you, however, that if we don’t dwell in these painful places, repent, and learn what is necessary to rectify these injustices, we will never display a faithful witness in Canada fully. But more than that, we will never learn to love in a way God wants us to, to love the stranger as ourselves, to love the victims of our foolish beliefs. The God of Scripture loves the forgotten of this world and us also too much to let us get away with this.
We forgot about those unmarked graves. God did not. Those schools, those graves, are our Topheth. Putting it that way is certainly startling, but we must understand something else:
2. God’s Anger Intends to Heal
I apologize if you came this morning with the expectation of a cheerful sermon, but let’s think about these things more today because I have realized that when we understand God’s anger correctly, God is trying to heal us, not hurt us.
What is Topheth? It has many names in the Bible: the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna. Here it is called Topheth. It is a valley that stretches outside the city down to the Dead Sea, which also had a nickname that is a part of this land of judgment: the Lake of Fire. Perhaps you recognize that one from the Book of Revelation.
As I said, the effects of these moments of judgments on Jerusalem linger to this day, and that is why the fire was called the “unquenchable flame” or the “eternal fire.” When we understand the geographic figure of Topheth, of the valley of Gehenna, the Lake of Fire, we also understand what God is doing a bit better with what Christians have called hell.
The word, “hell,” is a European term that does not do a very good job at translating nearly a dozen places of judgment in the Bible. The doctrine of hell has been really one of the most misunderstood and abused ideas in the church. I will suggest to you it is because we have forgotten that it comes out of this history of the land.
I remember as a boy coming home from church being shaken by a sermon a pastor preached that if you don’t stay on the straight and narrow path, I will go to hell for eternity. I remember crying that night, terrified that I just would not be good enough, terrified of the thought friends and family or anyone could be trapped there.
Maybe you have had similar experiences. Perhaps you are like many modern Christians that just choose to ignore hell. Some of us are content to say, God is love, and therefore God never gets angry, and when we come to a passage of the Bible that says differently, we more or less just skip it and go on our merry way.
Many of us are content to think of hell as a place under the ground ruled by cartoonish devils dressed in red and with horns and pitchforks. It looks a lot more like European mythology than Hebrew memory. Many of us modern people are content to think of this version of hell in the same way we think of unicorns or leprechauns.
I did this for a time, but I just could not get around how Jesus uses this language. Jesus uses this figure of Topheth and Gehenna to warn people.
Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that when we refuse to reconcile with others, we are in danger of going into Gehenna.
Jesus also says that when we refuse to deal with sin, it would be better to cut off our arms or eyes that cause us to stumble than have our whole bodies go into the unquenchable fire (that’s language from Jeremiah’s Topheth).
The fact that these scriptures exist and are even statements of Jesus breaks through our assumptions about what love is and what judgment means. Love is not about turning a blind eye to how we harm others, but neither is judgment about God giving up hope on us.
I never understood why Jesus, who has died for the sins of the whole world, who is perfect and has self-sacrificial love towards sinners, who reflects the heart of God, who Paul tells us, “desires all people to be saved” – I could never understand why Jesus gives these warnings. Not sweet, gentle, never hurt a fly, Jesus?
Then I became a father. As you already know, Meagan and I have five very busy boys. Being a dad is really the greatest privilege and responsibility one can really have. It is your job to do what is best for them and try to stir them towards the best future. But we all know we can’t control our kids, and sometimes our kids make terrible decisions. Sometimes this fact is exasperating, and it makes us, parents, angry. Angry because we love them so much. I can tell you the things that make me the angriest as a parent is when my kids hurt each other and don’t care. It is in those moments, as parents, we plead for our kids to stop. We word our warnings in the strongest possible terms in some hope our kids will take the consequences of their actions seriously.
One time my one son was about to hit their brother, and I said, “You do that, and you are dead meat.”
Another time they were really rude to one another, and I said, “You keep acting like this, and I am just going to take away TV forever.”
Have you ever said anything like that to your child? These are called hyperboles. A hyperbole is a statement purposely worded so strong it will grab the other person’s attention. Jesus uses hyperboles all the time. God’s wrath is his outcry so loud and so strong that God hopes it will break through our stubbornness and apathy.
Let me suggest to you that the images of hell work something like this. What seems to be happening here is that these memories from Jeremiah’s day, of fire, permeant, and unavoidable destruction, become pictures of the end, and God uses these to warn the people about the course they are on.
He does this, sadly, because we so often use heaven and salvation as a big cop-out. We tell ourselves that God loves us so much he will fix all that when we get to heaven. I don’t have to do what is right; God forgives me; I’m good. When that happens, God, like in the Book of Revelations, holds up this moment of the valley of Topheth (which in that book is called the lake of fire) and says, one way or another, you will have to deal with this. I love you too much to just let you avoid it. If you don’t deal with this evil, this sickness in our soul, what makes you think you can participate in the fullness of eternal life I have for you?
3. But Hope is Real
God’s judgment is often those moments God steps back and allows us to feel and see the consequences of our decisions. When we fixate on these moments, however, we are tempted to believe God gives up hope on us, that God has chosen some to be saved and others not, or that God does not actually love all people and want to save them. But the prophet Jeremiah says this in his book, Lamentations, chapter 3:
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness…
31 For no one is cast off
by the Lord forever.
32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
33 For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to anyone.
Notice that Jeremiah warns the people with the figures of unquenchable fire but also comforts them, saying God’s love never fails, and ultimately God rejects no one. No one is cast off by the Lord forever. It even says that when he does bring punishment, he does so reluctantly, unwillingly. The prophet Ezekiel says God takes no pleasure in punishment. The prophet Isaiah actually depicts God as weeping as he judges the people, feeling their pain. That sounds a lot more like a loving father trying with everything he’s got to turn his children from hurting themselves and each other towards something better.
The images of Topheth, Gehenna, and the Lake of Fire are God mirroring our brutality back at us. But make no mistake, God is not brutal or pleased with torture, nor does he give up hope in us or ever stop loving us. Isaiah depicts God’s judgment fire like it is the fire that purifies polluted ore into precious metal. Malachi imagines the fire judgment of God burning the sickness of sin away like a strong soap cleansing infection.
We often fixate on these dire warnings, but these warnings must always be coupled with the promises of restoration: We can’t understand redemption without both.
Jesus uses these punishment images of Gehenna, but we must never forget that Jesus went on then and accepted Gehenna’s punishment on our behalf.
With these warnings, how do we know there is hope for us with these atrocities in Canada’s past? We can have confidence because God in Jesus Christ was the child of God sacrificed for our sin. He was deemed expendable by the religious authorities, who wanted to keep their power. He was arrested, taken, beaten, and brought outside the city, to a place in the valley of Topheth, a place called Golgotha, the place of the skull, the place of death.
It is there that God counted the murder of his son as a sacrifice for the sins of those murdering him. He died praying for forgiveness for the very people who killed him.
If we have any doubt that God loves sinners, even when we have done the very worst of things, we can look at Jesus and know, he has gladly taken the hells we have made, the ones we are trapped in, and he chooses to bear them on the cross.
But that does not mean we get off the hook for the wrongs done in our world, in our history, and in our society. It does something different. It says there is hope that we can overcome them. The God of second chances forgives us and is now giving us opportunities to make it right, to learn and to repent, to heal and to restore: others and ourselves.
If there is no darkness that cannot be overcome by resurrection light, there is no wrong of the past that cannot be amended with God’s forgiving, reconciling future. But God gives us a choice: confront the hells we have made, unmake them with God’s gracious help, or the hells we have made for others will become our own.
But there is always hope because our God is a God of hope, a God that was pierced with the nails of hopelessness itself on the cross so that all the graves that Death and Sin have scarred God’s earth with might one day be emptied into Jesus’ eternal life.
Jeremiah reflects on the valley of Topheth later in his book, in the light of God’s promises to one day save his people, give them a new covenant, and place the law of love in their hearts, renewing them, and he says this in Jeremiah 31: 38-40:
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when the city shall be rebuilt for the Lord… The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes… shall be holy to the Lord.”
One day, these places of brutality and judgment will be healed and holy. The places of our greatest failures can be sites of forgiveness.
Let me suggest to you that if these graves of the residential schools are Canada’s Topheth, the hells we have made, it is a place of warning if we forget what happened there. But it will also be a place of hope if we remember the stories these places tell. It will be where we must look for how to repent fully, authentically, where God is sending us to carry out the work of reconciliation, where we as the church in Canada will find a new sense of Christ’s hope, a hope he has for us all.
If we treat these graves of these precious children as holy, letting their family’s laments be our laments, their battles for justice be our battles too, letting go of the idols of power and self-preservation, the arrogance that the face of Christ can only be found in faces that look like ours, these mentalities that centuries of Christians have held on to before us, to our own determent and destruction, if we do this – if we do this, God promises we will see glimpses of nothing short of heaven on earth, holy ground, the inbreaking of what Peter called the hope of the restoration of all things.