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Healing Haunted Histories

September 25, 2022
Rev. Dr. Russ Daye
16th after Pentecost
1 Kings 21.1-21

There was an incident involving a vineyard belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite.  The vineyard was in Jezreel, close to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria.  Ahab said to Naboth, “Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden, since it is close to my palace.  In exchange I will give you a better vineyard or, if you prefer, I will pay you whatever it is worth.”

But Naboth replied, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my ancestors.”

So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth the Jezreelite had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my ancestors.”  He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.

His wife Jezebel came in and asked him, “Why are you so sullen? Why won’t you eat?”

He answered her, “Because I said to Naboth the Jezreelite, ‘Sell me your vineyard; or if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard in its place.’  But he said, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’”

Jezebel his wife said, “Is this how you act as king over Israel?  Get up and eat!  Cheer up.  I’ll get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”

So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, placed his seal on them, and sent them to the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city with him.  In those letters she wrote:

“Proclaim a day of fasting and seat Naboth in a prominent place among the people.  But seat two scoundrels opposite him and have them bring charges that he has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death.”

So the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city did as Jezebel directed in the letters she had written to them.  They proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth in a prominent place among the people.  Then two scoundrels came and sat opposite him and brought charges against Naboth before the people, saying, “Naboth has cursed both God and the king.”  So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death.  Then they sent word to Jezebel: “Naboth has been stoned to death.”

As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, “Get up and take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you.  He is no longer alive, but dead.”  When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, he got up and went down to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard.

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite:  “Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria.  He is now in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it.  Say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’  Then say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!’”

Ahab said to Elijah, “So you have found me, my enemy!”

“I have found you,” he answered, “because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord.  He says, ‘I am going to bring disaster on you.  I will wipe out your descendants and cut off from Ahab every last male in Israel—slave or free.”

Luke 11.24-28

“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it.  Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’  When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order.  Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there.  And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.”

He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”


A recommendation of a book – whose title I have stolen for today’s sermon – Healing Haunted Histories by Elaine Enns and Ched Myers.  One of the things that Indigenous folks across the country are saying to us now is (to) please do your own work as settlers, instead of always calling upon us to teach you.  This is amazing work done by settlers – social justice callers – who entered deeply into their own stories and teach the reader how to enter into their own stories as part of the settlers’ journey.

The ministers and music directors do this brain-storming thing before services where we toss around ideas and Mikey Zahorak recommended this song you just heard – Hurt – which was sung to the arrangement we used today by Johnny Cash.  And as I reviewed the lyrics and listened to the song after Mikey’s suggestion, it really landed on me how resonant it was with my experience of working for seven years as part of the national Right Relations initiative of the United Church, and many years before and after working with survivors of residential schools and those who suffer from multi-generational trauma.

I hurt myself today
to see if I still feel.
I focus on the pain
the only thing that’s real.
The needle tears a hole
the old familiar sting,
try to kill it all away
but I remember everything.

I met in those years of talking circles and reconciliation gatherings, truth and reconciliation events, so many survivors who remembered everything.  And so many children and grandchildren of survivors who remembered nothing but were still haunted by their forbears’ experiences.  Somehow, the pain, the wounds, the loss continues to live but it’s not just amongst the survivors and their children, it’s also amongst the settlers, the church people, and the other non-Indigenous Canadians.

And you could have it all
my empire of dirt.
I will let you down.
I will make you hurt.

If I could start again
a million miles away,
I would keep myself,
I would find a way.

*Songwriters: Bill Rice, Jerry Foster.


I often have this overwhelming feeling when this day of commemoration comes around or another Living into Right Relations event, if only we could start again.  If only we could go back.  If only they could have had lives, but we can’t (go back).  And not only that but we are recipients of a moral injury passed through the generations of settlers who organized and lead residential schools who preyed upon children.  We are intergenerational recipients of a moral injury that’s just as strong as the intergenerational trauma that passes through Indigenous communities.  It affects who we are and what we do in all areas of our lives.  It creates tight little boundaries on our hearts, making us less able to love – not just Indigenous people but to love anybody, and each other.  It puts our spirit in little boxes that compresses our compassion and keeps it stored away.

The rubric of healing haunted histories is so powerful because these ghosts live in us, even when we have no cognitive memories.  It’s like a child who has suffered a wound when they were young enough so that the traumatic memory is registered in the limbic system, emotionally, but other parts in the brain are not developed enough to store cognitive memories, and so the child is at the mercy of an emotional memory for which there is no cognitive access for the rest of their life.  That’s how we live but it doesn’t mean we can’t do anything.

I think that both in terms of literal physical hope and a metaphorical hope – epigenetics teaches us something.  Some of you will know about this, others of you won’t.

First through studies of the children of Holocaust survivors, and then the studies of the children and grandchildren of other trauma survivors, we’ve learned that those who suffer terrible traumas, that trauma is embedded in our genes.  It’s not so much that the actual DNA changes but other parts of genetic material changes how it activates DNA, and it affects the rest of our lives.  And now we’ve learned that that change is passed on biologically to other generations.  And so, the children of Holocaust survivors who grew up in other homes, never experiencing directly, abuse or trauma that came from that, they actually biologically inherited the wound.  But now we’re finding out that when they heal, when they go through their own processes, the genetic wound is reversed after a fashion and there’s an alteration back to health and the passing on of trauma stops there.

(That’s a very complex subject and body of research material which I’ve just compressed into two minutes of layman’s reflection so if there are geneticists or biologists in the room, I’m willing to meet you at the door and be re-educated a little bit.  However, as I understand it, that’s how it functions in broad sweeps.)

But I’ve become convinced that it’s more than what’s just stored in our brains and in our genes – that these ghosts live among us.

Those of us in the Protestant tradition of Christianity have had a very weak relationship with the theology of the communion of saints.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, and especially in the Eastern Orthodox traditions (there are) much stronger relationships.  The notion of the communion of saints is closely akin to the notion of ancestors in Indigenous communities, which is a belief that the ancestors are present.  It’s similar to what Faulkner wrote, ‘The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.’  And some of those ancestors are hurt.  And some of those ancestors are sick.  And some of those ancestors are enraged.  And some of those ancestors are paralyzed by guilt but they are accessible to us, and us to them.

I’ve been in a lot of talking circles with Indigenous peoples in different parts of the world, and I’ve heard a version of this said over and over – when we sit down as a community to consider important decisions, there are fifteen generations present, the seven behind, the seven ahead, and the current one.  Those who move through the world with bodies right now, have a special mission to heal haunted histories, because that affects the incarnation and the embodied lives of the generations to come.

You know who knew this?  Naboth knew it.  And Ahab knew it.  When Ahab came to Naboth asking for his land, he offered him better land!  He offered him more money!  He came out of an economic world, whose relationship with land was land as a commodity, and Naboth looked at him and said, ‘I’m not selling you my ancestors.’  That’s essentially what he said, when he said ‘May I be cursed if I hand over to you the land of my ancestors,’ because the ancestors are still in relationship to the land.  I’m not selling you my ancestors.

Then Ahab participated in a scheme of violence to have Naboth killed, and the land taken but he knew, at some level.  The ghosts of that action haunted him.  So, when the prophet Elijah shows up, he sees him coming and he recognizes him and says, ‘So you have found me, my enemy!’  In other words, you know there’s a John Prine (song) about cheating on his wife and he says, ‘the me from then, never thought the me from now would catch up’ to him.  That’s what Ahab is experiencing in that moment.  Temporal horizons have collapsed, and the ghost of his actions has caught up to him in the form of Elijah.  He almost sounds relieved.  He certainly becomes repentant.

Ahab puts on ashes and sackcloth, and he puts himself into the dirt and he repents, and his life is spared, except the job is not complete and therefore, the moral injury is passed on.

That’s where we sit.  The job is not complete.  The histories haunt us and so we have to learn them and know them.

I want to tell you about a week where I, and some others, had a remarkably powerful encounter with ancestors.  It was in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia which is where the French River meets the Northumberland Strait at the (Atlantic) ocean.  So, it’s a sacred place of fresh water meeting salt.  It’s doubly sacred because the original wampum – the agreement made between settlers and Mi’kmaw which was outlined in a belt with beads, was lost in a canoeing accident and sits in the water right off of  Tatamagouche centre in Nova Scotia.  We gathered there for five days of talking circle, deep sharing, sacred fire, and in the end, we moved into sweat lodge, those of us who chose to.

Day one you could feel amongst the settlers a kind of, ‘Geez, I don’t want to go there.’  Some of that led to being asked terribly awkward questions.  I remember one guy; who’s gone to his blessed reward and who was a really good guy, with good intentions but he articulated a question to Indigenous elders in such an awkward and offensive way that my head just dropped.  And the Mi’kmaw grandmothers who were present responded to him with such grace, and then said it’s time for us to sing a healing song.  And they stood up and they drummed, and they sang, and you could feel the circle soften.

Over the coming two or three days, stories poured out, both from residential school survivors and intergenerational trauma survivors amongst Indigenous people, and stories of moral injury from settlers.  The most poignant to me being that of an RCMP officer who had just retired weeks earlier.  And one day he made this guttural cry in the middle of the circle, and people asked him what’s going on.  He said, I realized I just retired from a 35 year career where my whole job was to oppress Indigenous people, and now my career is over, and I can do nothing about it.  And he spoke with such pain into the circle, and he wept.  But in that instant, his ghosts were made present in a way where they could do their work.  And again, I was marveled at the grace and the wisdom and the powerful ritual with which Mi’kmaw elders and grandmothers responded to this kind of storytelling.

At the end of the five days, I was invited into a sweat lodge with a number of people, and in that circle, a young woman – it was a mixed gender sweat lodge, which isn’t always the case, and there often isn’t talking but in this one there was – shared a story of sexual abuse by a forbear who was a residential school survivor.  And then, the Indigenous leader who was hosting the sweat lodge, turned to me and asked me to respond.  In many ways, this is breaking the rules of sweat lodges, as I understand them, but the biggest rule is to respond to the spirits, the ancestors, as they present themselves, and Foot Foot, the Metis man who was leading this, called upon me to respond with compassion to this young woman.

In some odd way, all of the spirits in the lodge – and there were spirits of many generations present to that little sweat – found a healing capacity and a peace.

I’ve been to the Kamloops residential school before the graves were discovered – it is a haunted place.  When you walk the grounds and go through the building, which is maintained as a kind of memorial, you feel the ghosts.  Their freedom is buried in the ground.  The cost of freedom is buried in the ground.  Our freedom is buried in the ground.  The cost of freedom is buried in the ground.

But friends, the gospel news here is that both our spiritual tradition, which, in its institutional form has done so much harm, and the spiritual traditions of Indigenous people have rites and rituals and medicine for healing haunted histories if we will go to ground and allow the ghosts to release themselves.

Sometimes, much of the time, maybe most of the times settlers have to do this on their own, do their work and I know that Indigenous people are doing their work.  On occasion there’s a blessed encounter when those pieces of work meet each other, and a depth of freedom and healing is unveiled that can never be seen in advance.

In some ways the ancestors sit and wait for us.  What they’re waiting for us to do is to learn our stories, uncover our moral injuries, do our work and be ready for the sacred moment when it offers itself to us.

May it be so.  I look forward to meeting some of you there.

Image credit: freebibleimages.org

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