The American Conservative Does the Unthinkable and Defends the Unmarked Indigenous Graves as ‘Good, Actually’

Over the last few weeks, at least three new major burial sites have been uncovered in Canada, a chilling reminder of the nation’s ugly history of torture and genocide of the indigenous population. Over a thousand unmarked graves, most of them belonging to children, were uncovered near old residential schools — institutions which were run by the Catholic Church and funded by the Canadian government for the purpose of removing indigenous children from their communities and re-educating them to assimilate into white, Christian society. God alone knows how many children did not survive this endeavor, but the number is clearly higher than we knew.

The discoveries have prompted a fresh reckoning from both the Canadian government and the Church itself, with several Christian denominations taking the long overdue step of condemning the “Doctrine of Discovery” — an old legal term that gave theological cover to colonialists who plundered indigenous communities under the guise of “evangelism.”

But not everyone is ready for such a reckoning. At the American Conservative, associate editor Declan Leary has written a frankly shocking piece defending the unmarked indigenous graves as “good, actually.” And that’s just the subtitle.

The article argues that the systematic removal of indigenous children from their families so they could spend their brief lives suffering in residential schools was justified because, presumably, some of them also became Christians. In Leary’s mind, whatever human atrocities may have been committed along the way aren’t all that bad compared to the good missionary work being done.

Leary argues that the graves are not all that bad, calling it all “a made-up story” by arguing that lots of kids died in that time. “We have always known that many children died in the residential schools, which were active through the 19th and 20th centuries,” he writes. The idea appears to be that since it’s possible these children would have died anyway, the fact that they died in the manner they did, surrounded by strangers, far from their families, is not particularly notable. The question of why this absolves taking children from their homes is not one Leary makes any serious attempt to answer.

He then writes that there’s nothing scandalous about mass graves either, writing that: “The ‘mass graves’ of public hysteria are, in fact, the ordered and intentional burial sites of people we always knew were dead, and who died of more or less natural causes.”

Read that last sentence again slowly. “More or less” is the callously operative phrase, and it’s buried near the end.

But it gets worse, as Leary writes that “this is not to discount the deaths of children altogether. Of course, it would have been better if each and every one of the First Nations tykes Christianized by the union of Church and state had lived a long and happy life.” But he says the death of these “tykes” is not the Church’s fault, and the blame really belongs to the Canadian government for not adequately funding the residential schools.

The long and short of Leary’s argument up to this point is a fairly typical case of It didn’t happen. And if it did happen, it wasn’t that bad. And if it was bad, it wasn’t the Church’s fault. 

It’s understandable for Christians to feel the urge to cast themselves as the heroes in any historical narrative, even when the facts don’t lend themselves to such an enterprise. Nobody likes the idea that their community might be responsible for historic evils. This desire has led to a lot of ill-fated attempts to excuse historic injustices from sexual sin to slavery. In the United States, you see this sort of bargaining taking place all the time with regard to our Founding Fathers, who often get an absurdly generous benefit of the doubt about their own beliefs on slavery.

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But covering for the mass deaths of indigenous children takes a special amount of willful moral blindness, and it’s a blindness Leary goes great lengths to maintain, up to and including this jaw-dropping paragraph near the end of his article.

Whatever natural good was present in the piety and community of the pagan past is an infinitesimal fraction of the grace rendered unto those pagans’ descendants who have been received into the Church of Christ. Whatever sacrifices were exacted in pursuit of that grace—the suffocation of a noble pagan culture; an increase in disease and bodily death due to government negligence; even the sundering of natural families—is worth it.

This sort of calculation is so inhumane it calls into question the author’s understanding of Christianity. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ should motivate us to recognize the infinite dignity of each person as specially and uniquely loved by God. To suggest that this remarkable truth in any way excuses or even diminishes kidnapping, plunder and genocide is to fail to understand why the message of Jesus is so important in the first place. The infinite love of God is not reflected in atrocity apologia. That sort of thing shouldn’t need to be said. And yet.

Even if we accept Leary’s argument that it’s all worth it. That “sacrifices” had to be made to spread the Gospel and sometimes the Good News must involve a little family “sundering,” you’d think he could admit that at least these children deserved the dignity of a marked grave.

But he can’t do that, because that would allow for the possibility that Christians were not the heroes of the story. And once you start pulling at that thread, who knows what else will fall apart?

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