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Genesis 1: 1-2, Psalm 8, Matthew 28: 16-20, 2nd Corinthians 13:11-13.
From colonialism to wonder—working toward right relationship.

From colonialism to wonder—working toward right relationship.

Genesis 1: 1-2
Psalm 8.
Mathew 28: 16-20.
2nd Corinthians 13:11-13.

Dominion. If you read these scriptures, in this order and in a certain light, a story unfolds about the relationships between God, humans and the earth.

The story might go like this: God made the earth, and it was good. Then God made humans and deputized us to do what we wished with it all—God made us into little gods and gave us dominion. Then God sent Jesus, who gave us the great commission to make disciples of all nations.

And there you have it: scriptural justification for the entire project of colonialism, from the Doctrine of Discovery in the 1500’s to the Indian Act, with its system of reserves, status cards, hospitals, and residential schools. 

The Doctrine of Discovery claimed that because Europeans were the world’s best people, and Christianity the one true religion, European, Christian empires should claim and possess any non-Christian lands. They should impose Christianity on the people of these lands, and extract or “develop” the resouces of these lands according to their interests.

Thus Canada became a colony, and it’s inhabitants became subjects of Monarchs. So did the animals, the waterways, and the land.

The people who had cared for this island for 10,000 years discovered, between 1843 and 1900, that Queen Victoria held title to their homes. The queen bequeathed the lands to men who built railroads, dug mines, and started farms. Timber companies stripped the mountains, letting silt fill lakes and rivers. Fish died. Schools, roads, airports, and cities were built.

Agents came to take the children to residential schools, or to Indian hospitals that were built to prevent epidemics from spreading to white communities. Villages went silent without the sounds of play. Smallpox and Tubuculosis ran rampant in the schools and in the villages, and the people, separated, could not even hold or care for one another. . The grief is unimaginable.

We are haunted by the unmarked graves of children who died far from their parents, discovered afer decades of silence, beside the schools that imprisoned them. We have lamented, we have put up our orange banner and laid out little shoes to demonstrate our solidarity and grief.

There have been official apologies—the United Church was the first denomination to apologize in 1988, and again in 1992 for our roles in colonization and residential schools. We took part in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and made financial restitution. We have among us leaders in reconciliation and bi-cultural ministry. Our Moderator, Carmen Landsdown, is one such leader, and she has led services of lamentation for lost children and more.

And still it doesn’t feel like enough. We want to set things right. We can’t. My non-Christian friends ask me how I can stay with this faith. “You didn’t do the bad stuff,” they say, “and anyway, isn’t the Bible itself a blueprint for colonialism?” But it’s a home I cannot leave. As our pastor Karen likes to say, we’ve inherited a house that we did not build, and it is still ours to figure out how to take care of and live in it as justly as possible under the circumstances.

And anyway, my friends are wrong about the Bible.

Let’s go back, and tell that story again.

In the beginning, When God made order out of chaos, it was good. The first testament, you could say, was not in words but in the sounds of the waters, the fish, the trees and plants, the animals and birdsong. It was very good.

When the story-tellers of Genesis, whom the Psalmist echoes, described people as “a little less than angels,” they were commenting on our capacity for invention and our magnificent opposable thumbs. We were always going to have much more power than any other beastie to shape and modify God’s handiwork. But scripture here is descriptive, but not prescriptive. We were not given a blessing to use the earth selfishly.

There are always limits and consequences for misuse. It doesn’t take long for the first humans to discover this.

Adam and Eve, like children, begin life by accepting everything, including the rules, as being right. But not for long. Think of that tree of the knowledge of good and evil as the tree of “I-know-best”, of “I’m ready to be my own boss and what is God going to do about it?” Now, knowing humans, don’t we see what’s coming? It’s a trap! That’s not wisdom, it’s the puffedup ego of adolescents; that’s hubris. But every parent knows that sooner or later, kids will reach for that freedom to choose what’s right and what’s wrong for themselves. And every parent also knows that when emancipation comes too soon, when children are full of themselves and not mature enough to handle responsibility, bad things follow.

And so it is, that humanity is kicked out of the Garden to face a tragedy of disconnection—from the Earth, God, the snakes, and even one another. Original sin is this: our hubris caused us to be separated where we should be connected; broken off from the whole, arguing about whose fault it is, vaguely ashamed, and facing an uncertain, scary future. Instead of our place of belonging, we turned the Earth into something to be conquered, tamed, and forced to give us
what we want. And we pass the results of our brokenness along, every time, like a bad debt.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” asks Cain afer killing Abel. “What did you say?” asks one resident of Babel to another. “Did you get the unicorns?” asks Mrs. Noah—ok, I made that part up, but you get my drift. Being cut loose to follow our own judgement didn’t go well, and much of Genesis shows us this: more humility and less hubris would have been a good thing.

God keeps trying, though. In Exodus, God sent the Torah, the law, to to fill the gap between “I know best” and “listen to God.” There were explicit instructions on how to share within the community, on the limits to which you can use an animal, and on how to handle the meat from an animal with respect and reverence. Fields were given their own sabbath, a year of rest for every 7 in production, to recover. Everything of value that we take from the earth, said the law, is sacred because it comes from God, and the Earth requires repayment. This is as far from modern factory farming as the system of jubilee was to modern banking. The economy was to be managed with a fine sense of balance and sustainability; it was not separate from, but integral with management of the ecology, and the law was a detailed manual for doing just that.

Wonder and responsibilitiy, responsibility and wonder. “How glorious is thy name over all the Earth!” is both the first and the last line of the 8th Psalm. The Psalmist observes that we are made “a little less than angels,” yet, overall this is not a song of entitlement but of humility. “Wow,” you can almost hear the psalmist breathe, as she looks at the stars, “really? You’re giving that to Little ol’ Us? Are you sure we’re up to that?”

If this sounds like an Indiginous point of view, it is. The Hebrews who wrote the earliest psalms were an Indigenous people, preserving their culture through waves of invasion and colonization, using the markers of the land itself to hold stories and history, long before anybody went to Babylon and took up writing.

Indigenous people tend not to actively recruit new members. It was and still is, hard to become a Jew if one is born a Gentile. They don’t do evangelism.

So what about that Great Commission—to go and make disciples of all nations? What is Jesus inventing here? Something new, so let’s pay close attention.

Jesus says “make disciples” by teaching people as he did.

During his life, what and how did Jesus teach?

To answer this, I did a quick reread of the rest of Matthew. There is Jesus, teaching dignity in the face of oppression, and humility in the face of creation. He heals, he feeds, and he teaches his followers to do the same. Never, ever does he bully someone to follow rigid rules or recite the right words to get into heaven. Jesus isn’t founding a church; he’s creating something more like a neighbourhood. A kin-dom, as Rev. Karen like to call it.Have you ever noticed, by the way, that the word “love” in the Bible can pretty much always be read as an action verb? Warm, cozy feels come and go, but action is the durable form of love that Jesus teaches in Matthew. Visit the sick and imprisoned, feed the hungry, be there for one another.

And so, when we get to Paul’s beautiful words to the Corinthians, that we are to

Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace

We are ready to ask, “what does this “full restoration” mean?”

Because Paul believed Jesus to be the bringer of freedom from original sin, we look all the way back to that first break in the wholeness of creation—when human hubris arose to say, “I know best.” Now, says Paul, be restored to wholeness, reconciled with God.

If we read it this way, then isn’t it remarkable that Paul says we can still get it right, still be brought into right relationship? With God, with the Earth, with ourselves and one another?

Before I wrap up, I want to read the 1988 response of the Indigenous United Church to the apology that was issued in 1986. Because language evolves, I have substituted “Indigenous” for the original word which was “Indian.”

Here is what the All Native Circle Conference of the United Church said:

[we have] now acknowledged your Apology. Our people have continued to affirm the teachings of the Native way of life. Our spiritual teachings and values have taught us to uphold the Sacred Fire; to be guardians of Mother Earth, and strive to maintain harmony and peaceful coexistence with all peoples.

We only ask of you to respect our Sacred Fire, the Creation, and to live in peaceful coexistence with us. We recognize the hurts and feelings that will continue amongst our people, but through partnership and walking hand in hand, the [Indigenous] spirit will eventually heal. Through our love, understanding, and sincerity, the brotherhood and sisterhood of unity, strength, and respect can be achieved.

The Native People of The All Native Circle Conference hope and pray that the Apology is not symbolic but that these are the words of action and sincerity. We appreciate the freedom for culture and religious expression. In the new spirit this Apology has created, let us unite our hearts and minds in the wholeness of life that the Great Spirit has given us.

— 1988 All Native Circle Conference, Record of Proceedings, p.7

The apology is acknowledged, but not accepted as a full atonement for what was done. Instead of “you are forgiven,” the response says “we will watch and wait.” This is proper; Indigenous healing will take time. Meanwhile, being healed from the sins we carry, including the sins we inherit,—that’s God’s job.

We need God, because there is no adequate atonement possible among humans to heal the theft of a continent and a genocide. We cannot bring back the dead, and we are not asked to pay a blood price: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or even a child for a child. Healing will take time, not revenge.

Finally, in a paragraph that sounds remarkably like Paul, we are invited to walk hand in hand until healing takes hold, and then onward to wholeness of life. That is so generous, and I am so grateful, because it releases us from the paralysis of guilt, shame and defensiveness. We can walk forward, do better. And what’s more, we have hands to take ours as we walk the way of healing.

So, we’re 35 years in to this new relationship. In just 5 years we will reach the Biblical number of 40. Generations. How are we doing?

It is remarkable to me that there are Indigenous Christians, in spite of everything, and they do bring new life to this strange and beautiful faith of ours . It is not the same faith that my missionary ancestors brought with them when they crossed the Mississppi River in 1814.

In United Church theological programs, Indigenous wisdom now dances with our Christian history. We are learning to read the testaments of the Hebrews, the early Christians, and the Earth itself as reflecting the same great wonder of the Earth, and great love of the Divine.

Many of us would love to see more Indigenous people in the pews, but it’s probably more important that we go, when we are invited, to learn from our neighbours. If our ancestors held forth over 500 years about the gifts of their Gospel to Indigenous people, turn-about would suggest that settler-descended Christians have at least 470 to go of being in the listener role. We are offered workshops, dances, films, books and art to teach us. We can study.

We are always called to be neighbours, to help and care for one another. We may start with the humans, but there is more to the neighborhood than us. We must quickly become wise partners in the care of this place that we all call “home,” our “ecos” of economy and ecology, with all of its plants and animals, too.

Make no mistake: God will not magically spare us the natural consequences of our colonial and capitalist ways. Humans and animals are already suffering, in unimaginable numbers, and we’ve a long, hard journey ahead before we know whether or how human societies will even continue on Earth.

We may tremble. In fear, and in awe, of the future—and our trembling is not misplaced.

But we have been given Grace, not to escape the storm but to face it unencumbered by shame. And doesn’t it give courage to know that we have this gift, this blessing—to walk toward reconciliation, wholeness, and right relationship, turning to gulp in the beauty of the Earth, and be led, not by guilt, but by love no matter what?

And so may we be led, and so may we walk, hand in hand, —in the amazing, astounding, vast love of God.