To celebrate, or to not celebrate? Dave Rogalsky July 2, 2017
Scriptures: Isaiah 1:17-20; Psalm 72; Joshua 11:10-15; Luke 4:16-21
Theme: Canada as a country is now 150 years old. Much to celebrate in this land that promotes human rights, freedom, peace, and which supports the poor and downtrodden here and around the world. But much to mourn as our own first peoples are downtrodden here and often do not have basic needs met, and are often biased against. To celebrate or not?
We acknowledge that we who live within six miles of the Grand River live in the Haldimand Tract. Our church building and most of us live on the traditional lands of the Haudenosaunee, and Neutral, Chonnonton or Iroquois peoples.
Justice Murray Sinclair has heard more stories of pain and grief than most of us would ever want to hear. As the chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission he listened to thousands1 of Native Canadians share their stories of multi-generational loss and abuse at the hands of those who were to be their teachers and protectors. He witnessed firsthand the effects of the near genocidal attempts to erase Native Canadian culture, language, religion, ethnicity and peoplehood. We could forgive him if he was traumatized, angry, and unforgiving.
As a Canadian senator he was there when Senator Lynn Beyak said, ““good deeds" and "remarkable works" on the part of well-meaning residential school officials have been ignored in favour of more negative reports.” After her comments on residential schools to the committee, Senator Sinclair told Beyak, “I am a bit shocked, senator, that you still hold some views that have been proven to be incorrect over the years, but, nonetheless, I accept that you have the right to hold them,” he said.2
But his grace doesn’t stop there. He recently said,
We will not achieve reconciliation in my lifetime. We will probably not achieve reconciliation in the lifetime of my children. It took us 150 years of colonialism and residential schools, seven generations of people to get to this state. It may take us seven generations to fix it.
But we must understand that those who have come through the residential school system are resilient people who deserve our respect, our love and our support.3
This grace should not be read as telling the rest of us that we have nothing to do. Sinclair also said, “"We have described for you a mountain. We have shown you the path to the top. We call upon you to do the climbing."4
How do we live centred the way he does – holding both responsibility and grace in his hands after seeing the effects of the destructive plan of Christians to destroy his people?
Can we celebrate Canada 150? And if so, how?
There are several interlocking concepts that led European Christians to think that they had the right to take as much land in the Americas as they wanted. The first of these was a sense of Christian supremacy. Had not God come among human kind in the form of Jesus Christ? Had not the spreading of that good news happened mostly in Europe? Were not the European nations Christian? They were the ones who had gone to take back the Holy Land from the Muslims. They were the ones who had had halted the spread of Islam in Spain and had pushed the Muslims out of Europe. They were the ones who had expelled the Jews, those killers of Christ, and had made them pay again and again for their sin against God. Was not Europe the defender of the faith? Were they not pre-eminent in God’s sight? Christian Europe, they thought, like Emperor Constantine, had the right to “conquer in the sign of the cross.”
Connected to this was another set of thoughts. Were not these heathen in the New World just like the heathen which the Jews had fought in Canaan so long ago? Remember passages like this one:
10 Joshua turned back at that time, and took Hazor, and struck its king down with the sword. Before that time Hazor was the head of all those kingdoms. 11 And they put to the sword all who were in it, utterly destroying them; there was no one left who breathed, and he burned Hazor with fire. 12 And all the towns of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua took, and struck them with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded. 13 But Israel burned none of the towns that stood on mounds except Hazor, which Joshua did burn. 14 All the spoil of these towns, and the livestock, the Israelites took for their booty; but all the people they struck down with the edge of the sword, until they had destroyed them, and they did not leave any who breathed. 15 As the LORD had commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did; he left nothing undone of all that the LORD had commanded Moses. Joshua 11:10-15 (NRSV)
Christians had a sense of superiority and privilege.
The second and third parts of the intellectual construct which brought about our current mess are – Terra Nullius – empty lands, and the Doctrine of Discovery. Terra Nullius is a Latin or Roman concept. It is used to “describe territory which has never been subject to the sovereignty of any state, or over which any prior sovereign has expressly or implicitly relinquished sovereignty. Sovereignty over territory which is terra nullius may be acquired through occupation.”1 Europeans claimed that there were no Christian rulers in the Americas. There were no Christian sovereign’s, meaning, no legitimate sovereign’s. So the land was empty. And since the First Peoples of the Americas often did not claim to own the land, but to only use it, it was up for grabs. It was empty land. Christians from Europe had discovered all this empty land!
The Doctrine of discovery is the third part of this intellectual mess. The land was discovered. Often it was empty. Sometimes it was held, illegitimately, by non-Christian sovereigns. Whatever the case, it was Christian Europeans to take.
Let me tell you the story of Atahualpa Inca. When the Spanish came to what is now South America they brought with them diseases to which the South Americans had no resistance. Estimates are that as many as 90% of the people died in the first flush of disease.
When the Spaniard Francisco Pizarro came to what is now Peru he was met by Atahualpa Inca – Emperor of an empire in the mountains. Bringing with him troops and a group of friars – non-ordained monks – Pizarro demanded that Atahualpa convert to Christianity. When he wouldn’t Pizarro had him arrested and imprisoned. Atahualpa offered to be ransomed by filling a large room about 22 feet (6.7 m) long and 17 feet (5.2 m) wide up to a height of 8 feet (2.4 m) once with gold and twice with silver within two months.2 When the space was filled Pizarro had Atahualpa executed. He showed clemency in that instead of being burned at the stake as a heretic Atahualpa was strangled. The Inca emperor had convinced a friar that if he was burned he would not go to his afterlife and the friar convinced Pizarro. Atahualpa was baptized and then killed. Wouldn’t he have been a proper sovereign if baptized? But no, the Spanish showed their true desires. Pizarro ruled over much of South America.
Christian supremacy, empty land and the doctrine of discovery, all connected to the lust for land and wealth, led to Europeans acting in horrible ways all throughout the Americas. This included Canada where treaties were made where the oral decisions and what was on paper differed. Natives were offering to share the land, agreed to that, and then made their mark on papers that instead agreed to the sale of the lands forever. Natives symbolized the treaties with the two strip wampum belt. On this belt two blue ‘rivers,’ separated and bordered by white shells, symbolized two peoples on the same land, each paddling their own canoe according to their own laws and traditions, on their own river. The idea was one of shared use and responsibility.
But that’s not what happened. Just one example of continued Christian and European supremacy is the Indian Residential School System. This was designed to “kill the Indian in the child,” to extinguish language, culture, religion and connections. Generation after generation of children were taken forcibly from home and sent far away. They didn’t learn their native heritage, or how to parent. When they couldn’t parent their children were taken, often given to whites and their native past extinguished with new birth certificates. These schools were almost all run by churches, including to my shame some Mennonite Schools. And if the attempts at making natives white wasn’t bad enough, many in these schools abused, molested and otherwise broke the children. Many children died of diseases or abuse and were buried without markers. Some ran away and died on the way home.
Some native Canadians are asking, What is there to celebrate this year in the 150th year of Canadian oppression of Indigenous people? Others, like Murray Sinclair, are asking what will non-native Canadians do to make this a place and land all of us can celebrate?
1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terra_nullius. For a discussion of a recent legal ruling which negates such thinking see http://craigforcese.squarespace.com/public-international-law-blog/2014/6/30/canada-was-never-terra-nullius.html
So, can we celebrate? I think no, and yes. No, we cannot celebrate the ill done to the original inhabitants of this land. Their history goes back at least 13,000 years, though recent archelogy may well push that back to 130,000 years.1 Whichever, our indigenous sisters and brothers have been here a long time, living in and off the land. Not as benighted savages but as families, tribes, nations and even empires. They have faith, languages, culture, and knowledge. We can learn from them. Especially this idea that the land is not owned. It belongs to the Creator! We share in its benefits, and in its care. Like the Biblical story of the first humans (see Genesis 2) we are called to care for the garden.
Can we celebrate? Yes. Together already this has become a land for many to come to away from tyranny, hatred and prejudice. That’s why my ancestors came here. We have been making a land of welcome. Now we have the opportunity, and the invitation, to make it welcome for those who were here first.
So I say, celebrate the good, and from the joy in that celebration, begin to climb the mountain of responsibility to include the first peoples.
What to do? Go to the powwow in Waterloo Park on September 23. Learn about the results of multi-generational trauma on individuals, families and whole groups. Learn to greet in a native language. Maybe Jane or Tom can tell us what the native word on our sign means, and how to say it. If someone speaks of natives disparagingly, ask them how they would like to have their children taken away, taught a new language, given a new name, told they can’t practice their religion, for seven generations.
Celebrate, and act. Hold those together. Jesus came to a very compromised world with a message of joy, celebration, of freeing the oppressed. We follow him.