Celebrating Victoria, Queen of the British Empire
Lectionary Year A, Easter 6, May 21, 2017
Psalm 95:1-7 (NRSV), Romans 13:1-10, 1 Timothy 2:1-4 (NRSV)
Theme/Goal/Aim: We live on land taken from the Indigenous People during the reign of Victoria. How do we respond?
We acknowledge that we who live within six miles of the Grand River live in the Haldimand Tract given in reward to Indigenous people for supporting the British in the Colonial War which led to the formation of the United States of America. Our church building and most of us live on the traditional lands of the Haudenosaunee, and Neutral, Chonnonton or Iroquois peoples. This land was given in 1784 under King George III of Britain, by Frederick Haldimand, “Captain General and Governor General in Chief of the Province of Quebec and Territories depending thereon, General and Commander in Chief of His Majesty's Forces in said Province and the Frontiers thereof.”
But all this soon began to unravel. Governments decreased the land in Jospeh Brant’s time and soon land that the Six Nations confederacy was to have was being sold, leased and otherwise being used by settlers. Most of the money never made it to the natives. And what money was gathered was administered by settlers because the natives were believed to be unable to deal with money. Some of the administrators used the money for themselves.
This Sunday we think about our celebration of a British Monarch, Victoria, whose reign was the height of colonialism in many corners of the world. Colonialism is the taking control of land by a power, who then settles that land with its own people. In many cases the land was declared “empty” of any civilized peoples or governments. Yet we know that Indigenous people had lived here for between 13,000 and 130,000 years. They had lives where they farmed, hunted, gathered, loved, raised families, and buried their dead. Yes the also had wars, misused some resources, did not have cities in the north, but they lived here. The land was not empty of civilization! It wasn’t here to be “discovered” as if no one lived here.
How do we move forward without shame or guilt but with creativity and hope?
There are a number of important ideas that I think we can draw from the Bible about this whole question.
The first has to do with the nature of land. Land is a very important topic both in the Bible and for Native Canadians. The Jews were escaped slaves when they entered Canaan in the 1400’s BC. They had owned nothing and here was a land which they made empty in order to have it. They, like other wandering tribes of their day, believed that if they could take the land, then their God had given it to them. They believed that their God had defeated the gods of the land in a heavenly war and now they had the right to take the land and own it. The Jews divided up the land in the book Joshua and each family received a share. God had given them the land because the land, in the end, and the beginning, belonged to God. The Psalmist wrote: “1 The earth is the LORD's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” Psalm 24:1 (NRSV) Both land and people belonged to God.
We see this again in the laws of Jubilee in the book of Leviticus. The Jews were to celebrate land feasts. The seventh year was to be a year of rest, of Sabbath. No work was to be done on the land. People were to harvest what grew of itself. The land was to be fallow. And on the fiftieth year, the Sabbath of Sabbaths was to be celebrated. This year, “The year of Jubilee,” was a time when land which had been sold returned to its earliest owners. If someone bought land the price was figured on how many years the new owner could use it before they would have to return the land to its first owners. This was because the first owners received the land from God, who was the eternal owner of the land.
The same thing held true of people. We read: “55 For to me the people of Israel are servants; they are my servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” Leviticus 25:55 (NRSV). If a person became so poor that they sold themselves into slavery, then on the 50th year they and their family would be freed. The people did not belong to other people. They were selling their labour for a time. But because God ‘owns’ all people, they would be set free to again serve God freely on their own.
In God’s economy, land and people always belong first to God. In many ways we are merely the managers of the land, and the people. We are not the owners, we are the borrowers, renters, leaseholders. We have the responsibility to use the land, and the people, in such a way that we return them to God in as good a shape as we received them.
Native Canadians actually hold an amazingly similar theology of the land and people. The land, the animals, the plants, and the people, all belong to the Creator who made them. They can be used by the people, but they always need to be seen as gift from God. When an animal is killed, the Creator, and the animal itself, need to be thanked for the gift. The plants are seen as gifts – when you go out looking for medicine plants you don’t take the first you find. You leave it to reproduce so that there will always be medicine plants.
So when Native Canadians made treaty with settlers they symbolized it with the two strip wampum belt. On this belt there are two blue strips signifying two rivers running parallel. These are the two peoples living on the land, sharing its resources equally. Neither was to dominate. Both were to share and support. Each was to walk their own path, paddle their own canoe.
The same thing held for objects. If a native Canadian gave something to someone, it was not theirs to be held forever. It was being shared, not given. I remember when I was a child that if someone gave something, and then took it back they were called an “Indian giver.” For natives, if you received a gift, you were expected to return one of equal value. If you didn’t, the giver could retrieve their original gift. All this goes back to the idea that ownership is much more fluid, more akin to the right to use something for a while, but not permanently, because in the end, all things and beings belong not to us, but to God.
But this was not how settlers saw the land. They saw each treaty as the natives giving the land to the settlers in perpetuity. They heard the sharing language but either chose to ignore it, or just didn’t understand. Native Canadians believe that they never gave the land away. They offered a gift, a gift which has not been reciprocated. Even though Joseph Brant was given land by the Crown, land that actually was in use by others, the Neutral, Chonnonton or Iroquois peoples, and he sold parts of it to settlers, the idea of perpetual use was not part of the deal. The land was given to use, to keep healthy and whole, to share, and maybe to gift back. The land was not empty, it hadn’t been for at least 13,000 years. It was not discovered, it had been in use by human beings for thousands of years.
It was our government, run by people who called themselves Christians, who did this. In a democracy the government is really only an extension of us. We did this. Mostly I think we didn’t understand what we were doing. But it makes it hard to celebrate our past governments. And we were not only doing it here. Under Victoria we did this all over the world, taking land, enslaving people, rejecting their beliefs as primitive, forcing them to become like us in economy, language, and religion. We believed that because we were the spiritual heirs of the Jews, we had the right religion, and therefore the right, like the Jews under Joshua in the Old Testament, to impose our belief on others.
Notice what Paul said about governments – obey. The government he was thinking of was the Roman Imperial government. This was not a democracy. Some stop at obey but there is more. Paul wrote:
8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself." 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10).
This is a higher law than the government’s. If a government, even a dictatorship like the Roman Emperor, asks us to act outside of love, then we do not obey the government. When Jesus was asked about paying taxes to the Roman government, which occupied Palestine with many troops, he told his questioners: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Matthew 22:21) What is the government’s? Taxes and so on. What is God’s? Love. Love is the most important thing.
The amazing thing for me is how often I meet native folk who have taken on the Christian story, often better than we have. They and those who still practice traditional religion alone are gentle, forgiving, patient, and loving. Keeping with their traditions they don’t demand that the land all be given back to them. They are asking for mutual sharing, mutual use, each and every one having enough. They’re asking for love.
So, what do we do?
First, we live our lives in a normal fashion. Don’t jump. Don’t feel guilty or shame. Live a whole life of care of self, others, your relationship with God, and the good creation in which we live. Worn out, broken, lonely people don’t make good peacemakers. Live enjoying God’s good earth.
Second, we try to find ways to be in relationship with native folk in our community. There is a Pow Wow at U of Waterloo September 23. Go and meet folk!
Third, we learn about past and present wrongs, as well as past and present good stories. It is painful to read or listen, but we must. And it is joyful to hear the good stories, like the one of the rent payment postponed.
Fourth, we ask our government representatives to prioritize the care of our native sisters and brothers whom we have crowded into smaller and smaller areas, taking away their ability to care for themselves. How do we through our governments return honour, pride and self-sufficiency to these our neighbours?
Fifth, through this all, we pray, seeking God to change us, move us, guide us, and to help our native sisters and brothers.
Empty your hands, close your eyes
Take five normal breaths
Think about the good land on which we live.
Think about our native sisters and brothers and what they have and lack.
Ask God, is there one thing you call on me to do?
Ask God, equip me to do this, give me energy, creativity, hope.