Posted by on Feb 25, 2018

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Repudiate – Reconcile – Response(ABILITY) – Grappling with the Doctrine of Discovery as a Lenten Practice (Part One) 

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22, Romans 4:13-25, Matthew 3:13 – 4:11

Sunday, February 25, 2017 – The Second Sunday of Lent

Knox-Metropolitan United Church – Regina, SK – Treaty 4 Territory

Cameron Fraser

Our reading today, took a short diversion from the Lectionary, the appointed passage for the day and explored the Gospel of Matthew’s depiction of two formative moments in this telling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth. We heard a little bit from chapter 3 and a little bit from chapter 4 and it’s worth noting that the division of these writings into chapters and verses is a relatively modern invention.

Jesus comes to the Jordan River where he meets the radical prophet John, known as the Baptizer. Jesus enters the waters of the river to be baptized, symbolically apprenticed into John’s ministry which draws on the tradition of the Hebrew Prophets who call the people of Israel back to their formative stories as a people freed from slavery in Egypt, called to build a community of radical love of one another and of the stranger, a radical community of Shalom (peace and wholeness) of Sabbath (of restraint and resistance of Empire) and Jubilee (freedom from oppression).

From there, affirmed by the voice of the spirit, inaugurated into a radical tradition of speaking truth to power, our narrative leads Jesus out into the wilderness, where the text states that he will be tempted by the devil.

As modern readers and listeners, we often struggle to know what to do with this character named in the text “devil” or “Satan”, and to go into it in great detail would be a sermon onto itself, but let me suggest in brief that there is no precedence to read this figure as horned, hoofed feet, with a pointy tail, a pitchfork and comical goatee. In Greek (the language the New Testament texts were written) Satan is not yet a proper noun to describe a specific character but means adversary and in many artistic, particular mystic interpretations of this story, Jesus is seen facing his own likeness —that the temptation comes from with.

Sometimes the wilderness or dessert becomes an metaphor for physical hunger – partly connected to Lenten practices of giving things up or fasting, but wilderness, in the Christian Spiritual tradition isn’t just a blank landscape where there is nothingness, but a hilly landscape of crags, caves, rocks, and it’s sameness has the effect then of disorientation – the lack of discernible landmarks makes one forget which way is which. The wilderness is also not vacant, but it is where the wild things dwell, making it both physical dangerous and mentally taxing, for the mind is ever imagining what might be lurking behind that hill, around that corner of rocks, where the howling of the wind feels like the howling of the spirits, feels like the howling of one’s own troubled soul.

Thomas Merton, the great teacher of contemplative spirituality wrote that: the desert is the country of madness…So the [one] who wanders in the desert to be himself must take care that [one] does not go mad and become the servant of the one who dwells there in a sterile paradise of emptiness and rage…

And Friedrich Nietzsche, if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

This is important for us when engaging with this story, because this narrative, forms our imagining of what the practice of Lent invites or calls us into. Not just a journey into personal hunger, denial or self-discipline, although that is a totally valid way that people pick it up, and I applaud anyone giving something up.

But in Lent, we are also invited, into the troubling, the disorienting, the confusing.

I have a white board next to my desk, where I am continuously looking at a 6 month or so plan of content and activity, and the decision to spend a portion of Lent, grappling with themes and issues emerging from the calls to the Church of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the invitation to read the TRC as a Lenten practice, all of this has been planed since the middle of the fall, as I like to set a trajectory for the winter months before entering into the busyness of Advent and Christmas.

I had chosen this time to open this conversation because of the rich potential within the Lenten traditions of introspection, prayerful contemplation and deep listening, and so I acknowledge that events of the past month, two very high profile court cases, and the responses to the verdicts, visceral and polarizing, changes the landscape of how we might be considering these things, as we approach this season.

I know that for some people, these conversations have gotten harder. I know that for some people, reconciliation feels more allusive, that things feel more polarized. That for some things have gotten louder, more troubling, more disorienting, and for some more frustrating.

One of the calls of Lent, is, to like Jesus, intentionally enter into wilderness space, and find therein the whispers of spirit that bring clarity, conviction, and courage, and I hope that these spaces over these coming weeks can be that for us. My hope for this series has been and continues to be that I might help us take the complex almost knot of voices and ideas, from within, from where we’ve come from, from other people, voices that are shouting, voices that are hurting, voices that are angry, and in a space of safety, of prayer and sanctuary, work to untangle things that we might listen and understand and that we might attend to how we react internally to that which makes us uncomfortable, and maybe from these threads we are able to unravel we might weave a new tapestry to help us know what is our personal call in this time.

I offer these reflections, because I believe that our Tradition offers rich resources for this conversation, not in dictating policy or opinion, but in giving us the spiritual muscle to enter into challenging conversations that are deeply important. And I speak this to you all with deep humility, and also a deep hope that we as individuals and we as a community might find a role to play. Knox-Metropolitan United Church has opened our Lower Hall twice over the past few weeks to offer warm space for hastily organized vigils in which Indigenous and Non-Indigenous people to gather to share grief over the loss of Colton Boushie and Tina Fontaine, we have listened to what was asked, and offered as best we could.

One of the calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission specifically addressed to churches is #49, We call upon all religious denominations and faith groups who have not already done so to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.

You might recognize the word repudiate as one of three words written on our bulletin cover or in the sermon title, it’s not a word that gets a lot of use.

To repudiate is to refuse to accept, to deny the truth or validity of, or in legal use refuse to fulfill or discharge, and the TRC calls religious denominations and faith groups to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullis.

The United Church of Canada as a denomination did this in 2012, and I’ll say more about that shortly, and these concepts referred to in here are actually quite old, and so some might question the necessity to ponder them now, but I would argue, that this is an important part of understanding what we are being called to, and how we have come to this place. I hope you will pardon a bit of a historical overview.

The term, Doctrine of Discovery is an umbrella term used to refer to those concepts, theological and legal (and we’re looking at a time where the connection between those two were much closer) that provided justification for European sovereignty over lands inhabited by Indigenous peoples.

It’s theological roots begin a thousand years before European contact with North America, in the work of 5th Century theologian Augustine who was tasked with answering the question as to whether Christians can justifiably go to war, pondering the command Thou Shalt Not Kill. Augustine introduces the idea that when violence is being used to put to death “wicked men” and their works, then and only then it is justified in the eyes of the God.

This is expanded by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century who states that a war is just when it comes from the command of the sovereign ruler (at the time believed to divinely appointed) and that those being attacked warrant it by some fault of their own, and finally that the attackers have rightful intention—the advancement of good and avoidance of evil.

Around this same time, this question is being associated with the idea of invasion, specifically around European military campaigns in and around Jerusalem. Pope Innocent the 4th, when asked to clarify whether Christians can rightly invade lands ruled by non-Christians, proclaims that this is justified, even blessed by God’s own self when Infidels are acting contrary to the dictates of natural law (that their behaviour is able to justified as unnatural or subhuman) and the need of the pope to manage the spiritual needs of all humanity in other words, the need for conversion.

It is another 200 years then when Pope Nicholas the 5th is asked to provide Portugal the right to claim sovereignty (and exclusive trading rights) over lands along the North African continent, and the Pope directs King Alfonso to “attack, conquer and subjugate Saracens (Muslims), pagans, and other enemies of Christ wherever they may be found.”

Thus blocked from African expansion, Spain sends explorers elsewhere, and when Christopher Columbus returns with reports of vast wealth in Caribbean, the Spanish Crown seeks again from the Vatican, legal justification of their discovery. Pope Alexander the 6th issues an official letter granting Spain title not only over what they have ‘discovered’ but what they will discover in the future. It is inscribed in a Papal Bull (or official letter) entitled Inter Caetera (Latin for ‘among other works’):

Among other works well pleasing to the Divine Majesty…this assuredly ranks highest…[that] the Catholic faith…be everywhere increased and spread…and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith…[We] assign to you and your heirs and successors…all islands and mainlands…discovered and to be discovered towards the west and south.

King Henry the 7th of Britain is advised that “undiscovered” lands would not conflict with the Pope’s rulings and so Henry gives John Cabot: …free and full authority…to sail to all parts, regions, and coasts of the eastern, western, and northern sea….to find, discover, and investigate whatsoever…regions or provinces of the heathens and infidels, in whatsoever part of the world placed, which before this time were unknown to all Christians.

By 1498, Britain has claimed sovereign rights over North America’s eastern seaboard, this will be contested for 2 centuries by France during which time explorers continue to make claims based on discovery including Martin Frobisher, Humphrey Gilbert, and Samuel de Champlain.

The seven years war between France and Britain ends the dispute with France surrounding most of the North American territory it has previously claimed, and the Royal Proclamation of 1763 states that now the Crown alone has the right to negotiate with Indigenous peoples for rights of further land to be settled.

What then does it mean, that churches are called to repudiate ideas from hundreds of years ago?

The United Church of Canada in 2012, proclaimed that The Doctrine of Discovery has profoundly affected the way that Indigenous peoples have been perceived by non-Indigenous peoples. This is a challenging and provocative statement, and one that may provoke in some of us discomfort, that it be suggested that ancient doctrines that named non-Christians as less than fully human might have affected perception today.

A good friend of mine was part of General Council Executive who created this statement and recalls this as a deeply significant moment, the sharing of stories form the Indigenous members present, tears on the part of all involved, and after the vote, which was enthusiastically unanimous, great joy and celebration!

This repudiation was done with the recognition that the spiritual and ideological foundations of the Doctrine violated the essential gospel teachings of Jesus. These teachings actually call us as people of faith to challenge empire and dominant societal structures, care for and share God’s resources with all, and love our neighbours as ourselves, just as God loves us.

Was this all symbolic? Some might argue so, we are referring to 500 year old documents. However, the term doctrine of discovery as a legal principle first cited in a United States Supreme Court ruling from 1823 was citied by Canadian courts as recently as 1990.

Furthermore, the Indigenous members of the United Church, present in the circle on March 24, 2012 believed that they still found themselves, and their communities treated in ways rooted in the Doctrine, as less than human, as fundamentally uncivilized, as in need of correction, perhaps no longer to Christianity as a faith, but to a standard of Canadian-ness, and not celebrated for their distinct contributions.

A Mennonite speaker at St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon in the fall of 2016 suggested that the Doctrine of Discovery is not just written on dusty old documents from the Vatican, but is written into stereotypes, and often subconsciously held attitudes within her own heart and mind.

In the dessert, when confronted with the voices of narratives of exploiting the earth (turning stones into bread) and domination (given title to rule all that is around him) Jesus leans into the whispers of his ancestors, the Hebrew prophets and from that space, stands in truth that invites a ministry of solidarity.

We are offered an opportunity to lean in as well, to concepts that might disturb us, to challenge ourselves to attend to voices in pain and frustration, and have the courage to hold that space, not to retreat into shame, a reaction of defensiveness and deflection, but to hear that sisters and brothers are in pain, and as Martin Luther King Jr. compelled, to listen, and while we are never truly able to share it, to hold it.

If we are listening to voices from Indigenous communities right now we will hear pain, frustration and anger—and this can be off putting—but if we listen deeply we hear humanity appealing to our humanity, we can meet people heart to heart, never able to fully understand some particularities of pain, but to understand as deeply as we can.

And from there we are invited to become, as Jesus was in the dessert, good ancestors, opening up new possibilities for those who will come after us, not to live in polarization, but to have built bonds of connection, recognizing the undeniable humanity behind voices who may be saying things that are hard for us to understand.

And in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.