Posted by on Mar 11, 2018

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Repudiate – Reconcile – Response(ABILITY)

Grappling with the Doctrine of Discovery as a Lenten Practice (Part Three) 

Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; John 2:13-22

Sunday, March 11, 2018 – The Fourth Sunday of Lent

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

Cameron Fraser

We find ourselves this morning at the fourth Sunday of the Season of Lent.

Over the previous two Sundays here at Knox-Metropolitan United Church, we have been invited to reflect together as a Lenten practice on one of the 94 calls to Action of Truth and Reconciliation Commission, #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.

Repudiate means to refuse to accept or deny the truth of, and the Doctrine of Discovery refers to this historical narrative that Europeans who came to lands we know as North America could be considered to have discovered it, despite Indigenous people already being present because these people were considered to be inferior, less than fully human for not showing signs of civilization according to European standards and the Christian religion. This narrative is rooted in actual historic declarations from the Catholic Church before the Protestant Reformation—thus the specificity of the call to Action.

When the United Church of Canada’s General Council Executive made an official statement of repudiation of this narrative in 2012, they declared that this doctrine, while several hundred years old, still affects the way that Non-Indigenous peoples viewed Indigenous peoples in Canada and continues to be embedded in many systems and policies— rarely as explicit as outright statements of inferiority, more often sounding like suggestions that a communities problems are simply of its own making.

We have been reflecting on these things during this time, during Lent, which we often associate with giving things up perhaps as an exercise of self-denial or self-discipline, but the call of Lent truly is about truth-telling. Even the practice of giving up chocolate, coffee, or alcohol while on the surface seems to be about restraint, psychologically is about revealing to ourselves how often we are guided by our appetites (sometimes quite literally).

Our Scripture reading today, took us to the Gospel of John, to one of the most well-known passages of the New Testament, For God so loved the world…If we had space for more than one sermon today we could spend some time unpacking what has come to be the generally accepted meaning of this passage among many expressions of Christianity, one of declaring belief in Jesus as the only acceptable pathway into a Christian understanding of the afterlife—of heaven, but that is a task for another time (or a conversation over coffee if you’re interested). For now, let me very briefly suggest that this popular interpretation rests on, what I would call, a mis-appropriation of the Christian Tradition to be about personal salvation, or morality, instead of a radical call to ethical action, justice seeking, commitment to the goodness of the earth, importance of this temporal life and solidarity with those who struggle most in this world.

What we heard read, does at least wrestle the famous John 3:16 off of placards and signs at sporting events, and back into the context of a pretty meaty and sort of esoteric spiritual discussion. If we read the whole of John Chapter 3, we find this is part of a longer conversation between Jesus and a religious teacher named Nicodemus.

What we heard read today ends with what seems to be the setting up of a clear binary between those whose deeds are evil and those whose deeds are good, light and darkness. This is again a concept I wish we had another sermon to unpack. The Christian Church has a long and problematic history of naming certain groups as evil and others as good, resulting in tragic alienation and division of communities and families, emotional and psychological abuse and horrific violence.

I think however, that what, we encounter here a call to openness and truth-telling, that things are not either dark or light, but that when things are brought into the open, named, talked about rather than hidden truth can be seen about them.

I think this spatial concept has applications for our discussion of what we are called to within Christian churches in this national discussion of reconciliation —we are called to understand the role that churches have played, both in the Residential School system, and in creating the ideological underpinnings for both this system, and the centuries of colonialism preceding—for one, embodied in the doctrine of discovery and it’s embedding deep into historical narratives, and I would argue, into collective consciousness, the claim that Indigenous peoples are inferior. It is important to note that we are not called to bring these into the light, that the church is not first of all the one doing the truth-telling, for this courageous work has been done through the resilience and testimonies of survivors and the families and communities of those who never returned home.

To this end I believe then we have a call to re-examine narratives of how this country came to be, reading the TRC report itself, as many here have been doing as a Lenten practice is one example of this. Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian:A Curious Account of Native People in North America or local author James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life are both important challenges that seek to understand contemporary gaps between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous peoples, in continuing frameworks of oppression and inequity begun hundreds of years ago.

Dr. Pam Palmater, a a Mi’kmaw lawyer and currently Associate Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, delivered a powerful and challenging lecture at the University of Regina last month on the topic If It Feels Good, It’s Not Reconciliation, during which she said “When people tell me to Get over it, I just say Stop Doing it!”

She argued that there is a desire to focus on reconciliation without truth, to minimize the necessity of re-examining historical narratives and current realities, preferring to focus gestures or a disembodied future, but in so doing she insists we fail to see where we truly are as nations and communities.

I believe that engaging in this sort of learning is the stuff of this passage from John, of bringing that which is hidden into the open, of that which is shrouded in darkness into the light, where it can be named for what it is. And so named repudiated, and reconciled and by that I don’t yet mean new relationships between peoples created, but first, those of who are not directly affected by deep inequalities and injustices are called to reconcile, come to terms within ourselves with truths that perhaps things within our society are not as equitable as we would like to believe, that social problems are not simply the result of poor individual choices and that racism does not just exist within fringe comments by hate-filled individuals.

This work requires that we develop the ABILITY to respond, to resist impulses of shame and defensiveness, leaning instead on courage and responsibility. Allowing frustrated and angry voices to be valid and listened to, rather than taking them personally.

Our reading from the Gospel of John began with an allusion of Moses raising up a snake in the wilderness. Here it is important to remember that the Gospels are written long after the events they describe, and that they draw on the myths and stories of their communal history.

The allusion to Moses refers to a story in the Old Testament book of Numbers wherein many of the people of Israel who are wandering in the wilderness have been bitten by poisonous snakes. Moses is instructed to put a bronze figure of a snake in the middle of the camp and anyone who looks at it will be miraculously healed. This story (which it isn’t necessarily to be taken literally) becomes a cypher through which to interpret Jesus’s own lifting up in the narratives of the crucifixion which we move towards at this time of year.

The Christian Tradition calls us to look upon Jesus lifted up, named here as Son of Man which is likely better translated as the Human One, and if we can wrestle this image from theological understandings of one religion being superior to another, we can view this moment—Jesus on the cross—as a symbol of suffering humanity being lifted up so it cannot be ignored, of human bodies broken by violence and the Roman Imperial Project of this story’s context, a stand-in for systems of power anywhere in history that exploit and oppress.

The call to witness to this becomes a call to see God in human suffering anywhere and everywhere, and to turn indifference into commitment.

To bring this back to the allusion of Moses the snake bite story, the implication is that our healing, our wholeness, as individuals and communities is dependent on our attentiveness to those among us who suffer, and when we do the hard, gutsy spiritual work of bringing into the light and staring at head on that we which we could actually ignore, then we have begun to truly engage with the image of God revealed in Jesus the suffering one.

Where I find hope in all of this (and please note, hope is not the same as the belief that everything is or will be ok), for us in the church, is that our central story is one of suffering and redemption, not in the myth of redemptive suffering, and that in professing a devotion (whatever that means to us) to divinity manifest in human pain—not purity or power—that we might find therein the spiritual energy needed to encounter suffering and injustice in the histories and right now stories of Indigenous peoples in Canada, to see not passive victims, but resilience, beauty and power, and to take responsibility and find response-ABILITY.

Ability to say no to narratives that need to be repudiated, and not to pass them along unquestioned. Ability to humbly show up and follow the lead of others, and to equip ourselves and those who come after us with tools to re-imagine broken relationships and to refuse to be paralyzed by an issue that feels too big—because there’s truth in there, it is too big for simple solutions.

I know that I am not likely to see the end of this discussion and this work in my lifetime, but if my attention and intention, can in any way set up my descendants for taking things as far as they will be able to, I will have been a good ancestor to them.

We have been called to action, and I would say called to attention, called to wakefulness, called to bring into light that which we might be inclined to ignore or deny. We are called to Action by the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

We are called by voices in our own community, like those who hold vigil in Wascana Park in front of the Provincial Legislature, and while it can be intimidating to enter into a seemingly uncertain space, one can simply walk up, say hello, accept the invitation to sit around the fire, and simply say “I am here to learn”.

We are called by all of this, and I would suggest, that we are called by the stories of the Christian Tradition, especially those which we remember in Lent, Holy Week and Easter.

For in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us, we are not alone.