Posted by on Mar 4, 2018

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

Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Luke 4:1-13; Psalm 19

Sunday, March 4, 2018 – The Third Sunday of Lent

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

Cameron Fraser

This morning we heard from the Book of Luke the story of Jesus in the dessert, if you were here last week, you may recall then that we read the same story from the Gospel of Matthew —it’s a story worth spending some time with, and at risk of repeating myself, especially when last week’s reflection can be found online through our website, there’s some things that I’d like to bring to the front again from this story.

First is the context of the wilderness, sometimes imagined as desert. As we travel throughout Lent we see at the edges here the growing decorations setting the stage quite literally, the rocks and bare branches that Deanna Zak has prepared, and this paints the picture well. Wilderness in Judea, the province of Palestine from which these stories emerge are rocky, hilly, full of dangerous creatures animal and human, a place known for madness. The sameness of the land is disorienting and confusing, and the fear that it insights causes one to question one’s own self. I mention this because we often frame this story, and therefore the practice of Lent, as just about physical hunger or physical denial, where I would suggest that this story invites us to frame Lent as a time of facing shadow, within the self and within our world, to look deeply at that which is hard and confusing, that which is troubling.

The second thing I want to note is this character that the text names the devil. When this story is written, being read and

shared, Christianity is still coming into it’s own understanding of how it understands itself and the spiritual cosmology it finds itself in. So the idea of a evil personified into an individual figure is not yet developed. What we might make of this figure as modern readers is a sermon (or series of sermons) onto itself, and how this figure has been used over history by the church to demonize others. For our purposes today, I think it’s helpful to picture those artistic renditions of this story that see Jesus facing his own figure looking back at him, and the challenges being spoken to him to turn stone into bread (manipulate the natural world by human control), the mystical trip to the pinnacle of the temple (the symbolic centre of power), and the promise of rule and domination —these three things are the undergirding of the Imperial Project of Rome, whose violence, indifference and dehumanizing practices Jesus will confront throughout his public ministry, first being confronted within.

Thus imagined, I believe that especially those who engage Christianity from positions of power and privilege, are invited in Lent to confront the narratives of imperialism and domination that undergird the world we find ourselves in today.

This is reflected, for us in this nation, most concretely, I believe in the Call to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery.

The Doctrine of Discovery is never contained in one document, but is an idea that is built up over several hundred years, culminating in the 1400s, so that when explorers and earlier colonizers arrive in what is referred to as “The World” that they are coming with a Divine given right to ‘discover’ lands and consider them unoccupied when inhabited by peoples who do not display marks of European (often conflated with Christian) civilization, which develops into the belief that “colonizers were bringing civilization to savage people who would never civilize themselves”—at best inferior humans, at worst not human at all.

Last week, we looked at some of the roots of that, and I’d invite you to find that online for hopefully a helpful summary.

Given the passage of time, shifting of religious affiliation, is this just an archaic principle, with little bearing in contemporary society? Do we still need to do something with the Doctrine of Discovery?

While we no longer appeal to Inter Caetera a letter written by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 which gives Spain title and justifies calling lands Columbus sailed to as “discovered”, the call to Action suggests that the concepts of inferiority and superiority woven into these letters still exists.

When it officially repudiated (a word which means declared publicly as false and invalid) the Doctrine of Discovery, in 2012, the United Church of Canada declared that it has profoundly affected the way that Indigenous peoples have been perceived by non-Indigenous peoples not just 500 years ago.

In 1883, Sir John A McDonald, serving at the time as both Prime Minister and Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, says to the House of Commons:

When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only

way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.

I think we can call this a more recent manifestation of the Doctrine of Discovery, or as Buffy Sainte Marie calls it ‘the Doctrine of Domination’.

For those participating in the Read the TRC for Lent project, or those who have listened to survivor testimony will have encountered deeply disturbing narratives of neglect and abuse the scope of which I am not convinced we’ve actually come to terms with.

Dr. Michael Capello, who has spoken here on this subject, said at the Regina Council of Churches service in the week of Prayer for Christian Unity, during his sermon on the task of reconciliation, that before we speak of healing, that we must acknowledge the depth of the wound.

I won’t say more about Residential School this morning, although there is so much more to say,  so much more that we are called to reckon with, I want us to simply sit with McDonald’s words and how the idea of inferior humanity was so entrenched in the purpose of these schools —what we are reckoning with is not just what happened while these schools were being operated, but with their underlying purpose itself.

In 1986 (incidentally 10 years before the final Residential School was closed), The Right Rev. Bob Smith, Moderator of the United Church of Canada, offered the first apology on behalf of the church for our role within that system. You can find the whole text in the Narthex and on the book table downstairs, but I will read some excepts here:

Long before my people journeyed to this land your people were here, and you received from your Elders an understanding of creation and of the Mystery that surrounds us all that was deep, and rich, and to be treasured.

We did not hear you when you shared your vision…we were closed to the value of your spirituality…We imposed our civilization…We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result, you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be.

Later apologies from the United Church would more specifically address physical, sexual, and mental abuse, but this first one, points out to us something important, a historic inability or unwillingness to listen, to hear, a vision received from Elders, an understanding of creation and the Mystery that surrounds us.

An inability or unwillingness to listen and to hear.

Have we begun listening, have we learned to hear?

This challenge is why I believe that as people of faith, we are called to engage with this conversation of national importance in a spiritual way, with the tools of our Tradition. I understand that some might see these issues as political, rather than spiritual, as about guilt or shame rather than empowering and hopeful.

Yet when we declare in creed that we are called to seek justice and resist evil we cannot allow that to be a disembodied declaration.

The great Jewish Rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote that “each generation must renew their charge to form a community not indifferent to suffering, impatient with cruelty and falsehood, and continually concerned for G*d and every [hu]man.”

The story of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke, reminds us that in the midst of confusion that it can be hard to hear, and make sense of the voices around us.

The weight of what we are being asked to reckon with both in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s reports of the Residential School System, and it’s legacy, on-going inequalities, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, disproportionate representation of Indigenous men in the Criminal Justice System (and according to Dr. Pam Palmater, the fastest growing demographic in Canadian prisons in young Indigenous woman), the fact that more Indigenous children are in state care today than were ever in Residential Schools, racism, systemic and personal, the persistence of the idea Indigenous peoples are inferior or inherently dangerous, this is overwhelming to make sense of, these conversations can be confusing and frustrating.

And when voices speaking about these sound angry (I would say with good reason), sound scared, sound frustrated, we might feel personally attacked, and our ability to listen and to respond gets run over by our instinct to react and protect.

This is where our spirituality comes in, can we, like Jesus in the wilderness, calm the voices within, lean into practices of prayer, simply breath deeply, to come back into ourselves, and find the ability to lean in.

If we hear in Indigenous voices who offer their critique of Indigenous peoples by the legal system a belief that certain people should not be held accountable for their actions then we aren’t listening closely enough.

If we hear in Indigenous voices who share concern and sorrow over the number of Indigenous children in the care of Child and Family services, a belief that children should be left in unsafe situations, then we are not listening closely enough.

We are invited to listen, and if we do so deeply, finding the spiritual strength and courage to resist questioning, I believe we’ll find there that vision that the Right Rev. Bob Smith spoke of.

A tipi has been erected within the trees just across the parking from the Saskatchewan Legislature not far from here. An invitation from this camp has been extended to come and listen. Dress warm, bring a lawn chair and a blanket, bring a warm drink, and listen. I know that is just not realistic for all of us, but if we are physically able, I would challenge us to try.

This need to listen is why we have adopted as a Vision of Ministry to explore, and respond, as best we can to the calls to action of the TRC. This need to listen is why we have created the Read the TRC for Lent challenge, why we have hosted Elder Lorna Standingready, and Dr. Blair Stonechild. It is why the Regina Symphony Orchestra and McKenzie Art Gallery are this weekend offering the Forward Currents festival to inspire conversations about how we will pick all of this up.

This need for listening, is not just about the past, although reconciling with past events and current situations is, I believe, absolutely necessary if we are to find new future possibilities.

Our reading of Jesus in the wilderness is framed by two other stories. Just before what we heard he is baptized in the Jordan River and the text says that the Spirit like a dove came down upon him and a voice said, You are my child, chosen and marked in love.

And where our reading left off, Jesus will then go into the synagogue in his hometown, pick up a scroll and read words from the Prophet Isaiah:

‘The Spirit of God is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

God has sent me to proclaim release to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind,

     to let the oppressed go free,to proclaim the year of God’s favour.’ 

The Call to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery suggests that there has been voice within our consciousness and systems of inferiority and superiority.

We are called to tell a new story, and we are called to listen. We are called to do so with Lenten spiritual muscle because some of what we need to listen to is hard, and we are sometimes inclined to interpret a voice that is angry as angry with us. I pray that we have the strength to lean in, and keep listening, that we might find the strength of our ancestor Jesus in the dessert, and that we might recognize that same cosmic strength in the voices we are called to listen to.

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