This reflection is based on Joshua 24:1-13. It is a disturbing passage. It tells the story of how Israel came to take over the land of Canaan. This is sometimes known as the promised land. We sometimes breeze over or skip this passage because it is a brutal and honest retelling of Israel’s history. Israel didn’t just walk into an empty land and live happily ever after. Israel systematically destroyed all the people who already lived in the land. It’s much easier to think that the land was empty. We don’t have be horrified at the destruction of communities or ask questions about how the people who were already in the land were impacted.
What would you say the families of those who were killed by Israel as they arrived in the land? Would you pretend those communities never existed even though you could see signs of previous inhabitants? What would you do with the few people who escaped death and destruction?
Here’s the passage again with a bit of a twist.
Joshua gathered all the Christians of Canada and gathered all the ministers and lay leaders together before God. Joshua said to the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Christians: Long ago your ancestors—John Cabbot and Jacque Cartier lived in Europe. I took them from Europe and led them to Turtle Island and gave them many descendants here. I gave them Upper and Lower Canada. I gave them Rupert’s land and New France. The land was hard and you spread through the wilderness of this land. I brought you to the land of the Iroquois, the Cree, the Ojibwa, the Blackfoot, the Assiniboine, the Dene peoples. You destroyed their communities by stealing their children and taking their land for yourselves. You became wealthy from the land.
In this passage, there’s not much difference between the history of Israel and the history of Canada. We recognize traditional territory at St. Andrew’s United Church. Canadian society is at a crossroads as we wrestle with the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. One of the ways this is happening is through the Truth and Reconciliation Process. The process of reconciliation involves all those who have been part of Canadian history and all those who are now a part of Canada.
As you will know there were many recommendations come out of this process and some of them are directed specifically at churches. One of the key recommendations for churches asks us “to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.” (48/49) The Doctrine of Discovery comes from Papal bulls written the 1400’s. These decrees “called for non-Christian peoples to be invaded, captured, vanquished, subdued, reduced to perpetual slavery, and to have their possessions and property seized by Christian monarchs.” Terra Nullius is Latin and it translates as “nobody’s land.”
Put these two concepts together and you have a situation where the church gave its authority for North America to be settled by Christian Europeans without regard for the people already here. The first contact Indigenous peoples had with Europe was based on “Christian” principles which set us on the path that led to the Indian Act, treaties, reserve system, residential schools and the 60’s scoop and continues to shape relationships and policy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.
You might say but it’s history, and we should be over it and move on. But how do we move on when the racism that fuelled these policies continues to be alive and well in our communities? As Christians, we have an extra responsibility because the founding concepts come from our religion. We need to remind ourselves regularly that whether we were actively involved in this process or not, we benefit from the policies that allowed the land and resources to be taken from Indigenous peoples.
We don’t like to think about ourselves or our history in this light. We like our Christianity to be all about making us feel good personally or at the very least showing us how we can make the world better. It may be difficult to be reminded that Christianity has a history of very destructive practices.
Truth and Reconciliation asks us to be honest about this history. Indigenous communities continue to struggle with the outcomes of residential schools, reserve system and treaties that have not been honoured. As Christians, we need to struggle with what Christianity says about and to Indigenous peoples. What does our theology say? What does our scripture say? An Indigenous person might hear this scripture as justifying the destruction of their communities. We don’t want to see ourselves as that warring nation that destroyed everything in its path.
This scripture was written by the people who are the invaders and conquers of the land. Of course, they believe God was on their side and that God gave them the land. Don’t most of us have a bit of that in us as well? We often give thanks that we live in Canada, that we have enough. Some of us are lucky to be well off, but there are many reserves in Canada without clean drinking water, education continues to be underfunded for Indigenous children, access to health care is limited, and the rates of Indigenous children in foster care and adults in the corrections system is way higher than for non-Indigenous people.
We need to be honest about the history that has gotten us into our current situation. We need to be honest about Christianity and our own church’s role in this mess, and we need to commit to doing better. That’s why we recognize traditional territory. The purpose is not to make people feel bad, but sometimes our discomfort (if we can stay in it for a bit) is the place we learn most. Recognizing traditional territory is, in some ways, a confession of sin for our church. It is recognition of collective sin. This sin reminds that we missed the mark in our relationship with Indigenous peoples. When we confess sin, we also need to take some responsibility for it and make amends. Because the sin is collective the responsibility for it is also collective.
That’s where we are now. As St. Andrew’s worked through the visioning process one of the things that came up repeatedly was a sense that we need to build relationships with the Indigenous community in Yorkton. We know that many of the Whitespruce work crew from the provincial jail are Indigenous who spend time helping us around the building are Indigenous. Many of the folks who access the food and clothing shelf are Indigenous. These are ways that we are starting to take some responsibility for the current situation. Truth and Reconciliation is the work of Canadian society at this moment in time. It is our collective work.
I believe in a God of love and compassion. I believe in a God who calls us to lives of love and compassion for our neighbours and ourselves. I don’t want the guilt of this history to weigh us down and keep us from living faithfully. The words reminding us of the traditional territory are a reminder of who God calls us to be and an invitation to live faithfully as Christians at this moment in time by sharing the love and compassion God has for us with our Indigenous neighbours.