A Spirituality of Decolonisation
For years, now, I have been having the same conversation, in church halls, on buses, at conferences and protests across the landmass that is called North America on maps but which I know as Turtle Island.
Often it starts with a question about my accent, asking or implying ‘so why are you here?’ I tell them about coming from the UK to work with Christian Peacemaker Teams, and describe our model of operating international violence-reduction teams to support oppressed and threatened communities working nonviolently for peace. Then they ask if I have served overseas and I gently remind them that I am overseas. I list our project sites – Iraqi Kurdistan, Colombia, Palestine and Canada. Then comes the question; ‘So, where is there violence in Canada?’
We start from the beginning.
Canada was never conquered. Although the colonial powers fought various wars over the territory – Britain and France, and later Britain and the US – including indigenous allies; the settlement of Canada was largely based on international treaty between the colonists and indigenous nations.
US history was different largely because they had the military might to ignore the various treaties signed before or after independence. Lacking this power, and depending on allies against the US (notably the Six Nations Confederacy during the War of 1812), generations of Canadian officials have used tricker methods to steal land. These indirect assaults are cloaked in paternalistic and Christian language, claiming an intention to civilise and save. The reality suggests otherwise.
In former generations, the government of Canada used germ warfare, police/military action, starvation, outlawing culture and spirituality and the theft of children to destroy indigenous nations, lands and languages. More recently we see treaty misinterpretation, undermining traditional governments, asserting the prerogative to grant or deny ‘Indian Status’, relocating populations and now trying to reclassify reserve land as ‘fee simple’ – making it a commodity to be traded on the open market instead of the inalienable possession of indigenous collectives.
Unable to disregard treaties and steal land directly, officials of the colonial state did it piecemeal, attempting to assimilate or eradicate the indigenous population, with the ultimate goal of eradicating the treaties by removing the indigenous nation signatories and leaving the settler nation as the sole possessor of the land.
Many Canadians do not know this history. They may know some of the critical events involving indigenous and settler peoples. There is a good chance that they will know something about the Indian Residential School system; church-run and government-funded prisons for children taken from indigenous nations in an attempt to destroy native languages and customs. Canadians might know about the widespread physical and sexual abuse in these ‘schools’, but are unlikely to name them as part of the colonial assimilation system nor their purpose of assimilating land by removing its original occupants. As with any country with a genocidal history, the sheer horror of the truth sends people scrambling for scapegoats; individuals who can take the blame for a crime committed by an entire nation – pedophile ministers, brutal police, and racist administrators.
A spirituality of decolonisation insists we look much deeper.
What is a spirituality of decolonisation? It is a way of seeing and being that disentangles creation from the poisonous mess we call colonialism – the culture of domination that subjects indigenous communities, lands, cultures and bodies to the control of settler institutions. An example of practical decolonisation would be indigenous communities having their title to their land recognised and respected by settler states. This has proved very difficult. A spiritual analysis helps us to understand what is at work. Recognising the pernicious spirit of colonialism, empire, and domination, we pray to be inspired with ways to exorcise it from our lives, institutions and relations, and to engage with the spirit of decolonisation.
Christian Peacemaker Teams started out with a clear mandate against warfare, violence and militarism. From the first days we engaged in this as a spiritual struggle as well as a desperately practical, material, physical reality. The victims of militarism demand no less a total commitment to transforming our world, and we CPTers, often from North America or Europe, were often the beneficiaries of this militarism. Coming to terms with our complicity in colonialism within North America itself took longer; and really started to come into form when CPT began to be invited as nonviolent accompaniment to indigenous direct action against destructive resource extraction projects.
During the long days and cold nights blocking logging trucks or mining operations, CPTers learned something of their colonial history from the perspective of their indigenous hosts. We began to see how our own scriptures, culture, and religious practice were complicit. Not just in the simple way in which ‘go to all nations and make disciples’ supported and protected empire-building, but in defining the God’s created world as property; resources to be plundered to fuel economies of growth and myths of progress.
Discovering the counter-imperial narratives of Christianity is the beginning of creating a spirituality of decolonisation, but it is essential to grapple with the Biblical passages and religious traditions that defend empire. Can we embrace the liberation story of Exodus without grappling with the blood-soaked story of the Canaanite genocide?
I lied when I said ‘we start from the beginning’. This story didn’t start with European settlement, but with thousands of years of the histories of the nations of Turtle Island, and with the philosophical conceit that the world could be conquered and that Christians had the right and duty to unite all peoples by force, if necessary.
My response to that, as a member of CPT, is to support indigenous justice and peacemaking initiatives, whether in direct action on the land against destructive resource extraction like logging or fracking without community consent, or in community forums for truth and reconciliation. In our activity we try to subvert colonial relationships. We bring settler folk to learn, to serve, but only at the invitation of indigenous partners. We host these partners when they come to the city to remind politicians (and all those on the land) of their treaty obligations. We question doctrine that supports domination and empire, and celebrate liberation and resurrection where it occurs.
I pray that we are animated by a spirit of decolonisation.