Reconciliation on the Land


Reconciliation on the Land
2016 04 03 – Sermon/Presentation at Mannheim Mennonite Church
Scripture: 1 Kings 21:1-16 – [The theft of] Naboth’s Vineyard
Note that the headings in bold below are not intended to be read aloud. This is based off my prepared notes; when it came to actually offering the sermon I went off topic and rather considerably over-time…
Listen to the sermon here

On Friday I heard a news report that 2/3 of Indigenous Canadians call themselves Christians. An interesting fact, in and of itself. But the focus of the article was on how 2/3 of Indigenous Canadians still call themselves Christians, despite the legacy of the Residential Schools.

Why would so many Indigenous people continue to participate in a religion that was forced upon their parents and grandparents by the alliance of church and state? A religion that was wielded as one of the tools to ‘civilise’ them away from their reliance on the land and on their cultural traditions. So, why do so many continue to engage with Christianity?

It is a surprisingly difficult question. Are they so colonized that they don’t understand the damage that enforced religion has done? Has the colonial process been so successful at wiping out Indigenous knowledge traditions that all they have left is Christianity? Is Christianity simply a better religion?

And what happens when the Christianity of Indigenous people takes on the worst elements of Christianity in our own culture – espousing Christian Supremacy, violence, racism, oppression of queer people, a desire for capitalist exploitation of the land and water… To those of us Christians who engage with Indigenous people as allies, engaged in decolonization, it can take us to difficult, disturbing, scary places.

Reconciliation work is difficult. It is scary and messy. It changes you.

Since 2010 I have worked with the Indigenous Peoples Solidarity team of CPT. In that time I have learned Christian – Indigenous work can really deepen my understanding of the Gospel. I have learned that Indigenous people are not passive recipients of the Gospel, but they are as involved in shaping it and expressing it as anyone else. This can be very threatening, and it can be very freeing.

I want to look at the story of Naboth’s Vineyard and explore it from what I call an Indigenous Guest Perspective. I am not Indigenous, I do not have an Indigenous perspective (if we could define that). But I have done theological work in the context of Indigenous solidarity for some years and I have been gifted with wisdom and perspective of Indigenous people, Traditional, secular and Christian. So I call this an Indigenous Guest Perspective.

What would another perspective be? Well, I am drawing on my own past and thinking about how I would have read this story before I joined Christian Peacemaker Teams and began solidarity work. At that time my only way to understand Naboth’s Vineyard was a simple story of sin. Ahab’s sin – he is the protagonist, and it is his sin that is at issue. Naboth is an obstacle, Jezebel tempts and enables his sin, later on Elijah comes against him.

It is not a terribly interesting tale for 21st Century Settler Christians. Just one of many stories where the greed and sin of an individual brings punishment. But this is a significant story in Liberation theology: to readers who have experienced theft of land, victimization and violence. In a similar way, from my Indigenous-guest perspective, I read this differently today than I did six years ago. I am going to try to share some of that perspective with you, and I hope you will find it bringing this ancient story into new relevance.

I want to look at this story with four words in mind: Land, Law, Violence, Power. Beginning with land.

Whenever the Bible text has someone reporting the speech of another, look for inconsistencies. Faithfulness or lack of it in reporting speech is very significant. See how Ahab reports Naboth’s words inaccurately. It gives us a clue to his error, his sin.

Naboth’s pact with his ancestors is part of his identity. It is inconceivable to sell this land, to have it turned into a royal pleasure garden instead of a functioning vineyard.

Stories from Palestine about attacks on olive groves. When a mature olive tree is destroyed it takes generations for it to be rooted and fruitful again.

His land is not his possession, but is in his care. And Ahab should know this. He is meant to be reading the law and re-writing it so he learns it. Naboth’s understanding of the land is that it is the possession of a people, not a person. Under the Jubilee law it cannot be sold permanently, because it would revert back to the owner in the year of Jubilee.

Indigenous nations today suffer from a conception of land imposed upon them and their territory. This idea is that Land is a possession that can be bought and sold. This idea is that they sold their land to the Crown. This is not a correct interpretation of the treaties. It is how the Government of Canada choses to interpret the treaties.

So that takes us into the law. You may have heard of the concept of Terra Nullius. If the land is empty, it can be claimed. If the land is not being used, it can be used. This is a concept explorers use to justify resource extraction and settlement.

In Turtle Island, the Europeans used Terra Nullius to justify their own settlement. They decided that the land was not being used by civilized people, for civilized purposes. The people fed themselves with hunting and gathering, instead of farming. They did not mine or clearcut the forests or build hydroelectric dams or railways. Therefore the European Christians believed that they had the right to take the land away, since they would use it better.

And that’s what Ahab did. He decided that his vision for the land was better than the vision that Naboth was part of. When he could not get his way he was angry and sulky and miserable. It was not fair for him, because Naboth would not do what Ahab wanted him to. He would not fall in line. Naboth stayed responsible to the greater law of the land – the law of Moses.

And it is by twisting the law that Jezebel brings Violence against him.

The plot that she creates is more subtle and complex than it appears. First, she uses the king’s seal to send a message. She invokes his power and sends a word to the elders and leaders to call a fast.

The first time I read this passage I read that as ‘feast’ and pictured Naboth being wined and dined, tricked into bad company, and framed. But instead, this is a holy fast, a community event. And by Jezebel’s instruction, Naboth is accused, convicted and executed.

The violence here is done by the community that he is a part of. It is what we might call ‘lateral violence’. And like a lot of lateral violence, it is prompted by the outside forces that benefit from it. None of the elders or leaders or the disreputable people they hire really benefit from Naboth’s death. But Jezebel and Ahab do.

First Nations communities often have high rates of lateral violence. It is exacerbated by drugs and alcohol, unemployment and racism, the wounded culture and deep generational traumas. This lateral violence is working the same way it works everywhere in the world – communities under tremendous pressure from the outside begin to fracture on the inside. This is colonialism at work, colonialism working exactly as it is supposed to.

There is almost no reason for the Government of Canada to fix these problems. As long as First Nations are inhospitable places; people will want to leave them, and come to the cities and be unskilled labourers, leaving the land vacant for resource extraction.

I don’t believe that Justin Trudeau is writing emails to his cabinet to get them to keep reserve conditions so pitiful as to make First Nation communities unsustainable. But we have the letters of previous Prime Minsters, Lords and Generals advising spreading smallpox, confining populations, removing children, withholding rations until First Nations would be compliant, tamed. Sometimes there is nice rhetoric about civilizing or saving, other times there is spite. This basic idea was at the heart of Indian Affairs for generations. Make Indigenous peoples wards of the state, wean them off their tribal identities and traditional land use, and ensure that when the dust settles, Canada is the only viable state and inherits the land.

Just like Ahab “inherits” the land after Naboth dies, and his hands are clean.

He offered a fair price and it was turned down

He has a better use for the land and therefore is the logical person to take it over

He himself did no violence. The violence was done by Naboth’s own community.

But the Biblical text makes it clear where and how this violence exists – in the power structures. And we cannot read this story and believe that Ahab was justified or Jezebel was doing the right thing.

CPT seeks to bring the whole church into this story. Firstly to help us see the blatant violence at work in Canadian history and contemporary culture. Secondly to call the church into repentance and action for reconciliation.

Reconciliation on the Land

CPT’s model is to work at the invitation of Indigenous communities engaged in nonviolent action to assert their rights, especially around land.

Short Hills (this is a rough outline of what I spoke about, if I were to use this sermon again I might choose another Indigenous rights issue)

Dish with one spoon wampum – share the land, a spoon to feed ourselves but no knife so that no violence would be done. Not a place for permanent settlement.

50 years ago a surviving forested area was declared a provincial park.

No wolves, too many deer. Deer culls take a lot of surveys & consultations. OMNR called in Haudenosaunee.

When two communities come together to protect the land that they share and that they love, they spend time together. I call this ‘blockade time’ – sitting around the fire on cold nights and talking. During that time, people explore their motivations and their histories and their perspectives.

Campaigns go on, they develop, and go through different phases. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, usually we achieve a stalemate, which is good enough. But the connections we have made between our communities persist. Those bonds of friendship are still there. We have heard stories we cannot forget. We have shared our own.

Creating partnerships to transform violence and oppression

I want the Christian Church to get this vision. To understand that we can activate reconciliation through land-based solidarity. That invitation is there – and groups like CPT have been working on cultivating it for a long time. This is not the only part of reconciliation. But it is literally a place to start.

This is a process that does not just protect the land, and does not just make Indigenous people be happy with Christian Settlers, but it changes who we are. This is good because the heart of the Christian faith is the possibility of transformation.

I ask your church to send members on CPT delegations to learn more, to develop relationships and skills and perspectives.

I would like members of your church to come to Toronto for the June 2 River Run.


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