Doctrine of Discovery/Vision of Reconciliation
2016 06 05 – Bathurst United Church sermon, before a congregational meeting responding to the TRC Calls to Action.
We ended the service with a commissioning based on the Ecumenical Statement on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This reading was prepared by Ken McEvoy who served as worship leader and kindly made the texts available:
Full version; Short Version
Scripture: Revelation 22:1-12 (NRSV)
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
I was asked to speak about the Doctrine of Discovery. While I could give a lengthy workshop on its history and legality, I thought it was more appropriate to talk about the spirituality of the Doctrine of Discovery. Where does it come from? Where in our scriptures? And what are the resources within our own religious tradition to combat it?
Good morning, greetings from Toronto United Mennonite Church, and from the Christian Peacemaker Teams. I have had the honour of serving with the Indigenous Peoples Solidarity project for the last six years, primarily here in Toronto, but working across Turtle Island with many different Indigenous Nations engaged in the resistance to a colonial system that threatens their lands, waters, lives and livelihoods, and their human rights, their inherent Indigenous rights, and their constitutionally protected treaty rights.
I come to you from a month of work with Grassy Narrows First Nation; first co-leading a delegation of international peacemakers to learn about their ongoing nonviolent struggle against the profit-driven destruction of their land, and more recently here in Toronto during the River Run. If you didn’t hear about the River Run, I can summarize it easily: 40 years ago, the paper industry dumped tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River. It made the fish toxic, poisonous to eat over a lifetime, and Grassy Narrows residents have repeatedly come to Toronto to demand action to compensate their losses, to protect other watersheds, and to clean up their river.
When we were brainstorming slogans for this year’s River Run we had a hard time. This is the fourth River Run, and it is hard to think of fresh slogans. Our concern was that anyone seeing the march would easily identify that it was about water, but not know the specific issue. They would probably approve – who could disapprove of clean water? – but would approve without a second thought – the equivalent of hitting ‘like’ as you scroll past a news article on Facebook without stopping to read it or contemplate its significance. We decide to choose three slogans. One would be generic and positive, about water. Another would be name mercury pollution as the problem, and be more negative. And the last would specifically name Grassy Narrows.
Water = Life. Mercury = Poison. #FreeGrassy.
It is lamentable that there are so many other specific issues that a march about water through downtown Toronto could be addressing. It was necessary for us to be specific about the problem – mercury pollution of Grassy Narrows First Nation. The province has the ability to clean up the river, and we want them to take action. But it is hard to name our overall vision.
If the river gets cleaned up, and the fish are safe to eat once more, there are still generations of Anishinabek with physical symptoms of Mercury Poisoning, generations whose diet has reduced or eliminated fish and whose lifestyle has little to no fishing. Cleaning the mercury from the river will not make the reserve’s drinking water safe from the other contaminants found last August. And there is the spectre of clear-cut logging – halted for 14 years but always with the threat of it returning.
Water = Life. Mercury = Poison. #FreeGrassy.
These slogans tell us the immediate problem and our press releases share our immediate solution. But the vision for a better future is in the enigmatic phrase ‘Free Grassy’. Free Grassy from what?
My goal as a Christian settler engaged in solidarity work is something we call ‘reconciliation’. The goal of people in Grassy Narrows is something they call ‘life’, which will be fully possible when justice is established. They want to be able to eat fish from their river without fear. They want what they already have, only better, free of complication and interference.
What is it I want? Well, I want what Grassy wants, but not because I want to go fishing. My goals are based in some more abstract concepts like Justice, Reconciliation, Right Relations. Meanwhile, Grassy is working at establishing survival. In survival mode, all you can do is focus on the here-and-now. You might believe that something better is possible, but it’s unreasonable to expect people in survival mode to design a comprehensive campaign to get us there.
I was drawn to our scripture text because of the beautiful and powerful vision of water within the heavenly city. It is a perfected community, a unity of urban and rural, and it is the culmination of the strife and trial throughout the Book of Revelation, a conclusion appearing from heaven in one of the many twists in expectations. This is the vision of completion and restoration that our scripture offers.
But it is not our vision. It is not written to us. The Book of Revelation is written to the early Christians in exile and under threat, cut off from their historic roots and established places, and tempted on all sides to abandon their identity and slide back into the disparate nations they came from. They were in survival mode, focusing on the here-and-now.
Revelation has some amazing promises for the world to come, but is somewhat short on what you might call ‘actionable items’. It’s not a roadmap to anywhere – it’s prophesy in the apocalyptic mode, which primarily encourages those undergoing immediate crisis and trial to persevere, using fantastic, cryptic symbolism to remind them that they are part of a larger story, that their present suffering has meaning and eternal significance.
Are we in survival mode? Do we read Revelation in the same way as the first audience?
We do have our own exile stories, and our own areas of trauma and crisis, both corporately and individually. But as first-world church-goers in the 21st century, our experiences are worlds apart from the seven churches that Saint John sent his Revelation to. We inherit this vision, and we picture success using the same images, but we are not a people in exile, and we are not the people our texts are written to.
No wonder that some of it seems to conflict with our beliefs. Revelation says: “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.” It says that the time is short and the options are few. We expect, on the other hand, to confront the evildoer, to bathe the filthy, to ally with the righteous and honour the holy. How do we experience the cognitive dissonance caused by claiming narratives written to other people as ‘our story’? And how can we deal with it? I see several options:
1) Interpret the text as if it was written to us
This has proved very popular and sells lots of books. It suggests that we have wealth because God has blessed us, and any problems we endure are the result of personal sin. It is a posture of spiritual victory that disregards the material reality of the individual or the community. Ideas like the Doctrine of Discovery flourish in this environment, as the inherent rights of other Nations are dismissed by the power of our narrative.
2) Dispose of the text
Also popular, and somewhat simpler than trying to reinterpret it. Abandoning the Bible as a symbol of religious control can be a liberating act, but does not dismantle the structure of control itself. People dropping the Bible can still hold on to their internalized lessons of shame or domination or greed.
3) Relocate to the margins
Acknowledging that our faith history and story cannot be fully understood within the walls of a church, we might try to read our scriptures from the perspective of those to whom they were written. It means seeking out the margins – whether that is a geographical place, a social location, or some other way of being in the world that has a correspondence with the persecuted people of God.
There are two ways of doing this. The first is to colonize the margins – to go out into all the world and preach the gospel among those who are sick, suffering and dying, who are weak and in need, and interpret the scriptures to them, and therefore yourself. To go and be Jesus to the world. I call this Imperial Theology, because it does not challenge Christian supremacy patterns.
The second way is hardest. It requires listening for what the good news is, out in the margins. It means to be convicted, to be found guilty and complicit, and responsible. In this model you go with your vulnerability, gifts and pain, and participate in the world as a pilgrim. Instead of being Jesus to the world, you seek the face of Jesus among the world – Jesus crucified and Jesus risen. This is Liberation Theology.
I began my Christian journey amongst a church that felt that justice was an exclusively secular concern. I was convicted when I was challenged to take Jesus’s words seriously, which for the first time meant believing that He is indeed fully human, talking to real people, and later remembered by them. I saw that Jesus had a concern for justice, and that the Christian Church had a vision for peacemaking, challenging injustice and promoting reconciliation.
When I began to join activist efforts against nuclear weapons in the UK, I found myself very much on the margins. I worked with atheists and queers, punks and vegans and communists. I had not been prepared for this experience by my Christian upbringing… thank goodness! Perhaps it would be better to say that I quietly discarded the few ways that my upbringing had taught me to engage those who were different – befriend, convert or condemn, move on. It was not until later that I realized what a risk these people had taken in welcoming me in, and how I was freed to engage my own Christian tradition as a result of the grace that they extended to me.
My own healing was made possible, but I had not gone looking for it. I was trying to follow the mission of Jesus more closely, trying to be more like Jesus, and I met these people who were ready to treat me with love and compassion and acceptance even though I held an identity that saw them as lesser and compromised. I was transformed by this relationship.
Relationships are where you discern a vision, and where you work at each step of that vision.
The slogans we came up with for the River Run give us a specific goal for this moment in time and point to a less-defined vision or future goal. Today’s task is simple – ‘clean up the mercury poisoning’. When that is accomplished, we will have the same vision ‘Free Grassy’ but a new immediate goal. If we were to continue marching with the same slogans after the river is cleaned of mercury, we would be failing to do the work in front of us.
The immediate task of the original hearers of Revelation is ‘stay alive, keep the faith’. That is not the message to me, and I should not read it as if it were written to me. The vision of Revelation is broadly the same for me, but my part in bringing about that vision is something different, something dynamic and new.
Discerning what the work for today is depends on relationships. The relationships that CPT builds with its partners around the world both represent the progress we are making in our common quest for justice and reconciliation, and they are the site for further progress. This leads me to the concept that I would like to close with, something we call “reconciliation on the land”.
When I began to work with Indigenous Nations on land defence through Christian Peacemaker Teams, I realised I was wearing a hat that many had worn before me, acting as allies and building relationships between Christian and Settler communities and the Indigenous Nations. As I came to understand how much bad history I had inherited as a Settler Christian, I also came to understand the tremendous grace being extended to me. I was given hints of wisdom to tell me how I could be a Settler and act as an ally. I began to learn how my own religion had impacted the Anishinabek, and how the Anishinabek could teach me about parts of my religion that the church could not.
These conversations can happen in workshops, or you can read them in books. But the process of forming conclusions is done in relationships. CPT and Indigenous Land Defenders build these relationships, both as a method of working together, and as a consequence of working together. When we come together in the common defence of land that we all love, then we are changed. We are required to come to terms with the things in our culture, law, religion, language and history that create abusive and controlling colonial power. When the water is restored and protected, and human rights are respected, and our campaign is over, we are not the same, and we have the opportunity to build lasting relationships through working together towards ‘reconciliation on the land’.
As a church, the responsibility for creating a vision of reconciliation and decolonization with our Indigenous neighbours falls on us, not on them. It is not fair to put that burden onto Nations in survival mode. But we cannot legitimately form that vision of reconciliation and decolonization without building relationships, which we do through the common struggle for justice. Those relationships of trust will direct our efforts in the future.
I hope that we will soon not need the slogans ‘Water = Life’ and ‘Mercury = Poison’. I know that we will need other slogans, other goals, as we continue to work towards our vision of reconciliation, and continue to say #FreeGrassy.
Prayers of the People
Let us gather ourselves to be present here and now and join our hearts and minds as we offer praise and thanks and pray for mercy, grace, wisdom, hope and new life.
Creator God, Holy Friend,
We are humbled in gratitude for this amazing gift of your creation, and for the teachings we have inherited from Indigenous brothers and sisters that reconnect us in relationship to the land, water, sky and creatures of all kinds. The wisdom of your creation’s balance and harmony is astounding, and we pray that such wisdom will both unite and enliven us even more, given that we are all latecomers to this amazing Earth.
ALL: Creator God, in thanksgiving inspire us. With your Spirit nurture an attitude of gratitude for all your gifts, and for the wisdom of the Indigenous perspective toward creation.
Creator God, Holy Friend,
We are humbled in repentance for the arrogance of Western European Churches that turned things around in history, their leaders making your image in theirs rather than their image in yours. We acknowledge that this distorted image was used to dehumanize others, to conquer nations, and to forcefully expropriate land and resources in your name.
ALL: Creator God, in your mercy forgive us. With your Spirit lead us to see your face in all humanity, and your spirit of love in all of creation.
Creator God, Holy Friend,
We are humbled in lament and sorrow for our churches coming to this land armed with the Doctrines of Discovery to confiscate land and to annihilate and dehumanize our Indigenous hosts. We ask that you assist us in building right relations of equal rights and respect and to be responsible keepers of the lands and waters.
ALL: Creator God, in your grace transform us. With your Spirit guide us in living out right relations with all people based on respect and equal rights.
Creator God, Holy Friend,
We are humbled in seeking healing for our Churches as we move from a legacy of colonization and domination to creating a new history built on right relations and gracious mutual habitation on these lands. For the harm committed in your name against all the First peoples of the land we are sorry. Despite inflicting such pain, we are aware of so much grace returned toward we who are settlers, as well as the great resilience among Indigenous peoples themselves, as we share the hope of reconciliation.
ALL: Creator God, in your wisdom heal us. With your Spirit heal us and strengthen us to be agents of wholeness and wellness with all nations and peoples.
Creator God, Holy Friend,
We are humbled in our need for encouragement within the Christian Churches who repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, that our repentance goes beyond words to actions of solidarity and justice. For this we ask for your mercy and wisdom and courage, both to change all doctrines that promote hate and violence by our presumed superiority, and to take up the way of humility, compassion, and caring.
ALL: Creator God, in your hope give us courage. With your Spirit may we change the churches to live in harmony with all creation and be agents of care for all humanity.
Creator God, Holy Friend,
We are humbled as we pray for ourselves and for all Christian Churches around the world, that we may faithfully follow the life of Jesus, the Nazarene who showed us the good path of justice, reconciliation and peace-building. It is the way of life he represented, based on providing for the common good and the sharing of all your Earth’s resources, that will enable us, together, to re-create your loving and compassionate reign on earth.
ALL: Creator God, in your love give us faith and new life. With your Spirit help us to be co-creators of a world of justice and peace. Amen.