I do not know if you feel the throbbing of the land in your chest … you may not feel the spiritual anguish as I see the earth ravaged… but you can no longer escape my fate as the soil turns barren and the rivers poison. (Grand Chief John Kelly, 1977) The Comeback, 2014, 220
The legacy of European style governments and white, Western mission toward First Nation peoples is well known. One could wish it were only a memory, but colonial and paternalistic attitudes still exist, particularly within government policy and practice. John Ralston Saul argues in The Comeback that Canada’s government is colonial and racist, while the majority of Canada’s people are not. I wish this were less obvious.
Saul also argues that this experiment in pluralism and cooperation we call Canada would never have been possible without the generosity of spirit of our FN peoples. He argues that something of the way they see and engage with the world was agreeable to many of the first European settlers – particularly the French — and made this pluralist and democratic experiment possible. We genuinely learned from and embraced something of aboriginal generosity and humility, moving beyond the competitive and possessive self-interest that characterize Western cultures.
Saul’s claim is fascinating because it’s about more than land. I’m not a social historian, but it is clear that FN peoples readily extend the privilege of family to strangers in a way that white Westerners do not. They are an enormously generous people. The boundaries of family are more porous and for our aboriginal peoples.
It appears that, as the years go by, the circle of the Ojibway gets bigger and bigger. Canadians of all colors are entering that circle. You might feel that you have roots somewhere else, but in reality, you are right here with us. I do not know if you feel the throbbing of the land in your chest … you may not feel the spiritual anguish as I see the earth ravaged… but you can no longer escape my fate as the soil turns barren and the rivers poison. (Grand Chief John Kelly, 1977)
Saul notes that aboriginal thought grasps life and reality as a circle, pays more attention to context, sees humanity as a family, and adheres to a holistic worldview. Western thought is linear and analytic, pulls things apart, and our culture is expressed in Cartesian individualism. The popular claim, the dominant modern reading of the bible, is that the bible best represents the latter. Certainly those in government who claim allegiance to Christian faith and make decisions about land and people seem to justify that argument. And the colonial practices of the Church in the last few generations — not only in North American but worldwide — also appear to support that reading.
But the reality is that both Old and New Testaments were written within an ancient Eastern worldview. Jesus was part of a small, tribal, ethnic minority. There is a basic congruence between an eastern and Hebraic worldview and that of FN people.
While that has largely been obscured by modern lenses (and the hegemony of European theology), it’s a growing testimony. As the center of Christianity shifts to the global south, other (and older) readings are gaining ground. As we move into a post-secular and post-colonial age, we are suddenly discovering that the bible speaks incisively to colonial issues. How could it not, with the Jews and Christians in the first century held under the oppressive domination of a foreign Roman power? Jesus, part of a marginalized culture at the edge of civilization, was crucified by the dominant powers.
And I believe that’s one reason why so many FN peoples, in spite of the oppressive legacy of the colonizing Church, have embraced Christian faith. They have intuited a deeper truth about Jesus that the church has often obscured. If we can retire the white, European Jesus long enough to see the real man, we might find The Comeback has impact we never dreamt possible, and that even Christian faith can offer resources for healing and reconciliation that we did not anticipate.
Bible and Land
When the missionaries came we had the land and they had the bible. When they left,
we had the bible and they had the land. Tribal proverb
It’s a paradox: Christian missionaries and European settlers believed that their ultimate destiny was a spiritual and immaterial location, yet they made every effort to gain control of land and resources. Why? Because the “protestant ethic” demanded they remain industrious and that they “improve” what they found. At the same time, they wanted familiar comforts, and businessmen and nations wanted profits.
At work in theological imagination was a false eschatology, where the kingdom was only future and not present. This failure to live in the future and presence of the kingdom, the New Testament tension, resulted in a failure to embrace a holistic view of creation as God’s continuing playground. Moreover, the belief that the earth would finally be destroyed, rather than renewed as a new creation, offered little motivation to cultivate and conserve the world. “If anyone is in Christ, a new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor. 5:17). God’s plan in Christ is to restore all things. Mission is not the saving of disembodied souls out of creation “but participation with God in the redeeming of whole persons to become fully alive IN creation.” (Ross Hastings, IVP Online Pulpit, Nov. 6, 2012)
Moreover, the legacy of the Enlightenment was abstraction. In Neo-platonic thought there grew the idea of spaceless spirit, breeding the conviction that our embodied relations are to be transcended and left behind. Later both Galileo and then Newton needed to assert the concept of infinite space, where “places were just portions of infinite space and have no value in their own right.”(Hastings) This cleared the way for a supposed “value free” exploration of the world. Place became space, an abstraction, a mere container, and therefore merely a backdrop to action in the world. What occurred in one space could just as well occur in another. We lost the ability to value the particular, and to find God’s activity there. This philosophical frame then became an interpretive grid, a transparent lens that distorted our reading of Scripture.
In the Old Testament there is no … spaceless time. There is rather storied place, that is a place which has meaning because of the history lodged there. Biblical faith cannot be presented simply as an historical movement indifferent to place which could have happened in one setting as well as another, because it is undeniably fixed in this place with this meaning. (Brueggemann, The Land, 185)
But why is “land” almost invisible in the New Testament, yet prominent in the Old? Is this not an indication that the locus of God’s activity has transferred from earth to the spiritual realm? Yet “covenant” is also nearly invisible as a theological category in the NT, and simply assumed. Similarly, the context of a reading like that in Mark 12, the great commandment, was well known by Jesus and the disciples. In Deut. 6 where the great commandment originates, “land” is mentioned twice in the preamble, and five times after the command to love the Lord our God. Our covenant with God is not divorced from the earth or its care, but rather assumed. God gave to Israel a promise of land because God, people and place is the redemptive triangle, the frame in which redemption operates.
Land is a central, if not THE central theme of biblical faith. Biblical faith is a pursuit of historical belonging that includes a sense of destiny derived from such belonging… (Brueggemann, 3-4)
If people and place anchor the redemptive triangle, when the starting point is back in Genesis, in the creation narratives. The Genesis account grounds us in place, with Genesis 1 and 2 offering complementary accounts of God’s work in creation. For historical and cultural reasons, the sixth day, Genesis 1:26-27 has dominated our vision. On this day God makes human beings, and we discover we are made in God’s image, created for a purpose.
God blessed them; and God said to them,
“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth,
and subdue it;
and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky
and over every living thing that moves
on the earth.”
Much of our self-understanding in relation to creation hinges on a word and a phrase. The word is dominion (KJV; NASB “rule”), and the phrase is imago Dei. Both come loaded with the baggage of history and interpretation.
The word for dominion is a strong word. Ellen Davis translates dominion (radah) as, “skilled mastery.” (Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith, American Public Media, 2010). She notes that the word suggests something like a craft or an art in our mastery. Yet human beings are not, in the Genesis account, just a species among species because we alone among all of the creatures are made imago Dei, in the image of God. At times this idea has been distorted and secularized to support domination more than dominion. The current environmental problems we face, what St. Paul describes as the groaning of creation in Romans 8, demonstrate the dangers of domination.
This role of mastery under God is relativized in powerful ways. First, by another mandate given in Genesis 2:15, “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate (shamar) it and keep it.” The word shamar means to keep, protect, preserve, watch, and guard. Often, the word is used to talk about how God cares for humankind, as in Psalm 121.
Exercising skilled mastery falls broadly under what we know as the cultural mandate: to participate with God in his work of creating. This is both a result of our sending, and a fruit of our participation in the life of God (We are “in Christ;” he dwells in us by the Spirit and by the Spirit we live in him – John 17:20-23). As we participate in the life of the Trinity God’s work in caring for the world is expressed through us.
Sadly, a false eschatology and Enlightenment lenses corrupted this reading of Scripture. Our story has been one of domination and conquest. We did not care for the earth or for the First Nations who were here before us. But the voices of First Nations people have long been calling us to account. In a letter to the President of the United States, attributed to Chief Seathl of the Duwamish tribe around 1880, we read:
How can you buy or sell the sky–the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. We do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water . . . Every part of the earth is sacred to my people.
We know that the white man does not understand our ways… The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on… He kidnaps the earth from his children… And to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its Creator.
This sense of connection to the land recalls many voices from the Old Testament. From Mt. Sinai had come these words: “When you come into the land which I shall give you, the land shall keep a sabbath to the LORD” (Lv.25:2). Thus God makes a covenant not only with people, but with the land. The text which follows points up two purposes: a religious one–to witness to God’s ownership; and a humanitarian one–that the poor of the people may eat. Land, Yahweh, and Israel were bound together in covenant. Richard Austin in Hope for the Land wrote that those who manage land are
tempted to create a sabbathless society in which land is never rested, debts are never cancelled, slaves are never released . . .and all of life can be reduced to a smoothly functioning machine. The powerful must resist this temptation, stop managing, and relax in openness to their community; then concerns for equity, justice, and mercy may come to the fore. (Creekside, 1988)
It is thus in remembering who really owns the land – because land is gifted land – that we can rightly order our relationships to land, God, and neighbour. The call of believers is always a call to love rightly – loving God first, and then ordering all other loves in relation to God and the covenant.
God – people – place – that is the redemptive triangle. First Nations people are offering settlers a great gift: recalling us to a way of relationship that is holistic and biblical, to friendship and covenantal partnership under God. They offer us the opportunity to begin again, taking our proper place in creation, with respect for the land and for all living things, giving thanks to the Creator, and conserving and preserving the lands God has gifted so that our children may enjoy them together when we are long gone.