“Sometimes Native people want to be white. Tell them that they’re made in God’s image.” That’s what an Indigenous elder told a friend of mine when she asked what she should tell Church people about Indigenous peoples. Violet, an elder among the Carrier people of northern British Columbia, is naming and challenging the internalized racism faced by Indigenous peoples across North America today. When the image of God is diminished in one it is diminished in all of us – and life and shalom are affected.
Since relationships between Indigenous peoples and settlers (people like me) began to lose their mooring to the relationships of mutual respect expressed in treaties, Indigenous peoples and communities have suffered greatly. Colonization has caused deep social ills in Indigenous communities in both the US and Canada—lack of access to safe water, high incarceration rates, denigration and outlawing of cultural practices, low educational achievement, high rates of violence against Indigenous people.
One of the foundations of colonialism is the presumption of European superiority that was first articulated in the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (DoCD), a set of official declarations made by popes in the late 15th Century. These papal declarations cleared the way for the colonization of the “New World” and gave Christian European rulers legal permission to claim the land of non-Christian non-Europeans and to rule over the people it called “pagans and savages”. This dehumanization denied the fullness of the imago Dei (image of God) in Indigenous Peoples. This racist assumption of European superiority is a foundation of 500 years of colonial oppression of Indigenous peoples and shows a wide gap between how we talk about imago Dei and how we treat our fellow human beings. In her own way, Violet is working against this legacy of systemic racism in her call to honour the image of God in Indigenous people. This is profound theology from the margins. In Violet’s expression of truth we can see the footprints of the DoCD, a doctrine that considers certain peoples and cultures to be inferior. Imago Dei runs counter to the assumptions of superiority in the DoCD.
Before you write off these dusty papal bulls as ancient history without current impact, let’s remember that John Calvin lived in the early 16th century, in the same era as the Popes who first pronounced the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. Surely we would not say that Calvin’s impact is no longer felt in our churches. Good theology matters. Skewed theology that denies the image of God in a group of people can have far-reaching, dangerous impacts, especially when it becomes a foundation or a set of assumptions that we are not even fully aware of. The DoCD moved far beyond our common churchy understanding of doctrine and permeated law, land acquisition, and public policy in North America. It isn’t simply an obscure set of Catholic precepts. It is a broad, and misunderstood colonial-imperial legacy with lingering effects. The DoCD is not just in the past. Justice Murray Sinclair, Ojibway leader and Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, had this to say:
To those of you who would say, ‘It’s in the past. Why don’t they just get over it?’, I would say this: we - and you - are not out of the past yet. Our families were broken apart, and must be rebuilt. Our relationships have been damaged and must be restored. Our spirits have been stolen and must be returned. Our love for life was turned into fear and we must work together now to learn to trust once again.
Since the early days of colonization the church played a role in justifying oppression. In specific cases, such as residential schools, churches were agents of assimilation and “civilization”-- forming the colonized in the image of Europeans. In the residential schools, churches worked with government to take away language and culture from generations of Indigenous children, and they did so from a conviction that it was a legitimate Christian mission. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has now termed the Indian residential schools a cultural genocide. As the Holocaust taught us, the dehumanization of a people group results in attempted genocide. The systemic racism rooted in the DoCD cannot be allowed to continue to convince us that some lives matter more than others.
Repentance requires a recognition and a turning from the ways in which this history has hurt us all. Colonizer and colonized, it has separated us from each other. This is far from the will of God. In this turning towards shalom the church can come to recognize that it has been missing something: the voices and perspectives of Indigenous people and other marginalized peoples have not been fully heard in the life of the church or society at large. The contributions of these precious children of God will enrich our collective lives in a wide range of ways. In this repentance, as we learn to share life more fully with all of our neighbours, we cannot deny or change the past of our broken relationships. However, renewing and reconciling relationships give us the opportunity to step away from the wounds of colonialism towards mutual healing and justice.
In June, the Doctrine of Christian Discovery taskforce will report to Synod 2017. This is an opportunity to examine our history, repent of the sin of racism toward Indigenous peoples, and begin together to work towards a better future, one in which we are all enriched by restored relationships and the valuing of all our diverse gifts.
All people are indeed image-bearers—and respecting the imago Dei in Indigenous peoples requires commitment. The fact that injustices persist in Indigenous communities in both the US and Canada indicates that the journey of justice and reconciliation will be long. The unjust legacy of colonialism is related, in part, to Euro-superior idolatry in the church, and persists because of the indifference – wilful or not – of settlers1 and their governments. Therefore, out of an interest in the integrity of apologies and confessions, the church must not be silent or fearful in the face of the contemporary injustices of colonialism. Confronting the idolatries of colonialism together, as image bearers of God both Indigenous Peoples and Settlers, is critical to our mutual wholeness and the integrity of the Church. It’s about LIFE, joy and the wholeness of shalom.
1“Settler” is a term that describes anyone who is not Indigenous to North America, anyone whose ancestors arrived in Canada during or after colonization. It includes more recently landed immigrants—we are all Canadian, and this history belongs to all of us.
This is the 18th post in our "What Being Pro-Life Means to Me" series! What does being pro-life mean to you? Over this fall, we have heard various writers respond to that question. Learn more and subscribe for weekly email updates or see past posts in the series here.
[Image: Joseph Visser Photography, with permission]