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Canada 150 and Calling your Community into Reconciliation

This is an excerpt of a message preached by Mike Hogeterp, Director of the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue, at Calvin CRC in Ottawa on Aboriginal Sunday 2016. The message was based on Genesis 12:1-4 and Psalm 25. What do the biblical calls to hospitality and reconciled relationships mean for your church’s relationships with local Indigenous peoples? Learn more here about the Canada 150 Preaching Challenge and acknowledging Indigenous territory as a step of reconciliation.

....You might remember that I started this meditation with an acknowledgement that we are meeting on unceded Algonquin Territory. This territory acknowledgement is becoming a common practice here in Ottawa and around the country and it is part of honouring the hidden Indigenous heritage of this place called Canada. Doing this basic time-honoured Indigenous protocol of acknowledging territory can be a simple, humble, and symbolic gesture in an era of reconciliation. It’s a way of saying: we are guests here.

At 150 we know that Canada has been a great blessing to many of us who sit here – and it’s worthy of celebration. However, for Indigenous people like our Algonquin hosts, and for First Nation, Métis, and Inuit peoples from coast to coast to coast, that 150 years includes difficult stories of oppression and assimilation – racism and deep injustice really. So celebrating the good of 150 shouldn’t lead to burying and ignoring the darker side of our history. And much of that darker side is coloured by the fact that as settlers, both historically and today, whether consciously or unconsciously, we’ve not been very good guests of our Indigenous hosts.

Celebrating the good of 150 shouldn’t lead to burying and ignoring the darker side of our history.

So here’s a little history lesson:

Starting 500 years ago, Indigenous people welcomed settlers, and helped them get established here – Cartier and Champlain, the fellas who “discovered” this part of the world, never would have survived without them. Indigenous people were hosts and shared the good gifts of the land with us settlers. Over time this sharing led to formal treaties. In 1613 the first formal treaty was signed near Albany New York: the Tawagonshi treaty was between the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois confederacy) and the Dutch. That treaty was one of mutual sharing and non-interference and was based on principles of covenant. This treaty of peace and friendship was also recognized by both parties as a sacred agreement between them, with God as witness. You might say that treaties of peace and friendship were a way for settlers to be good guests here on Turtle Island. Sadly, over time our settler forbearers began to ignore the covenants of peace and friendship, and started to take land using law and force – they behaved as really ungrateful guests. Sad when we consider that these treaties were based on biblical ideas of covenants – often written and signed by Christian believers.

Covenants are a big part of the history of the relationship between God and His children – and covenants are built on trusting relationships. Psalm 25:14 speaks of covenant and intimacy with God. In the NIV we read: “The LORD confides in those who fear him.” Another version reads: “The secret of the LORD is for those who fear Him.” And finally as we read it this morning: “The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes his covenant known to them.” I love this concept of friendship with God – it’s sacred and intimate.

I love this concept of friendship with God – it’s sacred and intimate.

These words: confide, secret, friendship with those who fear the Covenant God…Biblical scholars say that these intimate words are meant to paint a picture of sitting together, maybe like a circle of friends having a discussion. It’s a picture of intimacy between God and those who fear him – in that intimacy with God we learn and know his covenant promises. Commentaries also say that the friendship with God here in Psalm 25 is similar to the relationship between God and Abraham that we read about in Genesis.

When we are intimate friends and guests of God we know his covenant and respect God’s image bearers – all of them. John Calvin’s commentary on Genesis talks about the sacred reality that humans are created in God’s image. In his reflections on Genesis 9:6, Calvin says: “No one can be injurious to his brother without wounding God himself.” Or in the language of today: if I hurt my fellow human being I also hurt God. In the history of Canada – before and after confederation – the very humanity of Indigenous people was questioned – they’ve been called savages in need of “civilization” and have been subject to humiliation, oppression, and deep hurts. This oppression has been called cultural genocide by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. God, the creator of Indigenous peoples, is hurt when they’ve been hurt. This makes it clear that injustice has deeply spiritual implications. Good guests don’t hurt their friends and hosts or ignore agreements with them – and when we fail as guests, relationships are strained and injustice results.

“No one can be injurious to his brother without wounding God himself.” -John Calvin

But there’s also good news: the spiritual work of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation is happening in Canada. It’s the messy, painful, and beautiful process that we saw in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – and its most beautiful examples are in the stories of Indigenous people themselves. Here is one story:

Jillian Harris is a friend of mine. She is a survivor of St. Mary’s Indian Residential School (Mission B.C.); a former chief of Penelakut First Nation, a Christian theologian, and a human rights defender. I heard Jill’s survivor story at her public testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission National Event in Vancouver. Jill’s truth-telling was very hard to hear: horrific abuse and paralyzing shame and fear in her home community left a mark on her. She spoke of her long-term feelings of inferiority as a “little girl who was afraid of the world.” She also spoke of her journey to wholeness with the support of Indigenous elders and Christian mentors. Jillian closed her testimony with these powerful words to the person who abused her at St. Mary’s:

“I’m sure you must be suffering as much as me.…I’ve carried this pain for a very long time now. But this is the day that I cut off my bondage to you….I hope that you would also free yourself and ask for forgiveness from the Creator.”

Jill’s invitation to freedom and forgiveness that day was a moment of truth and beauty that moved me beyond words. Her courage to forgive shows that renewed and reconciled relationships are possible even after a dark history.

So what is it to be a good guests and friends of our Indigenous hosts as we reflect on our full history and celebrate Canada 150?

In this journey, I know that you will experience rich and joyful change in deepened relationships with neighbours and God the Creator.

There are a whole bunch of wonderful opportunities to learn about being a guest even this week right here in Ottawa. On National Aboriginal Day (June 21), there are celebrations at Major’s Hill Park. And, next weekend there is a powwow at Vincent Massey Park. Powwows are celebrations of Indigenous culture and are places of welcome to any and all guests. Go, experience, and enjoy being a guest. If you are interested in learning further, you can go to cultural centres in Kitigan Zibi or Golden Lake, or check out the programs at Wabano or Odawa, some Indigenous friendship centres here in town. Who knows what these little steps might amount to for you?

In a few minutes we’ll respond in song – the words talk about following God in unfamiliar places: “Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?” I could say a lot more about the citizenship, anti-racism, and cross-cultural mission implications of being a good guest, but then we’d be here a good while longer….so maybe another time. So for now, friends of God, I simply encourage you to be a good guest by humbly seeking justice and reconciliation with Indigenous image bearers of God by hearing and honouring their stories and building relationships with them. On the path of reconciling relationships, we receive and reflect the Good News. In this journey, I know that you will experience rich and joyful change in deepened relationships with neighbours and God the Creator. So, go where you don’t know and never be the same.

Could territory acknowledgement and the Canada 150 Preaching Challenge be a helpful next step for your congregation? Learn more here.  

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