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Liturgy of Reconciliation

K’eegwaadhat diina’olii, shalak nai.

I greet you in the Gwich’in language, one of the Dene family of languages. This is still a greeting that you would find Fort Yukon and other places up north. The first part, “K'eegwaadhat diina’olii” comes from the prayer book: “The Lord be with you.” And that’s still very popular up north. And then “Shalak Nai”, a more traditional greeting—“You are all my relatives.”

I’m very happy to be here and to be a part of this. It’s very nice to be here. Thank you Peter and all of you. It is very encouraging to see this many people here. We have had a great week, those of us who have been involved with this Truth and Reconciliation Commission meetings. It has been a spectacular time, very intense, very moving, but very important. I was so happy to see that we were going to use the first chapter of the Gospel of John today—that gospel is, of course, the gospel for Aboriginal Day in the prayer book.

Recently, I have been preparing for the Indigenous peoples pre-assembly meeting for the World Council of Churches gathering in Busan in the beginning of November. We were praying, some were even fasting as to what kind of message we wanted to bring. There is an urgency about it because many of the Indigenous people around the world are threatened by mining and extractive industries, threatened by the same kind of things we are talking about this week in the TRC, and out of this prayer came the message that we should look at the first chapter of the Gospel of John.

Now I know that to many western Christians that might be a surprise. It is a surprise, because western Christians are so familiar with reading a colonial version of the Bible, that the idea that Scripture could actually be subversive to the economic systems that we live in today is probably a tough thing to grasp. But for Indigenous people it is a very subversive thing and I want to give you at least a flavor of that reading today, as we face this day and the opportunities and challenges it brings.

Many people today, not just Christians, have a growing sense of God’s participation in their life. If you go to an AA meeting you will hear that. If you talk to people in the pews, you will find that many people have a strong sense of God’s personal activity in their life. People will talk about how God has visited them, worked in them, how they have seen God’s hand in their lives. There is a lively and, I would say, growing sense of the personal action of God in people’s lives in our culture. It has replaced the kind of group thinking (and I don’t mean that in a bad way) that used to be involved with church and Christian faith. It is a wonderful thing, it’s a great thing, but it is most often very personal. People can talk in very tangible ways about God’s presence in their lives.

What is interesting is that for many, perhaps even most of the people who can do that, at the same time that our sense of God’s personal  activity in our lives has grown, our sense of God’s activity in the world around us has diminished. So that it is very difficult for us to see God acting in creation and in history, and in the political forces around us. To read Scripture, however, in a subversive Indigenous way is to see and feel God’s presence and power not only in your personal lives, certainly in that way, but also to see God’s presence and power in the world around you. Now, you might say, isn’t that surprising, aren’t we celebrating what could be perceived as an abandonment of the divine presence? Well, yes, but it hasn’t shaken a lively sense of the presence of God in creation.

There was an anthropologist who tried to explain how Alaskan natives looked at the world. And he said, “Imagine yourself in a huge field. As far as the eye can see there is grass up to about your waist and as you are looking at this scene,” he said, “suddenly realize that each blade of grass is a thinking, feeling being,” he said. “Then you will have some sense of the Alaska native’s way of looking at the world.” What this describes is the lively sense of God’s presence, the presence of spirit in creation and history, so that, for so many Indigenous people, the idea is that if spirit was withdrawn from creation, creation would disappear, just poof! be gone. It is spirit that animates matter, as my elders keep on trying to get me to understand, and this sense means that God, the Spirit, is active in life, active in the things around us.

Now, I want you to think for a moment of what we heard about a couple of weeks ago from the United States. We celebrated the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a very important time. Up until that time Martin Luther King and many others had made a strong case for the injustice done to the African Americans in the United States. They had made a strong case and perhaps even a majority of the people had bought that, and understood that. They realized that there was a need for change. What happened in the “I Have a Dream” speech that was so brilliant, so prophetic, was that Martin Luther King unveiled the presence of God in American history and life in such a way that all Americans could understand a future and a history in which everyone had justice, and everyone had a place. They saw that what they were working for was not just justice for African Americans but that they were working for a new America, and they could see that their children and grandchildren had a place in it. But even more importantly, that God had placed the seeds of hope in their beginning. There was an African American man saying to them that God had placed in their beginning, a beginning where he and his people were not even recognized as people, as human, that God had placed the seeds of a future in that very beginning.

I believe that we are at that moment in Canadian life where we may begin to perceive the hand of God that placed in our beginnings a future that up until now none of us has imagined as possible. That future when Indigenous people have justice and what God has always intended for them, but also all Canadians find a way of life that is honourable and good for each of us and for all those who come to be a part of this land. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 is an example of the seeds of hope in our past. If you look at the way the economics of this land has developed, for over 200 years Canadian commerce and industry was completely dependent on Indigenous technological know-how. We know that this is true. It was much later when people begin to compete for land and resources that the kind of racist ideologies that led to things like the Indian Residential schools became a part of the structure of the way Canadians think. In our beginning are the seeds of hope for a better future. A future that is good for all Canadians.

Now, today, you and I are given an opportunity to have front row seats in an historic moment, a moment that you should pay close attention to. There is a man named Robert Schreiter who is an important student of the reconciliation process around the world. There have been over 80 TRC’s across the world, and he has studied most of them. He says that the interesting thing about this is that most people have the expectation that reconciliation begins when the oppressors begin to understand the bad things that they have done to the oppressed. And he said as far as he could see that is never the case, that is never true. In fact, reconciliation always begins when (and he uses the word begins) when the oppressed claims the humanity that the oppressor has tried to rob from them, and so it is true today. Many Canadians still have a hard time understanding that Indigenous people have been horribly and grievously oppressed, but changing their minds is not where we find our hope. The hope is, as you will see today, thousands of Indigenous people and their friends are reclaiming a humanity that is lost, that was lost, at least has been denied by a system that for years and years  has tried to rob Indigenous people of their life, their heritage, and indeed their future. Today, you will see that history, and you will see that those who l march with will also claim the humanity that is lost whenever we oppress another human being.

This is a very important day for us. It is a very important day for us, because our destiny as a nation depends upon it. More and more, as we have seen in B.C. as clearly as any place else in the country, the fate of the environment and the fate of the Indigenous people are wrapped together, and that this reclaiming of humanity comes at a such a critical time to the decisions that we are making about the future, and that we will give to our children and grandchildren, and indeed, to the rest of the world. Because we play such a critical role in the lives of so many people around the world, not just in terms of our consumption of resources, but our supervision of so many resources around the world, to the mining sector and other extractive industries.

Today is a very critical, important day. I hope that all of us will rise up to reclaim our humanity, and in reclaiming that humanity we find the life that God has hidden in our midst. And then, perhaps we will understand how subversive the first chapter of the Gospel of John is because it describes a life of God, not only hidden in the life of this material creation that we have, but destined to be our future. Amen. 

[Image: Flickr user skakerman]

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