Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
“Learning to do Good”
When I read the Scripture texts for this Sunday, I started thinking about some of the things that happened at the General Assembly of our church back in June. You’ve already heard from me that the Assembly was both difficult and important. We engaged in a process of decision-making regarding same-sex marriage that brought out our deep differences and challenged us to find a way forward as a denomination together. But sexuality was not the only important topic addressed by the 2019 General Assembly.
Another important thing that happened at the Assembly was that we marked the 25th anniversary of our church’s confession to God and to Indigenous Peoples regarding our participation in the colonial and assimilationist practices of this country, and especially our role in the Residential School System.
It was 25 years ago, in 1994, that the 120th General Assembly made the confession and then Moderator, the Rev. George Vais, presented it to Phil Fontaine, who was the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. At the time, Phil Fontaine accepted the apology, but was not yet prepared to offer forgiveness to the church. Which is fair, I think, because we were still just beginning to understand what we had done, the colonial system in which we had readily participated, the harm we had inflicted on Indigenous children, families, and communities, and the cultural genocide in which our church had assisted.
The prophet Isaiah had a vision concerning the rulers and the religious leaders of Judah and Jerusalem. He saw them worshipping God with all kinds of rituals and sacrifices, but he also saw that their kingdoms and their societies were not based on justice and compassion. He challenged them to change their ways because their treatment of people did not line up with their praise of God.
The prophet announced: “Hear the word of the Lord… What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? Says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts… Trample my courts no more: bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me… When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”
I don’t think Isaiah just meant the blood from the animal sacrifices, but he meant the blood of those who suffered at the hands of, or because of the neglect of the kings and religious leaders of his time.
He continued with instructions for them: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
I was in high school when leaders within our denomination began to have their eyes opened to what we had done in the residential schools and the fact that there was blood on our hands. A significant moment took place in 1991 when three staff members from our National Offices in Toronto travelled to Birtle and Kenora in Manitoba to hear from former residential school students.
After listening to the stories told to the group while visiting the Birdtail Dakota First Nation, the Rev. Ian Morrison wrote this: “I realized at that time that a model of education that had been adopted and sponsored by my church had led to one of the most horrendous events in Canadian history. From this time forward I knew that my life would never be the same.”
A few years later, in 1994, the church made its confession, taking some measure of responsibility for our actions. By the fall of 2001, we were facing 132 lawsuits filed by former students of the schools, and in 2002 an agreement was signed with the Canadian government that our church’s financial liability would be $2.1 million which was paid from the denomination’s cash reserves.
In May 2006, the final Settlement Agreement which covered all four denominations that ran the schools, was made. It included a commitment by The Presbyterian Church in Canada to establish a Healing and Reconciliation Fund, which we did. And it mandated our participation in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which we also did.
By the time the TRC was established and began its five-year mandate to gather the truth about what happened in our country, I was serving at St. Andrew’s in Saskatoon, so I had the opportunity to participate in the Saskatchewan National TRC event that took place there in 2012. I helped to organize the “Churches Listening to Survivors Area” where residential school survivors could come and tell their story to a church leader, be heard, and receive a personal apology. In one-on-one conversations and sharing circles held each day, as well as in the public witness statements, we heard so many stories of pain and suffering and had our hearts broken many times. It was an important time for the church leaders and church members who participated to listen and learn.
As a committee member representing the Presbyterian Church, I went to so many meetings and planning sessions in preparation for that event, and it still stands out in my memory as a really important step in the journey towards healing and reconciliation. But it was only a step. The final report of the TRC came out with 94 Calls to Action, many of which are directed at Canadians in general, and some of which are especially for the churches to work on.
The thing is that even though the Presbyterian-run schools closed before I was born, their legacy lives on. The intergenerational impacts on Indigenous families and communities was massive, and since Indigenous people are still living with the legacy, all Canadians (and especially churches) are called to keep on listening, learning, responding, and taking action for justice.
One of the things that I learned in the TRC process was that the church needs to do more listening and responding, rather than deciding and directing. Of course, the church representatives came into the meetings with lots of ideas of what we could or should do to be helpful in the process, all with good intentions.
But we soon learned that our ideas were not always right, or what was best, or what was needed. We learned to set aside our plans and agendas, and just get ready to help as we were needed. In the end, we provided funding for travel so that survivors could get to Saskatoon to share their truth. We provided funding so that people could be fed some free meals during the event. We gathered volunteers to listen to the stories and we encouraged our church members to attend the public events to listen and learn. And we baked and served thousands of cupcakes so that survivors, who were denied the opportunity to celebrate their birthdays while they were in residential school, could finally have a birthday celebration.
In our Gospel text today, Jesus encourages his disciples not to be afraid as they follow his risk-taking, self-offering way of life. Like the church today, his followers didn’t yet know what they would be called upon to do, what they would be asked to give, or what they would be challenged to give up. But Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” We are invited to give up a little control and a little security, to trust God, and remember that Jesus will, in the end, usher in the Reign of God in the world – which is good news for all of us.
In the meantime, Jesus calls us to get ready. He says, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.”
This is a difficult call for Presbyterians. You see, we Presbyterians tend to take considerable time for discerning, deciding, and responding. We send things to committees. We study and report. We have a process and a polity that is designed to help us make good decisions under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but it takes a lot of time. I think it’s good, but it’s also pretty frustrating sometimes, especially when people are passionate about things that need to be done now! Especially when Jesus says we need to be ready to open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks!
Well, we might want to think of the TRC Calls to Action as Jesus banging on the door of the church (and the government, and the people of Canada) and yelling that it’s time to open the door and get to work on healing and reconciliation, putting our good intentions into action.
Call to Action No. 46, part ii calls upon the parties of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (which includes The Presbyterian Church in Canada) to a “repudiation of concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius, and the reformation of laws, governance structures, and policies within their respective institutions that continue to rely on such concepts.”
I would encourage you to read the 2019 report of our church’s Justice Ministries and its recommendations about repudiating or rejecting the Doctrine of Discovery. I’ve printed some copies of the report, and you can also find it and other resources about the Doctrine of Discovery on the PCC website.
Briefly, the Doctrine of Discovery is a set of concepts developed from a series of papal decrees issued around the 15th century, while terra nullius is Latin for “empty land.” Land was treated as terra nullius if it was deemed unoccupied or unowned – specifically, this often was assumed to mean unfarmed by European standards. Drawing on the concept of terra nullius, the papal decrees provided theological justification and legal backing to European monarchs to invade and seize non-Christian lands, enslave non-Christian people, and to take their property.
The attitudes behind these practices continued even after the power of the medieval papacy waned. The ideology that European colonial powers had a right to appropriate lands and possessions and treat non-Christians they encountered as undeserving of the rights accorded to their own citizens flows from these doctrines and heavily influenced the system of residential schools in which the church was complicit.
So, we weren’t very quick about it, but at the 2019 General Assembly in June, we did repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and related concepts. We did affirm that all doctrines, policies and practices based on or advocating for superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin, or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust.
We did state that we will seek to engage in relationships with Indigenous peoples that reflect the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And we did promise to keep studying in order to understand the contemporary ramifications of these concepts, including how this is reflected in The Presbyterian Church in Canada’s mission and ministry with Indigenous people.
Leaders in our church’s Indigenous ministries have told us that repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery was a good and important step for the church. They have also told us that the repudiation must go beyond words to the suffering communities.
Yvonne Bearbull, who serves at the Kenora Fellowship Centre, gives the example of a vigil held last week at Birdtail Dakota First Nation for a 17 year old boy who was hit by a car. Along with the story, Yvonne posted a picture of a simple white tent, which was purchased for the community some time ago by the Presbytery of Brandon.
She says that the tent has been used way too many times for funerals and memorials, and as a way to support families in their grief and loss. She also says that the tent is an act of reconciliation and a welcome one for a family that is dealing with the intergenerational effects of the Residential School, namely Birtle Residential School, which was operated by The Presbyterian Church in Canada.
Later this week, I’m planning a quick trip to Kenora to visit and encourage Yvonne and her co-workers in Kenora. The main homeless shelter in Kenora is about to be temporarily shut down, and the Presbyterian outreach ministry is going to be picking up a lot of the slack in the meantime. Their resources will be stretched to the max, and they will be tired.
I’m hoping that the Moderator showing up to volunteer for a day, as well as bringing some social media attention to their needs will be helpful. I’m going to try to bring along some helpful supplies as well, so if you want to donate grocery gift cards, money, coffee supplies, laundry soap, or clothing such as socks, let me know before Wednesday.
It seems to me that reconciliation will not be accomplished simply through responding to various practical needs and working with our Indigenous partners on certain projects. There also needs to be some fundamental changes made in our relationships, church structures, and attitudes.
We need to consider how Indigenous ministries are funded and equipped, ensuring long-term stable funding, as well as processes that do not keep the settler church in the position of evaluating and approving Indigenous ministry decisions and priorities.
And we all need to keep considering how we see each other and treat one another as human beings… being very aware of whether we may be affected by old stereotypes or prejudices that assume negative things about Indigenous people. These colonial attitudes are rooted very deep, so that even when we have the best intentions, we may nonetheless be continuing the racism that is endemic to our society.
While the General Assembly was meeting in Waterloo on June 3rd, the final report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women was released. Its release was noted, but likely few commissioners were looking up the report to read it online that week. At least one commissioner realized the urgency of the report however, and invited the Assembly to consider some immediate action. He was the only one who seemed “dressed for action with his lamps lit” as he presented an additional motion that we read it and respond to it, and also suggested some very specific responses arising from the Calls for Justice that were directed at all Canadians.
The rest of the Assembly wasn’t quite ready to act that quickly. We referred the report for study and response, but we took no immediate action. I regret the delay, that we did not manage to squeeze in some more time to discuss and consider the proposals that were before us.
I realize that every day that we, and other churches, and government, and the general population fails to respond to the calls for justice, the suffering of Indigenous communities, and especially women and girls, continues.
The church’s faithfulness will be shown in how we continue to take steps towards healing and reconciliation by putting our words into actions – by not only confessing the sin of our participation in the residential schools, but working together with Indigenous people towards healing of that legacy. By not only repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius, but by reforming our own policies and practices so that we do not live by those ideas anymore. By not only praying for those whose sisters, daughters, and friends are among the many missing or murdered indigenous women, but by addressing the foundational issues that have led to this situation.
We must not be afraid, even though this work will require much of us, because (as Jesus assures us in today’s Gospel text) it is God’s desire, God’s good pleasure, to give us the kingdom. Yes, that is our hope that God’s reign on earth will come and the world will be made right – we will live together in peace and beautiful diversity with all peoples and nations. This is the hope for healing and reconciliation in our church, in our country, and in the world that God so loves.