By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office. The following was part of a meditation shared at the recent Ottawa Office Student Seminar on “‘Inconvenient’ relationships? Indigenous rights, reconciliation and advocacy.”
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu is reported to have said, “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us close our eyes and pray.’ When we opened them, we had the Bible, and they had the land.”
As a Christian I value scripture. As a Christian organization, Mennonite Central Committee takes direction from scripture. We seek guidance from scripture – and especially the story of Jesus contained in it – for our work and ministry.
But when it comes to issues relating to land and to the people of the land, the Bible gives us some disturbing messages. Among them are those biblical texts where God commands his people to dispossess others – the Indigenous people – of their land. Read the book of Deuteronomy and you find God repeating the words, “When you enter the land which I have given you and you dispossess the people of their land….”
Most scandalous of all are those texts where God instructs the chosen people to commit genocide. In Deuteronomy 7:1-2, for example, we read:
When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you – the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you – and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.
Biblical passages such as these have been used over the centuries to legitimize Christendom’s actions toward Indigenous people – actions of dispossession, colonization, and even genocide. They have provided a biblical foundation for the Doctrine of Discovery, the legal and moral framework with which European kings and religious leaders justified the conquest of Indigenous peoples around the world over centuries.
Of course, the Bible also includes wonderful passages that paint a very different picture of the land and the people living on the land. Land is a gift from God and ultimately belongs to God, not people. Land provides life for humans, plants and animals. The land is alive – it sings, dances, and praises God; it also bleeds and mourns when people disobey God’s way. Additionally, God calls people to give rest to the land and periodically to return it to its original owners, where it has been lost through debt.
Scripture also includes the story of Abraham’s negotiations with the Indigenous Hittite owners of the land where he wishes to bury his deceased wife Sarah (Genesis 23). Although God has promised him a vast expanse of land, including the territory of the Hittites, Abraham does not simply seize the property he needs for Sarah’s burial ground. He insists on paying Ephron, the Hittite owner, for the land. He deals respectively with the Hittite people and their land.
Clearly, when we turn to the Bible for guidance in relating to the land and its people, we find both good news and bad, texts that point to liberation and to oppression. What do we make of the difficult passages – especially those of us who claim to be Christian and who, as settlers, have benefited enormously from the dispossession of the Indigenous people?
I believe that we are called to read the Bible carefully and critically – and even to resist certain texts. We must learn to be attentive to the ways that scripture can serve to support the theft of land and its resources and the dispossession of its peoples.
Listening to the stories and wisdom of Indigenous peoples helps us to read scripture critically. Indigenous peoples can help those us who are non-Indigenous to understand the ways that our society, our government and even our churches continue to participate in relationships of dispossession and colonialism. They can help us read scripture with new eyes and ears.
Listen, for example, to the voice of Mohawk theologian and writer Anita Keith[i] –
My scars are yours . . . do you not see?
It was my land first, the place I ran free
It was once my garden of Eden
Mother Earth’s bosom gushing forth life
The loss of my land cuts my heart like a knife.
There are no markers or monuments now to honour our dead
There are no Indian mothers to lament the men their lives they shed
My peaceable and happy home is now forever gone
It is terribly disturbing to me that he preached Christ crucified
As he took away my life, my dream, my place, my hom.
Yes, all lands are sacred and even more holy
When we who inhabit it come to know its stories
You and I, Indian and settler alike, share the scars;
The struggles of each bear witness to the others victories and glories
But the transformation we each will undergo
Will depend on the mercy of Christ, and if we can agree to be friend and no longer foe.
May our listening and our reading of scripture lead us in true paths of justice, healing and reconciliation.
[i] Anita Keith’s poem “My Scars are Yours,” is published in Steve Heinrichs, editor, Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry: Conversations on Creation, Land justice, and Life Together (Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2013), pp. 291-92.