By Charity Nonkes
“Yet we Christians have also been called to take a good hard look at ourselves. To reflect on our Christian beliefs, to scrutinize our missional practices. And to decolonize. It’s not that Christianity is inherently colonial, but for generations the Church and its faith have been used – wittingly, unwittingly, and far too often – as instruments of dispossession in the settler colonial arsenal. Indigenous peoples are asking the Church to our own work, to beat our colonial swords into peaceable ploughshares.” – pg. xvi Unsettling the word
This is a quote taken from Unsettling the Word: Biblical experiments in decolonization. The book is a collection of Indigenous and non-Indigenous authors re-examining Biblical stories in order to reclaim the Bible as a tool for peacemaking from an instrument of dispossession. It was created by the Mennonite Church Canada’s Indigenous-Settler Relations program.
In the process of truth and reconciliation there is a great need for us all to critically analyze the forces that favoured Christian Europeans and their descendants over others. This work brings up hard questions concerning our identity and our justification for being on the land. When I look to my upbringing, Christianity was not perceived as an instrument of dispossession. Christianity brought community and belonging, but I was coming from a place of privilege and European ancestry.
In the early settlement of Canada, the government claimed it had the authority over the land to sell or grant it to settlers. The Doctrine of Discovery and Terra Nullius are concepts that the European powers used to justify the claim that land was theirs. These concepts provided a framework that said that North America was open to be ‘discovered’ because the indigenous population wasn’t Christian and therefore did not rightly own the land. Theology was used to create a narrative that the land was empty and therefore open for foreign powers to come and claim possession, leading to genocide and exploitation.
For the healing of others and ourselves, it is absolutely paramount for us all to understand the entire story of how Canada was established and the role of Christianity in it. In my experience destruction caused by Christianity is often ignored or hidden because of fear. This fear may be rooted in what these truths mean for who we are as a people – for our identity. This becomes especially difficult when our own histories are mingled with stories of fleeing persecution, hunger, and violence to find freedom in Canada. How do we reconcile it within ourselves that we have freedom in Canada but at the expense of Indigenous peoples? How can we do reconciliation work if we don’t address the truth of our history?
A part of this journey is to thoroughly examine the residential school system and the role of Mennonites. Mennonite Residential Schools in Northwestern Ontario were part of the larger residential school system that sought to eliminate Indigenous ways of life and ensure assimilation to Christian European practices. I have often heard the point that the Mennonites running these schools had good intentions but were misguided.
Good intentions are often clouded by privilege and ignorance of how oppression is engrained into society for the benefit of some over others. Anthony Siegrist, pastor at Ottawa Mennonite Church, has researched and written about Mennonite involvement in the residential school system.
Siegrist writes, “They (Mennonites) seemed sincere in their attempts to “improve” the lives of their Indigenous students. Many staff sacrificed comfort and pay to serve as they did. And yet they were complicit. Probably naïve, but still complicit. If you know anything about Mennonite Christians, you may know that historically ours is a minority tradition, a tradition rooted in martyrdom. We do not always realize the power of our own cultural connections or the power of skin color.”
The call for decolonization and a critical analysis of the role of Christianity in colonial history is a door that is often bolted shut because we fear what it will reveal about ourselves. However, this self-reflection is a healing process for us and everyone living on this land. Christianity has been used for destruction. Faith can also invite us towards reconciliation, as we learn new ways of reading the Bible.
The Church played an instrumental role in colonization and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples – no matter what the intentions were– we all must work to decolonize. The Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action challenges us to do this. Action 49 – We call upon all religious denominations and faith groups who have not already done so to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.
It is time for us to recognize the colonial swords that we all carry and beat them into peaceable ploughshares to till fields of truth and reconciliation.
Creator of this beautiful land,
What is truth and reconciliation
When truth is clouded by ideology and religion
Where there is seldom peace to reconcile back to
God of my ancestors,
You nurtured them when they fled persecution, hunger, and violence
They found peace and wealth in this land while others were removed from it
How do we reconcile with this?
God of truth,
What is truth when the Bible was used to justify the murder of Indigenous peoples
“…invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wherever placed”1
“Kill the Indian and save the man”2 – “take the Indian out of the child”3
God of reconciliation
Where do we go from here?
When divisions are like chasms
When hate and fear fuels public debates
God of the oppressed,
How can we be rooted to land that was stolen
How do we reach across the divides that were built to make exploitation easier
How do we decolonize ourselves, communities, and nations?
The TRC also calls us to adopt and comply with the principles, norms, and standards of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as a framework for reconciliation (Action 48). Please join us in urging the Canadian government to fulfill its commitment to reconciliation and adopting UNDRIP by supporting the passage of Bill C-262 through the Senate. Send a message to all senators here.
If you would like to find out more about Bill C-262 watch this new short video produced by MCC and our collaboration partners.
1 Papal Bull Dum Diveras (Doctrine of Discovery) – https://doctrineofdiscovery.org/dum-diversas/.
For more information about Doctrine of Discovery – https://vimeo.com/118735770
2 Colonel Richard Henry Pratt on the education of Native Americans in the United States – http://carlisleindian.dickinson.edu/sites/all/files/docs-resources/CIS-Resources_PrattSpeechExcerptShort.pdf
To find out more about the KAIROS Blanket Exercise visit: https://www.kairosblanketexercise.org/
Charity Nonkes is the MCC Ottawa Office Advocacy Research Intern