Fabricating Middle Ground

The following is an excerpt of my review of Edward E Andrews’s Native Apostles: Black and Indian Missionaries in the British Atlantic World (Harvard UP, 2013). The full review will be in an upcoming issue of Intotemak.

Though it remains largely implicit, it’s evident that Andrews’s history is also a work of redemption. It is not so much the individual missionaries that he wishes to redeem (though this is certainly the case in several accounts). Rather, Andrews wishes to redeem a certain understanding of missions itself. This project is most clearly stated early on in chapter one:

Indeed, if we understand missions less as sites of western imperial oppression and more as a middle ground, a physically and metaphorically contested space where indigenous peoples and colonists had to negotiate with one another instead of destroying each other, then the role of native preachers to these missions becomes all the more vital. (23)

What follows is an archive of accounts in which the author attempts to curate such a ‘middle ground’. Edwards highlights narratives in which Indigenous preachers integrate in Protestant cultures and examples in which Indigenous preachers challenge Protestant culture. There are accounts in which black missionaries challenge the slave trade and other instances in which black preachers are critical of their own people. Andrews effectively demonstrates a certain variety and diversity of expressions from this time period. For this reason the book is worth reading. Yet he cannot make good on his suggestion of reimagining missions.

To be sure the site of early North American missions was a contested space. Andrews does well to illuminate the various cultural, political, theological, and biological conflicts that surfaced in this time period. However, by his own account it is difficult to concede that this was a “space where indigenous peoples and colonists had to negotiate with one another instead of destroying each other” (23). European missionaries indeed found black and indigenous converts useful and even necessary.

But it seems unimaginable to frame this as a sort of ‘middle-ground’ when the forces in this relationship seemed so entirely disproportionate. This disproportion was true whether it was the persistent fear and racism of European settlers that could leverage military responses, the devastation of disease when nearly an entire class of indigenous seminary students died, or the final pronouncements of theological validity that remained in the seats of power in Europe. So while there appear to moments and places of mutuality, Andrews gives too much autonomy to missions; yes, missions were messier than the old narrative, but they cannot be preserved from the larger colonial project. Missions were profoundly embedded in the larger forces that worked havoc and destruction in black and indigenous communities.

We cannot confuse the diversity of individual action with the reality of social and structural pressures. The individual and the social are related but greater care and awareness needs to be made in how we handle these accounts. I can imagine a similar narrative being written about the history of Indian Residential Schools in Canada. I am sure there are stories of good teachers, students having good experiences, and perhaps even collaborative and interesting expressions that emerged. There can be a place for the writing of such histories but I do not think this can happen apart from the awareness and acknowledgement of a theology and logic that was ultimately unable to negotiate, unable to exist on middle-ground that allowed for mutual influence.



Pay attention . . . it is more than you imagine

[Sermon preached on The Sermon on the Mount this past Sunday]

Spending time in the Sermon on the Mount last week there were plenty of times when I was convinced that Jesus did not give a great sermon. It feels a little choppy, Jesus jumps around in his statements and often doesn’t explain what he means. There are massive swings in his thinking. For nearly an entire chapter Jesus basically calls his listeners a bunch of murderers and adulterers who should gouge out their eyes and chop off their hands so that at least the rest of your body can avoid going to hell after which he concludes by commanding that they be perfect just like God is perfect. But then he’s like hey, don’t judge each other, quit being so critical, just do to others what you want done to yourself. And then he swings back coming at his listeners, don’t be fooled by the wide road that will lead to destruction; seek the narrow gate, even though few of you will find it. So start producing something worthwhile or you will cut off the vine and thrown in the fire.

Continue reading

Review: Islands of Decolonial Love & The Winter We Danced

The following is available in the print version of Canadian Mennonite [Volume 18, Number 21; October 27, 2014]

The Winter We Danced: Voices From the Past, the Future, and the Idle No More Movement. Edited by The Kino-nda-niimi Collective. Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2014, 440 pages.

Islands of Decolonial Love: Stories & Songs. Leanne Simpson. Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2014, 112 pages.

After getting a coffee I sat down to read The Winter We Danced. On the table next to me I noticed a book someone left behind. On the cover was a bold notice stating 2.5 million copies sold. The title was something like Great Battle in Savage Country; a contemporary work of fiction re-telling the conquest narrative of America expanding into the West doing battle in ‘Indian country’. I turned my attention back to The Winter We Danced and thought also of Islands of Decolonial Love that I recently finished. These books will not sell 2.5 million copies. This fact is a tragedy and a reminder. It is a tragedy these unique and forceful works will not receive the audience they deserve and conversely it is a reminder of the sorts of stories we prefer to tell ourselves.

The Winter and Islands are two stand out contributions from Winnipeg based Arbeiter Ring Publishers. The Winter We Danced will make it more difficult to write some future bestselling novel of Canada’s brave resistance to the potential terrorist actions of the indigenous people in the years 2012-13. The Winter is an archive; a vast collection of stories, poems, songs, editorials, blog posts, tweets, images, and histories that explore the people and events that came to be identified with Idle No More. This is a primary resource of accounts as they unfolded and the reflections that emerged in the wake of these events. This collection is not only important for a future generation but a present reminder of how quickly these events can vanish from main stream media. As I read through these accounts I was struck again by the importance of Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike and how quickly I had forgotten it. There are many stories competing to occupy our memory and imagination.

Islands is a collection of poems and short stories by Indigenous theorist and storyteller Leanne Simpson. The title is acutely accurate as this collection moves among the registers of love, isolation, experimentation, abuse, and hope. This book is work. It is the necessary and at times painful work of emerging from another story (one that has also sold millions); a story of love that was never meant for indigenous bodies and souls. Simpson’s stories swirl with dirt and blood, water and whiskey, red and white and if there are connections among these islands (and even bones are broken into islands) it is by threads of love. “i want to pick you up, and i’m going to stitch every one of your broken bones back together with kisses.” (83)

These books challenge our imagination; they put in bold contrast many of the stories we are more comfortable with, especially for those of us immersed in the history and story of the West. I can only remind the reader of the two images cast by the titles, love and dance. These forms are often closely related. We would do well to learn some new steps.

Respect Existence or Expect Resistance

27 - Exodus copy

[This Sunday’s sermon was probably as close to programmatic statement of my theology and how I hope it can inform the wider Mennonite church.]

I was hoping to do a little historical research this week to try and give some context for preaching on the Exodus event. Sifting through articles I found myself dismissing pieces quickly. Oh this one is published in an Evangelical journal it will likely try to overemphasize the historical reliability of scripture; hmmm this scholar is writing from a university in Israel it will probably be skewed towards an emphasis on Israelite claim to the land; sigh this one is written by an old school liberal scholar who seems tied into unhelpful methods of historical research. Evidently if these articles were not biased than I was.

This is a small, but I think significant, reminder of how we approach the Bible and how we engage our faith. Each one of us occupies a particular space from which we see and think and act out of our experience and commitments. I think the church is still wrestling with this reality. We don’t want to give up a notion of a larger truth but we can find it hard or even inappropriate to speak clearly or definitively in certain situations.

This plays out in different church denominations. Most church’s claim some notion of having the Bible as a source of authority or guidance. All hope they are being faithful in their expression. But some churches in upholding moral purity have little ability to wade into the messy and difficult situations in people’s lives to give support. Other churches proclaim God’s love for all people but they can have a hard naming the devastating realities of sin within or around them. Then there are the endless theological debates that simply reveal further bias whether prioritizing different parts of the Bible or how our experience shaped our understanding.

This reality of being biased is simply another way of saying that we can’t do it all. We can’t stand outside of life from some god-like perspective and have a total picture. So I think part of a church’s responsibility is being aware of its bias, that is, understanding that it cannot be complete or even neutral. It cannot be just biblical or faithful. A church is faithful in its particular way. This responsibility means accepting and owning our gifts and limitations or deciding what to maintain and it wants to work at changing.

So if we have to be biased in some way, that is, be particular we might do well in considering the Exodus story as a central image that can orient and energize us as a church. In some ways this is not much of a stretch considering how prominent the story is throughout the Bible. But even here the story is not self-evident and we must make decisions, we choose the manner in which the story can become meaningful and formative for us. Very early on in considering this story the reader, the one interested in learning and living out of this story, is faced with a least two paths of understanding.

Both interpretations read this story as one of deliverance, liberation, and the defeat of the enemy. However, one reading places the emphasis on the special nature of the people. This reading believes that the particular people and their descendants are privileged by God and that God will always be on their side conquering their enemies. This has been the understanding for many historical forms of Christianity.

In some ways it could be said that Christianity invented this reading when it believed that its form of faith was greater than Judaism and that God would eventually conquer the Jewish people themselves. This understanding surfaced in various forms of Christian supremacy whether in religious or political forms as Christian Europe moved across the globe with the confidence in a God who would either drown or baptize anyone they encountered. On a smaller scale we cannot discount the way this reading informs our own understanding of the superiority when we consciously or usually unconsciously consider our life and faith to have priority over others. While this reading is often justified with other scripture passages it is certainly not the only understanding of the Exodus.

So while the first reading leads to a supremacist or superior attitude by a particular group the second group shifts the focus. In this reading God is still in some ways biased, still shows preference, but it is not towards a particular religious or ethnic group. In this reading, the Exodus story points to the God of the oppressed. The God revealed to Moses is not a national or cultural deity who stands for one country over others but the one who hears the cries of those suffering under unjust abuse and slavery. While the biblical story does broadly trace the movements of a particular people, the writings of the prophets, the event of the Exile, and the message of the Gospels are clear that God is not interested in simply maintaining a people or tradition for their own sake. So what does it mean to allow this second reading of the Exodus shape our faith and life?

This reading affects how we give our attention. The first reading fixes our attention and privileges our faith setting for understanding how God is at work and calling us. The second reading, however, asks that our attention become more vigilant, always wondering how the powers and realities around us are shaping and affecting people’s lives.

James Cone, a prominent black theologian in the US, put this powerfully when he says that to follow Jesus who was Jewish means to be able to recognize the Christ who is Black. What he means is that Jesus was a Jew during a time when the Jewish people were occupied and controlled by a foreign power where there religion and life were often humiliated and abused by those in power. So it is important that we study who Jesus was but Cone goes further and says, “I contend that our interest in Jesus’ past cannot be separated from one’s encounter with his presence in our contemporary existence” (GO, 111).

Through this reading of the past Christ is best understood today as the one who is still incarnate, made flesh, the one who is present in the midst of those communities that suffer abuse and humiliation. Cone does not claim that Christ will always be black or is only black but in his context it remains an important and decisive statement of faith. The point is that our faithfulness remains vigilant, attentive to suffering, abuse, harassment, and humiliation because this is where Christ is found and known. Put differently Simone Weil has said that justice is fugitive, it moves where it is needed outside of any one group’s control.

Returning to the Exodus story we can see that it is also a test in attentiveness. After all what is most important in these chapters? Is it Moses and the Burning Bush, is it  the encounter with Pharaoh and the Ten Plagues, is the dramatic parting of the Red Sea (children’s time)? These are crucial elements but in some ways I was distracted by them and it wasn’t until I read an article by biblical scholar Phyllis Trible that I was reminded of the role of women.

The Exodus story begins and ends with women. The beginning recounts the birth of Moses. Pharaoh feels threatened by the increasing Hebrew slaves and commands that newborn males be killed. In an illegal action Hebrew women refuse Pharaoh’s command and keep these children alive. Then after Moses is born and set out into the river an Egyptian woman, the daughter of Pharaoh, finds him, knows that he is a Hebrew baby and still keeps him safe. She does this in cooperation with Hebrew women and so Moses lives. So before the great acts of Moses we find a group of mostly nameless women both Hebrew and Egyptian display a faith committed to the vulnerable and threatened among them.

Then at the end of the Exodus story is a song. The bulk of the song begins with a preface saying Moses and the Israelites sang praise to the LORD. Moses has of course been highlighted throughout the text. But after the song we find a curious addition which reads,

Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing.  And Miriam led them in worship saying:

‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’

Scholars have speculated why this phrase was included, especially since it repeats the first line of the earlier song. One thing clear from the text is that Miriam is in the active, leadership role here. And she is not simply leading the women. When it refers to Miriam leading them the form is in masculine plural which can mean men or men and women. Moses sings but Miriam the prophet leads them in song.

Throughout the Exodus event it is stated that the people are freed so that they might worship God and here after the people have passed through the Red Sea there is a sort of vindication of the women who began this story; an acknowledgement of how God is revealed with the vulnerable and threatened along with those who stand with them.

This finally brings me to the image I chose for this morning. I love this image. It is attributed to a group called graffiti harimi, which means simply, graffiti women. This is a group of women who have chosen graffiti as a public statement against the ongoing sexual harassment and abuse many women experience in Egypt. I chose this particular image for two reasons. First, the image reminded me of the older works of art depicting the crossing of the Red Sea in which soldiers and horses were depicted as tossed about by waves.

That older image of the Red Sea can be unnerving an ominous according to the first reading of Exodus which tends to view God has fighting for national or racial interests. But this morning’s image demands a reading in which the power of liberation, the image of hope comes directly from those suffering abuse. The Arabic beside the image reads simply no harassment. The image is not an abuse of power but the overthrow of abusive power. Another image I considered using was a piece of graffiti in which the face of a famous female Egyptian singer was depicted with the lines of one of her songs underneath which read, Give me my freedom, set loose my chains. Or to rephrase biblically, Pharaoh, let my people go.

The second reason I chose this image is because it comes out of Egypt. In as much as we do not read the Bible as a history book we cannot forget that real lives and bodies were and are involved in these struggles. There are still women in Egypt struggling for freedom.

To circle back to where I began, we cannot be neutral in these things. We cannot claim some pure notion of being ‘biblical’ or ‘faithful’. We will have to choose which texts and which interpretations will shape and inform us. Does the Exodus privilege our people and tradition or does it point to the God who comes alongside those harassed and abused?

Reading Exodus as revealing the God of the Oppressed changes our life and faith. Last week in Adult Education we considered the relationship between Christianity and Indigenous spirituality. The first reading of Exodus privileges how God is with us and will secure our faith in relationship to other religious expressions. The important thing is to protect and preserve our faithfulness. The second reading calls our attention to the situation and experience of the indigenous community allowing us to wonder how we might learn of ways in which liberation is happening in that community and how we might also work and witness to these things.

There are many more examples how these two choices, these two readings, can play out. For those of us in relatively secure lifestyles we need to guard against a self-focused martyr complex. I still hear comments saying that in our society that white men face the most prejudice or that Christianity is under attack.  Most of the time these comments refer to the discomfort we feel in not getting our way all the time, not having the only or dominant voice. We need to get over that. That sort of thinking assumes the first reading in which we believe God’s most important agenda is to keep us in a superior position.

The second reading shifts attentiveness to those among us who struggle with the limitations of disabilities, who have lived with chronic illnesses, who have endured grinding poverty, who have had to deal with ongoing prejudice or exclusion. This reading is meant to offer hope and another vision of how to know and encounter Christ.

May we have eyes to see and ears to hear people like the Hebrew and Egyptian women then and now standing up as and alongside the vulnerable, believing there is a presence and power who will resist with them, that a way can be opened, that dry land can appear in the midst of the water’s chaos, even as abusive powers like a national army or exploitive culture close in. And may we as a church learn to be attentive to, even follow such groups for we may just find that we have been following Christ.


Do not worry about what you will say: Images of soul and power

In summer the preaching schedule becomes a little more freewheeling. Not tied to any lectionary or planned series we typically get to choose something we are simply interested in. This Sunday I wanted to reflect on the ‘soul’; that something necessarily tied to the body but that also creates difference or excess in bodily experience or relations. So I was with a topic in search of a text as the preachers say. I finally landed on Matthew 10:39,

Those who find their soul will lose it, and those who lose their soul for my sake will find it.

A significant portion of the sermon went to unpacking the chapter leading up to that statement. Matthew 10 offers the first clear commissioning of the disciples by Jesus. What gets little attention in the notion of commissioning or of the disciples’ ‘mission’ is how the whole section gets initially framed.

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.

This is the commission, to go out in authority over that which torments (unclean spirits) and destroys (sickness and disease). The rest of the chapter is basically an unpacking of how this will get you into a lot of trouble. There is trouble because this is a question of authority, this is NOT about individual acts of charity or miracles. This is a mission to engage the powers that torment and destroy. This commission takes very seriously the social nature of torment and destruction; it is to stand with those who are cast out and against those who create stability through the expelling. Those with personal or professional experience working in areas of disability, mental health, race or gender violence, and poverty know all too well the powers that need to marginalize in order to stabilize their control.

What I was not prepared for was how clearly this commissioning would parallel some of the events happening here in Winnipeg as well as Ferguson, Missouri. Here are a couple of excerpts from the sermon,

We are often praised for individual acts of charity but when we begin to name and stand against the powers that inflict the body and the spirits that torment souls we are likely to get some pushback. Jesus encourages the people not to be worried about what they will say when you are confronted. There is a good chance there will be no reasoning in these situations anyway. When we are confronted with the reality that our attitudes or behaviours are directly connected to expressions that are demeaning or hurtful of others we tend to become defensive, we suddenly become unable to hear for ourselves what we could see clearly in others. Jesus, it seems, knows this. Don’t worry about defending yourself. So long as you are addressing the things that deteriorate the body and soul then no defense is necessary you need only stand by and hold out the reality you are trying to draw attention to.

It is hard to acknowledge the powers at work in these debilitating and tormenting spirits. Our prime minister Stephen Harper denies that there are social powers at work in the pervasive violence against indigenous women in Canada. He sees them as isolated crimes. There is a group camped out on the lawn in front of the legislative building in downtown Winnipeg. They are calling on the government to acknowledge and investigate the powers that are tormenting this community. I went down to the camp last week to offer a small gift and word of support and encouragement. I spoke briefly with a woman who was helping to organize this call. At one point she said, humbly, that she trusted that at the right time the right words and the right teaching would be given.

Jesus said,

do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit . . . speaking through you.

These are not lawyers, politicians, and professionals (to be sure there are those within this movement as well). These are people trying to claim authority over the tormenting spirits that plague them. They are speaking from that place in that moment.

This led me to the further thought that NOT worrying about what to say was also a way of resisting the temptation and tendency to be recuperated back into the discourse of the powers, to play into their rules and set of values.

And again,

In the U.S. the ongoing conflict in Ferguson Missouri lays bare the hypocrisy of American culture and how it treats people of colour. The rapper J. Cole released a song in honour of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and in tribute to the ongoing struggle of black people in America against racism.

A line from the song,

“I’m just letting you know / their ain’t no gun they can make that can kill my soul.”

Jesus said,

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.

This imagery of body and soul is a reality for people forced to or willing to stand against the powers that torment and destroy. It is a source of embodiment that can be drawn on for strength against these powers.

I have no interest in appropriating these movements and expressions for the Christian agenda (or that Christian theology can *best* understand it) but rather I want to point the church beyond itself to see the ways in which the ongoing struggle of taking authority over the powers that torment and destroy remains active and how we might hear and see and follow the Good News as it occurs today.

Perfect God or public faith; Or, why theology needs better options

Ben Myers recent posts (here and here) at Faith and Theology are reminders that the church and its theology often do not give very good choices. In these posts Myers reflects on the broad change in his thinking that went from being ‘apocalyptic’ to ‘eschatological’. In Myers’ words an apocalyptic orientation understands,

that God does not have an originating relationship to the world so much as an interruptive relationship.  God bursts in on the world like an alien intruder. God comes to knock things into shape.

In hindsight Myers reads this interest as reflecting,

ordinary youthful iconoclasm. All young people, young men in particular, feel a certain resentment towards the status quo and a certain seething desire to imprint their own will on to the order of things. Call it a rage against mortality. Anyway, when you allow that kind of resentment to guide your thinking, you easily end up with what Augustine called the libido dominandi, the lust to master reality and to make it conform to your own ideals.

Apocalyptic then, for Myers, was the option of projecting idealistic angst upon the notion of God so that God was (and could only be) understood as the one who breaks in with unprecedented presence, completely outside the current order of things. The realities of life, however, brought him to another consideration. He now had children to consider. He became immersed in the actual workings of institutions and he returned to early Christian writings. This led to a dramatic shift in his orientation. He now saw the doctrine of creation as needed to hold at bay the type of libido that apocalyptic rage against the world could ignite. This led Myers to a theological and practical position which proclaimed a divine transcendent order in which we could work and testify to in partial and real ways. Put simply Myers seems to have positioned his move from idealism to realism.

I think what has been most frustrating for me is that, on a certain and decisive register, Myers’s logic has not changed at all. Myers is still working within a clear framework of transcendence. This is of course makes sense given his Christian orthodox orientation but it should be noted that this is not the only logic to work within (Christian or otherwise).

The most troubling aspect of his posts is that he is indeed right about his critique but wrong about his change (or that he fails to follow through on his critique). I agree that there is a youthful male (and usually white) lust for control. For many of us this means that we rage against the Father (in the psychoanalytic sense of the one who sets the rules). Again, Myers is right this is typically pious fervor then learns some form of apocalyptic rhetoric but never intends or is able to kill the Father. Some white dudes just end up pouting longer than others. The change, I guess, is Myers’ relation to the Father. The Father is still in control and now the son can be more at peace knowing the world is won for him in the end, the inheritance is secure and there is even a portion of it to share in now if he goes about his Father’s business.

Myers, it seems, has allowed his life to be a bit more enjoyable, I think. Good. Fine. Just don’t speak publicly. To speak publicly in the register of divine transcendence is to always hedge for the Father in a way that positions him as determining and also out of reach. In Myers’ words,

That there is a divine order of perfect justice which transcends human history and relativises every social order.

The result is that both postures do not need to learn from anyone, least of all the least of all (it is self-sufficient, superior, prior to contact).

It does not take long to know that life is compromised. Yes, as I said, some continue to pout and posture in apocalyptic ideals but most of us know that is not where life is lived out. So, to return to Myer’s medium of biography, I too have changed. This change can be directly related to my being confronted in my apocalyptic / eschatological transcendence. I was challenged to consider that both forms of transcendence reflected ideological (and, I would say, idolatrous) stances. To put it simply I was convicted of my inability to be open to and affected by those who challenged my notion of a “divine order of perfect justice”. Through this conviction a change came where I entered a commitment of attention to what was around me (materially, discursively, affectively, etc.). I attempted to not pull rank on these realities and instead allowed for a further mutual-affection (to love the world?).

I have written about some aspects of this change before (pastorally, conceptually, ecclesially) .

All this to say that Myers has not changed, not really. He was right in his critique but wrong in his response. I am also further ‘implicated’ in the discourses/institutions around me. I have a kid. I have a leadership position in the church. I have a mortgage. I am ‘invested’. But to return to my comment about being public, to the extent that I speak and act publicly (and I appreciate I should not always speak) it should be in the service of those disadvantaged and suffering under the current order. So I will not speak publicly about a divine order of perfect justice which transcends human history. When I speak I hope it is to critique the present powers, to lend support to those who need it, and to allow my voice to be critiqued in light of the present powers. My knowledge, faith, and action comes from the eternal relay with the world engaging for freedom and against slavery; which, again, I must continually learn from my neighbour (pretty Christ-like, no?).

This commitment, while becoming more ‘invested’ in the institutions, has also led to more conflict and antagonism. It has demanded more from me in terms of being able to describe and navigate my place in the discursive flows. Rather than appeal to transcendence I am trying to figure out what it is to become public; that is, to express good news (or to be quiet when there is none). So while I remain invested, I also have regular conversations with my wife about the possibilities that there may be time when I will not be employed by the church.

The change then is the commitment to what being public means, which is the mutual relay of my engagement with the world apart from a transcendent authority. This is not a woe-is-me statement, it actually points back to my privilege in the discourse. I could, if I wanted or if I didn’t pay attention, easily slip back into the flow of some discourses that I have been trying to distance myself from or create antagonism with (my existence is loaded with the tone, gender, and tradition that would allow this easily). The converse of this need to be intentional is that for many people their very existence (tone, gender, tradition) is experienced as an antagonism, a rejection or abjection of their lives from the dominant discourse (and so to cope there has been the closet or the white mask). This, it seems to me, is a fundamentally different experience than what I am going through in ‘becoming public’. Many others are cast out, stripped of discursive power in the public domain. I cannot forget that.

I don’t begrudge Myers for attending to his family and working hard in his institution but his public framing of this ‘change’ is false and potentially destructive (and in many ways I take his account as symbolic of many theological expressions). This is not the only option. I am working within the institution of the church to try and change that.

Whether Oka or Ferguson there will be no monument to the warriors

[I sat on this post for a while. I wrote it before the events in Ferguson. I am still uneasy speaking into these issues but I want to offer them to challenge some themes and to open myself for criticism as well.]

I was biking through The Forks the other day and noticed a small gathering area with seats and monuments. I stopped by and read the main plaque. It was a monument honouring Indian Residential School survivors. The first lines of the monument read: Residential School survivors past and present provide powerful lessons in faith, forgiveness, joy, and peace. Next to that monument was another sign noting an historical event that occurred around 500 years ago in which it is said that a number of indigenous nations gathered at the meeting of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers (The Forks) to establish a peace treaty.

This monument is placed in the ‘Peace Gardens’ outside the soon-to-open Museum for Human Rights. I understand that this monument was initiated from within the Indigenous community and a number of representatives were present at its unveiling but I have no idea how the wording was developed. And it is the wording and the framing of this are that has given me pause. My concern or criticism is precisely in how the indigenous traditions get taken into dominant media/cultural discourse.

One thing that I have learned from my (limited) contact with indigenous writers and activists is there deep and abiding vision of peace. I was impressed by a short piece written by Ellen Gabriel for the Indigenous Nationhood Movement website. This website reflects a movement not interested in political compromise with colonial based governments but is committed to following “the natural course of actions taken by Indigenous peoples struggling to reclaim, rename and reoccupy our homelands.” Peace within this context is a ‘warrior’s’ commitment. Warriors in Gabriel’s tradition are, at least in part, those with a burden for peace. Now of course the notion of ‘peacekeeping’ is contentious but what I found interesting in Gabriel’s notion of the warrior is the integrated context in which a warrior functions.

In Kanien’kéha, the word [for warrior] is “Rotiskenrakéh:te”, meaning “those who carry the burden of peace”. In the younger days of our societies’ existence, Rotiskenrakéh:te were trained for combat by using the game of Lacrosse, to get into shape as “warriors”. But more importantly, they carried with them the teachings of peace and the customary laws of their peoples. They underwent ceremonies to prepare them for physical battle, and when they returned they underwent more ceremonies, such as a condolence ceremony to cleanse them spiritually and mentally for what they had endured on the battlefield.

Leaders like Clan Mothers and Chiefs were the voice of the people; they listened to what was in the hearts and minds of the people and brought forth the issues that needed to be discussed. In Haudenosaunee customary laws, the women are the protectors of the land and hold title to the land, while the men were the protectors of the people. During the Kanehsatà:ke Siege, this kind of governance was practiced by the people of the Longhouse and our allies.

. . .

It is important to note that in times of war, women have always participated equally with men on the front lines.

Gabriel sets this understanding of the warrior within the context of the ‘Oka Crisis’ in the 1990s and how the Indigenous community was characterized as led by masked warriors ready to do battle with the government. This indeed was part of the posture but it did not define the working of the community and its engagement with this crisis. As is clear from Gaberiel’s account the warrior was a much more integrated figure within the workings of a community that allowed a greater diversity of voices in discerning issues and responses.

The Oka Crisis is an excellent example of contrast to the monument of Indigenous ‘peace and forgiveness’ at The Forks. In the Oka Crisis (which I have limited memory of as a kid) Canadians were shown a band of warriors out in the woods preparing for violent (or at least threatening; definitely threating) confrontation with the Canadian military. This is a necessary image (a threat) for justifying military action. These images saturated and effaced what I can’t even image was the painful and all too common process of indigenous people trying to legally address land claim injustices which has literally gone on for centuries (I have read claims of peaceful action in response to unjust lang appropriation going back to the early 1700s). Regardless of this history the branding of a warrior was imprinted; natives at the edge of the woods ready to attack.

Contrast this image to the monument at The Forks. Here we are given the image of ‘Indigenous wisdom’. The way of peace that has stretched back over 500 years and now can be seen in the ‘forgiveness’ of the Indian Residential School survivors (we are not told who is forgiven and for what). This is another useful image for settler culture. It appropriates the Indigenous vision of peace and re-inscribes onto our thinking. This re-inscription moves in two directions. First, it creates a norm in the mind of settlers. It feels like progress (for liberal whites) from the notion of the ‘violent savage’ so that we can now feel good acknowledging that Indigenous people really are those who work for peace, we see this now. Peace is named here as ‘faith, forgiveness, and joy’. What is implied here however is that when peace does not come in this form we should be wary as settlers, we will be concerned that Indigenous people are not walking in their own wisdom. What, you are angry, you hold us responsible, you want justice!? But what about your way of peace and forgiveness? In naming this tradition of ‘peace and forgiveness’ we will now be tempted to hold them to it. There is no monument for the community’s warrior tradition that will stand against injustice.

Perhaps I should just experience this monument as a positive, even if flawed step. I really want to be careful because I cannot speak of the journey survivors have gone through and what it means to them for this monument to exist. There should indeed be recognition for Indian Residential School survivors and I hope to support those expressions as they continue to develop and emerge from within the indigenous community. As a settler, though, I want to name at least the potential damage in framing this tragedy in the way it is. I am not convinced that, as it stands, this social expression can create a break, shift, and alteration in the dominant discourses about indigenous/settler relations.

This post feels all the more pressing as events in Ferguson unfold. We seem to have only two images of the black and indigenous person in Canada and the US. It is either the visceral aggressive male (whether the masked ‘savages’ of Oka or the bare-backed Molotov cocktail lighting ‘animals’ of Ferguson) or it is the appropriated peace ambassador who is only acknowledged in the posture of forgiveness. These are the only images we are able to function with as a society and to the extant this remains true I am not sure how it is we can work for peace and justice.