Introduction: Jesus. Indian.
Jesus was an Indian. If you don’t understand that, you won’t understand any of the rest of it, so you’ve got to get this first. Let me try to be clear about this.
By saying that “Jesus was an Indian,” I don’t mean that Jesus was from India. India didn’t even exist back in his day, given that what we call India was actually a number of different kingdoms or empires rooted in people like the Satavahanas, or the Indo-Scythian Sakas, or the Mahameghavahanas, to name just three of about a dozen different options. So I’m not saying Jesus was a proto-Indian, as though he came from that region. Furthermore, although a fringe group of people like to say Jesus went to India to study and learn in the years we hear nothing about in the canonical Gospels (for example, in an universally discredited book claiming to offer “irrefutable evidence” and entitled Jesus Lived in India, Holger Kersten argues Jesus lived in India when he was young, where he became a spiritual master in Buddhism, and then returned there to grow old and die after he rose from the dead), that’s not what I’m saying. No, Jesus was an Indian in the same sense that the Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabeg, the ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐤ, the Wet’suwet’en, the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, the Tlicho, and the more than 630 First Nations in Canada are Indians. And Jesus is an Indian in exactly the same way that members of all of these nations are Indians.
Because what does it mean to say that the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island are “Indians”? Well, to begin with, it means that they are a people who have been colonized by a foreign power who gives them names not of their choosing. This applies as much to people as it does to the land. Hence, Turtle Island is no longer known as Turtle Island. It is called North America, and Canada, and the United States of America are the nations that are said to be present there (I’ll stick to Canada in what follows, as that is the land my people have colonized). And in Canada, for most of its history, the original peoples – the Onkwehonwe to use the Kanien’kehá:ka word – were not known by the names they had received from the land but by the names given by those who colonized both them and the land (although it is wrong to imply that the people and land can be separated and thought of as two distinct entities). They became Indians because that was the name given to them by the settlers who wielded power over Life and Death and who gave out the latter far more than the former.
The same was also true of Jesus’ people and the land he came from. No longer Israel (which should never be mistaken for the contemporary nation-state of Israel), he was born into the Roman Province of Judaea – a settler colonial State ruled by a military that has made alliances with the local elites (elites who were willing to sell out their own people for personal advancement – divide and conquer is a very Roman policy of conquest but it still bears out in present day Turtle Island with Indian Act chiefs created to counter the much more resistant, generally non-compliant hereditary chiefs). And who lived in Judaea? Judaeans, of course. Indians. Once you are conquered, once you are slaughtered, you don’t get to say who you are or where you live. History isn’t the only thing written by the victors. The present is as well. And that includes the land as it is now named, as well as who you are. All of us and everywhere has been written by the victors.
But this is only the beginning of what it means when Indigenous people are referred to as “Indians.” The language also points to the ongoing history of violent colonization and genocide that Indigenous people experience. In the occupied territories known as Canada, it means to be vanquished by a brutally efficient and utterly ruthless military, economic, social, political, cultural, and religious power. It means receiving gifts of blankets infected with small pox. It means being forcibly removed from your land and starved into submission on reserves – reserves that were prisons and which a person could not leave, without permission and a pass from the Indian Agent (reserves that became a model for ghettos and camps developed by the Third Reich and by the Apartheid government in South Africa). It means having your children stolen away from you, forced to learned foreign languages, foreign religions, foreign dress codes, foreign ways of being in relationship, foreign addictions, all while being subjected to every imaginable form of emotional, physical, spiritual and sexual abuse. It means having women forcibly sterilized. It means having well over a thousand women and girls go missing in recent years, and the police and government showing little or no concern as to where all those women and girls have gone – in part, at least, because there is a good chance that in some regions, the occupying military force, known as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, are the ones perpetrating the violence. But this is not broadcast in the national media. It is whispered on street corners at bush camps and in gatherings of community organizers, far away from the public eye (although the whispers did make it to the ears of an international human rights organization). On and on it goes. It means the little land that was left to you being stolen whenever a multi-national corporation profiting from extracting “resources” wants it. It means being poisoned to death and dying from strange diseases if you aren’t forcibly removed from the area being mined or logged or “developed.” Witness the Athabasca Chippewyan Nation or the birth rates at Aamjiwnaang or the mercury in the water at Grassy Narrows or the sewage the diamond mine dumps into the water supply at Attawapiskat. Or the fact that tens of thousands of Indigenous people have to boil their water before they can use it (and have had to do so for decades) and lack even the basics needed to keep a house warm in the winter. It means residential schools, the sixties scoop, and the fact that far more Indigenous people are being raised by people outside of their community now, now after all the apologies for stolen children, than at any other time in Canadian history. And speaking of apologies, it means false apologies and outright denial. It means being treated as though you are already extinct, as though you are already dead, as though you are not human, as though anything can be done to you. Witness the vagina and womb of Cindy Gladue, cut from her body and brought in as evidence at a case where her rapist and murderer was found innocent by a white, settler jury. Witness the bootprint found on the chest of Paul Alphonse who died after police brought him out of custody and dumped him unconscious in an alley. This was a bootprint that was not on his chest before he was brought into police custody (a bootprint from his own boot, no less) but the police were exonerated in a subsequent inquiry (as the police are always exonerated). Witness the bodies of Indigenous women, sisters, aunties, daughters, friends, cut up and fed to pigs on a farm outside of Vancouver. Witness the Highway of Tears. It means youth so hopeless, oppressed, and alienated that they now have the highest suicide rate in Canada. It means that, although they only make up about 4% of the general population of Canada, Indigenous people now make up around 23-25% of the population of those in prison (the percentage is higher for youth). And it means being confronted with overwhelming force if you choose to resist any of this. Witness, just in my lifetime, Kanehsatake, Ts’peten, Aazhoodena, Esgenoopititij, and Elsipogtog. So it goes. This is what it means to be an Indian in Canada.
It is also what it means to say that Jesus was an Indian, i.e. a Judaean. Shortly before Jesus was born, the Roman soldiers had passed yet again through the region engaging in a scorched earth, shock and awe campaign to pacify the region and to punish the people for their refusal to be extinct commodities. Children were taken from parents (like the RCMP and the Indian agent took children away from Indigenous parents and jailed or shot any who resisted) and sold into slavery (sent to residential schools or white families) in faraway lands. The land that had been a part of the people was taken from them, crops were destroyed, people were forced to become transient labourers, maintaining a cheap labour pool for absentee mega-farmers or for city folks. The roads were lined with the crucified bodies of able-bodied men – the very bodies that many large family units depended on to earn the money to buy their daily bread. Sacred places were defiled, taxes were imposed, and temples were built to foreign gods. Many were killed. Many women were raped. And Mary became pregnant with Jesus.
The earliest New Testament material tells us nothing about Jesus’ father – Paul never mentions Jesus’ family, and Mark’s Gospel speaks of Jesus’ mother and siblings but says nothing about Jesus’ biological father who is strangely absent from moments of the story where he might appear. For Mark, this doesn’t matter because Jesus is adopted by God and gains his significance and power from this adoption (much like Octavian was adopted by Julius Caesar thereby becoming Caesar Augustus thereby becoming Son of God thereby becoming God). Paul’s allusions to Jesus as a counter-example to Caesar are too plentiful to mention here. But Jesus’ father? Not much is said about him, until Matthew and Luke come along with their virgin birth and Joseph the still mostly absent stand-in dad. But, even afer those stories are told, many years later, rumours are still circulating that Jesus’ dad was actually a Roman soldier named Pantera and that in all likelihood Jesus was a bastard child and a product of rape. His mother was probably around sixteen years old at the time. One can’t help but recall, at this moment, recent stories that have been uncovered of the provincial police in Quebec raping and sexually assaulting a large number of Indigenous women. Or of the rumours that circulate around police being involved in women disappearing along the highway of tears. Jesus was an Indian and Mary was, too, and colonizing military and paramilitary forces don’t change all that much whether they are Roman or Canadian. Colonized lands, colonized bodies, colonized mouths, colonized wombs.
But the story about this Indian whose name Jesus (Yeshua) means salvation, deliverance and rescue – this Indian from a colonized land, from an uprooted people, from a scorched earth, from a single teen mom – is presented as “good news.” This, after all, is what the word “gospel” (εὐαγγέλιον or “euangelion”) means. From this word we get the title, “evangelist” i.e. one who brings good news” or “one who spreads the gospel” but what we will discover is that the “good news” spreads not so much like light into darkness or leaven in a loaf, but like a virus in a computer system, or like fire in the master’s house, or like revolution in the hills of Saint Domingue in 1791. Because, and here I’ll say only gesture at what is to come later, this good news is only good news to some people. It is very bad news to others. It is good news to Indians. It is bad news to Romans or Canadians. It is good news to the colonized. It is bad news to the colonizers. It is good news to the enslaved. It is bad news to slaveowners and slavedrivers and any who benefit from the system of slavery. Because Jesus was an Indian and the people he cared about were Indians and the settlers, the occupying force and the foreign overlords along with all their lackeys who profited or contributed to the colonization of the Indians were consigned to the fire. Deliverance comes at a cost to those from whom a people are being delivered.
Let us pause to consider one event from a few decades after Jesus was labeled a terrorist and executed justly according to the Law of Rome (the Law of Canada, the very Rule of Law). The people who gathered in Jesus’ name (gathered illegally like terror cells spread throughout urban centres across the Eastern portion of the Roman Empire), were spreading like a virus, like a root fire (radix, the word from which we derive the English word “radical” means “root”), like a revolution. They even began to secretly meet at teh very heart of the Empire, in Rome itself. And then? Then, Rome burned. And it is these people who proclaimed their devotion to a state executed terrorist whom Nero blamed for the fire. Nero’s enemies, and Christian apologists up until the present day would deny these charges, but one cannot help but wonder if there was something to them. Perhaps those who were scattered throughout the Empire, the vanquished, the conquered, the exiled, the enslaved, the decimated, those treated as though they were already dead or those who should be extinct, with bootprints on their chests and lacerations in their wombs, yet who gathered in the name of Jesus the crucified Indian vindicated by the Creator, perhaps they understood that the only way forward was not that of a superficial State-sponsored reconciliation. After all, Roman Imperialism was as merciful and multicultural and open to world religions as contemporary settler colonial neoliberalism — fit into the system, accept the role assigned to you, accept the commonly agreed upon basics at least (respect for private property, the value of money, and the rule of Law), and you can then worship any god you want, or be any ethnicity, or have any sexual preference or gender identity — just don’t forget to pinch a little incense to Caesar and get a credit card. No, this kind of reconciliation was a part of maintaining the system as it is and was. Perhaps these early people scattered by the violence of colonization and gathered around the crucified Indian Jesus, realized that what was actually needed was decolonization. And decolonization by any means necessary.
But now I have run far ahead of the story. Having set the stage, let us return to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, verse 1. Remember: Jesus was an Indian. If you don’t understand that, you won’t understand any of the rest of it, so you’ve got to get this first.
I’m not quite finished but obliged.
I don’t believe we’ve met, and I’ve just run across your blog (not being much on navigating the blogosphere). I’m curious whether you’ve gotten any further on your blog commentary on Luke than this introductory note. Luke’s a long gospel! Yours is a fruitful and necessary approach…
Also wondering whether you know Laurel Dykstra there in Vancouver (if I have placed you correctly)?
Keep up the good work.
Really lovely to see you showing up here. I’ve admired the work done by you and your compadres for many years (starting first when I read your commentary on Mark a long, long time ago).
Laurel and I did cross paths and have some dear friends in common, I believe, but we never got to know each other (and I moved from Coast Salish to Anishinaabe territory — London, Ontario — about five years ago).
As for this commentary, yes, I have continued to plug away at it, and will be posting subsequent sections when they get to the point when I am happy with them. Luke is long, but this ain’t Jewett’s commentary on Romans! It’s more a work of passion that has been floating around in my mind for a long time. A number of things have come together in recent years that make it feel that it’s finally appropriate for me to write this. So I am, with the hope that it is also useful to others.
Much love and respect to you and yours,
I just want to add this connection. Although Chad won’t remember me I first met him maybe 30 years ago at an RDC meeting in Washington where I later met up with our mutual friends Clancy Dunigan and Jim Rowley, and others who now live close by me here on Whidbey Isle. I was the one who introduced the island to them. Blessings on your work and your’s too Dan.
Thank you, Dan. Provocative words. You’re unsettling this immigrant settler. I look forward to reading more by you.
This is an excellent commentary! I’m curious if you’d be open to it being cross posted on the Jesus Radicals blog. Let me know.
Hey Brett, I replied to you via fb since that’s where your name links. You probably have to dig into your other messages folder to find the message, since I’m not a contact for you.