[The following is a transcript of a sermon I was invited to deliver at Sanctuary London on June 6, 2021. The passage from the lectionary was Luke 1.39-56, but I was also asked to speak to the topic of decolonization in light of the recent revelation about 215 Indigenous kids (some as young as 3) being found in a mass, unmarked grave on the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. This is what I said.]
READING LUKE 1:39-56
- Mary and Elizabeth are Indigenous Judaean women in Roman-occupied Palestine. In other words, they are native women in a region that has been conquered by Europeans who have imposed a ruthlessly brutal wealth-and-resource extraction regime upon the locals.
- CONTEXT: At this time when Mary and Elizabeth became pregnant, the Romans had just finished doing a scorched earth military campaign through Galilee—they burned crops, destroyed homes, lined the main roads with crucified Indigenous warriors or freedom fighters (terrorists in the parlance of Rome), and raped many of the women and girls. In fact, this context gave rise to a much later story that Jesus’s birth father was actually a Roman solider named Pantera.
- Be that as it may, to put this into our contemporary context, a useful parallel would be to think of Mary and Elizabeth as:
- two Mohawk women who became pregnant shortly after the Oka Uprising in 1990. Two Indigenous women in Canadian-occupied Mohawk territory, giving birth at a time when their lands were being destroyed to build suburbs and golf courses, when their warriors were being thrown into prison, and where all the wealth of their territories was going to enrich White people.
- Or imagine Mary and Elizabeth to be two Cree women from Red River, Saskatchewan, pregnant in the aftermath of the 1885 uprising against the Canadian State. In that year, the Cree and Métis took up arms against the Canadian occupation which was starving them to death and forcing them onto reserves to steal their lands. The Canadian Military with the support of the Northwest Mounted Police (the precursor to the RCMP) and White settlers, ended up killing approximately 50 Cree and Métis warriors, hanging another 8, including Louis Riel, and wounding around 150. Several prominent leaders, including Poundmaker and Big Bear, were imprisoned.
- Or imagine Mary and Elizabeth to be two Wet’suwet’en women, pregnant in 2020, a few months after watching their elders taken down at gunpoint when the RCMP arrested those who had gathered at the Unist’ot’en camp in order to protest a pipeline that the Canadian government was driving through their territory.
- So, okay, this is the first point I want to make since I have been asked to speak a bit about decolonization and that means for us today as we all mourn the news about the mass grave containing the bodies of 215 children discovered at the Kamloops Residential school. The point is this: if Christians want to participate in decolonization, they need to decolonize their readings of the Bible.
- Because Mary and Elizabeth and Jesus and John the Baptist—they were all people native to a certain place, living under a militarily enforced occupation that benefited Europeans. In other words, Jesus wasn’t White—Jesus was an Indian.
- And so when I read about 215 dead native kids found in Kamloops, I also recall when Herod massacred any child under the age of two in and around Bethlehem to try and prevent any rival threatening his power over the land (Mt 2).
- And when I think about the story of Pantera and wonder if a Roman soldier was actually Jesus’s biological father, I also think about stories about RCMP officers abducting native women on Canada’s highway of tears, members of Quebec’s provincial police force sexually assaulting Indigenous women in the Val D’Or region, and I also think about all the native women and girls I have known who were sexually abused by local police officers.
- I also think about how when Jesus was an adult and people brought to him a woman caught in adultery and he said, “let those who are without sin cast the first stone” (John 8), I think he probably came to this way of thinking because of the ways he saw people treat his mother when he was growing up.
- So, okay, decolonizing our reading of the Bible means understanding Jesus to be an Indigenous man born to a native woman who lived under the oppression of Roman colonization.
- Decolonizing the Bible helps us to better situate and understand the people we read about in the Bible. But, at the same time—and this is the second point—it helps us to better situate and understand ourselves. Because if Jesus was a native then we, the Canadians who are descended from Europeans, are the Romans. Shit. We grew up assured of our own rightness, our open-mindedness, our righteousness, but it turns out that we’re just like the Romans.
- Because the Romans were also convinced of their rightness, open-mindedness, and righteousness. They believed that their piety and commitment to the rule of law gave them a god-granted right to rule the world, they accepted other cultures and religions into their empire, and they believed that their rule was defined not by violence but by justice. In fact, they believed that they were the ones bringing salvation and peace to the whole earth. But, of course, for Indigenous women raped in Galilee, for young native men crucified by the side of the road, for elders who were stripped naked and had their homes burned, and for children who were slaughtered, all these claims ring hollow.
- Just as Canadian claims to rightness, open-mindedness, and righteousness ring hollow in light of the genocidal violence used by the Canadian State against all the Indigenous peoples and nations from Turtle Island (what we refer to as North America). Herod is no different than Duncan Campbell Scott, an early head of the Department of Indian Affairs who wanted to “get rid of the Indian problem… until there is not a single Indian in Canada” in the same way that the Nazis tried to “solve the Jewish problem” (in fact, the Nazis were explicitly inspired by Scott and the Canadian-approach having sent researchers to study the Canadian model before they started their own genocide). And Duncan Campbell Scott is no different than Justin Trudeau who says, “oh that’s so sad,” when we discover bodies in Kamloops but who still discriminates against Native children living on reserves and refuses to provide them with any Child Welfare support without having them first removed from their families (something the Supreme Court as concluded is illegal but something the federal governments continues to do nonetheless). It’s all about colonization and the eradication of Indigenous peoples. It’s the same model, the same goals, the same thing, just dressed in whatever outfit feels most comfortable to whoever is doing the death-dealing, profiteering, and colonizing at the time.
- Okay, so if Jesus, Mary, and Elizabeth are all oppressed Indigenous people, and the Romans who are doing the oppressing and colonizing are the ones who are the problem—even if they don’t see themselves that way—and if I’m like one of the Romans, how can I work to support decolonization? Well, Mary’s song in this passage, commonly referred to as the Magnificat, can help us.
- Mary sings to God and what does she call God? Her Savior. For an Indigenous woman living in a region devastated by the military forces of the Europeans who have colonized her land and who, herself, may have been sexually assaulted by those soldiers, salvation does not refer to the “forgiveness of her sins” or some such thing. Salvation refers to changing her material conditions, here and now. Thus, Mary knows that her “humble status” as a teenager who became pregnant outside of marriage at a time when the Romans were rampaging through her region, will be reversed and that she will actually become “blessed!” We are accustomed to seeing rich people use the hashtag #blessed when they post pictures on Instagram or facebook of themselves at a beach resort or a club or some fancy dinner but Mary knows that God’s salvation means that she, the unmarried and impoverished Indigenous teen mom from a devastated land, will actually become the one who is called blessed.
- But how will this come about? Well, Mary says that God will scatter the proud—those who have high status, those convinced of their own rightness, open-mindedness, and righteousness—God will cast down the rulers from their thrones—in other words, overthrow the empire of the colonizers and those who govern on their behalf—and, while doing so, God will fill up the hungry with good things, and exalt the humble (the same word Mary used to describe herself is now applied to an entire group of people), even as the rich are sent away no longer owning anything.
- Salvation, from Mary’s perspective, looks like decolonization and not reconciliation. Salvation, for Mary, does not mean simply forgiving the Romans for all they have done to her people, even as the Romans continue to rule over her land. Salvation means liberation from Roman rule. Salvation does not mean simply making peace with wicked and corrupt governments that exploit the people and devastate the land, simply because governments representatives say, “oops, sorry about that; that was a dark chapter in our history.” Salvation means those rulers are cast down and no longer able to exploit and devastate anyone or anything. Salvation does not mean the poor continue to accept their poverty while the rich are encouraged to hoard more and more wealth. Salvation means the poor are given all that the rich have stolen from them and the rich, themselves, are sent away with nothing—because all they had they stole from others. Thus, the Canadian push for “reconciliation” with the Indigenous peoples Canada continues to colonize, is not a path to salvation.
- In fact, the Canadian focus on reconciliation is a barrier to salvation, as understood by Mary. People who are colonized want salvation—they want to be free from colonization. Instead, their colonizers offer them reconciliation to help them feel better about being colonized. People who are impoverished want salvation—they want to be free from poverty. Instead, their colonizers offer them a vast network of social services to make them feel like they, themselves, are to blame for being poor. People who are abused want salvation—they want to be free from abuse. Instead, their abusers offer them tearful apologies so that they don’t leave their abusers.
- Luke, the author of this story, positions Mary’s song at the very beginning. It is a way of setting the stage. The question we, the readers, should then ask ourselves as we continue to read the story, is how does Jesus bring about this kind of salvation? What does Jesus go on to do that makes salvation/decolonization something real, here and now? Note, then, if we skip ahead a little, the very first words Luke says Jesus speaks when he begins his work: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because she has anointed me to bring good news to those who have been impoverished, she has sent me to proclaims release to captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the year when all material debts are forgiven and slaves are set free.” This, indeed, is a mission of decolonization.
- Okay, so a final thought on what this means for those of us who are Canadian. If we want to follow the Indigenous man, Jesus, who resisted oppression two thousand years ago in his colonized land, then we need to be working towards decolonization instead of pushing reconciliation onto people who are still colonized in order to make ourselves feel better about ourselves. We work towards decolonization by not only standing with some people but, as Mary’s song makes clear, standing against other people. Decolonization, like salvation according to Mary and Luke, is not a message about how we can all get along. Decolonization is about liberating some people and overthrowing some other people. Enlightened and open-minded Canadians, like enlightened and open-minded Romans, might struggle with the antagonistic element of this but we have to fight to overcome oppression and fighting for some people means fighting against some other people. Only after oppression ceases to exist, only after colonization is ended, only after the hungry are fed, only after the impoverished are no longer dispossessed, can we then speak about what reconciliation looks like. Until then, we have a lot of work to do.
- At this time, we now celebrate communion, a curious ritual, in which people collectively eat and drink things that are taken, in some way or another, as the body and blood of Jesus. However, given what we have just said about Jesus, I think we can now say that Jesus was an Indigenous man who was executed by the State because of his active resistance to the colonization of his land and the oppression of his people. According to the rule of settler imposed laws, Jesus was a terrorist who deserved the worst kind of death possible. So, if Jesus was an Indigenous man killed by rulers intent on annihilating any kind of Indigenous independence, then I think we can also say that the 215 kids who were found dead at the Kamloops Indian Residential School died the same kind of death as Jesus.
- Therefore, as you hold up the bread or whatever it is you are eating, I declare that this is the body of those 215 children, murdered for you who are Canadians. Take and eat in remembrance of them.
- And, in the same way, when you thake cup to drink whatever it is you are drinking, I declare that this is the blood of Poundmaker, and Big Bear, and those 215 Indigenous children shed for you. Take and drink in remembrance of them.
Thank you very much.