The theme of our Vineyard Canada West and East Gatherings this year is Metanoia, which is the Greek word for “change your way of thinking,” often translated repent in the New Testament. Metanoia is a lifelong journey. As summer comes to end, and as we are entering the season of autumn, I’ve been reflecting on one aspect of metanoia that is critical for the followers of Jesus who happen to live in Canada in 2017. Summertime is a favourite time for me to read. This past summer, my reading included two books that seemed to both complement but also contradict each other. The first was Mission of God, by Christopher Wright, with its panoramic summary of God’s mission as the essential story of Scripture and our story, too. The second was the completion of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. The first book was an inspiring call and reminder to partner with God in his mission of reconciliation, and the second chronicled the need for reconciliation due to the role of a misplaced Christian “mission” in the running of the colonial residential school system in Canada. The themes of these two books read at almost the same time, created an uncomfortable tension in me.
The six year Truth and Reconciliation Commission, launched after Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s official apology in 2008 on behalf of Canada to First Nations for the residential school system, spawned events across Canada over a period of six years, documenting the stories of over 7000 First Nations residential school survivors. Seven generations of First Nations children were systemically torn away from their parents and families and forced to renounce their language and culture, while Christianity was force-fed on them. Minimal contact was allowed with their families; many children had none. Whole communities were bereft of their children. In addition, there was severe physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse. This devastation was perpetuated to succeeding generations. So, truth and reconciliation was an invitation for all Canadians to begin the process of healing together.
What do you do with the volume of information from these stories of residential school survivors? TRC Commissioners Honorable Justice Murray Sinclair, Dr. Marie Wilson, Chief Wilton Littlechild, have done an extraordinary job, artfully weaving these stories together into a national narrative, a story that we can all engage with. In their masterful work, they argue effectively that the story of residential schools, indeed, Canada’s colonization began far before white explorers ever arrived on Canada’s shores. In their concluding summary, they offer a series of 94 Calls to Action, all of which are critical for every Canadian to understand, but calls 48-49, 58-61 are directly addressed to the church in Canada. Some of these calls are directly related to metanoia, a call to change our way of thinking. They are why we have chosen, in lieu of our regular Sunday worship, to join with the Numwayut Walk for Reconciliation in Vancouver this Sunday, September 24. Numwayut means “all my relations,” or, “we are all connected.”
THE DOCTRINE OF DISCOVERY AND “TERRA NULLIUS”
One of the TRC Calls to Action that addresses the church (number 49) states: “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.”
What is the Doctrine of Discovery and Terra Nullius? In the mid-1400’s, when European nations were fighting among themselves for territorial rights in continents such as Africa and the Americas, Pope Nicholas V issued a decree that these European “Christian” nations had the right to claim under their sovereignty lands that they “discovered.” This decree has had an ongoing impact on Canada, the USA, and other colonized territories right down to our present day. Many of us grew up being taught that Columbus “discovered” America in 1492. The problem for the explorers who went out from Europe was that there were already an estimated 100 million indigenous people living in North America when they “discovered” the continent! As Navajo theologian Mark Charles quipped, “You cannot discover something that is already inhabited… If you don’t believe me, leave out your car keys and cell phones, and I’ll come and ‘discover’ them for you!” His point, of course is that what we called “discovering” was actually stealing!
When the European nations realized that the lands were inhabited, they adopted the concept of “terra nullius,” which meant “empty lands.” These lands were deemed “empty” due to the fact that the Europeans regarded the inhabitants as uncivilized and sub-human, simply because they were non-Christian. Some of these colonialists even cited the lack of agricultural settlement as yet another indicator of “terra nullius.”
How could so-called “Christian” nations think in a way that was so contrary to the life and message of Jesus? This mindset goes back to Constantine in 300AD with the unholy marriage of church and state, resulting in Augustine’s “just war” theory to support state sanctioned violence. This later gave room for the crusades and the inquisition. As Buffy Saint Marie stated, “When the Doctrine of Discovery was decreed, there were serial killers on the thrones of Europe!”[
This Doctrine of Discovery provided the roots for the colonization of the Americas and Africa, among other nations. To this day, the Doctrine of Discovery still forms the basis of our Canadian constitution including the “Indian Act,” Canada’s laws and justice system. The Doctrine of Discovery is a systemically racist doctrine that has perpetrated the worst kinds of injustices and abuse. Indeed, it constituted the roots of the residential school system. The residential school system was simply the fruit of a dark and hidden root called colonialism, and as such, was an attempt to “kill the Indian in the child.” Most tragically, this was done in the name of God and Christian missions. It created this terrible disconnect between Christ and his church in the minds of many First Nations people in Canada, who are otherwise very open to the Creator and to Jesus, but to this day, will not enter the church.
Such are the roots of a colonial world that many Canadians grew up in. As a child, I lived within 30 miles of an Indian Residential School (Grouard) in northern Alberta, but I had no idea that such an institution even existed until I was 35 years old. Nevertheless, I was indoctrinated with colonial assumptions that Canada had been “discovered,” and as such, became unknowingly complicit with the system, regardless of my best intentions. As I now read the TRC’s Call to Action, I am impressed with how important it is to First Nations that we, as communities of faith that bear the name of Christ, name and publicly renounce this horrific Doctrine of Discovery, because it is the root of some of the most heinous injustices and crimes known to humanity.
METANOIA AS A DOORWAY OF HOPE
The whole colonial saga can be disheartening for those of us who are engaged in Christian mission. Yet, it is the very Gospel which was so badly misrepresented, when truly understood, provides hope. It calls us to metanoia, which includes naming and owning our colonialist mindset, confessing our sin of misrepresenting Christ and his Good News, and humbly seeking forgiveness from our First Nations sisters and brothers as a first step towards a new relationship. We can’t rewind the past, but we can take ownership of it and learn from it, as we work out an equal and just relationship.
That is why it is critical that the church specifically responds to TRC Call No. 49.
Some churches have already done so. The United Church of Canada’s national website has these words: We repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, which asserted that lands belonged to the Christian powers that “discovered” them.
In addition, the Anglican Church of Canada made this statement in their 2010 synod: [We] repudiate and renounce the Doctrine of Discovery as fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and our understanding of the inherent rights that individuals and peoples have received from God.
Evangelical churches have also responded. The Christian and Missionary Alliance Church have published this prayer in a beautiful document on their national website that covers all 94 Calls to Action, and this one specific to no. 49: Father God, We regret that Your Church was party to the use of the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius in the expansion of European sovereignty over land that had been in the care of Aboriginal peoples. We regret the dislocation that resulted from these concepts. We pray that Your Church will be pro-active in bringing healing and restoration to those whose ancestors and present families continue to live with the negative results of this dislocation.
WHAT ABOUT US?
In this season of reconciliation, metanoia means proactively finding ways that we, as the Vancouver Eastside Vineyard Church alongside our Vineyard tribe in Canada, respond to TRC Call to Action, No. 49, as communities of justice, mercy, and humility. Of course, formally renouncing the Doctrine of Discovery is only the first step towards decolonization. If we stop there and go no further, "decolonization" can quickly become a cheap “buzz word,” the latest trend, or simply a meaningless metaphor to make us feel better about ourselves in our culture of domination. No, real decolonization means a life long journey of metanoia, of unlearning the past, changing our way of thinking, and working out in practice, policy, and habits, both personally and corporately, what renouncing the Doctrine of Discovery really means.
Any role the church takes in encouraging this partnership of justice and reconciliation is a vital part of our mission and message as the church. Numwayut – we are all connected. This Sunday, this is the reason we walk.