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132 years ago today Louis Riel was murdered by the Canadian government in Regina, SK. Louis Riel continues to be a controversial figure more than a hundred years after he lived and died; after all, it was only 25 years ago that he was finally acknowledged as the founder of Manitoba. I believe that the inclusion of all three prairie provinces in confederation can be attributed in part to his vision and work. Riel’s work dealt with a number of issues we continue to struggle with in Canada: western alienation, the rights of indigenous peoples, differences between French and English culture and language, and the mixing of politics and religion. I see him as a young visionary ahead of his time whose final years were marked by controversy and tragedy. A few paragraphs of a Maggie Siggins biography capture the turning point in Riel’s life when he went into exile.

Life might have been different for Louis Riel. With an unconditional amnesty he would have taken his place among the ruling elite of Red River. He likely would have increased the family’s land holdings and taken advantage, like everyone else, of the imminent boom in Winnipeg. He would have been a source of pride to his mother and looked after the education of his siblings, seeing that his sisters married well and his brothers got decent jobs. He might have married the “pious and holy” mate he was looking for, and produced children who continued his life’s work, much as he had done his father’s. His political career likely would have thrived; with his natural aptitude, a stint as a member of Parliament might have turned into a Cabinet position. Given his passionate concern for his own people, he could have served as Premier of Manitoba and then—who knows?—he might have tried for the highest office in the land.

But he was exiled. It wasn’t just that he would miss his family, or that he would remain poverty-stricken, reduced to living off hand-outs. More, he well understood that a unique accomplishment in North America—the establishment of a society in which the Native peoples could have some say and maybe even prosper—had been crushed. And the interlopers… who cared only about the fortunes to be made in Red River and nothing for its traditions, now had their revenge and were laughing out loud. If, over the next few years, Riel suffered great emotional exhaustion and turmoil, what else could have been expected?

Riel’s vision of a multi-cultural society is still alive, and the failures of the Canadian government to fully embrace it still haunt us today. We no longer execute “renegade” leaders like we did Riel and we do enjoy a multi-cultural society to some extent, but the pallor of living conditions in most First Nations communities and the ongoing inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women remind us that we still have a long way to go.

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Memory is one of the primary handles we have to the roots of our faith. All people of faith have immediate experiences of transcendence but even those experiences are built on the foundation of memory. Memory keeps the significance of past events relevant and meaningful for the present. On Remembrance Day the country we live in asks us to remember the sacrifice of soldiers who died and are dying in battle. What does the church ask us to remember? We also remember conscientious objectors to war and we remember Christian peacemakers such as Tom Fox, who died in the line of duty. We remember the ultimate peacemaker, Jesus Christ. The memory of Jesus motivates us to live in the Jesus way.

The most foundational memory for the church is the remembrance of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We remember the Christ-event. Our living memory of this event is indeed a subversive act of peacemaking. The passion of Christ upset what is often at the very foundation of human relationships- the myth of redemptive violence. Throughout our culture, from entertainment to government, we are bombarded with words and images that “might makes right.” But in Christ, the threat of death and violence no longer have the ultimate power. Jesus’ death and resurrection destroys the effectiveness of killing and war. Love and Life are the most powerful weapons in the world. They are the weapons of the church. This is how the church works to build a community of peace around the world.

“Armistice Day” was the original name given to a national holiday in 1919 to remember the First World War as the “war to end all wars.” The sad irony is that Jesus already fought the “war to end all wars” two thousand years ago. Armistice Day was when Jesus died. On Remembrance Day we remember the horrors of war and the millions of men and women who have died, but let us also remember the sacrifice of Christ. “Lest we forget…” [and thus repeat the horrors of the wars of history] goes the familiar line. As we remember the peacemaking work of Christ we are grateful and also motivated to participate in the ongoing work of peace in our homes, communities and our world. Jesus showed us that war does not have to be the way to resolve differences or promote human values. Only the way of peace leads to peace.

Martin Luther redefined Christian vocation by saying, “The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks.” When he talked about vocation he liked to use the most mundane examples: “the father washing smelly diapers, the maid sweeping the floor, the brewer making good beer.” Luther was known for tipping back a mug or two and the Germans continue to be known for their beer. In this spirit, I repost something that was also published in the GEEZ Magazine “confession” column a number of years ago.

Confession: I gather at a pub with men from my church every first Thursday of the month to drink beer and talk.

Justification: It all started innocently enough a few years ago. As an academic I was doing a project on men’s spirituality and needed some men as guinea pigs. What better way to loosen their lips to talk about God than to consume some beer once a month! The project ended, but a few months later the deacon in the group proposed that we meet again for counsel and refreshment of the body and soul. Now, we have become so obsessed with craft beer that we are often meeting twice a month, once locally and once for a “field trip” to visit other micro-breweries in the Pacific Northwest [and they are numerous]. Craft beer is up to $7 a pint and sometimes one is not enough, but it has become a life-giving religious ritual. Consider the support of local crafts people, the communion around the table, and perhaps most importantly the simple enjoyment of God’s good gifts.

Those who are wondering why this needs to be the subject of a confession may not understand my background. I grew up in a conservative Mennonite church that broke away from the larger Mennonite church in 1812 over various liberal tendencies, one of which was the brewing and consumption of alcoholic beverages. Incidentally, I have now joined that larger Mennonite church, which gives me the freedom to enjoy beer, but not without occasional nagging feelings from my past.

So, if you have experienced the freedom of the Lord and appreciate the bounty of God’s creation in a brewed format, then raise a glass of German pilsner to our brother Martin on this Reformation Day to celebrate the 500th anniversary of his risky act of protest.

 

The book of Romans was Martin Luther’s favorite so I offer a brief meditation on Romans 15:4-13 to counter Luther’s and Hitler’s exclusivity and fear of the other that is still a threat to human thriving today.

I remember how disappointed I was as a child when I was left out of birthday party invitations. It felt like all the other kids were invited while I was the only one who had been excluded from the festivities. What a discouraging and hopeless feeling.

The entire book of Romans addresses the problem of exclusivity. Paul writes that Gentiles as well as Jews are now included in the covenant of grace through Jesus Christ (10:12-13). Romans 15:4-13 is the conclusion to this wonderful message of grace.

The inclusivity of Christ is meant for our encouragement and hope (v.4). It means we are called to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us (v.7) and to get along with people different from us (v.5). By doing this we are glorifying God. The Jews had put their hope in a Messiah for generations but now Paul reminds them from their own Scriptures (v.9-12) that in Jesus all people are included. The hope of the Jews has become the hope of the Gentiles as well (v.12b).

All people are invited and included; no one is left out of this party. There is enough grace for all and there is nothing we can do to make ourselves worthy—it is by grace. This fills us with peace and joy (v.13)!

THE REIGN OF GRACE

Let it reign, let it rain

to wash away the stain

of fear and guilt and shame.

Let it reign, let it rain

to remove the filthy stain

of greed and anger, selfish gain.

Let it reign, let it rain

to cleanse the wounds of hate

and make us whole again.

Let it reign, let it rain

to flood the valleys of regret

and green this parched plain.

 

Not everything about Martin Luther is to be celebrated. Luther’s opinions regarding Jews, many of them written in his book, On the Jews and Their Lies, are disturbing. “Set fire to their synagogues or schools… Jewish houses should be razed and destroyed… prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, [should] be taken from them… their rabbis [should] be forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and limb… all cash and treasure of silver and gold [should] be taken from them.” What Jews could do was to have “a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade” put into their hands so “young, strong Jews and Jewesses” could “earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.” Not unlike Hitler’s “Work brings freedom” which is welded on the gates of Dachau.

Was Luther anti-Semitic? Did his attitudes pave the way for the emergence of Hitler? Was he the father of the still present anti-Semitism among western Christians?

I visited Dachau concentration camp in 2008 and again in 2013—they were sobering visits. Most of us prefer to distance ourselves from people like Adolf Hitler, who is seen by many as one of the most evil people in history. One quote I encountered there kind of jolted me and spurred me to read some more of what Hitler wrote and spoke. It seems he saw himself as a Christian leading out of Christian convictions. We do not like to think of him as “our kind of Christian” but I think it might be good for us if we looked inside and saw the same potential for evil within all of us. Here’s that quote:

There is a road to freedom. Its milestones are Obedience, Endeavor, Honesty, Order, Cleanliness, Sobriety, Truthfulness, Sacrifice, and love of the Fatherland.

It sounds like a list of North American Christian values does it not? And here’s another one that might surprise you it’s Hitler.

Today Christians stand at the head of this country… We want to fill our culture again with the Christian spirit … We want to burn out all the recent immoral developments in literature, in the theater, and in the press – in short, we want to burn out the poison of immorality which has entered into our whole life and culture as a result of liberal excess during the past few years.

It makes me shudder how much like a modern day evangelical preacher he sounds. Not only Jews were tortured and killed, but also the disabled, homosexuals, immigrants, liberals, artists, journalists, and any who would dare to resist or speak out. They were all categorized, vilified, dehumanized, and then they could be exterminated.

The fear of human difference persists in all places, including our own hearts. Do we still couch it in terms of immorality? Whom do we categorize, vilify, and dehumanize today? The Gospel is about humanization; God became a human being in Jesus Christ and those of us who claim to believe in this God are called to be human as Christ was human and to treat others as we are.

THANKSGIVING

We take a brief break from our 500th anniversary of Martin Luther series to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving this weekend. I am thankful for family, food, and friends as usual but in this 150+ year of celebration let us give thanks for all the blessings we enjoy in this wonderful political entity called Canada. Canadians complain about the weather, about our politicians, about our hockey teams, about too much of this and not enough of that but really, we have a lot to be thankful for. Here are just ten things:

  1. First Nations. Before there was Canada there were many nations. They have been hospitable and humble hosts even though we brought some really bad gifts from Europe.
  2. Geography: coastal beaches, mountains, deserts, prairies, forests, muskeg, rolling meadows, and the Canadian Shield—a unique collection of rock, lakes, and trees that covers almost half of Canada.
  3. Road Trips to explore the above. The Trans-Canada Highway that runs from coast to coast is the ultimate one. We traveled it in 2007 as a family of 6 in a mini-van [Check out the pictures under “Slide shows”], although we did not do the Newfoundland section which is on my bucket list.
  4. The People. If the USA is a melting pot, Canada is a salad where every distinct people group is encouraged to embrace their uniqueness while still contributing to the whole.
  5. Winter. Although on the west coast we can hardly claim to have winter, to brave the harsh winter elements is a truly Canadian experience. Other than licking a metal pole at minus 30—which I would not recommend—that feeling of your nostrils and eyelids freezing together beats sunburn any day.
  6. Universal Health Care. Invented by Tommy Douglas, a Baptist pastor turned socialist politician—which could only happen in Canada. He was voted the “Greatest Canadian” in a poll a few years ago. We complain about wait times but the fact that all sick people can go to a hospital for treatment without incurring massive debts is one of the best things about Canada.
  7. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC]. A state-owned radio and telecommunications network that is more critical of the government than any privately owned network. I like the irony of this.
  8. Hockey. World’s fastest game on ice and sometimes our national religion. The regular season has just begun. Now if only a Canadian team could win the Stanley Cup. Oops, that was a complaint!
  9. Good neighbours. Although we love to denounce our big brother to the south—mostly because of our inferiority complex—we enjoy the world’s longest undefended border. How y’all doin’ eh?
  10. Self-deprecation. It’s so endearing and it makes for some great comedy. “Sorry for bragging.”

 

Luther is known for his rediscovery of Romans 1:16 “The just shall live by faith” and the subsequent Latin phrases “Sola Gracia” and “Sola Fidela” i.e. we are saved only by grace through faith. Today’s reflection is inspired by a third phrase: “Sola Scriptura” which means that Scripture alone is our authority for faith.

In 2008 Phyllis Tickle introduced the theory that every 500 years there has been a major shift in western Christianity in her book, The Great Emergence. This means that we are in the midst of another significant shift presently, which she calls the “Great Emergence.” In 2014 I read her follow-up book entitled, Emergence Christianity, in which she attempts to define and describe the present movement.

In the first half of the book she recounts the events that paved the way for Emergence Christianity. “As a general rule, the first substantive evidence that a serious change is in process is the presence of organized, albeit not always well rationalized, resistance…” This resistance took the form of Vatican I and the declaration of the infallibility of the pope for Roman Catholics; for Protestants it was the declaration of the five fundamentals at the Niagara Bible Conferences, with the inerrancy of Scripture being central. A central question in the history of the western church is: Where is the authority? How is Scripture an authority? A few quotes from Tickle’s book are insightful in this regard.

“In the years immediately preceding 1868 [before Vatican I and the Niagara Bible Conferences], the disestablishment of slavery had delivered a major blow to the principle of biblical inerrancy and, thereby, to Scripture’s role as the absolute basis of authority in latinized [western] Christendom. While the Bible does not require that one person own another, it clearly acknowledges that practice and clearly provides for its just application. And by 1868, there could be no question about the fact that abolition, whatever else it did, had declared that what was permitted in Holy Writ was wrong—egregiously wrong.”

The present issue that again is forcing us to wrestle with the question of biblical authority is the question of LGBTQ+ inclusion and the blessing of gay marriages in the church.

“The rightness of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered life, much less the rights of those who so live, has dominated cultural conversations for decades. It certainly was to thrust Christian theology and ecclesiology into a divisive turmoil that has not yet reached resolution… The injunction against homosexuality in all its forms is the last of the biblically based injunctions still standing in the world. Should it come to be resolved, the doctrine of Protestant inerrancy will have no other battlefield on which to defend itself.”

Although our denomination [Mennonite Church Canada] does not use the word “inerrancy” or even “infallibility” in our doctrine of Scripture, we do hold the Bible to be a “fully reliable and trustworthy standard” for the church. “Sola Scriptura” was uttered 500 years ago in a very different context than our own but the way we hold the Bible to be an authority for us continues to be worked out.