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We are experiencing “unprecedented” floods in the rural area of Abbotsford known as the Sumas Prairie. What many people do not realize is that this “prairie” is actually the bottom of a lake that was drained almost 100 years ago. The lake was the lifeblood of indigenous people for millennia before contact with European explorers, gold speculators, and settlers. The lake contained more than a dozen kinds of fish, including varieties of salmon and the mighty sturgeon; the area around the lake was home to hundreds of varieties of plants, trees, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. It was as rich as a lake as it is now of agricultural land. Is the lake now exacting a revenge on human engineers who thought they could outwit what the Creator had done?

Here is a link to a number of news stories about what is happening today, an interview with an indigenous elder, and an interview with a historian of the lake.

Here is a link to a narrated movie of my “backyard art gallery” held in April of this year, inspired by local history, including the draining of the lake.

I recently participated in a panel discussion about Remembrance Day at the college where I work. This is my response to the first question.

Jesus calls his followers to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, and to pray for those who persecute them. Does following Jesus put us in tension with a day that commemorates those who went to war against our enemies?

Yes, it does put us in tension but tension is not necessarily a bad thing, even if it is uncomfortable. The Christian life is full of tension. Tension is part of engagement with the world. Just because there is a tension does not mean we need to run from it. There have been Mennonites who have run and are living in remote areas of the world but unfortunately ethical tensions do not leave them alone!

I am thankful for men and women who sacrificed their lives but I am not thankful for a system of national warfare that demands human sacrifice. The original Remembrance Day in Canada was called Armistice Day after WW1 which was so terrible it was supposed to be the “war to end all wars.” It took less than a generation before WW2 broke out with much more catastrophic violence and unprecedented loss of life. Armistice Day, the war to end all wars was fought and won 2000 years ago. The sacrifice of Jesus, God incarnate, put an end to the need for animal and human sacrifice. The Lord’s Supper is a remembrance day and it connects to this Remembrance Day where we mourn with the tragic loss of life that war causes.

Put another way, can we participate in ceremonies that express gratitude to those who fought in wars without aligning ourselves with war and violence?

We align ourselves with the principalities of war and violence almost every day when we participate in unjust social, religious, and economic systems. No one is pure. Staying home from a ceremony or attending one is at best a tiny symbolic gesture. The best way for followers of Jesus to honour veterans of war is to work for peace. “To remember is to work for peace” is an appropriate message to accompany a poppy. The more we work for peace and justice the less likely our nation will deem it necessary to involve our citizens in lethal combat.

But let me say one more thing. September 30 is far more important than November 11. When I was first introduced to Remembrance Day as a school child, the explanation that was given us was that our soldiers fought and died to secure my freedom and wonderful lifestyle in Canada. But I say to you that my freedom and wonderful lifestyle was obtained through the genocide of indigenous people in our country, not because the western European Allies won the war over the German Nazis in Europe. It was two so-called Christian empires fighting on what was for Canadians, foreign soil. While we were freeing Jews from the holocaust in Europe (And this was not our primary motive for entering the war) we were committing a holocaust back home on our own soil. I find this very uncomfortable to think about but it’s the truth, and we have to come to terms with it because we have been beneficiaries of an unjust system. Soldiers and civilians who die in violent conflicts are victims of the same system. Our battle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers [systems] that demand human sacrifice.

Maybe I should get an Instagram account so I could get this kind of thing.

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After working almost seven days a week between my two jobs during the month of September, then delivering a lecture on practicing “Silence, Solitude, and Sabbath” this past week, and hearing a sermon on “Sabbath” on Sunday, it was time for me to put this into practice! The purpose of the Sabbath principle is to rest [Exodus 20] and remember [Deuteronomy 5]. This weekend I was able to rest from my academic and ecclesiastical labours by going for a walk with my loved one, cleaning up the garden for the season, and by painting a watercolour picture. I had the mental space to remember and reflect on all the things I am thankful for: a family that is not divided by COVID, a roof over my head when it rains, food on the table, and a little garden hut to retreat and paint are just four of the obvious ones.

I started a series some time ago painting pictures of church buildings. Church buildings used to dominate skylines of towns and cities but now those old cathedrals made of wood and stone are dwarfed by commercial skyscrapers made of glass and steel. The visual contrast makes for some intriguing art and is perhaps also telling about our values and our gods. This one below is St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church in Vancouver. I also have one hanging in the Metzger Collection at Columbia Bible College as part of a new exhibition, “A Tale of Two Churches.” Check it out in person if you live in Abbotsford or visit https://www.metzgercollection.org

It has been a full month with two jobs! My weekly blog has had to take a backseat as a result. Here is part of the lecture I delivered in my Anabaptist History class on the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

While the Anabaptist movement was in its infancy in continental Europe in the 16th century, European expansion was happening in the rest of the world.

Spain and Portugal divided the world in half between themselves in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494! Although Columbus was Roman/Italian, his expeditions were funded by Spanish royalty [Ferdinand and Isabella]. The Spanish conquered all of the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South [except Brazil-Portugal] America, and western North America and Florida.

Other empires got into the act later in the 1500s. The French had a tract along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers [Louisiana, etc]. and along St. Laurence Basin [parts of upper states, Maritimes, Quebec]. The British had most of eastern coast and the vast Hudson’s Bay territories inland.

Aside: America is named after Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer who set forth the then revolutionary concept that the lands that Columbus sailed to in 1492 were part of a separate continent, even though Vespucci never actually set foot on it.

Christian European expansion was based on the Doctrine of Discovery which was the international law that gave license to explorers to claim vacant land (terra nullius) in the name of their sovereign. If the lands were not occupied by Christians they were considered “vacant” therefore could be defined as “discovered” and sovereignty, dominion, title and jurisdiction claimed. Here is an excerpt:

“Nicholas, The Roman pontiff, successor of the key-bearer of the heavenly kingdom and vicar of Jesus Christ, contemplating with a father’s mind all the several climes of the world and seeking and desiring the salvation of all…

…to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed… and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.” 

(“Bulls of Discovery” issued by Pope Nicholas V, 1454)

This theology was based primarily on three biblical texts:

  • The Great Commission to Spread the Gospel (Matthew 28:18-20): “Go into all the world” [v.19] = Explore and colonize. “Make disciples” = make people into Christians by subjugating them. “Kill the Indian to save the soul”
  • The Divine Right to Rule (Romans 13:1-7): “God has set authorities in place” [v.1] = We are those authorities. Based on earlier “Divine right of kings”. Rebellion against this is rebellion against God and will not be tolerated.
  • The Divine Command for the Conquest of Canaan (Exodus 23:20-33; Deuteronomy 20:16-18): “Completely destroy them” [20:17] = Following God’s commands and the example of ancient Israel, slavery and genocide are acceptable ways to take territory for Christ.

This doctrine was lived out just as it was stated: by military force, economic exploitation, and religious proselytization. Explorers were followed by merchants [to glorify God by making money], missionaries [to convert people], military [to protect the former and subjugate the rebellious], settlers [to go into all the world], politicians & pastors [to keep order], police [to protect the former and subjugate the rebellious].

More than a 2 million Christian European settlers had come to the “vacant” Americas by 1800 [another 60 million after that]. By contrast, the indigenous population plummeted from an estimated 18 million to less than a million in the 150 years following Columbus’s voyages, primarily through the spread of diseaseforced labor and slavery for resource extraction, and missionization. This was the first large-scale act of genocide in the modern era.

The residential school system that followed was an extension of this 15th century doctrine. The Doctrine of Discovery has been recognized by Western courts as the legal precedent for land and resource rights up until the 21st century. I was very happy to be part of our denomination’s long overdue repudiation of this doctrine in 2016.

“Be it resolved that Mennonite Church Canada repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery as it is fundamentally opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and our understanding of the inherent dignity and rights that individuals and peoples have received from God.”

This fall I have taken on a new, temporary, and part-time role of preaching and coordinating preaching at our church. Even though I have been an ordained minister for 30 years, it caused more turmoil than I had bargained for.

CRISIS OF CALLING

Do I hear you calling?

Am I going progressively deaf?

Maybe I’m just falling.

Is it a voice from within?

Is it a voice from above?

Is it the voice of a person?

Is it just in my head?

Is it from God’s heart?

Either way I’m full of dread.

Is it a desire for power?

Is it a need for strokes?

No matter what, I cower.

I’m sixty years old.

I’m not looking for change.

I’m too far along to be bold.

I’d like to retire with ease.

I don’t need a new challenge.

Don’t call me now please.

A movie provided an unintended addition to my summer reading about Indigenous people in Canada. We watched the movie, Indian Horse, based on the novel with the same title by Richard Wagamese. I’ll confess that I have not read the book and the only reason I watched the movie is because live TV was not working at a resort in the interior of BC. It is a powerful movie with real Canadian ingredients: Indigenous main characters, boreal wilderness, hockey, residential schools, hard work, and both humor and tragedy.

For those who have not read the book or seen the movie I will not give a synopsis of the movie. I will just mention that the only white character in the story who seemed to have any redemptive elements sucker punched me in the gut by being revealed as the abuser in the end. This impacted me deeply, not because of the surprising plot twist by a good author, not because I too was a victim of childhood sexual abuse, but because it spoke the truth of Canadian history. We are learning that some of our colonial and political heroes like John A. Macdonald were actually villains. I won’t weigh in on the statue debate but just say that my reading this summer has helped me to get a more accurate perspective on the Canadian story.

P.S. I will weigh in on the name debate. I was doing some research for my Anabaptist History course this past week. What was happening on our continent in 1525 while the Anabaptist movement was being birthed in Europe? Christopher Columbus landed on its shores in 1493 ushering in the first European settlements in the 1500s. Too many places on this continent are named after him. Perhaps the worst is the name of our province: British Columbia. Columbus was an Italian whose travels were funded by the Spanish Empire; thus “British” Columbia just specifies who was claiming imperial power in this region of the continent claimed by Columbus on behalf of Spain. And of course our capital city is named after the Queen of the British Empire at the time. We should follow the example of Manitoba [Ojibway “God who speaks”] with the capital city of Winnipeg [Cree “Muddy Water”].

We are buried in heat, smoke, and ash right now in southern BC. It has been a crazy summer of weather and it has impacted my little garden as well. I think the worst was the extreme “heat dome” at the end of June that broke our hottest day records by almost 10 degrees. My rain barrel ran out of water by mid-June and the one small shower in early August helped the garden for a day; but overall, it was the summer of watering every other day.

Most visibly impacted by the early heat were the raspberries that were in peaking at the time. They blanched white and dried right on the plant. Thankfully, we got a few pickings before that and even a few berries after. The blueberries I planted a few years ago had no berries and may never recover. I’m not sure what farmers did to keep their plants alive because we were still able to buy good berries from them. The apples were few to start with and seemed to shrivel. Choke cherries and hazelnuts were stolen by predators like every year. Rhubarb always does well. The red currants produced a bumper crop but because they are so small it only made a very small batch of sauce. The first crop of ever-bearing strawberries was very good but the second picking is sparse right now. After two years of transition and crop failure, the grapes have adjusted to the new arbor. They are right now turning a beautiful dark purple, and are plentiful and flavourful.

All of the perennial herbs (peppermint, spearmint, lavender, lemon balm, sage, thyme, oregano, rosemary, parsley, and chives) survived although I harvested before the heat dome (I harvest early and freeze them so they maintain both their colour and flavour). Dill failed for the second year in a row. The stevia plant did okay. Basil did better than ever. Chamomile gave me a sweet bunch of flowers to add to the mint-based garden tea in June.

I grow radishes just because they are early. I gave away a few bunches of nice-looking ones to neighbours. Broccoli did better than ever with two harvests. Peas did okay. I planted onions for the first time in a few years and there will be some. Early lettuce was wonderful but it really suffered from the heat. Kale is the hardiest plant in the garden and it seems heat doesn’t bother it any more than frost, although frost improves the taste while heat makes it bitter. Potatoes were very small. It was the worst year ever for carrots because they just did not germinate even though I used the same seeds as usual. The ones I got were large and tasty but they were few and far between. The green pole beans did better than ever with an eight foot teepee loaded with beans. Beets were good again for two years in a row. Cucumbers were all kinds of odd shapes and not plentiful. Tomato plants grew big but are not yielding a proportionate amount of fruit. Yes, I said fruit, even though I think of them as a vegetable.

I’m thankful.

Heinrichs, Steve and Esther Epp-Tiessen, editors. Be it Resolved: Anabaptists & Partner Coalitions Advocate for Indigenous Justice, 1966-2020.

Mennonites are known for their practical service but also for their careful processes in committee work. This book is more about the latter with hopes that it would translate into the former. It demonstrates the revolutionary foresight of some statements as well as the too often failure to translate into any meaningful action on behalf of indigenous justice over the years. The book was published and given to me by my denomination in exchange for my engagement with an online discussion group.

Although I know that it is important work that has to be done, I am not a committee or task force kind of person. Thus, this book full of resolutions and carefully worded statements was a difficult read for me. What it did for me was give me a look at some of the good work being done behind-the-scenes while major controversies make the public news: Elijah Harper and his bringing down of the Meech Lake Accord, Oka, Burnt Church, Grassy Narrows, Ipperwash, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology for Indian Residential Schools in 2008, and most recently the Idle No More movement and the Truth and Reconciliation meetings held across Canada. There is always more to it than what we see or read in the news. I have a new appreciation for the work done by tireless advocates for indigenous justice.

Here are a few of many quotes that caught my attention.

“Canada was built on the dispossession of Indigenous lands through the repression of Indigenous law, language, culture, and spirituality.” (From the introduction by Ruth Plett)

“We criticize southern Africa and the racism that is seen there, and yet we have examples at home. The problem they are having in South Africa, is that the descendants of European people are trying to wrestle with how they are going to live with the Indigenous population. In that case, the Indigenous people are the majority, so there’s paranoia in that white race that’s there. But what’s your paranoia? We are the minority here! Why can’t we deal with the problems that we criticize South Africa about? Why can’t Native people have enough land and enough control over their lives that they can have some dignity?” (George Erasmus, Dene, 1987)

“We must be careful not to invoke a double standard, namely, to accept political action as appropriate when undertaken for our advantage, often involving special privileges, but to reject as “political” similar action undertaken to promote justice for others… Mennonites have benefitted much from broken treaties and from the herding of Indians onto small reserves of marginal land.” (MCC Canada “Why Apologize?” 1992)

“According to the United Nations’ Human Development Index, the majority society in Canada benefits from the highest quality-of-life measures of any country in the world. But by this same UN standard, the social conditions facing Aboriginal people in Canada, taken by themselves, would place that population in 63rd place among the nations of the world.” (Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative, 2000)

Be it resolved “That Mennonite Church Canada repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery as it is fundamentally opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and our understanding of the inherent dignity and rights that individuals and peoples have received from God.” (Mennonite Church Canada, 2016) I was happy to be at these meetings and voted in favour of this resolution that was carried unanimously minus one.

King, Thomas. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. Anchor, 2013.

I knew of Thomas King’s reputation as a writer with a biting wit and so I thought this work of historical nonfiction might be a good summer read. I was not disappointed. The book was both entertaining and insightful.

A few things were immediately noticeable. King uses the term “Indian” in the title and the body of the book with some sarcasm and mentions “aboriginal, first nations, and native” but it seems the term “indigenous” was not yet in use at the time of writing. The book is unique in that he attempts to tell the story of indigenous people in both United States and Canada. Despite the differences in policy since contact and colonization, the 49th parallel is obviously an artificial boundary that meant nothing to indigenous people. I was a bit disappointed when he says that he does not want to start with Christopher Columbus but then does so anyway. I would have benefitted from some pre-contact stories. An important contribution is that he refers to specific indigenous tribes and nations whereas settlers tend to generalize and treat them all the same. King demonstrates the height of his witty truth-telling when he differentiates between Live Indians, Dead Indians, and Legal Indians. “Dead Indians are dignified, noble, silent, suitably garbed. And dead. Live Indians are invisible, unruly, disappointing. And breathing. One is a romantic reminder of a heroic but fictional past. The other is simply an unpleasant, contemporary surprise…The Legal Indian is a by-product of the treaties signed with Native nations.”

A quote from Andrew Jackson sums up white settler attitudes both then and still today. “What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by 12 million happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion.” King makes the reader feel uncomfortable and it is a necessary discomfort; for example, referring to Christianity as a “conquest religion” makes me squirm even if I identify as an Anabaptist, pacifist, anti-establishmentarian Christian. He goes on to say that most religions are similar and he knows of none that might be seen as a “seduction religion where converts are lured in by the beauty of the doctrine and the generosity of the practice.” This made me think of Brian Zahnd’s book, The Beautiful Gospel where he tries to argue that Christianity is indeed a seduction religion! I agree with Zahnd but this does not change the historical record to the contrary. “Missionary work in the New World was war…Christianity [was] a stakeholder in the business of assimilation…or if you want the positive but somewhat callous view, you might wish to describe Christianity as the gateway drug to supply-side capitalism.” This is a history I have to embrace as my own before I can ever hope to convince people of the beauty of Jesus and his message of radical love.

King addresses the various ways that Europeans have attempted to deal with the “Indian problem” from extermination to assimilation to education in residential schools. These policies may have officially ceased but the past is still the present and to say, “Forget about the past. Today is a new day. Let’s enjoy it together” is a ridiculous sentiment that King debunks. So then, “What do Indians want?” King climaxes the book with two chapters (8 and 9) answering this question. “If you understand nothing else about the history of Indians in North America, you need to understand that the question that really matters is the question of land. Land has always been a defining element of Aboriginal culture…For non-Natives, land is primarily a commodity.” In this light, his retelling of the Oka crisis in 1990 was very important for me to read. It was very different from what I read and heard about in the news at that time.

I don’t blame King for his cynicism when he jokes about trying to come up with a “happy ever after” ending to the book. There is lots of sad evidence about how unkindly Canada treats its original residents to this day. But I am of the western mind, I also like happy endings; and, even in the sinking ship of human degradation I am buoyed by a hopeful eschatology. One of the “happy” stories he writes about in his concluding chapter is the formation of Nunavut in 1999. The announcement a few days ago of Mary Simon becoming the first indigenous (Inuit) Governor General in Canada is a fitting update to the Nunavut story that ends the book. Good news indeed but I hope she makes us uncomfortable a few times.