A few years ago, my friend organized a protest at the shelter he was staying at. His protest concerned the use of sermons to wake up shelter participants. While he is a follower of Jesus, he is also a victim of the residential school system which had used the power of the sermon to destroy his people. The protest was peaceful and I joined the round dance he had organized during a community meal. During the meal, I sat with someone else I had known for a long time. He was a settler and I asked what he thought about the protest. He quoted this scripture to me: “But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides.” (Num 33:55). I was shocked. This person’s theological imagination easily identified colonial settlers with Israel and the Indigenous peoples with the “seven nations larger and stronger than you” (Deut 7:1). During the days of colonization, this was common thinking. For example many Dutch Reformed colonists believed, “Reformed Christians were God’s spiritual Israel whom He had elected to make His name great in the earth.”
Willie Jennings calls this kind of theological reasoning white fiction. Instead of imagining the new “bi-racial humanity” – that is metaphorically, Jew and Gentile - of Jesus through his bloody body in the power of the Spirit, newcomers to Turtle Island imagined the new creation with reference to the white body and its own power through bloody hands. This kind of heretical theology justified the spiritual violence inflicted on Indigenous peoples which continues to this day.
According to The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Summary Report, spiritual violence occurs when:
· a person is not permitted to follow her or his preferred spiritual or religious tradition;
· a different spiritual or religious path or practice is forced on a person;
· a person’s spiritual or religious tradition, beliefs, or practices are demeaned or belittled;
· a person is made to feel shame for practising his or her traditional or family beliefs.
Waking up someone experiencing homelessness with a sermon is spiritual violence. Making an Indigenous Christian feel shame for smudging is spiritual violence. Deeming all Indigenous spirituality as demonic without first seeking to understand is spiritual violence. Even forcing someone to wear western style clothing and changing a child’s name is spiritual violence. For many Indigenous peoples culture and spirituality are inseparable. A survivor of Indian Residential Schools was taught that her language and her cultural ways “belonged to the devil” and her people were “chanting to the devil”. As mentioned in other blogs, we must know the difference between culture and paganism.
Without this wisdom, we may fall into the trap of thinking that we and our own people are God’s chosen while the rest of the world are children of the devil. When we do this, spiritual violence escalates into physical violence and, as the TRC names, genocide. Someone I know experiencing homelessness witnessed his own brother murdered after his brother spoke his Indigenous language at an Indian Residential School.
Operating under the duality of God versus Satan, good versus evil, Christians participated in the murder of Indigenous peoples in the name of God. Though we cannot be certain (especially with the uncovering of more graves), mortality rates of Indian Residential Schools are estimated between 40-60%. To put this in perspective, the death rate at the Dachau Nazi concentration camp was 36% while the worst concentration camp, Mauthausen, had a death rate of 58%.
Because of the mythology that Europeans were the chosen ones to come to Turtle Island, we can brush our spiritual violence off as justified or “God’s will”. Many people still say, ‘yes there was lots of evil and violence but God still used it to bring many people to Jesus’ or ‘…but God used it to establish this nation’. My great uncle is a survivor of Auschwitz concentration camp. Would you have the courage to say to him, “yes there was lots of evil and violence but …”? We are less likely to say that to my great uncle because we recognize the severity of his pain and suffering. There is no ‘but’ which can lessen or justify the evil of Nazism. And yet we easily do it to the survivors of Canada’s brutal genocide.
When Jesus came to earth he identified the “children of the devil”. These children were not the Samaritans or gentiles or sinners. They were the leaders of the ‘chosen’ people, those who had the responsibility to shine the light and love of the Creator to all peoples (John 8:44). In the colonial settlers’ attempts to purify the promised land in the name of God, they became servants of evil. They learned and taught the language of deceit and their worship became chants to the devil. This evil is still present in our churches. We must ask for the light of Christ to shine into the darkness of our past so that we may live in his freedom and peace as children of God. Lord Jesus help us. May your light guide and heal us.