Life is inevitable
When we know better, we ought to do better
A friend of mine loaned me the book Clearing the Plains. It is a book about the history of Canada in the context of sickness. That it won the John A Macdonald Prize is a source of bemusement. The prize was renamed recently, John A is increasingly being recognized as the genocidal drunk that he was and Canada seems to think that if it distances itself from him it can distance itself from, well, itself. But this is the history of Canada and it is the soil into which contemporary Canadians sink their roots. He was most certainly a product of his time, just as Mike “get those fucking Indians out of my park” Harris is a product of his.
I know a lot about the history of Canada and the US, just finished writing a book that gives a broad overview of that history on our way to some kind of shared future and so I thought I was prepared for it.
I was not.
This book is relentless and devastating. It begins with the earliest plagues that raced ahead of the colonists on trade goods and horseback. The church had assured them that the land was empty of Christians and therefore empty of anyone who counted as people, but when the settlers got there it was also empty of people. These early plagues, smallpox and measels mostly, eradicated up to 90% of the population of some communities. There is some evidence that Lord Amherst thought deliberately infecting the Indians with smallpox was a good idea, but no documentation beyond these letters speculating on it that it actually took place. It might have, there is no reason to think that he or others wouldn’t have acted on it and I’m inclined to believe that it happened. But at that time it wasn’t really necessary to do it, we were dying in large numbers anyway. That’s bad enough.
What came next was worse.
Canada developed policies of starvation and inadequate medical care that ensured fatalities. It’s one thing for these sicknesses to devastate communities through lack of knowledge. Intent does not negate impact, but it does have some bearing. And if your intentions are good, then once you know better you begin to do better. But that is not the history of Canada. Once Canada knew better it developed policies that would exploit sickness rather than mitigate it and in Clearing the Plains, James Dashuk documents this exploitation in horrific detail.
I didn’t know what to read next. As I said, this book was devastating and relentless and I read it in the midst of a pandemic in which I’m watching this well deserved mistrust of the Canadian government lead Indigenous people to reject vaccines. I read it in the midst of a nation that still fights native kids in court, still refuses to adequately fund child welfare or education or medical services. I read this in the midst of a nation where northern people still have to leave home to have babies or get medical treatment.
I read this in the midst of a nation where basic foods are prohibitively expensive the further you get from settler communities. Where dams and pipelines destroy our territories. Where mercury and other toxins from mining and logging leach into our waters and our food supply.
Canada is still developing policies of starvation and inadequate medical care.
So choosing what book to read next. I needed a brain cleanse. Something that would pull me back from the ledge and then Sarah Augustine’s book arrived in the mail. The Land is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery. I had heard her speak a week before and I liked her so much I ordered her book while she was talking. Because she was saying things I have never heard come from Christians before.
Oh Christians will agree that the doctrine of discovery is bullshit and that the church has become Rome and all that, but it doesn’t change anything. It’s still a theology of the individual being saved by grace rather than a gospel of good news for the poor, freedom for prisoners, sight for the blind, and liberation for the oppressed.
Because what would a gospel like that look like? It wouldn’t look anything like what we have now, this isolating atomizing gospel that assures us God has forgiven our sins while we thank him for blessings soaked in blood. We want to believe that the actions described in Clearing the Plains are the result of bad Christians and bad theology but what is different about today’s Christians and today’s theology? Augustine explains in detail how the doctrine of discovery, that collection of papal bulls, policies, and laws from the middle ages to the early modern period, has shaped current laws and practices in our countries and in our churches. And she calls on us to do the work of dismantling it.
In the 17th century colonial missions created praying towns, gathering the native people into villages and teaching them skills so that they could participate in this new economy and new way of doing things. This got them off the land and freed it up for extraction industries and settlement. Contemporary missions still do this. They still clear the land of Indigenous peoples and free it for extraction industry and settlement.
In the 19th century colonial governments asked the churches to provide education via residential schools. This made the church part of the state, it took the state’s money and it did what the state wanted which was to create good colonial citizens. And missionaries still do this. There are many countries around the world that offload the costs of educating their citizens to foreigners, often churches, who take the opportunity to prosyletize while they educate. They don’t generally have residential schools anymore, but they gather the people together into villages so that the children can go to school and in that way take them off the land and teach them how to be good colonial citizens.
She writes that the church focuses so intently on an individualized salvation by grace that it ignores our collective responsibilities and relationships. It aligns itself with the forces and mechanisms of death, not life, because it has become invested in a life after death.
I remember very clearly sitting in church one Sunday, it must have been after Idle No More because I was becoming increasingly connected with the local Indigenous community. I remember very clearly the impression that I was going to have to choose, and that once I made my choice there would be no turning back because each step along that path would take me further away.
I chose to be Ojibwe.
Oh I kept going to church, and I kept engaging with the text but something changed that day and I began to read the text much differently. It wasn’t until I picked up Augustine’s book that I understood what I chose. I chose creation. I chose the forces of life and rejected the machinery of death that the church has become aligned with. I chose the good news.
Because wouldn’t good news for the poor be opposition to capitalism? Wouldn’t freedom for prisoners mean joining with abolitionist movements? Isn’t sight for the blind working towards a less disabling world?
If the good news is liberation for the oppressed, why is the church so often aligned with those who are enacting oppression?
When our theology is individual and personal, when it about sins that are only between us and God that he waves aside we absolve ourselves of needing to take action. Charity is easier, but when our entire reason for existence relies on the provision of charity, then we need people to be charitable towards don’t we. And in that way we exploit their poverty just as surely as colonial states exploited sickness.
The church could alleviate it, but it chooses not to because it prefers donating shoeboxes to challenging power. It chooses to maintain systems of oppression rather than confronting them. It chooses to retain power rather than make itself vulnerable.
I am in the process of starting a non profit and we briefly considered charitable status, but if we had charitable status that would severely limit what we could support with the donations we receive. You can’t support anything that can be seen as political or partisan and what are Indigenous matters if not political? And so we chose to incorporate as a non profit. What if churches risked their charitable status in order to take a position against systems of oppression?
Augustine offers concrete things that churches can and should be doing, not only as individuals but as collectives and they can apply to any organization because you may not be Christian but you have certainly been shaped by the same forces. So I encourage you to pick up her book even if you aren’t Christian because if you like my posts you’ll love her writing and I think you’ll agree with much of what she says.
The Anishinaabe have a prophecy of a final fire, a choice that the light skinned people will need to make and that their choice will result in either a path that is green and lush or one that is charred and cuts our feet.
Life does, to quote the prophet Ian Malcolm, find a way. It always finds a way. Life is inevitable and the forces of darkness are doomed. But we can choose to work with the systems of life, we can choose a path that is lush and green. That is, truly, good news.