Indigenous Day of Prayer
Today is the Indigenous Day of Prayer in the United Church. Across the county, during the month of June and in particular, this Tuesday, National Indigenous Peoples Day, people celebrate the gifts and ongoing contributions of Indigenous peoples. Today we give thanks to God who has created the diverse peoples of the world and gifted Indigenous peoples with many treasures of wisdom, spirit, and vision. Former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson said this is an “opportunity for all of us to celebrate our respect and admiration for First Nations, for Inuit, for Métis – for the past, the present, and the future.”
However, our historical relationship with Indigenous peoples in Canada is far from this vision. When I was interviewed by Toronto Conference some 25 years ago as a minister wanting to be admitted to the United Church of Canada, the interviewer asked me what I thought the most important issue of the church was today. I answered, “The apology to the Indigenous peoples of Canada because the mistakes of the past inform our witness today and in the future. Our past wrong relationship violates our current relationship.”
As we know, the United Church of Canada was involved in 13 residential schools by 1973. The Methodist and Presbyterian Churches had set up residential schools prior to Church Union in 1925 when the United Church took them over. As a result of the residential school system, the Indigenous people suffered the loss of their culture, especially their language. The former moderator of the United Church, Stan McKay, recalled, “The impact of generations of aggressive attacks on our culture has destroyed much of our self-esteem.” McKay stated that the residential schools caused ‘cultural genocide’; residential programmes harmed Indigenous people totally.
What is the root cause of the residential school tragedy? I think the key cause of the tragedy was Anglo-Canadians’ colonial attitudes of superiority and dominance. A Methodist superintendent of Indian education confirmed in 1913 that “It is possible to civilize [the Indian]; … it is possible to educate [them]; … it is possible to Christianize [them].” Our predecessors wanted to educate the Indigenous peoples on the way of life and norms of Anglo-Canadian standards because they believed the Indigenous peoples had an inferior culture.
To reflect more on the tragedy of the residential schools, let us go to today’s scripture reading. In biblical times Jewish males prayed a daily prayer of thanksgiving. I am going to read the prayer to you. It shows how poorly the Jews looked upon Gentiles and women. It goes like this: “Praise be to God. [God] has not created me a Gentile. Praise be to God. [God] has not created me a woman. Praise be to God. [God] has not created me an ignorant man.” This was a Jewish man’s estimate of his social value in comparison to other people in first-century Israel. Similar values have been held throughout history in other cultures. This perspective was the same as that of the Anglo-Canadians’ toward the Indigenouspeoples of Canada.
Conventional wisdom for men in first-century Palestine was well reflected in this prayer. Responding to this conventional wisdom, Paul said, “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:29). This statement of Paul is exactly the opposite to the traditional prayer and thought being preached in many churches in those days.
Paul set free Jewish men trapped in their conventional wisdom to live with respect to others and be restored in their relationships as children of God. Paul declared that we are one in God. There should be no racial, gender identity, sexual orientation or any other perceptions or expressions of superiority and discrimination because we are all created in God’s image.
In Jewish times, people lived according to conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom provides practical guidance about how to live. It embodies the central values of a culture; all people know it without needing to be reminded. For example, people know that the wide way is safer than the narrow. But the teaching of Jesus was different. “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Mt 7:13-14)
This teaching was quite different from the traditional teaching of that time and even of current culture. The teaching of Jesus disrupted the central values of his social world’s conventional wisdom. The teaching of Jesus acted as a counter-culture to conventional wisdom. Today’s Pauline lection is also the teaching of counter-culture to the mainstream culture and wisdom. Hope in being restored as God’s children lies in respecting each other.
Today we are grateful to receive a gift, a paddle decorated with a depiction of an eye made with abalone, from the Indigenous Education Division of the Vancouver Board of Education. For the last many years, we have been sending our monetary gifts to the Indigenous Education Division to be used for the students who may need extra support, especially during the time of COVID-19. In return, we received a gift from Chas Desjarlais on behalf of the Division. The words on the paddles, “nə́c̓aʔmat ct (pronounced “naht-sah-mahtst) – we are one” – are in the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language of the Musqueam people. “Within the design of the paddle is the Creator’s eye which, in the Indigenous culture, always watches over us and protects us.” I am struck by the phrase, “we are one.” This is exactly what Apostle Paul said in the Bible: “all of you are one.” The vision of the shared humanity between the Musqueam people and Christians is similar. We are one beyond any differences among us.
June 21st was chosen as Indigenous Peoples Day because of the cultural significance of the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere. Two days later is the first day of summer and the longest day of the year. During the summertime we love to go outside to enjoy nature. Why do we go camping and love to live there? I believe living outdoors offers a much closer relationship with Creation. I believe this understanding is derived from Indigenous peoples’ thought. They teach us to respect nature and each other. When we spend time in nature or when we enter into relationships with each other, let us remember the Indigenous peoples’ wisdom and today’s scripture: “We are one.” Let us seek justice and resist evil in all our relationships. Thanks be to God for the gifts of the Indigenous peoples and Paul’s teaching to us. Let us go out to live the abundance of those gifts with thanksgiving! nə́c̓aʔmat ct (we are one)!