From the United States, we hear much talk about what has been termed “plantation” theology, while in Canada we hear much noise about something termed, colonization. In the former, blacks and whites have been locked in a cultural box of how power is exercised, deployed, and abused. Whites, being in charge of the plantation, have been boxed into their “superiority” role and mask, as blacks have been boxed into their “inferiority” even slave role and mask seemingly for centuries. And the church’s responsibility for both the theology and the resulting tragic implications has never been either acknowledged nor atoned for.
In Canada (and elsewhere), colonization, too often based on the Christian churches’ marketing (read evangelizing) objectives, has generated boxes in which indigenous people have been categorized as “savage” and “uncivilized” and “heathen” by white explorers settlers and land and governance officials.
And then, in all human cultures, including both the American and Canadian, what was at the beginning “shall be henceforth forever” not merely sacralised and stabilized but also fossilized as ‘normal’ and ‘conventional’ and the ‘status quo’. God, in whatever form and guise s/he might be conceived, was thought to, even believed to, preside over this status quo, as if it were engraved in marble, just as the millions of tombstones were so engraved.
“Fitting in” with the “established order” of things, depended on a significant dose of both insecurity, obedience, and “freedom from anxiety” so that the stability of the society could and would be maintained. Nevertheless, just as the tennis racket’s mere shift of a miniscule degree sends the ball in directions that respond to that angle, so too the religious/ecclesial/theological/ethical tennis rackets of plantations and colonizations were very difficult to change their directions. And the longer the “foundations” “held” sustained and proselyzed by the “establishment” (in both Canada and the United States, that means the “white” Europeans), the more rooted and permanent and resistant to change they became.
Entrapment in insecurity, neurosis, and “sin” (as Paul writes, “We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God”) has generated a myriad of social, cultural and, dare we say, economic and political tragedies, not the least of which are being enacted in the headlines on both sides of the 49th parallel.
In Canada, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, both by thousands of indigenous families, and much later and more shamedly by governments, a national commission on the Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls was established by the Trudeau government back in 2015. After several resignations, and several bruising headlines of mismanagement, a report issued from the commissioners grabbing the headline that the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls amounts to “Genocide”. Of course, such a word was inserted in what has to have been a deliberate calculation of the commissioners, so that their report would be “noticed” in the public debate. Ironically, even paradoxically, it is the word “genocide” itself that has served to magnetize the public discussion and to divert attention from the deep and persistent reservoir of grief, loss, anger and even hopelessness that clings to each indigenous family touched by the deaths and disappearances of these over 1100 women and girls.
And yet, not a single story of who committed even one of these horrendous acts has been uncovered by the commission. It is legitimate to bring the “stories” of the persons and their gifts to the light of day, so that that light might eventually prompt some public squirming among law enforcement, and among the public about what kind of contributing conditions are needed for these stories to have become part of our national narrative and identity. And yet, it would also be relevant, and perhaps even potentially transformative if the commission had had as part of its mandate, the project of digging into the forensics of at least a sample of these unsolved cases. We already know that racism runs through some law enforcement detachments. How significant is that cancer in preventing the needed detective work that would and could unpack many of these files? We also know that “colonization” by the white culture has been held as the normative model for centuries over the First Nations peoples across the country.
And the sinews, the percs, the attitudes, the beliefs and the basic foundational perceptions (of colonization) by white men and women toward indigenous people, both conscious and unconscious, comprise the very nature of the ground on which we all walk. Occasional “remediating” initiatives, in local schools, have helped to shift the perceptions of those students and teachers to a degree of enlightenment and perhaps even an enhanced sense of responsibility among those communities. Similarly, the rising tide of indigenous undergraduate and graduate students in post-secondary schools and colleges signal a significant shift in perceived potential both for those individuals and for the potential harmonizing of race relations between colonizers and the colonized.
In the U.S., too, although too many headlines carry the burden of dead black men at the hands of too many white law enforcement officials, there are peeking shoots of recognition, and acknowledged responsibility in some quarters that portend the slow even glacial erosion of the plantation mind-set, and the contemptible superiority that flows through the veins and the arteries of millions of whites. Articulate, educated and brilliant men and women of black and Hispanic heritage appear daily on national television, write daily in national publications and teach in both undergrad and grad schools across the country. They also sit on the bench of many courtrooms, even though the ratio of blacks (and Hispanics), like that of women, has a long way to go to come close to approximating their respective population percentages.
And, once again, both to repeat and to underline, the Christian theology of the “original sin” of the “Fall” in the Garden of Eden, following the eating of the “forbidden fruit” of the Tree of Knowledge has undercut the healthy self of literally millions of people to the detriment, and hopefully not the demise of the culture that theology spawned. Extreme unctuousness, modesty, obedience, and even servility, to the “reigning” power of the ruling class, (in both Canada and the U.S. that means the white European ethnicity) is the dominant tumor in the body politic.
And, it is not incidental to note, with shame, that the Christian “establishment” has neither acknowledge nor atoned for both the sins of commission and the attendant sins of omission that have accompanied and accumulated under the “cross” and the “altar” and the hierarchy. And, not surprisingly, nor even tragically, the Christian church, like most of the traditional institutions of state and political and economic and legal power are experiencing a significant erosion of their traditional respect, authority, power and trust. To have virtually neglected what many have called the traditions of ‘wisdom’ theology, by focusing on the depravity and sin of man, at the expense of his capacity for responsibility and the trust in the creature fashioned in the “imago dei” (the image of God) is to have led millions into a dark place of no return.
And, then to have narrowed even further the definition of “being a Christian” to such constricted and heavily enforced obedience to rules generated by the imperfect mind of humans (mostly men), and then superimposed a hierarchical and dogmatic structure for those seeking baptism, confirmation and ordination, in order to sustain the “faith” has become a narrative confounded by the sabotage of its own design. Hollow utterance of “respect” and “dignity” for all human beings, as encased in the phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” (as per the U.S. Constitution), overlaid on the religious and theological premises of sin and white racial superiority, will not stand the test of rigorous and accountable application. The separation of issues of faith from those of state, too, will not stand the test of reason, critical examination nor social and political utility.
We humans live in the world, the secular world; and in that world we incarnate certain attitudes, beliefs, perceptions and we engage in specific decisions and acts. And while we are capable of being trusted, and Wisdom theology as argued eloquently by William Brueggemann*, posits that man is indeed both trusted by God, and considered capable and worthy of that trust. Our lofty, idealistic holy towers of both cathedrals and psychological and social superiority, especially among North American Christian “whites”, the generators and perpetrators of both colonization and plantation cornerstones of the respective cultures on both side of the 49th parallel.
And without a significant seeding of wisdom theology, challenging both the reign of the fundamentalists and the ‘high church,’ and the opening of the option of bridging both the sacred and the secular in our daily lives, beliefs, attitudes and human encounters, we will continue to contend with abuses of power that continue to erupt among indigenous, blacks, Hispanics and colonized women and girls. And we will continue to attempt to shed the baggage of religious servitude while blind to its theological sources. The church has to be an integral and operating partner in this social, cultural, political and economic re-birth.
And so long as the secular culture remains in denial, and the church hierarchy in avoidance, the bridging of these forces will remain incomplete and our division against ourselves will exacerbate.
*Walter Brueggemann, In Man We Trust, John Knox Press, 1972
*Walter Brueggemann, In Man We Trust, John Knox Press, 1972