1 Kings 21:1-21a; Psalm 32 p. 759 VU
It’s all about the land. The land is sacred, holy, a gift from the Creator to the earth’s peoples. It is to be tended carefully, respectfully, with gratitude. This was true for the ancient Hebrew people, as it is true for First Nations people today, and for many of us.
The Hebrew people drew their identity from their land. They believed that Abraham and his descendants had been guided to the land in which they lived. They believed that after their time in Egypt God had called them to return to the land of their ancestors to rebuild their lives. It took generations, but the people of Israel fought and died (and their neighbouring tribes, too, fought and died) to claim the land the Bible calls Canaan, Israel, Judah, Judea, or Palestine. Through the time of the first king Saul and all the kings who followed after, the people of Israel fought their neighbours to hold onto what they believed was rightfully theirs.
When they lost their land, later generations interpreted it as the judgement of God for turning away from the covenant God had made with them at Mount Sinai. Being at home with God and at home in the land were closely linked. To be an exile, a stranger in a strange land, was the worst thing that could happen to them. It happened first to the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and then to the people of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Both were inheritors of God’s promises, both were ruled by a monarchy that began as worshipers of Yahweh but then turned away to worship other local deities. Both had a succession of rulers that exploited the people and violated God’s law.
In today’s story, it is, again, all about the land. A king wants a piece of land owned by a righteous man. He wants it, and is willing to pay for it, but the man won’t sell it, because his family had lived on that land for generations. Naboth’s identity, his livelihood, his self, is tied up with this land. (As the Working Preacher website puts it,) “Land was a gift from God, a symbol of provision and conquest. In a time with limited mechanisms to store wealth, land was the income, resource, home, bank account and retirement plan of the people.” But Ahab the King, who has turned away from Yahweh, has to have it. His wife Jezebel, who is from a culture that does not recognize the special relationship between the people of Israel and the land, tells him to take it. Is he not the king? Does not everything in the kingdom, including the land, belong to him? So a righteous man is accused of blasphemy, and condemned to death, and the king gets what he wants. Ahab has the land, but with no real claim to it. The prophet Elijah is sent by God to proclaim to the King that his offense is not only against Naboth and his family, but against God. Ahab knows he is guilty. It turns out that he will not keep the land long. Soon, those who wish to return to the worship of Yahweh will act, and this king and queen will be no more.
Where do you find your identity? Do you find it in the land? A lot of us are from somewhere other than Langford. A few of us have deep roots here in the West Shore of Victoria, and can’t imagine living anywhere else. You may relate to Naboth, and his feeling for his vineyard. Others of you may have another patch of land somewhere, in Saskatchewan, or Nova Scotia, or Quebec, that is still, deep inside you, the place that tells you who you are. I personally have lived in more than a dozen different communities. I don’t mind having moved as much as I have – all those experiences breed a certain amount of adaptability – but I do sometimes envy those with deep-seated roots in one place. I don’t agree with the commonly-held belief that the aboriginal relationship to land is unique to First Peoples. I think there are many other folk who have lived in their particular part of the world for generations who have similar feelings. Those people can relate to what it would be like to have your land taken from you, your values attacked and vilified, your life and your family’s lives threatened. It’s what happened to Naboth, and it’s what happened on a much larger scale with the First Nations of our continent – and we are still feeling the effects of it today.
Back in April, I head an interview on CBC Radio with the writer of a book about the Indian Posse street gang co-founder Danny Wolfe. The Indian Posse was one of the most powerful and dangerous street gangs on the prairies beginning in the late 1980s, and still operates today. Three generations of Danny Wolfe’s family went to residential school. His mother was abused there, and the effects of that abuse meant Danny grew up in a parental vacuum and a house full of booze and drugs. He began stealing in order to survive when he was still in primary school; he and other boys first formed a street gang when he was 12 years old – partially in response to a police killing of a highly respected elder in the community. He finally died in prison in Saskatchewan at age 33 when he got in the way of a knife fight between rival native gangs. Danny made no bones about his motivations. He felt that Canada had robbed his people of everything that mattered to them, and his actions were both in protest and in revenge for the way his people were treated by Canadian society at large. [http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-april-22-2016-1.3548139/anatomy-of-a-street-gang-and-indian-posse-co-founder-danny-wolfe-1.3548198]
This is what happens when you take people from their land, or land from a people. It’s like tearing up a tree by its roots. If you’ve ever tried to transplant a tree, you’ll know it generally doesn’t go well, especially if is mature. I look at the 400 to 500 year old tree beside my house, tall, strong and healthy, and think of what it would take to move it successfully. It couldn’t be done!
This year is the 30th anniversary of the United Church’s apology to the First Nations of Canada for our participation in Canada’s project dispossess native people of their land and their culture and forcibly assimilate them. I’ve chosen to mark the anniversary this week, rather than Aboriginal Sunday next week, because the readings today evoke those issues of land and property, greed and injustice, that are part of our story in Canada, too.
Though none of us as individuals are guilty of deliberately stealing land, destroying cultures, or repressing language – none of us are guilty of stealing children from their parents or abusing or neglecting them I hope! – we are responsible. We inherit both our privileges and our responsibilities from our forebears, and as citizens of Canada and members of the United Church, we are responsible for what was done and for what we will do now. As David Guiliano says in an article in this month’s Observer magazine, it’s like the story of the older woman who sits at a table to have a cup of coffee and brings out a pack of cookies. A youngster asks if it’s okay to share her table, and she says yes. She takes a sip of coffee, and a bite of her cookie. To her surprise and outrage, the young person also takes a cookie to enjoy with his coffee. This goes on for some time as the young man smiles and eats cookies, until she gets up, gathers her things, and stalks away in great dudgeon. It is only when she is searching for bus fare in her purse that she discovers her still unopened pack of cookies in her bag. She had been eating the young man’s cookies the whole time! As David says, many of us are living on unceded First Nations land. We have been, unintentionally, eating their cookies!
All of us are seeking ways forward, ways to share this land amicably and respectfully – ways to be good neighbours to one another in Canada as it is now. If you haven’t had an opportunity to read the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I would encourage you to do so. It can easily be found online. I’ve also posted the Commission’s “Call to Action” on the Mission and Outreach bulletin board in the hallway.
What I want to read to you today is the United Church’s apology from 1986, 30 years ago, and the Aboriginal church’s response. An apology specifically for involvement in Residential Schools was made in 1998 as well.
“Long before my people journeyed to this
land your people were here, and you
received from your elders an understanding
of creation, and of the Mystery that
surrounds us all that was deep, and rich and to be treasured.
We did not hear you when you shared your vision.
In our zeal to tell you the
good news of Jesus Christ
we were closed to the value of your spirituality.
We confused western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and
length and height of the gospel of Christ.
We imposed our civilization as a condition of accepting the Gospel.
We tried to make you like us
and in doing so
we helped to destroy the vision
that made you what you were
. As a result, you, and we, are poorer and the
image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred and we are not what we are meant
by God to be.
We ask you to forgive us and to walk together with us in the spirit of Christ so
that our peoples may be blessed and God’s creation healed.”
The 31st General Council,
The United Church of Canada
The apology was received with great joy – dancing and drumming together. One man says, “I danced liked I had never danced before!”. it was also acknowledged with some reserve, as First Nations folk waited to see if it was just words, or whether it would be backed with actions. This is the response from the newly formed All Native Circle Conference at the next General Councl meeting:
Mrs. Edith Memnook, a representative of the All Native Circle Conference, said:
The Apology made to the Native People of Canada by The United Church of Canada in Sudbury in August 1986 has been a very important step forward. It is heartening to see that The United Church of Canada is a forerunner in making this Apology to Native People. The All Native Circle Conference has now acknowledged your Apology. Our people have continued to affirm the teachings of the Native way of life. Our spiritual teachings and values have taught us to uphold the Sacred Fire; to be guardians of Mother Earth, and strive to maintain harmony and peaceful coexistence with all peoples.
We only ask of you to respect our Sacred Fire, the Creation, and to live in peaceful coexistence with us. We recognize the hurts and feelings will continue amongst our people, but through partnership and walking hand in hand, the Indian spirit will eventually heal. Through our love, understanding, and sincerity the brotherhood and sisterhood of unity, strength, and respect can be achieved.
The Native People of The All Native Circle Conference hope and pray that the Apology is not symbolic but that these are the words of action and sincerity. We appreciate the freedom for culture and religious expression. In the new spirit this Apology has created, let us unite our hearts and minds in the wholeness of life that the Great Spirit has given us.
— 1988 Record of Proceedings, p.79
I know that it is still hard for many of us to connect to what was done in our name, or to acknowledge any responsibility for it in this day and time. But does not Scripture teach us that God is a God of justice? As Elijah confronted the abuses of the monarchy of his day and time in God’s name, we also must judge both the past and the present from the perspective of God’s justice – and that includes measuring our own actions, and the actions of our church and our nation, past and present, against the measure of God’s justice.
It’s not really all about the land; but the land remains a huge part of First Nations identity, and their need to live on their traditional territories and live at least some of their traditional ways remains. Ask yourself who you would be if you could not live where your ancestors lived, if your traditions, teachings, religious practices, language, children, and even the land under your feet were taken from you? There are outstanding treaties between our governments and First Nations that have not been honoured, but we are on our way to seeing a big change in that respect. We are also seeing the revival of First Nations languages and practices, and those of us not from that background are seeing our children and our grandchildren growing up learning about these things right alongside their First Nation neighbours. There is a conscious effort to keep First Nations children, even those in care, with First Nations families. More and more Native Ministers are being trained, commissioned and ordained to serve their own communities, and more and more resources are available that reflect traditional teachings and well as Christian theology and practice.
We are on our way, but we have not yet arrived. One of the images of God’s reign of peace and justice in the Bible is that “everyone might live beneath their own vine or fig tree, and live in peace and unafraid” (Micah 4:4). Each will have a place to grow in, a place to be rooted and planted, with no fear of neighbours coming in to take what is not theirs.
Though First Nations’ culture does not speak of land ownership, while the Israelite vision of the land does, our Biblical story and First Nations’ teaching have this in common: The land is sacred. It is the place that nurtures us, the place that tells us who we are, the place that blesses our spirits and helps us to grow. When we become disconnected from the land, the result can be devastating.
The 1988 response to the apology said: “We only ask of you to respect our Sacred Fire, the Creation, and to live in peaceful coexistence with us.” If we have not already begun to do so, let us commit to doing so now, so that through our common commitment to what is good and holy, we might find a way forward together. Amen.