Setting Our Stories Straight: Dismantling Settler Theology

A few months ago, I quite unintentionally began a deep-dive in reading Indigenous writers. Around the same time, a good friend and I started talking about the 94 Calls to Action from the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and how slow our government (and a lesser degree our church) seemed to be in enacting them. Part of the refrain in all of these books and documents was that most of the work of Reconciliation is for settler communities, government, and institutions to do — that while any path forward must be undertaken with full involvement of Indigenous peoples as genuine partners in whatever comes next, before that can happen, we as settlers have a lot of work to do in educating ourselves, in telling more accurate versions of our history, and questioning the dominant narratives about European settlement that continue to shape policy and attitudes to this day.

And so, all this was already on my mind when I first saw the news headline reporting on the discovery of the remains of 215 children on the grounds of a former Residential School in central British Columbia. The article began with a content warning: “This story contains details some readers may find distressing.” It’s a sad testament to the realities of Canadian history that most content involving government, religious, and settler-community interactions with Indigenous peoples could easily merit such a content warning. In the days following the announcement of this grisly discovery, a lot of the reaction from white Canadians has indeed been distress, accompanied by shock, and denial — not the denial that it happened so much as the kind of denial expressed in language like, ‘This isn’t us’, or ‘This speaks to a dark chapter in Canadian history,’ a distancing from the realities this discovery points to. But all of these reactions, while perhaps understandable, are part of the problem. Too often the distress of settler communities — feelings of guilt and shame, of embarrassment, cognitive dissonance, and deflated self-righteousness — take priority over truth-telling. Similarly, the only reason anyone would have to be ‘shocked’ by this discovery would be that they haven’t been paying attention. We’ve been hearing these stories for at least forty years now; this story is sad, tragic, and horrifying — but it is not shocking. As one commentator pointed out, this discovery does not speak to a ‘dark chapter’ in Canadian history, but rather to a major plot line. And, while it may not be who we want to be, it is who we have been. Make no mistake about it: there will be more mass graves. We need to do better than distress, shock, and denial.

Acknowledging the distressing past without shying away from it is not “self-flagellation” (as its opponents like to call it), but simply honesty. It is absolutely true that we have much to be proud of as Canadians, but our history with the Indigenous peoples of this land and the ways it continues to be lived out today are a rejection of all of it. We are a country that values diversity, but we are also a country that pursued cultural, if not physical, genocide as deliberate government policy for generations. (If you think that’s too harsh, consider these words from Duncan Campbell Scott, a major player in the creation of the residential school system: “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada.”) We are a country that values human rights, but we are also a country that beat children for speaking their own languages, and where to this day dozens of Indigenous communities still lack access to clean drinking water. We are a country that values justice, and yet we are also a country of mass incarceration of Indigenous people, and a country that largely turned a blind eye to an epidemic of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women. We are a country that supports reconciliation until it might demand that we reassess our relationship with the land, our entitlement to natural resources, or our inflated self-understanding. We need to tell better, more accurate, stories about our past and present.

We cannot erase the sins of our past as a country, but we can act today to start creating a better future. In this way, the project before Canadians is a call to what we Christians call repentance — not just an apology, but a commitment to opening our hearts and eyes to reality in order to build healthy and whole relationships.

This is particularly important for Christians, because Christian theology — bad theology, but theology nonetheless — was used to prop up and justify the European colonial endeavour. The stories the Church told played a direct role in what has happened over the past 500 years on this continent and around the world. I don’t actually think this will be hard for us to do. As I’ve listened to the voices of Indigenous peoples both inside and outside Christianity (the same could be said of Black theologians, whose history has been shaped by the same bad stories told by European Christians), it’s become clear that much of what they are advocating — and so much of what has been missing in their interactions with Euro-American Christianity over the centuries — is profoundly Christian. Christianity is not at its core the problem. The problem is a Christianity that went off the rails. What we need is not a new religion, but to make sure we’re speaking and living our own teachings more faithfully. And so, the first step among many for us Christians who are part of white Canadian (or American or Australian or South African, etc.) culture, is to dismantle settler theology: to set our stories straight.

Over the next few weeks, I’d like to make an attempt at doing just this. I want to identify different strands of theology used to support colonization — ideas like the Doctrine of Discovery, Christian election, the Myth of Progress, and so on — and take them apart from within the historical Christian tradition itself.

This is not an exercise in Indigenous theology; I am not Indigenous. This is not an exercise in Reconciliation; Reconciliation can only be done in humble partnership with Indigenous peoples. What it is is an attempt to start doing the work we — the settler Church — need to do before we can engage in Reconciliation efforts healthily. It is by no means intended to be a ‘last word’ on anything, but a beginning. Because we have a long, long way to go.

I’m going to begin in the next post by situating myself and my history within Christianity and with Indigenous peoples. Then, I will write one-to-two posts a week on specific colonialist doctrines. My hope is to end the series on Canada Day with a post exploring the possibilities for a better theological future in Canada.

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