Pathways of Peace: Towards a Decolonizing Theology

September 30 will mark Canada’s second annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. It’s intended to be a time for national recognition and remembrance, especially of “the tragic and painful history and ongoing impacts of residential schools” on Indigenous communities across the country. Of course, this is just one, very small, piece of what reconciliation will involve. That is a journey we are just beginning to embark upon as a country — one that will be unquestionably difficult, and one I fear many Canadians will not be willing to undertake. But, of course, the hard things in life are generally the most important. And this is no exception.

There is a lot of work for people of faith — and specifically for people of Christian faith — to do here. Many of the official Calls to Action from the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015) specifically addressed to churches and communities of faith: to formally apologize for their role in the residential schools and commit to Reconciliation, to repudiate any doctrines justifying colonialism, to commit to education on all of these things, to respect Indigenous belief systems, and to prevent future spiritual violence against Indigenous peoples. Like this ‘National Day’ itself, these calls to action are good beginnings for us as Christians to contemplate, but they are only beginnings.

Reconciliation is an interesting, and disappointingly vague, word. Do we imagine it like two estranged spouses who come back to live in the same house, irrespective of the actual nature of their relationship? Or, do we envision it as a more fulsome healing of the relationship, a genuine transformation? As John Borrows and James Tully, two leading thinkers on Reconciliation in the Canadian context, note, we must reject any “models of reconciliation that threaten to reconcile Indigenous peoples to the unjust status quo.”* Or, to put it in theological terms, As former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has written:

Reconciliation, then, cannot be identified with conciliation and — in spite of frequent distortion — is not, for a Christian, a fundamentally conservative idea. If we pray for reconciliation in politics or industry we are … praying for change and newness of life; not only changes of heart, but changes in the structure, the dramatic script, the concrete possibilities in relations (The Truce of God, 58, emphasis added)

This, I believe, is the work we as Christians from settler communities must do if we are going to truly contribute to a genuine Reconciliation in our country. Our country is wonderful in so many ways, but it has a deep crack at its foundation and it is past time we try to address it meaningfully. As Cherokee Christian theologian Randy Woodley (2022) has put it, “[W]hat White Western folks must do, both structurally and individually, is to heal the relationships between themselves, Creator, the land, and the local Indigenous peoples.” Or, as Aimee Craft as put it in starker terms, “Non-Indigenous people must be responsible and accountable for undertaking their own decolonization.” Until we do that work, our conversations about Reconciliation with our Indigenous partners will go nowhere.

In June 2021, I wrote a series here called “Setting Our Stories Straight,” which was an intentional beginning of my own work on this. It interrogated the faulty Christian narratives that supported the European colonial project: the Doctrine of Discovery, specific ideas about election, ‘dominion’, and universality, and the myths of ‘Progress’ and ‘Christendom.’ I stand by what I wrote there and recommend that anyone new here take a look back and read those posts. But, as I noted at the time, it was only a first step: Repudiating harm is not the same as promoting good. To paraphrase the famed words of Civil Rights activist Angela Davis: In a colonial society, it is not enough to repudiate colonialism, we must be anti-colonial, or in the popular terminology, we must be decolonizing.

To this end, over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring some possibilities for what an intentionally decolonizing Christian theology might look like.

My starting place for this has been to do a lot of reading by Indigenous authors from across the continent, but especially from those upon whose traditional lands I live, to hear what they say are the important themes of their own cultures. As I did this, I couldn’t help but see that there are profound areas of resonance between these traditions and my own that could make a solid, shared common ground from which we might begin. The goal of this series is to explore these themes from within Christianity’s own resources, as a way of reframing Christianity in ways better suited to promoting Reconciliation with not only Indigenous peoples, but also with each other, God, and the land.

The first post will take a step back and look at how we got to where we are now: How did a faith that was to Good News to a colonized people end up as a weapon of imperialism and very bad news for the peoples of the world? Then, I will explore the theme of peace, or shalom, as the overarching principle of Christian life, faith as the way of life that creates the conditions of peace, and the attitudes and practices that that kind of faith involves.

A project like this requires a lot of care. I want neither to distort the essence of traditional Christianity, nor to appropriate Indigenous cultures in ways that might cause further harm. What I want to do is be able to tell the Christian story in a way that is appropriate to the Canadian context and which can be an ally rather than a barrier to Reconciliation.

Before I leave this introductory post, I’d like to repeat the important disclaimer from last year’s series:

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.

* For details, please see the bibliography for the series.

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