Texts: Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report; Exodus 23:23 (wiping out the Canaanites)
In church, we try to humbly follow the God who is Love. Today, after two national holidays in North America, I reflect on the challenge that national pride poses for us.
Yesterday was a holiday in the United States. Every July 4, the U.S. marks the Declaration of Independence from the British Empire of the 13 British colonies south of what is now Canada in 1776. And on July 4, the U.S. is always awash in the red white and blue of its national flag, The Stars and Stripes.
Flags have been widely discussed in the U.S. since June 18 when a white supremacist killed nine people in an African Methodist Church in South Carolina. Following this crime, the campaign against The Stars and Bars — the battle flag of the 11 southern slave states that broke away from the Union in 1861 — has gained momentum.
Since the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865, many people in the South have displayed The Stars and Bars as a symbol of Southern pride. But now, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, almost everyone finally agrees that it is no longer OK to display it in public.
But what about The Stars and Stripes? Is it not also a symbol of what President Barack Obama calls America’s original sin, the enslavement of African Americans?
When the U.S. colonies were part of the British Empire, they all had legal slavery. After the U.S. finally defeated Britain in 1783, it had both free and slave states. Even during the Civil War, the U.S. had slaves. Four of the slave states stayed in the Union and fought against the Confederacy.
It was not until halfway through the Civil War that U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation freeing the slaves in the Confederate states. This was an attempt to rally Blacks in both the North and South to the faltering cause of the Union. But slaves in Union states like Maryland and Missouri were not freed until after the end of the Civil War in 1865.
Today, the Stars and Stripes represents the U.S. in wars like the one in Vietnam in 1960s and 70s in which 50,000 Americans and 2 million Vietnamese died and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 in which 4,000 Americans and one million Iraqis died.
Today even Republicans acknowledge that the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was a mistake. It was fought under false pretenses. It destroyed Iraq. And it created the conditions in which the Islamic State group has risen to prominence, much to the dismay of almost everyone in the world.
Of course when Americans fly The Stars and Stripes it is not to remember slavery or the invasion of Iraq. It is to show their love for the land and its people and their allegiance to the values found in the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, humility is not one of those values. Most Americans feel proud to fly The Stars and Stripes despite the shadow side of U.S. history.
But what about Canada? This past Wednesday, Canada celebrated the 148th anniversary of Confederation in 1867. Confederation was a first step to independence for four northern British colonies who had declined the invitation of their neighbours to the south to become independent 91 years earlier.
When I was a child, Canada Day was not a big deal. Prior to 1958, it had only been celebrated on the 50th and 60th anniversaries of Confederation in 1917 and 1927. Before Canada’s Centennial in 1967, firework displays were reserved for Queen Victoria on the long weekend in May.
But in the 1960s, Canada continued to move away from Britain and towards secular nationhood. Today “God Save the Queen,” is heard much less frequently than “O Canada,” and The Maple Leaf takes pride of place over The British Union Jack — another flag with a long association with slavery.
Is it OK for Canadians to show national pride? Last week’s Canada Day was the first one since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools released its final report. This report labelled the schools, which were run by churches for the government from the 1800s until 1996, as cultural genocide.
Many people argue that genocide is too extreme a word for the schools, but I welcome the debate. I hope that it might help Canada and churches like ours who ran the schools be more humble. And I am glad that Nancy Siever and Mary-Anne Janewski are discussing ways to help us move closer to reconciliation with First Nations people.
One step for the church, I believe, is to acknowledge that genocide is part of our tradition. It is in our sacred texts and it runs through our history.
Exodus says that God killed everyone living in Canaan. One verse among many reads as follows: “God said, ‘My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out.” (Exodus 23:23).
Today, few people know who the Amorites, Hivites, and Jebusites were because they were wiped out; and I think our ignorance of them weakens the impact of the text. In a Canadian context, a more powerful translation might read, “God said, ‘My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Cree, the Iroquois, the Algonquin, and the Inuit, and I will wipe them out.” This is an ugly and horrible sentence, of course, but it could help us to wrestle with the wounds of our history both ancient and modern.
Exodus has many such verses, and yet Jews, Christians and Muslims continue to praise it as a story of liberation.
I believe that a church that cannot acknowledge that Exodus and other texts in the Bible slander God as an agent of genocide is a church that is unable to deal with the trauma of the wars that have spread religion around the world.
Beyond our approach to the Bible, other things could help us heal the wounds of our past. Most of today’s states have abandoned monarchy. This change has freed church from its role as a cheerleader for imperial war and conquest. It also means that many churches now struggle to survive. But if we do survive, we have more space than in the past to confront and disown our racist and violent history.
Most important, I believe, is the healing shown to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. His path leads us away from the violence and nationalism of the past and towards universal brotherhood and salvation.
Jesus’ friends had hoped that he would be a new warrior king like David and a god like the one portrayed in Exodus.
But when Jesus dies, he is resurrected neither as a warrior king nor as a tribal god. Instead, the Risen Christ is a symbol of universal Love and a sovereign who reigns in the hearts of people from all tribes and nations.
The Risen Christ is not always what people want. Instead, Christ reveals to us the God we need. He shows us a path to love and solidarity that takes us beyond the violence and racism of our history and our ancient texts.
Today, many churches still wave The Union Jack, The Stars and Stripes, or The Maple Leaf. I wouldn’t be surprised if some churches in the South still display The Stars and Bars. Many churches proudly sing “God Save the Queen,” “God Bless America,” or “O Canada.” While this might feel good, it doesn’t make us relevant. Most countries no longer rely on the ideology of monarchy and so they don’t need church anymore.
This fact frees us to live more fully into the Gospel truth that the God who is Love is for all people. In God’s realm, all oppressed groups will be free to assert their identity and thrive. And when a diverse humanity unites under God, it will have a renewed ability to heal the wounds of colonialism.
Humanity will either fix its problems in a global system where all groups are equal, I believe, or it will destroy itself under the flags of proud and foolish nations.
My prayer, then, is that we leave others to proudly wave The Stars and Stripes, The Union Jack, or The Maple Leaf. Instead, let us try to embrace all people and the entire earth. When we are in Christ, we are not Canadians, Americans, or people of any other nation. We are children of God for whom the whole earth is a sacred trust. By the power of God’s Grace, we can unite with people everywhere in the joyous struggle to mend the world and ourselves.
Thanks be to God.