Last night, our family went to see a drama performance called “New Blood” that was held at the local university as part of their “Native Awareness Week” celebrations. The show was put together by high school students from Strathmore, AB, a small town near Calgary and bordering the Siksika Nation, a member of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Through music, drama, drumming, and dance, the students told the life story of Vincent Yellow Old Woman (the current chief of the Siksika Nation), including his time spent in residential school as a boy, and the later recovery of his Blackfoot culture. It was a moving portrayal of the many losses experienced by indigenous people as a result of colonialism, as well as a stirring call to hope, forgiveness, and love.
Whenever I view or listen to stories like this, I inevitably do so through two lenses. First, I watch and listen through the eyes of my Ojibwa kids. I try to imagine what they are thinking as they see depictions of the attitudes and behaviours that have shaped the present reality that they must navigate as natives in Canada. I shudder as I hear sentences like “kill the Indian, save the child” and “civilize the savages” spoken out loud. I cringe as I think of what this must sound like to their ears. It pains me that they will have to incorporate stories like these into their self-understandings as they continue to learn and grown.
But I also can’t help but listen and watch as a white Christian. From this vantage point, too, I shudder and I cringe. In last night’s performance, the priests and authorities at the school wore white, faceless masks over long black robes. Some wore crosses around their necks. They were symbols of a nameless malice. Generic, anonymous, destructive, in countless ways. It is always deeply unsettling to see the cross—this symbol of the One I have committed my life to—representing the villains of the story.
Unsettling, but tragically accurate. And I find myself thinking, over and over again. If only these people would have had the freedom to encounter Jesus as one who invites and loves and gives, not one who coerces, frightens, and takes away. If only things could have happened differently. If only the message of Christ had been accompanied by the methods of Christ. What might things look like today for our indigenous neighbours if the cross had not been pressed into the service of greedy land acquisition and racist ideology?
How much unlearning has to be done, I thought, for our indigenous friends with these harmful stories and associations in their background, to encounter Jesus as he is, and from within their own cultural framework, rather than as part of a toxic colonial package. Too much, no doubt. Far, far too much.
There is a sense, though in which unlearning is required of all of us who claim this Saviour, who anchor ourselves in this story. Indeed, unlearning plays a crucial part of the story itself. This past Sunday, I preached from Mark 8, where Peter has to unlearn his conceptions of what Messiahs were supposed to be and do. Messiahs were supposed to liberate, conquer, rule, defeat the enemies of God’s people. Not suffer and die. These conceptions and expectations of Peter’s about the ways in which true Messiahs operated were not formed out of thin air. They had a long history, and were rooted in Jewish Scripture and tradition. And they had to be unlearned.
Or what about the education about cleanness and uncleanness that Peter received in Acts 10? What about the shocking message of the inclusion of the (dirty, unclean, pagan) Gentiles that the early (Jewish) church was forced to come to terms with? Unlearnings could hardly come much bigger than this! All the identity markers and purity laws, all the language and rituals of separation and holiness and exclusion that had made the people of God who they were… Gone. Just like that. They had to be unlearned.
Or what about the unlearning that the Western church is in the middle of right now? What about the ways in which our post-Christian cultural moment is forcing us to confess our sins of self-righteousness and imagined superiority? What about the unlearning that we are having to do about the way we have made Jesus a chaplain to our own ambitions for cultural hegemony, power, and control? What about the severing of the connection between Christianity and America-ism that many of our neighbours to the south are being forced to wrestle with? What about, for that matter, Canada’s shameful past, with the Prince of Peace being connected to the destruction of indigenous cultures, languages, lives? Yes, there is much to unlearn.
To be open to the way of Jesus is to be always in the process of unlearning and for at least two reasons, as far as I can tell. First, we humans are very inventive and persistent idolaters, and we are eminently capable of making and remaking Jesus into our own image, to serve our own interests, and to bless our own ambitions. To commit ourselves to Jesus requires a willingness to relentlessly strip away the many and varied expressions of the self that get unhelpfully bound up with the story of Jesus.
But perhaps even more importantly, we need to be open to unlearning because we are part of a story that is always in motion. Jesus’ first disciples had to come to grips with this, as did Peter and Paul, as has the church at countless points throughout history. Just when we think we have Jesus figured out, we realize that he has a few surprises up his sleeve. Just when we’re pretty sure we have the plot figured out, we realize that there are unanticipated twists and turns in the story to come. And just when we think we know which voices are authorized to speak for God, we see that the voice of God often comes through the people and the stories that we consider least likely.
Image above taken from the “New Blood” Facebook page.