Inherit the Land

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Inherit the Land


Leviticus 25:18-24

Matthew 5:1-12

This week we celebrate the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, also known as Orange Shirt Day.

There are SO MANY ways I could approach this in a sermon that it’s breathtaking. So, I thought I’d go back to the basics: back to the land.

The idea of the land is central to indigenous cultures. We are often told that they see this place as Mother Earth, as the life-giving home of everyone; and that the idea of owning and sub-dividing their Mother is just wrong.

Some idea of the land is central to every culture. One of the basic assumptions in the law of Canada is that the land technically belongs to the Queen, or more properly, to the “Crown”, which is why things like expropriation are legal.

In North America some people have tried to push this farther, to the idea that the owner of a particular property is King of that Castle. The “keep off government” signs found up the Ottawa Valley assert this idea of individual sovereignty over a plot of land. Anyone who has had to deal with our laws around mineral rights has learned the hard way that this is nonsense.

Our Canadian claims of ownership of the land are asserted over land that was taken from indigenous people. Back in Great Britain most of the land is still owned by the Crown or various nobility there. The tenancy of the people who live on the land has developed complex rights to protect them over time, since land ownership is something to which only a few can aspire.

All of this is completely alien to an indigenous understanding of human relationship to the land.

The system we created to restrict indigenous people to Reserve land and then restrict how they could use that land so they really couldn’t make a living off it, is a remarkable way to undercut their basic understanding and beliefs and to assert our culture’s dominion over them and the land itself.

As Christians, we should take our cue from scripture: we know that “land” is an important concept in the Middle East. Think about phrases like “The Holy Land” and “The Promised Land”.

Even in the Beatitudes, Jesus says: “The Meek shall inherit the land.” That is an alternate translation of “earth” which, in many ways, is a more accurate reading of the original Greek because it speaks directly to the centuries of Hebrew attachment to that land.

Jesus and his generation knew that the land could be conquered. Their land had been overrun by empire after empire; they knew that force and power could steal the land; they even knew that the Books of Moses recorded that it was by force and genocide that they had claimed the Promised Land centuries before.

That kind of Biblical imagery was very dangerous when the Europeans who first colonized the Americas decided that this land was a new version of the Promised Land, because that could permit a particular reading of Biblical history to justify the kind of genocide we would undertake here.

But the pure principle expressed in scripture is found in our Leviticus lesson, where portions of the Year of Jubilee laws were set out. Jubilee happened every 49 or 50 years (there is still scholarly debate over this) and in the year of Jubilee debts were forgiven, slaves were set free and land was returned to the family that previously owned it: either to the original owner or, more likely, the people who had rightfully inherited the land.

Today’s passage is part of a longer section which addressed the fact that “sold” land wasn’t actually sold: the value of the years of crops that came off it was sold, but the land itself, we are told, belonged to God and not to any human. We are all aliens and tenants, it says.

The land provides life for the people so the people could not be permanently evicted from the land, even for outrageous debts. And no one could accumulate a lot of land because it would have to be returned to the original owner or the person who had inherited it. This was a kind of social structure to prevent the development of what we now call the “1%”.

This principle directly contradicts so many things our culture has accepted: the idea that the Crown owns the land; the idea that a family can be permanently evicted from their land. The very concept of personal land ownership is denied. God owns the land, which reminds us that our place is not, ultimately, in charge.

This understanding is not identical to the idea of Mother Earth, but it shares enough principles that it should challenge us to go back to our own roots to re-discover our faith principles and consider how well we have applied them to our world.

If you research the idea of the Jubilee Year, you discover that a lot of ethical questions come with it. For example, scholars have asked when it first took effect because if it was to be applied as soon as the 12 tribes took possession of the Promised Land, they would have to give the land back to the Canaanites in the 50th year, according to this law.

So it is argued that it wasn’t applied until 2 generations had passed, eliminating that possibility. Of course, slaughtering all the inhabitants of many areas also took care of that, but that didn’t happen everywhere.

It has also been argued that the law was dropped when the first great expulsion happened and whole tribes were taken away into Assyria,

or possibly later, when Judah was taken to Babylon, and then returned after 70 years. Again, the scholars can’t agree.

But just imagine what would happen today if the Jubilee law were still followed. All those settlements in the occupied territories would have to be returned to the Palestinians after 50 years, not to mention the land of the Palestinian refugees who fled in 1949.

Closer to home, what would happen today if we returned the lands of Canada to their original Peoples? How would it feel to give Knox back to the Algonquin people? How would it feel to give back our homes? Our cherished back yards?

Land treaties are complicated things and I’m not sure that the Year of Jubilee law is a practical way to administer our country. There have been debates for hundreds of years about how this actually would have worked and whether society could survive this disruption every 50 years.

But I would say that it provides a lesson for us in how far we have strayed from our principles as Christian people; in participating throughout our history in the claiming of indigenous land; in forcing indigenous people onto reserves; in restricting their land use and preventing them from making a living; in taking their children to residential school; and in forcing them to lose their teachings and languages so that they would have a harder and harder time challenging our claims to ownership, our claims to dominion.

I am saying that those claims we made were possible because we had sold out our principles. We believed in the empires we were part of; that the Crown should own the land; that we could legitimately conquer land by war. We came to believe that we could own the land and didn’t understand that by doing so we were usurping the place of God.

God who is the creator of all, is the owner of the land: the landlord to us, who are the tenants.

That’s not an exact parallel to the indigenous understanding, and an honest dialogue could teach us a great deal. We do come from a different culture, a different set of beliefs, and we shouldn’t pretend that we are all the same. That’s why we need dialogue.

But at the same time, the beliefs that led to the oppression of the first peoples of this land were not Christian beliefs, and should never have been ours to support or defend.

Truth and Reconciliation begins with Truth.

I believe we need to accept this truth before we can begin to have an honest and heart-felt conversation that might lead to reconciliation one day.


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