A Strange Land

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

A Strange Land

Scriptures: Exodus 3:1-8 Matthew 5:1-12

“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” That’s how Psalm 137 puts it. It’s a cry of pain from a displaced people taken from their land and forced into exile by a powerful empire.

Our human relationship with our homeland is complex. Where we grow up gives us our identity, our language, our vision of the world, our expectation of what shade of blue the sky should be, how the air should taste. There can even be a deep spiritual connection: the people of the Middle East in ancient times believed that gods lived in a particular geographical place. One of the remarkable things about the God of Israel is that proven ability to reach out of Canaan into Egypt, into the home of dozens of other gods to rescue a nation from slavery. A trans-border deity was a powerful idea, the kind of idea that fuelled empires who decided to see how far their gods could reach by invading the lands next door.

That cry of loss in the Psalm is remarkable in light of our Exodus lesson which makes it clear that the land the Psalmist is mourning used to be the homeland of a whole list of other nations. It became the promised land of Israel at the cost of invasion and genocide which was justified by calling it the will of God.

Behind that is a more human justification: “We are victims.”

When we feel most vulnerable, when we want our children to stop starving, when we are desperate for survival, that’s when we are most prepared to displace someone else.

The Hebrew invasion of Canaan was organized and planned with military precision and religious objectives but at base it was motivated by the same movement of desperate people that keeps repeating in human history, and that was responsible for a lot of the European settlement of Canada. Things like the Highland clearances, famines, overpopulation and disease, land displacement caused by the industrial revolution, hungry and desperate people who were promised an empty land that they could simply walk into and become landowners, something they might never achieve in the old country where land ownership was jealously guarded by the rich and powerful.

Of course, Canada wasn’t an empty land. There were lots of people here, living in a way Europeans called savage. But the government wanted to “open up” the west and produce lots of food for Canada and for export using traditional European approaches to farming. Indigenous approaches to land would not meet this production goal. Neither would revealing the true hardships ahead to the immigrants: they might not come to settle the land if they knew how hard it would be, how cold the winters were. The colonial authorities lied to a lot of people to achieve what they considered to be the greater good.

The indigenous people believed that the land was alive, that they belonged to the land, not the other way around. They had a vision of the land as a great and spiritual reality, not something to be conquered or tamed but something to be loved and respected.

That kind of thinking was not unknown to Europeans; artists expressed those feelings in paintings and poetry, but it was dismissed as frivolous.

To legally justify their displacement of indigenous people, the Europeans adopted some religious justifications: we know them as the doctrine of discovery and the concept of terra nullus which, together, said that you could claim any empty land you discovered and declared that any land was officially “empty” if the inhabitants were not Christian.

Included in this was the idea that Christians had a duty to try and convert anyone they discovered to Christianity so they could save their souls. The best way to do that was to separate them from their old ways, especially their old spiritual ways. This was considered very tolerant and Christian – even noble in the eyes of some: because it didn’t go all the way to the scorched earth policy of the invasion of Canaan, where the instruction was to kill everyone – men, women and children – so their religion could not infect Israel. Rather, they planned to eliminate the “doomed, savage culture” and absorb the people, who were often considered individually “noble” and to do it using “modern methods” while staying within a limited budget.

It is not a big jump from there to isolating indigenous people on tiny plots of land and sending their children to Residential schools. I would argue that it’s not a very Christian way of being Christian; it relies on power and coercion rather than love and cooperation.

For the people who came as desperate settlers, their justification was their own difficult situation. They wanted a place to live safely and feed their children. For the people in positions of authority, their justification was a twisting of the teachings of Jesus, a misapplication of biblical texts that could make them feel like they were doing God’s will as they abused people.

That’s one reason decision makers rarely visited Residential Schools: it’s easier to keep your decisions comfortable if they remain abstract and theoretical, if you don’t have to look at the suffering. If you don’t mark the graves, you don’t have to count the bodies.

Our Matthew lesson contains the beatitudes, considered by many to be the core of Jesus’ teachings, a summary of the most profound things he said.

Two of the beatitudes have a particular resonance today. First: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”. This Sunday arises out of Orange Shirt Day which is all about mourning the children who died. So we must ask: “What will it take to comfort all those who mourn the dead children?” Can we, as Jesus calls us to do, weep with those who are weeping? Can we get past the feelings of guilt, the justifications like “I didn’t know!” and simply feel deep empathy? And what comfort can we help the families find?

The other beatitude is: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”. “Earth” often means “planet” for us but Jesus didn’t intend that. A better translation for that word is “land”.

The meek shall inherit the land

Jesus would have had a clear sense that the meek were never those who are in power. We must ask ourselves: “What will it take to restore the land from the hands of the powerful to those who had it stolen from them?”

In this day when the world is becoming over-populated, traditional nomadic lifestyles have been restricted by law for centuries and are now dismissed as impractical in an overcrowded world afflicted by climate change. What will it take to restore an attitude that the land doesn’t belong to us rather, that we belong to the land?

I don’t have all the answers. I wish I did. But I do believe that as we are challenged to acknowledge the relationship between the land under our feet and the indigenous people of this land, that our acknowledgement will not be complete until we struggle with all that the land means: the home that cannot be replaced and that calls you back no matter where you are taken; the source of milk and honey that is greater than we are; the promise of refuge for desperate people.


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