Living as covenant people

By Sarah Shepherd

A Christian response to Idle No More

Several years ago, I was at a three-day meeting where feelings were running very high about difficult and painful issues. Part-way through, one of the participating Aboriginal leaders changed the agenda. He led us through a talking circle: only one person spoke at any one time, we were encouraged to speak from the heart if we were speaking, and we listened from the deepest parts of our hearts if we were listening. The tenor of the entire gathering, and of our relationships with one another, completely shifted as a result.

Chief Theresa Spence, who has been fasting since mid-December, is asking for a similar transformation. Her request may seem less clear than asking for a specific bill to be passed, or for a particular sum of money to be earmarked for an urgent need. Nonetheless, her call comes from the heart, and it is for a demonstration of respect in the wake of a long history, compounded most recently by decisions made by the Canadian government, of oppression and marginalization. This respect would be embodied in meeting among representatives of First Nations, the Crown, and Canada’s elected leaders that would be conducted in a spirit of openness and transparency.

Being faithful to God as treaty people

This spirit is that of “treaty,” or “covenant.” You may have heard it said that “we are all treaty people.” A treaty is not just a set of rules that only apply to Aboriginal peoples and the currently elected government; it’s a commitment that includes all Canadians. Bert Adema, Director of the CRC-supported Indian Métis Christian Fellowship in Regina, says, “as God covenants with us, so we make covenants—or treaties—with one another. Being faithful to God means keeping our word without compromise and dishonor; without moving the boundary markers.”

Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) staff have been trying to be faithful during this time in several ways: by visiting Theresa Spence and her supporters on Victoria Island, participating with people of faith in a solidarity fast on January 11, being present in public witness on Parliament Hill and writing statements of support. Our weekly reflection centred on Isaiah’s challenge not to fast physically unless we are committed to “loose the bonds of injustice” (Is. 58:6). Theresa Spence’s own words reflect the principles that have been guiding us: “The Creator put us here for a reason. The Creator wants us to love and respect each other. The Creator wants us to work together here on Mother Earth.”

CPJ’s work centres on ending poverty and advocating for ecological wellbeing in Canada, and we believe neither of these goals can be achieved without full participation of and respect for Canada’s Aboriginal peoples. We are also keenly aware of how the events of the last few weeks have often focused on issues that affect everyone in Canada, regardless of our backgrounds.

How do we respond?

“Issues are complicated,” as ecological and Indigenous justice activist Severn Suzuki recently tweeted. “Courage is simple.” There is much complexity to these issues. The machinations of government are hard to comprehend at the best of times. First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people are not a homogenous group—they are many nations from many contexts, with their own government structures. Similarly, the Idle No More movement isn’t a structured hierarchy with a five-year plan—but a growing group of people from coast to coast to coast feeling empowered to share their own needs, demands, joys and anger. But let us not be intimidated by the complexity of the issues into not responding as best we can with courage.

The Christian Reformed Church’s Office of Social Justice posted a statement on January 11 that named “deep prayer” as an essential response for people of faith. Pray for open spirits, justice, integrity, and wisdom within those who have leadership roles; for strength and sustenance for those who are engaging in acts of courage; for an opening of minds and hearts within each one of us.

Listening to people on the margins, and to those with differing perspectives, can be an act of courage. Seek out opportunities to listen in person, as well as to learn through media. Many of us live in communities where relationships can be built through schools, community spaces, and outreach ministries. We can all learn and acknowledge who are the original peoples of the land that we live, work, and worship on.

The CRC statement also calls for “a passionate and active response to God’s call to live as covenant (treaty) people.” Such responses can again be varied: writing letters naming our concerns and demands for change to MPs, scheduling meetings with MPs, sharing what we understand with others in our congregations and communities, participating in (or organizing) non-violent public witness.

Working together, through prayer, learning, and action, we can honour an authentic and life-giving treaty that will be for the good of all.

This article is forthcoming in Christian Courier, January 28, 2013.

Photo from Andrew I. made available under a Creative Commmons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

Further reading: a few of many choices

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