Letting go at Lent

We’re now in the season of Lent – going up to Jerusalem, as it were, with Jesus.

When we check the route (in the so-called Travel Narrative of Luke’s Gospel, 9:51–19:44, for example), we discover that it goes through Samaria. This was not “home ground” for Jesus and his disciples, Eugene Peterson reminds in Tell It Slant. Samaria was “unfamiliar and uncongenial;” Samaritans and Jews had “several hundred years of bad blood between them.”  If that biblical journey up to the events of Easter occurred today, with Mennonite Brethren in Canada, we might discover it taking us through our country’s First Nations reserves and urban settlements. And today, just as then, we would find ourselves in a meeting of two groups that, though geographically near, are often far apart in their culture and understanding.

How appropriate then that this issue’s theme of “our Aboriginal neighbours” happens to fall into the Lenten season, with its call to fasting, penitence, and prayer. What a wonderful exercise it might be to study the teachings of Jesus in the Travel Narrative with a specific awareness of hearing them while within a First Nations environment.

And what a significant discipline it might be, in addition to whatever else we may have given up for Lent (whether chocolate or television or something else we like too much), to do some giving up in relation to our Aboriginal neighbours. Let me suggest two things we might give up.

Resistance

Perhaps we could let go of our resistance to apologies, such as those Mennonite Central Committee, church groups, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have made to Aboriginal people, and take on, instead, a posture of deep empathy and regret for wrongs done to First Nations people in Canada. Many Christians, of course, have applauded the statements, but many others, as Andrew Reimer suggests in “Mennonite Peacemakers and Aboriginal Neighbours,” an article in the EMMC Recorder, “question the value or validity of making such apologies.”

But we weren’t there, comes the protest; why should we apologize? But “they” have a mess of sins to deal with too, comes another; why should we apologize?

We apologize together because as citizens of our nation, its history – in its entirety – belongs to us. When wrongs have been done, we must own them as wrong. Resisting, or adding “buts” before “sorry” is clearly established as solid ground between us, prevents the trust and clarity required for justice in our relations.

Ignorance

Perhaps we could also let go of our ignorance about Aboriginal peoples. We might do this one story at a time. We need to read newspaper and statistical reports, of course, for knowledge of current issues, but more than that, we need to discover First Nations stories and books.

When asked “Who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29) by “an expert in the law,” Jesus answered with a story. It was an interesting, dramatic story, and, probably to the great surprise of Jesus’ audience, had a Samaritan as its protagonist. That protagonist was not only fully human, but a good man as well. He was the one who had truly acted as “neighbour.”

The story Jesus told then has been so successful in rehabilitating the reputation of a despised and stereotyped, mixed-race group of people, all of us now would be proud to claim or have bestowed on us the label of “Good Samaritan.”
I once heard writer Martha Nussbaum, in conversation with CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel, say that fiction is important for us because it allows us to imagine the value of other people’s lives. This is surely true for non-fiction or other story forms as well. The point is, stories are a pleasure, and in the process, they teach us what may otherwise be inaccessible to us.

In reading In Search of April Raintree by Beatrice Mosionier, I grasp what many Aboriginal women are up against – disadvantages I’ve never had. There’s truth to face about Mennonite-“halfbreed” relations in our own Rudy Wiebe’s Peace Shall Destroy Many, or a rich complexity of Aboriginal characters to discover in some of his other books. Recently, I’ve been enjoying Giller-winner Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce, a novel of contemporary Aboriginal life that’s edgy but real and compelling; one cannot stand aloof.

Real acts

If these small ways of letting go feel too passive for the friendships and robust activism also required for Mennonite-Aboriginal relations, let’s remember that the “fasting” of Lent opens space for prayer. And prayer (unless we’ve reduced it to pious chit-chat) is both profoundly personal and profoundly political. Real acts happen during, after, and because of prayer.

The way to Easter winds through “Samaria,” and if we choose, we can join Jesus there. It was on this journey, Eugene Peterson says, that Jesus took the time to prepare his disciples for their “post-crucifixion and post-resurrection lives.” May we learn, as we go, what living as neighbours – one to the other – really means.

—Dora Dueck, interim editor 

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