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Thorny topic’s timely treatment theologically thin

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Wrongs to Rights: How Churches can Engage the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Steve Heinrichs, editor
Mennonite Church Canada

Canada received a standing ovation at the United Nations in May this year when minister of Indigenous affairs Carolyn Bennett announced that our government will adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Wrongs to Rights is a special 166-page publication of Intotemak (journal clipboard01published by the Indigenous Relations Department of Mennonite Church Canada). Editor and director of MC Canada Indigenous relations Steve Heinrichs has done an incredible job of assembling works by 40 authors from diverse backgrounds to explore how churches can engage the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

This is an impressive collection of stories, images, short academic articles and poetry. The images alone make a deep lasting impression. The book artfully features the confident but pain-scarred faces of Indigenous people who have lived through much injustice at the hands of colonialism and the dominant culture in Canada.

Key interviews with Justice Murray Sinclair and Adrian Jacobs are provocative and insightful.

I found many helpful pages, including “They did right: a short list of Christian settlers who honoured Indigenous rights” (downloadable as a poster).

Lowell Ewert’s article “Should the Church Care About International law?” is especially timely. The professor of peace and conflict studies at Conrad Grebel University College describes the United Nations Declaration and human rights law as a “floor, not a ceiling” for the church in determining how to relate to Indigenous people around them.

The chapter “Coming Together at Stoney Knoll” by Harry LaFond is an example of practical actions churches have taken to make wrongs into rights. LaFond tells how Mennonite and Lutheran congregations signed a covenant with members of the Young Chippewayan First Nation near Laird, Sask.

The book would have benefited from more accounts of right actions by churches, but perhaps those are difficult to find. Wrongs to Rights concentrates more on academic presentations and philosophical considerations.

Articles that touch on theological issues are written for the most part by those who do not seem to be firmly evangelical. A number of authors are of the view that almost all Christian missionaries of the past and present base their work on a racist foundation. This opinion springs from the notion that the Christian missionary who believes that she is bringing a message of objective truth to a person who does not yet know or believe that truth considers herself superior to that person and is therefore racist.

Given that many of us ethnic Mennonites are descendants of people who suffered severely at the hands of religious leaders who considered themselves superior to those who disagreed with them, we should be able to agree with the Declaration’s statement on discrimination. It affirms that “all doctrines, policies and practices based on or advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust.” Sadly, some of us evangelical missionaries today still succumb to a superiority complex. Wrongs to Rights shines a light on that danger.

In my view, the solution is not to water down our claims of truth, but to approach proclamation with a listening posture, true humility and respect for the recipient of the gospel. How this can be done requires more thought; Wrongs to Rights prods me in that direction.

—Don Klaassen is a member of Sardis Community Church, Chilliwack, B.C., and a missions coach with Outreach Canada. In the last five years, Don has led a number of reconciliation initiatives, including the filming of “Yummo Comes Home” (www.outreach.ca/yummo). Attending three Truth and Reconciliation events has motivated him to assist churches in relating to Indigenous people around them in healing and just ways.

More resources:

Other volumes in the Intotemak series

The gospel calls us to be unsettled

A hard look at Canada

From MB Herald

How to wear moccasins: A Mennonite Brethren explores identity making among Indigenous theologians

What is truth? Reflecting on Canada’s final Truth and Reconciliation Commission event

Don’t read this book if… A review of Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry: Conversations on Creation, Land Justice, and Life Together

It’s time to return stories: A review of Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way 

From MC Canada

Church Matters Podcast: Episode 107: Truth and Reconciliation Commission summons churches
Guest: Steve Heinrichs, Director MC Canada Indigenous Relations

Wrongs to Rights poster

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