The Silence of Reconciliation

6 Feb

What follows is a homily I wrote and delivered Sunday Feb 3rd at Dannforth Mennonite Church, Toronto.  CPT-AJT routinely receives these type of invites.  I lift up Chief Theresa Spence and her sacred fast.  While not specifically mentioned in the message below, this link will provide the reader further background regarding the work I did, in solidarity of Chief Spence.  And with that, all of the photos that appear within the text are photos received and posted by CPT-AJT during the photo campaign.  The scripture reading is Isaiah 32:16-17.

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On behalf of Christian Peacemaker Teams- the Aboriginal Justice Team, I want to thank Pastor Tim Reimer, and all of you at Dannforth Mennonite Church for providing me with this opportunity to speak to you this morning.

I am a full time stipended member of the team; that means I receive a needs-based stipend, per month. Many of us ‘full timers’ jokingly say that we have taken the vow of poverty. I joined team January 2012 and the team is based and lives in Toronto. While I am originally from Iran, I have lived in the United States since I was approximately a year and half. Prior to joining CPT, I was a licensed attorney, with my own practice, with nearly 10 years experience, focusing on US immigration law.

Yes, it’s been quite the change for me. My finding CPT, and decision to join the Aboriginal Justice Team, is part of a larger framework: I am discerning a call to ordination, as a priest, within the Episcopal/ Anglican tradition. I feel I can ‘out-do’ Moses with the amount of whining and questioning, but all joking aside, I feel I was led to CPT, because the ministry has given me what I needed: space between my life as a litigation attorney and whatever comes next.

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Also, I feel it’s no coincidence that I am with the Aboriginal Justice Team. I am an orphan, adopted by US born parents, in Tehran, Iran. I was found in the city of Shiraz, which is in the south-western part of the country. The story that accompanied me to the orphanage in Tehran: I am indigenous, from a local semi-nomadic tribe that was near Shiraz at the time of my discovery- the Qashqai people.

While I had a formative Christian upbringing, my first memory is of my “story” and I credit my parents with instilling in me a sense of pride and awe of Iran, its history, people, culture, traditions and that too of what they knew of the Qashqai. And the backdrop to my childhood is the US-Iranian hostage crisis, the icy political climate between the US and Iran, and resulting racist attitudes and opinions towards anything Iranian by too many US-ers, that continues to this day.

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Because of my upbringing, I have always been attracted to, well, anything indigenous/ Aboriginal, or as is said in the States, anything Native American. I enjoyed learning. But it was at a distance. And not until it became clear during my CPT training that I would be joining the Aboriginal Justice Team, did it dawn on me, that in many ways, I was “coming home.”

I am still learning but I am now immersed: spiritually, physically and emotionally. I am truly privileged, and blessed, with what 2012 presented to me: I have met so many warm, wonderful, beautiful people. I hold onto teachings I receive from Elders and cherish the gifts that I have received from the various communities I have visited, from the Grassy Narrows First Nation in Northwestern Ontario, to the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, in Michigan.

I see familiar faces today, and for those of you that know me, I engage with a lot of energy. So, as Advent approached, I was selfishly looking forward to the anticipated down time that Christmas/ New Year’s historically provides to the team. For a variety of reasons, I wanted to spend Christmas week in a modified silent retreat. I was scheduled to leave December 23rd to join the Sisters of St John the Divine, a Monastic Community within the Anglican Church of Canada, in Toronto, to return January 1st. The rest of the team had scattered to locations far beyond the city, and I was the “keeper of the watch” for the project, and this is why I was staying within Toronto.

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… I believe acclaimed movie director, Woody Allen, said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell [God] about your plans.”

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence. Idle No More. Round Dance Revolution. Native Winter. Twitter. Facebook. Email. Flash mobs. Multiple, pressing, CPT-net releases. Lack of sleep. Inconsistent eating patterns. Needless to say, the 12 Days of Christmas were quite noisy and clatter-filled for me, with very little periods of rest, or opportunity for reflection.

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As I reflect on today’s reading, we truly get a glimpse of what can only be described as a fascinating image: “Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.”

Before we proceed, let’s review the context of this portion of Isaiah. The book is well known and formative for us, primarily because the early Church, in an effort to bear witness to Christ, found the book of Isaiah quite useful. Over all, the book of Isaiah is an extended, complex prophetic meditation upon the city of Jerusalem and its meaning for the faith of ancient Israel and then, by extension, for our faith as well.

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It’s important to keep in mind that with Isaiah, we need to think deeply about the significance of the city of Jerusalem for biblical faith. At the time, Jerusalem is not only the location of the Temple, where the God of Israel has promised to be present, but is also a very real urban center, with political practices, international entanglements and temptations to military adventurism. Thus, the city was endlessly placed in jeopardy and kept under threat by the larger states surrounding it. Over the span of the book of Isaiah, the city is affected by the Assyrian Empire (745-712 BC), the Babylonian Empire (615-540 BC) and eventually the Persian Empire (540-333 BC).

Our reading of Isaiah then focuses upon the relationship between the theological reality of Jerusalem and the political reality of Jerusalem, a relationship that is not always clear cut. The prophet invites us to study that interrelation of life and faith, a relationship that continues to be never easy or obvious as we may imagine. In the book, we hear two theological accents that are in deep tension with each other: divine judgment and divine promise to protect and sustain the city for sake of the Temple and the Davidic dynasty.

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The two themes provide a way for us to think about the world differently. In this way, our deepest faith convictions are continually connected to a lived reality. So in a large general sweep, the book Isaiah is divided into two parts:

1. Chapters 1-39 are about loss. In these chapters, we learn that God will judge the city and its wayward economy and military policies, which are rooted in unfaith. In thinking on this theme, we come to realize that all our favorite arrangements of the world stand under divine judgment.
2. Chapters 40-66 embody hope, particularly that the deportation of the 6th century BC will soon end and the speedy recovery of the city will be glorious. We are focused on the good fortune God will yet give us.

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The twofold message of judgment and hope, of exile and homecoming, is perhaps “easily” transposed for us in Christian reading into the crucifixion of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus. So then the narrative of Jesus reiterates and replicates the narrative of Jerusalem. Looking at our own Christian faith and worship, we focus in turn on loss (of a Friday kind) and the capacity of God to work a newness (of an Easter kind). We ourselves can move from the book of Isaiah to the main claims of our faith.

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Speaking of loss, I at times found myself utterly at a loss to comprehend, make sense and unpack the events that were unfolding around Chief Theresa Spence.

For instance, on New Year’s Eve, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued what I understand is a yearly, end of the year statement, which to me, seemed comparable to the yearly State of the Union address, issued by the President of the US in either late January or early February. In it, the Prime Minister wrote, “We also continued to strengthen our relationship with First Nations[.]”

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By this point, Chief Spence had been patiently waiting for the Prime Minister’s visit in her Teepee, situated on Victoria Island, Traditional Territory of the Algonquian Peoples, otherwise known to us as Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, maintaining her sacred fast for 21 days. Idle No More had packed malls and blocked intersections throughout Canada with round dances and flash mobs, and the tiny Aamjiwnaang First Nation was nearing the two-week mark of its blockade of the CN rail line near Sarnia, which was erected in solidarity with Chief Spence.

And still, even at this juncture, many people were scratching their heads, asking, “Where did this come from?” Omnibus Bills C-45 and C-38 were simply, unfortunately, a mere matching of letters and numbers, prior to the New Year’s Eve release. Unfortunate: because both bills have significant impact on First Nation communities. Unfortunate: because both bills were passed without the requisite duty to consult First Nations. For instance when Bill C-45 was brought to the House of Commons for a vote in early December, members of the New Democratic Party invited a delegation of First Nation representatives into the chamber to be heard, only then for the delegation to be refused entry upon arrival by the majority party.

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Unfortunate: because Bill C-38 numbers more than 400 pages and amends dozens of pieces of legislation from environmental regulations to employment oversight. Unfortunate: because Bill C-45 leaves 99.7% of Canada’s lakes and more than 99.9% of Canada’s rivers from federal oversight, making Canada’s pristine waterways prime for the unfettered use by private resource companies. Unfortunate: because both bills actually have a significant impact on all Canadians, not just Indigenous Peoples.

And rather than probe the ramifications of both omnibus bills, rather than trace the bills and see their causal connection to the overall daily struggle that Indigenous Peoples face: and that is living in third world conditions while in their backyards, mega development projects extract resources from their lands while their children have the highest rates of infant mortality, diabetes, malnutrition, alcoholism, drug dependency, abuse and incarceration than other children in Canada and rather than lift up Chief Spence’s sacrifice and actions, the majority of main stream media, social commentators, other public officials, and society, consistently berated, insulted and ridiculed her.

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Each jab only fueled the many longstanding myths that so many Canadians have towards Indigenous Peoples. For instance, Sun News Network held a contest on their Facebook page, asking people to use one word to describe her, with the lure of a prize for the best answer. Some of the words submitted included: fat, oink, garbage, chief two-chins and hippo. Others couldn’t just stick to one word. One wrote: “Stop sucking Lysol.”

Thus far, the accompanying Idle No More rallies, protests and flash mobs have remained peaceful but tensions continue to rise. At a New Year’s round dance, a pamphlet with the image of a middle finger and the word “Indian” was circulated, and at another recent gathering, a pick-up truck drove through a round dance that had formed in an intersection, pushing one person aside (no one was hurt).

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Returning to Chief Spence, the slander continued far beyond mocking her body image to discredit her. Main stream media ridiculed the choice of fish broth as “the cheat.” Upon learning she was drinking tea and fish broth, the story changed from -hunger strike-, to -liquid diet-, as if 10, 20, 30, 40 days without solid food is easy. Again, had the media and commentators taken one additional step,- just one- they would have discovered that fish broth carried deep cultural meaning for Anishinaabeg people. It symbolizes hardship and sacrifice and means of survival. Their ancestors survived many winters on fish broth because there was simply nothing else to eat; not because the environment was harsh, but because of consistent land loss and colonial policy that were so fierce, Anishinaabeg were forced into an imposed poverty that many times left fish broth as the only sustenance. And with that, colonialism has kept Indigenous Peoples on a fish broth “diet” for generations upon generations.

This connection to the legacy of colonialism was utterly lost on mainstream Canada, and most likely, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who remarked in 2009 at the G20 in Pittsburgh that Canada “has no history of colonialism.”

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…. Loss… loss of decency, respect, loss of spiritual connectedness…to each other… to the land.

The drama around Chief Spence primarily unfolded in Ottawa… the urban center for Canada, the place with political practices and indeed, temptations to military adventurism. While I previously emphasized that to read and reflect on Isaiah, we need to think deeply about the significance of the city of Jerusalem, this does not automatically translate that Ottawa is our present day Jerusalem. No. And, consistent with that, while it may be “easy” to transpose the concrete reality of Jerusalem in Isaiah into a claim for Jesus of Nazareth, care must be taken never to forfeit the concrete historical reality of the city of Jerusalem.

However, the cipher “Jerusalem” functions for us as a metaphor for any centered symbol system- political, economic, psychological or even ecclesiastical. And with that, Isaiah shows us that God is powerfully and decisively- though perhaps hiddenly- engaged everywhere in the reality of the world.

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Recall the general division of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39 are of loss and Chapters 40-66 are of hope. But today’s reading is from Chapter 32. That’s because we easily find ourselves in the middle of the poems of loss and hope. We too are engaged in the reality of the world. Thus, we are to be the carriers of God’s transformative will in this world. Isaiah focuses upon the sovereign capacity of God to make all things new. That future, however, is not simply a divine gift, but is a human task, given to people like us.

And to break this down further, we should actually look to portions of verses 14 and 15: “For the palace will be forsaken… until a spirit from on high is poured out on us…” And this is the spiritual power of truth, purity and righteousness. In Isaiah, in terms of renewal, for a real renewal to occur, those who are led to salvation must receive a share in God’s spirit. People’s relationship with God is no longer left to our own efforts, but given by the spirit. And that then becomes the central miracle of the new age, a new reality out of the chaos of the present.

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Because this new life, or new age, is a life in God’s presence, the power of the divine nature, or the spirit, will exert an influence. It will penetrate the heart as rain penetrates the earth. But if the heart is hardened, the spirit grieves, causing it to withdraw, with the result that the flow of divine life is cut off. Hand in hand with the penetration of hearts is the spirit’s guidance in just about every aspect of life: political activity, art, craftsmanship, all of our relationships are subsumed under the operation of the spirit because the aim is to actualize the will of God in all the forms of human existence.

To carry out God’s transformative will in this world, God demands that justice be done. Without justice, nothing can be accomplished. No enduring peace, security, or reconciliation is fathomable without the basic foundation of justice.

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“Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness quietness and trust forever.”

And for righteousness to result in quietness? I invite you to close your eyes. [space of 30 seconds] Silence can be frightening because it strips us as nothing else does, throwing us upon the stark realities of our life. Ask yourself, when’s the last time you sat in utter silence? [long pause] What did you learn about yourself by turning off all the background noise, music or words of every-day life? [long pause] What did you hear as the clatter of your noisy heart dissipated? [long pause] Picture the complete quietness of your soul. [long pause] Feel the peace settling over you. Feel the warmth. But listen [pause]: listen to the sound of sheer silence. Just as Elijah discovered at Horeb, the silence can provide the needed guidance and instruction.

Ok; you can open your eyes now.

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 There is no question that this country, and the United States for that matter, needs to move forward in the spirit of reconciliation, with respect to its relations with the First Peoples of Turtle Island. If we choose to look at the world through the media lens, it’s been light years since Chief Theresa Spence decided to end her courageous sacred fast.

But Marie Wilson, one of the three commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, recently commented that Chief Spence did make a difference in that she “woke sectors of Canada up to the fact that there is a problem.” Commissioner Wilson did acknowledge that many of those ‘sectors’ are “no-where” close to having a deep understanding of what the problem is but she feels that Chief Spence’s sacred fast helped create momentum that will hopefully get the right people in the same room so at least there can be a dialogue. She said, “if we continue to live as strangers to each other in our country, how can we possibly hope to achieve any kind of basis for ongoing long term reconciliation.”

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Let’s give credit to where credit is due; I came across a non-Christian, non-indigenous blog post that made its rounds on Twitter and Facebook and I quote from it now: “Through her fast, [Chief] Spence spoke to us in the language off the body and the *spirit* that animates it. It’s a far more feminine style of language than our own non-native tongue, so no wonder she’s been dismissed and derided and the power of her actions has been missed by many.

That’s still the common fate of our feminine side in this culture, but things are changing, and we see the signs everywhere. She is an emblem of an amazing shift happening all around us. What the history books will say, if things work out as they should, is that Spence stands among the most courageous and creative political leaders to have graced this country’s main-stage. She will be praised for her uncanny timing, bold strategic initiative and ability and willingness to serve as a bridge to ways of thinking and seeing that are still very unfamiliar to the mainstream. Whether we notice or not, our perceptions are going to shift as we step into a new time through a new relationship with our First Nations sisters and brothers.”

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And to continue, this time from an indigenous blog post, written on Day #32:

“Not Chief Spence, but Ogichidaakwe Spence – a holy woman, a woman that would do anything for her family and community, the one that goes over and makes things happen, a warrior, a leader because Ogichidaakwe Spence isn’t just on a hunger strike. She is fasting and this also has cultural meaning for Anishinaabeg. She is in ceremony. We do not “dial back” our ceremonies. We do not undertake this kind of ceremony without much forethought and preparation. We do not ask or demand that people stop the fast before they have accomplished whatever it is they set out to accomplish, which in her case is substantial change in the relationship between the Canadian state and Indigenous nations. We do not critique the faster. We do not band wagon or verbally attack the faster. We do not criticize because we feel she’s become the (unwilling) leader of the movement. We do not assume that she is being ill advised. We do not tell her to “save face.”
We support. We pray. We offer semaa. We take care of the sacred fire. We sing each night at dusk. We take care of all the other things that need to be taken care of, and we live up to our responsibilities in light of the faster. We protect the faster. We do these things because we know that through her physical sacrifice she is closer to the Spiritual world than we are. We do these things because she is sacrificing for us and because it is the kind, compassionate thing to do. We do these things because it is our job to respect her self-determination as an Anishinaabekwe.”

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“Holy woman.” “Emblem of an amazing shift happening all around us.” “A new time.”

Have we seen a glimpse of the new age to come, as envisioned by the spirit laden Isaiah, so many years ago?

We have definitely been blessed with her leadership, insight and her grace.

But we need to acknowledge that the struggle continues. Canada’s waters remain unprotected. Treaties continue to be eroded. Parliamentary process continues to be side-stepped. Chief Spence helped shape the path. Let’s look to Idle No More and pray for the spirit to shower us with guidance and instruction, as we remain committed to the walk in unity upon this path of justice, reconciliation and toward right relationship.

Aye, to know when we have reached that pivotal moment, when the substantial change between the Canadian state and Indigenous nations has occurred. Well.. you know what they say: ……the silence is deafening.

…. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (Psalm 19:14). Amen.

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