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Christian Colonialism Challenged in Smart, Provocative Book

Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry (Herald Press) offers an extraordinary challenge to the torturous history and continuing damage of Christian colonialism in North America. The editor, Steve Heinrichs, Director of Indigenous Relations for the Mennonite Church Canada, offers it as an "unsettling" book that "many denominations wouldn't have risked."

Every chapter, each written by a different author, confronts truths about the Christian invasion of Indigenous Peoples in North America. The focus is primarily Canadian, but the lessons apply wherever Christian civilization has spread. The contributors—half of them Native, half non-Native—often respond to each other's views, building a dialogue that facilitates and provokes discussion. No contributor pretends to have a lock on the whole story. None claims to provide a guaranteed resolution of the problems caused by religious domination of lands and peoples.

The book opens with an explicit "call to decolonization," premised on the understanding that we face no "Indian problem," but rather a "settler-colonial problem." This is a very bold move for a religious organization rooted in colonial missionary practice. There's no room for "social relativism," whereby a later generation blames its ancestors, but forgives them for not knowing better.

Further, the book frames the settler-colonial problem not simply as "historical," but as ongoing and contemporary. Again, no room for saying "what's past is past." History is now, ongoing. "Colonialism was and is a choice that Canadians make every day."

And more: the contemporary dimensions of the problem encompass the world: "the controlling culture [of Christian civilization] is violently sick, devastating peoples and lands." Colonialism created a system "based on the hyperexploitation of the land and of Indigenous peoples"; it "overwhelmingly promotes greed over creation."

Other books argue, "The planet is in the process of being killed (geo-cide)"; some also acknowledge, "Indigenous cultures and creatures are taking the heaviest deathblows." But I know of no other book that puts these critiques together and ties them to Christian civilization, offering both Christian and non-Christian perspectives of the situation.

None of the contributors makes an excuse or tries to rationalize away the damage inflicted by Christian colonialism. Every commentator on Bible texts acknowledges that the language of "dominion" and "subjugation" fueled (and fuels) attacks on Native peoples and lands in the name of "salvation."

Several writers do exert themselves to develop a re-interpretation of the Biblical language, trying to turn "dominion" into "stewardship," and urging Christians to read the Bible as an appreciation of the Earth's diversity. As other writers point out, however, the "'stewardship' reading…cuts against the plain meaning of the text."

The sharpest critiques of Christian colonialism reject the Biblical tradition wholesale. They argue that even the notion of "stewardship" perpetuates the Biblical "anthropocentric hierarchy…that is antithetical to an Indian worldview." They point out that Indian traditions teach about "balance" and "harmony" among all creation, without privileging humans above other beings.

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These conflicting perspectives define the book as a provocation to dialogue among Christians—Native and non-Native—and between Christians and others. A difficulty here stems from the effects of Christian colonizing: "Whatever the Native person has to say about the matter must now use the language categories of the colonizer." "Coyote is not exactly what [Christians] mean by the word god—even if he created something."

A "reconciliation" movement has arisen—at least in Canada—in response to the damaging legacy of Christian colonialism. "'Reconciliation' has been popularized and romanticized as the 'happily ever after' ending of every dispute…." But actual reconciliation, the author says, must include "renunciation of colonial barriers and privileges," something far more difficult than saying "sorry."

Another thread running through several chapters explores the notion of "God's covenant"— upon which Christian missionaries base their claims of a "divine mandate" to take lands and subdue "savages." Some authors call for a "new covenant," made with Native peoples; but this too—as with "stewardship"—is contrary to the plain meaning of the Biblical text.

The damaging concepts are not only in Genesis. Take, for example, the book of Judges (New International Version), where the Israelites are explicitly told they may not make a covenant with the peoples among whom and on whose lands they live: "The angel of the Lord… said, 'I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.'"

The book of Judges goes further: It says the God of the Israelites will punish his own people if they merge with those whose lands they have colonized: "The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord…. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors…. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. … In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist."

The "God of Abraham" is a colonial god. His mandate to Abraham is to leave home and invade another people's land—Canaan. The three religions that hark back to the Biblical story of the Family of Abraham—Jews, Muslims, and Christians—have become a large dysfunctional family. Each branch wars with the others; each claims for itself the divine mandate and covenant. The world is caught in their crossfire.

The Mennonite Church Canada has pulled off an amazing feat: In the midst of raging religious warfare among claimants to the Biblical tradition, they have raised the possibility—nay, the necessity—of a revision, a reimagining, a reconfiguration, a reconciliation of the Biblical tradition with the realities of a world reeling from the destructive effects of a civilization bent on world domination.

"Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry" is a courageous effort. It deserves thorough study. Whatever it achieves by way of radical critique and opening of dialogue, it stands as proof that at least some descendants of Christian colonialism do not cower in the face of history and hard questions.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.