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Sir John & King Jeroboam in an Age of Decolonization

How honest Old Testament reading can help us understand Canada’s history.

The Pope is coming to Canada next week, with stops planned for Edmonton, Quebec and Iqaluit. He will visit Indigenous, Inuit and Métis communities to speak with and listen to elders, church leaders and survivors of residential schools. This comes on the heels of the Pope’s meeting with Indigenous and Métis leaders in the Vatican, where he apologized for the abuses perpetuated in Catholic-run schools.

Here in B.C., I recently walked past Victoria City Hall. An empty spot before its front doors is a stark reminder of Sir John A. MacDonald’s fall from honour. The statue of Canada’s first Prime Minister was removed in 2018 from its place of prominence by order of city council. In the aftermath of the discovery of unmarked graves at former Indigenous residential schools in B.C. and other western provinces last summer, statues of MacDonald and other nation builders have been toppling all across Canada in protest of their racist views and discriminatory policies toward First Nations.

An age of decolonization is upon Canada. 

What is Decolonization? 

Decolonization critically considers how European assumptions of cultural and racial superiority have shaped Canada’s laws, customs and institutions in ways that have oppressed and ostracized Indigenous people. Decolonization also challenges the cheery account of Canada’s history many of us learned in school from teachers, textbooks and cringey “Canada Heritage Moments” on television. We learned of the discovery and exploration of a vast land by heroic Europeans, its settlement by hardworking settlers and its subsequent growth into a prosperous, welcoming nation. But, of course, this land was not terra nullius (“empty land”) awaiting discovery and settlement. It was already populated by Indigenous peoples whose traditions were razed and children requisitioned into residential schools in the name of national destiny.

Decolonization challenges Canada’s churches too.

As is well known, several denominations operated residential schools. These churches have lamented over this and have made overtures for reconciliation. Other church denominations – including the Christian Reformed and Presbyterians – have disavowed the so-called doctrine of discovery, recognizing the racism and brutality hidden within the old tale of Canada’s ‘discovery’ by Europeans. 

The call to decolonize Canada’s institutions and history can feel threatening to Christians of European descent. Decolonization undermines the comforting story we tell of how our families came to Canada to find freedom and seek opportunity. It also lodges doubt against our tacit belief that Providence guided Canada’s history toward the blessings of prosperity and peace we now enjoy. In short, decolonization creates an identity crisis.

True, as Christians in Canada our identity is shaped in part from the story of Canada. So when that familiar story is criticized, we feel vulnerable. At the same time, Christians learn who we are primarily through the biblical story. Because our prime allegiance is to God and our citizenship is in Christ’s kingdom (Phil. 3:20-21), Scripture helps us think critically and faithfully about the other stories that make up our identity.

The Old Testament is a rich and overlooked resource for doing precisely this. In fact, there’s areas of overlap between the agenda of decolonization and the Old Testament that are worth exploring.

The Old Testament and Decolonization

This might seem a strange claim at first! Admittedly, parts of the Old Testament have been used in the past to justify the sort of cozy relationship between rulers and religion that allowed churches to cooperate with government in ‘civilizing’ Indigenous and other non-European peoples. And some critics of Christianity believe – wrongly, I believe – that Israel’s conquest of Canaan provided a theological justification for colonialism.

Yet several themes prominent in decolonization are embedded in the Old Testament. 

Old Testament law is deeply concerned for the equitable sharing of land (e.g. Lev. 25, Deut. 24); the law and prophets demand justice for the marginalized and oppressed (e.g. Amos 5, Ps. 10). Themes of exile and powerlessness frequent the Old Testament (e.g. Ex. 22; Lam. 1). And, similar to how Indigenous leaders in Canada criticize talk of ‘reconciliation’ without action , the Old Testament lambasts piety that isn’t put into practice (e.g. I Sam. 15:22). Above all, I believe that the Old Testament, by tracking over centuries the turbulent story of God’s covenant with his people Israel, helps us to view history with a “decolonizing” eye, one sensitive to how power has been (mis)used to exploit people and tell false tales.

Consider three examples from the little-read and rarely-preached First and Second Book of Kings.

First, the kings of Israel and Judah are often criticized for manipulating God for political ends. 

1 Kings 12 tells the story of King Jeroboam, who sought to strengthen Israel by using priests, shrines and sacrifices in support of his domestic policies. Jeroboam had good aims. He wanted a secure and prosperous country. But he twisted Israel’s faith to get it. The French Reformed thinker Jacques Ellul (1912-92) believed that the “sin of Jeroboam” was endemic in Old Testament history, and later spilled into European Christendom. This sin was for rulers to use God’s name in vain – for the political ends of power and social cohesion. 

When the Dominion of Canada was born in 1867 both Catholic and Protestant churches eagerly sought a godly “dominion from sea to sea” (Ps. 72:8). Churches wielded great cultural and moral influence, including responsibility over residential schools and support for national expansion and wars. Perhaps if the “sin of Jeroboam” had been better heeded by church leaders, they would have been more suspicious of the motives behind government offers of influence, and more self-critical of their role in creating (what the Truth and Reconciliation Committee calls) “Euro-Christian Canadian society.”

Second, the Book of Kings undermines the idol of national progress. 

Archeological records reveal Israel’s greatest kings to be the notorious Omri (1 Kings 16) and Ahab (I Kings 16-22). They brought stable government and prosperity; their military successes against Aram and Moab expanded borders. I’ve visited excavations at Tel Hazor in Israel that show Ahab’s impressive waterworks and ambitious building projects. Indeed, “there was no one like Ahab” (1 Kings 21:25), but not for any of the reasons mentioned above, about which the Bible is uninterested! For Ahab “sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the LORD, urged on by his wife Jezebel.” Ellul writes: “Historians who think the history told in the Bible is pious and distorted ought to ask themselves why it is that these biblical historians . . . . always tell us about the disasters under the good kings and the victories under idolatrous kings.”

A country can enjoy affluence and international prestige and at the very same time pursue unrighteousness.

It’s easy to interpret Canada’s rapid expansion through the 19th century and growing affluence in the 20th century as proof of God’s favour – as many Christians then and now have. But the Old Testament resists sanctifying national prosperity. A country can enjoy affluence and international prestige and at the very same time pursue unrighteousness. As the Book of Kings makes clear, God’s blessing on a people or nation is evidenced not in affluence but in righteousness and holiness. Could this biblical way of thinking help us reevaluate the criteria we use to think about our own nation’s history?

Third, the Books of Kings are a brilliant example of a point made often by the late Eugene Peterson: “There are no heroes in the Bible; yet no one is written out of the story.”

At a moment in Canada’s history when monuments are falling and names erased from memory, it’s shocking that the Old Testament keeps wicked kings and queens like Ahab, Jezebel, Athaliah and Ahaz in the story. Also part of the story are godly but deeply flawed kings like Joash and Hezekiah (2 Kings 12, 20) and even the zealous and bloodthirsty Jehu (2 Kings 9-10), who is anointed by God but – as Ellul remarks – “uses all the methods of the devil” to rule. In short, the Old Testament tells Israel’s history as unheroic and complex.

Where do we go from here?

Canada’s history has often been written heroically: the triumphs and exploits of great men and women forging a young nation’s destiny (and, therefore, worthy of “heritage moments”). But when those heroes fall, or our faith in progress wavers, the story unravels – and our sense of identity with it. We can sympathize with the grief and great anger that leads some people to smash statues and erase names. But is turning venerable figures like MacDonald or Egerton Ryerson into villains or canceling parts of our past in the name of justice the right response? Are we today so sure or our place at the moral apex of history that we can rightly judge everyone who has come before us?

When we are formed through God’s Word, we learn to read rightly the other stories that make up our identity. So formed, perhaps then we could tell the story of Canada similar to how the Books of Kings tells Israel’s story: ambivalently, humbly and with unflinching gaze at the deeply flawed people and policies that are part of who we are. Perhaps then the history of Canada becomes not a simple story of heroes (or villains) but of God’s goodness despite human sin; a story not of progress but of hope for the “healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2) within our land.

If you appreciated this story, you might also like “Two Montreal Statues by Roland De Vries published in our September 2020 issue and “The Politics of Space” by Kaitlin Baluk from our December 2020 issue.

Author

  • Todd Statham

    Todd Statham is the Christian Reformed Chaplain at the University of British Columbia. He lives in Kelowna, B.C., with his wife and three children.

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you, Todd, for this wise piece on our own history of colonization in light of the biblical story. You are right, we must tell our national story “ambivalently, humbly and with unflinching gaze at the deeply flawed people and policies that are part of who we are.” The question, of course, is what to do with both the colonial narrative itself, and the monuments to that narrative all around us. We must never forget MacDonald, Ryerson, and others, but are heroic monuments and institutions named after these men appropriate? I think not.

    An interesting example of radically re-purposing architecture erected in honour of false gods is the German Ministry of Finance in Berlin. The building was erected for Herman Göring to house the Nazi Luftwaffe. After the unification of Germany, it became the Ministry of Finance. And out of that building the office of reparations continues to financially compensate the families of the concentration camps.

  2. The O.T. “applications” are right on the mark, in my view. The Bible is its own interpreter and corrector and the later parts–especially the gospels–often help us see our (or the writers’) misinterpretations of national heroes.

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