Last fall, when The Salvation Army’s Ethics Centre hosted a four-part webinar series called “Moving Salvationists Beyond ‘I’m Not Racist,’ ” people wanted to continue learning about the barriers that need to be addressed, especially within the church. So, a group of Salvationists formed a study group to read Decolonizing Evangelicalism by Randy Woodley, an Indigenous theologian, and Bo Sanders, a United Methodist minister.
In the conversation of Indigenous peoples, the term “decolonization”—the process of deconstructing colonial perspectives and practices—is more than a buzzword. It is a transformational experience. Throughout the study, participants wrestled with the implications of decolonization for themselves and for the church. In this article, they share what they learned and the impact it has made on their lives.
Building Just Communities
In the spring of 2020, when the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked protests around the world, it opened my eyes to the racial injustice millions of people experience. That Canada Day, as I listened to the voices of Indigenous peoples with fresh ears, I felt uncomfortable tension for the first time in my life. I had a choice: bury my head in the sand or continue listening and learning with the help of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour). Months later, when Major Shari Russell, territorial Indigenous ministries consultant, offered a study group as a space to learn, I was eager to sit at the table with her.
As I continue to reflect on Decolonizing Evangelicalism, I keep returning to the notion that no one people group holds all the truth. In the past, I would quickly have become defensive at such a statement, not even questioning why that was. I now realize that some of that defensiveness comes from the western, white theological views I have been taught. This book helped me understand that with colonialism comes exploitation, inequality and whole communities trapped in despair, and a history of pushing its way as the right and only way. Not only have these views not brought people into a better understanding of Christ, but they have also often moved them further away from God’s intended shalom community, lived out so abundantly in the life of Jesus Christ. Does the gospel not call us to expose and work to dismantle such systems?
Indigenous theologies understand shalom as a welcoming community that holds co-operation over competition, community above the individual and recognizes the sacredness of all creation. Reading Randy Woodley’s words, “A shalom community may not be a perfect community, but it should be a just community,” my mind immediately thought of the Canada and Bermuda Territory’s new vision statement. If we are committed to “building communities that are just” and “walking a journey of reconciliation” as an organization, what does this mean in a practical sense? How will these statements shape our future? May the Great Spirit lead us into shalom.
Captain Ashley Bungay is the divisional youth secretary and divisional secretary for candidates in the Newfoundland and Labrador Division.
The Gift of Creation
I was drawn to this book club because I feel a particular invitation to pay attention to marginalized voices. The more I listen, the more I realize there is so much of God and the kingdom of heaven that I’ve missed, because I grew up with a Eurocentric lens. This new-tome perspective is enriching my relationship with God and helping me to know more about him and his ways and to grow deeper in my relationship with all he has created.
As I listened to the authors converse about the interconnectedness of all creation, particularly how one thing is not above or below the other, it stirred me to the core. They shared how God created all things in perfect harmony, “and God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:10). It was a perfect symbiosis of all things. But when humans chose to put themselves above God and went their own way, shalom was lost. All relationships were broken—our relationship with God, with creation, with ourselves and with others. For those who follow Jesus, we are called to live as citizens of the kingdom and part of that means choosing to live in the harmony way.
One way we can honour God and live this harmony way is by caring for and protecting the land. I’m a gardener and over the past few years I have been finding that I connect deeply with God when I’m in my garden. When my hands are in the dirt and I’m tending to plants I feel a connectedness to God that I rarely feel elsewhere. I feel like I’m in a place of co-sustaining creation, caring for it as it richly cares for me. One thing that stands out from the book is where the author says something along the lines of: Creation cared for you today far more than you cared for it. Isn’t that so true? God cares for us through his gift of creation, which sustains our lives. I want to acknowledge that gift and worship God by caring for this earth and all that is in it.
Lieutenant Jennifer Henson is the corps officer at The Salvation Army’s Renew Church in West Kelowna, B.C.
Listening Bestows Dignity
In my work with The Salvation Army in downtown Winnipeg, we serve a large Indigenous population, and I wanted to understand the historical trauma that many of our clients bring to their interactions with us today. Reading this book made me, in turns, sad, angry, embarrassed and remorseful. I came to realize that what I was taught about how Europeans settled North America was a sanitized narrative, and that the formal end of colonialism didn’t undo the harms of colonization. The ripple effects still impact the people I work with every day, and these harms can’t be remedied by simply thinking, “It’s over—just move on.” Being trauma-informed is as vital to our work as teaching literacy or employment skills.
The biggest takeaway for me was that it’s not good enough to just feel bad or upset about the crimes of the past, or about the racial harms that I see occurring today, and not get involved. I have learned from this book that “listening bestows dignity,” especially when the listening is hard, when it hurts my feelings, when I want to interrupt with a “Yes, but.…” We all have the power for change, regardless of where we live, what we do or how small we think our sphere of influence may be. We can all learn to really listen.
Finally, the authors discuss the concept of shalom, demonstrating how the Indigenous culture is much closer to this concept than modern western culture. The shalom that God intended includes co-operation, respect, tolerance, understanding of diversity and a spirit of consensus-making. These are pillars of Indigenous culture. In contrast, western culture is characterized by a more competitive spirit, where many people put themselves and their own well-being above others.
The authors conclude their book with this quote: “The exploitation of the poor and the marginalized, is the very opposite of the shalom empire of love.” I pray that my life and my work will recognize, understand and not recreate the trauma of the past. May my life provide shalom to those with whom I am blessed to share this land.
Mandy Marsland is a program supervisor at The Salvation Army’s Weetamah Corps and Community Services in Winnipeg.
Doctrine of Discovery
While reading and discussing this book, I learned some of the ways that a settler mindset can put our Creator into a box and perhaps limit the ways we perceive him. I have also been reminded of all the times that the Bible speaks against the ways of empire. Alongside this, I was challenged by the question asked in the book: “Has your denomination benefited from its relationship with colonial powers?” In response to this question, it is hard not to notice Salvation Army history pointing to a colonial expansion largely across the British territories of the world. This is not to say that our entire structure needs to be upended and started from scratch. Through discussion and reflection, I believe there are many ways for our movement to continue forward in a process of decolonization.
There are different parts of life to decolonize, including our personal past, our organizational structure and our theology. There must be an active effort on our part since change will not happen without putting in the work and time and being willing to sit in the resulting discomfort. The more people who engage in this difficult process, the more widespread the impact will be. Our theology, and our God, for that matter, transcend our methods of understanding. So when we decolonize our theological systems, we start to find answers to our theological questions in places we didn’t expect and in people who the colonizers thought of as “savage” and “heathen,” and yet whose beliefs are more connected to our Creator than the “Doctrine of Discovery” (the legal framework that justified the colonization of lands outside Europe) ever was.
My personal process of decolonizing is just beginning, and I recognize that this process will challenge my preconceived framework of belief. Participating in this book study helped in moving me along in what I am sure will be a lifelong process.
Cadet Nathanael Hoeft is a member of the Messengers of Reconciliation Session at the College for Officer Training in Winnipeg.
The Way Forward
In 2018, Heritage Park Temple in Winnipeg sent delegates to a lay leadership conference, where they attended a session led by Major Shari Russell. Afterwards, they expressed a strong desire to learn more about the history, culture and beliefs of Indigenous peoples, and put together a team to plan a weekend (since deferred due to the pandemic). When I learned through the Indigenous ministries Facebook page that Major Shari would be leading a book club, it seemed like a great way for me to personally keep this vision alive.
One of the significant things I learned is that the opposite of love is not hate, but rather indifference and disconnectedness. There is a real danger of repeating the past if those who have been oppressed and marginalized are not part of charting the way forward. Their experiences and desires must be heard with open minds and hearts.
Another thing that will stay with me is Woodley’s assertion that if power is used in an unjust way, both those wielding the power and those being treated unjustly suffer, as we understand ourselves as less than we were created to be.
Finally, I learned more about the deep connectedness that Indigenous peoples have to land. As Woodley so beautifully describes: “For Indigenous people, land gives us identity but is also part of the covenant story between the people and the Creator. It is seen as both a gift and a responsibility for co-sustaining. Indigenous peoples believe that if the divine spirit is in everything, everything is sacred. Every place. The land itself. Given this, one cannot abuse the land or the people on the land without violating its sacredness.”
This book has taught me that shalom is more than a greeting, as I previously understood it. It is about expressing practical love through structures and systems and creating room for the marginalized to be empowered. It’s about expressing tangible love through hospitality and getting rid of imbalances of power that create and recreate injustices. If justice doesn’t exist, shalom is shallow. Shalom is real, concrete and practical.
Ruth Moulton attends Heritage Park Temple in Winnipeg.
June is National Indigenous History Month in Canada. Although it’s important to learn about the experience of Indigenous peoples, it’s even more important to learn from Indigenous peoples, because they have much to teach us. For further resources, including an introduction to First Nations theology, guidelines on land acknowledgments and ceremonies, and how to build positive relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, visit: salvationist.ca/indigenousministries.
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