Pâstâhowin: The Cosmic Consequences of Breaking Covenant

aslongBy Ched Myers

Note: This is Ched’s last post in a series of weekly comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during Year C, 2016. Thanks to RadicalDiscipleship.net for hosting these gospel commentaries over these last couple of years!

On the day after the election, we awake to an America dominated by what Van Jones (on election night) called “whitelash.”  How resonant, then, is Sunday’s gospel:

“The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down….” (Lk 21:6); and

“By your endurance you will gain your souls.” (21:19)

Here at the end of the Lukan lectionary cycle, we once again arrive at the “apocalyptic season of turning” of our church calendar (see my comments last year at this time on Mark’s “Little Apocalypse,” upon which Luke 21 is patterned). The synoptic apocalypse is a vision of “last things” that clears the way for renewal, cutting through the sentimentality of the holiday season with prophetic realism about truth and consequences. I want to pick up this theme for my last post in Year C. In light of yesterday’s election results, I will be less expository in order to be more “correlational.” I work with a contemporary issue to try to bring alive the strange language of ancient apocalyptic. But not the one you might expect; I want to go deeper.

Luke 21 follows Mark 13 fairly closely. While Mark was likely writing during the Judean-Roman war of 67-70 C.E.—particularly the “apocalyptic moment” of the imperial siege of Jerusalem—Luke’s few elaborations (e.g. 21:29) make it clear that he was viewing these events retrospectively. Yet it is the very persistence of this tradition that suggests that its theme of deep discernment in turbulent time remains relevant in all ages.

Jesus’ central warning is: “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am the One!’” (Lk 21:8). In the culture of empire, ancient and modern, sophisticated propaganda and media management and “spin” are engineered to distract and deflect us from the truth of history. Moreover, they devise heroic fantasies–like Manifest Destiny, or “the War to end all Wars,” or “Make America Great Again”–to keep the populace credulous and loyal (on this, see here and also here). We’ve just witnessed the dark power of such dominant culture myths of entitlement. Especially now, therefore, our gospel task is to refuse to internalize the imperial delusions that prey on our hearts and minds, and to “stay awake” to realities of violence and oppression, and to our vocation of embodying compassion and justice.

At the start of the Lukan lectionary cycle, in my reflection for the First Sunday of Advent 2015 (that text was the second half of our Lukan Apocalypse), I correlated its wake-up call to our own apocalyptic moment of climate crisis: “Our industrial culture seems terminally stuck in a ‘crapulous’ hangover (the term derives from the Greek word kraipalē in Lk 21:34) from our addictive-compulsive binge that has pillaged the earth and brought us to the brink.” Here at the end of the cycle, as we ponder the first half of Luke’ apocalypse, and scramble to make sense of this election, I want to change the focus to another key contemporary issue that demands our wakeful attention. This issue goes much deeper than electoral politics: it is about Settler “response-ability” for and to Treaty Covenants with First Nations.

harryElaine and I have been working intensively this year on this issue (see her blog earlier this week). We have learned a great deal about it from Harry Lafond (right), the Executive Director of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner in Saskatchewan, who was a key collaborator in our recent Bartimaeus Institute in Saskatoon. As part of his pedagogy, Harry recently gave us a fascinating book by Harold Cardinal and Walter Hildebrandt entitled Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan (2000), upon whose wisdom I want to draw in this disorienting political moment.

Cardinal and Hildebrandt interviewed traditional Cree Elders in the 1990s about their perspectives on Treaty commitments made with the British Crown/Canadian government in the last quarter of the 19th century on the prairies. The book highlights two notable principles articulated by these Elders. One is that “the First Nations’ foremost objective in the treaty-making process was to have the new peoples arriving in their territories recognize and affirm their continuing right to maintain, as peoples, the First Nations relationships with the Creator through the laws given to them by Him” (p. 7).

The second principle is how fundamentally spiritual these covenants were understood to be:

Elders refer to the spiritual ceremonies conducted and spiritual symbols used by First Nations and the active participation of various Christian missionaries along with the Christian symbols utilized by the Crown in those negotiations to assert that both parties anchored their goals and objectives on the values and principles contained in the teaching of each of their own spiritual traditions. In the view of the Elders, the treaty nations—First Nations and the Crown—solemnly promised the Creator that they would conduct their relationships with each other in accordance with the laws, values and principles give to each of them by the Creator… [thus] “placing the treaties in the hands of the Great Spirit” (Norman Sunchild, p. 7).

The language and framework of covenantal accountability in 19th century treaties between Settlers and Indigenous peoples resonates poignantly with the Bible’s understanding of covenantal commitments and promises to the land, one another and God. And intrinsic to that scriptural tradition are warnings about the dire consequences of covenant infidelity—the language of divine judgment that many modern Christians find so uncomfortable or inconvenient. Yet similar language is also employed by Indigenous Elders, who invoke a similar accountability to divine statutes!

As recorded by Cardinal and Hildebrandt, the Elders explain that

when promises, agreements, or vows are formally made to the Creator (wiyôhtâwîmâw) through ceremonies conducted in accordance with the laws governing them—the promises, agreements, or vows so made are irrevocable and inviolable. Breaking these vows can bring about divine retribution with grave consequences. This concept is known in Cree as “pâstâhowin.” The Elders discussed this concept wondering if the White Man understood the consequences that can flow when human beings unleash the wrath of the Creator by breaching fundamental responsibilities to Him.

…Treaty 6 Elder Jacob Bill [Pelican Lake First Nation] further remarked:

“This is what our Elders have told us… they were spiritual and powerful Elders who were able to provide prophecies as to what would happen in the future… they told us that it was very dangerous to breach treaties… that something will happen… the consequences of incurring the wrath of the Creator’s will be punishment similar to that which accompanies the use of a big whip… I wonder if the White man understands…how dangerous it is to breach sacred undertakings” (p. 8).

Given our long and sordid history of Treaty abrogation, it is clear that we white Settlers have not understood its gravity. The Bible, however, does.

Apocalyptic literature in scripture, which developed as a tradition of resistance to empire during and after the Hellenistic period, provided dramatic language for the inevitable consequences of defying the Creator. These seers predicted that “judgment” would inevitably come—upon both the people of the Mosaic Covenant and on the empires that surrounded and oppressed them (and that pillaged the Creation in the process).

Apocalyptic metaphors tend to focus on two kinds of “consequences.” There will be political chaos, which in Sunday’s gospel includes “wars and insurrections” and “nation rising against nation” (Lk 21:9-10). And there will be natural disaster that verges on cosmic disorder: “great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and dreadful portents and great signs from heaven” (21:11). Both categories surely qualify as what Elder Bill called the “big whip”! And in our time, the former will lead to the latter, as the politics of unbridled resource extraction hastens climate catastrophe.

Americans tend to interpret cataclysmic events as victims. Either they are “things done to us by evil people who hate us irrationally” (e.g. the World Trade Center bombings) or they are the result of inscrutable forces for which we take no responsibility (e.g. climate crisis). This conveniently exonerates us from facing all the ways we have brought such events on ourselves (and, as an empire, on the rest of the world). This is the denial that has brought Trump to power. To see cataclysm as consequence of bad behavior (sometimes called “blowback”), on the other hand, requires self-examination and historical perspective, neither of which we are very practiced at. Trump did not fall from the sky; he may be a shrill ruling class shill, but we conjured him from deep in our political unconscious.

The Elders of Saskatchewan offer a diagnosis of our civilizational conundrums that is deeper still. They understand them as the consequences of covenant infidelity, indeed as judgment by Creator for not keeping our word. I find this diagnosis compelling: in view of deep Settler history and culture, and from the perspective of biblical apocalyptic, and in light of this election.

While we were in Saskatchewan last month, we were fascinated to note that even in the staid middle class Saskatoon neighborhood (where we were hosted by Elaine’s relatives), we encountered the graffiti above on a back alley fence (photo by Tom Airey). “As long as the sun shines, the waters flow and the grass grows” is, of course, treaty language. Scrawled invasively on the landscape of White insularity, it is an inconvenient reminder of Settlers obligations to be “Treaty People.”

Tragically, most Settler Christians have not been such people. Instead, for generations we have been “led astray,” to use Jesus’ words, by the delusional promises of empire. Consequently, we became primary accomplices in genocide: from the displacement of Indigenous peoples to the cultural destruction of residential schools to the continuing the colonization of resource extraction and native poverty. But this deep history of betrayal cannot be escaped; it wells up even in suburbia, as if the very stones are crying out (aided, to be sure, by a new generation of native activists). And it continues now, with a vengeance.

There is, however, another amazing resonance between traditional Indigenous and biblical notions of covenant: a remarkably enduring willingness to renew commitment. Our relationships with Creator, each other and the land can be restored—if and when accompanied by genuine repentance and meaningful reparation. In apocalyptic language, this makes way for a “new heaven and new earth.”

Our communities rightly perceive this election as disastrous. “Disaster” is an old apocalyptic term, deriving from the Greek “stars falling.” But in this ecclesial season of turning, and political moment of unravelling, let us pay more heed to Indigenous Elders than to media pundits. And let us deepen our longterm work for covenant renewal, even as we face the harsh consequences of pâstâhowin.

mlkA pastoral postscript. Obviously, beloved, we need to talk. We at BCM invite you to join us for conversation exactly one month after Donald Trump’s inauguration next year, as we convene our annual Kinsler Institute in Oak View (Feb 20-24). We plan to dedicate this time and space to reflecting and strategizing together on where we go from here as a radical discipleship movement. We will draw on the historic wisdom of Martin Luther King’s “A Time to Break the Silence” sermon, fifty years old next year. And we will deliberate about how we recontextualize that wisdom in an America unravelling.  Come, bring friends, and let’s face this moment with courage and grace, together, in a space that celebrates gospel hope and the personal and political Way of Jesus through the imperial storm. Details are now posted at http://www.bcm-net.org/BI.

One thought on “Pâstâhowin: The Cosmic Consequences of Breaking Covenant

  1. MIke Fiala

    brother Ched,
    Your (and Wes & Sue’s) exegetic comments and challenges have resounded here on the Near West Side of Cleveland and the Cleveland Catholic Worker.
    We appreciate them as they assist us in loving the word of God, and one another.
    A great great Spirit inspires these stories and you have been a powerful vessel for conveying them to us.

    During the homily at Mass today (Nov 17), we reflected on the gospel lectionary reading, Lk 19: 41-44, Jesus’ lament of Jerusalem (‘city of peace’): had ‘you, Jerusalem’ only knew ‘the things that make for peace’.
    If only Cleveland knew! (and really all cities, for they all take their lead from the original founder Cain … Washington).
    We all weep for our cities, as we struggle to reclaim/recover/re-generate the covenant w the land, our watersheds, w the first peoples, w those whose labor created this place
    lest they are destroyed, not one stone left upon another.
    May we indeed repent and reconcile, repairing relationships w all creation.

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