A Review of Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization
(Edited by Steve Heinrichs)
By Jen Galicinski
A timely, poetic, and prophetic new anthology titled Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization has recently been published by the Mennonite Church of Canada and will be re-published by Orbis Books in February 2019. It was edited by Steve Heinrichs, the Director of Indigenous-Settler Relations for the Mennonite Church of Canada and one of the several faith leaders who was recently arrested and spent time in prison for protesting the Trans-Mountain pipeline in Burnaby, B.C. in solidarity with the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.
For Heinrichs, it was working on the book that deepened his profound belief that we must truly listen to the voices of Indigenous peoples, who have been suffering, alongside their wounded land, since contact with European Christian settlers. He is committed to following The Crucified One by acting in solidarity with crucified peoples, following their leadership towards self-governance and sovereignty over their own lands.
Authored by over 60 Indigenous and Settler scholars, poets, artists, and grassroots activists, Unsettling the Word seeks to liberate the Bible from the harmful interpretative lens through which it has often be read, one that has often legitimated violent colonialism, land theft and abuse, and the human rights violations of Indigenous peoples in Canada.
Its aim is to “wrestle with the Scriptures, re-reading and re-imagining the ancient text for the sake of reparative futures.” It does so with grace, courage, and provocative calls to action. It can help Settler Christians love the Bible again, for the subversive critiques of the powerful, its compassion for the oppressed, and beautiful visions of a hopeful future for all.
The Canadian theologian John Douglas Hall once wrote, “A theology which does not help the church to discern the appropriate word, inevitably functions as an ideological construct with which the Christian may find herself a refuge from history, and which therefore lends itself to the support of the status quo.” Too often the Church has blindly supported the status quo which benefits itself, and has found herself a refuge from history by not paying close enough attention to the suffering that is being caused by its own actions and willful ignorance. The “good news” it preaches is rarely heard as good news by those that suffer, and in fact it often can be felt like throwing salt on already festering wounds.
In contrast, good theology, according to Canadian theologian and activist Mary Jo Leddy, who teaches a class called “Doing Theology in the Canadian Context” at Regis College in Toronto, pays attention to the animating questions and concerns of the present moment and seeks to address them in ways that can be seen and heard as Good News, especially for those that suffer.
Unsettling the Word does just that – it is appropriately contextualized for the here and now (Turtle Island, 2018) and it chock full of appropriate, insightful and often unsettling re-imaginings of over 50 biblical texts that rightly pay close attention to both the suffering and resilience of indigenous peoples and the ways many biblical authors similarly spoke truth to power and critiqued the dominant social structure which benefitted the elites to the detriment of the marginalized.
Starting from the Genesis creation story and moving through to the Book of Revelation, there are three-page, bite-size reflections, poems, or a fictional re-reading of a small portion of the Bible, each written by a different author (with a few repeats by the same author), making it an ideal for reading it with others and discussing a chapter or two each week – with the newly released Study Guide with engaging and provocative questions to help stir up good discussion.
A few notable highlights include:
Marcus Briggs-Cloud, a Masoke person and member of the Wind Clan, and graduate of Harvard, writes that we must “Return to the Good.” He explains that Masoke language and culture patterns itself and takes cues from the natural world about what is “good.” Like in Genesis 1, God called the creation “good” – yet settler colonialism deeply severed this sacred connection between people and the earth. “Decolonization requires returning to what is ‘good’. We must intimately interact with what is ‘good’ in order to effectively enact what is good.”
In the chapter titled “The Foolishness of Petropolis”, editor Steve Heinrichs compares the Tower of Babel to the Alberta Tar Sands in an awesome prophetic challenge to the idolatrous builders of a modern Tower of Babel, settlers of the Canadian State, building pipe lines and cities that destroy the earth in the name of the gods of capital, progress and “natural resources.”
Cheryl Bear, a Nadleh Whut’en from the Daketh Nation and Dumdenyoo Clain (Bear Clan), in central British Columbia, and a theologian, artist, and singer-song writer, writes an evocative and tender love poem called “No Fence Can Hold” that intersects her own experiences that of the sensual love poetry from the Song of Songs.
The linocut illustrations throughout the book by Jonathan Dyck are striking, moving, and add yet another layer of beauty and emotional depth to the book.
“I Choose Miriam” by Jennifer Henry, the Settler Executive Director of KAIROS, beautifully writes from the perspective of the daughter of Pharoah, the Egyptian who would have had all the privilege as Settlers, who chose to honour the sister of Moses with a “small conspiracy of hope” that was the using of the Empire’s resources to support a mother and sister of a child the Empire would have destroyed. It is a brilliant comfort and inspiration for settlers who are feeling stuck with destructive guilt.
Peter Haresnape, who came to Canada from the UK to be an ally to Indigenous communities asserting their land rights with Christian Peacemaker Teams, re-interprets the story of baby Moses in the short story called “The Failed Assimilation of Saxon”. He re-imagines Miriam as a young Indigenous woman who is trying to save her baby brother from the RCMP who have come take all the children to Indian Residential School. Instead of the Pharoah’s daughter who find and adopts Moses, it’s a local Christian Minister’s daughter, who runs the local Indian Residential School with an iron fist, who finds him and raises him as her son in a privileged, European and Christian household.
Biblical scholar and grassroots activist Ched Myers renarrates the gospel episode of John the Baptist in the cultural and geographical context of his bioregion, OakView, California, the traditional territory of the Chumash people, in a short story with a reflection titled “A Shaman Appeared in Ventura.” It’s contextual theology at its best, like cooking with local ingredients, paying close attention to the social and ecological context of both the biblical text and his own time and place, in order to decolonize both the text and his own local context.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann re-imagines what the poet Amos would have said to the restore hope to the Indigenous peoples who, like the ancient Israelites, faced the violent overthrow and devastation of their lands and cities. Best line: “In response to the hope-filled cadences of the poet, we knew to move beyond fear and despair to courage, energy, and freedom.”
The short story called “Stolen Waters, Thirsty People” by Susanne Guenther Loewen, a Settler Mennonite pastor, re-imagines the story of the Woman at the Well by placing Jesus in Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, which provides the city of Winnipeg with water but also cuts the community off from the mainland. They do not have access to clean drinking water, and yet there is Jesus, asking her for water, and honouring her dignity by acknowledging the injustice and suffering of her people, and then offering her Living Water.
The last chapter in the book, “Turtled Island Renewed” gave me chills. Written by Dan Epp-Tissen, a settler who teaches Bible at Canadian Mennonite University, it follows closely the literary pattern John’s vision of a renewed heaven and earth in Revelation 21. “And the sea was no more—the Sea that brought the colonizers’ ships, soldiers, guns, and diseases, and their slaves, and their dreams of wealth, plunder, and domination…Then one of Creator’s Spirits said to me, ‘Come I will show you Creator’s dream for the renewed Turtle Island’…I saw that it was filled with the Creator’s glory and presence. All the plants, animals, and ecosystems were thriving. On the maples, cedars, birches, and spruce were signs naming and welcoming all the tribes, peoples, and nations of Turtle Island…And the bison again roamed the prairie.” It is a stunning reminder of the promise of restoration and reconciliation of all things – land with creatures, people with land, and God with both.
Don’t binge-read it like I did– there were too many chapters that I wanted to savour and dwell on and discuss with others. This fall, I intend to start a book club in Toronto to read it more slowly and discuss the chapters – hit me up if you are in the city and want to take part. Or start one of your own. There is a lot we need to discuss – and act upon.
Jen Galicinski is an M.Div. student at Trinity College at the Toronto School of Theology, on the traditional territories of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. She is also a pastor, activist, writer, and barista.