Reading Jesus and the Rich Man on Indigenous Peoples’ Day: Redistributive Justice and a Discipleship of Decolonization

Saskatoon Catholic cathedral doors, where Indigenous activists have planted red handprints to remind us of the children whose graves are now being discovered at Indian Residential Schools.

In preparation for Indigenous People’s Day on October 11, we share this edited excerpt from Elaine Enns & Ched Myers, Healing Haunted Histories: A Settler Discipleship of Decolonization(Cascade, 2021), pp 275, 281f.

Christians are too often responsible for injecting what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” into public conversations that seek to reckon with historical violations through reparations. Our sentimentality would presume to resolve centuries of oppression with ritual apologies. But healing historical injustices and violence requires systemic transformation, not rhetorical contrition. The problem is, the culture of capitalism in North America has few ethical resources that consider seriously wealth or power redistribution of any kind, much less as reparation. Indeed, redistributive justice as a concept is roundly condemned as heretical here.

But the biblical imaginary can reinvigorate our political imagination. As an example, let us reread the infamous gospel story of Jesus and the rich man—the Revised Common Lectionary’s gospel reading for 10/10/21—with our eye on Indigenous Peoples’ Day (10/11/21). 

We encounter this vignette at the crossroads of Mark’s plot (Mark 10:17–31). Jesus is about to turn toward Jerusalem, a destination of confrontation with the Powers that evoked dread and denial among Jesus’ disciples (10:32). But Jesus’ sharp exchange with an affluent Brahmin represents a theological junction as well. The man’s question—“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”—seems a straightforwardinquiry about salvation (10:17).

Yet Jesus neither opens his arms in universal enfranchisement (as does modern liberal theology) nor does he demand proper belief (as does conservative theology). Instead this man is challenged to redistribute his assets to those who have been dispossessed by the system that has enriched him (10:21). An encounter that begins with such theological promise thus concludes with the rich man’s refusalof Jesus’ call to discipleship—the only character in Mark’s story to do so (10:22). Worse, Jesus appears to shrug off this rejection with a crude class explanation: “How difficult it is for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God!”(10:24).

This story has long held a place of ignominy in Christendom, yet never seems to be overly troubling, since preachers have exerted so much energy undermining its plain meaning. It has occasioned countless homilies (dating back to the medieval period) on how those “blessed” with wealth must take care not to let their affluence get in the way of their love for God and the church. This despite the fact that such an interpretation is precisely what this text rules out. To rescue it from centuries of domestication, we need to shift focus.

Mark’s archetypal tale speaks directly to the condition of North American settlers as a deeply unsettling allegory for those of us who are rich relative to the global distribution of wealth and power, and whose affluence has been built over centuries on the murder and dispossession of Indigenous peoples. We might re-narrate this story (with some poetic license) as an encounter between “Indigenous Jesus” and “powerful settler official.” It begins with the latter’s desire (command?) to be enlightened by a Native “shaman.” Recognizing his religiously-cloaked entitlement, Indigenous Jesus coolly rebuffs his attempt to ingratiate himself through idealizing Native spirituality (10:18). He sharply reminds him instead about the basic treaty obligations—in which this official is supposed to be well-versed—for emphasis underlining the abrogation of murder, theft, lying and fraud (10:19). The settler, predictably, responds with a dramatic move to innocence (10:20). 

Indigenous Jesus now practices decolonization as radical love, making it clear that liberation means repatriation (10:21). The official freezes, bound and blinded by his ideologies of ownership and control, which define his management of vast properties that were once Native homelands. Then he withdraws, no longer so interested in “reconciliation” (10:22). This surely should resonate with us. We too are practiced at stopping our inquiries and engagements well shy of reparation. But Indigenous Jesus is not done.

He now turns to his motley crew of fellow Native insurgents to decode the encounter as an object lesson. Settlers, he says, only ever negotiated treaties with our ancestors for that to which they already felt entitled. Through murder, theft, lying and fraud they commandeered most of our territories. So, he intones in a solemn refrain, no reconciliation without repatriation (10:23–25)! 

It is now his companions’ turn to retreat, convinced (from hard experience) that this is too much to ask of officials of the settler state. It is as dissonant to our ears as it was to theirs, and provokes the same kind of astonishment. Can we imagine a world in which stolen land has been returned, resources redistributed and crimes atoned for? To their skepticism, and to ours, Indigenous Jesus replies simply: I know it seems impossible to you, but for Creator all things are possible (10:27). Decolonization is ultimately a matter of theological and political imagination.

Do you mean, asks one dispirited follower, that we should return to our traditional ways, to which you called us at the beginning of our movement (10:28)? The Teacher demurs about whether they have yet grasped his vision. But in the same breath he reiterates that the Good Way will restore original abundance for all—if the ancient laws of sufficiency, egalitarianism and mutual aid are practiced (10:29–30). And they will oppose us at every turn, he adds. But know this: though we who were first on this land are now last, this too will be reversed (10:31).

Over two millennia this tale has rarely been received as good medicine by those of us who are inheritors of the rich man’s system. Nevertheless, it speaks clearly to a settler Christian discipleship of decolonization. Its concluding promise that the world will be turned “right-side up” is distressing only to those of us who live near the top of a toxic hierarchy. This vision of healing as redistributive justice has eluded settler faith and practice for too long. It is time to “get up” onto this Way of shared abundance.

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