My siblings in Christ, - I am going to simply come out and say it: this is not a cute story about Jesus, and little children, where we get all sentimental about the innocence of childhood and a meek and mild Jesus.
Children at the time, were regarded as non-persons—possessions of the father in the household. Competition for power, wealth and prestige characterize all imperial powers and the Roman Empire of Jesus’s day was infected with it. A child did not contribute much, if anything to the economic value of a household or community; and a child could not do anything to enhance one’s position in the struggle for influence or prestige. For Jesus to hold up a child as an emblem of living in God’s household and as a stand-in for Jesus himself — this is a powerful and even shocking depiction of the upside down values of God’s kingdom. For when Jesus lifts up a child - he is drawing a sharp contrast to the dominant values of empire - where only those with power and wealth had any status. When Jesus holds up a child he is saying—
the Kingdom of God assigns worth and importance to every single person—even a small, vulnerable child.
What if I was to tell you that when Christian missionaries encountered Indigenous people in these lands and territories we now call Canada, they encountered a people living out the gospel norms of this passage, and that the Christian Church who came to convert and civilize Indigenous people embodied the values of Empire antithetical to the kingdom of God?
Hard to believe, perhaps even shocking—but that is what I discovered in my reading of Canada’s history this last week.
A missionary, by the name of LaJeune who lived with an Algonkian tribe in the very early stages of European/ Indigenous contact—in the winter of 1633-34—wrote down his observations of their communal life.
“He observed that daily life among the Algonkians entailed good humour, lack of jealousy and a willingness to help. If a person did not contribute, they were not respected. He also wrote, ‘as they are contented with a mere living, not one of them gives himself to the Devil to acquire wealth.’”
Under their economic system although each sex had its own duties to perform, divisions of labor were nonetheless not rigid. It was not considered beneath a man’s dignity to perform his wife’s duties, and vice versa. Marriage was considered a union of co-equal partners for mutual benefits. In terms of children, a general loving attitude toward all children prevailed, not just for one’s own, but love for all the children of the tribe. An orphan or an adopted child was not in any way mistreated of set apart by the family, but was gratefully taken in and cherished.
The Algonkians’ love for all children and abhorrence of corporal punishment can be seen in this story (based on Lajeune’s writings).
A French drummer boy hit an Algerian boy with his drumstick, causing him to bleed. The Indian onlookers became offended and stated that it was their custom to offer gifts in making amends for such an action, and therefore requested payment fo the wounding of one of their children. The French interpreter replied that it was their custom to punish anyone who had done wrong and therefore the drummer boy would be whipped in their presence. Then the Indian saw that the French were going ahead with the punishment, the Indians intervened by claiming he wa only a child and therefore did not know what he was doing. The French proceeded to whip their boy. One of the Indians stripped himself, threw his blanket over the boy, played himself between the boy and his disciplinarians and exclaimed the he be whipped, but the boy shall not be whipped. In essence, he was willing to take on the punishment in place of the boy’s. The boy escaped.
A final observation from LaJeune’s writings was the non-hierarchical structure of their society. Women and children exercised a great deal of autonomy—and that this was central in how they organized themselves—rather than obedience to a leader who exercised power and control. Leadership was shared and fell to those who were knowledgeable about specific situations.
I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t help conclude after reading LaJeune’s description that Algonkian society seemed to me to have quite a few contours of the gospel:
What was the missionary’s and the church’s response to the Algonkian’s values and social structures? Was there a recognition that their life was consistent with the values of the kingdom of God?
This was Lajeune’s response:
He stressed the necessity of introducing the principle of punishment into their social relations - children needed to be taken away from the families in order to educate them, because “ these Barbarians cannot bear to have their children punished, even scolded, not being able to refuse anything to a crying child.”
“When it came to women - “Indian” women’s independence posed continual problems and barriers for the missionaries. They could not allow the women ‘to be’ - to function and exercise autonomy as was their custom and they lectured the men about “allowing” their wives freedom and introduced European principles of obedience. The missionaries’ solution was to introduce the European family structure with male authority, female fidelity, and the elimination of divorce.”
Finally, LaJeune and the church wanted the Algonkians to leave behind their informal and decentralized power structures. "They wanted to introduce elections and hoped that by giving authority to one of them to rule the others they would become converted and civilized in a short time.”
My brothers and sisters - who are the civilized and the uncivilized in this narrative? Who are the followers of the way of Jesus and who are the functionaries of an institutional church that has lost its way and allied itself with power and empire?
I share this word with you today, because in 11 days, on September 30 - the country will commemorate National Truth and Reconciliation Day. September 30 was chosen because it was the time of year when Indigenous children were removed from their families and forced to attend residential schools. Following the discovery of children’s remains in unmarked graves on several sites of former Residential schools, Indigenous Christians are wrestling with the question, “What parts of the old church do we carry and what do we leave behind?” Mark Macdonald, Archbishop of the Indigenous Anglican Church, in a pastoral letter writes:
Our identity is that of Indigenous People
alive in the Living Word of God.
Today, we must with absolute purity and faithfulness
receive the Gospel which blesses and anoints Indigenous life,
doesn’t destroy it.
And turning to the words of Jesus once again:
Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,
‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
In other words--
Every Child Matters
On September 30 - I encourage all of us to recommit to understanding the truth of our shared history with the Indigenous people of this land, to accept and learn from it, to sorrow over the church’s alliance with power, privilege and empire and recommit ourselves to receive and follow the Gospel which blesses and anoints Indigenous life.
Algonkian cultural and social practices cited in this sermon were taken from:
“Indian Residential School: the Native Perspective,” Master’s Thesis by Linda R. Bull, submitted to the University of Alberta, 1991.
“Shqwultuns tu s’ulxwe:nst: The Voice of our Ancestors,” Master’s Thesis by Samay Jardey, submitted to the University of British Columbia, 2009.