Covenant Breakers

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We are a people who deeply believe in the importance of promises, and also, seem, ironically, to not be very good at keeping them.

That’s one of the themes we can see running throughout the Bible: God making promises with his people, and we his people consistently letting him down. God making a promise with Adam and Eve about what life could be like together, them not living up to it. God making promises to bless Abraham and his descendants, that they would be God’s people and he would be their God, and the Israelites, time and again, breaking their promises to live in relationship with God and all that it entails. The cycle continues.

It’s also a theme, if we’re being honest, that we can see in our communities and in ourselves.

I became fascinated with promise-making and promise-breaking between the Indigenous peoples of Canada and the government while in university. In my fourth year I wrote a paper on the treaties that were signed in Alberta. There were three treaties signed with the Indigenous people of Alberta from the years 1876 to 1899: Treaties 6 (1876), 7 (1877), and 8 (1899). My interest lay specifically in the historical record around what education the first peoples of Alberta asked for, and what they ended up getting.

We are a people who deeply believe in the importance of promises, and also, seem, ironically, to not be very good at keeping them.

The story, broadly, goes like this: elders in Indigenous communities knew, for the most part, that treaties would need to be signed with the settlers, mostly Europeans, who were already living in their traditional territories. They knew too that they would need to adapt to the new way of life that theses Europeans were bringing. They saw new farming techniques, and heard talk of railroads, they saw churches and shops and towns being built, and they were facing adaption to these new realities. The people who lived in southern Alberta hunted buffalo, and the herds were dwindling. Trading and hunting all over the province wasn’t going to cut it anymore. They saw schools being built for European kids and thought that maybe, just maybe, they could benefit from a similar system.

The world was changing and many Indigenous leaders asked for help to gain the tools needed to face the challenges ahead. In all three treaties there are lines that the government of Canada, at the very least, would pay teachers’ salaries on reserves so that Indigenous children would have educational opportunities.

That is not what paying the salary of teachers on reserve means. Those treaty promises were broken.

What they got was not what they asked for. Many Indigenous children were taken, often forcibly, to far away schools where they lived—residential schools. And those schools, very often, did not teach useful skills, like reading writing arithmetic and perhaps some farming techniques. More often than not what kids faced in these underfunded church-run schools was starvation, illness, and for a shockingly large number, death. More often than not these children were barely educated at all, beyond learning that their own tongue and own beliefs were wrong and bad. Many were subject to abuse.

That’s not what was asked for. That is not what paying the salary of teachers on reserve means. Those treaty promises were broken.

We have a fancy word for promises in the church. It’s like a promise plus.

Treaties are legal contracts between two nations. They are promises. And when one side of that promise falls so unbelievably short of what was promised you must wonder about the nature of those promises and the ones who promised.

We have a fancy word for promises in the church. It’s like a promise plus. A super promise. A forever-and-ever-never-going-to-let-you-down promise. We call them covenants.  It’s what God has promised to us, his people: to live in Covenant with us, always.

We signed a covenant thirty years ago. We said as a church that we weren’t going to let our Indigenous brothers and sisters down, again. We said that would protect their rights, rights to life and flourishing in the land that God gave them. We, the Christian Reformed Church in Canada, signed our names to this covenant in 1987. We said:

"In this way, Canada could become a living example, before the rest of the world, of a society that is coming to terms with the historic demands for justice affecting the descendants of its original inhabitants. In so doing, we might be able to recover some of the deeper spiritual meaning of covenant-making, the essence of which, resides in God, the Creator, the Great Spirit."

And it’s a hard thing to live up to. In fact, we know we have failed 30 years in, and will fail again. Because we are human and a little bit broken, and it’s hard to live up to promises. Still we see underfunded schools on reserves. STILL we see a pattern of broken promises between the Canadian government and Indigenous peoples.

But that doesn’t mean we stop trying. When we stumble with God do we walk away? Did God walk away from us every time we broke our promises to him? No. God sent his son, Jesus Christ to get right for us what we could never do ourselves. We are made right with God through Christ. And we are called to live a life worthy of the covenant of love we live in. We are called to be promise keepers too.

Did God walk away from us every time we broke our promises to him?

What does covenant keeping with our Indigenous brothers and sisters look like for us now? For us as the CRC, for us as churches, for us as individuals?

I think that first, it means knowing about the promises that we’ve made. Like this promise of 1987, but also the promises we made at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It means holding each other accountable to all these great promises we’ve made.

Then it means learning about those to whom we’ve promised, who we are in covenant with. The Blanket Exercise is a great way to participate and learn about Indigenous history. The Living the Eight Fire curriculum is a great way to engage that history more deeply.

It also means learning the names of those you’re in covenant with, specifically.

It also means learning the names of those you’re in covenant with, specifically. Whose traditional land does your church rest on? What is the nation’s name? Where do they reside now? Who are the peoples near you living in your city or on nearby reserves? Learning who people are is the first step.

Our God has never given up on us. Let’s not give up on one another. 

To continue the conversation about covenant and treaty with your congregation, participate in this year's Aboriginal Ministry Sunday. Order bulletins and find a litany, prayer, and Sunday school lesson plan from the Canadian Aboriginal Ministry Committee here

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