This past weekend, we were privileged to have Cheryl Bear from the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation community in northern British Columbia as a special guest here in Lethbridge at both our Mennonite Church Alberta Annual Assembly on Friday and Saturday, and at our morning worship service on Sunday. The timing of the event was significant here in Alberta, as the Truth and Reconciliation’s final national event will be taking place in Edmonton this week (Mar 27-30). Cheryl is gifted musician and storyteller, and it was delightful to both hear from and get to know her over these short few days.
This morning, in the calm after the weekend storm, I find myself thinking about one of the things that Cheryl said on Friday night. It is at once both profoundly simple and simply profound:
The gospel was not given to our native people as a gift, as it is supposed to be given; it was used as a tool or a weapon of assimilation against our people.
On one level, this is a statement of the obvious — a statement of what many both inside and outside of the church have been aware of for quite some time. But for some reason, the way that Cheryl phrased this really struck me on Friday.
The gospel was not given to us as gift.
*The gospel was not given to us … *
How much tragic truth is contained in those few words! How many people’s first experience of Jesus Christ — aboriginals and many others throughout history — would have included words like “weight and “burden” in place of “gift” and “forced” or “compelled” in place of “given.” How many people have had to climb over so many damaging and hurtful obstacles to find anything liberating about the kingdom of God? How many people have been forced to work so hard to see anything good about the news of Jesus Christ?
I was in a setting a while back where I had been talking about issues around the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. At the end, someone asked me, “Well, what about Jesus as the only truth? Don’t we have the obligation to preach the gospel to all cultures and people groups, including aboriginal groups?”
There are many things that could be said about this question, many interesting avenues to explore about the scope of salvation, about how and where Jesus might save. I talked about how for me, the issue was freedom. I talked about how Jesus seemed to place a high value indeed on human freedom. Who do you say that I am? You choose. Count the cost. Jesus did not force or compel anyone to follow. He held up this vision of the kingdom of justice and peace, a bracing and demanding call to self-denial and transformation and said, “The ball is in your court.” All are invited, but none are compelled. Yes, Jesus was all about freedom.
But I like Cheryl’s way of putting it better. I like the language of the giving of a gift. All people should be able to receive (or reject) the gospel — the good news — as a gift. All people should be able answer the question Jesus posed to his first disciples — Who do you say that I am? — free from compulsion and coercion. And all who have received this gift should hold it with open hands, recognizing that this gift is not our possession, not something that we thought up or accomplished on our own, and certainly not anything that we are justified in using to fortify the boundaries of our own fragile identities or as a perverse legitimation for taking what does not belong to us.
This is a gift. And gifts are for giving.
Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. He writes at Rumblings.