Monday, June 25, 2018

Can the Bible be used to Promote Reconciliation Between Settlers, Indigenous People?

When Mary Carpenter, an Inuk from Sachs Harbour, Northwest Territories, was a little girl, she was forced to go to a church-run residential school.

One of the first things the nuns who ran the school did was give her a new name.

They took away my Native name, Tungoyuq, and replaced it with ‘Mary,’ a name from their Bible,” Carpenter writes.

In class, the students “sat in long wooden pews watching and listening to priests and nuns as they instructed us from a strange, big, black book with a gold-embossed ‘BIBLE’ emblazoned on the cover,” she recalls.

That Bible, she adds, “was often used to justify the ill treatment of innocent children.”

Carpenter’s experience was not unique. As part of the Canadian government’s assimilationist policies, many Indigenous children were given new names to sever traditional ties and promote assimilation.

Many of those names were taken from the Bible—the same book that caused them so much pain and loss.

So it’s not surprising many Indigenous people today, and many of their Christian allies, have an ambivalent view of the Bible. How can anything good be found in a book that caused so many people so much sorrow?

That was the question facing Steve Heinrichs, who directs Mennonite Church Canada’s Indigenous-Settler Relations Program.

Heinrichs loves the Bible. He reads it every day as part of his devotional life. And yet he knows that many people distrust and dislike it because of how it was used against Indigenous people in Canada.

“The Bible has a bad reputation for many Indigenous people and their allies,” he says. “But can it be reclaimed and used to promote justice and fuel us in our efforts to promote decolonization?”

His answer is yes, and a new book, Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization, is the result.

In the book, which was curated by Heinrichs, 60 contributors—settlers and Indigenous people, Christians and non-Christians—engage stories and passages from the Bible to see if it can be re-imagined in a positive way for the current settler-Indigenous context.

For Heinrichs, the book is a way to “deal honestly” with some of the harder parts of the Bible, but also “rediscover some good things in it.”

The hard passages include things from the old Testament where the ancient Israelites are instructed by God to invade other countries, take their land and kill the inhabitants—something that has unfortunate echoes in Canada’s colonial past.

It’s easy to dismiss the war stories of the Old Testament, Heinrichs says, noting that “some texts are quite destructive and simply bad.”

But he also wonders about things like the Great Commission in the New Testament, which has been used to harm Indigenous people.

“What do we say about the spiritual violence inflicted on Indigenous communities as different churches compete for members in Indigenous communities, and show a lack of respect for Indigenous spirituality?” he asks.

In addition to addressing those questions, the book points to positive things in the Bible that can help settlers and Indigenous people find new ways to live together in Canada.

“There are whole streams in the Bible that talk about reconciliation, peace, and land reparations,” Heinrichs says. “We can use those texts to help make things right.”

As for those Christians who have written off the Bible because of how it was used against Indigenous people, he reminds them it is “more politically engaged” than many realize—many of the stories were written by and about oppressed and marginalized people, just like how many Indigenous people feel today.

Ultimately, Heinrichs hopes the book will spark conversations, that people will see how Jesus invited everyone into conversations and community—regardless of their political or religious leanings.

“In the Gospels, Jesus invites a tax collector into his group,” he notes of how he reached out to someone from the despised establishment of his day. “Who would that be in our context? There are no enemies in the Gospels. Everyone is challenged to change the way they view others. Can we all sit in a circle and hear each other? Can we listen with courage and care?”

He hopes that reading Unsettling the Word is one way many people will begin that journey.

Unsettling the Word is available from Common Word in Winnipeg. 

From the June 23, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Church Needs to Talk about LGBTQ* Affirmation, Winnipeg Pastor Says

The last time I interviewed Jamie Arpin-Ricci, pastor of the Little Flowers Community Church in Winnipeg’s West End, he was helping lead a campaign to say “sorry” to people in the LGBTQ* community.

It was 2013, and he planned to stand along the route of the Pride parade as part of a North America-wide I’m Sorry campaign to apologize for how the church has treated gay people throughout history.

"As Christians we have done wrong, and we want to say sorry," he said at the time.

"This is one way of making an unqualified apology and publicly committing ourselves to do better."

Five years later, Arpin-Ricci still regrets how people in the LGBTQ* community have been treated by the church. But now he’s resolved to do more than apologize.

Around the time of the I’m Sorry campaign, Arpin-Ricci says he was working through his own beliefs and attitudes about sexuality.

“I was beginning to question whether I could be fully affirming,” he says.

While opposed to reparative therapy, the idea that gay people can be made to change, he still held a traditional view of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

But after spending time studying the Bible, and talking to members of the LGBTQ* community, he came to see same-sex marriage as a positive thing.

“I spent many years studying the Bible and pastoring LBGTQ* people,” he says. “I came to see that if a relationship is entered into that is God honouring, where is the harm?”

He also asked himself what Jesus would do. “I developed a Christocentric view of the Bible,” he says. “It impacted lots of things in my faith, including view of sexuality.”

But the journey was also a personal one for the 41 year-old married father of two; this year he acknowledged and publically shared he is bi-sexual.

As a teenager growing up in Rainy River, Ont., Arpin-Ricci knew there was something different about himself—he was attracted to both women and men.

For someone who was part of an evangelical church, the realization led to many painful experiences with fellow-Christians, many of whom had very negative—and horrific—things to say about same-sex attraction.

“When I was a teen struggling with sexuality, it was incredibly hurtful and damaging to hear those things,” he says.

The experience caused Arpin-Ricci to squelch his true identity for many years. But after the Pulse night club shooting, where 49 LGBTQ* patrons were killed and over 50 wounded, he decided he needed to be honest about his own sexuality, and speak out.

“I want to send a signal that it is safe to come out,” he says of those who, like him, struggled with their sexuality when they were young.

What gives him urgency is how many young  LGBTQ* youth harm or kill themselves today—and that studies show those most at risk are the ones who are churchgoing.

He remembers how lonely it felt when he was young and trying to deal with who he was in a hostile religious environment.

“The sense of being alone was overwhelming,” he says, adding he doesn’t want anyone else to feel that way.

But something he wants to make clear is that even though he is bi-sexual, he is happily married and committed to his wife, Kim, and she is supportive of his coming out.

He believes it has helped their marriage.

“As I embrace who I am, I have become a better husband, more authentic in who I am, I can say things openly, not have taboo areas of my life I can’t talk about,” he says.

And yet, his coming out is not without cost. The couple are missionaries, and depend on donations to do their work. They have received hate mail, and recently some key donors have stopped giving.

“They don’t say why, but I can tell,” he says.

But he won’t let these things stop him.

“The church needs to have this conversation,” he says, noting that the longer it delays dealing with the issue the more lives are at risk.

“And the best conversations take place in the context of genuine relationship, not reduced to theological debate,” he adds.

“Take time to listen, and resist the impulse to jump to judgement. When that happens, people become fodder in a war.”

Read Jamie’s coming out story on his blog. Read an interview with him on CBC.

From the June 16, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press. Photo above from the CBC. 

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Global Day of Prayer to End Famine

“Thank-you for not forgetting us.”

If there’s one thing I hear most often when travelling in the developing world, that’s it.

It’s said after I ask people who have received donated food, or other assistance, what they would say to Canadians who made that help possible.

Of course, they are grateful to have something to eat. But their comment goes deeper. They are glad to know someone far away cared enough to stop what they were doing, even for just a few minutes, to think about those who are hungry.

Tomorrow, June 10, Christians in Canada have an opportunity to join Christians around the world in remembering people in Africa who are facing food shortages. That’s when they are invited to be part of the second annual Global Day of Prayer to End Famine.

The invitation comes from the All Africa Council of Churches, a fellowship of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox and Indigenous churches in Africa with a membership over 120 million Christians across the continent.

In a letter from the Council, issued with support from the World Evangelical Alliance and the World Council of Churches, Christians from outside of Africa are being asked to pray, reflect and act to raise awareness of the food needs facing millions of people in places like South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen.  

In the letter, the Council notes that, after years of progress towards ending world hunger, “the numbers of hungry people globally have started to climb—a startling reversal less than three years after global leaders collectively agreed that achieving the ambitions of the Sustainable Development Goals demanded that no-one be left behind.”

One of the main reasons for the rise in numbers is conflict, which is “making millions of our sisters and brothers hungry, homeless and vulnerable,” they state, adding that children and women are often the most affected.

And yet, the Council notes, while the world has “more than enough resources and food for all . . . less than 50 percent of needed resources to address these challenges are being collected.”

For these reason, they ask Christians around the world to stand in solidarity with Christians in Africa “to support them to realize a future free of extreme poverty, hunger, and violence.”

To date, 135 churches, denominations, church-based NGOs and other organizations around the world have signed on to signal their willingness to invite their members and supporters to pray, remember them, and perhaps donate to help those who are facing hunger. This includes some churches and organizations in Manitoba.

But what to pray? That’s always a challenge. It’s hard to know what to say. Sometimes our prayers can feel hopelessly inadequate when faced with such overwhelming needs.

To help, The Global Day of Prayer website offers links to prayers and other resources, such as the prayer below from Canada.

Loving God,
we bring before You the people of Africa who are currently experiencing famine and personal hardship.
We do not know them personally,
but we share a common bond as human beings, created in Your image.
Our hearts go out to them,
as many find themselves in desperate circumstances—
without food, without shelter, without hope.
There seems to be so little that we can do for them.
The pictures on the news are difficult to watch,
and we’d often rather look away.
But you have called us to be your hands and feet in our world;
to speak and act for those who cannot speak and act for themselves.
So we pray that Your Holy Spirit would prompt us to action.
Give us generous hearts,
to share freely with those who have nothing.
Give us courage to speak on their behalf
to those who are shaping our country’s response.
Give us perseverance,
to continue to pray fervently for their welfare.
Grant us Your mercy, God,
as we seek to live out our calling as Your disciples.
We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
It’s a great prayer for the Global Day of Prayer to End Famine, or for any day when people want to remember those who don’t have enough to eat.

I know they will appreciate being remembered. 

For more information, visit

From the June 9, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Faith and Technology, or Alexa, Apps, AI and the Amish

Alexa, the new voice-activated assistant from Amazon, can do many things for its owners—shop, read the news, tell the weather, answer almost any question.

And now it can also pray.

In addition to prayer, people can also ask Alexa about God, what it means to believe in God, or to point to nearby local churches.

The Church of England’s use of Alexa is in response to declining attendance at Sunday morning services. It’s an effort to reach people where they spend much of their time—online.

This way the Church of England isn’t the only faith group finding new uses for technology.

Muslims have access to a number of apps to help them observer prayer times, find local halal grocery stores or restaurants, or read the Quran. Other faith groups can also access their scriptures and devotionals on their phones.

These are all fine and good. But as technology becomes more sophisticated, are their causes for concern?

Earlier this year, Pope Francis raised that question in an address to the World Economic Forum. He was thinking particularly about the rise of Artificial Intelligence, or AI, and the impact it could have on the poor.

“Artificial intelligence, robotics and other technological innovations must be so employed that they contribute to the service of humanity and to the protection of our common home, rather than to the contrary, as some assessments unfortunately foresee,” he said.

The Pope isn’t the only one wondering about AI; last fall a group of primarily Protestant computer scientists tackled the question of a Christian response to AI.

“Just as Christians seek wisdom and offer leadership on other basic issues, we also need ways to understand AI,” they wrote on Medium.

In a series of posts, they offer thoughts on AI and relating to artificial persons; work, creative and purpose; counseling and spiritual care; and sin, justice and religious freedom.
One issue of concern to many people of faith is technology and violence. For example, should Christians support the use of AI if it helps the military improve its ability to kill people?

The question became real at Google in May when it became public that the company is helping the U.S. military analyze drone footage. The revelation prompted about a dozen Google employees to quit on ethical grounds.

Another area of concern is the effect AI will have on employment. If people of faith believe work conveys meaning and dignity for people, what’s our response to new technologies that could cost millions of people their jobs? 

Faith groups who are wrestling with these questions could consider an unlikely source for some answers: The Amish.

That’s the thinking of Jameson Wetmore, a researcher at Arizona State University. In an interview in Quartz, he described how the Amish address issues arising from new technologies.

While most people today see technological progress as inevitable and positive, the Amish carefully consider how each new technology “will change their culture before embracing it,” he says. “And the best clue as to what will happen comes from watching their neighbors.”

Or, as he put it, the Amish are watching us—they are using the non-Amish world as an experiment.

When we adopt a new technology, they observe its effects and “then they decide whether that’s something they want to adopt themselves,” he says.

For the Amish, the key factors are whether the technology in question adds to community life and neighbourliness, or diminishes it, along with its effect on the happiness and well-being of users.

Although Amish communities can treat various technologies differently, the two that have consistently failed this test for all of them are TV and cars.

For Wetmore, the Amish show us that technologies aren’t simply “piles of metal and wire and computer chips, and really the only thing that matters is the people who use them . . . when any technology is designed, it is usually designed with purpose and goals. Values underlie those purposes and goals.”

That sounds like a good starting point for a faith-based discussion to me.

From the June 2, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press. Also see Can Robots Love God and Be Saved? on this blog.