July 6 2014
There are days when I look around me and find myself in deep despair. There are other days I look around and see signs of deep hope.
This past week was a time of the latter. In fact, I haven’t felt despair over the way of the world for a while.
What has given me hope in this last week has been two decisions by Canadian courts. The first decision was by the Supreme Court of Canada on land title for First Nations. According to the Globe and Mail,
"In what legal observers called the most important Supreme Court ruling on aboriginal rights in Canadian history – a culmination of all previous rulings – the court determined that native Canadians still own their ancestral lands, unless they signed away their ownership in treaties with government.
For the first time, the court recognized the existence of aboriginal title on a particular site, covering a vast swath of the British Columbia interior. The court also spelled out in detail what aboriginal title means: control of ancestral lands and the right to use them for modern economic purposes, without destroying those lands for future generations.
"The doctrine of terra nullius [that no one owned the land prior to European assertion of sovereignty] never applied in Canada," the court said in an 8-0 ruling, written by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin."
The second decision which has given me hope was the decision of the Federal Court of Canada to cut medical care to failed refugee claimants.
Again the Globe and Mail said, "Justice Mactavish said the government’s two-year-old policy of denying health care to certain classes of failed refugee claimants amounted to cruel and unusual treatment because it intentionally targeted vulnerable children and adults. She said it put at risk "the very lives of these innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages our standards of decency." She gave the government four months to restore the health-care funding."
Both of these decisions are significant, not because they challenge the current government, but because they address foundational issues of justice.
Our First Nations have been saying for years that they hold specific rights and titles. Slowly but surely, the courts are refining the various treaties and obligations. This decision is one more step along that road, the courts having heard to claims of the First Nations.
In the second case, the courts have clarified the responsibilities of the government, not just under legislation, but under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The medical doctors who championed this case on behalf of their patients, whom they have been treating for free for the last two years, are pleased. The government has announced it will appeal the decision.
And what has this to do with Jesus?
A great deal.
The passage in Matthew has often been understood in an individual way; the responsibilities, the yoke of Christ, is easy, and the burden light. But I also think that understanding misses a huge part of the story.
Jesus is not laying out our individual responsibility here. He is not even speaking of society as a whole. Jesus is speaking of a whole generation who have failed to respond to a song which is utterly clear.
You may not recognize the name of Willie Blackwater. He was the first person to come forward to share his story of beatings and rape by a staff member at the United Church’s Port Alberni Residential School.
My colleague, Shawn Ankenmann tells the story of being at a presbytery meeting where Willie Blackwater spoke of his experience. After the presentation, Mr. Blackwater met with the national staff person from our church. According to Shawn, who was present, the conversation went like this.
"All I want is for someone to say they were sorry. Someone to listen and say they are sorry for what I went through."
"We can’t. I can’t." said the national staff person from Toronto. "Our lawyers won’t let us do that."
And Jesus said, " The people have been like spoiled children whining to their parents, 17 'We wanted to skip rope, and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk, but you were always too busy."
We did not listen and it has taken decades of hard work and court cases and hearings and government commissions for us to respond.
The same is true for refugees, failed or not.
The doctors heard. They listened to their patients. They saw the ethical conflict the government’s decision placed them in. So they challenged the government in court and have won this round, based not on legislation, but on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This is foundational stuff for this country and how we see people who are on the margins who come to us.
What is even more important is that this passage is foundational to our understanding of mission as a church.
This passage isn’t just about us, but about how we approach the world. If we think, for one second, we are responsible for our own salvation; if we think that military or political power will make it all right to enforce out will upon others; if we think that somehow we can do it all ourselves, then Jesus has a message for us.
Want to speak to the world’s hurts? Here is the way.
Walk with me.
Work with me.
Let me show you how to do it.
Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.
And in doing so you will begin to heal the world.
Please join me in prayer.