The Santa Fé Statement on mission is very significant in its own right. Placed alongside recent events at the Anglican Church of Canada’s General Synod meeting, it is part of a fundamental shift in the church’s self-understanding and, further, its mission. Hopeful, we may ask whether these are true signposts on the way to a renewed and faithful apostolicity in the church.
On July 9, the Anglican Church of Canada, meeting in its General Synod, gave a day to the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP). The plan was to outline the end to the colonial mission of the past and move to the acceptance of a “new agape”–a plan for the self-development of a church of the Indigenous Peoples. The first part of the day was devoted to the repudiation of the “doctrine of discovery.”
Some of the General Synod participants seemed surprised when, in the midst of some dramatic portrayals and testimonials, Fr. Michael Stogre, S.J., stood to deliver a lecture on the term terra nullius. It seemed, at first glance, to be out of step with the content and tone of the serious and urgent concerns of the day. On the contrary, it soon became clear that here was the heart.
Terra nullius is a legal term used to describe an “unoccupied land.” It was first used concerning Iceland. If a place was determined to be terra nullius, it gave the right of ownership, governance, occupation and exploitation to the one who “discovered” the land. Later, the meaning of the term expanded to include lands inhabited by people who showed no sign of “civilization.” A land, they said, is terra nullius if it has no western style industry, government or churches. We find one especially glaring example of the term’s use in Australia: terra nullius was the basis for the occupation of the land without benefit of treaties or compensation to the Aboriginal People. nullius. It is also implicit in the continuing pattern of settlement and exploitation in areas belonging to Indigenous Peoples in the so-called First, Second and Third Worlds. This ongoing process has been called World War III–it is as far-reaching, ubiquitous and deadly as the First and Second World Wars.
The church and many national and international government agencies have condemned terra nullius, implicitly or explicitly, for centuries (beginning with a statement by the Pope in 1537). In practical terms, however, the same bodies happily accept the results. European settlements, economic exploitation and wholesale destruction of peoples are “facts on the ground” to the modern colonial nation-states and their churches. The process and results of terra nullius shape the politics of today and, sadly, the mission of the western churches. Further, terra nullius clearly defines the basic boundaries of our relationship with the environment: we own the land; we exploit the land.
The churches have a laudable and consistent record of support for the treaties and the sovereignty they grant to First Nations. Many Anglican bishops and clergy around the world were signatories to the treaties. It is, therefore, amazing that they have ignored the implications of the treaties for their own life, governance and mission. We must admit and confess that we are still an institution shaped by colonialism. Our continuing refusal to allow inculturation to happen in our liturgies and institutions indicates that terra nullius is still alive among us.
The problems we have with the continuing effects of colonial mission are not contained in the Canadian residential school crisis alone, as the Santa Fé statement makes clear. Terra nullius has an ongoing life in the church that extends beyond our relationship with the First Nations. We have only begun to face our challenge and opportunity in this matter.
The first non-Roman Catholic missionaries in North America received their training in the military occupation of the highlands. They served as the model for those that came later, even though their methods were both cruel and ineffective. In the same way, the colonial mission became the paradigm for our view of those whom we “discover” on the margins of our institutional life. The culture, life and hearts of those outside or on the margins of Christendom–including those who are marginal due to race, ethnicity, poverty, gender or class–are a kind of terra nullius in our strategies for mission and evangelism. The wounds inflicted by such a view are painfully obvious.
Facing this, what shall we do? We should begin by celebrating the Santa Fé Statement and the events of the Canadian General Synod. However, we cannot be faithful to God without living their full and larger meaning. This calls, at a bare minimum, for a full and robust recognition of the sovereignty and authority of the First Nations, among the nations and within the church. This includes proactive support for the treaties and rights of the people of the land.
We must go further towards a repentant and renewed understanding of our Gospel mission in the world. The “modern age” of mission, begun in the occupation of the Americas, must give way to a church reshaped in its mission and its inner life; reshaped, as well, in its attitude and understanding of those who are marginal to its institutional existence: the poor, the outcast, the despised and the stranger.
My hope for this future is in the Gospel. Its power is evident even in the devastating recognition of our complicity with evil. We have sinned. However, the message is clearly greater than the messenger. This is the Good News found in all of the above. Use the Gospel to oppress, and you plant the seeds of freedom for the oppressed. Use the Gospel to control the natives, and you end up with Nelson Mandela.
It is commonplace to consider that the barriers to evangelism and church involvement are in the hearts of those outside our institutions. The matters at hand show the reality: the barriers are on our side of the Gospel. The barriers are in our hearts. This is true to the presentation of the Gospels themselves. Consider Jesus and the woman at the well, Phillip and the eunuch, and the Samaritan and the man robbed on the road to Jericho. Consider virtually any of the stories in the Gospel. The most troublesome barriers are on the side of the would-be evangelists. They still are today.
The Santa Fé Statement and the events of Canada’s Synod are signposts on the way to a renewal of our true apostolic mission. We will find its first real moment in our own engagement with the Gospel. Though we may be saddened by the occasion of these matters, let us rejoice in the opportunity it offers–true repentance, true life.