When you read the Bible, do you approach it as a religious classic? Is it merely a collection of historically important writings that show us a great deal about ancient religious devotion? Or is the Bible more than that? Do you approach it as Holy Scripture? By “Scripture” I mean understanding the Bible not only as speaking to its own day and age but equally to our present time. If the Bible is Scripture, then it is always challenging us, inspiring us, troubling us. I want to encourage us to be deliberate about hearing today’s readings as Holy Scripture, particularly the first reading from the prophet Ezekiel. I’d like to offer a paraphrase of this first reading. Warning: it may be jarring, but this is how I hear the text speaking to our current reality, as we’ve just marked another Canada Day.
I heard the voice of God say, “You people of St. Aidan’s parish! I have something to say to you!” When I heard the voice say this, I was inspired to get up on my feet. And the voice of God continued: “I am sending you to the people of Canada, a contemptible nation that has turned against my ways. Their ancestors have committed genocidal atrocities in my name. And their descendants—your own people!—are shameless and stubborn. So I am sending you to the people of Canada—to the governing authorities, to elected representatives, to executives, to people who benefit from injustice or ignore it. You must tell them directly, ‘Pay attention to what God is saying.’ Whether they hear or refuse to hear—for they are an obstinate people—at least they will know that a prophet has spoken to them.”
I believe that paraphrase captures what today’s reading from Ezekiel is saying to us. Each one of us is being summoned by God out of our comfort zones. What exactly is it that we are being called to do? We are being called to tell the truth, first to ourselves and then to those around us, especially those who occupy places of power.
Let me try to spell out in more detail what is required of us if we are going to heed the call of God to tell the truth. It begins with us knowing what the truth is about Canada and its evils. And to do that we must resist our impulse to rush to Canada’s defense, praising all we find good about the country we live in. The facts are that racism runs deep and straight through Canadian history. We see it, for instance, in the faces on Canadian currency. On the $5 bill is Wilfred Laurier, who was very clear about his intentions to prohibit all people of African descent from immigrating to Canada. Then we have the $10 bill with John A. Macdonald, an architect of the Residential School system who repeatedly described Indigenous people as “savages.” He also introduced into law the Chinese head tax as a means to minimize Chinese immigration. The new $10 bill features Viola Desmond, who in 1946 was arrested and physically assaulted in New Glasgow, N.S., for refusing to vacate her theater seat in a section reserved only for whites. It doesn’t end there. On the $50 bill is William Lyon Mackenzie King, who in 1939 refused a ship of Jewish refugee claimants entry into Canada. And don’t forget the $100 bill with Robert Borden, whose 1911 campaign slogan in B.C. was “A White Canada.” Because this is our currency, Canadians at large have been subtly conditioned into believing that these faces represent an honorable history. They don’t.
There’s more. We need to learn about the Indian Act, a racist piece of complicated legislation that has wreaked enormous havoc on First Nations communities and their capacities to define themselves and govern themselves. We need to learn about Egerton Ryerson, a Methodist minister, and his role in designing the Residential School system. We need to learn about Henry Dundas (or Lord Melville) and how he actively resisted the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. The Indian Act, Ryerson University, Dundas Street—these are institutions that define our own existence today in Toronto. And they are all rooted in racism. If we’re tempted to think that this history is of a bygone era that we’re immune from, we need to listen carefully to the words of Ezekiel: the ancestors “have transgressed against me,” declares God, and their descendants—that’s us!—“are impudent and stubborn.” There are too many Canadians right now in 2021 who are impudent and stubborn, refusing to reckon with the racist history of Canada and how that history has afforded them comfort.
What shall we do when we’re able to own this history of Canada? We must tell it without any sugar-coating. But our truth-telling must also be accompanied with hopeful action. In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ followers are sent out in teams to do the prophetic work of truth-telling and healing. We must also be about the work of healing, of caring for the sick, the vulnerable, the poor. Many of us are valiantly doing this work already; others are partnering and supporting those on the front lines. This action must continue if our truth-telling is to be credible.
Truth-telling is unpredictable work. What we should say depends on who it is we’re addressing. In today’s reading from Ezekiel, we’re not told exactly what God summoned Ezekiel to say other than “Thus says the Lord God.” The specifics are spelled out in nuanced detail as you read further into the book. Truth-telling requires us to take time to do our homework, to learn first. Ezekiel had to that. In learning, we will be empowered and inspired to speak the truth with confidence.
Truth-telling is also not done alone. It is hard, risky work, and we must undertake it together, collaborating with each other, supporting each other. This is why, I think, Jesus commissioned his followers to go out and tell the truth in teams. If we do this work just on our own as individuals, we can become quickly overwhelmed and discouraged.
To be sure, truth-telling sets us up for rejection and ridicule. Telling the truth about the fallacies of belief in a flat earth—that won’t earn you much scorn. But telling the raw truth about the racist history of Canada—that will provoke anger (Conrad Black’s opinion piece in yesterday’s National Post is a case in point). Or it will fall on deaf ears, whether those of family members or governing authorities. Jesus warned his followers about that kind of reaction. And when it happens, Jesus said, move on. But never stop telling the truth. At least “they shall know,” God tells Ezekiel, “that there has been a prophet among them.”
Why is telling the truth about Canada so imperative? Because God does not want anyone left out or left behind. And in the history of Canada, too many people have been shut out. That’s flat-out wrong. It contradicts who God is. We are now being summoned to tell the truth so that the perpetuation of what is wrong may be made right.