Have you ever hoped for your life to be different than it is? Have you ever wished you were born in a different family, or in a different country, or in even a different coloured skin? For a lot of us in this room, I would bet that most of us would say “no” to these questions. With exception, we are proud of our families, our countries… and well, never even considered being born anything other than white. For heaven’s sake, we live in the best country on earth, we have the best government and systems… we are proud Canadians… aren’t we? Of course, we are. You know who else was proud? The Romans… but I’ll get to that.
Often, when we are people whose ancestors were the ones who formed our governments and societies we can’t understand what it is like to be “the other”. Governments and societies are always formed in the context of who has the greatest power, and on earth that often means the greatest weapons. Our government was formed by folks who whole-heartedly believed that indigenous people were not as civilized as European settlers. Many of us now believe that this is not true, if we don’t recognize ourselves as racist because we believe that racists are only those who are purposefully hateful to people just because they are different then we have to wake up to the understanding that our systems are racist by design. That’s just the way it is. Systems are hard to change, especially if it means those in power having to give up what we have become accustomed to. There is no doubt that we benefit from a society created for us, by people like us, designed to help us be the ones in control of others – in control of where they live, how they get paid, who takes care of their children and more. It’s just the way it is.
To its credit the Canadian government did admit that they made a mistake in trying to “beat the Indian out” of our First Nations, Métis and Inuit people through one avenue – Indian Residential Schools. But the apology, made in 2008 by then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, means nothing without real change. Following the apology, in 2015, the TRC – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released 94 “calls to action”. As of Saturday, 10 of the 94 actions have been completed. You can see them on a website created by the CBC called Beyond 94. Ninety percent of the work still remains. By my calculations, in almost 12 years, we, as Canadians, are only 10% sorry. Actions speak louder than words.
As a straight, white, educated, privileged person I can only imagine what it is like to be one of a colonized, racialized, marginalized people. And I’m not alone in not understanding what it is like. You’ve heard it too, maybe you’ve even thought it. These are the kinds of things we say when we don’t understand, “what more do THEY want?” “THEY got their apology,” or “the government gives THEM a free ride.” But what if it was you? What if it was your people? What if this was the country of all your ancestors? What if someone in power was treating you like you were less than them because of your family, your ancestry, or the colour of your skin. Wouldn’t you be complaining too?
Jews living at the time of Zechariah and Elizabeth, some 2000 years ago, would understand the plight of Indigenous Canadians. The Roman Empire had seized Jerusalem in 63 BC and now had full dominion over the whole Mediterranean. The Jewish people had been living under foreign rule for much of their history under the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and now the Romans. Jews were the OTHER. They were the less-than. They were waiting on a Messiah – someone who they felt the prophets promised them who would be sent by God to defeat their enemies and allow them to live in peace. They didn’t know peace and could only hope for a time when they would be free from the rule of other powers over their lives. Under Roman rule they were allowed to worship in their temple. This is where we find Zechariah who won the lottery that day giving him the privilege of exercise the daily ritual of burning incense and praying to God on behalf of the people in the temple.
Zechariah, being of the priestly class had it better than many of his people who were poor and struggling, but he still knew what it was to be a person in an occupied land. His freedom was not his own. He had trouble believing that life could be any different than it was. He was not alone in this and by then many Jews had lost their faith and began to follow Roman ways and Roman worship. It was easier to be a proud Roman than a poor Jew.
So, when, in the stillness of the centre of the temple, an angel appears to him and tells him that his wife would have a baby (despite them both being very old), and he would lead people back to God and get their hearts ready for the coming Lord, he just couldn’t wrap his head around it. It didn’t matter that he was a religious and righteous man, he was also an oppressed man and life had not treated him as he had hoped and so, he had given up hope that a life as he had could be any different than it was.
That was just the way life was. What more could he want? I mean, at least the Romans didn’t wipe them out when they conquered their land right? They let them stay and live there… they were just under Roman rule now… what’s the big deal? It’s not like they weren’t used to being treated this way by every other government that ruled over them before… They should just pay their taxes like everyone else, I mean, God, why couldn’t they just accept that this is the way life is now? They had people colonizing the land where they lived for about a thousand years… like seriously – what more did they want? You know what they wanted? They wanted the same thing as Indigenous people want. They wanted the right to govern, worship, and live according to their ways. They want their freedom.
Zechariah couldn’t believe what the angel was telling him and because he couldn’t believe it he lost his voice and couldn’t speak the truth that had been told to him. He lost his voice for a little while; in fact it was taken from him by the same voice that brought him the good news. His voice, we will learn later this month, was restored when his son was born and he could see what was promised with his own eyes.
So many of Canada’s Indigenous people feel like they have lost their voice. Despite the apology and the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission they still suffer. The World Health Organization recognized European colonization as “a common and fundamental underlying determinant of Indigenous health.” The high rate of low-income and trauma in Indigenous communities is linked to higher rates of diabetes and heart disease. Respiratory problems and infectious diseases as a result of from inadequate housing and crowded living conditions affects Indigenous children at higher rates. The access to Safe Drinking water on reserves is also a major contributor to the breakdown of physical, mental, and emotional health. The average total income of Indigenous people was 75 percent that of non-indigenous people in 2015 and that continues. There are higher rates of unemployment, and higher levels of incarceration too. 26% of Canadian prison inmates are Indigenous, while Indigenous people represent just 3% of Canada’s population. In 2018, nearly half of all Indigenous youth in Canada were incarcerated. These numbers are not because Indigenous people commit more crimes than the rest of us – it is because they are still not treated equally under the law. The rates of murdered and missing Indigenous woman in this country is terrifying and continues to rise. The most tragic statistic from our Indigenous communities is the rate of suicide among First Nation, Métis, and Inuit youth – it is a crisis of epidemic proportions. They are dying at a rate of three times that of non-indigenous people in Canada. Our Inuit people have the highest rate of suicide than any people in the world. And it seems that no one cares.
Imagine if a town the size of Elmsdale did not have access to Safe Drinking water… for more than 10 years… There are communities in this country that don’t have to imagine. The statistics are depressing. But they are the truth and we can’t hide from it anymore. Well, we can, and many of us still do, but we are called to do better. It might seem like it is impossible to change the system, and it is scary to change one that has worked for most of us for a long time. But it is possible – nothing is impossible with God. What we are called to remember this Advent season, when we prepare for the One who is coming into our hearts once again, is that we are expected to expect the unexpected. We are expected to hope for what seems hopeless. We are expected to believe the unbelievable. If the story from Luke today teaches us anything it is this: it is never too late to believe that a new way is possible.
Every single Sunday we say in this church, “May we live in peace and friendship with its people.” Are those just empty words? Are we really friends? While it is true that we are all human, it is also true that we are not all treated the same by the systems that our colonial ancestors created. It is time to stop being proud Romans, and start being compassionate Christians. Christ taught us a difference way. He fought against systems just like ours that served the rich while feeding off the poor. We have to start learning about our differences, because the differences between us are so important. They have been used for so long to tell people they don’t matter so we can’t just pretend that we are all the same.
If we say we are not racist because we don’t see our differences then we have erased people who aren’t like us. It is time for us to see each other, we have to see each other’s differences to see each other’s pain. When we see each other’s pain, we see each other’s humanity. When we see each other’s humanity, we seek to be in relationship with each other and this is where real healing begins… when we become real friends. That’s what Jesus did, he became friends with those that others said didn’t matter and in doing so he taught us all how to hope that the world could be different than it is. So, today, let us hope in the One who is coming, and let all of us, like John the Baptist, and his parents Elizabeth and Zechariah, believe in the unbelievable and expect the unexpected and prepare a way for Him who comes. May it be so… Amen.