Hagar, Ishmael, and First Nations


Scripture. Aboriginal Sunday. Genesis 21: 8-19 Nigel Bunce

Today’s Scripture, about the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, has uncomfortable parallels with the way that European settlers have treated Canadian First Nations.  

Abraham banishes Hagar and Ishmael

Abraham banishes Hagar and Ishmael. Image from www.churchofjesuschrist.org

By chance, today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures falls on National Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The background to the story is that Sarah, Abraham’s wife, couldn’t have children. So she suggested that Abraham have a child with Hagar, her slave-maid.  That would keep his lineage alive. Much later, Sarah had her own child. She became jealous and told Abraham to banish both Hagar and her son Ishmael.

By now, Abraham was a wealthy landowner and rancher. Ishmael might reasonably expect to inherit some of Abraham’s possessions. Although Ishmael was Abraham’s first-born son, he got nothing. Ishmael became a mere footnote in the story of the Israelite people. He spent his life in the wilderness of Paran, in the Sinai peninsular.

That unjust Biblical story of Hagar and Ishmael repeated itself when Moses led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land. That area was already the home of people called Canaanites. Psalm 80: 8-9 celebrates their eviction. The “vine” is the people of Israel.  “You brought a vine out of Egypt. You drove out the nations to make room for it.  When it had taken root it filled the land.”

The parallel with modern day Canada

These Biblical stories are like parables for what happened to First Nations people when European colonizers came to Canada. They foreshadow the ideas of terra nullis (empty lands) and the Doctrine of Discovery by European kings and popes. Worse still, Rev. Dawn Hutchings, a Lutheran pastor from Newmarket ON, recently observed that the idea of colonization is baked into Christianity.  It comes from the words of the “Great Commission”.  “Go and make disciples of all nations …”  [Matthew 28: 16-20] 

Until now, the history of Canada has been the history of European and later settlers. Like Ishmael and the Canaanites, the First Nations peoples were first on the scene. And like Ishmael and the Canaanites, they lost their homes and their inheritances. The settlers got the best lands. Where the First Nations ended up was like the wilderness of Paran.

Repentance and Apology by the Anglican Church of Canada

The Anglican Church of Canada has now apologized for the Church’s part in these injustices. Archbishop Fred Hiltz made the apology on behalf of the Church at last year’s national Synod meeting. I am going to pause to insert a short extract of this apology; the whole apology lasted almost half an hour. Even this is hard to hear, but I urge you to take the time later to watch it all.

What follows is part of the text of Archbishop Hiltz’s Apology on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, July 12, 2019:  

I confess our sin in failing to acknowledge that as First Peoples living here for thousands of years, you had a spiritual relationship with the Creator and with the Land. We did not care enough to learn how your spirituality has always infused your governance, social structures and family life.
I confess our sin in demonizing Indigenous spiritualities, and in belittling the traditional teachings of your Grandmothers and Grandfathers preserved and passed on through the elders.
I confess the sin of our arrogance in dismissing Indigenous Spiritualities and disciplines as incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus, and insisting that there is no place for them in Christian Worship.

I confess our sin in robbing your children and youth of the opportunity to know their spiritual ancestry and the great wealth of its wisdom and guidance for living in a good way with the Creator, the land and all peoples.
For such shameful behaviours, I am very sorry. We were so full of our own self-importance. We followed “too much the devices and desires of our own hearts”. We were ignorant. We were insensitive. We offended you. We offended God.

How this issue affects me personally

When I came to Canada in 1967, I knew almost nothing about our First Nations people. At that time, I lived in Edmonton.  I found it shocking to learn about the off-reserve Indians, as we called them then. They lived on 97th Street, a very poor neighbourhood. What shocked me was that people never spoke of them just as Indians. They were always, drunken Indians.  It was incredibly disrespectful.  

After I moved to Ontario, I gradually learned more about such things as Residential Schools and broken treaties. But I could dissociate myself on the grounds that I was not responsible. All this happened before I arrived.

Deep down I also had a sense of superiority. Look at all the wonderful inventions and achievements of Western society – my society. From passenger jets to televisions; from cancer drugs to universal hospital treatment. It has taken me a long time to realize that these material marvels are not everything, And even if they were, our society – my society – has failed utterly to make them equitably available to everyone.

Arrogance and Superiority

Fred Hiltz is, I believe, a good and gentle man. I found it wrenching to watch him apologize to his First Nations brothers and sisters. He spoke of arrogance. My word was superiority. Neither Fred Hiltz nor I personally set up the Residential Schools. Nor did we personally cause the intergenerational trauma that still exists. Yet I also have to admit to my unthinking sense of entitlement. And that affects our stance on respecting the dignity of every human being.  Which is one of our baptismal promises.

Racism is more than whether or not we have actually behaved in an overtly racist way towards First Nations people. Most of us haven’t. But we “settlers” still benefit from the wrongs that afflict our First Nations. Here is just one example.  Everyone in our congregation lives on land that was once the home of First Nations people.

Our society still causes injustice and trauma.  Just two weeks ago, Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam suffered a brutal and unprovoked attack by an RCMP officer. Last weekend, police officers shot Rodney Levi dead near Miramachi, N.B.. He was the second First Nations person killed in that province in less than two weeks.

Racism has much in common with COVID19. Both are diseases that infect society. Everyone is at risk of infection, and few of us can honestly say that we have immunity.