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The Great Burning

The Necessity of Reconciliation Between the Church and Indigenous Communities for Ecological and Relational Healing

One of the themes for this summer’s Lambeth Conference is ecology. We have invited authors to reflect on what they hope the bishops will take to heart and keep in mind regarding this theme as they meet.

By Rachel Taber-Hamilton (Shackan First Nation)

The church has much work to do in order to heal the Eden it sought, found, and then helped to destroy in the name of God. Through a collaboration of theology and capitalism, the emerging empires of 15th-century Western Europe devastated entire environmental landscapes in the New World that they “discovered.” Their operant Christian theology additionally justified the subjugation and genocide of the civilizations of Indigenous peoples whom they encountered. Prior to the arrival of Christian explorers in 1492, there were an estimated 60.5 million Indigenous people living in the Americas. A hundred years later, the forces of colonizing war, slavery, and disease had wiped out approximately 90 percent of Indigenous peoples in the lands that had been their ancestral environments for millennia. The relatively sudden abandonment of 56 million hectares of land by extinguished Indigenous agricultural communities caused a vast environmental transition to carbon-absorbing forests, a phenomenon believed to have been a contributing factor in the duration of the Little Ice Age.[1]

Humans have had an impact on the environments in which they have lived for as long as our species has inhabited the ecological zones of our planet. Human actions have had a global impact historically, and we are experiencing human impact on the environment today as climate change. Social scientists have long speculated on the relationship between the evolution of the human brain, the development of language, and the physical changes in the hominid form — all of which appear to be interrelated factors in human evolution. The field of cultural anthropology adds the additional factor of human belief in the consideration of the adaptive nature of our species. Human belief — what we believe — contributes to our survival in the face of environmental stressors.

Unfortunately, there are many indications that human belief can also be a contributing factor to the demise of our species, endangering all other life on Earth. Today’s generation of Indigenous peoples across the globe are the descendants of those who survived European colonization on every continent and land in which it occurred. We should bear in mind that by the time the United Nations was founded in 1945, some 750 million people (nearly a third of the world’s population at the time) lived in territories that were subject to Christian colonial powers. Today, fewer than two million people live under colonial rule, in large part due to the advocacy efforts of the United Nations. However, the effects and actions of colonialism cannot be relegated to the past. Indigenous communities everywhere remain vulnerable to the neocolonial use of economic and political pressures to subjugate them and murder them, to violate their treaty rights, and to exploit their heritage lands with resource extraction policies. Neocolonialism limits the ability of Indigenous peoples to transmit their traditional lifeways to new generations, resulting in continued cultural genocide and forced assimilation. Faithful love on the level of human society looks like justice. If the churches of the Anglican Communion are committed to social justice as a faith practice, then the church everywhere cannot be silent on environmental injustice perpetrated against Indigenous people anywhere.

As the historical delivery system of a culturally weaponized version of Christianity, the church was an active participant in the forced assimilation of Indigenous people through the instrument of Indigenous boarding schools. In North America, Indigenous boarding schools were used as a cost-saving alternative to slaughtering Indigenous people though war or government police action.[2] In significant ways, the church continues to be an instrument of assimilation. This is especially true in church leadership formation and education. The acceptance of genuine human diversity in thought, liturgy, and even in physical appearance is assessed, standardized, and regulated by church governing bodies and examining boards that frequently do not have sitting members representative of Indigenous communities or communities of color. Dominant culture church, which is a colonizing cultural institution by tradition, sets the measure for the aspirant seeking ordination. The successful candidate of color with the greatest career prospects is the one who is most able to navigate and adapt to the expectations of the dominant culture church. The historical reality is that the “Anglican” in Anglican identity is at its core based in white history and white identity, an identity that is often at odds with indigeneity.

As institutions shaped by Western European traditions of governance, provinces of the Anglican Communion appear to be gradually legislating themselves into loving those people whom colonial Christianity has spent hundreds of years oppressing. The great irony of our current human condition in relationship to the environment is that Indigenous values are the values necessary for saving the planet. Indigenous beliefs of sharing resources, of viewing the natural world through a lens of gratitude and mutual respect, and of living from a stance of protective relationship with creation were seen as naïve weaknesses by the Christian colonizers who physically imposed their own worldview upon the Earth. It was a worldview in which Indigenous people and nature were categorized together as savage wilderness, outside the redemptive bounds of Christian civilization. Colonial greed and violence were predicated on the belief that both the wilderness and the savages who lived there should be righteously subdued through Christian conquest or by death. They believed that God, who had promised to reward their faith by giving them a new Promised Land, sanctioned the violence that the colonizers perpetrated.[3] Ultimately, how land and people were viewed and treated differed significantly between those who represented a colonizing worldview and those represented an Indigenous worldview. These differences remain operative and in conflict today.

Indigenous communities and the global environment are still suffering from the effects of the legacy of Christian colonialism. Intergenerational trauma in Indigenous country today takes many forms, including substance abuse, loss of traditional culture and lifeways, disproportionate incarceration rates, and high incidences of suicide among Indigenous teenagers and young adults. Yet, I wonder if the leadership across the Anglican Communion today recognizes the need to address its own healing from the trauma of its colonial legacy. As individuals, and as a faith tradition, we will remain chained to the trauma of the past, if we do not first acknowledge the harms done by former beliefs and change those beliefs to be consistent with a loving and generous Creator. We have no chance of healing the Earth as an international community of faith if we cannot first heal the wounds of generations of harm that maladaptive Christian beliefs have contributed to our current environmental and humanitarian crises.

The work ahead of us as a faith tradition must be more than supporting greening technological solutions to climate change or divesting in extraction industries. Our leadership and our churches must forge positive relationships with Indigenous communities whose traditions have preserved knowledge of and spiritual connection with the environments in which they live. The dominant culture church must actively develop meaningful and mutual partnerships with Indigenous people across the world and support their environmental causes and concerns. I would go so far as to say that the salvation of our planet is dependent on Christian reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and the subsequent transformation of the colonial mind.

Any faithful commitment to environmental concerns must include the recognition of environmental impacts on Indigenous peoples. Any consideration of solutions to climate change must include Indigenous voices. Important examples of effective partnerships with Indigenous communities exist.[4] Any meaningful step toward supporting the needs of the natural world must include supporting Indigenous peoples in their concerns for greater and global social justice. Indigenous people continue to be primary defenders of their homelands, of the irreplaceable natural resources that are vital to the survival of our planet. People of faith must join with Indigenous communities on the frontlines of environmental and social justice as equally beloved kindred of a common Creator.

How the church responds to the environmental concerns of today must be understood to be intimately intertwined with the need for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. The history of colonialism means that the relationship of Indigenous Christians with the church is extremely complex. For example, in the summer of 2021 at least 48 Canadian churches were set on fire in the wake of the discovery of hundreds (growing to thousands) of unmarked graves of Indigenous children on the grounds of former boarding schools. Which denominations supervised the schools was irrelevant to the Indigenous people who perpetrated the arson — they recognized the historical truth that the religion that buried those children was Christianity. However, because of the missionary history of those churches, the Indigenous people who comprise their membership were deprived of the comfort of their church buildings for worship and counseling during a very challenging time.

Using the medium of traditional beadwork, Indigenous artist Heather Stewart of Ontario, Canada, created an image of a burning church. Red flames rise up from a white church. This image speaks powerfully of a reality that is both past and present, of an Earth set on fire not by the Holy Spirit but by a human history of a particular set of beliefs that set humanity on a path of environmental destruction and generational human suffering. The church in every nation must listen to uncomfortable truths of its role in colonialism and cease upholding colonial systems that perpetuate the loss of Indigenous culture and identity along with perpetuating an ideological alienation of humanity from the sanctity of Creation and from the God who walks herein beside us as Christ, our Emmanuel.

How does the Church discover the sacred ground of its own redemption? By seeking out those who — because of their generational relationships with their environments — are essential partners in helping to put out the fire of a burning world. The church must reconcile with the Indigenous people who have loved and defended Creation for millennia and who have survived to love and defend it still.

The Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church. She is Shackan First Nations (British Columbia) on her mother’s side with ancestors on her father’s side who sailed from England to the shores of North America on the second Mayflower in 1629. Rachel represents the Episcopal Church on the board of the Anglican Indigenous Network and served on the Anglican Consultative Council’s delegation to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW66) earlier this year. Rachel is currently the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Everett, WA.

[1] A. Kocha, C. Brierleya, M. M. Maslina, S. L. Lewisab, “Earth system impacts of the European arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492” Quaternary Science Reviews 207 (2019): 13-36

[2] Tabitha Toney Booth, “Cheaper Than Bullets: American Indian Boarding Schools and Assimilation Policy, 1890-1930,” NAS Proceedings, University of Central Oklahoma (2009).

[3] Soong-Chan Rah and Mark Charels, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery (Westmont: InterVarsity Press, 2019).

[4]  Steven Nitah and Mary-Kate Craig, Indigenous-led Nature Based Greenhouse Gas Offsets: One Route Towards Reconciliation in Canada. See also the interagency advocacy work of the  Anglican Communion Environmental Network, of the Anglican Alliance, and of the Anglican Indigenous Network.



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