As someone who preaches on occasion, I am simultaneously consoled and dismayed by how little I remember from sermons I have heard at church.
But every so often, as the preacher’s words float by, there is a powerful moment of recognition.
A stillness falls over the people gathered, and the words spoken almost crackle with the energy of truth. Our collective heart stirs and there is a silent consensus – something significant just happened.
These moments stick. These moments transform.
One of these moments has been rumbling around within me recently. Two years ago, Dylan Siebert preached one of these sermons at Stirling Ave. Mennonite Church. He was reflecting on themes of despair, hope, and the cyclical decline of civilizations. The phrase that caught me in the vice grip of truth was this:
“We are the Romans.”
I don’t know about you, but when I read stories from the New Testament, I rarely identify with the Romans. I identify as a follower of Jesus so I most naturally align myself with the disciples, or whoever is seeking healing and liberation. Generally, I am drawn to the characters who lack social power and status.
Every once in a while I am challenged to identify with the older son in the story of the Prodigal son, but never the Romans. I mean, the Romans are terrible! I am quite good really! Or at least well intentioned!
The Romans are occupiers, my people are….
**Insert deep sigh here**
After learning to listen for the voice of the marginalized and oppressed in sacred texts (not that I am done learning to do this!!), I hear a new invitation calling.
A calling that requires me to look, with painful clarity, at the violent colonial structures of which I am a beneficiary; at the history of Turtle Island/North America that leads me to name myself a settler.
A calling that asks: What might I learn if I identify with the oppressor in our most sacred of stories?
How might the text read my life if I am honest about my social location, if I come to Jesus with full awareness of my position of power?
How do I read the Bible as a settler?
This is a particularly essential consideration for those of us whose ancestors came to Turtle Island as refugees or immigrants escaping persecution and violence. Many Mennonites of European descent recognize that our communal psyche is still largely shaped by a narrative of persecution. Given our history, it is easy for us to identify with the oppressed of the Biblical narrative.
But that is no longer our reality, and upon arriving in Canada, many Mennonites came to bear the terrible double identity of refugee and agent of displacement.
We have been a lot more comfortable with the refugee part of that history. And I imagine this is true for most other non-Indigenous communities as well.
And fair enough! Who wants to claim our place in a history of genocide – the intentional efforts that were undertaken in this nation to erase Indigenous Peoples from this land?
But here’s the thing, I believe that naming our position as settlers, as the inheritors of wealth acquired by violent means, is required for our liberation, for our healing. It is certainly necessary for the work of reconciliation.
The liberation of God is for everyone. But it won’t look the same. So what does the path of salvation look like for the powerful? And how might reading Scripture from a different perspective help us?
Jennifer Harvey, in “Wrongs to Rights”*, suggests that the story of Zacchaeus is a good starting point for answering this question. She suggests that rather than asking, “What would Jesus do?”, that settler Christians are instead in a “What would Zacchaeus do?” moment.
Check out the story – Luke 19:1-10.
Harvey writes: “It is tempting to easily condemn Zacchaeus for agreeing to serve as the Empire’s tax collector, which meant he actively implemented and benefited from the exploitative, grinding practices Rome exerted over the lives of the poor. But, we do better to admit, instead, how closely Zacchaeus’ life story resonates with our own.”
I love this proposal. We truly are in a Zacchaeus moment.
And Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus – making economic reparations to those he had exploited – offers hope that change is possible. That no identity is fixed. That there is always the possibility for reparation and restoration – for all.
*Check out: “What would Zacchaeus do? Repair Sets Sinners Free” by Jennifer Harvey, in Wrongs to Rights, Intotemak, Mennonite Church Canada.
Tamara Shantz is an interim pastor with Pastors in Exile. She is covering Jessica’s parental leave until the end of August, 2017.
In addition to working with PiE, Tamara is a spiritual director and Enneagram teacher. She attends Stirling Ave. Mennonite Church. You can reach her at email@example.com.