“Eat this book.” It felt like the prophet Ezekiel being commanded to eat the scroll given him by the angel of the Lord.
The church in Canada had been asked to “formally adopt and comply with the principles, norms, and standards of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples [UNDRIP] as a framework for reconciliation.”
We don’t normally eat books, or scrolls. The language of a human rights instrument written to address the behaviours of nation states did not taste like honey in the mouths of our churches. It felt awkward and a little bitter.
Yet, as an invitation framing a path forward after exposing unspeakable hurt, how could the church refuse such an olive branch from the victims of state-sanctioned, church-inflicted violence?
This request came as part of a final report following a seven-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Indian Residential School system that was in place in Canada from 1865 to 1996.
This was a government-mandated church-run project aimed at removing Indigenous children from the influence of their family, language and culture. It was also shown to be extremely brutal, rife with physical, sexual and spiritual abuse.
There were 94 Calls to Action issued as a part of this report and some, like Call to Action 48 listed above, were directed to all churches and faith-based organizations, in particular.
As leaders gathered in a church basement to wrestle with the idea of adopting and complying with a human rights instrument, someone offered, “You know, this document was written for governments and lawyers. We will have to figure out how to pray and sing these words to get it inside of us and see how it might work on changing us.”
We began our journey with questions.
How does one translate a human rights document into a functional framework for reconciliation? Is there the potential to shape our kingdom imaginations in ways that are informed both theologically and ethically?
How might prayer serve to re-form our communities in more just, whole and equitable ways? How can sharing prayer practices, as well as content in prayer, shape diverse communities?
Human rights’ instruments may not themselves push us to do good. Rather, they function to restrain evil and to make transgressions visible and recognizable as outside of the bounds of right behavior, as Nicholas Wolterstorff explains in Justice: Rights and Wrongs.
We created a prayer guide by setting stories from the newspaper alongside UNDRIP articles, and a prayer activity. The articles from the Declaration provided the language for social norms. Reading the news story then illuminated the transgressions of those rights.
In Canada, we live in a practical apartheid situation, where the lives of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples rarely overlap.
How then can the settler church ever hope to pray in ways that do not simply reinforce the cultural narratives that are marked by inherent racism and systemic oppression?
Regarding the prayer exercise, one participant reflected in an email:
“The Declaration helped to both draw out and shape my lament, and then form my intercession. If we are to be a people of prayer, we must first hear the voices of the oppressed in their full expression. Then our prayers can be linked to the cries, hopes and dreams that have already emerged from those communities.”
Allowing the UNDRIP to shape our laments is not enough.
Another participant in the practice of praying the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples emailed the following:
“Praying over these articles is not an adequate response unless it is also a part of a trajectory of acts that would then actually affect decolonization for me, for the communities of Settlers in my life and for Indigenous Peoples themselves. There is work to do to dismantle oppressions.”
The role of the Hebrew prophets was always to point to hope in God’s action, God’s justice and God’s loving kindness.
The question of the prophets to the people was always, “Will you stick with your plan of self-preservation or join God’s plan of radical justice for all?”
For the church in Canada (and perhaps for your church too), the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has been a human rights instrument that is waking us up to denial about our complicity with power.
It is serving as a prophetic voice calling us to radical justice for all. It has come as an invitation to recover our own humanity and join the fight to protect the inherent dignity of Indigenous peoples.
Learning to pray in this way is helping the church to metabolize truth. Consider adding your prayers to our own.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week calling attention to the United Nations’ Human Rights Day (Dec. 10).
The Persistent Widow and the United Nations | Wissam al-Saliby
Words Alone Won’t Secure Human Rights, Address Climate Crisis | David Wheeler
Humans Right Day: A Proclamation of Freedom for All | Jaziah Masters
Resolutions Are Only Revolutionary If Implemented | Helle Liht
Living as a guest on the unceded Coast Salish Territory known as Vancouver, she works as an urban farmer, a pastor and a justice seeker. Spargur currently directs Healing at the Wounding Place, a non-profit network that creates Indigenous-led local actions for healing and justice, provides cultural safety and anti-racism trainings as well as consulting with organizations for systemic change.