Discover more from God Here & Now
Seeking Justice, Praying Judgment
A Public Reckoning with Settler Racism and Colonialism in Canada
About the author: Morgan Bell is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto (Emmanuel College). His research explores the doctrine of the First Person of the Trinity in the theology of Karl Barth. He is a minister in The United Church of Canada, an adjunct faculty member at the Vancouver School of Theology, and the Resident Visiting Scholar in Theology at the Atlantic School of Theology from January–May 2024.
As I write this blog, it is the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation here in Canada. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada called for such a day “to honour Survivors, their families, and communities, and ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process” between Indigenous and Settler peoples in Canada. Today, many Settler and Indigenous people are sporting orange shirts. Stories from the bowels of residential schools are told—stories of adolescent tongues pierced with needles for speaking Indigenous languages, of children shackled to their beds as punishment for having wet them, of rampant disease and death due to malnourishment and wholly inadequate sanitation. Public lectures, displays, powwows, and other events mark the occasion. Our national broadcaster is airing programming about the Indian Residential School (IRS) system, its survivors, and the intergenerational effects of its barbarity.
And across the country, countless Settler Christians—privately and publicly—are praying.
We pray for thousands First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children who died at our institutions or who were sent home to die; exactly how many, we may never know. We pray for the victims of sexual, physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse at the church- and government-run institutions which formed a pillar of Canada’s centuries-long program of cultural genocide. We pray for just reparations for tens of thousands of survivors of the IRS, their families, and their communities (as though its incalculable damage could ever be “repaired”). For the full uncovering of unmarked graves and abandoned cemeteries. For renewed or wholly new relationships between Indigenous nations and the Settler state. For an end to the ongoing destruction residential and day schools (the last of which closed in 1996) continue to inflict: traditional language loss, over-incarceration, lack of housing, disproportionately high rates of child apprehension, mental and physical health epidemics—racist and colonial injustices that perpetuate violence and harm on Indigenous people today. For Indigenous peoples’ flourishing and self-governance.
And as we Settler Christians pray, my mind has turned to Karl Barth’s meditations on prayer and his ethics of reconciliation in The Christian Life. Today, I am thinking less about the efficacy of prayer, whether the church should pray or act, or other perennial qualms that are generally raised about prayer at moments of significant ethical import. Rather, I am thinking about what happens while the praying subject—specifically, the Settler church at prayer—prays to the Father through the Son in the power of their Spirit.
Anchoring Barth’s account of prayer is the conviction that by invoking God as our Father in Jesus Christ, we are brought to stand at the heart of covenantal relationship with God in a paradigmatic way. The church that prays in the Spirit corresponds to God’s own prevenient and superintending action and models the shape for baptized life generally. The pray-er stands, as Barth elsewhere has it, in the concursus between Creator and creature in which the former takes the latter:
to Himself as such and in general in such sort that He co-operates with it, preceding, accompanying and following all its being and activity, so that all the activity of the creature is primarily and simultaneously and subsequently His own activity, and therefore a part of the actualisation of His own will revealed and triumphant in Jesus Christ.1
When it invokes the Father through the Son and in the Spirit, the praying church calls upon God to act decisively while it is brought also to accompany God’s action with its own acts of witness and power.
Accordingly, the praying subject “is freed by God to be a rebel against the lordless powers which oppress humanity and rob humanity of its dignity and freedom.”2 We are claimed by and claim this God as our Lord such that, coram Deo, all usurpacious lords and false gods are exposed for what they are and denounced. We pray for their overthrow for the sake of the Creation’s uplift. Indeed, the praying subject is set against all that is inimical to God’s good works as the Christian and the church witnesses to God’s redemptive power in Christ in the power of the Spirit.
Yet Barth does not envision the church as a community abstracted or immune from a world wracked by “lordless powers” or depravity. It is deeply implicated. The praying church and the praying Christian are wounded and subservient to the powers of depravity. While in prayer, we lean on our graced knowledge of God, in prayer “our equally notorious ignorance of God” is placed in fuller view.3 Whether we fully recognize it or not, our own “ambivalence, vacillation, and division” is exposed in our calling upon the Father as the One due our trust and obedience.4 We are brought to knowledge of our divided allegiances to opposing masters, and our myriad lusts and lords are exposed in the light of divine glory.5 There is, then, a sense in which the praying Christian and the praying church are the very usurpacious powers we pray for God to overthrow and to whose overthrow we dare witness.
To pray is to be taken up “into the movement of [Christ’s] own prayer,”6 to be reformed to correspond to Christ’s own sonship by grace. To the measure that this conformity remains incomplete, to pray is thus to “be disturbed, hampered, and weakened, and recourse will have to be had to God’s sovereign grace to correct” and—I add—consume the sin and rebellion that keeps us from a conformity to Christ that corresponds to God’s salutary works in Christ. To pray for the arrival of the hallowing of the Father’s Name, the coming of the Father’s kingdom. To pray the Father’s will be done means to pray—in an important respect—for our own judgment. To pray for our own undoing.
And as we pray for Indigenous flourishing, for reparations, or for an end to death-dealing colonialism and the dawn of a new world, the Settler church at prayer is implicitly brought to the knowledge that we pray against ourselves. We pray against our own pining for colonial and racist power and our forsaking of our rightful Lord. We pray that in giving decisions for the poor of the earth with justice, the LORD “shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked” (Isa 11:4). We pray with increasing knowledge of the Settler church’s unclean lips, even as we are commissioned to prophesy our own felling until only the stump of righteousness remains. In praying for the material, political, and cultural flourishing of Indigenous nations, Settler Christians are brought to see that our own cities, houses, resources, and lives will be scuttled and reordered (Isa 6:11–3). For this is the shape of salvation in Christ Jesus according to which the Holy Spirit reshapes us in prayer. This is the shape of the reconciliation in which we stand—a redemption that is given in grace, but to which we are brought only as though through fire.
Thanks for reading God Here & Now! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/3, ed. G.W. Bromiley & T.F. Torrance (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2009), 105.
John Webster, Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), 203.
Karl Barth, The Christian Life, trans. G.W. Bromiley (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), 218.
Barth, The Christian Life, 218.
Barth, The Christian Life, 212.
Barth, The Christian Life, 101.