Academic journal article International Review of Mission

From Colonization to Right Relations: The Evolution of United Church of Canada Missions within Aboriginal Communities

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

From Colonization to Right Relations: The Evolution of United Church of Canada Missions within Aboriginal Communities

Article excerpt

The United Church of Canada is known for progressive mission policies, which have encouraged overseas churches and mission organizations to be self-governing, self-sustaining, and self-propagating. Over time, the evolution of foreign mission policies has led the United Church to develop partnerships with overseas mission bodies from whom they now take direction. Home mission policies, however, have lagged behind. This has particularly been the case with mission work amongst Aboriginal people in Canada. As a result of regressive, colonizing policies for its "Indian missions," the United Church caused significant harm to Aboriginal communities, for which it apologized in 1986 and 1990. In this article, I will examine the differences in the evolution of United Church foreign and home mission policies, and the effects of these policies in their various stages upon indigenous peoples. I will focus my study on United Church documents between 1925 and 1980, the period in which this missionary work underwent the most significant changes.

Initial theological rationale for foreign and home missions

The United Church inherited well-established mission work through its Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregational predecessors. They each brought into union a historical commitment to missions both overseas and within the Dominion of Canada.

Christianizing the social order

The primary theological rationale of United Church mission was to share the good news of Jesus throughout all lands. While the United Church professed the supremacy of the Christian gospel, its doctrinal section of the Basis of Union, finalized in 1908, and the 1936 Foreign Mission Policy recognized general revelation and noble values within world religions. (1) However, this acknowledgment was not extended to the "primitive, animistic" beliefs of indigenous people throughout the world, such as the folk religions in China, the Bantu in Africa, and the Aboriginal traditions in North America. These beliefs were understood only as pagan superstition that needed to be destroyed. Home Mission reports were less generous towards world religions: "The Carpenter of Nazareth is still building coffins for the dead and dying religions of the world." (2)

When the United Church was formed in 1925, the evangelistic motivation for missions had acquired a dual purpose: redemption of the individual and redemption of society. The United Church was committed to this dual emphasis so as to avoid "an evangelism lacking in moral vigor [or] a programme of social service divorced from deep religious incentive." (3) The church acknowledged that individual conversion was not enough. Also needed was the exertion of a Christianizing influence on the governing structures to help institute a higher moral and social standard in society. It sought to Christianize the social order so as to help establish the kingdom of God on earth. (4)

Education and medicine were the particular vehicles through which foreign and home mission work could help Christianize of the social order. Medicine aimed, in part, to increase life expectancy, reduce infant mortality, and control infectious diseases. In the promulgation of Western medicine, however, there was no attempt to recognize the value of traditional practices of medicine around the world. Instead, traditional medicine was dismissed as superstitious. Education aimed to dispel superstition, increase literacy, prepare for the workforce and produce responsible citizens who would contribute to a peaceful and just democracy. The type of leadership and governance that was taught, however, was based on individualistic, linear Western philosophies, and practices that could not appreciate the communal, cyclical philosophies and practices of the East or of indigenous peoples.

As evident in its 1936 Foreign Mission Policy, it was difficult for the United Church to distinguish between Christian values and Western methods as it sought to Christianize the social order. …

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