“But when you capture cities in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, kill everyone. Completely destroy all the people: the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, as the Lord ordered you to do. Kill them, so that they will not make you sin against the Lord by teaching you to do all the disgusting things that they do in the worship of their gods.”
This series of devotions has quarried the Bible for texts which speak of justice and the undermining of empire by the values and purposes of God. Today, however, we come to acknowledge that the seeds of the worst cruelties of empire, and the writing of its history by the victors, are also to be found in our sacred texts.
When the British Empire reached the westernmost parts of what is now British Columbia in Canada, the 19th century was already two thirds past. The imperialists were well versed in how to conquer territory and establish their power, economically, politically and culturally.
The claims of the First Nations of Canada to the land were clearly an impediment to exploiting its natural resources and establishing colonies. The British empire had by now largely outgrown massacres of the kind advocated in Deuteronomy – although European diseases did an effective job of decimating the native population. Those who remained needed to be ‘civilised’.
In Wales, the ‘Welsh Not’ had already developed a way of beating a native language out of children. But it had not been as effective as the UK Government commission which recommended it in 1843 had hoped. The people had resisted and the language was refusing to die. So in Canada the children were not only beaten, they were taken from their families and forced into residential schools, run by Christian missionaries (many of them Welsh), to be completely cleansed of their native culture. Many of those languages did die. But some clung on – for example the language in Haida Gwaii (briefly the Princess Charlotte Islands), partially protected by its geography, is now taught in schools and universities. This teaching is inspired – like the oppression – by educational practice in Wales. Even the greatest empires find complete destruction of a people difficult.
Loving God, we pray for those peoples and cultures for whom the coming of the Gospel has been very bad news indeed. We remember with sorrow the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, the Jebusites, the Maori and the Aborigine, the Haida and the American First Nations, the Inca, Lache, Picara and peoples of the Americas and the peoples of the Amazon under threat today and with you, loving God, we weep. Amen.
The Rev’d Gethin Rhys is Policy Officer for Cytun (Churches Together in Wales) and a member of Parkminster URC, Cardiff