When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.’
Who owns the land, who is a native, and who a foreigner? I am especially conscious of this question, because I am Welsh – a word meaning “stranger” used by invaders to describe the native people of Britain once they had been pushed back westwards. So, as verse 8 says, these words can change their meanings as colonisers become colonised, and victors are vanquished.
These questions, in every part of the world, are then often associated with religion. The Hebrew scriptures certainly do not give Canaanite religion a good press. Once Canaan became associated with black or brown skin (of which more tomorrow), then the indigenous religions of Africa, Australasia, the Pacific and the Americas were all described as ‘Canaanite’ and inferior, even by the most enlightened of Christian missionaries. From that starting point, it was but a short step to assuming that the possessors of the ‘better’ religion should also rule the land.
Both colonisers and colonised have sought to portray themselves as the spiritual descendants of Abraham. There are many alleged “lost tribes of Israel” dotted around the globe. Welsh scholars at one time went to great lengths to show that the Welsh language contained many signs of Hebrew origins, although this is not a theory much advanced today. The Christian church still refers to itself on occasion as “the new Israel”, and frequently to our scriptures as “the new testament (covenant)”, implicitly usurping the first covenant with Abraham, and claiming our superiority in religion and, too often, our right to the land. As we shall see this week, colonisation and Christianity have been inextricably intertwined and the church in Britain is paying the price.
Colonisation is found not just in who owns the land, but in who claims the superior religion. Woody Guthrie asks this piercing question:
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, By the relief office I seen my people; As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking Is this land made for you and me? (Woody Guthrie – copyright www.woodyguthrie.org/Lyrics/This_Land.htm )
For your prayer, look out of the window of your church or home and ask “Is this land made for you and me?”
The Rev’d Gethin Rhys is the Policy Officer for Cytûn: Churches Together in Wales and a member of Parkminster URC