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Fall 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 2 · pp. 192–201 

Missions to Native Peoples: Moving from Charity to Justice

Ray Aldred

Over the last couple of decades there has been a renewed effort on the part of Canadian churches to answer their missional calling. The fact that Darrell Guder’s Missional Church (1998) remains on seminary reading lists is evidence of this long-term trend. 1 The target their outreach of course includes North American Indigenous people. This outward focus is not, however, a recent development: in Canada it has been ongoing for four hundred years. The results have been mixed, perhaps because the motives have been mixed too. A prime example of these less-than-pure motives can be seen in the industrial and residential school systems embraced by Canadian and American governments as a way to Christianize and civilize Indigenous children. 2 The government of Canada and Canadian churches began with a desire to care for First Nations—that is, they began with charity. This seemingly compassionate outreach, however, masked the insidious side of a paternalism that was never comfortable with Indigenous identity—even when claiming to be acting in the best interests of “the Indians”—and so it took measures to erase it. 3 The impact of Indian Residential Schools, the goal of which was the assimilation of Indigenous people into {193} the Western conception of the kingdom of God, is a legacy of Western mission. This essay proposes that a shift from charity and sympathy to one of justice would prove a better foundation for Western mission and truer to the Christian gospel.

Churches need First Nations because their perspective is vital to understanding the fullness of God.

Justice is a better foundation because in light of the redemptive plan of God to reconcile all things to himself through his son Jesus Christ, the damage done by churches to Indigenous people must be addressed. This will require three shifts on the part of Western churches as they move from an idea of kingdom based on pretentious myths about the North American church to an intentional process of restorative justice flowing from a theology of suffering. The three shifts involve the three tasks identified in a restorative justice rubric: 4 the church must tell the truth, listen to the pain she has inflicted, and participate in a shared plan. If she is able to do this, the church will embrace its identity as the body of Christ for the world—a body taken, broken, and given. 5 My desire is to see North American churches engaged in alliances with Indigenous people, partnerships that have moved past paternalism to a shared agenda flowing from the land we share, which we call Canada.


If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. ~ 1 John 1:8 (ESV)

The first shift Canadian churches have had to make is from hiding to telling the truth. This is ironic, particularly for evangelical churches, who have sought to proclaim the truth of the gospel. Telling the truth from a restorative justice point of view means being honest about the damage inflicted on Aboriginal peoples through missions to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people. In this instance it involves owning the sin of Residential Schools and the ongoing ambivalence within non-Indigenous Canada toward Indigenous identity.

The shift to truth-telling also involves moving from doing mission out of a universalism of pretention to a universalism of intention. 6 So this is not stepping away from doing mission toward not doing mission. It means coming to understand that the missio dei is God’s intent to reconcile all things in Christ. God’s intention is to unite all humanity, but colonial and neo-colonial Canada has been conceited about this universality. Many thought (and perhaps some still think) that Western progress is the progress of the kingdom of God. This was typical Christendom thinking, and colonial Canada lusted after dominion over the lands and peoples of Canada. She interpreted her own advances at taming the land and the Aboriginal people of the land as advancing the kingdom of God. 7 The legacy of the Residential Schools is a stark reminder that for the colonial and {194} neo-colonial church, the ends justified the means. Under the pretense of raising educated, well-behaved children, Canada drafted paternalistic and, even worse, racist plans to re-socialize Aboriginal children into the Canadian nation-state. But she believed it was so ordained by God. 8 If charity or pity remains the primary impetus for mission, it will continue to yield a mission strategy that is both paternalistic and racist. Paternalistic alliances 9 between Indigenous people and the Western church in Canada will be the rule.

This does not mean that the Canadian church, in all its manifestations, is not chosen by God as his means of bringing new life to the world. Wolfhart Pannenberg proposes that just as Christ must be human in order to effect salvation for creation, in Christ humanity is the savior of the world. 10 However, if we fail to understand our own propensity to sin, we will end up as we have in the past: instead of bringing the kingdom down to earth, we’ll bring hell up to earth. 11 To counteract this tendency we need to tell the truth.

The good news is that this process has slowly begun to unfold. The apologies offered by various Christian churches to Indigenous people are high points. 12 This development in turn led to the apology by the Canadian government to survivors of the Residential School system. It was a good beginning in that churches and government confessed their guilt and expressed a desire to forge a new relationship. The government’s confession in turn led to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was tasked to hear people’s stories. This is telling the truth, which is one part of seeking to do justice, and it could help the church re-focus its mission theology and practice. A theology of mission that says, “We have the answer to your problem” is pretentious and differs sharply from a theology laboring to understand how to live in the midst of brokenness. The former views people in a utilitarian fashion; they serve the purpose of validating mission by increasing a number in a report. 13 The latter tries to develop character in all involved; it is a partnership in trying to live as Jesus did, by together being agents of change, but a partnership also in being changed for the better.


If we confess our sin, he is faithful to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. ~ 1 John 1:9

The task of telling the truth must be accompanied by a shift from too much talking to more listening. True listening is not just hearing the words cognitively, so that you could repeat them from memory. Rather it involves the emotions and tries to understand the implications of the words one hears. This shift involves theological reflection of a kind that does not try {195} to provide solutions to problems or an analgesic for pain; it attempts to understand how pain and sorrow fit in on the way to the resurrection. 14 It reframes the pain of Residential Schools and failed mission, not to forget what happened, but to remember it in such a way that we are energized to change. We accept failures of the past in order to arouse efforts to reduce violence. 15 Listening is a key element of a Christian praxis that weeps with those who weep and rejoices in such small victories as acknowledging the dignity of all human beings.

This sort of listening requires that the majority churches in Canada move away from a theology of triumph to a theology of suffering. 16 Triumphalism does not acknowledge the presence of pain in our existence in the here and now. It is a form of escapism or blind optimism that does not want to count failures as part of its identity. 17 Christians can absolve themselves from any implications of guilt over institutional sin by claiming that someone else was to blame, or that they have been forgiven and their sins, forgotten. Stepping away from triumphalism means Christians must own their witting or unwitting approval of the Residential School system and other assimilationist policies.

The Residential School system was the culmination of a Euro-Canadian attitude that saw Indigenous people as less. John A. McDonald believed the problem with Indigenous people was their underdeveloped moral character. 18 So he was convinced that moral training through the Residential School system would correct their problem and make them fit to be part of the new nation of Canada. This attitude was adopted by Canadian society and led to policies that, at best, saw Indigenous people as a problem to be solved. Outsiders viewed Aboriginal people as maladjusted and needing to change who they were in order to fit into society better. Blaming victims for their problems, however, allowed early Canadians to maintain the status quo, and worse. But if we see Residential Schools as the only problem in the history of the relationship of Canadians with Indigenous people, we still have a blind spot. Residential Schools were the tip of the iceberg of a much deeper attitudinal problem, a problem that has seriously infected Canadian missions to First Nations. By telling the truth and listening to others tell of how abuse at the hands of the church impacted their lives, churches could move from triumphalism to a theology that sees pain and woundedness, when connected to Christ, as a reservoir of healing.

With this shift away from triumphalism Canadian churches acknowledge that they are broken. This confession—think back to the first shift—is more than owning up to a lack of piety or to unethical behavior. It is a confession that they are deeply institutionally biased against Indigenous identity, that they continue to participate in Canada’s institutional neo-colonial practices which are tailor-made to destroy Indigenous people’s identity. {196}

Timothy Schouls points out a common strategy used by Canadian governments to justify discriminatory legislation against Indigenous sovereignty. 19 They first court disgruntled individuals from an Indigenous community. Next they promise them that once they are under the auspices of the government (like all other Canadians) and rescued from a “culture of corruption” 20 supported by an Indigenous chief and council, all will be better. A second strategy Schouls identifies: pitting the Canadian taxpayer against Indigenous people in general. The brunt of this kind of attack is borne by Indigenous reserves. Indigenous people get money for nothing, goes the argument, and they waste so much of it. If they were just like everyone else, they would exercise their right to self-determination and solve their own problems. Of course, in the government’s mind, self-determination often entails a loss of land, authority, or a combination of the two. Both attacks on Indigenous self-determination are aimed at destroying relationships between Indigenous people and the land, putting wedges between family members, and cutting Natives off from their history as a sovereign people. And so the legacy of Residential Schools lives on.

Canadian churches are complicit in these tactics on at least two fronts. First, they themselves use these ploys with Indigenous churches. They find it easy to believe that if Indigenous people would carefully emulate Western church practices, they would succeed. The strategy is first to point out how much time and money is spent helping Indigenous people and then to highlight the small number of new members. With the implication of wastefulness and incompetency nicely in place, the denomination or church planters have the justification they need for imposing some kind of monitoring system upon Aboriginal churches. Then these churches are forced to choose between going independent, joining another Indigenous church, or assimilating into the missionizing denomination. When they choose the latter, they lose their Indigenous character, but everyone in the denomination celebrates the addition of a church with an Aboriginal flavor. In order to pull this off, church leaders will identify Indigenous individuals sympathetic to their arguments, elevate them to positions of authority, and tout them as examples to others.

Whatever the approach taken, the Indigenous church is blamed for its problems and paternalistic “partnerships” continue to develop. These dysfunctional relationships only perpetuate the status quo. If, on the other hand, the dominant church adjusted its point of view to see that it was part of the problem, that it was broken and in need of healing from Aboriginal people, the approach to missions would be very different. A turning away from triumphalism is also a shift away from basing ministry evaluation on utilitarian considerations. Many evangelicals in particular are strongly attracted to statistical measures of success. They tend to weigh the success {197} of a mission not by how well the characters of Native peoples have developed but by how many new bodies join a congregation. So if their church planting efforts are poorly received, they characterize Indigenous people as unreceptive or resistant. Conversely, if missionizing efforts appear to produce results, Indigenous and post-colonial theological reflection tends to be muzzled. 21 Jacques Ellul describes this utilitarian mindset as the elevation of the efficiency of technique over human beings. 22

Listening instead of talking could lead to a “heart to heart” encounter. Inenimowin is an Oji-Cree word for “the feeling we have in our heart.” This expression captures the idea of shared feelings, the feelings “we” have in “our” heart. A meeting of hearts provides an opportunity to encounter each other on a profoundly personal level. As our hearts meet each other we develop compassion for one another and begin a dialogue to come to a better mutual understanding. And from there, a partnership can develop that leads to empowerment and positive change. A true meeting of hearts assumes that neither of us holds all the answers. Instead, in sharing from our own pain, we discover empathy for each other.

Such sharing and empathy flows from Christ’s meeting with us. Henri Nouwen’s exegesis of John 15 notes that the discussion of ministry and the coming of the Spirit took place in the midst of pain. Christ told his disciples about the coming of the Spirit, about the reality of ministry, in the upper room—that is, in the context of grief. It was during the Last Supper that Jesus told his disciples: just as he was being broken, so would they also be broken. By joining their suffering with his, their suffering was reclaimed as salvific. In Christ we no longer suffer as criminals; we are on our way to the resurrection. 23 It is when we are broken, not when we triumph, that we reflect the glory of Christ—when our brokenness is joined with Christ and we are broken for the world.

The restoration of justice or wholeness allows perpetrators to hear the pain they have caused. In hearing the pain there is opportunity to feel, and these feelings give strength to imagine what repentance could look like. The shift removes blame from the victim, but it does not seek to place it elsewhere. Rather it allows the guilty to feel and then begin to take responsibility for what has happened. 24 However, it requires that they work with their victims and others to find a just resolution that heals the wounds.

After the 2008 apology from the Canadian prime minister for the Residential School program, members of the Aboriginal Ministry Council met with Chuck Strahl, then Minister of Indian Affairs. In response to the statement, “We recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong,” we asked, What does a non-assimilationist policy look like? What does repentance look like for Canada? This question has still not been fully answered. The purpose of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not only to {198} give First Nations people a chance to tell their stories; it was also to give perpetrators an opportunity to hear them. The perpetrators in this case are the Canadian people. There is no room for triumphalism here. It is simply necessary that Canadians listen to the pain their churches and governments have caused. If they will listen, it will allow them to take responsibility and begin to live another way. Perhaps if we all tell the truth and listen we could begin to dream of a new national shared story, one that does not attempt to legitimate or forget hurtful policies but tells how the injuries they caused were healed.


So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. ~ Romans 14:19

The third shift pulls together three elements: first, restorative justice requires offenders and those offended to come up with a shared plan for healing; second, the Euro-Canadian church must stop seeing reconciliation as episodic and start seeing it as a lifestyle of engagement in mutual transformation; and third, to facilitate this shared plan the church must give up its dominant role in the partnership and move from leading to being led. 25 The agenda of the marginalized must become their own agenda. Western churches must look away from seeing themselves as if they were the world’s ultimate destination, toward seeing their reason for being in pouring themselves out for the world. In so doing the church will return to its missional identity—it is not an empire in the making but the broken body of Jesus given for the world.

Emphasizing our need to view reconciliation as a lifestyle, Cherokee Andrea Smith observes that evangelical reconciliation movements like Promise Keepers tended to undercut the political will to tackle institutional racism. They had a moment of reconciliation but then stopped short of applying that positive energy to make systemic change. The reconciliation service was seen as sufficient, and while this could conciliate individuals, broad social changes were needed. Such changes demand working through the implications of the pain and abuse. Justice Sinclair makes exactly this point. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he says, was not a way to help Indigenous people “get over” what happened, but it was the beginning of a process. 26 Reconciliation requires that people not only tell their stories but listen to the pain that they have caused. Then they and their victims must come up with a shared plan to repair the damage.

A shared plan is the final step toward an Aboriginal ministry that aims to restore justice and achieve deep reconciliation. Walter Brueggemann points out that justice is about giving things back that were wrongfully {199} taken. 27 The restoring of land and dignity to Indigenous people in Canada is in part the responsibility of Canadian churches. This means that reconciliation must be seen as an ongoing process. It involves confession (telling the truth), listening (taking responsibility), and repairing the damage (restitution). A process of reconciliation must be holistic and should not settle for the conversion of individuals alone. It must address the social problems that resulted from wrong-headed mission strategies.

To this end I want to suggest two things that churches and mission organizations could do as a way forward. First, they could educate their members about the history of Indigenous people in Canada. Such education would create an environment that would allow for the hearing of the stories of Residential School survivors. These stories are a gift. By listening closely to them, strong emotions will be aroused, emotions that could give us the impetus to address the injustices—not by finding someone to blame or someone to punish (although punishment should be considered if it would restore justice), but by taking responsibility and committing ourselves to living differently.

Second, mission organizations could start changing their understanding of missions to First Nations from something done to or for First Nations to something done in partnership with them. 28 As noted earlier, past “partnerships” with First Nations have been paternalistic. The terms of their cooperation were put into place in part because people motivated with a strong sense of pity believed First Nations needed to be helped to fit into society. What we need is a partnership that sees First Nations as a valuable asset for ministry. Churches need First Nations because their perspective is vital to understanding the fullness of God. This kind of relationship could be centered on shared objectives in a community. By identifying common goals, both Indigenous and mission folk could combine their strengths to undertake constructive projects. A further development in partnership would see non-Indigenous organizations make the goals and aspirations of the Indigenous people their own. This latter approach aims at true empowerment, but it requires a model of mission which understands that the purpose of the church is to give itself away for the world. This is what it means to live in God’s kingdom and no longer scheming to create our own.


  1. Darrell L. Guder, ed. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).
  2. Flood Davin, “Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds, 1879,” in Reconciling Canada: Critical Perspectives on the Culture of Redress (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2013).
  3. J. R. Miller, “The State, the Church, and Residential Schools in Canada,” in Religion and Public Life in Canada: Historical and Comparative {200} Perspectives, ed. Marguerite Van Die (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 109–29.
  4. Pierre Allard, “Restorative Justice: Lost Treasure” (Regina, Saskatchewan: Canadian Theological Seminary, March, 11, 1999).
  5. Henri J. M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroad, 1992).
  6. Paul Ricoeur, Political and Social Essays (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1975), 151–55.
  7. Alvyn Austin and Jamie S. Scott, Canadian Missionaries, Indigenous Peoples: Representing Religion at Home and Abroad (Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 22.
  8. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Bridging the Cultural Divide: A Report on Aboriginal People and Criminal Justice in Canada ([Ottawa]: Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996), v. 1, 335.
  9. Lynne Davis, Alliances: Re/Envisioning Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Relationships (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 5.
  10. Wolfhart Pannenberg, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991). See chapter 3.
  11. Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 117.
  12. Jennifer Henderson and Pauline Wakeham, Reconciling Canada: Critical Perspectives on the Culture of Redress (Toronto; Buffalo; London: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 321.
  13. James William McClendon, Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology, new ed. (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990), 14–25.
  14. Henri J. M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 43–56.
  15. Paul Ricoeur, Evil: A Challenge to Philosophy and Theology, trans. John Bowden (London: Continuum, 2007), 60–68.
  16. The Mennonite community is one Canadian church that embraces a theology of suffering. At the same time it too has become part of the power structure that maintains the status quo. How the Mennonite church reconciles its theology of suffering with its privileged status in Canadian society would make an interesting study in itself.
  17. Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997).
  18. Miller, “The State, the Church,” 115–16.
  19. Timothy A. Schouls, Shifting Boundaries: Aboriginal Identity, Pluralist Theory, and the Politics of Self-Government (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003).
  20. I first heard the term “culture of corruption” from a member of Parliament who was the Indian and Northern Affairs critic around 2003. His party had labeled Indigenous leaders as part of a “culture of corruption.”
  21. Andrea Smith, “ ‘The One Who Did Not Break His Promises’: Native Americans in the Evangelical Race Reconciliation Movement,” American Behavioral Scientist 50, no. 4 (2006). {201}
  22. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, 1st American ed. (New York: Knopf, 1964), xxv.
  23. Athanasius on the Incarnation, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, c296–c373.
  24. I use the word “responsibility” rater then “guilt” out of a desire to see healing. Guilt does not help people mired in addictive behavior to change, but responsibility allows them to begin to dream of another way to live.
  25. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus, 43.
  26. Murray Sinclair, “Reconciliation Not Opportunity to ‘Get over It’,” CBC News, accessed October 22, 2014.
  27. Walter Brueggemann, Act Justly, Love Tenderly, Walk Humbly (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1997), 5.
  28. Davis, Alliances, 1–12.
Ray Aldred (Cree) is Lecturer in Theology at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta. He is former Director of the First Nations Alliance Churches of Canada where he worked to encourage pastors ministering to Aboriginal people. Ray is the former chairperson for the Aboriginal Ministries Council for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and sits on the board of Siloam Mission in Winnipeg, MB. He is the chairperson of the North American Institute of Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS).

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