Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization
Edited by Steve Heinrichs; Illustrations by Jonathan Dyck
Publisher: Mennonite Church Canada
Available through commonword.ca
Unsettling the Word is a series of reflections on the Bible’s role in the history of European colonization—and an imaginative series of attempts to liberate Scripture from its captivity by the “principalities and powers.” Anyone who preaches here in Turtle Island (North America) should keep a copy of this book close at hand, to stimulate new ways of thinking about our essential text.
The Bible is a vast and complex collection of books, originating in oral tradition, but written and compiled over centuries by countless persons, mostly unknown, and in a variety of political, social and cultural contexts. It has been translated into many of the world’s languages, with several English-language versions.
Some claim it is the inerrant word of God. But most Anglicans consider the Bible a collection of stories told by the people of God about their evolving understanding of their relationship with the Creator—sometimes as fairly straightforward history, but generally incorporating poetry, song, allegory, metaphor and allusion.
In wrestling with Scripture, we try to seek the deeper metaphorical meaning, by investigating the cultural context in which passages were written, and considering how they may be speaking to our own political and cultural contexts—and to our humanity.
This can be challenging for dominant, white, middle-class settlers like myself—the colonizers—since Bible stories were told primarily by and for the colonized. Which is where Unsettling the Word comes in. It offers, in the words of editor Steve Heinrichs, “a fearless rereading of the Bible through the eyes of the exploited.”
The Bible, he writes in his preface, “has been used as a tool of colonialism, xenophobia, exclusion and cultural genocide.” But “for centuries, communities of radical compassion and courage have read and re-read the sacred page in creative and critical fashion, so that these old memories shake the powers from their thrones and bring actual change to those who have been kept down.”
Unsettling the Word continues that tradition. It’s a collection of 69 short (two to four pages, generally) poems, stories and essays by as many contributors, each taking a biblical passage as its starting point—from Genesis to Revelation. You’re unlikely to agree with all these re-imaginings, but they will help open your eyes to new ways of thinking about the Bible.
Some contributors may be known to readers of the Anglican Journal, most notably, KAIROS director Jennifer Henry; Stan McKay, first Indigenous moderator of the United Church; American theologians Walter Brueggemann and Ched Myers; United Church artist, writer and theologian Bob Haverluck; and former TRC staffer Lori Ransom.
To give a little more context, it appears that 14 of the 69 contributors are Indigenous, and a further six are people of colour (racialized: African, Asian, Latino). Somewhat under half—29—are women; 33 are living in Canada and 28 in the United States; with others from Australia (3), Africa (2) and England (1).
Eleven (including the editor) seem to be connected to the Mennonite tradition; four to the United Church of Canada; three to the Anglican/Episcopal tradition; and one to the Jewish tradition. Others reflect various forms of Protestantism, Roman Catholicism or Indigenous spiritual traditions.
The writers are informed by their various contexts, but I would argue they also transcend them.
Cree activist and “Idle No More” cofounder Sylvia McAdam, in her afterword, concludes that “Unsettling the Word summons those who have been shaped and impacted by the Judeo-Christian tradition (for good or for ill, by choice or by force), to not simply grapple intellectually with the problems of settler colonialism, to not merely contemplate the promise of decolonization, but to step up and act.”
After all, as Heinrichs emphasizes: “The Bible must be lived (and enjoyed) in streams of justice, or it is a dead word.” Keep this book on your desk and use it.
John Bird has worked as editor of Anglican Magazine, Special Assistant to the Primate on Residential Schools, and Program Co-ordinator for Aboriginal Justice and Right Relations with the United Church of Canada. He is currently a volunteer member of the Primate’s Commission on Discovery, Reconciliation and Justice.
This review first appeared on August 3, 2018.