Michel Andraos – « Long-Term Theological and Pastoral Challenges »

Michel Andraos

« Long-Term Theological and Pastoral Challenges for Decolonizing the Relation with Indigenous Peoples: A Reflection from Canada »

Geraldo de Mori, Michel Andraos, Bernardeth Caero Bustillos

Concilium 2019-4. Christentum und indigene Völker
Concilium 2019-4. Christianities and Indigenous Peoples
Concilium 2019-4. Cristianismos y pueblos indígenas
Concilium 2019-4. Popoli indigeni e cristianesimi
Concilium 2019-4. Les peuples indigènes et le christianisme
Concilium 2019-4. Povos indígenas e cristianismos


A new awareness of the colonial relationships between the states and churches with the Indigenous peoples has been unfolding over the past few decades[1]. “What have you done to the Indigenous peoples in your lands?” is a question that haunts the conscience of the churches today. This new awareness is compelling the mainline Christian churches to radically rethink the future of these relationships on a global scale. In the case of the Roman Catholic Church, recent popes and official documents have very clearly acknowledged the mistakes of the past, and present, and much has been written on this topic already. The most recent statement—in the section on the “Church’s historical memory” in the Amazonia Synod’s preparatory document—clearly points out that the Catholic Church is still trying to come to grips with its implication in colonization and is searching for “new paths” in its relations with Indigenous peoples.[2] The majority of Indigenous peoples around the world today are Christian of one denomination or another.  For several centuries, they have been a primary target of the Western Christian churches’ “evangelizing” and “civilizing” mission. Indigenous Christians themselves are also rethinking their relationships with and within these churches, and are looking for ways to transform the colonial Christian legacy and affirm their Indigenous Christian experiences. Several new expressions of decolonial Indigenous Christian theologies and experiences of church are emerging in many parts of the world, as the articles in this issue demonstrate. Indigenous Christian theological voices are demanding right relationships with the churches that honor their spiritual traditions and make room for these traditions. They are affirming the Indigenous face of their churches.

In the Canadian context I discuss below, many positive developments have taken place over the past few years. However, despite the many movements of reconciliation and healing, the colonial wound is still open and deep, and the impact of colonization continues to be devastating to many Indigenous peoples today, in Canada and elsewhere. As I write these lines, the following statement has just been made in a new document issued at a meeting of representatives of Indigenous pastoral workers from different parts of Latin America sponsored by the Latin American Conference of Bishops, CELAM:

When we see and feel the reality of the Indigenous peoples today, it hurts us. We denounce the situation of exclusion, exploitation, discrimination, machismo, and divided communities. We are concerned about the economic, political, social, cultural and ecclesial situations of our countries. We are afflicted by the growing migration of our people, mostly forced by the lack of attention to basic needs, by violence, human trafficking, criminalization, drug trafficking, pollution, massive deforestation and devastation of territories, among other realities of death. In particular, it is the Indigenous peoples who suffer the most because they are in many cases the poorest.[3]

The document ends by affirming the active resistance and role of Indigenous peoples in the transformation of the church and society; it calls the church to hold a specific Synod for Indigenous Peoples and become more involved in supporting their efforts for social change. Undoing colonization’s ongoing impact on Indigenous peoples today is an urgent task for all. Given their historical role, the churches have particular responsibilities in this regard. In my opinion, this task has not been yet given the urgent pastoral attention and resources it deserves.

In this article, I reflect on the long-term theological and pastoral challenges of decolonization and reconciliation within the Canadian context. I first offer a brief presentation on the apologies to Indigenous peoples from the state and churches, which opened the path for the long journey of decolonization and reconciliation. In the second part, I discuss the task for theology and its potential important contribution to this process. And in the third part, I consider the theological and pastoral challenges of decolonization coming from Indigenous theologians and scholars. I conclude with a closing reflection on the churches’ response and the important role of dialogue for decolonizing the relation between the churches and Indigenous peoples.

1. Apologies Are Not Enough

Several states and churches in different parts of the world have made apologies to Indigenous peoples in recent years. In Canada, most mainline churches have done so on several occasions since the late 1980s.[4] And in 2008, the Canadian federal government also issued a formal apology to the survivors of the Residential Schools System for the abuses experienced there and for the violent domination of Indigenous peoples in all aspects of their social, economic, cultural, and spiritual life. In addition, following this 2008 apology, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC)’s work between 2009-2015 contributed significantly to raising public awareness and generating  national momentum to institute processes of social change in multiple sectors of Canadian society.[5] The word “unsettling” has been often used over the past few years to describe the magnitude of these changes to settler society and peoples, including the churches[6] At this point and time, Canadian society and churches are truly unsettled, and the long-term impact and outcome of this unsettling are not clear yet. Nonetheless, the veil of innocence that masked the violent history of the country and the churches’ role has been stripped away. The TRC reports offered Canadians a new narrative of the country’s violent history, putting Indigenous peoples and their life experiences and concerns at the center of national attention. More than ever before, it has now become clear to all Canadians that there is no future for Canada without mutual partnership with its Indigenous peoples in the spirit of the treaties made with them at different times during the formative period of Canada’s history. The same is true for the churches and the future of Christianity. It is in the context of this new understanding of the churches’ complicity in colonial history and the colonization of the country and its Aboriginal peoples that the churches and church leaders are now seriously reevaluating their relationship with Indigenous peoples. This new awareness has deeply transformed and converted many Christians from different churches as well as church leaders, Christian activists, and theologians. They are the driving force behind the rethinking that, in my opinion, promises to be radical and irreversible.

2. A Task for Theology

The Christian churches’ involvement in the violent colonial history and genocide of Indigenous peoples is now well documented and accepted as fact by most Christians and many churches’ leadership. However, theological understanding and analyses of these colonial relations are still inadequate. While many efforts are being made to understand the history and embark upon building a new relationship, no scholarly, consistent theological effort—as far as I know—has yet been made in the mainline churches to analyze and thoroughly understand colonial theologies, the ongoing coloniality of theology, and the theological violence, both past and present. If we do not understand the theological violence of the past, we are prone to repeating the same mistakes today, despite working for reconciliation with the very best of intentions. A systematic scholarly understanding of the pervasive violence stemming from theological and pastoral perspectives is crucial if the churches are to move forward along new paths. Besides the churches themselves having been implicated in colonial violence, the same is true of their structures, mission, practices of sacraments, interpretations of the Bible, education systems, and other services. There is no aspect of the churches’ ministries that was not involved. The most pressing action, then, is not simply to acknowledge the colonial past and the destruction it generated, but also—and more importantly—to understand concretely how theology, church structures, and pastoral ministries were colonial in particular contexts, and what decolonial theology, church structures, and pastoral ministry would look like moving forward in new relationships. I do not imply here that theology must draw a decolonial road map for the future. As I see it, the double task of theology is (1) to study, analyze, and learn from the past and (2) reflect on the positive experiences and reconciliation praxes taking place in some diocesan and national movements of reconciliation. As in other situations, pastoral praxes are more advanced than theological thinking. The theology of the future will emerge, in part, from theological reflection on the good praxes of reconciliation. I consider these to be urgent tasks for theology at the moment in Canada in order to contribute to the long-term work of decolonizing the churches’ theology, structures, and pastoral ministries.[7]

3. Challenges Coming from Indigenous Theologians and Scholars

The Indigenous authors in this issue highlight several areas of theological and pastoral colonial tensions with Christian theologies and the churches. These areas include the following: acknowledging the importance of the Indigenous peoples’ lived spiritual experiences and practices before the Christian “evangelization”; understanding the significance of traditional ceremonies and rituals for the life of Indigenous peoples in the churches and for the whole church; dialogue in mutual respect with Indigenous traditions, the teachings of elders, and wisdoms of the ancestors; and considering all of the above as sacred sources of divine revelation and engaging them in dialogue with the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as well as other sources of revelation from the Christian traditions.[8] By no means do these areas represent all of the theological colonial tensions. They are simply some concrete examples that demonstrate where theological decolonial work is required, according to many Indigenous theologians.

In addition to the challenges to theology mentioned above, one of the main underlying causes of theological colonial violence is the attitude of Eurocentric superiority intrinsic to Western Christian and cultural expressions in general, including Christian theologies. Many Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars today believe that this attitude of superiority is at the core of the colonial problem. Known for her seminal work on decolonizing education in the Canadian context, Indigenous scholar Marie Battiste writes: “Eurocentrism is a European ‘center’ characterized by superiority, progress, hegemony, and monopoly over all other knowledge systems, and the Christian knowledge system is foundational to the Eurocentric system.”[9] She adds: “Aboriginal peoples in Canada and Indigenous peoples throughout the world are feeling the tensions created by a Eurocentric education system that has taught them to distrust their indigenous knowledge systems, their elders’ wisdom, and their own inner learning spirit.”[10] For Battiste, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples should address, among other things, “the historical legacy of Eurocentrism, cognitive imperialism, racism and racialization, forced assimilation to Christianity, trauma and violence, and cultural genocide.”[11]Battiste rightly argues that the churches must not only engage in symbolic cultural changes of reconciliation but rather “[t]hey must be willing to change the ideologies associated with oppression.”[12] This work, too, is another urgent task for theology.

The main Western Christian churches functioned fully from within this Eurocentric paradigm of superiority in relation to all other peoples and religions of the world. They based their “evangelizing” and “civilizing” mission theologies on this Eurocentric worldview, putting themselves and their theologies at the center and relating to every other religious experience and belief system as inferior to western Christianity. This attitude deeply informed their theologies and understanding of other religions. It is only recently that the Catholic Church and some other churches have changed their official teaching towards other religions, yet the attitudes of Eurocentric superiority continues to inform most of their theologies and practices. In the case of the Catholic Church, this change happened with the Second Vatican Council and is best articulated in the declaration Nostra Aetate (1965). Despite this significant shift in the official Church teachings and attitudes, such documents do not yet reflect the theology of mutuality with other religions which is needed for dialogue with Indigenous peoples today. And Indigenous peoples and their religious experiences were not included among the “world religions” addressed in such documents. At best, such official teachings are a paternalistic acknowledgement of the goodness in other religions and an expression of openness to dialogue with them. They do not represent a break with the still dominant colonial religious paradigm.[13] While significant progress has been made since Vatican II in relation to dialogue with other religions, the nature and theology of this dialogue continue to be debated in the Catholic Church. As the articles in this issue illustrate, the praxes of Catholic communities around the world, especially of many Indigenous Catholics, have pushed the boundaries of the official Catholic teaching. Thus, a new task for a decolonial theology of other religions is to take these new experiences of dialogue seriously and engage in systematic theological reflections on the new, interreligious lived praxes.

4. Reconciliation, Dialogue, and Decolonization

At the end of its mandate, the TRC issued its Calls to Action, addressed to all sectors of Canadian society and outlining ninety-four calls “to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.”[14] Four of the calls to action (nos. 58-61) concern the churches and reconciliation. They call on Pope Francis to issue an apology for the “Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.” The second call to action is for the churches to “develop ongoing education strategies to ensure that their respective congregations learn about their church’s role in colonization, the history and legacy of residential schools, and why apologies to former residential school students, their families, and communities were necessary.” The third relates to education and training for developing a respect for Indigenous spirituality. The churches are called to “collaboration with Indigenous spiritual leaders, Survivors, schools of theology, seminaries, and other religious training centres, to develop and teach curriculum for all student clergy, and all clergy and staff who work in Aboriginal communities, on the need to respect Indigenous spirituality in its own right . . . .” The fourth call to the churches is to establish funding for healing and reconciliation projects, culture and language revitalization projects, relationship building, and “[r]egional dialogues for Indigenous spiritual leaders and youth to discuss Indigenous spirituality, self-determination, and reconciliation.”

Many churches in Canada have taken these calls to action seriously and have responded very positively. The Catholic Church made public commitments to act on the key points mentioned above.[15] In addition, churches at the local level across the country have launched several programs that respond to different aspects of the calls. Some seminaries have established intensive immersion programs under the direction of Indigenous elders to introduce seminarians to Indigenous spirituality and integrate this into their theological and pastoral formation. The initial reactions are very encouraging, and programs like these are opening up new possibilities for future dialogue in mutual respect. Only time will tell to what extent the churches’ actions and commitment to dialogue will contribute to the long-term transformation of colonial Western Christian theology, church structures, power relations, and dominant Christian approaches to Indigenous peoples and their spiritualities. For non-Indigenous Christians in Canada, the dream of achieving a truly intercultural, transformative dialogue that reevaluates what it means to be Christian in Canada in light of a new right relationship with Indigenous peoples is still far off in the distant future. What has been happening in the churches, however, as a follow-up to the TRC are important first steps.

According to theologian Robert Schreiter, known internationally for his work on reconciliation, true dialogue creates new critical knowledge and self-understanding and contributes to shifting power relations in the churches, as part of the process of reconciliation. Reconciliation and decolonization are interconnected, I would argue, and without a shift in power relations, decolonization is an illusion. On this point, Schreiter asserts that 

[d]ialogue should also result in colonizers’ coming to know themselves better–how their frames of knowledge led to the destruction of the Indigenous peoples’ life ways and how those frames of knowledge continue to shape colonizers’ attitudes and relationships with native peoples. There has to be a shift in the asymmetries of power, away from the continuing domination of colonizers and their church toward empowering Indigenous communities. Without this shifting of power, there will be no acknowledgement by the colonizers of how coloniality continues to distort relationships.[16]

In summary, the dialogue with Indigenous peoples has begun, and many churches have committed themselves to change, seeking to build new, right relationships and search for new ways forward. Still, however, the road ahead is long and holds many challenges.

[1] This article builds on the following previous works I have written: “Christianities and Indigenous Peoples: The Urgency for ‘New Paths,’” Critical Theology 1:2 (Winter 2019) 3–9; “Christianity and Indigenous Peoples: Another Christianity Is Necessary,” in Jean-François Roussel, ed.,Decoloniality and Justice: Theological Perspectives, World Forum on Theology and Liberation (San Leopoldo, Brazil: Oikos, 2018), 25–34; “Doing Theology after the TRC,” Toronto Journal of Theology 33:2 (Fall 2017) 295–301; “Les Églises, la théologie et les autochtones: de la réconciliation à la décolonisation,”in Théologique 23 :2 (2015) 59–73; and more recently, my edited volume, The Church and Indigenous Peoples in the Americas: In Between Reconciliation and Decolonization, vol. 7, Studies in World Catholicism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019).

[2] “‘Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology’: Preparatory Document for the Synod of Bishops Special Assembly for the Pan-Amazonian Region” (Holy See Press Office, June 6, 2018).

[3] “Encuentro de Agentes de Pastoral Nativos de Puelos Originarios. Mensaje Final.” Lacatunga, Ecuador, April 1-6, 2019, CELAM – Departamento de Cultura y Educación. Translation by the author. For a copy of the full document, see the Theological Forum at the end of this issue.

[4] Two articles in previous issues of Concilium addressed this topic. See Gregory Baum, “Canadian Churches and Colonialism,” Concilium 1 (2014) 85–91, and Jean-François Roussel, “Churches and Theology in Canada after Residential Schools: The Difficult Path of Truth, Reparation and Decolonization,” Concilium 3 (2017) 113–20. For a more in-depth article that also addresses this topic’s theological dimension, see Brian McDonough, “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,” in Michel Andraos, ed., The Church and Indigenous Peoples in the Americas, 56–77. For an example of similar processes in other countries, see Jione Havea, ed., Indigenous Australia and the Unfinished Business of Theology: Cross-Cultural Engagement (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); and in the same publication, Sarah Maddison, “Missionary Genocide: Moral Illegitimacy and the Churches of Australia,” 31–46. See also the recent collection of articles on this topic in the Australian Journal of Mission Studies12:2 (December 2018).

[5] The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Canada’s Residential Schools: Reconciliation. The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, vol. 6 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015). Also available at www.trc.ca.

[6] Several Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadian authors are using the word “unsettling” to point to the depth of the economic, social, political, cultural, and religious changes required to move in a new direction of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. For two examples, see Arthur Manuel and Ronald Derrickson, Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-Up Call (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2015) and Paulette Regan, Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010).

[7] Theologians in some countries in Latin America have been doing this work and are more advanced in this regard than in Canada, particularly among Catholic Indigenous theologians. See as an example the works of Indigenous Mexican theologian and Catholic priest Eleazar López Hernández: “Teologías Indígenas en las Iglesias Cristianas. ¿Podemos los Indígenas Ganar en Ellas el Lugar que Merecemos?” in La Teología de la Liberación en Prospectiva. Congreso Continental de Teología, São Leopoldo, Brazil, October 7-11, 2012, vol. 2 (Montevideo: Fundación Amerindia, 2012), 293–306, also available on www.amerindiaenlared.org; “Experiencia Teologal Indígena: Aporte a la Humanidad y las Iglesias,” in Jean-François Roussel, ed., Decoloniality and Justice, 65–72; and most recently Teologías Ancestrales en Diálogo con la Fe Cristiana y con la Modernidad (Mexico City: CENAMI, 2018).

[8] A recent CELAM publication demonstrates well the colonial tension described above between the official church representatives and Indigenous Latin American theologians, particularly on the topic of divine revelation. See CELAM-Departamento de Cultura y Educación, ed., V Simposio de Teología India: Revelación de Dios y Pueblos Originarios (Bogotá: CELAM, 2015).

[9] Marie Battiste, “Reconciling Truths and Decolonizing Practices for the Head, Heart, and Hands,” in Michel Andraos, ed., The Church and Indigenous Peoples in the Americas, 186. Battiste’s work on decolonizing education is a good example to follow for analyzing colonial theology and doing the theoretical work on decolonizing theology and theological education, especially in the Canadian context. See Marie Battiste, Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit (Saskatoon: Purich Publishing, 2013).

[10] Battiste, Decolonizing Education, 24.

[11] Battiste, “Reconciling Truths and Decolonizing Practices,” 188.

[12] Battiste, “Reconciling Truths and Decolonizing Practices,” 189.

[13] For an analysis and critique of Nostra Aetate from this perspective, see Peter C. Phan, “Reading Nostra Aetate in Reverse: A Different Way of Looking at the Relationships among Religions,” Horizonte 13:40 (2015) 1826-40.

[14] See, introductory paragraph of Call to action.

[15] For a commentary on the response of the Catholic Church in Canada to the TRC and the Calls to Action, see the excellent summary and theological reflection by Brian McDonough cited above, “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,” 56–77, in Michel Andraos, The Church and Indigenous Peoples in the Americas. See also, in the same publication, two other important and related articles by Eva Solomon, CSJ, “My Experience Working as an Indigenous Person with Indigenous People,” 45–55, and Sylvain Lavoie, OMI, “Walking a New Path: A Harvest of Reconciliation—Forging a Renewed Relationship between the Church and the Indigenous Peoples,” 78–97.

[16] Robert Schreiter, “Horizons of Memory and Hope: Some Concluding Reflections,” in Andraos, ed., The Church and Indigenous Peoples in the Americas, 211.


Michel Andraos, native of Lebanon, is associate professor of intercultural theology and ministry at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago (CTU). His main areas of research and teaching include religion, violence and peace, theologies of interreligious dialogue, and intercultural theology. The foci of his current research are reconciliation of the church with the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and contemporary developments among the Christian communities of the Middle East. Michel is the director of the Ecumenical Doctor of Ministry program at CTU, member of the editorial board of Concilium, and member of the coordinating team of EATWOT America. He lives with his family in Quebec, Canada.

Address: 38 Sunny Acres, Baie-D’Urfé, QC, H9X 3B9, Canada.