Does theology have anything to say to aboriginal affairs in Canada?

No, says Derek Burney in a Canadian Press article. Burney argues that theology gets in the way of resolution of the problems facing aboriginals in Canada: "If one side is approaching it from a practical standpoint, and the other comes at it from a constitutional or what I would call an almost theological standpoint, it's very difficult to come to an agreement."

No, says Andrew Coyne in the National Post. "To keep things on track," he says, "leaders must keep talking, and stay focused on practical measures to improve the lives of ordinary native people. Leave the theology to the theologians."

In taking this position, Coyne and Burney are adopting a very common approach to religion in liberal democracies: that is, that theological questions are divisive "conversation stoppers" awhile real politics takes place in neutral matters of practical consequence.

And, while it is true that the solution to any complex problem of people and communities requires actors to focus on matters achievable, it is not true that theology is somehow separated from those things. In fact, in the paragraph preceding Coyne's call to keep theology out of discussions, we read this:

What native people need to improve their lot are not hugely different than what any people need. Collectively, they need more control over how they are governed, meaning not just devolution of powers from the federal government, but more accountable and transparent government on the reserve. Individually, they need more of that indispensible tool of wealth creation, capital: human capital, i.e. education, and physical capital—the right to own property, and to borrow against it, the wellspring of so many business startups.

All of this is true, but it forgets or fails to see that things like accountable governments, the right to own property, the process of lending and borrowing, proper education and the like all rely on deeply embedded cultural assumptions. Those assumptions are derived from communal responses over time to deeper, and may I be so bold to say it, theological questions.

As I mentioned last year, Coyne and Burney's approach "fails to recognize the chthonic—perhaps even religious—character of the standoff. The disputes between Aboriginals and our government (and by extension, us) aren't really about clean water or education. The dispute is between competing visions of nationhood, community, and authority." And this dispute is alive and well, even within the native community.

If there is not some basic consensus on these questions between the parties, it is impossible to have fruitful discussions about schools or water treatment plants. This is not to say that a perfect consensus has to emerge—the success of the Osoyoos Indian Band in B.C. is evidence of success without consensus—but questions about the proper place of work, money, and accountability are not simply practical.

Theology matters, even when—especially when—you're discussing dollars and cents.