How do you proclaim your faith, when that faith is culturally aligned with injustice?
American Christians who are actively seeking to care for the creation routinely face this conundrum, as our religious heritage is so often used to provide moral cover for systems of power that despoil the earth and harm the poor. We know, of course, that our own scriptures tell us to “subdue the earth;” we are granted “dominion” over the works of God’s hand; and the gospel confers almost infinite value on the individual person. Taken together, these notions can be used to provide the ideological underpinnings of the exploitative economy and the hyper-individualism that often prevents us from acting for the common good.
Nothing really new here. Thoughtful Christians can rebut the errors that flow from these notions, of course. But the last two months have confronted me with another arena of injustice where we Americans – and our dominant cultural faith – are generally on the wrong side of God’s justice. I’ve seen it because I’ve been invited twice to participate with indigenous North Americans in their struggle for the most basic elements of justice. In this brief span, I’ve been confronted with two wonders: the amazing level of hospitality and inclusion extended to Christians like me by these communities; and the extent of my religion’s historical participation in oppression and genocide, together with our ongoing disregard for its still-surviving victims.
Last month, I was among a group of Evangelicals invited to participate with the Cowboy Indian Alliance in their Reject & Protect action in Washington. They were there to demand a voice in the decision whether to permit a Canadian pipeline company to seize indigenous and rancher lands in the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas for the Keystone XL pipeline. And today, I’m on my way home from the Healing Walk in Alberta, Canada, where native peoples are struggling for their very survival in the face of rampant oil-industry pollution of their supposedly treaty-protected lands and waters.
In each case, I came to pray, intending to bring with me the gracious name of the Lord Jesus Christ. I recalled the story of Peter and John speaking to the lame beggar at Jerusalem’s gate: “Silver and gold have I none. But what I have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk.” It’s a pretty triumphant story, isn’t it?
But on both occasions, I’ve found that mention of the name of Jesus – or at least, of Christianity – brings to mind not so much grace, but sorrow. These communities are the remnants that have survived the Doctrine of Discovery, by which the Church and colonizing Europeans declared open season on their homelands by churchgoing settlers; and of Manifest Destiny, its American incarnation. Among them are survivors of the Residential Schools, into which native children were forced for de-acculturation by Protestant and Catholic teachers and clergy. Today, some of their communities live under a virtual death sentence, as water, land and air are being contaminated by extractive industries, making traditional means of livelihood impossible, leaving them dependent on industry money to buy imported water – or abandon forever the land that has been their heritage for millennia.
And in the face of all this, there are people like me, who know something of Wounded Knee, the Indian Removal Act, the Trail of Tears, the pursuit of the Nez Perce, and the litany of broken treaties; who know of the hopelessness of life in exile; and yet who regard it largely as a matter of historical interest and passing regret.
And so I pray. But it’s much more difficult than I thought it would be. The exiled person asks: “How can we sing the Lord’s song, in a foreign land?” But I’m finding that exile and oppressor alike have difficulty singing God’s praise.
Fortunately, I’m not left to wrestle with these conflicts alone. Among many helpful friends is Kyle Meyaard-Schaap of the Christian Reformed Church. In a recent online discussion, he offered these insights:
“I think a case could be made that one of Western culture’s greatest breaches of the creation covenant was its systematic oppression and extermination of indigenous peoples. The deep creational ‘relationality’ of native peoples only deepens the irony and tragedy.
“I have often thought of indigenous reconciliation and creation care as connected. But I’m starting to think they are more than connected – they are immutably bound. There will be no reconciliation with the land until there is reconciliation with native peoples – those with the unique ability and cultural knowledge to lead us into right relationship with the land once again.
“One of the greatest tragedies of the Western conquest of native peoples was not only the extermination of the people themselves, but also the extermination of a way of life – a different way of being human that could have corrected the extreme individualism and utilitarianism of Western society.
“It seems to me that, if we are truly to be changed by the reality of the atonement, and if this is going to change our relationship with creation, it must begin with changing our relationship with native peoples. Then, and only then, they will be able to lead us into a new way of being human that is within the limits of the creation covenant.”
Let’s suppose that Meyaard-Schaap is on the right track. Where would we start the reconciliation? What if our churches could lead us in corporate repentance and recognition of the ongoing cultural genocide directed at native peoples? What if we Evangelicals would attempt to learn enough of traditional faiths to appreciate their instincts to protect the earth “for the seventh generation?” What if landowners (like me) would agree to search for the descendants of the rightful owners of our land? What if we began to advocate for their human rights over the profits of extractive industries?
And then? Then, maybe then we could again begin to pray boldly and joyfully in the name of the Prince of Peace and the Heir of Creation. Can we imagine it?