Author Archives: John Elwood

Climate Orphans: What You Did For Fokandraza, You Did For Me

“As Donald Trump Denies Climate Change, These Kids Die of It.”

That’s the title of an article written last week by Nicholas Kristof, op-ed columnist for the New York Times. For the article and related video, Kristof travels to Madagascar, the enormous island off the coast of eastern Africa, pictured as a lush paradise in the popular animated children’s movie series. Now, southern Madagascar is little more than a desert wasteland. Major rivers are reduced to muddy puddles. Forests and farm fields are now dust spotted with cactus, where starving children nibble around sharp thorns to put something in their bellies.

So, meet two little boys, Fokandraza and Foriavi, among the millions now dubbed “climate orphans” – their parents having left long ago to find work and money in desperate hopes of feeding the family. They live with their aunt, who can’t afford to feed her own children, let alone Fokandraza and Foriavi.

“If I were smart, I’d go and find a better life,” says the starving boys’ aunt. “But these kids are so sweet, I can’t leave them.”

Kristof asks the boys: “Have you eaten anything today?”

Fokandraza’s stick-thin arms hang limply at his sides. “No.”

Kristof: “Have you drunk water today?”

“No.”

Foriavi can’t even stay awake during the interview.

Kristof: “I don’t blame the aunt. The situation is more my fault than hers. Here’s the paradox of climate change: It’s mainly caused by affluent people. People like us. And those who suffer the most are the poor and vulnerable.”

So maybe we don’t care all that much about climate change here in affluent America. Our president elect certainly doesn’t, and has promised to gut all global and national efforts to deal with the crisis. But now we know Fokandraza and Foriavi, the faces of a world facing runaway climate chaos.

Remember their names: Fokandraza and Foriavi. We will certainly hear them again, when the Son of Man comes again in his glory. “What you did for Fokandraza and Foriavi, you did for me. And what you did not do for them, you did not do for me.” (Adapted from Matthew 25: 31-46)

How will we answer, brothers and sisters? How will we answer?

What to do? For starters, go to the Climate Caretakers website and take the climate pledge — to learn, pray and act on climate. Every week, you’ll receive an email helping you in your prayers. This week, you’ll be praying for Fokandraza and Foriavi, and for Donald Trump.

Standing Rock Reflections: On Courage, Cowardice and Criminal Activity

Earlier this month, I returned from several wintry days at the Oceti Sakowin Camp of the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota. What might drive an aging Jersey boy from the comforts of home to the frozen buttes of the Dakotas? Pretty simple, actually. I was delivering warm clothing and supplies, praying with those who call themselves “water protectors,” and to serving in any way that the Lakota elders might direct.

It sounds so mundane, doesn’t it? Prayer, warm clothes and a bit of labor. There was a problem, however. It was – I was told – a criminal enterprise. I was on my way to commit a crime.

There could be penalties for my misdeeds. But I could deal with them, I thought: a few thousand dollars of fines, a couple days or so in jail, some spots on my record. I’ve been arrested before. Not serious problems. I’m old, and white. In America I’d be okay.

But in the days leading up to my visit, reports began to surface of brutal police tactics. Militarized units were training water cannons in sub-freezing winter conditions on unarmed women and men in prayer. Pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets were being fired at them. A concussion grenade nearly blew the arm off of a young woman, who, like me, had come from afar to support the resistance. As I felt my way across South Dakota through bitter winds and unremitting snowfall, I began to picture myself under the boot of the men in black Kevlar.

Police fire tear gas point-blank at water protectors in river ceremony.

North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple had just issued an executive order mandating evacuation of the very encampment that I was struggling to reach. Not only that, his order threatened criminal penalties against anyone heading for the evacuation zone, or even “encouraging” others to remain. Word was out on Facebook that the county sheriff was fining incoming helpers $1,000 for carrying supplies to the camps. My car’s trunk was packed with scores of winter hats, gloves, thermal socks and more. This would be hard to explain, I was sure.

I told myself that Gov. Dalrymple’s order couldn’t really be legal in a free society. It’s a crime to bring help to unarmed people? Impossible. Furthermore, some of the encampments were actually legal, located on the Standing Rock Reservation. Who could say whether I was headed to a legal camp, or an illegal one?

I began to rehearse the denials in my head. “I’m going to the Sacred Stone Camp of the Standing Rock Sioux. That’s perfectly legal,” I muttered to the silence of the car around me.

It was totally unconvincing. Maybe I was lying. Maybe I really would opt for the legal encampment. How could I know for sure?

My musings were suddenly shattered by the flashing strobe of police lights in the rear-view. Oh God. Here we go. The tires crunched as I pulled over into the thick snow on the shoulder.

“You know, sir, you were doing 43 in a 30 zone?”

“No officer. I’m sorry. I guess I lost my concentration.”

Speeding. A mere traffic violation! I sighed deeply with relief. $85 and a ten-minute delay, and I was on my way again. Of course! This is still SOUTH Dakota. They’re not really gunning for us down here, are they?

I stopped for gas and a sandwich. Rumor had it that these places were on the lookout for people like me. Strangers with coastal accents and out-of-state plates. They would be sending word to the local sheriff. I came and went quickly, and spoke to no one.

Several hours later, I made it to the Standing Rock encampments. Tents, teepees and sheds stretched as far as I could see. My first stop was Sacred Stone, the legal camp. The entrance was down a steep embankment, glazed in ice from a three-day blizzard. I looked at my rental car, a small two-wheel-drive sedan, and then back at the chute into Sacred Stone.

“Is there easier access anywhere else?” I asked the gatekeepers. They pointed to the far side of the bridge across the Cannon Ball River.

“Oceti Sakowin. The main camp.”

I figured I’d never make it back up the slippery bank out of Sacred Stone. So I pulled slowly across the bridge. I was now breaking the law. Trespassing on Army Corps land. I was going where Governor Dalrymple had forbidden. Oceti Sakowin, the illegal camp, was now my home.

Unarmed Standing Rock protesters shot with water cannons in sub-freezing conditions.

On the ridge ahead of me, the reddish glare of construction lights cast an eerie glow on the low clouds and relentless snow. I was at the very edge of the Dakota Access Pipeline construction. This was the front line of resistance. Helicopters crossed the camp overhead, and returned to re-cross every few minutes.

After dark, I huddled alone in my tiny tent to the voice of the local sheriff on his loudspeaker. “You are breaking the law. You say you are peaceful, but you don’t know the definition of ‘peace.’ You can’t be peaceful while you defy the law. You are lawbreakers.”

North Dakota’s incarnation of Tokyo Rose carried on this dystopian serenade for about an hour. But he was armed, in the dark, and I had no idea how near.

I have been reading a book titled “Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow,” a fascinating account of Christian pastors in the Third Reich who stood up to the Nazis. Some survived the war. Many did not. Their bravery is deeply inspiring to me. I had assumed that bravery comes naturally.

It does not. As I lay in my tent, my spirit wavered. Am I really a criminal? Why did I decide to cross the Cannon Ball, anyway? Do I really have to confront the pepper spray and rubber bullets tomorrow? Can’t I help in some, you know, more appropriate way? After all, I’m way older than most people here.

Most conservative Christians I know take a dim view of law-breaking resistance. We are okay with the rebels of an earlier age. John Adams, Paul Revere and George Washington – we practically idolize these icons of our nation. And we have no quarrel with Corrie Ten Boom and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as they stood against the murderous Nazis. But Rev. Martin Luther King, or Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, or Fr. Daniel Berrigan – these contemporary outlaws of conscience – make us a little uneasy. Don’t they know about “submitting themselves to governing authorities?” This is a democracy; why don’t they change things from the inside?

And yet, even a cursory reading of the Gospels confronts us with a Savior who, time and again, paid little heed to the prevailing law. He violated the Sabbath; he dined with traitors; he proclaimed a kingdom in direct challenge to the emperor of his age. He even declared that he had a counter-weapon that would overwhelm the power of tyrants: You may think you can kill me, but I will rise again from the dead. Your one special trick – the power to kill – has now been rendered obsolete.

Is it really surprising that virtually all of his disciples ended up on the wrong side of the law?

Pepper spray victim receiving treatment from Sioux camp medics

And now, we consider the phalanx of powers arrayed against much that is sacred in our day. What will soon be the presidency, the Congress, and the judiciary – all aligned against almost anything resembling “good news to the poor,” Jesus’ self-proclaimed mission. All committed to the unfettered exploitation of God’s creation. All intent on casting off constraints on polluters. All eager to undermine global efforts to resist ecological chaos.

And against this massive force, can we possibly maintain a degree of loyalty to Messiah without risking the wrath of our nation’s law? Can we be faithful to God and neighbor while always playing by the rules of those in power?

In earlier days, pioneering leaders have modelled for us new methods of peaceful resistance. Gandhi, MLK, Mandela and Walesa have shown us what is possible when courage displaces violence. Today, I believe that the Standing Rock Sioux have taken their place among them in the pantheon of peaceful resistance.

Prayer, courage, compassion and kindness as tools of change. It’s on display at Standing Rock. Can we find a way to bottle it for use among the rest of us? By God’s grace, we must try.

Prior Standing Rock posts:

Why is the Electoral College a Concern for Earth-Keepers?

What we Americans think about the Electoral College is – now as always – almost certainly driven by what it does to our party’s electoral prospects. This year, Trump won the Electoral College, but millions more people voted for Clinton. So it’s almost certainly predictable: If we went for Trump, then we’re for the Electoral College; if we preferred Clinton, we hate it.

But for earth keepers, the arguments for and against Electoral College are pretty serious concerns. That’s because a strong majority of Americans are concerned about God’s creation and threats to its health and survival. About two-thirds of us now say we’re worried about climate change. Lopsided majorities of Democrats feel strongly about climate action. About half of Republicans agree. And yet, our electoral system has given us a president elect who calls climate change a hoax and “bullsh**.” He’s sworn to reverse his predecessor’s environmental policies, and to disrupt the global climate agreement sealed in Paris last year among 195 nations. He’s stacked his cabinet with fossil-fuel advocates, even picking the chairman of the world’s biggest oil company for its most powerful position – Secretary of State.

So no matter which party we might like best – or dislike least – it’s worth asking honestly if this is really what democracy looks like. Does the Electoral College really make sense? Much has been written about the Electoral College’s roots in slave-holding states, and these accounts can be useful for historians. But let’s not even go there. Today, does a system like the Electoral College make sense for any of the world’s democracies? Here are some factors to consider.

The Electoral College makes Presidential voting almost meaningless for most Americans

“Sure I’d vote, but I’m from California.”

You’ve heard something like this from your friends in solid-Red or solid-Blue states before, haven’t you? What difference did it make if I pulled the lever for Hillary or Trump in New York, Texas, Indiana or Illinois? Let alone California? All those states are going solidly one way or the other. In fact, 30 states representing 320 Electoral College votes are all considered solid for one party or the other (see complete list below). Presidential candidates don’t campaign in those states; they don’t listen to voters there; they don’t bother getting out the vote there. And once elected, they don’t lose much sleep over the interests of those citizens either.

Real Clear Politics highlights president-deciding states in gray.

If you’re among the huge majority of Americans living in one of these non-swing states, presidential democracy is a spectator event for you. You’re not part of the conversation. Instead, you’re just watching voters in 14 “swing states” to see what they’ll do to choose the next president. Thanks for your interest, but voters in Florida will handle this one for you. And in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia (plus seven other small states).

So we lament low voter turnout in our country, but ignore the obvious: Our system removes most of the incentives for going to the polls. It’s the Electoral College, folks.

The Electoral College makes my vote count more than your vote

In the U.S. we have about one elector for every 600,000 people. Californians have a somewhat worse deal. Their 38 million people have only one elector for every 692,000 people. Those extra 92,000 Californians for each elector simply don’t count. With 55 electoral votes, that’s about five million Californians who really don’t matter. Too bad for California.

But North Dakota has a much sweeter deal. Of course, their tiny population – smaller than the cities of Charlotte or Columbus – gets to send two Senators to Washington. Good for them. But their presidential votes also have an outsized impact. They get one elector for every 250,000 people. That’s huge. One vote in North Dakota is worth about three votes in California. (Actually, about 2.7 votes.) But would anyone ever design a system like that in a modern democracy?

The Electoral College hands unelected officials the keys to the presidency

On Monday, the Electoral College convened to cast their votes, sealing the win for Donald Trump, as expected. But Trump and Clinton weren’t the only ones who tallied votes. John Kasich got a vote. So did the aging libertarian, Ron Paul. Retired Secretary of State Colin Powell got three votes, even though he was never a candidate. Finally, Bernie Sanders and tribal leader Faith Spotted Eagle each notched a vote.

The electors who cast votes like these have traditionally been called “faithless electors.” They may be faithless, but there’s nothing illegal or even reprehensible about what they’ve done. In fact, many Americans were hoping for a revolt this year, banking upon the Electoral College to nullify the election results. It didn’t happen, of course, nor has it overturned an election during our country’s history. But this year’s election warns us that precedent means very little in our day. We could easily see the day when large numbers of electors decide to thwart the will of voters. This would be perfectly legal.

It will take a transformation of heart among Americans for us to take our place among the nations in caring for God’s creation. But for starters, why don’t we take another look at how we choose our most important officials? Maybe we should consider something a little more like, well, democracy?

Solid Blue:

  • California (55)
  • New York (29)
  • Illinois (20)
  • New Jersey (14)
  • Washington (12)
  • Massachusetts (11)
  • Maryland (10)
  • Hawaii (4)
  • Rhode Island (4)
  • Vermont (3)
  • District Of Columbia (3)
  • Delaware (3)

Solid Red:

  • Texas (38)
  • Indiana (11)
  • Tennessee (11)
  • Missouri (10)
  • Alabama (9)
  • Louisiana (8)
  • Kentucky (8)
  • Oklahoma (7)
  • Mississippi (6)
  • Arkansas (6)
  • Utah (6)
  • Kansas (6)
  • West Virginia (5)
  • Nebraska (4)
  • Idaho (4)
  • North Dakota (3)
  • Montana (3)
  • South Dakota (3)
  • Alaska (3)
  • Nebraska CD2 (1)

China Poised to Lap U.S. in Race for Climate Leadership

 

This morning, we woke up to the news that President-elect Donald Trump had nominated former Texas Governor Rick Perry to lead the Department of Energy. Social media was instantly abuzz with the irony: In the 2012 Republican primary, candidate Perry had vowed to kill this very agency, although he infamously couldn’t remember its name.

Next came comparisons to the two most recent energy secretaries: Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate physicist, and Ernest J. Moniz, a distinguished nuclear physicist from M.I.T. By contrast, Perry was his class “social secretary” and “Yell Leader” at Texas A&M, on the way to earning a bachelor’s degree in animal science.

But Perry’s nomination is particularly notable in light of the current episode of “Years of Living Dangerously,” which premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel. With help from Sigourney Weaver and America Ferrera, “Years” examines the diverging climate-response paths of the world’s two largest polluters – China and the US.

Latest episode compares climate responses in U.S. and China

Viewers may be surprised to learn that China is taking enormous steps in transforming its economy onto a post-carbon footing. Whatever we may think about the alleged “War on Coal” here in the States, China makes no bones about it. Just last year, China abandoned construction on thirty new coal plants. Together, those plants would have had a greater generating capacity than all of Great Britain. And they’ve become the largest worldwide producer of solar electric power.

By contrast with A&M “social-secretary” Perry, China has entrusted its energy program to Premier Li Keqiang, the second most senior leader in China, ranked by Forbes as the 12th “Most Powerful Person” in the world.

How are they doing it? “Years” explores China’s new carbon “cap & trade” program which is being rolled out nationwide next year. The CEO of China Power & Light offered Weaver a perspective echoed by virtually everyone she spoke to: “I actually welcome the clarity brought about by a price on carbon. It makes our job much easier….”

Back in the U.S., actor America Ferrera explores a very different struggle. Where pollution is unpriced, it is the poor and powerless who suffer the worst impacts – respiratory diseases and other ills. Ferrera’s trail takes her to Waukegan, Illinois, where one of the oldest coal-fired power plants in the country stands cheek-to-jowl with a Latino and African-American community. In Waukegan, one-third of all children suffer from asthma.

Ferrera follows a citizen action group seeking desperately to address municipal leaders and the plant’s corporate owner, NRG Energy. They’re seeking relief from the pollution that is sickening their community. And we feel the maddening frustration of citizen activists rebuffed by a wall of rejection from those in power. Even their cleverest strategy, becoming small shareholders and packing the NRG annual meeting, produces only empty promises that the CEO will visit Waukegan at some future date.

But in fact, the Waukegan story is repeated in study after study across the US. The United Church of Christ has found over more than 20 years that racial minorities and poorer communities comprise the majority of populations living near hazardous waste facilities. The University of Pennsylvania has shown that African-American communities are twice as likely to suffer toxic accidents as in other places. And UCLA  found that low-income and minority children are disproportionately exposed to hazardous vehicle exhaust. Poor kids and children of color – these are the ones who get the asthma and emphysema, and who live with hazardous toxins.

Waukegan Generating Station.   Source: Midwest Energy News

Despite this depressing tale, we take some real hope from the nexus of today’s news about Gov. Perry and the narrative explored by “Years.”

First, China is moving ahead aggressively on climate, and is becoming the world leader in clean energy. Of course, we all benefit from a world with fewer greenhouse gases, no matter where we live. But of equal importance, competitive impulses will surely lead the US eventually to take steps to salvage some leadership in the energy of the future, rather than squeezing every penny from an aging oil industry.

And second, the looming prospect of an American petro-state cabinet typified by Perry at Energy, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson at State, and Oklahoma oil champion Scott Pruitt at EPA stands to spur citizen action groups – like those in Waukegan – in every community.

It’s time for citizens to demand that our leaders assert our country’s greatness by moving forward into the clean economy that the world desperately needs. And in the process, to hear the cries – and wheezes – of our neighbors in poorer communities. Maybe then, we can call ourselves “great” again.

You Were Hoping Trump Might be Climate-Smart?

You didn’t like the stuff about Mexican rapists. You were unsettled about registering people because of their religious beliefs. You didn’t like forcing American soldiers to torture our prisoners, murder our enemies’ families or lauch first-strike nuclear weapons. And the other stuff: the birther conspiracy, grabbing women by the genitals, cheating on all the wives, operating strip clubs and casinos….

But you never heard him say that he was going to destroy the climate system that your kids would have to survive in. Sure, you saw his Tweets about the Chinese climate change conspiracy, and how he called climate science “bull***t.” But that was mostly years ago. And he sort of reeled it back in one of the debates.

And so you were sort of hopeful. Give him a chance, right? Well, have you noticed the central theme of his proposed Cabinet and top advisers?

  • Steve Bannon, Senior Advisor: He led Breitbart to routinely dismiss climate change as a hoax and denigrated everyone who advocated reducing carbon pollution.
  • Reince Priebus, Chief of Staff: Has called the Nobel-laureate UN climate science panel “a political mechanism, not an unbiased scientific institution.” He says that Trump regards most climate science as “a bunch of bunk.”
  • Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State: Chairman of the world’s largest fossil-fuel company, ExxonMobil, which is currently being investigated for suppressing its own climate research and funding climate denial front groups.
  • Jeff Sessions, Attorney General: One of the most extreme congressional climate deniers, Sessions has repeatedly questioned climate change and voted against climate action.
  • Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA: Called the worldwide Paris Agreement to combat climate change as a “radical climate change deal.”
  • Nikki Haley, United Nations ambassador: Led South Carolina to sue the EPA to block the Clean Power Plan.
  • Michael Flynn, National Security Advisor: Railed against the idea that climate change should be a national security priority.
  • T. McFarland, Deputy National Security Advisor: Ridiculed U.S. military efforts to address the climate change security threat as a Fox News commentator.
  • Tom Price, Health and Human Services Secretary: Signed a pledge to oppose climate legislation; congressional champion of oil & gas subsidies.
  • Elaine Chao, Transportation Secretary: Resigned from the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies when it launched its “Beyond Coal” campaign, in step with her climate-denying husband, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
  • Ben Carson, Housing Secretary: When asked about climate change he said, “When things stop changing, then we’re dead.”
  • Scott Pruitt, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator: Close ally of the fossil fuel industry, a vocal critic of the EPA, questions the validity of climate science, and has led lawsuits against the EPA Clean Power Plan.
  • Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Secretary of the Interior: Congressional lifetime score of 4% from the League of Conservation Voters.

Is this what you thought you were voting for? If not, why not tell the President-elect not to put an enemy of climate action in charge of the EPA? You can do it by clicking here.

For more detail on Trump’s cabinet picks, see Climate Central’s full report

Standing Rock Reflections: Pray, pray, pray…

“Get up everybody! It’s a beautiful day! Get up! Come to the sacred fire!”

The voice on the loudspeaker carries over the frozen camp, the dawn little more than a gray blush on the eastern horizon. Teepees, tents and campers are still mostly dark. The wind howls. It’s still snowing. This is definitely not a beautiful day.

“Get up! Come to the fire and pray. Come and pray! That’s what we’re here for!”

Aceti Sakowin Camp before dawn, lit by DAPL pipeline construction lights

The inside walls of my little tent are glazed with a solid sheet of ice. The moisture from my breath in the night now fused with the structure of my little home. I cinch down the drawstring of my mummy bag tighter around my face, and close my eyes.

“Get up, my relatives! Get up Christians! It’s time to pray!”

Now that’s not entirely fair. I’m a Christian, and the voice is basically calling me by name. So this old white man groans and struggles to unzip the cocoon of warmth that has swaddled him through the night, and reaches for the stiff, icey trousers frozen to the tent floor.

The Oceti Sakowin Camp of the Standing Rock Sioux sprawls along the Cannon Ball River and the Dakota Access Pipeline construction route for what seems like a mile or more. For some reason, I have pitched my little tent a long, long way from the “sacred fire,” where the morning Prayer Circle meets. So by the time I slip and stumble my way to the gathering crowd, the prayers have begun. An elder of the Lakota Sioux – the voice that aroused me from sleep – is still speaking.

“Mother Earth, she is hurting right now. She is hurting. She needs us to help her. You know, we now have earthquakes all the time. This is not good. And I hear that up north, the ice and snow are melting, and flowing into the oceans. The sea creatures are being harmed, and the water is rising.”

This is what I have come to expect from Sioux elders. Concern for the whole earth. Concern for the local ecosystem. A keen sense of our place in the larger creation.

“Governor Dalrymple tells us we’re breaking the law. But we’re protecting the earth. They think that they can take, and take, and take from Mother Earth. But you can’t only take, without injuring the creation. At some point, you have to stop taking, and give something back….”

Then he begins to pray. I don’t understand a word. He sings. The notes are unfamiliar to me. I’ve heard these sounds in film – the eerie tune, the drums. They are foreign. This is not my religion. He’s praying to an indigenous God, no? Still, I try to remain in the spirit, praying as best I know how in my own language, in my own faith.

Suddenly, the speaker turns to English: “Our Lord Jesus Christ! We thank you for your love and grace! We praise you! We call on you to protect the earth that you love…”

Whoa! What’s going on here? I had thought….

“… In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

The prayer service is not nearly over. We are given tobacco, cedar leaves, sage, and small cups of water from many other rivers. We are marching in procession to the Cannon Ball River, to bless the waters, and to pray for them. Eventually, it is my turn at the river’s edge. As the women sing, I kneel in the snow, and reach out over the water.

“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it; the world, and all who live in it,” I recite as I offer my tobacco and cedar leaves to the icy waters. “For he founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the waters.” I pour out my little cup of waters collected from afar.

“Get up and pray! That’s what we’re here for!”

I am finished. I struggle to my feet, and the singing women smile as they offer me their hands to keep me from falling. I reach for them gratefully.

If you are looking for theological answers from this post, I’m so sorry. You will be disappointed. But theology tends to be challenged and refined by the rough and tumble of life, doesn’t it? I have said that I have come back from Standing Rock believing that Christians must engage with indigenous spirituality, without fear, without prejudice, and with confidence in the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I believe that. I don’t fully understand it, however. But this I do understand: The apostle Paul tells us in that most famous of gospel passages – Romans 8 – that the groaning creation “waits with longing for the sons of God to be revealed.”

Who, today, are the sons of God bringing relief to the groaning creation in the Dakotas? Who are these sons of God? Up on the distant ridge are the armor-clad police, the massive earth movers and drilling machinery. Overhead, the planes and helicopters, keeping an eye on our every move. Here, by the river, are the Lakota Sioux, praying, singing, preparing to confront the engines of the petro-state.

Who are the sons of God? Who are the ones bringing good news to the creation?

A singing woman meets my eyes. I smile weakly as I take her hand, and steady myself for the climb back up the riverbank. There is much work ahead today.

Note: This is the third in a series of Standing Rock Reflections. Prior posts are

 

Standing Rock Reflections #2: Broken Treaties are not “History”

Hi. It’s John again. I promised you that I would report back from my time last week among the Lakota Sioux. You already know a lot about the events in Standing Rock:

  • tob_standingrockwinterlg01_custom-447228e62f73efc8e1a1e012f7b2ee19aaeb676c-s1000-c85

    Lakota Sioux and allies braving the Dakota winter to stop the DAPL pipeline.

    How some 10,000 unarmed people – indigenous and immigrants alike – have placed their bodies in the way of the “Black Snake” – the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline.

  • How police have fired on them with nearly every conceivable non-lethal weapon, injuring hundreds.
  • How thousands of American veterans have swelled the ranks of the indigenous protesters.
  • And how – for now – the US government has decided to deny further pipeline permits.

For the moment, the DAPL pipeline appears to be stopped. For now. And yesterday, I offered the first of a series of five reflections from my brief time resisting the DAPL pipeline. In brief, here they are:

  • The struggle for a survivable climate will not come away clean from other struggles for justice, like indigenous rights, racial justice and inequality. (I discussed this yesterday.)
  • Indigenous treaty rights are not a closed book, as though we can just shrug and blame it on Columbus, or Adam, or something else in the distant past. (Today. See below.)
  • Christians must engage with indigenous spirituality, without fear, without prejudice, and with confidence in the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
  • There are laws on the books today that are not worthy of our obedience. Many of us prefer to look honestly at unjust laws only in our history books, rather than in our newspapers.
  • Many Christians insist on seeing their ethics in black and white. But following Jesus into the arena of injustice may challenge our comfortable purity.

Those Broken Treaties: Not My Problem?

Indigenous treaty rights are not a closed book, as though we can just shrug and blame it on Columbus, or Adam, or something else in the distant past.

We all know the facts. Our nation has violated treaty after treaty with virtually every indigenous nation. We shake our heads piously at this theft of land, this genocide, based solely on the race of our treaty partners. But how does it end there? Has the passage of time absolved the guilt of racist genocide? How is it that we ourselves feel no obligation to honor treaty rights of those whose principal crime was that they occupied land that our race wanted?  This is not the sin of some distant “Adam,” which we can only lament, but recent actions that are only tolerated among us because of racism and power.

Source: National Geographic

Source: National Geographic

In Standing Rock, a stranger like me would hardly know that he is standing on a mere remnant of land legally allocated to the Oglalla Sioux in the days of my great-grandfather. In 1851, the United States and the Sioux nations bound themselves under the Treaty of Fort Laramie to recognize each other’s sovereign territory. The Great Sioux Reservation, recognized under the Treaty, spanned half of today’s South Dakota, one third of Nebraska, a quarter of Wyoming, plus parts of North Dakota and Montana to boot. At more than 100,000 square miles, it was larger than New York and Pennsylvania combined. It was larger than all six states of New England, plus New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. Only eight states on today’s map are larger than the Sioux Nation, established by a binding treaty of the United States.

Since then, my country and race has repeatedly seized those lands – ultimately without even the pretense of rectitude, solely because of an assumed right of white Europeans to own the “empty lands” – Terra Nullius – before them. At its heart was radical racism: Lands that are not occupied by English-speaking white people are empty, available for conquest, regardless of treaty obligations.

Source: National Geographic

Source: National Geographic

And while we almost all think of these land grabs as distant historical artifacts, the Standing Rock Sioux lost one-quarter of their homes without consent in 1958, when the US government dammed the Missouri River, creating Lake Oahe, which inundated Sioux riverfront communities.

And now, in many political circles, the Sioux are vilified because, in their defense of the creation, they are trespassing on Federal lands outside of the final remnant of their territry. No matter that those very lands have been seized with impunity – even during our own lifetimes.

What Can We Do? 

I was surprised to hear that in June 2016, the Christian Reformed Church (CRCNA) adopted a report repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery – the Christian edict originating in the 1500s which provided theological cover for the racist seizure of Native lands in the New World.

“What’s a modern-day church doing unearthing arcane papal edicts?” I wondered at the time.

Well, it turns out that they were doing something sorely needed, as a start. The CRCNA operated boarding schools which indigenous children were forced to attend as a tool of assimilation into European culture – right into the 1900s. Furthermore, many CRCNA churches and their members occupy unceded native treaty lands. As such, they are the beneficiaries of land theft.

“We don’t like to hear these stories, but we drink downstream from them,” said CRCNA task force member Mike Hogeterp during the 2016 synod. “We cannot change that brokenness today, but perhaps in truth-telling and lament as a first posture we can begin to reconcile.”

Truth-telling. Lament. Reconciliation.

We saw that displayed vividly yesterday in Standing Rock. In a ground-breaking “Forgiveness Ceremony,” US military veterans confessed American crimes against the Sioux people.

Here are the words of the veterans’ spokesman, Wesley Clark, Jr. “We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our presidents onto your sacred mountain. … We didn’t respect you, we polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways but we’ve come to say that we are sorry. We are at your service and we beg for your forgiveness.”

Some will say: These are mere words. And perhaps that’s fair enough. But we cannot begin to atone, and to reconcile, without words. And even more, these same veterans have come to Standing Rock to place themselves on the front lines in defense of the Sioux people struggling to protect the earth and their homes from the DAPL pipeline.

Where does atonement for crimes against Native Americans lead us? I cannot say. But if we are serious in our prayers for God to heal our land, then we must begin to pray, to learn and to act. For starters, whose land do you live on? I’m on Lenape land. How about you? Can we find the elders of our land’s true owners?

Do we even dare to try?