Category Archives: Faith

My Spiritual Crisis … and Yours

People undergo crises of faith all the time. Personal suffering and loss; exposure to science and competing philosophies; misconduct by religious authorities – these and more will mark the faith of virtually every serious believer. Perhaps we come through them with a wiser, deeper, and stronger love for our Maker and our neighbor. Or perhaps we find ourselves on some spiritual off-ramp, headed toward some place called “the Nones.”

I find it fascinating how few people are willing to talk about faith crises until long after the fact, when they are safely receding in the rear view. But in America today, I wonder how any serious Christian can avoid the tectonic forces assaulting our faith. Either we are busily redacting from our religious lexicons all those “good news to the poor” and “least of these my brothers” narratives of Jesus; or we are wondering what the heck has happened to our religious tribe. Or perhaps a third response: putting our heads down, closing our eyes, and soldiering on with as little thought as possible.

Why all the gloom, you ask? Well, it’s that “81 percent” thing.

Remember? That’s how much of the white evangelical church in America voted for Donald Trump. The debate goes on whether the polls properly identified people of “real” Christian faith. But the data is pretty unambiguous: a huge majority of white people who identify with my Christian faith voted for this president.

Now, my faith affirms that something really special occurs within each person who is “in Christ,” like I claim to be. They have become new creations. “The old has gone, and the new has come!” So declares St. Paul in his famous discourse on rebirth and reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-19). Sure, we’re still sinners. But something dramatic and redemptive has happened to us. By God’s grace, we’re going to hold tightly to the ethic of Jesus. We’re going to love God and our fellow man; we’re going to lay down our lives for others; we’re going to see our neighbor in the face every stranger; she is going to look to us like the image of God.

That’s the theory, at least.

And yet, somehow, we voted for Donald J. Trump. In droves.

How Were We Okay With It?

Do I need to remind us of what we saw? For five solid years, Trump stoked racist and sectarian passions by swearing that the first black president wasn’t even a citizen. Instead, he was African. Worse, he might even be a Muslim. Trump’s “people,” he swore, “cannot believe what they’re finding.” When the sitting president succumbed to the humiliation and produced his official birth records, Trump spent four years calling it a fraud. And then he finally called off the dogs: nothing found; never mind.

We white Christians were okay with that. Somehow. But how, I wonder?

Then, the candidate came down the escalator, launching his campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists” and “morally corrupt” losers. Then he promised to deport the desperate refugees from the four-year Syrian war. Then he promised to deport eleven million undocumented fathers, mothers and children, tearing apart innumerable families. But we were okay with that too. Somehow.

Then he promised to ban all Muslims from entering the country. And then he proposed a Muslim registry, evoking chilled shudders from those who remember the ethnic genocides of the last century. Then he ridiculed a disabled journalist and insulted war heroes. We might have wished for better manners. But we were still basically okay with that. Somehow.

And then, women. They were fat pigs. Their value was measured by a number. If they challenged him, he called them menstrual. And he boasted of the power to grab them by their genitals. But, after some fleeting second thoughts, we found a way to hang in there. You know, us “new creations” in Christ. But how?

Then, he stoked violence among his crowds of angry white men. They chanted “Lock her up!”, while he promised to pay the legal costs of anyone assaulting protesters. “I’d like to punch him in the face,” he told his mob, lamenting the passing of the old days when protesters would be “carried out on a stretcher.” He boasted that he could shoot somebody in the middle of 5th Avenue and not lose one of our votes. And amazingly, he was right. We were okay with all of this. Somehow.

When the world’s most eminent Christian, Pope Francis, called such conduct “not Christian,” we paid no heed. When the world’s most dangerous dictator endorsed him, we admired the strongman’s respect.  When he was forced to pay $25 million to defrauded students, we called it “business.” When he cast racial and ethnic aspersions on the Hispanic judge overseeing that case, we shut our eyes tight. When he undermined faith in our electoral system by calling it “rigged” with massive voter fraud, we gave him the benefit of the doubt. And when he became the first candidate since Richard Nixon to refuse to disclose his tax filings? Meh.

And then…. And then, we voted for him. In huge numbers.

How Do We Remain Silent?

You might think that that would be the heart of the story: We – we white Christians – put into office a man most closely representing the antithesis of our supposed Master, Jesus of Nazareth. But it didn’t end there. Because now, he is president. He is president, and we are silent.

We have been silent as he has muzzled government scientists, and censored their websites. Silent when he ordered a Muslim and refugee ban. Silent when he attacked the judicial independence of courts that have stood in his way. As he has fired top law enforcement officers, and kept in place a National Security Advisor known to have lied about ties to Russia.  As he has cancelled environmental reviews, and ordered that highly controversial pipelines be built. Silent when we learned that he asked the FBI Director to drop an investigation into appointees and demanded his personal loyalty. And when that failed, we were silent when he fired him.

In Ohio, preachers prayed against “Satanic attacks.”

We’ve remained silent through it all. Somehow.

He rescinded some of the most important environmental safeguards in place for our country and world: the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the United States rule, the Methane rule, and the CAFE auto-efficiency standards. Then he made us the only nation in the world (other than Assad’s Syria) to renege on the global Paris Accord, vital to preserving a livable climate for every country. Then he abandoned the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Then he proposed putting our national parks up for sale. But we kept silent.

And we kept our silence through the sleaze. When fact checkers told us that seven out of ten presidential statements were lies (eight if you include half-truths), we held our tongues. When he treated the Boy Scouts like a modern incarnation of the Hitlerjugend, and told them raunchy stories of sexual debauchery, not a peep from us. He appointed his family members to high office, and they used those offices to enrich the family businesses. Maybe we said a little prayer, or something.

Then he championed plans to deprive 23 million poor and older Americans of health care while cutting taxes on the rich by $800 billion. When that effort stumbled, he advocated throwing 32 million Americans off of health care by “repeal without replacement.” Then he appointed a panel to search for evidence of voter fraud, since he lost the popular vote. Then he prioritized friendship with the Russian dictatorship, and refused to reassure our democratic allies of our commitment to mutual defense. And he labeled inquiries into Russian electoral interference a “witch hunt.” And we were still silent.

Through it all, we are still silent.

What are the Consequences?

It’s tempting to imagine that our white American Christianity was in great shape prior to this train wreck; that we have suffered moral collapse in the span of only a year or two. But in fact, Donald Trump has not created the monster we now witness. Rather, his unapologetic crudeness and blatant disregard for the most minimal ethical standards have merely unleashed what was already there, waiting for someone to normalize our worst impulses. But it is now on display for all the world to see, awakening from remission with a vengeance.

Others have attempted to explain how this has happened to us. I will settle for something much less ambitious: I see three inevitable results of what we have become.

First, recall that Jesus told his followers to “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Note the connection: Good deeds, shining as light in darkness, result in faith on the part of many, and glory to God. But it follows that the opposite is also true. Allegiance with or acquiescence in evil – whether racism, xenophobia, scorn for the weak, lying, or violence – destroys faith, and mars God’s glory. We are now destroying faith. Many who would call themselves Christians are now on a path toward doubt, confusion, and ultimately rejection of a faith that appears to be in league with forces of hatred. The “Nones” are growing fast. We are at least part of the reason.

Second, in America, the name “Evangelical” has now lost any and all practical meaning. To argue otherwise is laughable to anyone not already part of my tribe. The very term means that we bear “good news.” Jesus launched his ministry on earth by adopting the term for himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach GOOD NEWS to the poor … the prisoners … the blind … the oppressed…” (Luke 4:18). He was the bearer of good news to the least of all people, the outcasts of the earth. And we had the honor of adopting the title. Evangelicals. Bearers of good news to the poor. Like Jesus.

Today, however, only the most credulous Americans can imagine the poor and oppressed greeting white “evangelicals” as bearers of anything other than Trump-like disdain and disregard. Without a message of good news, and with faith-destroying conduct, we have virtually assured the decline and eventual end of Christianity as a dominant influence upon our culture, other than as a fading memory.

Finally, the crisis of faith we have unleashed will certainly lead to an explosion of theological experimentation. I note that a number of thoughtful conservative religious commentators have bemoaned the apostasy of white Christianity in the age of Trump, as I have; but often their lament merely assumes that we have strayed off the narrow way in practice. The path of individualist, personal, other-worldly salvationism was just fine. Our creeds and confessions are spot on. But we ourselves made some mistakes along the way.

But this, of course, is absurd. How could it possibly be that people who read those texts daily and listen to those sermons weekly would have become more likely than their secular counterparts  – not even equally so – to worship at the altar of Babylon? No, this crisis of faith will lead to a new wave of fresh-minted seekers.

I don’t presume to offer theological alternatives. Only this: dismayed Christians will look in many directions to find a new spiritual reality – a faith that moves toward justice and reconciliation in a broken and unjust world. Many will wander in their search. This is inevitable.

During the campaign, Candidate Trump promised evangelical leaders – Falwell, Jeffress, Dobson and their fellow religious courtiers – “you’ll have great power to do good things. And religion will start going, instead of this way — I mean, Christianity, when you think of what’s happening, you look at the numbers … the power you have is so enormous.”

Well, it may have been clearer in person, hand gestures and all.

But you get the message: I’ll give you POWER! It was the second temptation of Jesus all over again: I will give you all authority, if you worship me! (You may recall that the Lord thought that was a lousy deal.) But we, my fellow evangelicals, we got the power, or as much of it as can be bestowed by the kingdom of Babylon. And what did it get us? If I’m right, it brought us near to the end of whatever faith we may have ever had. It cost us much of the remaining good news we had to offer. And it is now leading to a diaspora of seekers from our own pews.

So on a personal basis, how are you managing your crisis of faith? Are you reinventing Jesus so that he has nothing to say about hatred of other religions, refugees, the poor and marginalized? Or are you looking around at your brethren in confused anguish, wondering where you and they have gone wrong? Or, perhaps, are you keeping your head down – as the German resistance preacher Helmut Gollwitzer said – “in the stupid hope that everything will get better on its own without our having to become courageously involved ourselves?”

Friends, our faith is in crisis. Which kind of crisis is yours?

Was That Jesus I Saw on Independence Avenue?

The alarm went off at three. It seemed like I had hardly gotten to sleep. But Washington is a pretty fair hike from New Jersey, and Barbara and I – together with two dear friends – needed to be on the National Mall by ten. The Women’s March on Washington was waiting for us.

We could tell something special was brewing even before we crossed into Delaware. Every rest stop in New Jersey was packed with buses. Inside, women sporting pink knit hats were everywhere. Long lines of women snaked slowly into the women’s bathrooms – and the men’s as well. I learned, to my sorrow, that there would not be any real men’s rooms between New York and Washington.

By sunrise, we reached the northernmost station of the DC Metro rail system – usually a quiet spot with plenty of parking. We managed to find one of the remaining spaces for the car, and then squeezed into the station to find a sea of humanity slowly inching toward the dozen-odd ticket machines. Packed trains, packed sidewalks, packed avenues.  Crowds everywhere. Smiles everywhere. The air bristling with excitement.

Independence Avenue and the Mall were jammed from the Capitol to the Smithsonian

The members of our little band were Christians. Christian creation-care advocates for that matter. Coming out of our environmental silo to stand in solidarity with women who had endured a level of misogyny not seen in my lifetime.

We thought that we would be treated to a day full of “women’s issues.” So imagine our surprise as speakers and musicians raised their voices for vilified Muslims, immigrant families fearing being torn apart, the mothers of unarmed young black men gunned down by police. They spoke for climate change action. They spoke for sick people faced with losing their health care.

And, yes, they spoke for gender equity, equal pay, family leave, and access to women’s reproductive services. In my experience, when we come alongside the marginalized, we don’t get to pick and choose from an ideological menu. We had to be prepared to offer solidarity to those raising their voices against the darkness that threatens to engulf their lives – without adding all of our qualifications.

So where was Jesus Christ in all this? As a Christian, I wondered, as I prayed my way up Independence Avenue, where I would see his loving hand at work. We knew of nuns and friars who would be there. We heard some from the podium, in fact. But as we marched toward the Capitol, I looked around me for people of faith. Did God send more than than a few of us into this unnumbered throng?

Suddenly, up ahead I spied a cluster of banners with bible verses on them. Christians! Yes! And they even had their own loudspeaker system! But as we drew nearer, I caught my breath. Something was horribly wrong.

“Murderers!” “Shame on you!” “Murderers!” the loudspeaker thundered. The hateful speech was matched by their banners, now in full view. “Black Lives Matter Are Thugs.” “AIDS: Cure or Judgment?” “Got AIDS?” We hurried on past. We didn’t know what to say. We were ashamed.

The loudspeaker of hate kept going for hours. We could hear it blocks away, despite a crowd around us estimated at more than a half million souls. Around this pocket of condemnation, six or seven concentric circles of women had formed, chanting their own responses: “Love Trumps Hate!” “Black Lives Matter!” “God is Love!” It seems they spent their entire day in an uneven struggle to match amplified vituperation from the handful of religious prosecutors.

Daughter of Latino immigrants addresses the march

I’m afraid that this was what hundreds of thousands got to see of the Prince of Peace that day. This was their image of the Friend of Sinners – sinners like us. Screaming epithets at women marching for their vision of a better world.

No doubt, there were thousands of faithful Christians among our fellow marchers, acting in faith without religious display. But what might the non-Christian world have gleaned about Jesus at the march? Or at least, what did they learn about the kind of people they would have to become, should they ever decide to follow him?

I think that they would be surprised, if they ever read the biblical accounts of the real Jesus. The real Jesus defined his mission in the first sermon he ever preached. “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me,” he began, “to preach good news to the poor.” The poor would be Jesus’ people. But he added more: freedom for prisoners; sight for the blind; and release for the oppressed. The poor, the prisoner, the blind, the oppressed. Care for them would be the marks of his mission. (Luke 4:14-21)

After an election campaign that gave center stage to the darkest impulses of the American soul, I had hoped our presence would accomplish something redemptive. The women marching around me had endured a season stained by racism, xenophobia, sexual assault, lust and lechery, demonization of the press, military jingoism, torture, hatred of sojourners and a parallel universe of imaginary facts.

And we had hoped in some small way to offer the tiniest dose of healing to a world of people who can no longer recognize Jesus – Jesus of the losers, Jesus of the refugees, of the hungry, the sick and the abused.

Did we hope for too much? Maybe we did. But I cannot stop hoping.

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:

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:

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    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?

Standing Rock Reflections: It’s All One Struggle

Hi. This is John. I promised you that I would report from my time last week in North Dakota, where I was among those supporting the Standing Rock Sioux. You already know a lot about the events in Standing Rock:

  • 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 Pipe Line – as it advances toward completion under the Missouri River.
  • How police have fired on them with nearly every conceivable non-lethal weapon, including water cannons in subfreezing temperatures, concussion grenades, rubber bullets and mace that have injured hundreds.
  • How thousands of American veterans have swelled the ranks of the indigenous protesters, to place their lives on the line once again – this time facing the weapons of American police.
  • And how – for now – the US government has decided not to issue necessary permits for the DAPL pipeline to slice further into Sioux treaty lands.
The sprawling Aceti Sakowin Camp near the front line of the DAPL pipeline resistance.

The Aceti Sakowin Camp near the front line of the DAPL resistance. The pipeline runs along the ridge beyond..

For now, the pipeline appears to be stopped. For now, the military muscle and corporate might behind this enormous project seems to have been overcome by a modern day incarnation of Gideon and his tiny remnant of unarmed soldiers. But friends, it’s not nearly over. It’s only just begun. More on that in a few days…

But for starters, you’ve asked for my impressions from first-hand experience among this peaceful resistance. I can only tell you how my personal biases have been challenged, and my vision has been focused. So without pretense of any special wisdom, here are some of my take-home thoughts from the stance of Standing Rock Sioux:

  • The struggle for a survivable climate will not come away clean from other struggles for justice, like indigenous rights, racial justice and inequality.
  • 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.
  • Christians must engage with indigenous spirituality, without fear, without prejudice, and with confidence in the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
  • Many of us prefer to look honestly at unjust laws in our history books, rather than in our newspapers. But there are laws on the books today that are not worthy of our obedience.
  • Many Christians insist on seeing their ethics in black and white. But following Jesus into the arena of injustice may challenge our comfortable purity.

It’s All One Struggle

The struggle for a survivable climate will not come away clean from other struggles for justice, like indigenous rights, racial justice and inequality. We are fighting for each other now.

In America, it’s a tragic fact that climate action is largely a Caucasian passion. We see Latinos facing the onslaught of mass deportation from the xenophobic spirit of the age. African-Americans are facing mass incarceration under a system of justice that seems designed with them uniquely in mind. Muslims are fearful of being registered, monitored or interned because of their faith. The poor and sick are afraid of losing their only lifeline to decent medical care. Marginal communities are being bullied, harassed and hated on subways, in stores and in schoolyards.

But in this dark era, suburban middle-class whites have the “luxury” of caring about climate change – something that can multiply virtually every other problem, and ultimately threaten world civilization, but probably not for another few decades.

So they’ve got their issues, we say. We’ve got ours.

But among the thousands at Standing Rock, it’s becoming clear how firmly bound together these threats really are. You’re worried about migration? Climate disruption is driving millions on a desperate search for food and stability – like we’ve already seen in Syria, Somalia and Darfur. We wonder why black lives don’t seem to matter to so many of us? And yet people of color know they are many times more likely to suffer the effects of polluted water, air and soil than white people. And they’re more likely to need related medical care, whether or not they can afford it. We’re worried about religious tensions between Muslims and Christians? Yet much of Muslim Middle East and North Africa is being rendering nearly uninhabitable by desertification and epic droughts.

And finally, the beleaguered survivors of the American indigenous genocide turn out to be the closest thing we’ve seen to the “sons of God” for whom the injured earth is groaning (see Romans 8:19).

My fellow white Christian earth-keepers, if I’m learning anything from Standing Rock, it’s this: Whatever right I once thought I had to ignore marginalized communities in the name of environmental focus, it’s too high a price to pay. If I want God to hear my cries for his creation under the lash of the consumerist petro-state, I’m going to have to heed his call to bind the wounds of my suffering neighbors on the Jericho Road.

End note: Friends, please come back tomorrow to consider Indigenous Treaty Rights. I went to Standing Rock thinking that broken treaties were unfortunate artifacts of history. Not so much anymore.