By: Jan Brooks
Far too often it is easier to let the past stay in the past and try to forget it ever happened. But all too often the hurt and pain go so deep that they are carried across generations. Many cannot forget. Many will not forget, lest it happen again. In truth, the “children and their children are punished to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 3:4–7 NIV).
So where did it all begin? It began the moment Columbus first landed in the West Indies, continued with the Puritans in Plymouth, MA, and worked its way right on down through presidents, military and ultimately the “Christians” who came to “save” the savage peoples. These encounters with those who claimed to come in the name of Jesus are the very reason that native people today want nothing to do with the “white man’s” religion. “In the Indian mind the God of the white man was historically, often closely associated with soldiers, oppression, defeat, grief, and loss.”1
Part of the problem is that too many injustices are still happening. One need not go to another part of the world to find extreme poverty and poor living conditions. They exist right here in America on the reservations set aside by a government that promised to “take care” of the people, yet broke every treaty and promise they ever made. This same dominant European culture still exists in this nation and is the ongoing testimony to how much the native people lost when the first white man set foot on the shores of Turtle Island (North America). After all, if we had never allowed those illegal aliens off the boat in the first place or fed them that first winter, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
Satire aside, nothing at this point will change the terrible treatment of the peoples by those who came uninvited to Turtle Island. The faith they brought with them bears little resemblance to the real Jesus.
As Christians we learn from Paul, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2 NIV). How much the early missionaries had forgotten his words. Most of them confused culture with the message of the gospel. The practice of “being the church” had became culturalized to their own situation.
Reaching across cultural boundaries to live a common faith in Christ is difficult. When we come to faith, our experience of God is based on our own perspective. So in order to explore reconciliation of Native Americans and the church, one needs to come with an open heart and open ears to begin to understand that we are more alike than we are different in what we believe. In this we can take a lesson from InterVarsity Fellowship who is working on college campuses to bring the Word of God to people from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds. In a recent article in Bible Study Magazine, Director Lindsay Olesburg talked about her goals. It is her desire to “…teach people to see Scripture as living and active. We’re bringing our whole self, our whole heart, to Scripture every time we study, we’re engaging actively with both our minds and our spirits. We’re expecting that God will influence our story through Scripture.”2
Reconciliation has to come with an attitude of openness, listening, experiencing, education, and mostly a belief that none of us has a corner on God. It comes when we ask ourselves is this biblical, or is this cultural? If we are to work toward reconciliation and find paths into the native communities with the true Gospel of Christ, we must look to nurture friendships, establish trust, and be ready to share the true nature of the passages that have been so long misunderstood. None of this is a simple task.
I recently had the opportunity to discuss this very topic with Dakota Living Historian and Native Artisan Greg Southard. As we spoke, it was easy to see the hurt and anger towards those who have tried to force their views, and not simply share them, as is Native tradition. Greg commented, “How can one reconcile what was done to natives in the name of Jesus Christ?” As we spoke he went on to talk about the reality that Christians so often just come in and force their views and beliefs on the people without stopping to listen or trying to understand the tribal beliefs.
Finally I asked Greg, “Is there one thing you could tell Christians about reconciliation, what would it be?” Greg’s response was this, “It’s way too late. An entire culture was destroyed and groups of people have been broken beyond repair. How can that be reconciled?”
Greg’s view is not uncommon. Given that cultures and people were intentionally destroyed in a Holocaust that rivals Hitler, one can only conclude that the only way for reconciliation to happen is through a miracle from God—one person at a time. We have to pray, even though many natives will never be able to hear Jesus’ words because their own hearts have been far too wounded by those who call themselves Christians. Only God can help us all build the bonds of trust between our two cultures.
Where is the lesson? The lesson comes in learning from the past. Where is reconciliation? It is slowly happening, but only in small ways. Many natives will never trust “white man’s” religion. Many natives cannot reconcile a loving God with the atrocities that happened in the past. For them, they will continue to believe, “We wish you had never come.”—Yakama Elder.
For further reading on this subject, I recommend the recently released book Bridges of Reconciliation: It’s All About Grace by Bruce and Linda Farrant (Xulon Press, 2012).
1Bridges of Reconciliation: It’s All About Grace, Bruce and Linda Farrant. Xulon Press, 2012, p. 96.
2“One Faith, Many Cultures” Bible Study Magazine. Sept–Oct 2012. Vol. 4, No. 6, pp. 15–18.
Jan Brooks has served as both a small church pastor and interim pastor for more than 16 years. She is of Ojibwe and Irish descent. Jan currently serves multi-cultural ethnic representative on the APCE Cabinet and the Viola United Presbyterian Church.