Saturday, 23 December 2017 00:00

Theological Reflections on the Fourth World (2)

Until last year, the only time Native Americans captured headlines was at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973. It was the culmination of a whole year of protests, which included sit-ins on Alcatraz Island and then at Mount Rushmore in a bid to force the federal government to honor past treaties.

The standoff was organized by the American Indian Movement (AIM) on the very sight where in 1890 over 150 Lakota Sioux were massacred, and the days of this occupation turned to weeks, and then over two months. In the end, three people had died.

During that time, Marlon Brando, who had been nominated for his performance in The Godfather at the 45th Academy Awards, decided to voice his public support for the AIM’s action at Wounded Knee. To do so, he declined his award (he won, as expected) and sent in his place Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache actress, to read a statement. She was not allowed to do so on stage but was able to read a portion of it to the press afterwards. Other celebrities expressed their support for the Native Americans at Wounded Knee, including Johnny Cash, Angela Davis, Jane Fonda and William Kunstler.

There can be no doubt that sympathy for Native rights was on the rise after 1973.

President Jimmy Carter, arguably the first president to make human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy, also had signed the American Religious Freedom Act in 1978, which partially reads:


This legislation sets forth the policy of the United States to protect and preserve the inherent right of American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiian people to 'believe, express, and exercise their traditional religions. In addition, it calls for a year's evaluation of the Federal agencies' policies and procedures as they affect the religious rights and cultural integrity of Native Americans.”


Then there was the document President George H. W. Bush signed for the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian in 1989. When the project was finally completed in 2004 – with native consultation and participation the whole way through, the opening ceremony saw “the largest known gathering of American Native communities in history,” according to the Smithsonian archives.

That record was arguably broken, however, with the advent of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests from April 2016 to February 2017 at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers. Sierra Crane-Murdoch, a writer from neighboring Montana, described her stay at the encampment in early September, staying for about a month. She then wrote this article for The New Yorker (“Standing Rock: A New Moment for Native-American Rights”). Unlike the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee with a few hundreds native Americans, most of them armed, the protest gathering on the edge of the Standing Rock reservation in 2016 saw thousands of native American participants with the flags of over 200 Indian nations lining up on both sides of the entrance of the camp (see photo above). Thousands of other well-wishers, including many veterans, came and went over those months, bringing food, supplies and cash to sustain the movement.

The other difference is that this movement was thoroughly nonviolent. If anything, the day before Crane-Murdoch’s arrival, protesters had attempted to stand in the way of the bulldozers and were attacked by dogs and pushed back with pepper spray. On another occasion, when some protesters had chained themselves to bulldozers, they were bitten by the dogs.

For the multitude of indigenous nations gathered at the confluence of the two rivers this was a sacred duty -- resisting a pipeline that cuts through property sacred to one tribe and that threatens to pollute the river that sustains the life of all. Sioux historian Vine Deloria, Jr., in his book, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, notes that in the twentieth century Native Americans had witnessed “a more devious but hardly less successful war waged against Indian communities.” Crane Mudoch lists some of these indignities visited upon them:


“the lack of funding for tribal education, which forced parents to send their children to government-run boarding schools; the termination of federal recognition for scores of tribes, which caused the loss of services promised by treaty; and a disregard for the sovereignty of tribes, manifest in the building of infrastructure on Indian land without honest consultation or consent.”


Then on December 4, 2016, the campsite exploded with shouts of joy and celebration. The federal government had just refused to issue the mighty and well-connected company building the pipeline (Energy Transfer Partners) the needed permit to run the pipeline under the Missouri river, pending an environmental impact assessment.

Award-winning writer and environmental activist Bill McKibben wrote on that day, “From the start, this has been an against-the-odds battle.” Almost the whole length of the pipeline had been laid before any significant opposition could be mounted. But by now the Dakota Access pipeline construction had awakened a sleeping giant. As McKibben puts it, "Indigenous organizers are some of the finest organizers around the globe" – they’ve been key to everything from the Keystone fight to battling plans for the world’s largest coal mine in Australia.” Then he explains the nature of this protest:


“It wasn’t standard-issue environmental lobbying, nor standard-issue protest, though there was certainly some of both (lawyers took the company to court, activists shut down bank branches). At its heart, however, in the great camp that grew up along the rivers, this was a largely spiritual resistance, David Archambault, the head of the Standing Rock Sioux who demonstrated great character and dexterity for months, kept insisting that the camp was a place of prayer, and you couldn’t wander its paths without running into drum circles and sacred fires.”


Of course, they didn’t win in the end. A new president took office in January and on February 9, 2017, construction on the pipeline was ordered to resume. But this had certainly been a high-water mark of Native American unified action for regaining their legal rights.

As David Archambault wrote in the New York Times, however, resisting a pipeline that threatened the quality of a major river’s water is much more than about native rights. Here is how his piece ends, and it’s a fitting segue back into John Dawson’s Healing of America’s Wounds:


“We are also a resilient people who have survived unspeakable hardships in the past, so we know what is at stake now. As our songs and prayers echo across the prairie, we need the public to see that in standing up for our rights, we do so on behalf of the millions of Americans who will be affected by this pipeline.

As one of our greatest leaders, Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota, once said: 'Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.' That appeal is as relevant today as it was more than a century ago.”


John Dawson’s theology of the nations

“Satan,” intones Dawson, ”has never created and holds no title deed to anything: he is only a creature.” By contrast, “Peoples, cultures and nations have a redemptive purpose because they bear God-created gifts. They all have a power to bless the world that is an outgrowth of their unique attributes.” That blessing is love, and God’s ultimate purpose in creation is “that love be poured out on His creation, and that loving relationship be multiplied throughout time and eternity” (120).

Created as we are in God’s image, we bear his purposes in our souls, whether we fully understand them or not. As Dawson puts it, “therefore, something of God’s own nature is revealed through our creation” (121). And this includes the intentional fact of ethnic and cultural pluralism, as I mentioned in the first half of this blog post, referring to both Qur’an and Bible.

“As our songs and prayers echo across the prairie,” said Archambault. Dawson's version reads like this, “The peoples of the earth have all been created with the purpose of worshiping God uniquely and contributing unique service to other peoples.” But this is a double-edged sword: “These diverse gifts bring power to serve or to dominate, to wound or to heal, and God judges or blesses each people group according to their moral state as He works His redemptive purpose in the seasons of human history” (121).

Because of the fall and the reality of human sin, nations war against nations and seemingly endless cycles of aggression and retaliation play out. Still, that is not the whole story. God’s blessing in individuals, in nations and specific cultures continues to flow outward as well. Healing and blessing are passed on, sometimes through the arts and music, civil society activism and deeds of compassion, and practices of good governance and international cooperation.

Think of nations coming together after two mind-numbingly devastating world wars and agreeing on a covenant dedicated to human respect and dignity. It was called “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” This led to a series of other covenants and conventions we consider "international law." These are all signs of God’s redemptive purposes placed in humanity – and Christians might add that these are also evidence of the Holy Spirit “blowing where He will” (John 4:8) in the far corners of the globe, even in the midst of horrific acts of violence and war.

About five years before I read Kenneth Craggs’ works and discovered his insight about a Muslim-Christian theology of humanity (“the human caliphate” or trusteeship of humanity), Dawson wrote,


“Adam was commanded to cultivate the earth’s resources and build with the things placed at his disposal. He was to organize and govern, under God, the world in which God placed him” (125-6).


So what about the Healing of America’s Wounds?

I hope to come back to Dawson’s book when I look more closely at Jim Wallis’ America’s Original Sin. But for now, I’ll just reproduce his own summary, that is, the four points that define the strategy of an organization he was helping to lead at the time, the International Reconciliation Coalition, whose greatest accomplishment turned out to be the three-year Reconciliation Walk that retraced nine centuries later the steps of the first crusade (read this article on its climax in Jerusalem, July 15, 1999).

But now here are Dawson's four steps to reconciliation and healing (135-6):


CONFESSION: Stating the truth; acknowledgment of the unjust or hurtful actions of myself or my people group toward other persons or categories of persons. (The main theme of this book because it is the place to begin and we have neglected it.)

REPENTANCE: Turning from unloving to loving actions.

RECONCILIATION: Expressing and receiving forgiveness, and pursuing intimate fellowship with previous enemies.

RESTITUTION: Attempting to restore that which has been damaged or destroyed, and seeking justice wherever we have power to act or to influence those in authority to act.


I am guessing that after a flurry of speaking engagements and an actual movement across several major US cities during the 1990s, this work that John Dawson and others gave their heart and soul to petered out because of step four – restitution. As we saw with the Dakota Access protest, there are still so many areas of restitution that need attention if there is to be healing both within the Native American nations and between them and the wider American society. Changes have to take place in people's hearts, but ultimately changes also have to take place in the political realm.

If the first step is telling the truth, perhaps none did this better that Marlon Brando when he wrote this text to be delivered at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1973. As mentioned earlier, Shasheen Littlefeather was not allowed to read it on the stage yet managed to read part of it to the press after the ceremony. It was then published in the New York Times.

After an opening paragraph in which Brando recapitulates the last 200 years of settler-Native interaction in the phrase, “Lay down your arms, my friends, … [then can] we talk of peace and come to an agreement which will be good for you.” He goes on,


“When they laid down their arms, we murdered them. We lied to them. We cheated them out of their lands. We starved them into signing fraudulent agreements that we called treaties which we never kept. We turned them into beggars on a continent that gave life for as long as life can remember. And by any interpretation of history, however twisted, we did not do right. We were not lawful nor were we just in what we did. For them [American leaders], we do not have to restore these people, we do not have to live up to some agreements, because it is given to us by virtue of our power to attack the rights of others, to take their property, to take their lives when they are trying to defend their land and liberty, and to make their virtues a crime and our own vices virtues.”


Brando captures well the American myth of “Manifest Destiny,” the mentality that might makes right, and that sentiment that human rights are nice ideals but our priority is to “make American great again.” Sadly, it’s a global issue too, as even the UN is despairing of being able to raise the issue of human rights on so many fronts. The UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad Hussein, just announced this week he will not seek a second 4-year term, “citing concern that his voice would be silenced in an age when the United States and other world powers are retreating from their historical commitment to human rights.”


A theology from the Fourth World for us all

In my parting words, I simply want to refer you again to the excerpts I posted from my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, in “Resources” on my website. It is a necessary complement to this two-part blog post. The part I would like to draw your attention to here is the one about Osage-Cherokee Lutheran theologian George E. Tinker, who has been teaching at the Ilif School of Theology in Denver since 1985.

As a Native American theologian he takes issue with traditional Protestant theology, which starts with “God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ.” Important as this is for Christian theology, it’s the wrong place to begin, avers Tinker. It’s like putting the cart before the horse. He explains, “To make fall/redemption the beginning point in theological proclamation generates traumatic experiences of spiritual and emotional dislocation for American Indians which some people survive and many do not.”

What is needed is a theology that integrates the worldview of all the native peoples and that starts with the created world and the land in particular. In his words,


“Respect for creation and the recognition of the sacredness of all in creation is a deeply rooted spiritual base for American Indians, rooted in the soil of the tribal cultures of North America . . . . It is a matter of relatedness and interdependence that finally results in a necessary relationship of interdependence with all nature” (Tinker, “The Integrity of Creation: Restoring Trinitarian Balance,” in Constructive Christian Theology in the Worldwide Church, ed. William R. Barr; Grand Rapids. MI: Eerdmans, 1997, pp. 202-13, at p. 209).


If however one proclaims the Good News of Jesus on the basis of a common ground of God’s good and sacred creation, then “it can generate genuine healing and life-giving response.” By doing so, at the same time the idea of interrelationship and harmony at the heart of all created things leads naturally to the crucial values of peace and justice among and between human societies and nations:


“On the one hand a proper prioritizing of First Article/Creation concerns will enable the churches to appreciate and value the inherent spiritual gifts that many cultures, especially indigenous, tribal, fourth-world cultures, bring with them to Christianity. . . . Secondly, . . . We will discover that respect for creation can become the spiritual and theological basis for justice and peace just as it is the spiritual and theological basis for God’s reconciling act in Christ Jesus and the ongoing sanctification in the Holy Spirit” (Tinker, “The Integrity of Creation,” 207).


You can see why I was keen to bring this up in my book. This concept of the integrity and harmony of creation ties in nicely with a holistic doctrine of humanity, according to which God empowers humankind as his stewards, deputies or trustees, to oversee his good creation and ensure that their governance leads to the wellbeing of all creatures, from the smallest to the greatest, as well as to the reign of peace through justice for all the peoples of the planet for God’s greater glory. This is a vision sorely needed in our politically polarized societies of today, at a time when we wantonly pollute our planet and sabotage its precarious climate.

Truly, we need to listen to the collective wisdom of our indigenous brothers and sisters, as we also commit to supporting them in their bid to gain their full rights as fellow citizens and to experience the healing we all need, by God's grace.